Recently, the Baltimore Orioles revealed a new cap for the 2012 season. The change involves altering the symbol on the front of the cap. Specifically, the change removes the "ornithologically correct bird", and replaces it with the "cartoon bird". Here is a link to the story with a photo.
In 2011, the Orioles completed their 14th consecutive losing season, dropping 93 games, finishing 28 games behind the division winning New York Yankees. The first change that was announced after such an awful season? New caps, of course.
This reminded me of a wonderful business lesson that I learned while working for the Orioles in 1988. The late Edward Bennett Williams owned the team at that point and his brilliant protege Larry Lucchino was running the ballclub. The Orioles started the season by losing the first 21 straight games. We went "0-for April" that year. I can still recall the Hall of Fame broadcaster Jon Miller cracking wise about the Orioles later that year, by saying "The Orioles started the season by losing 21 straight game, they won game #22, and then went into a slump!" Miller was spot on, we were awful that year and while there were plans for a new stadium at Camden Yards in three years, the product was terrible and needed to be fixed, immediately. The management lesson, was one of developing a business plan to turn the product around, establishing priorities in the plan, and communicating the plan clearly to everyone, inside and out of the organization. If you communicate anything other than your priorities, you are sending exactly the wrong message.
There was such a "teachable moment" in 1988 that illustrates this point. I, along with other team marketing executives began to consider changes to the uniform and cap for the following year, in an effort put a bad year behind us and change an impression in the market, or at least we thought so. We worked up some potential changes and created some potential new looks. We asked Larry if he would show them to Mr. Williams and seek his approval before moving any further. Weeks passed and we heard nothing. Finally, in a meeting that Larry had with the marketing team, we asked Larry, "so, has Mr. Williams seen the new designs, and what did he think?" There was an uncomfortable pause, and then Larry said, "you want to know what he said? "Sure", we nodded.
"We're the worst team in baseball, we can't hit and our pitching is just awful. Rome is burning, and you want to change caps?"
Edward Bennett Williams was right then, and though I was not present when he spoke those words to Larry, I can recall his voice tone well enough to know that when he spoke those words, there were strains of disdain in his voice. Not just that he didn't like the potential designs, rather that his well paid executives were thinking about changing hats in the middle of the one of the worst seasons, not just in baseball, but in all of sport history. "Caps, these guys are thinking about caps!", I can image a shake of his head, perhaps accompanied by a wave of the hand in contempt.
There will be a new logo on the caps that the team will be wearing when they take the field in 2012. However, for a team that lost over 90 games, will there be changes to anything more important?