- Jerry Crasnick, ESPN.com MLB Sr. Writer
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Frank Coonelly has quickly tapped into the psyche of Pittsburgh Pirates fans in his five months as team president. He knows that Bucco backers cherish their memories of Roberto Clemente, Willie Stargell and Bill Mazeroski, and reflect fondly on the days when Jim Leyland was churning up a nicotine cloud in the dugout runway while Barry Bonds, Bobby Bonilla and Andy Van Slyke patrolled the outfield.
In Pittsburgh, anything is an upgrade over the more recent past. We are, after all, looking at 15 straight losing seasons, during which the Pirates have posted an aggregate record of 1,037 wins and 1,324 losses.
From Moon Township to Squirrel Hill, Pirates ticket buyers are understandably running short on patience. But they've resisted the temptation to put their hearts in cold storage. Coonelly gleaned that much when the fans shared their frustration at PirateFest and the team's winter caravan. He was like Hillary Clinton on the campaign trail, listening to health care tales of woe at a New Hampshire diner in December.
"The vast majority of people are upset by what they perceive as a lack of direction or a plan that management was willing to implement and stick to,'' Coonelly said. "Among our fans, there's also a perceived lack of 100 percent effort -- particularly last year. They thought they saw a lack of respect for the game and a lack of caring by some players on the field.
"What's been encouraging to me is, our fans still really care about the Pirates. They want us to succeed and they want us to be great again. They haven't given up on us.''
That's a tribute to the fortitude and staying power of the locals. When the organizational mantra is, "Please bear with us -- we promise to get it right this time,'' it's not exactly an invitation for people to storm the PNC Park turnstiles.
It's no mystery how the Pirates got in this position. For years, Pittsburgh has been a repository for second-tier free agents with nowhere else to go. At the same time, the Pirates have squandered too many high draft picks on underperforming or sore-armed pitchers. The decision to select Brian Bullington ahead of B.J. Upton in the 2002 draft ranks high on the list of gaffes.
Coonelly, general manager Neal Huntington and the new front office team have refrained from quick fixes, Band-Aids and the type of moves that might buy a day or two of positive PR. And there's been nothing close to the Adam LaRoche trade that so energized the community a year ago.
Just consider: Since the start of the hot stove season in November, Miguel Tejada, Jose Valverde, Kaz Matsui, Troy Glaus, Kosuke Fukudome, Francisco Cordero, Mike Cameron and Eric Gagne have all joined the National League Central via free agency or trades.
Pittsburgh's offseason haul, in contrast, consists of Chris Gomez, Ray Olmedo, Casey Fossum, Jaret Wright, Elmer Dessens, T.J. Beam, Luis Rivas and Hector Carrasco. The Pirates even lost out in the Paul Bako and Johnny Estrada backup catcher sweepstakes. It's part of the organization's new mind-set of placing a suitable market value on available players and then walking away if the numbers don't compute.
"It would have been easy to stretch beyond our comfort level just to make something happen,'' Huntington said. "But we need to make decisions for the right reasons -- not to appease fans in December or grab headlines in January. We need to always make good baseball decisions. We're not hiding behind our market size. But it's the same thing that Milwaukee, Cleveland, Minnesota, Arizona and Oakland face. We have to make good financial decisions as well.''
In lieu of making a splash, the Pirates are focusing on the type of ground-floor, foundation-building moves that will have an enduring effect:
• The Pirates recently broke ground on a $5 million facility in the Dominican Republic with a weight room, training area, covered batting tunnels and enough dormitory space to accommodate 90 players and coaches. The talent to fill the complex will come from Latin American scouting director Rene Gayo, who signed Jhonny Peralta, Fausto Carmona and Rafael Perez during his previous tenure with Cleveland.
• Under chairman Bob Nutting, the Pirates promise not to make trades simply to dump salaries (can you say Aramis Ramirez?) or choose less-talented draft picks simply because they're "signable.''
The vast majority of people are upset by what they perceive as a lack of direction or a plan that management was willing to implement and stick to. Among our fans, there's also a perceived lack of 100 percent effort -- particularly last year. They thought they saw a lack of respect for the game and a lack of caring by some players on the field.
-- Frank Coonelly, Pirates team president
• The team will be more diligent about monitoring medical information in an effort to avoid the pitching injuries that befell so many prospects in recent years. According to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the Pirates will send several pitchers each summer to Dr. James Andrews' medical institute in Birmingham, Ala., for biomechnical analysis in hopes of detecting minor glitches before they spiral into serious problems.
