PIRATES SUPPORTED IN PECULIAR PLACES

By Murray Chass

September 20, 2009

When Joaquin Andujar, a two-time 20-game winner, pitched for St. Louis in the 1980s, he was notorious for a certain answer he gave when reporters asked him what he thought of a particular situation. He said: “Baseball can be summed up in one word – you never know.”

Andujar’s word count might have been off, but his view was right on target. You never do know.

I invoke the words of Joaquin to describe the stunning response to the column I wrote about the Pittsburgh Pirates last week. I was critical of the Pirates for trading away their established players in the name of rebuilding with young players and leaving their 2009 team a woefully poor representative of a major league team.

I don’t know if Frank Coonelly, the Pirates’ president, has commissioned any polls to determine how Pirates fans feel about his short-term and long-term plans, but he doesn’t have to. I apparently have done it for him.

In a record response for this Web site, 50 percent of the respondents agreed with my view of the Pirates; 50 percent disagreed. Really. No fooling. It was 50-50. But I consider that a win for the Pirates because whoever would have thought half of the people who read and reacted to the column would think the Pirates were doing the right thing?

A friend of mine, whose e-mail actually deadlocked the count, was flabbergasted when I told him the results.

“Did you hear from people from Pittsburgh?” he asked. I did, I replied, and many of them disagreed with me. He just shook his head in disbelief.

I don’t mind disclosing these numbers even if they show that half of the respondents didn’t accept my view. I have always welcomed disagreement with my columns. It wouldn’t be any fun if everyone always agreed with what I wrote. Some critics might even make points that I might not have thought of. In addition, if I am critical of someone and news to the contrary develops, it’s only fair to report it.

This news I find mind-boggling. The Pirates’ management has either brainwashed their fans or have struck a chord with their stated approach and their pursuit of that approach.

Initially I suspected that the views were divided by age. Older fans, I thought, tended to be more critical of the Pirates.

“I have been a Pirate fan since 1960,” one reader wrote, “and it pains me to see what happened to this team.  Next year I won’t renew my Extra Innings package with Direct TV and won’t buy anything or go to any games of the team in the future.”

“With me,” he added, “it boils down to trust and money with the team. I don’t trust the front office and I believe its all about Nutting wanting to pocket the money. So sad to see this team fall the way they did and yet many fans are brainwashed by Nutting and co.”

But then came this e-mail: “I am a long time fan, having attended my first game at Forbes Field in 1957. I’ve been to hundreds of games over the years. The only statement of yours I completely agree with is that PNC Park is the best.”

The aforementioned Nutting is Bob Nutting, the Pirates’ principal owner, who was the target of the most severe criticism of the e-mail response. He has been the principal owner since January 2007 but has been chairman of the board since 2003, and many readers blamed him for the futility of the last five years or so.

“I’m a fan since 1956,” another reader wrote, “and am disgusted with this ownership, which has been involved for more than the past year and a half, often cited as their term of ownership.  Both Bob Nutting Jr. (at left) and his dad, Ogden, have, I believe, been making moves behind the scene, for four or five years, at least.”

Nutting and his predecessor, Kevin McClatchy, have presided over the majority of the Pirates’ losing streak that is unparalleled in baseball history. Neither authorized the spending of significant amounts of money for major league players, even their own (Aramis Ramirez, for example) preferring instead to have their general managers trade players who had advanced far enough to merit large contracts.

I noted in last week’s column how the Pirates had received approximately $40 million in revenue sharing for 2008 and would most likely receive a similar amount for this year but are finishing the season with a player payroll of about $20 million.

Many Pirates supporters pointed out other ways they have spent their money, which I didn’t mention, primarily the uncharacteristically high bonuses they have paid draft choices the past two years and their construction of a baseball academy in the Dominican Republic, where they will mine for young talent.

Whereas I criticized the Pirates for shedding their established players and even a relative newcomer, Nyjer Morgan, their supporters noted that they didn’t win with the players they got rid of and none was heading for the Hall of Fame and that Morgan was a 29-old-old rookie and that Lastings Milledge, the 24-year-old player they got for him, has a higher upside.

Where Milledge is concerned, those fans are counting on a maturity that neither the Mets nor the Nationals saw in the young outfielder. Those teams traded Milledge because of his lack of maturity. Some players never mature. The Pirates can only hope that Milledge is not one of them.

Another point made by my critics was that I wasn’t being fair to Coonelly and his general manager, Neil Huntington. They have been in their jobs for only two years, the critics wrote, can’t be blamed for what went before and have to be given a chance to make improvements.

