Lessons from the World Series Champion Washington Nationals

On Wednesday night, the Washington Nationals beat the Houston Astros to win the World Series. It marks Washington, DC’s first world championship in baseball since 1924, which was 2 franchises ago. Baseball is special and as a huge fan of the Nationals since they came to Washington in 2005, seeing the team win the World Series brought me more joy than I can really put into words.

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So while I process the emotional significance of the win, this Nationals team provides incredible lessons in leadership, resilience, and the value of culture that is worth exploring.

The season began with the Nationals losing arguably a once-in-a-generation talent, Bryce Harper, to the division rival Philadelphia Phillies. In one of the first games of the season, the team’s leadoff hitter, Trea Tuner, broke his finger trying to execute a simple bunt. Turner was the first in a long line of injuries to starting players.

The Nationals relief pitching was laughably bad, including one player, Trevor Rosenthal, who did not record an out through the first several weeks of the season. The team, who had the third highest payroll in baseball, was a dismal 19-31, 50 games into the season. The media was calling for the manager, Davey Martinez, to be fired and suggesting the Nationals trade away their best players to prepare to rebuild for the 2020 season. During one press conference, Martinez was heard muttering under his breath, “Just wait until we get healthy.”

According to the statistics, when the Nationals were 19-31, they had a 3% chance of making the playoffs and a 0.1% chance of winning the National League championship.

What happened next nobody could have predicted, including yours truly. At the time, I was a proud member of the #fireDavey campaign, and boy was I wrong.

On May 10th, the Nationals signed a veteran outfielder named Gerardo Parra to a one-year deal. Parra’s best years were arguably behind him and he was on his second team in 2019 and in a hitting slump to boot. To break the slump and appease his young children, he changed the music that the home stadium played when he came to bat to the catchy children’s song, “Baby Shark”. Soon, it became a sensation in Washington both among the team and its fans.

But that wasn’t all that Parra brought. He brought fun to the Nationals dugout, which ignited over a dozen rituals and traditions that helped the team bond. From donning rose-colored glasses, to a ritual of the player who just hit a home run dancing in the dugout, to bear-hugging the introverted, shy and now World Series MVP Stephen Strasburg.

Manager Davey Martinez challenged the team to just go 1-0 every day. He coined the mantra, “Stay in the fight” as the team’s rallying cry.

By now, you can probably guess the rest of the story. The Nationals went on a historic run, finishing the regular season 74-38 and making the 1-game, winner take-all, Wild Card against the Milwaukee Brewers. Down late in the game and facing the best closing pitcher in baseball, the Nationals came back and won. They then came from behind to beat the 106-win Los Angeles Dodgers, swept the St. Louis Cardinals, and finally won the World Series in historic fashion against the powerhouse, best record in baseball, 107-win Houston Astros. They did all of this with the oldest team in baseball and the worst relief pitching in the National League.

There are several important leadership lessons in this story. I will touch on just a few of them:

Leadership can come from anywhere – One of the major criticisms of the Nationals carrying over from last season were that the team lacked leadership from its veteran players. Many pointed to the departure of long-time National Jayson Werth as hurting the morale in the clubhouse. It took Parra, a brand new member of the team to help the team play loose and have fun. He was not the team’s manager, best player, or really even one of their good players. He just led from his place in the clubhouse and it made a huge difference.

Never underestimate the value of a rallying-cry – Martinez consistently said, “Stay in the fight” and “Go 1-0”. The sayings united both the players and the fans in understanding the singular focus required to win a championship. If the team knew nothing else, it knew its job was to remain resilient and stay focused on the game today. Providing clarity and focus are some of the main responsibilities of leaders and a rallying-cry is a great way to target everyone’s energy.

Rituals that work help teams come together – The rituals the Nationals used were exciting and organic. Early in the year, the Nationals had a tradition of smashing a cabbage after a big win (I don’t know if it continued). In previous years, they used chocolate syrup to celebrate.

Baby shark, dugout celebrations, and Brian Dozier dancing shirtless to the song “Calma” took rituals to a whole new level. Rituals bond teams together. I am sure there is a scientific reason why that happens in terms of belonging, but I’ll save it for a future post. Regardless, this Nationals team would provide all the evidence needed to make the argument for the value of rituals to a team. I counted a dozen different rituals the Nationals adopted in their historic run and I am sure there are private ones that only the players will ever know about. To me, it looked like those rituals were some of the things that helped the team “Stay in the fight” and keep their optimism even when they had to play from behind, which they had do virtually all year.

The World Champion Nationals are a special group and have taught me a lot about how to never give up. While this team has left me with so much to celebrate, I also greatly appreciate the valuable lessons in leadership we can learn from them as well.

The biggest highlight of the season for me was attending a World Series game with my wife, my father, and my father-in-law. Every year that Nationals made the playoffs, I always secured a ticket to what would be the first World Series game in Washington in 86 years. A “bucket-list” event, I will always have those memories and it was one of the best experiences of my life.

GO NATS!

KEY TAKEAWAY: The 2019 World Champion Washington Nationals taught us that leading a team requires building a culture of resilience through team bonding. Giving others the ability to lead, creating focus through a rallying cry, and integrating rituals help create enjoyable, sustainable, and world championship-level teams.