Operating for much of the last century as baseball’s resident bullies, the New York Yankees have developed a certain brand image, intentionally or not.
After all, this is the Major League Baseball franchise that has by far won the most World Series, easily generates the most local revenue of any MLB team, has the most Hall of Famers among its former players, hasn’t had a losing season since 1992, is baseball’s most popular team on social media, and typically stands as a focal point of the sport’s existential crisis between its fiscal haves and have-nots.
But a team-driven charitable program, HOPE (Helping Others Persevere & Excel) Week, celebrating its 10th anniversary this year has steadily become a fundamental part of the Yankees’ current and less bombastic demeanor under managing general partner Hal Steinbrenner.
The brainchild of Jason Zillo, the Yankees’ vice president of communications and media relations, HOPE Week has forged an entirely new model for sports team charitable and community outreach by veering away from one-off events, quick photo opportunities, or simple monetary donations into a five-day sequence of extended public events each year that typically involve every player and coach and much of the club’s front office.
During a week-long homestand each season, Zillo and a team of Yankees staffers schedule a series of five community events to spotlight individuals and organizations worthy of recognition, with many of those facing some of type of serious disease, physical ailment, or other significant obstacle. Many of those individual events involve off-site visits by players, coaches, and staff to an honoree’s home or local community center, or surprise trips for honorees to attend a game at Yankee Stadium.
The HOPE Week charitable outreach model has since been replicated by not only the Yankees’ set of minor-league affiliates, but other sports teams, and even non-sports entities such as law firms. And as the club’s 2019 HOPE Week begins June 17, the program has also altered what it means to be a Yankee.
“HOPE Week is about making sacrifices for other peoples’ causes, and the benefits far outweigh the adjustments we’ve had to make,” says Yankees general manager Brian Cashman. “It’s also let people in to realize that the perception out there of the big, bad Yankees and what that allegedly represents is not true. This is a franchise that is run by a family that cares deeply about winning, but also cares deeply about the community we reside in and doing well for others.”
Irish rocker Bob Geldof’s push to create Band Aid and Live Aid during the 1980s lie in part from his visceral reaction to viewing a BBC news report about severe famine in Ethiopia. Zillo’s path toward creating HOPE Week has a somewhat similar story after he watched a 2000 news report on CBS’ “60 Minutes” about sufferers of xeroderma pigmentosum, a rare genetic disease that prevents exposure to sunlight.
Then a young publicist with the Yankees, Zillo was moved emotionally by the tales of people with XP for whom even a few minutes in the sun can cause severe burns. But it would be nearly a decade before Zillo turned that personal concern into full action.
“I was a 20-something-year-old guy living in New York at the time [of first viewing the report]. I probably wasn’t as empathetic as I’d probably should have been. I was just doing my job at the time and doing my thing,” says Zillo, now 46 and in his 24th season as a Yankees employee. “I watched this 10 or 12-minute story about Camp Sundown [a nighttime summer camp in upstate New York for XP sufferers] and I was moved emotionally. I wanted to be involved, really more on a human level than thinking I wanted to be involved because I worked for the New York Yankees.”
Zillo would soon after participate personally in an overnight walk of New York’s Central Park with Camp Sundown, an experience he called “life-changing.” But the notion of a larger, team-focused involvement with the cause still went “into remission a bit,” Zillo says, until late 2008 when he began to brainstorm about bigger, more out-of-the-box projects for the club’s media relations and community affairs departments.
He then struck on the notion of a week-long cadence of community events, of which a late-night event at Yankee Stadium for Camp Sundown attendees would ultimately be an initial anchor. But Zillo had to sell not only the team’s front office on the HOPE Week concept, but also convince players to take time away from their scripted pre-game schedules in a heavily routine-focused sport.
“I said at the time this is a really good idea that ends up at the bottom of a garbage can if our players aren’t really willing to do this, and do this the right way, because this isn’t your typical thing,” he said.
