Baseball can teach us a lot about celebrating tradition while looking toward the future

The Super Bowl might be America’s most spectacular sports championship, but the World Series is the championship with the most tradition and history…and as a kid who grew up in a community that’s nearly 150 years older than our country, I really dig tradition and history.

Tradition and history give us a sense of place. They let us know who we are, where we came from and what we stand for. But they can also be an obstacle to our growth and evolution. There is a delicate balance we must achieve between knowing where we came from, and knowing where we’re going.

This is a challenge for any community, culture or company that has a history worth celebrating.

Take, for example, America’s rural electric cooperatives. This year marked the 75th anniversary of the Rural Electrification Administration, and over the next few years, rural electric cooperatives all across country will be celebrating their 75th anniversaries. In doing so, they must walk a fine line.

The history and tradition of these co-ops reinforce a culture of exceptional service to members and dedication to the communities they serve. Electric co-ops were established to bring power to those who were ignored by larger companies serving urban areas. They transformed the economies of small towns and lives of America’s farmers. This is an important contribution to our country, and one that should be celebrated. But it is equally important to look toward the future, and articulate a vision for how they’ll serve their members for the next 75 years.

In honor of the World Series, I’d like to illustrate my point by comparing three MLB teams.

The Tampa Bay Rays: A team without tradition
The Rays had an awesome season, finishing with the best record in the American League…but you’d hardly know it by looking at the sea of empty seats inside their antiseptic domed stadium. The Rays joined the league in its last round of expansion in the late 90s, so they haven’t had a long time to build up tradition. But even more challenging than that, they play in a city and state where many of the residents are transplants. It’s hard to build loyalty when most of your would-be have only a weak connection to the area.

It’s depressing watching baseball in an empty stadium, but it’s extra super depressing to watch a good team play in an empty stadium because nobody cares…at least fans for lousy teams have an excuse not to show up, which brings me to the Royals.

The Kansas City Royals: Hanging on to bygone glory days
The Royals have the opposite problem. Over the past decade, they’ve been perennial basement dwellers. Unlike the Rays, most Kansas Citians are from either the immediate metro region, or rural areas within a four-hour drive. They desperately want to cheer for the Royals, but the Royals give them nothing to cheer about.

Instead, they’re forced to relive their glory days. Last week, The Kansas City Star ran an article marking the 25th anniversary of the Royals’ lone World Series victory. It’s just sad to watch…like Al Bundy reminiscing about the time he threw four touchdowns in a single game for Polk High. There’s no hope for the future, just a nostalgic look back.

The Boston Red Sox: Embracing tradition while chasing greatness
In contrast to the Rays and Royals, the Red Sox represent the perfect blend of the past and present. The Sox have many proud traditions to celebrate. Legendary players like Cy Young, Ted Williams and Carl Yastrzemski. They play in baseball’s cathedral – Fenway Park – a place where generations of parents have taken their children to see their first game.

Despite all that tradition, they went more than 80 years without a championship…and yet the fans continued to fill the ballpark night after night. They supported the team partly because of tradition, but also because the management consistently tried to produce a better product…and the fans knew it. They celebrated the past, but articulated a clear vision for the future.

Whether you’re an electric cooperative or a Fortune 500 company, these three teams can teach us a lot about the right way to balance the past and present. The Rays, Royals and Red Sox have all experienced both triumph and failure. Yet each team has a very different relationship between its past and its future.

If you’re planning an anniversary celebration for your organization, be sure to spend as much time looking forward as you do looking back. When you’re putting together the commemorative book, try to harness the spirit of the people in those old black and white photos. What would those folks say if they were confronted by the challenges of today? They didn’t build a great organization by reminiscing about the way things used to be…they did it by imagining what was possible.

Finding the right balance between celebrating what you’ve achieved and learning from those accomplishments to build a stronger future is a great way to build a loyal fan base for generations to come.