• There will be a greater emphasis on consistent instruction all the way from the Gulf Coast League through Triple-A Indianapolis and the big league roster. One of new manager John Russell's most appealing traits was his predisposition toward teaching the game.
"I've read articles on Mike Scioscia, and people marvel at how every day before batting practice he's out there working with players on relay throws, going first to third or whatever,'' Coonelly said. "This is a full-time job, and that's the way it should be. That's not always the way it has been here.''
The Pirates have a new farm director (Kyle Stark) and scouting director (Greg Smith). They added respected scout Larry Corrigan from Minnesota and generated some feel-good vibes from the glory years. Chuck Tanner, manager of the 1979 championship club, is now a senior adviser to Huntington, and Rich Donnelly, Leyland's long-time third base coach, is back with the organization as a player development adviser.
Still, in spite of all those changes, it will be a challenge for the Pirates to sniff .500 in 2008. The offense ranked 23rd in the majors in runs scored, and the pitchers were 25th in strikeouts and 26th in ERA. It's a lot to expect significant improvement even if Coonelly is correct that the team "badly underperformed'' in 2007.
During the recent PirateFest event, outfielder Jason Bay caused a flap when he questioned the lack of offseason activity. Coonelly and Huntington spoke with Bay afterward, but they didn't exactly take him to the woodshed.
"These guys are grown men and they're entitled to their opinions,'' Huntington said. "I just wish Jason had come to me and I could have told him what we did and tried to do this offseason. I don't know if it would have made him feel better or worse, but at least there would be that line of communication before he chose to make a statement.''
Bay told ESPN.com he's not "disgruntled,'' and his comments weren't meant as a shot at Pirates management. It's more a case of wondering where he fits in the overall plan. Bay heard his name bandied around in trade talks with Cleveland and San Diego in the offseason. If and when the Pirates become winners, he has reason to doubt he'll still be around.
"It came out that I was totally blowing up the Pirates, and that was never my intent,'' Bay said. "I understand what they're doing and I agree with it. It's the right thing for them to do. But where does it leave guys they're going to trade -- the guys who are looked at as the 'holdovers'? We're in a holding pattern.
"I like it in Pittsburgh. The Pirates gave me a big opportunity. It's just that after a while, the losing starts to wear you down a little bit. I would love nothing more than to stick around and be a part of it [when the team starts winning]. But given the situation, I may or may not be a part of it.''
After Bay got off to a fast start last season, manager Jim Tracy observed that he might be a 45-homer guy and an "aircraft carrier'' in the Manny Ramirez mold. Then Bay went into a tailspin and hit eight homers in 211 at-bats after the All-Star break.
Bay was hindered by a knee problem that sapped his confidence and prompted him to chase too many pitches out of the zone. The good news is he spent the winter strengthening the knee and says he feels "10 times healthier and more comfortable'' than last spring. Bay also moved to Seattle this winter, and as luck would have it, lives a short drive from new Pirates hitting coach Don Long. He has a fresh pair of eyes to assess his hitting mechanics and all the motivation in the world.
"By all accounts, I had a bad year,'' Bay said. "I'm not sugarcoating it. I lived every day of it, so I know it wasn't all that great.''
The 2008 Pirates are also hoping for a return to form by pitcher Zach Duke, who took a step backward after former pitching coach Jim Colborn tinkered with his mechanics last spring. They'd like someone to emerge from the Nate McLouth-Nyjer Morgan tandem in center field, and they need enough production from the Freddy Sanchez-LaRoche-Bay-Xavier Nady contingent in the middle of the order to compensate for the lack of a true aircraft carrier.
At some point relatively soon, the Pirates will begin working in Andrew McCutchen, Neil Walker, Steve Pearce and Brian Bixler off the farm. They'll eventually realize the benefits from that heightened Latin-American presence, and the product will ideally sell itself.
"Most of our players are grateful that we did not 'blow it up' and start from scratch, as some people wanted us to do,'' Coonelly said. "They're anxious to show that they're a far better team than the one that lost 94 games last year.''
Said Huntington: "I think any city or sports franchise becomes frightened when their fans are apathetic. Our fans are definitely not that. The foundation is there. When we build this and start to win and compete, this place is going be electric.''
Logic says it's going to take a while. But when a city has waited 16 years for a trace of hope, what's two or three more?
Logic says it's going to take a while, but the Pirates have put a plan in place that focuses on the type of ground-floor, foundation-building moves that will have an enduring effect.