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In a Leauge of Its Own

May 2, 2003
Related Topics: Career Development, Candidate Sourcing, Employee Career Development, Retention
Like scores of other young athletes who dream of making it into the bigleagues, the 17-year-old rookie from Loma de Cabrera, in the Dominican Republic,showed up at the Atlanta Braves Rookie Ball club in Danville, Virginia, in 1998with raw talent and blazing speed. But this boy was different. Rafael Furcal hadnot only an amazing ability to spray hits in unpredictable directions, but alsoa single-minded determination to do whatever it took to succeed.

Fortunately, his manager, Ralph Henriquez Jr., recognized his prodigioustalent and drive and made sure that he had every opportunity to develop hisnatural potential. Henriquez took him to the gym early to lift weights anddrilled him on his bunting while the rest of the squad still languished in theirbeds.

Henriquez’s job is straightforward: do whatever it takes to help youngplayers get to the majors. He takes kids used to playing 60 games a year andhelps them adapt to baseball’s rigorous 162-game schedule. Using solidcommunication skills, he instills a real work ethic--the clichéd blue-collarone--so that young kids can achieve that elusive goal of making it big. WhenFurcal showed up, Henriquez saw his singular motivation right away and workedwith it. "His first, second, and third priorities were to be a major leaguer,"Henriquez says. "That’s how I knew he had a chance."

Henriquez’s role as manager is a significant part of the ball club’selaborate and finely tuned mechanism for finding, developing, and promotingtalented newcomers. Corporations could learn something by observing the waybaseball nurtures and retains young talent. Few institutions know more aboutresearching a prospect’s character and skills, developing a recruit to thebest of his abilities, and finding ways to retain a promising individual thanmajor league baseball. In these areas, the sport has developed methods thatcould serve the business community well and are potent reminders of the impactof dedicated training, attentive mentoring, and familial bonding.

Furcal’s meteoric rise to the Braves’ big-league team includes winningthe National League Rookie of the Year award in 2000, just two years after hetook his first swing in Rookie Ball, the lowest level in the minor leagues.Though he is exceptional, the story of how Furcal was managed is fairly typicalof the way baseball teams, through their coaches and managers at every level,nurture talent. Henriquez would come in several hours early to give Furcal theextra work he wanted and asked for. He personally took him out to the ballfield, where he set up a bunting machine so the young player could practice theproper technique, over and over again. And, significantly, Henriquez kept thelines of communication open so that the young player and all the other athletesin his charge would learn to trust him. When players get discouraged, Henriquez,who also works with high school kids in the off-season, helps them to understandand overcome the challenges. Whether it’s a chat in his office or taking aplayer aside on the field, Henriquez makes sure that communication runs in bothdirections.

The Braves like to draft players young so that they can be indoctrinated inthe club’s way of doing things. Furcal was drafted when he was just 16, andthe results were spectacular. After only two years in the minors, he waspromoted to the majors and led all National League rookies in runs, walks,stolen bases, and on-base percentage. He was considered the hardest to double up(get out in a double play) in the entire major leagues. And if that weren’tenough, he set a record for stolen bases by a 19-year-old, breaking thelegendary Ty Cobb’s record. Naturally, Furcal’s native abilities played alarge role in his success. So did the kind of development process begun inRookie Ball by Ralph Henriquez Jr.

As baseball teams lose vast sums and sign extravagant personnel contracts, itseems impossible that a business this poorly run could teach another enterpriseanything at all. And yet, as the example of Rafael Furcal illustrates, baseballdoes excel in one important area: finding and nurturing the most highly skilledpersonnel in the world. How do they do it? It begins with recruiting.

Getting the right people
    Murray Cook eats, sleeps, and lives baseball. He broke in as a player withthe Gastonia minor league club in 1962, when he was in his early 20s. He went onto run the scouting organization for the Pittsburgh Pirates from 1975 to 1982.Since then, he’s had the top general manager job with the New York Yankees,the Montreal Expos, and the Cincinnati Reds. Now, after scouting gigs with theMinnesota Twins and Florida Marlins, he scouts for the Boston Red Sox.

