Pirates' Russell deserves contract extension


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Does John Russell have the teeth to do what Florida Marlins manager Fredi Gonzalez did this week, upbraid his loafing superstar in public and then bench him pending an apology?

I know, what superstar?

Russell ain't got no superstar and might never encounter such a scenario. Further, I couldn't say for mandibular certainty that Russell has teeth. He never smiles. He rarely opens his mouth wide enough to accommodate multiple decibels. The Pirates' manager remains as flat and dry as the Great Southern Plains that produced him, a classically stoic Oklahoman with no known boiling point.

My favorite Russell moment in his first 363 games at the helm came against St. Louis less than two weeks ago. The Cardinals' Joe Mather had just stolen second despite a strong throw from catcher Ryan Doumit because second baseman Aki Iwamura missed the tag. Russell was up the dugout steps in record time, which is to say faster than molasses, strode to the second-base area, which is to say he came very close to hurrying, and arrived just in time to have umpire Gary Cederstrom explain his call.

The explanation took a good 15 seconds. Russell did not interrupt. Cederstrom finished. Russell turned around and went back to the bench. He never said a word.

Not to criticize, but that's not the way Earl Weaver would have done it.

Convention holds that most umpires will let the manager have his say in such a situation, so that's the way I'll remember J.R., as the only manager who could have his say without actually saying anything.

Perhaps, you've noticed that Russell has turned up on some national watch lists among managers thought likely to be former managers in the near term. Firing Russell, whose contract expires at the end of this season, would not be the worst thing the Pirates have done, but it certainly cannot be done in good conscience.

Unless they spin it as a mercy firing in the hasn't-he-suffered-enough vein.

Otherwise, when the Frank Coonelly administration discovers the accountability imperative, it would be downright cruel to start with the manager. Why should Russell be accountable when they're running Charlie Morton and Iwamura and Lastings Milledge and Jeff Clement out there without compunction and pretending it's Major League Baseball?

Russell takes a pie in the face just about every night for Coonelly and general manager Neal Huntington, even to the extent that he wanders in and out of their fantasy world, where substandard talent is discussed in promising terms. Russell ventured in spring training that Iwamura might actually be his No. 3 hitter. Aki's hitting a hard .156 as we approached the quarter pole.

He might not inspire the fellas with his, uh, passion for the game, but once the first pitch is thrown, Russell is among the least of this organization's problem. J.R. manages in the modern, essentially soul-less style, enslaved by percentages and dubious defensive designs such as those recently described by Huntington as "based on the pitcher pitching, and our subjective analysis of the extensive customized objective data available." (Seriously). He makes a tactical mistake no more or less frequently than most, and he can thread a bullpen through a jungle of tough outs in the late innings on those occasions when the alleged talent gives him any reason to.

That's not enough to keep him, but, in fewer than three summers, consider what the executives have done to the man already.

Two years ago at this time, his third baseman was Jose Bautista, who appears on his way to hitting 30 homers with the Toronto Blue Jays. Today, he has Andy LaRoche. Two years ago, he had All-Star defensemen at second and short in Freddy Sanchez and Jack Wilson. Today, he has Iwamura in a knee brace and Ronny Cedeno. Two years ago, he had Jason Bay in left field on his way to 22 homers. Today, he has Milledge, who was on pace to hit zero homers as of game time Wednesday. I could go on, but for what? Is there any wonder Russell never smiles?

But big smiles, we're expected to believe, are right there on the horizon in glorious relief: Pedro Alvarez, Jose Tabata, Brad Lincoln, and more young talent where they came from. It would be shameful, it says here, not to give Russell a chance to manage beyond this year, which, as I recall from spring training, is "the beginning of the next dynasty of the Pirates" to Coonelly.

It's a slow beginning, clearly, perhaps best visualized by Russell emerging from the dugout to fail to argue a call. No imminent dynasty requires Russell's presence, but, if Coonelly even suspects this club is on the verge of competence, he owes the manger an extension through 2011.


Gene Collier: gcollier@post-gazette.com .


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