A Whole New Ballgame: Managing Risk for World Champion Houston Astros

By | June 15, 2018

Monica Rusch’s work was easier when the Houston Astros were losers.

She was accustomed to worrying about fans being hit by balls, drunks getting too rowdy, players suffering injuries, thieves breaking into parked cars, slips and falls in the stands, even the dreaded prospect of an active shooter at the Astros baseball stadium in downtown Houston.

But now that the team is the World Series Champion, her job is more complicated. Mind you, she’s not complaining. Quite the contrary, Rusch, who has been with the team for 29 years, is thrilled over the team’s success. She refers to her employer as “the 2017 World Series Champions” every chance she gets. “I can’t say that enough. I’m sorry,” she claims.

But it’s just a fact that winning has added to her roster of things to worry about.

Until the Astros’ World Series victory last year, Rusch, senior director of Risk Management for the baseball team, did not have to worry about World Series rings being stolen, fans lined up at 6 a.m. for a 7 p.m. game, or the extreme emotions certain newly-minted celebrity players incite.

Last year also brought a real test of risk management disaster planning, although she can’t pin this one on the team. Before beating the New York Yankees to win the American League Championship and then the Los Angeles Dodgers in the World Series in October and November, Rusch and her Astros had to beat Hurricane Harvey in August.

“You can observe a lot by watching,” is one of Rusch’s favorite Yogi Berra sayings. She has seen a lot in the venue that not only houses the Astros but also hosts concerts and corporate, charity and other events. But she has not seen anything like 2017.

At this year’s RIMS Conference, Rusch shared her insights into sports and entertainment risks alongside Tamara Bruno, an insurance recovery and advisory attorney from the Houston office of the international law firm Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman. Bruno handles complex litigation in energy, high education, hospitality, construction and other industries.

Bruno brought perspectives on insurance for players including disability, loss of value and exposures beyond the baseball diamond from fans, vendors and others.

Bruno contributed another Yogi Berra favorite that she suggested also relates to risk management: “Baseball is 90 percent mental, and the other half is physical.”

Big League Training

From first aid to facility maintenance, crowd control to player behavior, medical privacy to a terrorist attack, Rusch is involved in every facet of safety and security at the home of the Astros, Minute Maid Park.

The stadium has a command center, security cameras, police officers, scanners for people and equipment entering the facility, cleaning crews, and first aid representatives.

Rusch acknowledges the technology tools but talks more about the people and process of risk management—not only the security and safety staff but also the audiences they serve. Much of her job is making sure her people are trained and where they need to be to ensure a safe environment for everyone.

“We plan for every type of risk there is, or we think we know of, but there’s always the unknown. Every time you turn on the radio, the TV … My husband is the worst. ‘Did you hear what the Astros did last night?'” he asks her before she has even had her morning coffee.

Baseball players have spring training; for Rusch, training is all important. As part of it, every employee takes an online course that documents that they have read and understand the policies and procedures.

The security team gets pre-game or event briefings at which they learn what promotions are happening, if there has been a heightened security threat, what the attendance may be, and where there is maintenance going on in the stadium.

There are also post-event briefings. “We want to know what went well, best practices, and lessons learned. No one’s perfect so we want to improve on things,” she said.

The Houston Astros celebrate after Game 7 of baseball’s World Series against the Los Angeles Dodgers Wednesday, Nov. 1, 2017, in Los Angeles. The Astros won 5-1 to win the series 4-3. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

The staff training includes a review of Major League Baseball’s code of conduct—including why and when a fan may be ejected.

There is training on golf carts— how to drive them and where to return the keys.

The Astros also have mandatory HIPAA [Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act)] training on the protection of medical privacy of athletes and employees.

“We have first aid staff that will respond to a situation. We have baseball operations that work with players. The last thing we need is a player’s information to be released if it’s not approved to be released. We want all of our staff to have an understanding of what HIPAA is,” she said.

Risk Scouting

She acts like a team scout.

She anticipates the attendance. “You want to be prepared for the attendance of what goes on, because some things become emotional sometimes. We have a large crowd, our risk factors may go up.”

