Russell's hiring perplexing

Passing judgment now on Russell's hiring is unfair

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No sooner had John Russell been unofficially named manager of the Pirates in various news reports over the weekend and there was immediate sniping on several fronts.

• The fact Russell was 55-88 at Ottawa last season, the worst record in the International League, was viewed by many fans as a deal-breaker.

• So was his role as third-base coach of the Pirates from 2003-05, where, according to Internet reports, he had a habit of waving home runners who were easy outs.

• Finally, if he had been fired as the team's third-base coach, why would he be worthy two years later to be manager?

All charges are silly or unfounded.

Russell has a decorated record as a minor-league manager. To judge him on one season is blatantly unfair.

If he did have a lot of runners thrown out at home -- and the charge doesn't ring true here -- it means nothing. He's the manager of the Pirates, not the third-base coach.

It's a tradition that a coaching staff follow a manager out the door, which is what happened in 2005. Besides, it was a different ownership group that ran the franchise then.

On all of these petty charges, Russell stands innocent.

That doesn't mean there should be dancing in the street over the official announcement yesterday in what was the Pirates' second consecutive underwhelming hire of significance.

First, they named the Cleveland Indians advance scout, Neal Huntington, as their general manager, then they named Russell, coming off a terrible season, as manager. It was very Pirates-esque.

But that doesn't mean success can't be found in the resumes of Huntington and Russell.

In the mid-1950s, the Galbreath family, who owned the Pirates, took a chance on a young executive who had worked for one of their minor-league franchises and nowhere else in baseball. His claim to fame was not his baseball credentials but that his dad was a movie star. Turns out, though, the hiring of Joe Brown as general manager was nothing less than franchise altering.

Thirty years later, the Pirates took a chance on fast-talking Southerner with spotty credentials. But Syd Thrift proved to be the absolute right man for the job as three divisions champions were to prove.

Thrift, in turn, took a chance of a shy, unknown who stumbled through his first news conference and had trouble looking people in the eye. But Jim Leyland went on to become one of the best managers in baseball.

So let's not judge Huntington or Russell by their background. Success can be found in many places.

There are, however, a couple of perplexing aspects to the Russell hire.

Why did the Pirates shoot so low?

They interviewed only relatively unknown candidates. Only one of them, Joel Skinner, the Cleveland Indians third-base coach, had major-league managerial experience, and that was on an interim basis for half a season. All of the candidates, Russell, Skinner, Chicago White Sox bench coach Joey Cora, Los Angeles Dodgers bench coach Dave Jauss and Class AAA manager Trent Jewett, had the lowest of profiles.

Why weren't Ken Macha, Art Howe or Tony Pena, all former Pirates who won as managers of small-market teams, in the mix? It sounds almost like the Pirates had an inferiority complex. At least, bring in some people who've had success with small-market teams to, if nothing else, pick their brains. Macha and Howe won championships in such settings.

We can only hope that money was not a factor. We don't believe it was but we do know that in Huntington and Russell the Pirates hired two men who had absolutely no leverage when it came to demanding a salary. It would be a safe assumption that both men are at the bottom or very close to it in terms of salary in their respective jobs.

Sometimes, but not always, you get what you pay for.

Here's what also is disconcerting about Russell. When Lloyd McClendon, who managed the Pirates from 2001-05 was asked to comment on Russell's hiring, he declined to do so. Russell had been his third-base coach for three seasons. Baseball etiquette calls for at least some kind of positive response.

The fact that McClendon declined says a lot. McClendon was fired after five losing seasons, but he left with his dignity in tact and the respect of everyone around him.

Asked about McClendon's lack of endorsement, Russell said: "That's his opinion. If he didn't want to say anything that doesn't bother me at all. Mac and I were good friends."

Russell is a quiet man, not given to flowery language or even to generating a conversation. That doesn't mean he can't be a good communicator with players. He spoke a lot yesterday about "accountability," and that clearly is at the top of the list of what Huntington and team president Frank Coonelly want.

He also said, "We're definitely in a position to compete."

Anything, of course, is possible, but here's what's more possible. If the Pirates had trotted out John McGraw, Casey Stengel or Joe Torre yesterday, it wouldn't make a difference.

It's 15 consecutive losing seasons and no end is sight.


Bob Smizik can be reached at bsmizik@post-gazette.com .


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