Coonelly Bucking His Past to Improve Pirates’ Future

By Murray Chass

January 25, 2009

Frank Coonelly has been given a mandate to manufacture miracles. He was hired a year ago as the president of the Pittsburgh Pirates, a team that hasn’t had a winning season since 1992, and one does not seem to be coming in the foreseeable future.

The 48-year-old Coonelly is operating from a unique perspective. He didn’t come to the Pirates from a front office job with another team. His baseball experience came in the commissioner’s office as general counsel in the labor relations department. He negotiated collective bargaining agreements and guided clubs in their decisions on salaries they should pay players.

Having worked in that capacity, he would seem to have a militant stance on players’ salaries and the team’s payroll. But in discussing that aspect of a winning team, Coonelly offered a stunning view of his job.

“I’ve heard from some fans about their frustration over the lack of success on the field,” he said. “One of the things I felt I needed to do when I first came here — and there are some people I haven’t quite convinced yet — I had to dispel the notion that we can’t win because our league doesn’t have a salary cap. That’s hogwash. I couldn’t say that 10 years ago. But I have evidence that it’s hogwash.”

For Coonelly to have made such a statement when he worked in the commissioner’s office would have been heretical, not to say suicidal, because he would have been undermining the company line. Baseball was shut down for the last two months of the 1994 season and the World Series was canceled because of a labor fight over a payroll cap.

“Previous management trumpeted the fact that we need a salary cap for the Pirates to be successful,” Coonelly said. “I don’t believe that. The system can work in small and mid-market towns. We need to work harder, make good decisions. We can’t afford to make mistakes. We have to be most efficient in by building our ball club. I don’t use that as an excuse and I try to convince fans that we can do it.”

“Ten, 15 years ago, I may not have been able to say this. Our record in baseball at that time in having low-revenue clubs be successful was poor, but it is no longer true and we can’t use it as an excuse. As an architect of the system, I can’t blame the system for the problems here.”

And what, for him, is the difference between then and now? “I had a different boss and a different charge,” he said. “My charge here is clear.”

Which is why Coonelly is prepared to go against another part of the system he helped create. In an effort to curtail the large bonuses paid to draft choices, the commissioner’s office created a slotting system by which it would establish bonus levels based on the slots in which players were drafted. Coonelly had an integral role in setting the bonuses, and clubs were expected to adhere to the stipulated bonuses. However, clubs often ignore the slot recommendations so they can sign a draft choice, and now the Pirates have become one of those teams.

“There was some evidence that before we got in here some selections were made for safer picks who were easier signs and had easier representatives,” Coonelly said. “We came in here and said we would not do that. We’d be aggressive in the draft, take the best player available, and we did that with Pedro Alvarez last year. We paid guys well over slot. If we value a player over slot, we’ll pay over slot.”

Coonelly is confident the Pirates can change their direction because he has seen other low-revenue clubs, Minnesota and Oakland in recent years and Tampa Bay last year – become competitive. None has yet to win a World Series, but a team has to have a winning record before it can win a World Series.

“You can develop good players as Minnesota and Oakland have,” Coonelly said. “You have to make good decisions. And you better be prepared, as Minnesota has been, to have players like Torii Hunter and Johan Santana, leave. The draft is absolutely critical to our success. It may not be critical to some higher-revenue clubs, but we’re not in that market. We need to be successful in the draft and in Latin America and other markets.”

Toward that goal, the Pirates have stepped into the 21st Century, building an academy in the Dominican Republic, as other teams, such as the Mets and the Yankees, have done. In the 1950s and 60s, the Pirates had good scouting in Latin countries; the name Roberto Clemente comes to mind. But that is ancient history.

In Pittsburgh, Steelers’ Envy

The Pittsburgh Steelers will play in their seventh Super Bowl next Sunday and have a chance to win their sixth, which would be more than anyone else has won. The Dallas Cowboys and the San Francisco have also won five.

The Pittsburgh Pirates have won five World Series. Should the Steelers lose to Arizona, they will match the Pirates’ World Series record of 5-2.

The Pirates’ appearances in the World Series, however, have been spread out far more than the Steelers’ Super Bowl participation. The Pirates played in the first World Series in 1903, meaning they have played in seven World Series in 106 years, and haven’t played in it since 1979. The Steelers are playing in the Super Bowl for the seventh time in 35 years.

Only the Yankees, the Cardinals, the Red Sox, the Athletics, and the Dodgers (the last two in two cities) have won more World Series than the Pirates, but no team has had more consecutive losing seasons than the Pirates. When the Pirates finish the coming season with a losing record – and they surely will – they will leave the 1933-48 Philadelphia Phillies behind and stand alone with 17 successive losing seasons.