The HOPE Week concept was then presented to the club’s front office and the Steinbrenner family, the Yankees’ owners, including Hal Steinbrenner, newly installed that autumn as the club’s control executive. Approval came back very quickly and became a key part of the club’s schedule of 2009 activities in the first season of the newly built third iteration of Yankee Stadium.
“This was simply a great, great idea that Jason had,” says Randy Levine, Yankees president. “We have a responsibility to give back to our community, and this was something really special, really unique that he came up with. But you can’t do this half-hearted.”
To that end, Zillo and other team executives then gained a critical boost of support when a player sign-up sheet to volunteer for various HOPE Week events that first year in 2009 was completed by nearly the entire team within just a few hours, with revered stars at the time such as the team’s “Core Four” of shortstop Derek Jeter, catcher Jorge Posada, and pitchers Andy Pettitte and Mariano Rivera quickly helping to set a tone in the clubhouse.
During that first HOPE Week, which also included other events such as a visit to youth leadership program for at-risk students being run out of the volunteers’ Bronx, New York, apartment, the Yankees on the field went 5-0 and moved into first place in their division in en route to what would become a World Series championship season. Players would later credit the HOPE Week charitable work as an important bonding mechanism.
And organizations such as Camp Sundown reported their own sharp increases in donations and volunteer time from the publicity and awareness gained through HOPE Week, an occurrence that would repeat itself many times with other organizations involved in the effort.
“Anytime you have an opportunity to be together and do some good things with good people away from the field, it brings you closer together,” said CC Sabathia, in 2009 a newly acquired free agent pitcher and a decade later now a veteran leader with the team. Sabathia and outfielder Brett Gardner are the only two Yankees players to participate in every HOPE Week to date.
That on-field championship formula from HOPE Week has not since been replicated amid a series of earlier-round playoff exits for the Yankees. But in the ensuing years, HOPE Week has continued to grow in size and scope, with the team now receiving hundreds of inbound submissions and suggestions for designated honorees each year to supplement their own internal research.
Zillo said there is no specific formula for who gets picked to be part of HOPE Week each year. But it’s typically not an organization that’s the focus of the selection efforts, but rather individual people and their stories.
“It’s more what we feel in our hearts than anything else,” he says. “It’s basically what compels us the most.”
Similarly, the Yankees’ evaluation of a successful individual HOPE Week event does not rely on an objective metric, but rather “the looks on people’s faces,” Zillo said.
“We’re in this whole era of analytics and metrics, how this is a business, and what’s your attendance? Is Hal spending enough money on payroll? What is somebody’s wins over replacement? All of that. But if we see somebody smiling [during HOPE Week], there’s no better feeling. And that’s harder and harder to come by where you can say that and that’s how you measure success,” he says.
The influence of HOPE Week soon spread elsewhere as by 2011, the third year of the Yankees’ program, the club’s minor league affiliates scattered around the US East Coast began their own local versions of the program, as did fellow MLB club the Minnesota Twins, which also use the HOPE Week name. Many other organizations, such as local high school athletic federations pursue similar charitable outreach structures under different names, but having been similarly inspired by Yankees’ example.
And even without more World Series titles, there still have been tangible benefits on the field as the club has won more than 70 percent of its games during HOPE Weeks over the past decade, roughly 10 percentage points higher than its overall home winning percentage during the same timeframe.
HOPE Week has also helped inform and expand the individual charitable works of Yankees players and executives.
“The cool thing about HOPE Week is that it pulls you out of your own routine,” says Cashman, who since 2010 has repelled down a Stamford, Connecticut, office tower each year as part of that town’s annual holiday celebration, and has slept out in the streets to raise awareness homeless youth. “Particularly here in America, we’re often wired in our culture here to be heads down, always working, always focused on your own stuff, and you don’t necessarily get a chance to look around to see who’s struggling, who needs help, what other people are doing for others.
“HOPE Week is our effort to take a time out and acknowledge people who are doing amazing things for others and using our brand to shine a light on special people or groups of people that are changing lives. That’s as good as it gets,” he says.