Cook is well aware that baseball success depends on the quality of therecruits that scouts unearth in small towns and cities throughout the world. "R&Din this game is much more extensive and much more a part of the game itself thanin most industries," Cook says. "Without that diligence, you don’t have asuccessful product."

Because the financial stakes are so high, baseball scouts undertake aremarkably thorough scrutiny of each player during the recruiting process.Scouts get to know each prospect personally. They travel to their homes and talkto their parents to find out more about each boy’s background and commitmentto baseball. "As scouts we not only observe their athletic skills carefully atthe ballpark but also confer with their coaches to find out more about eachplayer’s motivation and drive. Some scouts go further and check with aprospect’s teachers to ascertain what sort of student they are and assesswhether they present any disciplinary problems," he says. While scoutsmeticulously measure a prospect’s time from home plate to first base or recordthe number of home runs he hits, they regard a prospect’s "makeup" as evenmore critical.

John Mirabelli, assistant general manager of scouting operations for theCleveland Indians, defines makeup as "what makes players tick: their mind,certainly their heart. We try to find out their aptitude, their drive, theirdesire, their ambition."

Baseball’s recruiting diligence is rarely equaled in the corporate arena,says executive sports recruiter Buffy Filippell. Filippell’s firm, TeamWorkOnline, devotes a significant amount of time to recruiting former players intosports-oriented businesses such as those that market sports memorabilia, playerjerseys, and related clothing items, or agencies that sign active players forendorsements. While she has built her career on finding talent, she confessesthat the fraternity of executive business recruiters take a narrower look ateach candidate than sports recruiters do.

"In executive recruiting, it’s not nearly as scientific as what thebaseball scouts do," Filippell says. "They will look at athletes and runthem through a very thorough athletic, psychological, and physical analysismeasuring their running times, testing their strength, and even administeringstandardized psychological tests. Our firm and others like it don’t do nearlythat amount of background checking."

A built-in mentoring system
    Baseball, by its very nature, is a game of failure. An outstanding player inthe major leagues succeeds at the plate only one-third of the time. TedWilliams, one of the greatest hitters in history, surpassed the .400 mark--succeedingonly 4 times out of 10--just once in his career. No one has done it since. It’seasy to see how young players can become discouraged, even as they hope to makeit big.

To help players maintain their focus, the scouts who initially recruit aplayer often remain involved in his development while he’s toiling in theminor leagues, particularly during the first year. "It’s the scout’s jobnot just to give us an indication of how a player will perform, but also todevelop a future relationship with this person," Mirabelli says. "When weget a player into the Indians organization, he’s got someone that he’scomfortable with already who he can consult if he encounters any particularchallenge."

Having either an external recruiter or an internal human resourcesrecruitment specialist remain in touch with a new hire and monitor his or herprogress will help ensure greater employee success in the long run. Someorganizations are already doing this, according to Bill Curran, director ofhuman resources and leadership development at the multinational technologycompany PerkinElmer. "It’s critical for people to feel part of the team whenthey first come in, and that’s why a lot of people fail early on," Curransays. "Assigning someone to help people transition smoothly into yourorganization and become productive faster and stay longer would be an effectivestrategy. When you spend all that money recruiting, and then bring the personinto the system and find out that a) it was not the right person or b) they leftdisgruntled six months later, it’s an enormous strain on the organization."

Leaving nothing to chance
    All baseball teams have player-development departments with a single focus:to ensure that players reach their highest potential. Teams devote enormousresources to giving each player the attention he needs to succeed, beginning inthe minor leagues and continuing to the majors.

The Cleveland Indians’ media guide lists 15 people who coordinatedeveloping specific skills, including fielding, pitching, defense, and hitting.However, teams also provide cultural development so that players from disparatecountries learn how to work together, sports psychology to teach players how tomentally prepare for competition, and good nutrition to guarantee that young menoften accustomed to eating junk food consume the proper diet. Some teams eventeach their players how to deal with the media, practicing television interviewsand answering questions from reporters.

