In a league of its own

In a league of its own – professional baseball; recruiting and training methods

Michael Welber

Could a business that’s as poorly run as baseball be an example of anything to the working world? The game is without equal in how it recruits, trains, and develops people. As the season warms up, here’s a look at what the Great American Pastime does right, and what business leaders can from it.

Like scores of other young athletes who dream of making it into the big leagues, 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 1998 with raw talent and blazing speed. But this boy was different. Rafael Furcal had not only an amazing ability to spray hits in unpredictable directions, but also a single-minded determination to do whatever it took to succeed.

Fortunately, his manager, Ralph Henriquez Jr., recognized his prodigious talent and drive and made sure that he had every opportunity to develop his natural potential. Henriquez took him to the gym early to lift weights and drilled him on his bunting while the rest of the squad still languished in their beds.

Henriquez’s job is straightforward: do whatever it takes to help young players get to the majors. He takes kids used to playing 60 games a year and helps them adapt to baseball’s rigorous 162-game schedule. Using solid communication skills, he instills a real work ethic–the cliched blue-collar one–so that young kids can achieve that elusive goal of making it big. When Furcal showed up, Henriquez saw his singular motivation right away and worked with 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’s elaborate and finely tuned mechanism for finding, developing, and promoting talented newcomers. Corporations could learn something by observing the way baseball nurtures and retains young talent. Few institutions know more about researching a prospect’s character and skills, developing a recruit to the best of his abilities, and finding ways to retain a promising individual than major league baseball. In these areas, the sport has developed methods that could serve the business community well and are potent reminders of the impact of dedicated training, attentive mentoring, and familial bonding.

Furcal’s meteoric rise to the Braves’ big-league team includes winning the National League Rookie of the Year award in 2000, just two years after he took 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 typical of the way baseball teams, through their coaches and managers at every level, nurture talent. Henriquez would come in several hours early to give Furcal the extra work he wanted and asked for. He personally took him out to the ball field, where he set up a bunting machine so the young player could practice the proper technique, over and over again. And, significantly, Henriquez kept the lines of communication open so that the young player and all the other athletes in 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 understand and overcome challenges. Whether it’s a chat in his office or taking a player aside on the field, Henriquez makes sure that communication runs in both directions.

The Braves like to draft players young so that they can be indoctrinated in the club’s way of doing things. Furcal was drafted when he was just 16, and the results were spectacular. After only two years in the minors, he was promoted 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’t enough, he set a record for stolen bases by a 19-year-old, breaking the legendary Ty Cobb’s record. Naturally, Furcal’s native abilities played a large role in his success. So did the kind of development process begun in Rookie Ball by Henriquez.

As baseball teams lose vast sums and sign extravagant personnel contracts, it seems impossible that a business this poorly run could teach another enterprise anything at all. And yet, as the example of Rafael Furcal illustrates, baseball does excel in one important area: finding and nurturing the most highly skilled personnel 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 with the Gastonia minor league club in 1962, when he was in his early 20s. He went on to 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 the Minnesota Twins and Florida Marlins, he scouts for the Boston Red Sox.

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

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

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

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

“In executive recruiting, it’s not nearly as scientific as what the baseball scouts do,” Filippell says. “They will look at athletes and run them through a very thorough athletic, psychological, and physical analysis measuring their running times, testing their strength, and even administering standardized psychological tests. Our firm and others like it don’t do nearly that amount of background checking.”

A built-in mentoring system

Baseball, by its very nature, is a game of failure. An outstanding player in the major leagues succeeds at the plate only one-third of the time. Ted Williams, one of the greatest hitters in history, surpassed the .400 mark–succeeding only 4 times out of 10–just once in his career. No one has done it since. It’s easy to see how young players can become discouraged, even as they hope to make it big.

To help players maintain their focus, the scouts who initially recruit a player often remain involved in his development while he’s toiling in the minor leagues, particularly during the first year. “It’s the scout’s job not just to give us an indication of how a player will perform, but also to develop a future relationship with this person,” Mirabelli says. “When we get a player into the Indians organization, he’s got someone that he’s comfortable with already who he can consult if he encounters any particular challenge.”

Having either an external recruiter or an internal human resources recruitment specialist remain in touch with a new hire and monitor his or her progress will help ensure greater employee success in the long run. Some organizations are already doing this, according to Bill Curran, director of human resources and leadership development at the multinational technology company PerkinElmer. “Assigning someone to help people transition smoothly into your organization and become productive faster and stay longer would be an effective strategy,” Curran says. “When you spend all that money recruiting, and then bring the person into the system and find out that a) it was not the right person or b) they left disgruntled 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 enormous resources to giving each player the attention he needs to succeed, beginning in the minor leagues and continuing to the majors.

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

Ross Atkins, assistant director of player development for the Cleveland Indians, makes sure that minor league managers in the club’s farm system clearly grasp the development process. “A good minor league manager understands that we need to develop in a winning atmosphere at the current level, but not at the cost of the player’s future,” Atkins says. “Someone who endangers a player’s physical well-being or even mental state to win a minor league game is not a good manager.”

The commitment that baseball teams make to their employees goes beyond that of many corporations, he adds. Baseball works to develop the complete person. Curran says that hightech organizations such as his tend to stress training in technical skills and business acumen. “You need a balance of both;’ he says. “We need to overlay the soft side and train on the basics of understanding people, understanding differences in people, and understanding how people operate in a team 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 the minors than what they see at the end of the rainbow–the huge salaries that major league baseball pays even its moderately successful players. A batter hitting in the mid to high .200s can make millions each year.

Getting to that pot of gold might take years, however, and more than 90 percent of players don’t cash in.

Young players face serious hurdles. Many are away from home for the first time, playing for minor league teams in far-flung places. As a result, baseball, much like many corporations, still faces retention issues, particularly at the minor league level. Some young ballplayers get discouraged and quit, especially if they don’t see a position open at the parent club. So what does baseball do to retain players?

One approach cited by Al Avila, assistant general manager of the Detroit Tigers, is to create a family atmosphere in which everyone collaborates, starting at the minor league level. “You’ve got to make young players feel they are now part of a family made up of managers, coaches, and instructors who are helping them every day. You want them to feel that we are all in this together, pulling together for the same common goal–to get them to the big leagues and help us win.”

Baseball takes this kind of attitude very seriously and implements it on every level. The value of making people an integral part of the team doesn’t get the attention it should in corporations.

“Precious few companies seem to ‘get it’ in terms of understanding the psychological power of having someone come in and feel a part of the organization,” Avila says. The company has a limited amount of time for bonding, he says. “You must have a process in place that allows that person to feel good about being part of your company’s team. That starts in the recruiting process and goes right through the orientation process.”

Avila says that the Detroit Tigers instill this same team approach and winning attitude in managers, coaches, and staff members. “You’ve got to get the staff on board and motivated, and then they will reach out to the player and communicate that to the player,” Avila says.

Despite baseball’s deplorable track record on controlling expenses, handling labor relations, and maintaining a viable business model, there are things it can teach the business world. Whether corporate America can take the sort of care that baseball does to screen its potential recruits, work individually 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 open question.

“There’s a fine line in an organization between someone who will follow orders and someone who is committed,” Curran says. ‘The person who will go the extra mile because he or she wants to, because there’s something about this place that the person connects with, is the goal. I fear that in much of corporate America today, more people are compliant than committed. And, quite frankly, it’s a two-way street.”

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Michael Welber is a freelance writer based in Florida. To comment on this story, e-mail editors@workforce.com

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