She monitors response times. “I have first aid strategically placed throughout the ballpark,” Rusch said. She insists that response time be one minute or less. If there is a heavy crowd and it gets congested, she may have to move staff around.

She anticipates the opponent, especially if it’s the in-state rival Texas Rangers. “That is going to be one heck of a game for everybody to come out to. They say it’s bigger in Texas. Yes, those games are bigger because you have your Ranger shirts; you have your Astro shirts,” she said.

Risks of Champions

To demonstrate how her risk lineup has changed (or perhaps it was only an excuse to bring up again that the Astros are 2017 champs), Rusch said she was asked if she had brought her World Series ring to RIMS in San Antonio. Every employee gets one.

“I’m not bringing that from Houston to here,” she exclaimed, suggesting there is added risk from employees showing them off everywhere they go.

She’s worried not only about the flashy rings but also about the players who earned them.

“Some of our players, people didn’t know who they were before. Now you’ve got these success stories of these guys. They’re just terrific people, and everybody wants to get close to them,” she said.

The newfound celebrity status required a re-evaluation of travel and other safety conditions around players.

The major leaguers have a better understanding of the risks of travel than minor leaguers or those new to the big leagues.

“We have multiple minor league teams in different cities. Those cities are different. Usually, they’re in small towns,” she said. “Your major league guys have gone through the minor leagues. They’re much more experienced with the travel.”

They know what’s expected and what the policies are.

Regarding injury risk, it can actually be higher for minor leaguers. The major leaguers contend with wear and tear of having played for years. The younger players, however, are eager to advance.

“Your minor league guys, they want to be the major league guys, so we tend to see more injuries in the minor league system. Some of those can be career ending,” she said.

But the odds of injuries to professional ballplayers pale compared to those for injuries to amateurs—the fans who come to Minute Maid Park for a company or charity function to take batting practice, run the bases and slide into home plate. “I can guarantee you a claim,” she says, adding she always has first aid available, along with signed releases and waivers.

‘Walk in the Park’

One of Rusch’s strategies is what she calls her “walk in the park.”

“Anytime I say, ‘Let’s take a walk in the park’ …. that means bring your notepad, bring your iPad, bring something because I will find something in the ballpark,” she said.

She tells her employees to think of the park as their home: “If you’re assigned to section 252, that’s your home, so you should be responsible for these fans that are coming every time they should be here. They should be comfortable.”

The point of the walk around Minute Maid is to identify anything risky and fix it. They check the concrete, the signage, the striking on the steps. “We check the seats. There might be a bolt missing. We want to know before that person sits in it and has an injury,” she added.

Hurricane Harvey

Last August was no walk in the park—in fact, the park was closed for a period due to Hurricane Harvey. The park was unsafe and unapproachable. But that was the least of the region’s problems. The fans were too busy saving their families, homes and belongings to worry about America’s pastime.

Rusch was among those in danger.

“I am a risk person. I have my backpack packed. I had one bottle of wine, a can opener, a can of tuna, a pack of crackers. I was ready to go. A change of clothes,” she recalled.

Her husband maintained they were not going to have to leave their house.

Then, at 7:00 a.m., there was a knock on their door. They were told, “We’re opening up the reservoir. There could be 100 feet of water here.”

Within 30 minutes, Rusch and her husband were taken out by boat. “That’s how fast it came up,” she said.

She wasn’t able to take her backpack but she did manage to save the company’s laptop.

“I don’t know why,” said the veteran risk manager.

The Astros have an emergency action plan for everything from hurricanes to flood and power failure, plans that anticipate worst case scenarios. She remembers one of the first times they tested the hurricane plan.

“First time there was a warning. They went into action. They knew how long it took to get the equipment off the field, how long it took to close up the facility, get all the supplies that they needed. When the hurricane didn’t happen, they were like, ‘We did this for nothing.’ No, we didn’t, because we have our timeline. We’re prepared to go the next time.”

The Astros played a home series against the Texas Rangers at the stadium of the Tampa Bay Rays due to the devastation in the city as a result of Hurricane Harvey. Hoping to introduce a sense of normalcy to a city devastated by the storm, the Astros returned to Minute Maid Park just a week after Harvey hit for their next series against the New York Mets, even though the city and fans were very much still in recovery mode.

