Two roads diverge in a ballpark

You know, I thought that I might make it the whole life of this blog without naming a post that sounds like a bad graduation speech. Anyways, I almost made it four years. I guess that’s not bad.

This morning, DK posted a letter on the PBC blog from a season ticket holder to the Pirates, informing the club that he would be cancelling his tickets. You can read the letter for yourself, but the guy basically says, “I’m sick of this crap and I’m sick of waiting. Have a nice life.” DK goes on to note that while there are some people (like me) that aren’t concerned with the outcome of the 2009 season if the new front office continues to move the team in the right direction on the minor league front, there is a vast majority of Pirate fans that’s just plain sick of waiting and every year that passes, more and more fans bleed from the fanbase.

Before I go much further, I want to note that I’m not criticizing Andy (the fan that wrote Dejan), nor am I criticizing anyone that cancels their tickets. The Pirates suck. They’ve tortured us fans again and again and again over the past sixteen years and while I think that things seem to be moving in the right direction under Huntington and while I’ll argue the value of a good draft vs. the value of trade returns or free agent signings and which of those things are truly more important to the Pirates until I turn blue, I get it that people are jumping ship and I’m not judging them, even if I don’t think they’re giving the front office enough of a chance.

In writing the Road to 17, I’ve spent more time wallowing in the Pirates’ recent past than any sane person should. Probably the most interesting part of it, for me, is really looking at the teams from the first three quarters of this streak and really examining them, the players they had, and the choices that lead the team to the point they’re at right now. Doing that has made one thing incredibly clear: both Cam Bonifay and Dave Littlefield ultimately failed because they tried to straddle the line between rebuilding and respectability at the same time.

Bonifay had put together a legitimately interesting base after the 1996 fire sale, but rather than sticking with what he’d built he caved when the public pressure mounted to put the ’97 immediately over the top. Instead of sticking with the initial (and now much maligned) “Five Year Plan,” he gave bad contracts to worthless veterans and dealt Jose Guillen for catchers after Jason Kendall’s injury, even though Guillen was a young, high-upside player and the Pirates weren’t going to contend in 1999 either way. This plan bottomed out in 2001 and lead to his firing and the hiring of Dave Littlefield. Littlefield seemed constantly concerned with not being as awful as the club was in 2001 and he pursued that goal with as much fervor as anything, often leaving the actual rebuilding process as young players were routinely blocked by mediocre veterans who helped ensure that a Littlefield team never lost more than 95 games, but also ensured they never won more than 75.

The reality is that the past two GMs here failed not because they were terrible talent evaluators (Bonifay was a good scout before becoming the Pirates’ GM and is still a scout in the league for the Reds and I’ll still argue that Littlefield was actually incredibly good at what his primary goal was, which was staying employed), they failed because they misplaced their priorities. Instead of focusing on what they thought the Pittsburgh Pirates needed to do to get better, they both fixated on what they thought other people wanted to see from the Pirates, be that the fan base, the ownership, or whoever else.

In the end, the only thing that’s going to bring fans back to the park is consistent winning. A one-year run at .500 might generate interest, but if it’s not sustained then it won’t truly change anything. That means that if Huntington and Coonelly think what they’re doing (building through the draft, strengthening international scouting, and trying to pick a few players up in trades for the table scraps that Littlefield left them) is the best way to fix the Pirates, then they have to keep doing it, no matter how many people show up at PNC in 2009. This is not an easy thing to do. The public, who loves Jason Bay far more now than they ever did when he was a Pirate, will be screaming bloody murder if the offense has another month like last August when 2009 opens. Bob Nutting will likely be none too pleased if he starts hemhorraging money when the fans disappear. Pot-shots like this one from the media will only increase, especially if the Steelers, Pitt basketball, or the Penguins win a championship.

The biggest key for the Pirates this year is that Huntington and Coonelly stay the course. I take a lot of crap for being too easy on the new front office and I think I probably am. There’s a reason for that: I think it’s clear that they have a vision. Maybe they’re signing guys like Chris Gomez and Ramon Vazquez, but the way they’ve approached the draft, Latin America, and yes, even the trade market seems to be much improved over the previous two regimes and everything seems to be done with a clear goal in mind. I think that’s the most important thing for a front office in the position the Pirates are in right now. Prior to Huntington and Coonelly, there was no vision. I think this joke has been made 100 times before, but it’s true and I’ll use it again; Littlefield plan for the team was the baseball version of the plan the Underpants Gnomes used on South Park to make money.

  1. Collect baseball players the fans will recognize.
  2. ???
  3. Win.

After that, any sort of vision would’ve nice. In the next year or two, Huntington and Coonelly’s plan and how they alter it in response to adversity will begin to really bear itself out and we’ll be able to judge what they’re doing a little more completely. For now, though, the most important thing is that they don’t compromise it and that the ownership doesn’t put any pressure on them to compromise it. If Bonifay and Littlefield have taught us anything, it’s that you can’t rebuild and try to contend at the same time. It sucks that fans are bailing, but what those fans want to see in 2009 just isn’t part of the front office’s vision. It sounds harsh, but the front office can’t change what they’re doing just to make fans happy right NOW. The MLB is not the NFL. The process takes longer and it’s harder and that’s just how it works right now.  The ultimate job of these guys is to build a winning baseball team and if they do that right, it’ll eventually make all of the fans much happier than if we’d signed Pat Burrell this week.

Pat Lackey

About Pat Lackey

In 2005, I started a WHYGAVS instead of working on organic chemistry homework. Many years later, I've written about baseball and the Pirates for a number of sites all across the internet, but WHYGAVS is still my home. I still haven't finished that O-Chem homework, though.

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