The decision this week to keep Vladimir Guerrero Jr. on the bench during the matinee game on Victoria Day was profoundly revealing, and showed flaws in both the strategic processes that go into the Blue Jays’ decision-making process, and the public relations response when things go wrong.
For as much as we are told that baseball is a business, running a sports franchise is not like any other corporate endeavour. The product isn’t just the ticket into the stadium. To many customers, it isn’t really a product at all. In some sense, the owners don’t even really own the team so much as they manage a sacred trust with the fans’ devotion.
This isn’t selling copiers or sugary beverages or light-duty pickups. The customers’ emotional stake in a professional sports team is far more deeply felt than any other product could conceivably be. And anyone working for those franchises, from management to the players, should be humbled by the reality that the fans will inevitably outlast their tenure with the team.
In this context, public relations takes on added weight and complexity.
Realistically, the decision to sit Vladdy was not that consequential. Given the context of his injuries and lack of preparation time this season, the decision to give him the day off for a day game after a road trip makes perfect sense, were it a random Wednesday on the schedule.
But as was obvious to everyone — and should have been more obvious to those actually charged with making the decision — this was not just any other day.
Victoria Day has less to do with our devotion to a former monarch than it does with turning the page on winter, and taking a long weekend to launch our summer mindset. For the Blue Jays, playing games on this weekend is a massive opportunity to capitalize on that widespread desire to usher in the summer months — especially for fans from outside the Greater Toronto Area.
It’s said often by the current team administration that their decision-making processes focus on collaboration, and in this instance, both general manager Ross Atkins and field manager Charlie Montoyo emphasized the fact that there were many people with input into the choice to sit Vladdy on that day.
When collaborative decision-making works well, it can be an opportunity for many voices to share knowledge and provide added context that results in better, more informed decisions being made.
When it works poorly, these processes can be about internal group-think, where the goal is less about creating better decisions than it is about having everyone agree to agree with the decision, avoiding conflict and coming to sub-optimal outcomes.
There is a classic case – and a much more consequential one – of group-think in NASA around the Challenger shuttle explosion. This disaster may have been avoided had some of their decision-making process not implicitly shut down some of the dissenting opinions and concerns about the rockets’ flawed o-rings.
If there are 15 or more people who have input into the daily lineup, as Charlie Montoyo suggested after the game on Monday, was there no one who would have recognized that sitting Vladdy on the holiday game might have elicited some outrage from the fans? Would that person have felt comfortable in voicing such an opinion? Is there something about this decision-making process that would implicitly make someone who espoused a fan-focused opinion such as this seem less serious than their colleagues?
Atkins himself stated that he saw the lineup, recognized the possibility of an issue, but said nothing because, as a rule, he does not change the manager’s lineup. But should he not have felt, within a collaborative process, that he had the latitude to share an informed comment on the decision?
The fact that such a dubious decision could be made through this process is a concerning sign that perhaps for all the talk about multiple voices, it can easily fall into a collection of heads that nod in unison, or don’t share all of the necessary perspectives around the table.
The public response only served to magnify the issue. Throughout most of the two-day news cycle, the organization and their spokespeople seemed surprised – if not dismissive – of the public’s reaction to the decision.
It certainly didn’t help to have Guerrero named American League Player of the Week in the middle of a game in which he was parked on the bench.
In a case such as this, no public relations strategy or tactic is going to help until the point where the organization has a message worth sharing, and it is debatable whether if they ever got there. The closest that the team came to an admission that their decision was questionable was Ross Atkins saying "that’s on me", which was subsequently followed by a longer explanation rationalizing the process.
In the Tuesday media scrum that followed, the strongest admission heard was Atkins suggesting that he failed by not emphasizing the importance of Victoria Day to Canadians, which felt like a misdirected apology at best.
Because it is not the public’s devotion to the holiday that was the issue. It was the public’s devotion to the team, and this unique talent, and this squandered opportunity to share him with the fans.
There’s a reason why this is called "public relations", and if you are attempting to either amass or save your organization’s reputational capital, you need to acknowledge what the public’s perception is, and how you can address it directly.
If you begin from the perspective that the public’s concern stems from them just not understanding, you’d better be certain that you have a good explanation for why you did what you did.
And even in a collective process, someone needs to take responsibility for the choice that is made. A collaborative decision-making process is not a means of diffusing blame.