This is the disaster Frank Coonelly inherited a year ago when he was hired as the club president.

“We came into a situation where this team did not have enough good players;” Coonelly said. “We had to work very hard to secure more good players and players who we could develop and retain as long as we can.”

The Pirates haven’t recorded a winning record since 1992. There are teen-age fans in Pittsburgh who have not witnessed a Pirates team finish a season with more wins than losses, or even as many wins as losses.

“I think there are some fans who think about it all the time,” Sally O‘Leary said of the losing streak. O’Leary worked in the public relations department when the Pirates won the World Series in 1971 and ‘79 and now runs the team’s alumni association. “They just keep hoping that this year maybe is the one we can turn it around. There’s always a loyal group that has hope something better can happen. I’m like a lot of fans. I’m waiting for that.”

Building a good baseball team is more difficult than building a good football team because football teams have the advantage of watching players develop in college and selecting them only when they have matured through three or four years of intense college competition. Baseball teams draft players out of college more than they used to, but they still scout 16-year-old kids, especially in Latin America, and have to decide which ones will be potential major leaguers in five to eight years.

Because of their consistently low finishes the Pirates have had high draft picks, but they usually squandered their advantage by poor scouting and selecting or refusal to pay the going rate. With teams like the Pirates, good management is essential, but the Pirates have had poor management for many years.

The Steelers have been a model of consistency when it comes to good management. They have lost good players through free agency because they didn’t want to pay them, but they have replaced them and remained competitive. Coonelly does not begrudge them their success.

“We applaud the Steelers,” he said. “It is a testament to stability in ownership and stability in implementing a vision and a plan. We applaud it and rejoice with the rest of Pittsburgh in their success. We believe we’re implementing the same type of vision. Management of a sports team requires a vision and a plan and having the dedication to see that plan through. The Steelers are an example of what a team can do.”

The Steelers, he added, have made the “tough decisions that are consistent with building winning teams. Some of the decisions they made were not popular, but they were carrying out a consistent plan.”

Some, if not many, people in Pittsburgh are skeptical about Coonelly’s ability to back his words with substance. He came to the Pirates with no front office experience, and he hired a general manager, Neil Huntington, who basically had no front office experience.

“Some people in the front office don’t feel he’s a baseball front office man,” said a person close to the Pirates. “He hasn’t had that experience. They’ve hired 18 ticket salesmen working on commission only. They’re spending a lot of money for office space. A lot of current front office people feel that money could have been better spent on players.”

Selling tickets, though, is important for the Pirates. They have had the smallest or next-to-the-smallest attendance in the National League each of the last five years.

The person close to the Pirates said people are also skeptical about Bob Nutting, the Pirates’ board chairman. “A lot of people think the Nuttings aren’t interested in having a winning team as long as they’re making money,” the person said. “They’re not convinced they’re a good baseball family.”

But Nutting obviously has authorized at least some spending. And how does Nutting expect to make money if the team isn’t good enough to draw people to PNC Park?

Not everyone is skeptical. Sam Reich is a Pittsburgh attorney and a long-time Pirates fan. He also knows Coonelly from having argued salary arbitration cases against him when Coonelly was in the commissioner’s office.

“I believe they have a chance to be successful,” Reich said, referring to Coonelly and Huntington. “I know Frank Coonelly. I’ve had some personal dealings with him. He has intelligence. I think he can do a great job.”

Coonelly will be doing that job while the Steelers are preparing for and playing in the Super Bowl. “I went to the home playoff games,” he said, “but I have Pirate work to do here instead of going to Tampa and enjoying myself.”

Bring Me the Arm of Freddy Garcia

Freddy Garcia, a 33-year-old pitcher looking to revive his career, had the option of choosing to play for the Yankees or the Mets. Both teams offered him a minor league contract with a chance to make the major league pitching staff, possibly as a starter.

Until he developed shoulder problems in 2007, Garcia, a Venezuelan, pitched impressively, compiling a 116-71 record for a .620 inning percentage. In four of his eight seasons, he won 16 or more games. In three seasons with the Chicago White Sox he had a 40-21 record and pitched seven shutout innings in winning the final game of the World Series.

However, his workload – more than 200 innings in seven of eight seasons — apparently caught up to him, and he started only 14 games the past two seasons. He had shoulder surgery in 2007.

But his past was good enough for him to attract interest, and the Mets and the Yankees liked him. How to decide which team he should sign with?

Garcia asked his former White Sox manager and fellow Venezuelan, Ozzie Guillen. Mets, Guillen said, so Garcia signed with the Mets and is ready to work to claim one of the vacancies the Mets have in their starting rotation.

