My Reply to the Astros' Statement About the Cancellation of the Wives' Gala
"There's such a thing... as manners. A way of treating people. These fish have manners." -- Jerry Maguire
There is no easy way to disband an event like the Astros Wives' gala, a fantastic annual spectacle that's simultaneously raised over $4 million in 23 years for the Houston Area Women's Center while shedding a light upon the need to address an insidious subculture of domestic and sexual abuse in our society.
When you're Jim Crane and you decide that this event will no longer take place, there will be backlash, especially when you have a "goodwill equity account" that looks like a homeless man's credit report.
And make no mistake, after a seemingly endless string of public relations gaffes, that's the situation in which Crane and the Astros have put themselves.
With a television carriage stalemate that has driven fans to a new, heretofore unseen level of apathy (didn't think that was possible), with the Monday resignation of a team president who either fired or prompted the resignation of practically everyone who was in the building less than two years ago, and with a team on pace for 41 wins (You forget that there's an actual baseball team fronting this mess sometimes.), it's not like the Astros have given themselves any room for benefit of the doubt.
Indeed, there's no easy way to dissolve the Astros Wives' gala, however, there is a right way and a wrong way.
I'll let you guess which one the Astros chose.
On Monday, KHOU broke the story that there would be no Astros Wives' gala in 2013, which would also mean there would be no six figure check for the Houston Area Women's Center, a safe haven for many victims of domestic and sexual abuse through the years and the beneficiary of the generosity of the gala event.
Instead, the Astros have chosen to focus the energy of their foundation on the funding of inner city baseball and softball fields, and the teaching of life skills to at-risk youth in our inner cities through their charitable programs like Community Leaders, the Astros Urban Youth Academy and the Astros RBI Program (Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities).
To be very clear, much like helping fund services for abused women and children, providing financial and functional resources to help give underprivileged kids a better chance to succeed in life is a noble and good cause. Jim Crane's plan is to raise more than $18 million for the foundation over the next five years, and for that, he and those involved should be commended.
However, owing an explanation to Astros fans, supporters of the Astros Wives' gala, and the Houston Area Women's Center, Crane's Astros just couldn't help themselves. They had to bust somebody in the mouth on the way out the door.
It's what they do.
The carefully-crafted full statement from the Astros' Foundation Executive Director Meg Vaillancourt is right here:
We have great respect for the vital work done by the Women's Center and are proud of the past support championed by the Astros Wives for the organization. As we discussed with the Houston Area Women's Center (HAWC) executives before the season began, we hope to continue to support the centers clients in other ways now that the prior sponsoring organization of the gala is no longer active. Clearly the decision by the Astros Foundation to adopt a strategic focus on at-risk youth in our community in no way reflects the value we place on the Women's Center.
The Gala was never an Astros or Astros Foundation event; it was previously hosted by a prior Wives organization, which is no longer active because there are no current Astros wives involved with the organization. From the last state filing we viewed, there was only 1 person listed as director and her husband is no longer with the Astros, having departed from the team last year. The other person listed on the publicly available tax forms on file was a paid consultant, who received a portion of fees raised by the Gala each year.
As with most MLB teams, the current Astros wives are very generously working with the official team charity, the Astros Foundation, the Astros nonprofit that seeks to harness fans and sponsors interest in baseball to make positive changes in our community for at- risk and low income youth. Most charities seek to make a greater impact by choosing a strategic focus. This past off season, the Astros Foundation selected a strategic focus: to serve at-risk youth through our cornerstone youth baseball and softball programs.
One of our charitable cornerstone initiatives is the Astros Community Leaders Program, a $18 million investment over 5 years in revitalizing public youth ball fields and supporting youth baseball and softball programs and life skills development, as well as providing special events at those inner city fields and hosting youth teams and volunteer coaches from those programs here at Minute Maid Park. We also will be organizing community service projects with our partners and the youth served at these fields. The improvements to these ballparks are funded by the Astros Foundation and our sponsors at no cost to the city or taxpayers.
