Monday, November 05, 2007

John Russell is not a reason for mutiny

Now that Russell is official, let's take some time to talk about what his hiring means to the Pirates. First off, it's unfair to him to characterize him as "being fired by the organization" in the past. In most cases, coaches work more for the manager than they do for the organization itself. When McClendon was fired and Tracy, a guy who loved everything about his LA team, was hired, it was pretty much a death sentence for McClendon's staff, no matter how good they were at their jobs. Likewise, nearly all of Tracy's staff found jobs pretty quickly once Jim was let go here in Pittsburgh. Russell worked here as a third base coach for two years and when McClendon was let go, he got a gig managing a AAA team with a pretty decent organization. I wouldn't read any further into it than that.

I can imagine that a lot of people's thoughts today run along the lines of, "We looked for a month and we ended up with this guy?" The truth is, most managers are incredibly similar. They're going to bunt at inopportune times. Jim Leyland plays guys like Sean Casey and Neifi Perez. Terry Francona switches Manny Ramirez out for Coco Crisp in late innings when it could cost Manny an at-bat. Tony La Russa manages his bullpen like an 18 year-old nerd buzzed on Red Bull playing World of Warcraft. Clint Hurdle bats Willy Taveras lead-off most of the time. Joe Torre rides veterans until their tanks are bone dry, even with talented youngsters available, and he destroys bullpen arms. None of these things make logical sense, strictly from the point of trying to win baseball games. And that's because managers don't really win games for you, they do their best not to lose them and they do their best to keep their players playing hard and not killing each other. That's what guys like Francona, Torre, and Leyland excel at. In terms of in-game strategy, though, there's nothing a manager can do to set himself apart from the rest of the pack (in the right direction that is, there's always Ozzie Guillen and the like in the other direction).

Of all the candidates we looked at, I thought John Farrell was intriguing because he was from a different mold than your typical manager. He was a front office guy that worked as a minor-league director before becoming a pitching coach (a post that not many managers come from). But Cora, Jewett, Skinner, Jauss, and Russell? They're all going to give you the same "defense and fundamentals" line, they're all going to talk about "changing the culture" and things like that. It's just how it works with managers. Tracy and McClendon, for all their differences, talked pretty much the same game and it's the same one I'm sure Russell will be talking up as soon as someone puts a microphone in front of him.

There were aspects of the hiring process that bugged me, though that shouldn't be projected onto Russell. Huntington took a month to hire a guy he could've had immediately. The length of the process suggested to me that either, A.) he didn't know what he was doing or, B.) no one wanted the job. Neither is a particularly appealing option. When Littlefield was fired, there was lots of talk that Pittsburgh was a great job for a GM because of low expectations and the expected hands-off ownership of Bob Nutting. Perhaps the same doesn't ring true for the managerial position, since managers are often the scapegoats for losing and it would appear that the Pirates are going to be losing for a couple more years. Still, the way the hiring process was conducted suggests that we're either a baseball wasteland, we hired a GM that doesn't know what he's gotten himself into, or we hired a GM no one wants to work for. None of those options are appealing.

That being said, I don't have a huge problem with Russell himself being the next manager of the team. I could care less if the manager says, "This team has no plate discipline and if they don't learn how to take a walk, they're never going to win," because if the players haven't learned plate discipline by the time they're in Russell's charge, they're not going to learn it from him and whoever his hitting coach is. That's just the way it is. The actual rebuilding of the Pittsburgh Pirates falls directly on Neal Huntington and Frank Coonelly, not John Russell. Russell's job is pretty simple: don't be Jim Tracy. That means not letting the players walk all over him, that means trying to create some pride in the players for the on-field product, and that means not giving maddening self-interviewing press conferences that take me 20 minutes to parse any actual meaning from. Win/loss record next year for the Pirates is irrelevant. A new front office has been hired to clean up the mess that Dave Littlefield left and trying to jerry-rig the roster to win 82 games and not set the all-time losing streak would just be an extension of the Littlefield era. Russell is here to ensure that we lose with pride, Washington Nationals in 2007 style, and not with abject hopelessness, Detroit Tigers in 2003 style. I know that's not what people want to hear, but I think that's the way it's going to be.