I agree that they deserve a chance, but the problem is they came in sounding like their predecessors, and their predecessors failed.

There’s one element in the Pirates’ tale that the critics ignored. What will happen when the young players the Pirates plan to develop have played for them for three or four years? Will the Pirates pay them salaries commensurate with their talent, or will they trade them to avoid paying big salaries?

The Pirates have made no commitments for the future. They have not assured their fans if they hang in there, they will be rewarded. That promise might be implied, but the Pirates’ hierarchy should sign a pledge to that effect. Otherwise why should the fans believe in the ultimate step of the grand design?

Given the support and loyalty demonstrated by fans in response to the column here, that’s the least the Pirates’ hierarchy can do. If, for example, Milledge matures and develops into the player everyone once thought he would be, let Nutting and Coonelly and Huntington guarantee that they will sign him to a long-term contract so that he can be the linchpin of the next Pirates’ championship.

One side note to the column. A college classmate responded to it and added a note, saying, “I still tell people about how I got to see the 1960 world series through your thoughtfulness.”

I got him a ticket, all right, but he never paid me for it.

 

HAMPTON BACK IN A FAMILIAR PLACE

I remain convinced that Mike Hampton is a victim of his own fib. You’ve heard of the Curse of the Bambino; this is the curse of the Hamp.

Hampton, who turned 37 years old on 9/9/09, had rotator cuff surgery last week, finishing him for the rest of this season and all of next, the Houston Astros said. It is yet another setback in a career filled with setbacks.

In what will be a 17 ½-year career through next season totaling 3,184 days, Hampton will have spent 905 days on the disabled list. That total computes to 28 percent of his time under contract.

However, there’s an even starker figure. Most of his injuries – to forearm, elbow, back, flexor tendon, pectoral muscle, groin, shoulder – have occurred since the start of the 2005 season. Again through next season, a total of six years, Hampton will have been on the disabled list 864 of 1,098 days, or 79 percent of the time.

So why do I say Hampton has done this to himself? When he was a free agent after the 2000 season, he left the New York Mets and went to Colorado for a much better offer, signing for eight years and $121 million.

When he was asked why he took the Rockies’ offer, Hampton did not say it was the money, which it obviously was. Instead he said it was the schools in the Denver area that convinced him to go west. He has lived with that answer ever since – and with his endless string of injuries.

 

MORE RACE DROPOUTS THAN RACES

Some seasons go down to the last two weeks with a bunch of playoff races, division and wild-card. This isn’t one of them. Most of the races that appeared to be possible at late-season stages flamed out.

The Rangers were in two races, with the Angels in the American League West and with the Red Sox for the A.L. wild card. The Rangers were 3 ½ games behind the Angels Sept. 4 with 28 games to play, including 7 with the Angels. But the Rangers lost 9 of 14 games through Sunday, including 2 of the first 3 with the Angels.

Around the same time the Rangers were 2 games behind the Red Sox but then lost 8 of the next 13. That poor stretch dumped the Rangers 7 ½ games behind the Angels and 8 back of Boston.

On Aug. 21 the White Sox were only 2 ½ games behind the Tigers, but then they lost 16 of 26 games and fell 6 ½ back, not mathematically eliminated but realistically out of it. The Twins were still in the A.L. Central race, 3 games behind Detroit, but would have been in far better shape had they swept their weekend series with the Tigers instead of winning two of three.

The Rockies recently closed to two games behind the dwindling Dodgers in the National League West but lost 5 of 8 games and slipped 5 games back. However, the Rockies still held a 4 ½-game wild-card lead over the Giants.

Then there are the Cubs. Going way back to Aug. 4, the Cubs had a lead of 2 percentage points over the Cardinals in the N.L. Central. Since then, though, the Cubs staggered to an 19-24 records while the Cardinals erupted with a 28-13 record. That’s a difference of 10 games in the standings and more than enough to demolish a race.

 

SOME LOSSES WORSE THAN OTHERS

Lou Piniella, their manager, seems to be taking the Cubs’ disappointing season better than he was able to handle the team’s rapid elimination from the playoffs last year when the Cubs scored a total of six runs in their sweep by the Dodgers in the division series.

“I felt like someone had clubbed me with a club,” Piniella said of the playoff loss. “For about two weeks I was in hibernation. I couldn’t get over it. I didn’t want to talk to anybody or do anything. Then slowly I was able to.”

Piniella won’t have that problem this year.

Comments? Please send email to comments@murraychass.com.