Russell's situation spurs no sympathy

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I was playing ball with my daughters in a grassy field on Sunday afternoon when a long-suffering Pirates fan (pardon the redundancy) stopped to say he "felt badly" for John Russell.

At that moment Mr. Russell was still the Pirates' manager, but his firing the next day was the surest canning since Starkist met tuna.

I told my neighbor that, on the long list of people for whom I feel sympathy, Mr. Russell doesn't even crack the top billion. That has less to do with him than it does with the ridiculous emphasis this country puts on sports (a truism, I realize, that this column abets occasionally).

Mr. Russell is, from all I can gather, a decent, hard-working man. One of the major criticisms of him from distraught Pirates fans (again, pardon the redundancy) is that he doesn't rant and rave at umpires enough. This is the same critique I got from a father as I neared the end of my third season of coaching Little League, a complaint that convinced me to hang up my clipboard and buy my last round of sno-cones, so I'm not going to blast Mr. Russell for perceived passivity.

But feel sorry for a guy who will be paid an estimated $500,000 next year to stop working? Ya gotta be woofin' me.

What follows is a partial list of the people we need to worry about well before we get to a baseball manager with a 186-299 record and a golden parachute:

• The sixth of the planet's people who are undernourished. That's a billion people right there, none of them professional athletes.

• The Pirates' sales force, which will spend next winter trying to persuade people that next year will be any different.

• The tens of thousands of people who have lost jobs because they were "outsourced." A similar thing happens to ballplayers occasionally, but only when foreign players prove themselves better, not merely cheaper (the Pirates organization excepted, of course).

• Anyone who has been downsized or has taken a pay cut despite doing a good job, just to reward an empty suit in the front office.

(According to a recent Institute for Policy Studies report, "CEOs of the 50 firms that have laid off the most workers since the onset of the great economic crisis took home nearly $12 million on average in 2009." That's about 42 percent more than average CEO compensation at a Fortune 500 firm. Most of the slash-and-burn crowd "announced their mass layoffs at a time of positive earnings reports.")

• Pirates fans who, despite 18 years of losing, have stayed fiercely loyal even as their ticket money has done little more than make rich men richer. Kevin McClatchy, the Nuttings and their consortium paid $90 million for the Pirates in 1996. With the help of the prettiest taxpayer-financed ballpark in the country, the team has more than tripled in value to $288 million, according to last year's Forbes magazine estimate.

• Anyone with a 401(k) that has sunk, even as local sportsmen's fortunes soared.

So with all due respect to Mr. Russell, I'll let my neighbor feel badly for him by himself. It's true a manager can only do so much with a team so poorly skilled in pitching and, let's face it, hitting, fielding and base-running (not to nitpick). Mr. Russell nevertheless must go down with the ship. It has been ever thus in baseball.

Now the search is on for a new manager, as if that's the Pirates' biggest problem. If the club doesn't go out and get at least one decent starting pitcher and power hitter this winter, it will be time to begin feeling badly for the next manager -- but only until you remember his salary.

With a half-million dollars coming, Mr. Russell can do anything he wants for a while. I'd recommend some volunteer work: coaching Little League. He's overqualified, but it's a position that allows a decent coach to see real progress in players by season's end.

And, with a half-million bucks, Mr. Russell can not only tell any father to kiss off, he can finally find some decent pitching and still have sno-cone money.


Brian O'Neill: boneill@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1947.


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