Pirates Q&A with Dejan Kovacevic

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Hundreds upon hundreds of emails from readers yesterday, many WRITTEN IN ALL CAPS, many with multiple-question-mark formations (What does that mean, anyway??????), many telling tales of following this team for decades and now having had enough and pledging never to watch Pittsburgh's terrible baseball club ever again.

If all that holds up, of course, the Pirates Q&A soon will be just the Pirates A because no one will write here, either.

Or not.

Your baseball team brings out many deep, dark behavioral patterns from its fan base. But among those, without question, is the unrelenting, maybe maddening urge to pay attention again the next day.

Admit it. You are all doomed for eternity ...

(Cue hysterical, super-villain laughter here.)


Q: Dejan, every year during this pathetic run, the Bucs get into a funk when you just know they are incapable of winning. They are there right now. My guess is that they will be quickly 12-15 games below .500 as a result.

Are the players and ownership as disgusted with this as the fans are?

Sam Capuano of Saratoga, N.Y.

KOVACEVIC: Some of the players are. If anyone in any other walk of the organization, top to bottom, is disgusted by it, they have not made that clear either through word or deed.

That is not a criticism, nor an opinion. It is fact. When someone outside the players' clubhouse expresses or shows that they are dissatisfied with the Pirates' performance to this point, you will be informed of that, too.

Speaking purely from my first-hand observations of the team's showing on the field, I have seen things in the past week that I did not see at any point in my first two-plus years on the beat.

Effort rarely has been an issue with the Pirates, even through the first 14 years of this losing streak. Think about it: They always had that scrappy, hard-nosed reputation that you would hear and read about all the time. Well, when was the last time it came up? Sure, there are exemplary moments such as Chris Duffy's catch Wednesday and other players whose work ethic is impeccable, but how much have you seen as a whole? And it goes, really across the board. You can pick on a Jason Bay throw here or Nate McLouth pulling up early on the first-base line on Wednesday night or Tony Armas flat-out refusing to slide into home plate earlier this season, but there are many.

Make no mistake: The Pirates' problems go beyond a lack of hustle. But, in their position of modest talent, hustle would figure to be the last variable they can afford to sacrifice.

And this, too: Hustle, in many cases in the world of professional sports, is the direct result of accountability.


Q: Dejan, as a 40-year-plus fan of the Pirates, I am angry, sad and embarrassed that the team is on its way to setting the record for most consecutive losing seasons by a baseball franchise.

Does anyone in the Pirates organization, either on the field or in the front office, have similiar feelings? All we hear from Bob Nutting, Dave Littlefield and Jim Tracy are the same tired, bland platitudes and rationalizations.

Joe Jurdana of New Cumberland, Pa.

KOVACEVIC: See above.

One thing I try to do regularly in this Q&A is to ask readers to step back outside the Pirates' world and look across the four major sports. Try to compare similar situations -- all right, not realistic -- or similar starts to a season, where, say, there might have been some reasonable cause to expect improvement.

What might have happened?

In Cincinnati, the Reds' new owner visited the clubhouse and addressed the players.

On most teams in such a spot, with the exception of those in the NFL, significant roster moves get made. Or players are benched. Or have their roles changed.

And, perhaps the one that stands out the most, there almost invariably is friction. Somebody is barking at somebody. The manager criticizes someone. A player publicly blasts the team and questions its will to win.

The Pirates?

Still waiting.


Q:

Less than a half season. That's all it took for the Mets to turn Oliver Perez back into a Cy Young contender. At some point, the Pirates have to realize that spending more money to get known good coaches would be a good idea, don't they?

For a team with a payroll that can't compete with the big boys on players, the Pirates need to overspend to get coaches that can teach their young talent how to succeed. Zach Duke and Paul Maholm may or may not ever be good major-league starters, but they almost certainly won't be with the Pirates. No one ever seems to get any better until they leave here.

Rob Light of Shadyside, Pittsburgh

KOVACEVIC: Rick Peterson, New York's pitching coach, has an excellent reputation, and he surely deserves credit for what Perez has done so far this season. What strikes me, in particular, about Perez's numbers -- even beyond his fine record and ERA -- is that he is running up high strikeout totals and getting lots of fly-ball outs. The declaration of the Pirates' current staff, even before Perez had left his first spring training, was that he was not a strikeout pitcher, that he would be at his best when getting lots of ground balls.

Above all, though, Peterson deserves credit for helping Perez rediscover his velocity. That was a mystery that two Pirates pitching coaches failed to uncover, and it is the thrust not only behind Perez's fastball but also that familiar slider that gets hitters flailing at pitches in the dirt.

To be sure, this is no feather in the Pirates' cap.

But your concept that a pitcher has to escape Pittsburgh to succeed, obviously, is too sweeping a generality. Ian Snell and Tom Gorzelanny have yet to break out of the shackles, and they are doing just fine, for the most part. Duke and Maholm? We will see.

As I wrote about Jeff Manto a while back, coaching specialists are judged by the performance of their area of specialty. We are all judged that way in all jobs, actually. If two young pitchers who were dominant before Colborn came on board -- and fared well for a spell last year under Colborn, too -- were to fall out of the majors, that surely would be no feather, either.


