Rogue Pierogies: The Blundering Bucs Strike Again…and Again
Most Pittsburghers donâ€™t regard the Pirates as lovable losers â€“ just losers.Â The Bucs rank well below the Steelers in popularity, well below the Penguins, and perhaps a step or two above tuberculosis.Â Itâ€™s not just the losing; itâ€™s the perceived hubris of the men who run the organization, and their clumsy attempts at deluding fans into believing everything is peachy.
In the midst of last weekâ€™s 12-game skid, the Pirates added two more off-field blunders to an arms-length list of silly public relations fiascos. Â Â A FoxSports.com report forced Frank Coonelly to admit that he had signed manager John Russell and general manager Neal Huntington to contract extensions.Â Â They inked the deals during the offseason, but for reasons still not fully explained, Coonelly never deigned to tell anyone.Â Â When reporters probed about the contract status of Russell and Huntington earlier this season, Coonelly was, to be generous, evasive.Â Now his credibility, and that of the Pirates, has suffered a major blow.Â Â A prominent local columnist has dubbed the affair â€œLiargate.â€
When a team is 20 games below .500 in June and hasnâ€™t had a winning season since 1992, fans really don’t want to hear about contract extensions for the people in charge.Â Not surprisingly, the new deals were greeted with something less than universal praise.Â Some of the criticism came from Andrew Kurtz, who is paid by the Pirates run around PNC Park during home games dressed as a pierogi.Â Â On Facebook, Kurtz wrote, â€œCoonelly extends the contracts of Russell and Huntington through the 2011 season.Â That means a 19-straight losing streak [sic]. Way to go Pirates.â€Â Â Â The Bucs promptly fired him.
Although much of the fan base likely shared his opinion, Dumpling Boy was way out of line.Â Â If you want to mouth off about your employer, do it with your buddies over a beer; donâ€™t broadcast it to the world.Â Â Â The Pirates were not necessarily wrong to drop the axe; however, a more sophisticated organization might have taken into account the teamâ€™s image problems and approached the situation more softly.Â Â Had they quietly pulled the kid aside and ordered him to delete the comment, no one would have been any the wiser.Â Instead, the Pirates chose the nuclear option, and, although they re-hired Kurtz a few days later, made themselves look like thin-skinned Orwellian bullies.Â Â They suffered a much more significant PR hit than if they had just ignored the offending post entirely.
Ironically, the Pirates commit these kinds of gaffes because they seem to be almost obsessed with how they are perceived in the community.Â (At a meeting of the Forbes Field chapter of the Society for American Baseball Research in May, Coonelly, during a 60-minute Q&A, went out of his way three times to criticize the local media for its coverage of the team).Â As a result, they try too hard to make themselves look good even when things are going badly, which is most of the time.Â The front office bristles easily at criticism and is prone to making wacko claims that anyone with a molecule of sense can see through.Â Among these have been owner Bob Nuttingâ€™s boast that he employs â€œthe best management team in baseball,â€ and Coonellyâ€™s preposterous suggestion this spring that the Pirates were on the brink of a â€œdynasty.â€
Hand-in-hand with the absurd hyperbole is an annoying propensity for ducking responsibility for mistakes.Â When he fumbled the negotiations with Dominican prospect Miguel Sano, Huntington whined that Sanoâ€™s agent negotiated in bad faith.Â Why do the Pirates play such fundamentally unsound baseball?Â According to Huntington, itâ€™s because too many players learned bad habits as they came up through other organizations.Â Â Is Coonelly disappointed that so many trades have bombed?Â Well, sort of, but that is mostly the fansâ€™ and mediaâ€™s fault for setting their expectations too high.
When people are preoccupied with their public image, one of two things is going on.Â Either they desperately want people to see who they really are (think about your typical 16-year-old, or those poor cavemen in the Geico ads), or they desperately donâ€™t want people to see who they really are (see: Â Bundy, Ted, or Stalin, Joseph).
The first scenario surely is plausible.Â Â It was Coonelly, Huntington, and Nutting who had to field all the uncomfortable questions about Pittsburghâ€™s record-breaking 17th consecutive losing season, even though they had very little to do with it.Â Â It is no fun answering for other peopleâ€™s incompetence, and certainly no fun being a national punch line.Â Â We all want to rise or fall on our own merits.Â You can understand why they might be a little touchy.
The second scenario suggests that the Pirates are being run by venal, nefarious people who are using the club solely for personal gain.Â Â Unfortunately, thatâ€™s not out of the question, either.Â Â Nutting isnâ€™t starving; the Pirates, for all their woes on the field, are consistently profitable.Â Â He says he is committed to bringing a championship to Pittsburgh, but to date, he has displayed little inclination to invest the resources required to make that happen.
We will know the answer soon enough.Â If the Pirates begin making smarter decisions, spending more money and spending it more wisely, and perhaps hiring more astute people in key organizational positions, then it will be clear that there are no malevolent intentions behind the puffery and lack of transparency.Â Â If we continue to see weeks like last week, though, then obviously the clubâ€™s leadership values spinning far more than winning.
James Forr is the 2005 winner of the McFarland-SABR Baseball Research Award and co-author of Pie Traynor: A Baseball Biography, released in January 2010