The seriously quiet setting of minicamp does not allow for much of a glimpse into a manager, particularly not one such as John Russell, who was so very quiet as a third base coach in his previous stint with the Pirates.
Still, there have been a couple of early impressions ...
For one, this is not someone who is going to feed you -- or me -- any hogwash. He is a no-nonsense guy who does not filter his answers anymore than he designs them to be to anyone's liking. Everything about his is accountability-first, and he is adamant that includes himself. When asked a rather innocuous question yesterday about Ronny Paulino, for example, he answered this way: "Ronny's not going to be treated any differently than anybody else on this team. Everybody's expected to be accountable, and that goes for Jason Bay, Jack Wilson, Freddy Sanchez and Adam LaRoche. I'm not going to make this special, huge effort to pound on Ronny Paulino. He's a professional. He knows what we're going to expect."
No pretentiousness there, either. Very convincing. He might not come out and tell you -- or me -- how he handles certain situations, but it does sound as if he will have absolutely zero problem addressing them.
Otherwise, it is hard to tell. The coaches are presiding over the individual events, and those events are so minor and involving so few people that it is hard to gauge how he might conduct spring training. But it is telling, perhaps, that he and his coaches have been staying at Pirate City for hours each afternoon and night, well after the athletes are gone, as they work on planning the structure for their first spring training.
Q: Dejan, what's going on with Ryan Doumit's position? I recall hearing at the end of last season that he may be switched to the outfield and, with the Pirates talking to guys like Johnny Estrada, do you think Doumit will spend the season at catcher, get time in the outfield, or perhaps both?
Ryan Nelson of Oakland, Pittsburgh
KOVACEVIC: I see the Pirates as wanting to get him in the outfield, Ryan, if not immediately then eventually. They still are looking for another catcher -- no doors have been closed on that front, including Estrada -- and they are doing so for the specific reason that they want Doumit swinging the bat as much as possible.
A couple things about Doumit ...
I know there is a great segment of the sporting population that rolls the eyes at these best-shape-of-my-life stories that invariably come out of spring training. And I know that because I tend to be one of them. But I can assure you that any follower of the team who saw the difference in some of these guys, particularly Doumit and Paul Maholm, would be as wowed as anyone when they see them the next time. They look almost like different players, and evidence abounds that professional athletes perform better when they are in better shape.
Another thing: Doumit really enjoyed his time in the outfield. Some guys say they like any position just to get playing time, but Doumit's affinity strikes me as intensely genuine. He loved seeing runners stop at second on a teammate's single, and he loved it even more when he made a couple above-average plays in the field. He sees the position, in some ways, as a good fit for his rather outgoing personality, and it is a hard point to argue.
If the Pirates get another catcher, Doumit will be considered an outfielder and backup first baseman and third-string catcher. Or just an outfielder. But some of these outfielders are going to have to clear out first, one way or the other.
Q: Hi, DK. After seeing John Russell and Jeff Andrews in action with our pitchers, do you feel they will try to "tweak" Tom Gorzelanny and Ian Snell like Russell's and Andrews' predecessors did with Zach Duke?
I know the Pirates need a lot of fixing and tweaking, but do you feel that the new crew is going to try to fix things that aren't broke?
Ben Collins of Virginia Beach, Va.
KOVACEVIC: Funny that you ask. I have been jokingly begging Andrews for about a week to tell me he would tweak any of these guys, just to give me some good material.
Alas, to no avail.
No, there will be no tweaking. I will write more about Andrews as we go, but he is very much the type to encourage pitchers to do the dictating and, as he was talking about on the first day here, even to have them attempt minor fixes on their own. His thinking is that the pitcher has to believe in what he is doing 100 percent. Or, as he put it, "I can come up with a plan that is 100 percent foolproof, that has no chance of failing, and it doesn't matter if the pitcher doesn't commit to it."
I hardly took that to mean he is leaving the pitchers on auto-pilot. Rather, his top priority is to respect what they want to do before anything else is tried.
Q: Hello, Dejan. Let's say everything goes close to perfect this year, and the Pirates win 82 games and stay in the playoff hunt until the end of the season. Players such as Jason Bay, Xavier Nady, Ian Snell and Jack Wilson have great years. In your opinion, would management try to trade these players and retool the minor-league system or try to keep the team together for a couple of years and make a playoff run?
I have a feeling that they would want to trade the players, but the owners would not allow this due to all of the recent losing.
Paul McGrath of Greensburg
KOVACEVIC: The main Pirates story in our section goes into detail about Neal Huntington's view on the contending-vs.-rebuilding matter, which, by the way, represented as candid and forthcoming an interview as I ever have done with a general manager.
But, to tackle your scenario independently ...
First off, some of your chronology might be a bit skewed, as the decision to trade these players would have to come in July, well before anyone could feel confident about 82 wins, much less contention. And I also seriously doubt that 82 wins and contention will be one and the same, as I envision the Cubs and Brewers making a healthy bolt from the pack in 2008.
But, to the general point: I wonder if the Pirates even know that at this point.
Say the Pirates are lousy again, but get good individual seasons from players such as Bay, Nady, Wilson or Matt Morris. I definitely could see those players having good individual seasons getting moved and the beginning of a clearer building process. (Calling it rebuilding after 15 years might strike some as an absurdity.) Huntington certainly seemed to suggest in the story today that major parts could be moved at any time.
If they win, though, things could change. Be very, very sure that 82 is an important figure in this front office, which seems to recognize -- unlike their predecessors -- that setting goals is a critical component of competition in any walk of life. And I could see something like that throwing at least a temporary wrench into everything, at least from the standpoint of trading everyday players.
Thing No. 64 that makes Pittsburgh great: If the best stuff in life is free, then this one certainly qualifies for the list.
There is a new parking garage catty-corner from the home plate entrance of PNC Park, and it is nothing special in and of itself, of course. In fact, I am sure I never would have noticed it if that were not the place I am assigned to park when covering home games.
One night late last season, though, an unusual crowd in the garage forced me to park all the way on the top -- 10th -- floor. Before the game, I thought nothing of it. Just grumbled some. But afterward, huffing back to the car with the laptop slung over the shoulder, I took pause for a moment and looked around. Then, I walked over to the visually open corner of that upper floor, the one facing the ballpark.
It was fantastic.
I know there are all kinds of views of the city, different angles that give different feels, and some have greater impact than others. Trust me on this one. The city skyline set against the foreground of the ballpark and the new Equitable building and the recently extended water steps to the river ... felt like a whole new experience. I thought enough of it, in fact, that I dragged wife up there a couple weekends ago after a dinner at Jerome Bettis' new restaurant. (Neat in its own right.)
No need to pay, either. Just walk into the garage, get in the elevator and press the 10th floor.
Extra bonus: If you look straight down from one of the back corners of that garage roof, at least for a little while, you can look down about 60 feet into the ground. That's where that German boring machine is digging the current portion of the subway under-river tunnel.
Until tomorrow ...