Q: Does it seem that Jason Bay is quietly and maybe subconsciously playing his way out of Pittsburgh, a la Jason Kendall, Brian Giles, Aramis Ramirez and Oliver Perez? Bay is too solid of an individual to say something bad about the current situation in Pittsburgh, but I can't understand why his play has gone downhill so dramatically the past year or so.

His defense, while never Gold Glove material, was solid, but last year and this year it's been pitiful. He misjudges balls almost every game. He gets run on more than my next sentence. To be caught off-guard, as he was again Tuesday night by the always aggressive Cardinals baserunners, is totally inexcuseable. He rarely is in a position to get rid of the ball immediately and seems to allow extra bases almost every night.

David Wallowicz of West Chester, Pa.

KOVACEVIC: Your general point that Bay's defense has been subpar stands up without the drama or the exaggeration, David. There is no question his arm -- never strong -- is being exposed more regularly. And questions can and have been raised about a lack of intensity in the field on some plays, particularly as they relate to throws or the run-up to a throw. No lack of effort is excusable.

But your opening contention is way off base, in more ways than one ...

First, I fail to see how any of the four former Pirates you mentioned were guilty of whatever qualifies as playing their way out of Pittsburgh. Each of the first three made too much money for ownership's liking, and each was ordered to be traded. In Perez's case, he lost the confidence of management and was traded while in the minors. Anyone who knew Perez at the time -- I did -- would know that it absolutely killed him to be demoted. To suggest he did it with some surreptitious thought that he might someday play for a better team in the majors is ... so ridiculous I cannot believe I have wasted three sentences of everyone's time addressing it.

Second, Bay's problem this year is one of being below his usual performance, not of attitude, not of wanting to be elsewhere. I am getting a lot of questions about attitude, as if attitude somehow precedes performance. It does not. The Pirates were a great bunch with great chemistry after sweeping Houston. The enthusiasm is considerably lower since.

Egg first, then chicken.

Finally, to your points about his defense: As noted above, it has not been good, particularly in the area of throws. But, for all the mail I got about the Cardinals' daring baserunning against Bay, not one of them noted that, in both cases -- including Jim Edmonds' tag on the super shallow fly Wednesday -- Bay threw the guy out. On the Pujols one, Jose Bautista dropped the ball and was charged with an error, but the official scorer still awarded Bay an assist.

He allowed an extra base on neither occasion.

Bay is going to get more of this, which might go toward answering your question about whether or not he has regressed. A book gets out on you pretty quickly in the majors, whether at the plate or on the field. People study everything, know everything. And, if Edmonds is going to run on the equivalent of a popup just beyond shortstop, that surely means many more are going to try it.

If Bay throws them out, the book will be amended somewhat.


Q: Dejan, I read your article regarding Bob Nutting's impression of their Latin American facilities and I have one question: Was this trip really necessary? All of the shortcomings noted in the past two articles (here and here) have been well documented before. I think it's unbelievable to think anything other than that the Pirates have one of the worst management/ownership teams, if not the worst, in professional sports.

Among all the other mistakes this organization has made, including the ones nobody knows about, I see no end in sight for the misery of the declining number of Pirates diehards.

Kirk A. Davis of East End, Pittsburgh

KOVACEVIC: Every indication I have, Kirk, is that the full extent of Nutting's involvement in the Pirates' ownership was overseeing the singular decision as to how much money should be budgeted into the overall operation. He has said so himself, and others have echoed it.

Other indications I have -- strong ones, at that, and from people I trust -- is that he has been intensely involved in examining many aspects of the team's operations. And that includes this shortcoming, which, as you correctly point out, is a glaring one. I was surprised to hear of the trip, partially because accountability has been so lacking for so long, but there is no question it is a positive and necessary step. And, if it is accurate that Nutting essentially has been on the job for just a few months, it can only be considered a positive that he addressed this matter in such a fashion.

Do not misunderstand, and please spare me the anti-ownership mail. I get it. I understand. As I have written, there is much to prove, especially as it relates to player payroll. But fair is fair. The Pirates have had an important problem, and it is being addressed rather than spun or swept under the rug.


Thing No. 35 that makes Pittsburgh great: There is nothing "great" about homelessness, of course, but give serious ups to the homeless person who has erected his or her own personal library inside a bridge pier.

Walk or bike on the river trail that runs under the North Shore side of the Andy Warhol Bridge, and look right within the actual steel structure. There, in a narrow, horizontal slot, you will find a mattress and a long, neatly filed row of books, about 6 feet long.

I never have seen the person, but he must exist because neither have I seen a book out of place. And someone other than me must admire it, because the Public Works crews that clean up after the messier homeless camps seem to leave this one alone. Even all through the winter, when all that tends to be living in that area are the seagulls, geese and ducks, that library stays immaculate.

Something to think about when stereotyping those on the streets ...


Until Tuesday, when the Q&A returns, Paul Meyer will be with the club in Cincinnati, and there will be no chat Monday because of the holiday ...



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