Pittsburgh Pirates fans, of whom I was one in my youth, didn’t know how to react. After suffering through 19 consecutive losing seasons, the fans were in ecstasy early in August last season. But they wound up in agony and disbelief.
That the Pirates wound up with their 20th consecutive losing season the fans could believe because they had become inured to losing. The disbelief arose from the revelation that the Pirates were engaged in a program of bizarre conditioning of their young minor league players.
The club had retained an outfit of former Navy SEALs to work with the players and put them through mental and physical routines that stunned the baseball world – players running along a Florida beach toting small telephone poles, having sand thrown on them, being sprayed with a hose.
Disclosure of the Pirates’ unusual, to say the least, activities left members of other organizations shaking their heads in bewilderment and wondering how crazy professional baseball men could get.
This is just the start of spring training so the Pirates don’t know how their major league team will do on the field, but they already know what their young players will be doing off the field.
“What we’re doing is helping our minor league players become mentally stronger, helping them block out distractions,” General Manager Neal Huntington said in a telephone interview Friday. “The former SEALs were brought in with elements we can continue to give players as individuals and as a group.
“The SEALs can impact a young group. They were one of the groups we’ve drawn upon to supplement our baseball. The impact they had was a positive one. We felt good about the impact they had. They were one of the external groups we brought in. We’ve had experts from a bunch of different fields outside the organization. Some have impacted some players.”
Huntington emphasized the mental impact on the players, ignoring the telephone poles, water spray and sand.
Manager Clint Hurdle echoed the thoughts on the mental impact. “We have done nothing,” he said, “other than introduce elite training, mental training, going to elite forces, the SEALs being one of them, to improve the players mentally.”
A person familiar with the thinking of the team’s chairman, Bob Nutting, said, “The reason they’re stressing the mental part is because Nutting instructed them to because he didn’t want them to do the physical things.”
“Nutting,” the person added, “wants nothing to do with that other stuff. He says ‘we’re not running a boot camp; we’re a baseball team.’”
Fans in Pittsburgh are skeptical about that claim. After six years as the principal owner, Nutting might be tempted to join the skeptics, though he didn’t return telephone calls to express his view.
A 50-year-old West Virginian, Nutting was said not to be happy last year to learn of the SEALs’ use of telephone poles, but he was even less thrilled when the Pirates squandered four months of uncharacteristic success and experienced their second consecutive collapse. The 2012 collapse was worse than the one in 2011.
Shedding their 19-year history of constant losing, the Pirates last season held a one-game lead in the National League Central at the All-Star break with a won-loss record that had 11 more wins than losses. A month later they were 2 ½ games behind Cincinnati but with a record 16 games over .500 (63-47).
If the division title or a wild-card spot in the playoffs was not to be the Pirates’ – they led for the second wild card Aug. 21 – a winning record and the end of the streak was certainly theirs, right? Well, no. The Pirates lost 27 of their last 39 games (36 of their last 52) and staggered to the finish, where a 79-83 record became No. 20, an unparalleled achievement in professional sports.
This spring Hurdle is faced with instilling in his players a positive state of mind, one that will prevent them, if they establish a winning record, from asking themselves when will it happen this year.
“My strategy is to do what I’ve learned from some very good baseball people,” Hurdle said. “You face it straight on. What lessons have you learned, what were you doing well and not well and what you felt when it happened? Look it right in the eye. That’s the best way. Life lessons are learned. When you have the right people, they learn from it.”
“Last year’s gone,” the manager added. “The future is ahead of us.”
Hurdle said he would be pleased to get to the point of the season where the Pirates have encountered self-imposed roadblocks the past two seasons and take his chances.
“We want to get to the part of the season where we’re having success,” he said. “There are four basic staples:
“Getting better every day will sustain success.
“We’ve got to learn to control the grind of the season, not let the grind control us.
“Third, we have to set our focus. We’re playing for something bigger than the individuals. We have to stay purposeful. Everybody has a job to do; everyone has to do his job.
“Those are the three main lessons we’ve talked about. The fourth is continuing to play the game. We’ve got to find a way to embrace the hard times. We have to play better baseball.”
General manager Huntington said he didn’t see any single reason for the late-season letdown.
“We’ve looked throughout and evaluated it,” he said. “There’s no single cause. We stopped playing to win and started playing not to lose. We’ve worked on everybody getting tougher mentally.”
He said he didn’t see the late-season letdown having a carryover effect this year.
“We don’t think so,” he said. “We’ve worked hard to improve our talent pool. We’ve worked hard mentally and physically. We’ve taken a multi-pronged approach.” There are the players like catcher Russell Martin who have been added, and “some of our young players got a taste last year and will get more of a taste this year.”
