Friday, June 11, 2010

Royals can learn a lot from Blackhawks' journey

Alright, you all know me. I'm a huge hockey fan. But this has nothing to do with the sport itself. It does have everything to do with how the Chicago Blackhawks not only turned their franchise around on the ice, but off it as well.

5 years ago, if you would have asked a Chicagoan who their favorite Blackhawks player was, it probably wouldn't have been a player on the current roster. They would have said Stan Mikita, Bobby Hull, Jeremy Roenick or Denny Savard. The Hawks were downright awful for the most part from 1997-2007. They made the playoffs once, as an 8-seed, during that stretch. The 22,000 seat United Center would be half full for weekend and rivalry games, much worse for weeknight games and non-premier opponents. This was in a city of over 7 million people (2.8 million in the city limits alone) and they could barely draw 10,000 people. Not to mention they had to compete with four other major sports teams. Season ticket sales were south of 5,000 and the Hawks were nearly forgotten about in Chitown. Owner Bill Wirtz refused to spend money on free agents and the draft. He wouldn't even fork over the dough to show the team's home games on local television. Blackhawks TV cost $30/month! $30/month! Just to watch the worst team in the league!

Of course, if you're the worst team in the league, you get the best draft picks. In 2006, the Hawks drafted Jonathan Toews with the 3rd overall pick. The next year, they drafted Patrick Kane with the 1st overall pick. As Bill Wirtz's health declined, his son, Rocky, began learning the ropes and making front office decisions. The board hired former Blackhawks player, Dale Tallon, as general manager before the 2005-06 season, and started making wholesale changes to the roster, shedding awful veteran payroll and began building the team from within while making trades for young players.

Bill Wirtz passed away shortly before the 2007-08 season and his son, Rocky, took over full ownership of the franchise. Rocky Wirtz's first order of business was to put the home games back on local television. Done. Then he hired former Chicago Cubs president, marketing whiz John McDonough, to the same position in the Blackhawks front office.

McDonough knew that the Hawks were not the frontline team in Chicago, and they probably never would be. But no one even cared about the team in Chicago. McDonough and his executives started reaching out to the city of Chicago. Soon bars were flying Blackhawks flags outside of their doors. Blackhawks players were making more public appearances, charitable and social, and the Hawks invited their formerly shunned hall of famers back to the United Center and created the Blackhawks Ambassadors, made up of Stan Mikita, Bobby Hull, Tony Esposito and Dennis Savard. They cultivated business relationships with the Bears, Bulls, Cubs and White Sox. Jonathan Toews and head coach Joel Quenneville sang "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" at Wrigley Field. Derrick Rose dropped the puck at the home opener. Four Blackhawks threw out the first pitch at US Cellular on Opening Day this year. Lance Briggs participated in the famous United Center "Puck Shoot" in February. They hosted the NHL's annual Winter Classic at Wrigley Field in 2009. They made themselves synonymous with the city.

During the summer of 2008, when the White Sox and Cubs are the only tickets in town, the Blackhawks began hosting the annual Blackhawks Convention, a three day event at the Downtown Chicago Hilton and Towers (you know, the hotel in the last scene of The Fugitive). Hawks players, past and present, coaches and everyone involved with the team attend the event. A lot of sports franchises do it, but the Hawks go all out. Organist Frank Pellico provides the soundtrack for the weekend on a miniature version of the United Center organ. The hotel is converted into a hockey playground, with pep rallies, games, performances from the Second City comedy group, Chicago celebrities and world famous Chicago cuisine. They even open the event with the National Anthem, Chicago style. The first convention sold out in a month, with tickets going for $60. The next year it sold out in two weeks. This year, it sold out in three days.

*Wanna go this year? You can find three-day passes on eBay anywhere from $499 to $3,995.

Then, the Hawks started reaching out to the young people of Chicago. Wrigleyville and Lincoln Park are flooded with young professionals who are out Thursday-Saturday at bars and clubs. The Hawks created the Blackhawks Bars network. A group of over 150 bars, pubs, clubs and ale houses all across Illinois where fans could watch every Blackhawks game and mingle with fellow fans. Young people started to rally around the young team. The city fell in love with the team and there was just one thing left to do...Win.

With the groundwork already in place, the Hawks finally made it back to the playoffs in 2008-09, making it to the Conference Finals for the first time in nearly 15 years, a long time for a hockey franchise. The Blackhawks became the hottest ticket in town. The journey had reached its destination. The Hawks raised the Stanley Cup for the first time in 49 years and united the city of Chicago. Ask anyone from Chicago what the most popular team in Chicago is right now, and I guarantee you that 95% will say the Blackhawks. The party ensued in Chicago and probably won't stop until sometime in September. The Blackhawks had created magic in Chicago. Team officials predicted 500,000-1 million people would show up at the championship parade on Friday and that was a pretty liberal estimate according to some.

Two million people showed up for the parade.

Two million people. And those two million showed up because the Blackhawks reached out to them. They gave them something to believe in even before all the winning started.

Well, 525 miles away, there is another professional sports franchise that is reeling. They have trouble drawing fans. Most fans will tell you that their favorite player is someone that hasn't played in 20+ years. They lose. They lose comically. They don't have a shred of partnership with the other team that they share a parking lot with. They spend too much money on bad free agents. They make bad trades. They have lost touch with the city. But they've got these guys in the minor leagues that give the fans hope for the future.

