HOPE Week: Behind the scenesAn inside look at the Yankees planning their annual community program
On a cool spring morning toward the end of May, Jason Zillo, the New York Yankees’ public relations’ chief, has called an all-hands staff meeting in his office. It’s fair to say they have a lot of routine matters on their agenda, and then a lot more that’s far from routine, but nobody’s complaining about the additional stuff. In fact, they’ve willingly, and gladly, heaped their figurative plates with the largest community outreach effort in the organization’s history. In its fourth year now, and going stronger than anyone in the room could have dreamed, HOPE Week is only a month away.
HOPE, upper case, not only means what it means, but is also an acronym for Helping Others Persevere & Excel. Each year, the Yankees plan five days’ worth of events to recognize individuals who have worked to help people with acts of selfless generosity, often after overcoming their own tremendous personal obstacles. As the department’s media kit states, the initiative is rooted in the belief that acts of goodwill provide hope and encouragement to more than just the recipient of the gesture. As Zillo will often say, when it comes to helping others, the one thing everybody has, no matter their financial means, is time.
Those aren’t only words to him. HOPE Week is Zillo’s baby. And although won’t say it, it’s an organic idea fusing his professional responsibilities with a deep desire to reach out a hand to do some greater good in this world.
The whole thing’s a doozy of a challenge to pull off, but the men and women in this room have been through it before, together. While that doesn’t make their job any easier, it gives them an idea of what to expect as the events they’re planning take on an inevitable crazy momentum.
With the Yanks finishing a five-game homestand in the Bronx before leaving on their longest road trip of the season to date, this will be the PR department’s last group meeting for a couple of weeks. Some of them will accompany the players on the cross-country trip. Others will remain in the Bronx to handle the unending slew of publicity and media liaison tasks for the juggernaut sports franchise.
Gathered in Zillo’s midsized office overlooking Jerome Avenue, the team includes Jason Latimer, Michael Margolis, Kenny Leandry, Lauren Moran, Alexandra Trochanowski their administrative assistant, Dolores Hernandez, and a pair of summer interns. At his desk, Zillo leads them through the minutia of coordinating pregame tours and events, requests from corporate sponsors and media, and so on. Then, with their daily business out of the way, he turns the discussion to HOPE Week.
By now the week’s honorees have been picked from scores of candidates through a lengthy, exhaustive selection process that always involves wrenching choices. The daylong events, however, are still in their relatively early planning stages, and many important details remain fluid. What is known is that all events will be surprises, or a set of surprises, for the honorees, and involve Yankee players who participate voluntarily. In past seasons the players were quick to embrace the various events.
Some have already signed on for this year’s slate and the projected final turnout is no less enthusiastic and crowded.
They run through the schedule, consulting notes and agendas on their laps, Zillo occasionally glancing over at a corkboard to his right, where its basics have been written in marker pen. It’s an open brainstorming session. Although primary responsibility for different events (which can span the tri-state area) has been divided up among the team members—one or two of them to each event—everyone in the room freely shares his or her thoughts on whichever’s being discussed.
The complicated nuts-and-bolts of their planning and strategizing—and the extraordinary nature of these events for what is, after all, a globally iconic sports franchise in the heat of a tight divisional race—becomes obvious at once as Zillo listens closely to the various progress reports and peppers his staff with comments and questions … as when they start talking about kids and horses.
“Can we have more kids?” he asks Margolis.
Margolis considers a moment. “Each kid requires a certain number of volunteers,” he replies. “It’s not just riding a horse ...”
“We’re not going to have players on horses,” Latimer offers. The tone is half questioning.
“In principle,” Zillo says, “it’s possible to have horses on the field, so long as it’s on the warning track.”
“There are safety concerns.” This from Moran, who’s seated furthest from her boss against the wall opposite his desk. “Horses think a hose is a snake ...”
Finally done with horse logistics, Zillo turns practical. “This event’s set,” he says. “We need to get the story out.”