Choose Your Position Wisely, Children

Do infielders live longer than outfielders, pitchers and catchers?

No such study has been made, but Billy Werber (at left), an infielder, was the oldest former major leaguer when he died recently at the age of 100, and the new oldest living former major leaguer was an infielder, as was the second oldest living former major leaguer.

Tony Malinosky, 99 years old, was an infielder with the Brooklyn Dodgers but played in only 35 games in 1937. Lonny Frey, 98, played much more. He played for 11 seasons, 1933 through 1943, mostly with the Cincinnati Reds, then returned after World War II and played for three more seasons, 1946 through 1948, finishing his career with the New York Giants as a .269 hitter.

The Hall of Fane provided the oldest-player information but acknowledged it came from a Web site, WhosAliveandWhosDead.com.

The Ricketts Cash in on the Cubs

If you’re old enough, you might remember Dick and Dave Ricketts, brothers who played basketball at Duquesne University in the 1950s and later baseball for the St. Louis Cardinals.

Neither had much of a career. Dick spent one season with the Cardinals, 1959, compiling a 1-6 record with a 5.82 earned run average in 9 starts and 3 relief appearances. Dave, a catcher, batted .249 in 130 games spread over 6 seasons. They are the only Ricketts who appear in baseball encyclopedias.

Now, though, a whole family of Ricketts is poised to enter Major League Baseball, father J. Joseph and sons Thomas and J. Peter Ricketts. If they get past bankruptcy court in Chicago and owners in M.L.B., they will be the new owners of the Cubs, the team that has wandered in the wasteland of non-World Series winners for 100 years.

The Ricketts family founded Ameritrade Holding Corporation and has flirted in recent years with the Forbes 400 list of wealthiest Americans. They fell short of last year’s list, having to settle for mention in the magazine on a list of billionaires who didn’t make the cut.

According to a baseball official, they have offered $830 million and are prepared to pay a large portion, perhaps as much as half, in cash, more than the other bidders offered. It’s the cash that will appeal to creditors of Tribune Company, which is in bankruptcy, and give the Ricketts family a strong shot at winning approval.

The prospective owner has to gain approval from the creditors’ committee and from M.L.B., which apparently has no problem accepting the Ricketts group as the Cubs’ owner.

The man from whom the Ricketts are buying the Cubs, Sam Zell, is the wealthiest baseball owner among the Forbes 400, ranking in a tie for 68th with a worth valued at $5 billion. Carl Pohlad, the next wealthiest baseball owner at $3.6 billion, died recently so that and Zell’s departure from baseball leaves Ted Lerner of Washington as No. 1 at $3.5 billion, which only ties him for 105th on the list.

Other baseball owners on the list of 400 are John Malone, Atlanta, tied for 190th at $2.3 billion; Drayton McLane Jr., Houston, tied for 301st at $1.6 billion; Tom Hicks, Texas, tied for 355th at $1.4 billion, and George Steinbrenner, Yankees, tied for 377th at $1.3 billion.

Peter Angelos of Baltimore, John Moores of San Diego, John Henry of Boston and Arte Moreno of Anaheim join the Ricketts family on the list of also-ran billionaires.

Kent: Jeff, not Clark

When Jeff Kent announced his retirement last week, everyone seemed to ask the question at once: Should he be elected to the Hall of Fame?

Because everyone else was asking the question of people who have no say on the matter, I asked three writer friends who do have a say because they will vote on Kent five years from now. I also asked if he was a first-ballot Hall of Famer.

Writer No. 1: He’s in the conversation for any year – first to 15th.

Writer No. 2: This was brought up to me a while back but all I could think of was whether I considered him a Hall of Famer when I was watching him and the truth is I never did. Now that may not be a fair assessment and it’s one I will eventually have to think about because I was a supporter of Ryne Sandberg for the Hall and Kent will have better stats.

So my honest answer to your two questions: No, he’s not a first ballot guy, and to the second question, probably he gets in, but I’m not yet sure.

Writer No. 3: I guess he’s worth considering because he’s a second baseman with good offensive numbers. I think middle infielders and catchers who are good at their positions and have impressive offensive numbers should be considered as much or more than corner infielders/outfielders who have somewhat better offensive numbers.

Saying “Jeff Kent” doesn’t make me think of Hall of Fame player, and I doubt he would get in his first year, based on the voting pattern. But he might get in eventually.

My answer? I’ll let you know in five years when he becomes eligible after his required waiting period. I always wait until then to think about candidates. It helps with perspective and removes all of the emotion, if any, from a decision.

 

 

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