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Small Ball Covers the Bases in Eugene

June 21st, 2013 by dk

George Horton, meet Jon Ruiz. Jon, George. These two managers are showing Eugene how to win their games without relying on heavy hitters.

Horton coaches baseball. Ruiz is managing Eugene’s economic revival. Their strategies have been remarkably similar.

Coach Horton has taken his college baseball teams to the College World Series before, but his Oregon Ducks have not yet risen to that level. He already has shown how he intends to get them there. He emphasizes fundamental skills — especially bunting and baserunning.

Beating out a bunt and stealing second base is every bit as effective as banging a double off the outfield wall. They call this style of play “small ball” because the team can win even when its bats aren’t booming. Earlier this month, the Ducks won a game, even though the opposing pitchers held them to only two hits. That’s small ball at its strategic best.

Managing college players is different than major league professionals, because the young men are still developing their bodies and their skills. A pitcher who happens to be ahead of that development curve can overpower all but the best or luckiest hitters. Good managers don’t rely on luck.

A well-placed bunt can put a 95 mph fastball in play without relying on luck. Horton’s game doesn’t require a couple of superstars to win. His game plan relies on team cohesion, built around strategy, opportunity, timing and rhythm.

Eugene City Manager Jon Ruiz has been using the same sort of playbook. It’s hard to believe what Eugene has managed to accomplish since 2008, despite the nation’s deepest downturn since the Great Depression. Ruiz and his team have played small ball and it’s working.

Eugene tried to land a heavy hitter in 2007. KWG Partnership from Portland wanted to convert a full block of downtown into a “lifestyle mall” that would have included a couple of national chain stores and a multiplex movie theater.

The people of Eugene united in opposition, preferring a smaller, incremental, localized strategy. Some of us doubted that economic small ball could succeed in a middle market like Eugene. We were (delightfully) wrong.

The Centre Court building was sold to BEAM Development with the promise that the building would not be razed, but renovated. It would be built out for small firms driving the “creative economy.” Architects signed up, then an advertising agency and a couple of software developers. A coffee shop followed; then a restaurant. It worked.

A bond measure passed and Eugene began repairing its streets. Filling potholes is the economic development equivalent of beating out a bunt. It’s not what grabs headlines, but it puts the whole team in a better position.

Solid strategy allows effective managers to move quickly when they see opportunities. The Bennett family built Class A offices south of the Centre Court rehab. Lord Leebrick bought two buildings a block to the west. Master Development gained control of the old Taco Time building immediately north.

Each developer scratched and scraped to find suitable tenants, waiting for the right pitch. A law firm here, a tea house there. Then a restaurant, a pub, a pizza joint. Organically, a vibe has begun to take hold. Like baserunners distracting a pitcher to give the hitter a better chance, each success gave the next batter up a boost of confidence.

Now we have a vibrant downtown with only a few strategic vacancies. We even got our own version of a mini-multiplex theater.

Looking ahead, there are more bases to be loaded. City streets continue to be repaired. EWEB’s riverfront master plan soon will be considered by the Eugene City Council. An announcement is expected any day about the beginnings of a new city hall.

The individual pieces matter less than the overall strategy and rhythm. Developers and entrepreneurs are rounding the bases, hoping they don’t see signals to slow down. You win with small ball by maintaining momentum.

Once Horton brings a team back with some hardware from Omaha, Eugene’s downtown already will know how to celebrate small ball success. Nobody had to hit a home run to get us there.


Don Kahle ( writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs….

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