The discussion turns to how it will be circulated to media outlets. And soon turns toward the next recipient, the next event. With each on the checklist, Zillo’s balanced mix of altruism and organizational pragmatism is clear—and everyone in the room is mindful of that balanced vision. When in question, however, the decisions they weigh unfailingly tilt toward what’s good for the honorees. What are their needs? What might benefit them most in the short- and longterm?
“Sponsors,” Zillo says emphatically, talking about one recipient who, along with another family member, has dedicated his life to helping the needy. “Does he need new kitchen equipment?”
Leandry shrugs. “Material stuff, other than food and gas, he doesn’t even use it.”
“They really need storage space,” says Dolores Hernandez.
“Like a shed?” Margolis asks.
“I mean more like refrigeration,” she clarifies.
Leandry nods. “And,” he adds. “He’s not getting financial aid for school.”
One of the interns makes an off-the-cuff suggestion to that end. Zillo nods approvingly and asks him to look into it.
The group continues to review and firm up their plans until the ninety-minute meeting’s conclusion. Then they leave the office focus on ordinary business, if anything in New York sports can be termed ordinary—pregame question and answer sessions, clubhouse interviews, the preparation of stat sheets for distribution in the press box. With the Yankees about to hit the road, the PR team won't be able reconvene until the next homestand. But in the meantime their discussions continue through numerous long-distance conference calls, while those who remain at the Stadium will put in uncounted hours scouting out locations, refining their plans, and coordinating them with participants, sponsors, and players.
That meeting will possibly be their last before HOPE Week.
“We have Andy Pettitte and A-Rod doing Monday’s Today Show,” Zillo is saying. It is now June 19, six days before HOPE Week, and the entire PR team is back in his office. “They want them ready for eight-thirty.”
“That’s definite?” Margolis says.
The publicity chief nods. He’s already spoken to co-host Matt Lauer. The players will be appearing to talk with Lauer about the HOPE celebrations in general, raising the curtain on the whole shebang. Later in the week, another player’s tentatively scheduled for the program’s Kathie Lee and Hoda segment. Lauer is supposed to make a surprise onsite appearance somewhere Wednesday. And then there’s a Bryan Williams segment Thursday.
Latimer asks if Zillo knows whether another celebrity will be available for Friday’s event.
“Not yet,” Zillo sys.
“That would be perfect for him,” Latimer says
“I’ll ask him personally,” Zillo says.
By now everything’s pretty much set for the week’s agenda, and the exchanges in the room are largely about details like parking, and accommodating the national media swarm that’s been invited to cover the events—television reporters, camera crews, print correspondents and photographers. Itineraries have to be worked up for them. Also, the honorees will have a large number guests at the ballpark, where each day’s events culminate. The biggest thing, Zillo reminds everyone, is the coordination of families. Family members and close friends will be arriving from all around the country. Plus there’ll be previous HOPE Week alumni. Thirty, forty, in some cases sixty seats have to be reserved for each game, perhaps guest suites, with special considerations for the disabled. Are the HOPE Week shirts ready? Will there be an opportunity for the recipients to change into them? What about food? People have to eat lunch. Is there time worked in? Where? There’s someone with a severe peanut allergy ....
“Is there room for an ice cream truck?” Zillo asks about a particular event.
Margolis tells him that he doesn’t think so. But maybe there will be at another.
“Well, if it doesn’t work, forget it,” Zillo says.
“I’ll check it out,” Margolis says. “You like ice cream trucks”
Zillo smiles and moves on. “Thursday’s recipients can’t eat anything other than kosher,” he says.
Food, parking, and by the way, there’s an ex-Yankee payer who loves Bingo, and would therefore be happy to participate in a possible Bingo game.
There’s plenty of figurative finger-crossing in the room, but the prevailing attitude among the group members is calmly systematic. They’ve been through this before. They’re expecting the unexpected, aware they’ll have deal with contingencies on the fly.
And every one of them will tell you it’s all worth every bit of effort, that it’s a major highlight of their year, that there’s nothing like the pride and accomplishment they feel once it’s over and done and they know it has been a success.
This season, HOPE Week will extend from June 25-29th. Though they won’t hammer you with it, Zillo and his team would like its simple message of giving to resonate with people throughout the year.
The one thing everybody has is time.
Which is all it takes.