October in America is an exciting month for sports. Major League Baseball is finally getting interesting, college football and the NFL are heating up, the NBA and NCAA basketball are getting ready to hit the court and the NHL has tagged back into the Let’s-Shaft-Our-Customers-and-Tarnish-Our-Reputation Ring.

Of course here in the Washington, D.C. area, we are excited about two worthy candidates fighting their way toward what could be an historic October showdown on the world stage: the Washington Nationals and the Baltimore Orioles. Sports Illustrated just covered the quality of sports that our region is currently enjoying, what with the Nats, the O’s, the Ravens, and – gasp! – even the Redskins having a reason to hope again with the arrival of RGIII.

So how is all of this sports chatter relevant to a blog called “Business History Matters?” Because sports teams are big-time heritage management practitioners. Let’s look at the current Nationals’ and Orioles’ series as a window into sports and heritage.

Orioles versus Yankees. After being totally irrelevant for the last decade-and-a-half, the Orioles are back. Younger folks may not realize that the Orioles have a really rich and proud history – it’s just been obscured by 30 years of losing since their last World Series win in 1983 (with the exception of a brief winning period in the late 90s when they were smart enough to have hired the current manager of the Washington Nationals – but then fired him). Fortunately, Orioles fans at least had a great ballpark and Cal Ripken to keep them entertained for a while after winning World Series in the 60s, 70s and 80s.

But history and winning are back with the Orioles. First, they brought back the Road Runner-like cartoon Orioles logo that had been shelved in 1992 when the team moved to Orioles Park at Camden yards. Second, they launched a website celebrating the 20th anniversary of Camden Yards. And third, they went out and won 93 games this year! Suddenly the Orioles have a history to be proud of again because, by winning today, they have a future to believe in.

The fun in Baltimore may be short lived, however, because they’re now playing the Yankees, the team that repeatedly blocked their way to the World Series in the 1990s. The Yankees’ winning ways enable them to use heritage like no other to support an unshakeable brand for an ever-growing and loyal fan base. I could write a book about how the Yankees have brilliantly integrated heritage into their brand experience (like the architecture of the new Yankee Stadium that brilliantly pays tribute to the House That Ruth Built), but The History Factory doesn’t offer sabbaticals. Mickey Mantle could pinch hit in the game tonight and half the people watching will instinctively think, “Are you kidding me? Mantle?” before realizing that such a substitution is metaphysically impossible.

Nationals versus Cardinals. The Orioles wish they were the Cardinals. Both have great histories, but the Cardinals don’t have a tendency to go on twelve-year losing streaks. If it weren’t for the unattainable stature of the Yankees, the Cardinals would be baseball’s gold standard, perhaps second only to the Red Sox, who have also done an incredible job pulling forward their heritage as they commemorate 100 years at Fenway Park. Like the Yankees, the Cardinals have been able to consistently win in different eras with great managers, great players, and with great commentators in great ballparks. Because of this winning tradition, the Cardinals can successfully pull forward their heritage in a way that fosters brand loyalty and creates a rich fan experience.

And that brings us to the Washington Nationals. The team and its players are young, scrappy and, compared to the Cardinals, a start-up. The Nats’ history is history. When the team clinched a playoff berth, the local media and community celebrated the first playoff appearance since 1933 when the now-Minnesota Twins were the Washington Senators. The Nats are now looking to make and be a part of a history in hopes to set a new standard of excellence for the organization’s future.

The Takeaway: All of these teams are winning today and, by doing so, are creating a new chapter that illuminates the past, present and potential of their organization and brands. Whether you have a rich history like the Yankees or a respectable one like the Orioles, heritage can inspire confidence in the future when you’re winning today.

On the other end of that spectrum is Penn State football. This week’s news may be one step toward closure, but it will be a long time before Penn State can look back on its rich heritage again. I bring Penn State into this not with the intention to take a cheap shot, but because two things about this terribly sad story have direct relevance to heritage management, reputation and brand: First, how quickly an organization with so much tradition and heritage that is effectively used to sustain excellence can lose everything, and second, how Penn State removed Joe Paterno’s statue from its stadium— literally taking away the symbol of its history—because of the current pain its community is experiencing. From a heritage management perspective, that might not have been the right decision and message sent by Penn State’s leadership. Paterno’s statue was a symbol of the power and blind worship that helped perpetuate this tragedy. Perhaps it should have remained as a reminder to never repeat the same mistake.

Regardless, it will be some time before Penn State can effectively use its heritage in recruiting and branding efforts again. The impact of this tragedy and scandal will stain Penn State’s reputation for years, which creates a situation where Penn State must primarily look forward in its efforts and let the past – including its incredible heritage and legacy – remain firmly in the past for the foreseeable future.

Whether they’re winning or losing, sports teams are fascinating business case studies because their successes and failures are so transparent. Within that context, how they manage the opportunities and challenges that their history creates is just one of many reasons why it’s fun to watch the game of business while watching the game.

By Jason Dressel