Is MLB going the Toyota route and, if so, what lessons it can teach us

(Note: This post was originally posted on the day after opening day for the Red Sox and was one of the victim’s of the hacker who hacked my blog so I’m reposting it now although the beginning of it is out of sync with the calendar now.)

I’m a Red Sox fan. Have been for 40 years. That’s why I couldn’t help but be disappointed as I watched  Opening Day…or make that Opening Night  yesterday. In switching the game from daytime to nighttime so the opener could be telecast on ESPN Sunday Night Baseball, MLB Commissioner Bud Selig stepped all over 97 years of Fenway history, during which the first home game has always been a day game. And usually on a weekday at that. That’s nearly a century of tradition that apparently means nothing to the Commish. (Stick with me on this and I will get to the lesson you can learn here for your small business.)

Sox fans far and wide bemoaned the decision. All the excitement of trying to get a ticket AND a day off from work or school went out the window. If all that failed, finding a TV to watch the opening ceremonies was a communal activity at work, especially in 2005 and 2008, when the Sox had won the World Series the prior year and there were rings to be given out. For those opening ceremonies, it’s almost certain that work ground to a halt throughout Red Sox Nation.

As anyone who has been to Fenway for an April night game knows, early spring evenings there can be cold as heck, not exactly exemplary of the reasons we love baseball––sitting outside on lazy summer days, drinking beer and eating Fenway franks in that little lyrical bandbox of a ballpark. (Thanks, John Updike, for that perfect description of Fenway.) Selig lucked out with this poor decision, as did the fans in attendance, since the weather was unusually mild, but it could have gone the other way and people could have been sitting there wrapped up in parkas, scarves and gloves, not exactly a picture-perfect vision of the season to come.

Then there are the school kids who, if their parents enforced normal bed time, had to go to bed long before the game ended at one minute before midnight. They missed a great Red Sox come-from-behind rally. And if their parents didn’t enforce bedtime, there are a lot of sleepy kids in school this Monday morning. I do not understand how baseball hopes to raise up new generations of baseball fans when they insist on having the most important games, including most playoff games, played at night so that they end at an hour that is long past most kids’ bedtime.

Thanks to Selig’s decision opening day lost some of its magic for Sox fans, some of the strongest baseball fans in the land. Thanks, Bud. You turned opening day into just another Sunday night ESPN game that didn’t seem like that big a deal even if the Sox were playing the Evil Empire.

So what does this have to do with Toyota…or your small business? It’s about going away from what makes you strong. In the case of MLB, Selig ended a 97-year streak of Sox history. History is what makes Fenway Park and the Sox special to many of us fans.  In the case of Toyota, as they pursued growth over the past decade, they went away from what had made them a great car company––their endless pursuit of quality. Now their reputation is in shambles and they’re just another car company, something no amount of feed-good advertising will mend.

So as your small business pursues growth, do not lose sight of what makes your company special to its customers. Don’t be guilty, as MLB and Toyota have been, of slowly stripping away bits and pieces of what makes your company special. Little decisions can slowly add up over time, leaving your most loyal customers puzzled as to why the company they adored years ago no longer is that great. Don’t become Bud Selig. Know what your brand stands for and honor it, always.

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