Former Pirates third-base coach succeeds Tracy as manager
PITTSBURGH -- John Russell is a humble guy who spent much of his career in the minors. He lacks a marquee name or a big-time resume, and he was fired as a coach two years ago by the Pittsburgh Pirates.
Is this really the best person that very same Pittsburgh team could find to become its new manager -- someone the club's previous leadership let go?
Pirates president Frank Coonelly and general manager Neal Huntington insisted Monday that's exactly why they hired Russell, who has managed at every level of baseball except the majors.
Specifically, because he is the best man for a job many think is next to impossible: remaking the Pirates into consistent winners again even though they're coming off 15 consecutive losing seasons.
"I know the system we have will work," said the 46-year-old Russell, known in the minors for getting the most from his teams. "There are a lot of areas in which we can improve, but we have the pieces here to win games. And we're here to win."
As for his previous firing by the Pirates, he said: "Two years ago was two years ago. It's a different time. What happened back then was back then."
Russell promises no team in the majors will work harder than his, and everyone in uniform will be accountable on a daily basis, from the manager on down. The idea is to stretch the Pirates' arguably thin talent to the maximum and squeeze out victories any way possible.
Or, exactly what Coonelly and Huntington wanted to hear during a long managerial search that began Oct. 5, when Jim Tracy was fired after two seasons and 189 losses. Russell was hired exactly a month later.
"It's being a tireless instructor, it's being a tireless communicator," Huntington said, explaining Russell's qualities. "It's instilling pride and expecting things to be done the right way. It's holding the staff accountable and the players accountable."
The Pirates haven't won more than 79 games since 1992, yet Russell suggested he's tired of hearing why Pittsburgh can't win. No doubt he heard plenty of such talk as the Pirates' third base coach from 2003-05 under former manager Lloyd McClendon.
"I think we have a great core of players right now," Russell said. "We have the pieces to win now. It's just a matter of getting the passion, the accountability, the attention to detail. That's what works. My role and the staff's role is going to be huge and we're going to be diligent, but I like what we have."
Russell pointed to young starting pitchers such as Tom Gorzelanny, Paul Maholm, Ian Snell, Matt Capps and Zach Duke, good speed and defense, and proven hitters such as Jason Bay and Freddy Sanchez as a core to build around.
Russell managed the Phillies' Triple-A team the past two seasons, guiding the Ottawa Lynx to a 55-88 record this year. The year before, he was chosen manager of the year in the International League after Scranton/Wilkes-Barre went 84-58. He has managed at every level of the minors over 10 years, in the Arizona Fall League and the Venezuelan winter league.
"We're here to win games," he said several times during his introductory news conference. "When I get here at noon, 12:30 every day, we'll start to prepare to do everything we can to win that game that night."
Russell had not worked previously with Huntington, a former Cleveland Indians executive, or Coonelly, a former Major League Baseball labor lawyer, but he said his vision and theirs quickly meshed.
"I felt like I was talking through them," Russell said. "All the things they're looking for are what I'm looking for. I know what we've got will work."
Russell's hiring is the first major move by Huntington, who took over with 10 days left in the regular season. The search lasted longer than most because Huntington wanted to talk to candidates involved in the postseason.
But while Red Sox pitching coach John Farrell said Friday he turned down a chance to interview,Coonelly insisted he wanted a manager who has written out a lineup card -- something Farrell has never done.
"I think it's very important that John has managed, and has managed for a long time," Coonelly said.
The Pirates are also believed to have talked with Triple-A Indianapolis manager Trent Jewett, plus Chicago White Sox bench coach Joey Cora and Indians third base coach Joel Skinner.
Russell, a former major league catcher who caught one of Nolan Ryan's no-hitters, spent eight years as a Minnesota Twins minor league manager. He interviewed with the Phillies for their manager's job following the 2004 season and with the Nationals after last season. He has a 666-667 record in the minors.
He was chosen by Baseball America as the minors' best managerial prospect after the 2002 season with Triple-A Edmonton. The publication also chose him as the best Double-A managerial prospect in 1999.
Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press
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