Rusch said she can’t even remember the exact date in August when everything happened. (It was Aug 28 when the reservoir was opened.) “We weren’t allowed to go back until September 15. Geez, that wasn’t on my plan,” she said.

Her experience with Harvey reinforced a lesson she has repeated over and over again throughout her career: “It doesn’t matter how much you prepare, there’s still going to be unexpected things.”

Unexpected things such as when the gates to the reservoir were opened, flooding her neighborhood. Or loss of power. Or loss of access and egress to the stadium.

“Think outside of the box. When you’re putting your plans together, think long term,” she said.

The Astros staff learned an important lesson this year involving the World Series rings when it promoted a replica World Series ring giveaway at a game. The game started at 7 p.m. The first fans were in line at 6:00 a.m. Rusch and her staff had not prepared for the early arrivals. Knowing firsthand about Houston heat and humidity and the risks to people waiting outside in line for all day, they sprang into action.

“I was the first one to shoot the email out, and everybody was waiting for it,” she recalls. The first thing was to get plenty of water outside by the gate for those in line. Next, security was put in place. Then first aid staff was called in.

“Everything went smoothly. Now we’re getting ready for another replica giveaway day,” she said, then adding, unable to help herself, “Want to buy tickets?”

Just Say No

Over the years, she has learned that it takes a thick skin to be a risk manager because she is often the one pointing out why something can’t be done. “A lot of our employees are like, ‘Here she is again. She’s going to say no,'” is how she describes her reputation.

She’s working on altering her image. When some interns wanted to have an event where participants would repel off the roof, Rusch’s boss, the head of operations, told the group not to expect approval. “This isn’t going to float. I know her too well. I’m not going to be the bad guy. She’s going to tell y’all no, so be prepared,” he told them.

She surprised them all by approving the repelling event — but not before turning it into a lesson about risk transfer. She told them to find a way to reduce the risk to the stadium. So they found a vendor that specializes in these events and had them sign agreements to indemnify the Astros organization for everything. “They were so excited about this event, and I couldn’t believe the number of people,” she said, admitting that she was a bit nervous that they might cut the cords when her turn came.

Even at the risk of a reputation for saying no, Rusch stands by her insistence on policies that are clearly written and consistently communicated.

“Written policies are put in place for a reason. It’s about communication and the understanding,” she said. “You have to educate your employees. You have to educate your players. You have to educate everyone so that they can’t come back and say, ‘Well, I didn’t know.'”

Getting everyone on the same page is one way to “reduce or mitigate potential claims,” she said.

“What makes it nice about written policies is that if somebody’s in violation of something, you already know what the recourse is,” she said. “Instead of trying to fix things after the fact.”

Clear policies help create a culture that allows an organization to address behavior early rather than after it escalates. “It’s knowing your audience, it’s knowing your philosophy, and communicating those so everybody knows what the expectations are.”

Written policies are helpful in cases of on-the-field or off-the-field behavior, including drug abuse or domestic violence situations.

“This is something from a risk aspect that I never saw coming,” Rusch admitted, referring to domestic abuse concerns. The Astros now require all players and all staff to go through domestic violence training. She said it has been an “eye-opener” to observe the changes in how people are treating and talking with each other.

“There are words that shouldn’t be in the workplace and probably shouldn’t be in the home,” said Rusch. “Those are things that we’re teaching our employees, our players.”

A final piece of advice: “The one thing I have learned over the years is to listen. You have to listen to your crowd, you have to listen to your audience, you have to listen to your employees and your frontline people.”

One of the newest safety additions in the park is increased netting to block balls and bats from flying into the stands. She has listened to the arguments.

“We get complaints on both sides. ‘You’re not protecting the fans because the netting doesn’t go far enough.’ Then, you get the complaint of, ‘I brought my glove. I’ll never catch a ball.’ It’s both sides, and you have to find that happy medium.”

Rusch even listens to fans who have had a bad experience at the ballpark. She personally calls everyone who has been hit by a ball or a bat. “I think it protects our branding, and I want to be able to reach out to that fan. Every single fan, employee, and player is important to us,” she said.

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