Stan Kasten, the new President of the Washington Nationals, picked a good day to address a luncheon at the prestigious National Press Club in downtown Washington, D.C., last week. A day before the closing weekend of the regular season, with rumors abounding about the fate of manager Frank Robinson, the engagement was intended to give Nats fans and followers something positive to think about as they headed into their off-season.
Kasten did not disappoint. He used his considerable communications skills, honed over his many years at the helm of Ted Turner’s Atlanta Braves, plus some as that town’s professional basketball and hockey franchises, to paint a graphic picture of his new teams’ pathway to future greatness.
Interestingly, his focus was not at all on the high-profile glitz and glamour features of the team – its superstars (make that singular), prospects for acquiring more, or the fancy new stadium that is supposed to be ready by opening day, 2008.
Kasten has much more of a nuts-and-bolts approach to team and fan development, and a proven track record of success to go with it, as well. It involves three components: 1. player development, 2. customer service and 3. community involvement.
He noted that when he came to work for Ted Turner the Braves had been mired in mediocrity for years. The team was part of the Turner empire that centered on the development of its TV station as one of the first non-major network nationally-broadcast entities, the so-called “SuperStation.” The role of the Braves was to help build the audience for the TV station, and therefore the focus was on acquiring big-name free agent performers. But the team could never improve its record on the field.
When he first sat down with Turner, Kasten said, it was to discuss $2 million set aside to acquire another big name star (it was good money then, he noted, but today it “would buy half a second baseman,” he quipped). “The best you can hope for using this $2 million on a big star is one great season that could possibly lift the team,” he told Turner. “But what if I took that same $2 million and used to hire some good scouts, to set up a recruitment program in Latin America, and to shape up our minor league system?”
With that approach, the team could wind up with 10 players with 10 good years to contribute. That’s 100 years of good productivity compared to one the other way, Kasten noted. “Don’t bother me with all this talk,” Turner huffed, according to Kasten, adding, “Just go out and fix the problem.” Turner’s key role was that he did not pull the plug when things didn’t go well right away. He stuck firmly with Kasten’s long term formula for success.
The rest is history. The Braves went onto a record streak of division championships including a world championship in 1995. In the final game of that World Series, the winning pitcher, the closer and the player who drove in the only run were all players who came up through the Braves’ system.
The good news is that the Lerner family, leaders of the Nationals’ new ownership team, have the same commitment to player development that Turner did, Kasten said. They, too, will stick with the plan. Some key trades this season have established the core for the Nats of the future, and bringing the organization’s AAA minor league team east from New Orleans to Columbus, Ohio, is an example of the kinds of moves that will help.
Another “ace in the hole” for the franchise is its presence in the nation’s capital, he noted. That means someone quite unique: that he has already begun visiting the foreign embassies in town of countries where baseball is played, and is actively recruiting at them. “I don’t care if other teams find out about this,” he said, “There’s nothing they can do. There are no embassies in their towns.”