Ross Atkins, assistant director of player development for the ClevelandIndians, makes sure that minor league managers in the club’s farm systemclearly grasp the development process. "A good minor league managerunderstands that we need to develop in a winning atmosphere at the currentlevel, but not at the cost of the player’s future," Atkins says. "Someonewho endangers a player’s physical well-being or even mental state to win aminor league game is not a good manager. Not to sound corny or clichéd, but itis about these guys being the best professional athletes and human beings theycan be."

The commitment that baseball teams make to their employees goes beyond thatof many corporations, he adds. While training for specific skills obviously getspriority at the corporate level, companies should also look to the example thatbaseball has set in developing the complete person. Curran says that high-techorganizations such as his tend to stress training in technical skills andbusiness acumen. "You need a balance of both," he says. "We need tooverlay the soft side and train on the basics of understanding people,understanding differences in people, and understanding how people operate in ateam environment. In that way, companies can get the most out of people."

Retention does take more than money
    Many ballplayers don’t need much more encouragement to stick it out in theminors than what they see at the end of the rainbow--the huge salaries thatmajor league baseball pays even its moderately successful players. A batterhitting in the mid to high .200s can make millions each year. Getting to thatpot of gold might take years, however, and more than 90 percent of players don’tcash in.

Young players face serious hurdles. Many are away from home for the firsttime, playing for minor league teams in far-flung places. Many players fromLatin America and Asia face daunting language and cultural challenges. As aresult, baseball, much like many corporations, still faces retention issues,particularly at the minor league level. Some young ballplayers get discouragedand quit, especially if they don’t see a position open at the parent club. Sowhat does baseball do to retain players?

One approach cited by Al Avila, assistant general manager of the DetroitTigers, is to create a family atmosphere in which everyone collaborates,starting at the minor league level. "You’ve got to make young players feelthey are now part of a family made up of managers, coaches, and instructors whoare helping them every day. You want them to feel that we are all in thistogether, pulling together for the same common goal--to get them to the bigleagues and help us win."

Baseball takes this kind of attitude very seriously and implements it onevery level. The value of making people an integral part of the team doesn’tget the attention it should in corporations.

"Precious few organizations seem to ‘get it’ in terms of understandingthe psychological power of having someone come in and feel a part of theorganization," Avila says. "The company, right off the bat, has a very smallwindow to embrace that person and have the person embrace the company back. Youmust have a process in place that allows that person to feel good about beingpart of your company’s team. That starts in the recruiting process and goesright through the orientation process."

Avila says that the Detroit Tigers instill this same team approach andwinning attitude in managers, coaches, and staff members. For example, theyconvene an initial meeting before spring training that enables every staffmember to evaluate the previous year’s performance, to define areas thatrequire improvement, and to determine the direction the team should take. Avilainvolves every staff member in the process, ensuring that each provides anevaluation of individual players and points out areas that require adjustment.He has discovered that the session establishes real camaraderie and that theteam begins the year working together for one common goal: winning.

"You’ve got to get the staff on board and motivated, and then they willreach out to the player and communicate that to the player," Avila says.

Mirabelli stresses the additional importance of preparing young players forthe challenges ahead and then providing appropriate safety nets if they needhelp. "We tell the kid, ‘Hey, we know you’re going to have some bumps inthe road here,’ and brace them for it," he says. "We stress that we’renot going to give up on them and that we will be patient. We don’t want themto have some tough times and to then have to spend a year rebuilding themmentally."

Despite baseball’s deplorable track record on controlling expenses,handling labor relations, and maintaining a viable business model, there arethings it can teach the business world. Whether corporate America can take thesort of care that baseball does to screen its potential recruits, workindividually with all employees to ensure that they live up to their potential,or do whatever is necessary to make sure employees stick it out is an openquestion. Curran stresses that, more than ever, employees are free agents andare more concerned about their own careers than about the organization. The keyis to gain employee commitment, much the way baseball teams do.

"There’s a fine line in an organization between someone who will followorders and someone who is committed," Curran says. "The person who will gothe extra mile because he or she wants to, because there’s something aboutthis place that the person connects with, is the goal. I fear that in much ofcorporate America today, more people are compliant than committed. And, quitefrankly, it’s a two-way street."

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