The Royals do a fine job with their marketing, they really do. But you have to cultivate a winning environment not just around the stadium, but around the city. Get young people involved. Make Kauffman Stadium a destination for young people. Affiliate yourselves with the most popular bars in town. How cool would it be to walk in to the Brooksider, Tom Fooleries or Paddy O'Quigley's and see dozens of Royals fans watching the game, cheering and celebrating? Make the Royals cool again. Make the Royals Kansas City's team again. Sure we may not win for a few more years, but lay the foundation. Make people expect to win before the winning starts.

"The best way to create a winning environment, is to first expect it" -Marty Schottenheimer

Do that, and maybe someday we'll have a parade with two million people of our own.

Kansas City Awarded 2012 MLB All Star Game

Kauffman Stadium will host the 2012 Major League Baseball All Star Game according to a report from the Kansas City Star.

This is exciting news, especially for a city and franchise that has toiled through the last 25 years without a single playoff game since Game 7 of the 1985 World Series. But you all know that.

The most exciting part is that 2012 will likely be the beginning of a new era in Royals baseball. Prospects Mike Montgomery, Mike Moustakas, Eric Hosmer and others could very well be on the Royals roster at that point. Hell, Moustakas could be partaking in the All Star Game if his amazing minor league numbers translate to the big leagues. Zack Greinke, Billy Butler, Joakim Soria and/or Alex Gordon could very well be on the AL All Star roster in 2012. How about Billy Butler, Alex Gordon or Mike Moustakas participating in the Home Run Derby? Zack Greinke as the starter for the American League? Joakim Soria could come in for the save and clinch home field advantage for the AL in the World Series.

It is very, very exciting. Kauffman Stadium should be rocking with the noise and excitement it hasn't seen since the early 90s, especially if the Royals rebuilding period is over and they have entered into legitimate contender status. So here's to the Royals, the Glass family and those who worked to get this game to KC for what will be the first time since 1973.

Get excited KC, we've been waiting for this for a very long time.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Royals' draft trend points towards a winning trend...maybe

Last year, the Royals surprised a few people after drafting 23 year old Aaron Crow. Crow was perhaps the most MLB ready pitcher after Stephen Strasburg. This year, they pulled another fast one and drafted Christian Colon, a guy whose name was barely mentioned in the months and weeks leading up to the draft. But it was obvious that the Royals were ready to draft another college player. The Royals say that Colon was the most "MLB ready player in the draft". Experts say that he has Placido Polanco's skills with Derek Jeter's leadership. If so, then that works out pretty nicely for the Royals. Especially if Colon is in the big leagues within the next two years. Then in the 2nd round, they drafted another college player, Brett Eibner, a pitcher/outfielder from Arkansas. Once again, some saying a guy whose offense has him on the fast track to the big leagues, but he also has versatility. If he busts as an offensive player, the Royals can send him back to the minors to work on becoming a big league pitcher.

On to the 4th round, Royals drafted another college guy. Lefty Kevin Chapman from Florida. Yet another guy who is a hop, skip and jump away from the big leagues. After that, the Royals draft is flooded with guys who have played college ball. Of course, there are a few high schoolers thrown in the mix.

But make no doubt about it. The Royals think they can win. And they think they can win in the next two years. Think about it, in the next two years, and as early as Opening Day 2011, we will likely be seeing the major league debuts of Mike Moustakas, Mike Montgomery, Derrick Robinson, Aaron Crow, Edgar Osuna, Louis Coleman and Eric Hosmer. So, what did Dayton Moore do? He drafted guys that give the Royals the best chance of competing NOW.

And by now, I mean the very near future. Colon could be in the big leagues as early as next year (if they can get him signed quickly), Brett Eibner sounds like a two year project in the minors, whether or not the Royals decide to use him as a pitcher or outfielder.

The Royals didn't draft any big shockers or huge impact guys this draft. But they did draft guys who are definitely on the fast track to the big leagues. There are very few 4-5 year projects in the early rounds of this draft. There aren't any 1st-4th rounders who require that much time in the draft, with the exception of 3rd rounder high school SS Mike Antonio.

The Royals are loading their upper minors. Most of these guys will probably start off in Wilmington, putting them two or three years away. Some of them will finish the season in Northwest Arkansas and play in the Arizona Fall League.

I'm not saying get excited or buy your playoff tickets. But have faith. The front office seems to think that these guys are not the next crop of superstars, but rather those guys who will supplement the future superstars of Moustakas, Montgomery and Hosmer.

Because before Mike Moustakas hits that game tying double in the 9th inning, you need that guy who will leg out the infield hit or beat out the throw from left field on the hustle double. Because before Eric Hosmer hits the three-run homer to win the game, you need a guy to draw a walk and then single through the hole. Because before Mike Montgomery can win 20 games, you need solid bullpen guys to get the job done. Because before Aaron Crow can throw a shutout, you need that guy who goes deep into the hole at short to make the play.

Because before you can win a championship, you need a complete team.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Royals Draft Christian Colon

I'm not a college baseball expert. I never will be. I'm not a scouting expert. I never will be. I'm glad that the Royals took a shortstop. Our middle infield depth in the minor leagues is very thin. Now with the recently acquired Rey Navarro and Christian Colon in the system, the Royals have some "toolsy" shortstops (maybe I am a scouting expert if I keep throwing words like that around) in their system. Colon hit 16 homers this year, along with 16 doubles and 64 RBIs. He has history with someone involved with the Royals organization. Current third base coach Eddie Rodriguez managed Colon in the 2009 Baseball World Cup.

Don't rely on me to give you the inside scoop on this guy. I'm just here to bitch and moan about the bullpen, 25 man roster construction and bad strategy. Let the experts decide if this was a good move. I'll talk about it in three years.