The Astros Foundation also funds youth baseball and softball programs for low income or at-risk youth at our Urban Youth Academy in northwest Houston in the Acres Homes section of the city. Funded by the Astros Foundation, UYA provides free baseball, softball and life skills development to children age 7 to 17, with many special events and programming hosted at the Academy by the staff, which are paid by the Astros Foundation. These programs are supported by the team charity's fundraising. Going forward, we plan to expand our team charity's programming and help open the doors to additional opportunities for at-risk youth served by both of Community Leaders and Urban Youth Academy programs.
To avoid any confusion, the party planner for the Women's Center gala, whose fees were paid from the proceeds raised by the Gala, was informed that her services would longer be needed on several occasions, starting as far back as last year. When we learned this had not been communicated to the Women's Center, we met with the HAWC executives and explained in detail our reasoning. The HAWC executive director and Board representatives said they understood the gala was not ever an Astros Foundation event and respected our decision to select a strategic focus for our team charity.
While we were in the process of deciding on our new strategic focus, the Astros Foundation also reviewed details of the Wives Gala and its budgeting, culled from recent publicly available tax returns. We learned that in recent years, in our opinion, it appeared far too much of the funds raised by the gala seemed to go towards expenses, rather than to the charity.
As a best charitable practice, it is common to expect some 70 percent -- or more whenever possible -- of funds raised should go towards the charitable purpose people intended in supporting the event. In the case of the Gala, in recent years, it appears that a little more than half -- and at least in one recent year, less than half - of the funds raised actually went to the Women's Center. It disturbed us that such a large portion of the funds raised specifically for the Women's Center were allocated to pay for the party and/or fees. That was not a standard the Astros Foundation wanted to continue, especially as we had chosen to make an impact by selecting a strategic focus: now serving at-risk children and teens through our youth baseball and softball initiatives.
Of the eight paragraphs above, I don't have a major problem with the first six, which admittedly are mostly the Astros' explaining their new initiatives and goals therein. My only issues with the first six paragraphs are these two:
1. The blame of some sort of bridal vacuum for the winding down of the gala is, at best, very misleading. Yes, there are no tenured, geographically stable Patty Biggios or Nancy Caminitis in the current crop of wives due to the youth and transient nature of the team. We get that. But there being "no wives involved in the [Astros Wives] organization" as a reason for the event to be cancelled altogether is like blaming the invisible man. First, according to a well placed source of mine who was close to this event for many years, the actual role of the wives in executing the gala became minimal over time. They basically needed two wives as figureheads to do in-game promo hits on radio and television, and occasionally bird dog some autographs from opposing players for the auction. That's it.
The heavy lifting (catering, venue, logistics, etc.) was all done by the event coordinator (Judy Nichols). If the Astros truly wanted to conduct the gala, to fulfill the role of the "wives," a simple request to get two of the eight existing Astro wives and/or myriad Astro girlfriends is all it would have taken. Shrugging your shoulders and saying "Hey, the wives group no longer had any wives in it" is somewhat deceitful.
2. According to this piece in the Houston Chronicle by Jose de Jesus Ortiz, there was email communication from Jim Crane to Judy Nichols on January 25 that her services were no longer required, followed by an attorney's letter two weeks later saying there would be no gala. This was the extent of the Astros' communication outside their organization on the cancellation of the event. It didn't occur to the Astros, as a courtesy, to communicate with the Women's Center about their decision until they were seemingly forced to do so. Did they have to communicate with the Women's Center? Technically, no, I guess. The Astros are very clear that this was not their event, it was the Astros Wives' event.
By the letter of the law, Jim Crane did the required administrative minimum to communicate the Astros' non-support of the event going forward: he told Judy Nichols.
On the other hand, by the letter of decency and the letter of holding a CEO to a higher standard, he failed miserably by not reaching out proactively to the Women's Center to explain his decision.