Martin, who caught for the Yankees the past two years, signed with the Pirates as a free agent, enticed by a two-year, $17 million contract. He earned the same amount from the Yankees, who were not interested in giving Martin a multi-year contract.
The contract the Pirates offered was not their typical expenditure, but Huntington explained, “We felt the catching spot was a chance to impact most positively. Rod Barajas did some nice things last year, but we felt Martin’s going to take it to a different level. We felt he was the best free agent catcher available and he gave us the biggest chance to improve.”
Another pitcher, Jason Grilli, re-signed with the Pirates for two years and $6.25 million and will be the closer, replacing Joel Hanrahan, whom the Pirates traded to Boston for second baseman Ivan DeJesus Jr. and reliever Mark Melancon.
In addition, the Pirates signed Francisco Liriano, a once promising pitcher with Minnesota, who is recovering from an injury to his non-throwing arm.
The Pirates incurred another injury, one they don’t like to talk about because Gregory Polanco, a highly regarded minor league outfielder, reinjured an ankle running a SEALs drill in which, according to Dejan Kovacevic of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, he sprinted across the outfield, ran through an above-ground pool of ice water and leaped into a sand pit or had sand thrown on him. Baseball at its best.
Kovacevic wrote three columns in all in revealing the Pirates’ adoption of militaristic drills, believed to be the first of their kind used in baseball. Reading Kovacevic’s accounts reminded me of the reaction of Lou Piniella and Bobby Murcer to the change in the New York Yankees’ spring camp when Bill Virdon replaced Ralph Houk as manager in 1974.
Houk’s camps were always easy, the players usually working at their own pace. The pace adopted by Piniella and Murcer was not the most rigorous. Virdon required the Yankees to work at his pace, and Piniella and Murcer resented the change and complained about it bitterly.
Virdon, however, did not require the Yankees to do what the Pirates have had their young players do.
Kyle Stark, the Pirates’ assistant general manager, designed the conditioning program for the team’s young minor leaguers and informed minor league personnel about it in an e-mail that Kovacevic obtained and published.
Dated June 28, 2012, the e-mail quoted Mac Wilkins, the 1976 Olympics discus champion:
“Mac explained that gold medal winners live by three golden rules – Dream and be creative like a Hippie. Have the discipline and perseverance of a Boy Scout. Be crazy and take risks like the Hells Angels.” …
Stark went on to expand on each of the three points and concluded his message with an Indian (Native American) battle cry: “HOKA HEY – It’s a good day to die!!!”
Said one definition I found: “It is likely that Crazy Horse would have shouted this in battle…One would yell ‘Hoka hey’ when charging at an enemy.”
From the time in September 2007 that the Pirates’ braintrust was formed – Frank Coonelly, president, and Huntington, general manager – I have found it strange. Coonelly had been a labor lawyer in the commissioner’s office and had never had a front office job. Huntington had basically been a scout with no appreciable front office experience.
But they were assigned the task of making a winning team out of a team that had earned 15 consecutive losing seasons. When asked about all of those losing seasons, Coonelly would say they weren’t his; he just got there. The streak is now 20 years, and one-quarter of them belong to Coonelly.
But better times may be ahead. The Pirates reportedly will get a makeover (in looks, not necessarily play) for the 2014 season. The team is said to be using focus groups to help decide a new logo. “Losers” in black on gold, or vice versa, would probably not be a good idea.
MATCH MADE IN NORTHWEST HEAVEN
Good for Felix Hernandez and good for the Seattle Mariners. He got to stay where he wanted to be, and he got his money, too.
Too often players are lured by money and sign with teams, which they don’t really want to play for, or in cities where they don’t really want to play, and they wind up regretting their decision.
Hernandez, whom I consider the best pitcher in baseball – without consulting any statistics, traditional or new-age, made it clear to the Mariners that he wanted to stay in Seattle – it doesn’t rain all of the time – and was able to work out a fair deal with the Mariners, who didn’t use his desire against him.
Seven years for a total of $175 million averages $25 million a year, the highest for any pitcher in history. However, the right-hander, who will turn 27 a week into the season, will actually average more.
He had two years left on his previous contract for a total of $40.5 million, and the new contract gives him an additional 5 years and will pay him an additional $134.5 million. That averages $26.9 million a year.
Using the same computation for the 10-year contract Alex Rodriguez signed with the New York Yankees in 2007, his additional money over his original 10-year contract with Texas in 2000 totals $194 million for 7 years, an average 27,714,285 in added dollars.