Imagine having a baseball team with two future Hall of Fame players on it during the same season. Then picture that team stacked with perennial all-stars and a 74-40 record (best in the major leagues) and heading into the second half of August with a 6 game lead on the Atlanta Braves. That was the Montreal Expos right as the strike killed the season, the World Series and the future of the team. They finished with a winning record only 3 more times over the following 10 years before they were folded up and became the Washington Nationals (who then took 16 more years to win the World Series).
So what happened?
People. By the time the next season started they had traded most of the anchor talent away for next to nothing in return and eventually the team fell into ownership issues and everyone else was traded for beer and cigarette money. It was a self-fulfilling circle of doom and the team and city suffered through it — all due to bad management and terrible owners.
It’s easy to play armchair GM in retrospect. Had the team been able to keep their core together a little longer or the strike not happen, perhaps that team would have been able to win and start a run similar to what the Yankees did a few years later. The difference was that the Yankees were able to keep their core intact — most of that core were to become future Hall of Fame members as well. Winning is essential for a small market team who’s fans are not passionate about the sport unless they win. Montreal is that city and the Expos had their chance but circumstances and bad management blew it.
People are it.
The cost of letting their people go was the team itself. First it was the faith of the crowd, then it was the faith of the players, then it was the faith of creditors and then it was the faith of the league. The franchise was lost when the players weren’t valued. The Expos became known as being the league’s farm system. Great players earned their stripes and then were unloaded when they hit their prime because the team couldn’t afford (read: planned poorly) to keep them. Those core players that were released or traded went on to win and succeed and form the core of other teams and, eventually two of them ended up enshrined in Cooperstown. Many of those players wear World Series rings but with the wrong team logos embossed on them.
Companies make the same mistake
That 1994 Montreal Expos was a team of all-stars and were poised for a dynasty run. I’ve worked with many companies stacked with the equivalent talent and have watched them all walk out the door for almost the same reasons, some with similar devastating results. Where incremental concessions from the company are seemingly impossible to negotiate or the bureaucracy too challenging to get through. People leave at tremendous cost in dollars to replace and train new people, employee psyche and confidence in leadership. Companies operate at the behest of people and the great ones will be great wherever they end up. It should be the company’s responsibility to try to keep them. Period.
The business advantage over baseball
As we are witnessing today, baseball has devolved into a fight between billionaire owners and millionaire players over money. There doesn’t seem to be any joy left to be had in that game for anyone — including a dissolving fan base. Businesses have an advantage because they can show their humane side by offering benefits where pay increases can’t be accommodated. Simple things like transportation, meals, WFH, shifted schedules, fitness memberships, free coffee — small value items with big impact on employee happiness. Hell, even just TRYING to accommodate change and fighting for employees goes a long way in creating a core team dedicated to the fight.
It isn’t easy to keep a team of all-stars together. They are bound to leave at some point because of who they are. But to have a stacked team and not try to do whatever is necessary to win with them sets the tone for the current team and limits the possibilities of attracting and keeping future all stars. Great people want to work with other great people. They also want to work for an organization that will fight for them.
You’ve seen where this ended up for the Montreal Expos. Their history has been erased because their ownership didn’t value their people. Don’t do the same.
*Image credit: PHIL CARPENTER / The Gazette