BRADENTON, Fla. -- Ah, spring. Time for the Pittsburgh Pirates to rev up for another season.
Which, you know, means they can practice overthrowing first base, missing the strike zone, failing to move runners over and maybe even devote time to tossing rainbows over a few cutoff men.
|Rookie manager John Russell made his bones in the Twins and Phillies organizations. (AP)|
Fifteen years and counting.
Fifteen years, and this spring, bruised and battered, the Pirates crawl onto history's doorstep: They finish below .500 in 2008, they tie the major-league record of 16 consecutive sub-.500 finishes. The Philadelphia Phillies did it from 1933 to 1948.
"I'm getting sick of being a part of it," pitcher Zach Duke said. "Each one of us wants to be remembered as being the ones associated with stopping the streak."
What started as a weed in 1993 (75-87) became severe overgrowth by 2001 (62-100) and now, after 15 years (287 cumulative games below .500), threatens to choke off everything in its path.
From the chair where Chuck Tanner maneuvered the Pirates to their fifth -- and last -- World Series title in 1979, the Pittsburgh manager's job has become a dead end that has driven away the tired (Jim Leyland), the poor (Gene Lamont), the perplexed (Lloyd McClendon) and the nostalgic (Jim Tracy).
The place is a virtual desert in which general managers place their faith in one mirage (Derek Bell, Pat Meares and Kevin Young for then-GM Cam Bonifay) after another (busted top draft choices like Bryan Bullington for David Littlefield).
Yet, yo ho ho, people keep lining up to take a crack at repairing this franchise.
And currently, by "people", I mean a new president (Frank Coonelly), a new general manager (Neal Huntington) and a new field manager (John Russell).
"This one felt right to me," said Coonelly, who, after serving as senior vice-president and general counsel of labor in the commissioner's office, could have easily waited for a more attractive job to open. "While there certainly are challenges facing the organization, it has a terrific history.
"This is the 122nd year of playing baseball in Pittsburgh. While some in the press like to focus on the past 15, most of those 122 years, the Pirates played some pretty good National League baseball.
"I'd like to return the pride and passion here."
Coonelly has at least two key things going for him: He is not Kevin McClatchy, the overmatched former club president he is succeeding. And he is as sharp as his haircut, with a good working knowledge of the issues unique to Pittsburgh. In his previous job in the commissioner's office, among other things, he provided contract and economic advice and counsel to the 30 clubs, working with GMs and baseball operations personnel on everything from contracts to player relations matters.
"It's different," outfielder Jason Bay said. "I keep saying different is good."
"I really like the new management's way of going about things," Mazeroski said. "The way they talk, it looks like there's a light at the end of the tunnel."
Except that's what everyone in the clubhouse said when Tracy left the Los Angeles Dodgers and became manager here before the 2006 season. And when Littlefield replaced the reviled Bonifay in 2001. And when. ...
New faces always sound good. There has been more new talk in Pittsburgh over the past 15 years than all the Oprah, Letterman and Dr. Phil shows combined, and all it has brought is six seasons of 93 or more losses and dwindling attendance.
So what is it about these particular new ideas?
"I don't know," Mazeroski admitted. "Somehow, I get the feeling that these guys have done it before with different organizations and it's going to work here.
"I don't know. You can't pinpoint it."
You never can in Pittsburgh.
Other clubs report to spring training packing hope and optimism.
The Pirates are packing treasures from their past -- spring instructors Mazeroski, Manny Sanguillen, Bill Virdon and Kent Tekulve -- as proof that this organization once was more than sunken treasure.
"We're starting to go back to the basics," said Sanguillen, who has spent much of his spring tutoring catchers Ryan Doumit and Ronny Paulino. "Vocal communication. Motivation. Try to bring passion back to the game, and belief. Make them believe we're going to win."
Trick is, don't tell 'em when.
To his credit, Coonelly has recognized that there are no quick fixes. To that end, most of the heavy lifting he has done has been inside the organization. There is a new director of scouting (Greg Smith, who spent the past 11 seasons with the Tigers) and a new farm director (Kyle Stark, who spent the past four seasons working in Cleveland's baseball operations department).
This is a franchise that hasn't developed an impact hitter since third baseman Aramis Ramirez in the late 1990s (he's now with the Cubs). The farm system is so fallow that Baseball America ranks it 26th among the 30 major-league clubs in 2008.
"Particularly in Pittsburgh, the way to build a successful organization is to build a strong foundation from within," Coonelly said. "Even clubs that have more resources than us can't build their club just through free agency anymore."
As for the major league roster, though new GM Huntington dangled outfielders Bay and Xavier Nady in trade talks over the winter, the Pirates wound up making only minor changes to a group that lost 94 games last season. Utility infielder Chris Gomez and reliever Byung-Hyun Kim are the only additions of note (obviously, a very short note).
Yet from the top down, the Pirates are insistent they can compete in the NL Central in 2008.
"It's not blind optimism," Coonelly said. "It begins with the fact that I think we have one of the best young rotations in baseball. Ian Snell. Paul Maholm, I think, is ready to break out. We like what we see from Zach Duke and think he can return to what he was in 2005 (8-2, 1.81 ERA in 14 starts). Together with Matt Morris, we think we have strong starting pitching."
Coonelly points to the fact that the Pirates are strong up the middle with second baseman Freddy Sanchez (who recently signed a two-year deal through 2009), shortstop Jack Wilson and center fielders Nate McLouth and Nyjer Morgan.
Beaten down by the past 15 seasons, the Pirates' faithful is leery, apparently more than happy to wait and see (heavy emphasis on the "wait" part of that). Season ticket renewals were running below the industry average 80 percent retention rate earlier this spring.
"I always enjoyed those people," Virdon, who managed the Pirates to an NL East title in 1972, said of all of those who walked the plank over the past 15 years when their visions failed. "It didn't work. That happens.
"It doesn't mean there's someone to blame. That's just the way baseball is. Someone's going to lose."
Usually, it's the Pirates.
But there was a time when it wasn't and, to hearken back to then, the new guys asked former Pirates pitcher and current radio analyst Steve Blass to speak to the team on the first day of full squad workouts.
By all accounts it was a smash, with Blass passionately describing the days when the Pirates won and emotionally discussing the sudden control problems that led to his premature retirement in 1974.
"It was great," Duke said. "Steve is a guy who knows how precious these days in the big leagues are. I didn't know he finished second in the Cy Young voting the year before his career was suddenly taken away."
There's a lot of baseball things in Pittsburgh that once were, things these current Pirates have no idea about, things you wonder whether they will ever be seen again on the banks of the Allegheny River.
Were Hall of Famers Roberto Clemente and Willie Stargell to show up today and take a look around, what the heck would they say?
"I don't know," says Mazeroski, who played with both during his career. "But they wouldn't be too happy."