But the first six paragraphs of that statement are mere prologue to the final two, which essentially serve as the Astros' chance to take the Astros Wives' charity and dunk its collective head in the toilet and flush.
Jim Crane and Meg Vaillancourt, you had everything covered and explained in the first six paragraphs, so why in the blue hell do you drop in two more paragraphs that paint a picture of the Wives' being incompetent and mismanaging their expenses, neither of which are true?
"As a best charitable practice, it is common to expect some 70 percent -- or more whenever possible -- of funds raised should go towards the charitable purpose people intended in supporting the event. In the case of the Gala, in recent years, it appears that a little more than half -- and at least in one recent year, less than half - of the funds raised actually went to the Women's Center."
So the hell what?!?
Unless you, Jim, Meg, plan to continue the event with you or one of your employees fixing the 70 percent "problem" then why would you take the opportunity to point that out? Why wouldn't you instead congratulate the Astros Wives on donating a total of $592,000 from 2009 through 2011?
And by the way, since the Astros Wives aren't here to defend themselves, then I will do it -- this whole "70 percent" thing, is there even really a problem?
Meg Vaillancourt's proclamation from on high that 70 percent of funds donated is some sort of line in the sand for charitable acceptability, and subsequent mentions that the Astros Wives were barely at 50 percent and one year even below 50 percent (GASP!) paints a picture of ineptitude and a lack of cost control by the Wives.
The facts are this:
1. For the years 2009 through 2011, costs for the event held very consistent at $209,717, $182,728, and $209,036, respectively. (Also, worth noting, one of the biggest line item costs was the actual rental of Minute Maid Park, $31,730 payable to the Houston Astros. I was floored by that, and that's obviously not on Crane.)
2. DeeDee Marsh knows something about fundraising. She's served on the boards for several charities in Houston, and I think she put it best in her letter to the team expressing disappointment about their handling of this whole thing:
"I know first hand the ins and outs of putting on such an event. It is not easy. It is not cheap. There is a baseline cost just for serving dinner, pouring drinks, table decorations and the like. Organizations that raise less money, by definition donate less and in the waning years of the Astros Wives, they raised less."
The fact is when the team is not as good, or as in recent years when the team is just plain bad, it's harder to garner charitable support and auction items. It's harder to generate money. Go figure! (DeeDee even rightly points out that, due in part to the diminished "fame" of the team, the auction items had to come through consignment as opposed to being donated, which cost over $73,000 in 2011 alone.)
3. At the end of the day, the gala raised money -- LOTS OF MONEY -- every year. It also raised awareness of the Women's Center, and domestic and sexual abuse in general. How is this not unconditionally a great thing? Why is there a two paragraph "Yeah but.." at the end of this statement?
Deciding to channel your resources and support toward a charity of your choice, a charity that may differ from the one supported for many years by your predecessor, these are decisions that leaders have to make all the time. These are things that CEO's do. For this, I don't begrudge Jim Crane.
Painting the benevolence of others as being somehow flawed and highlighting perceived deficiencies for no other reason than to make yourself look superior. These are things that bullies do. For this, I'm appalled at Jim Crane.
The Astros had a slogan a few years ago, "These Are Your Astros," and even amid their 41 win pace this season, I'll still say that guys like Jose Altuve, Bud Norris, and Lucas Harrell are my Astros.
The pettiness, the small-mindedness of the organization's leadership is not on them. They're all still at the early stages of their careers where they can't "pick their parents," so to speak.
As for Jim Crane, Meg Vaillancourt, and others like them? I have no idea whose Astros they are.
Listen to Sean Pendergast on 1560 Yahoo! Sports Radio from 3 p.m. to 7 p.m. weekdays and nationally on the Yahoo! Sports Radio network Saturdays from 10 a.m. to noon CST. Also, follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/SeanCablinasian.
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