Smizik: Tracy learns how bad it is

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The following conversation between Pirates manager Jim Tracy and his coaching staff did not take place. It could have.

Tracy: Do you believe this?

Bench coach Jim Lett: Who could have imagined these guys would be this bad?

Third-base coach Jeff Cox: How did [Lloyd] McClendon survive this for five years?

First-base coach John Shelby: Guy must have been a genius.

Pitching coach Jim Colborn: What I want to know is how in the name of Sandy Koufax did they get Oliver Perez to pitch like he did in 2004? The guy is clueless.

Shelby: Spin Williams must have been a genius.

Batting coach Jeff Manto: We're last in on-base percentage and drawing walks. They're lost.

Tracy: OK, guys, let's get our heads up. What do you think about batting Freddy Sanchez third again tonight?

A collective groan fills the room.

Welcome, belatedly, to the Pittsburgh Pirates, Jim Tracy, the real Pittsburgh Pirates, and not the team you imagined.

Although he won't admit it -- it's against his extremely upbeat personality -- Tracy cannot believe what is happening. The situation with this team and this organization is probably light years worse than he expected. He could not have believed it would be easy, but there is no way he could have believed it would be this hard.

After speaking privately to the team on the first day of spring training, he was asked if he felt it was necessary to change the organizational mind-set. His answer:

"Yes. Yes, it is. And I think we took a lot of major steps in that direction this morning."

Imagine that! One speech, one day of drills, and Tracy thought he had taken not just a baby step forward but "a lot of major steps" forward. Such a response showed a lack of understanding of the job in front of him.

Tracy's confidence was understandable. He was fresh from success with the Los Angeles Dodgers, his first major-league managerial job, where his team had four winning seasons in five years and won one division title. But, in Los Angeles, he inherited a team that had six winning seasons in the previous seven, not one with 13 consecutive losing seasons. He inherited a team that had a $109 million payroll, not one that had just considerably upgraded to about $47 million.

Tracy inherited a team in Los Angeles that had a middle of the lineup that included Gary Sheffield, Shawn Green, Eric Karros and Adrian Beltre. In Tracy's first season, Green hit 49 home runs and Sheffield 35. Both drove in 100 runs. Karros drove in 90 runs with 25 homers. In Pittsburgh, he inherited a team that had Jason Bay in the middle of the lineup and not much more. The situation has reached a point where Sanchez, with eight career home runs and never regarded as much more than a nice utility player, has become the team's No. 3 hitter. No disrespect to Sanchez, he not only would not have batted third for any of Tracy's Dodgers clubs, he might not have made the team.

Tracy didn't realize it, but he was living in the posh suburbs with the Dodgers. He was among the high and mighty. In Pittsburgh, he has moved back to the city -- the ghetto, to be precise.

Tracy has a marvelous gift for oration. His predecessor, McClendon, gave short answers, sometimes to the point. Tracy gives long answers, rarely to the point. If the question is not to his liking, he simply won't answer it. He doesn't rudely dismiss it. That's not in his character. Rather, he talks around it and around it and around it.

He was asked the other day about how he personally is handling the Pirates' horrific start.

"It's tough,'' he said, then went off on this tangent:

"In my opinion, it's all part of the process where you involve yourself in a situation and realize the fact that in order to get it to become what you want it to become, everything has to be a continuing daily emphasis on all these things that we're talking about.''

Say what?

None of this is to denigrate Tracy. He is a proven manager. Just as McClendon played only a small part in the Pirates' lack of success during his tenure, Tracy is only a small part of this awful start. What it is to suggest is that Tracy did not understand the challenge, and there is reason to believe he still might not.

He has stated on at least one occasion that the mistakes of the past would no longer be tolerated. As though he could wave some magic wand and flaws would disappear. Or as if he could casually demote players who made mistakes.

He has said on many occasions that "effort is not an option." But, when Jeromy Burnitz did not display proper effort on a ground-ball out Tuesday, Tracy excused it by saying ... "do you think he's going to be safe?"

New manager, new coaches and even some new players, don't change the Pirates. To his sad understanding, Tracy is beginning to find that out.


Bob Smizik can be reached at bsmizik@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1468.


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