Cook: Blundering endemic with Pirates


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Pirates manager John Russell said the funniest thing Thursday after the team announced it had picked up his contract option for the 2011 season and given general manager Neal Huntington an extension for next season:

"This doesn't change anything. We're not going to change the way we do things."

Who said the comatose skipper doesn't have a sense of humor?

Why would you want to even consider changing something that has been so successful? Why would you bother looking at the way you manage and generally manage a team that has lost 11 games in a row, is 20 games under .500 and has the second-worst record in baseball after losing to the Chicago White Sox, 5-4, Thursday night? I mean, really?

This isn't so much a rip of Russell, even though he has done nothing to deserve another season. It's not so much his 152-237 record the past 2 1/2 seasons. He has had a lot of bad players. It's that he doesn't exactly inspire confidence that he'll be able to lead the Pirates' young players to greatness. He can't even be bothered to leave the dugout on most nights to have his guys' back when they are arguing with an umpire, though he did trot out Thursday night after Andrew McCutchen was called out at first base on a close play. I know, it was shocking.

Nor is this an attack of Huntington, who is most responsible -- penny-pinching owner Bob Nutting aside, of course -- for the joke of a product the Pirates are trying to pass off as a big-league club. He has done a nice job rebuilding the farm system through the draft, but his trades and player evaluations have been mostly rotten so far.

No, this is about the Pirates as an organization. If ever a franchise can find a way to do the wrong thing -- against all odds, at times -- they are it. Their professional sports record of 17-going-on-18 consecutive years of losing hasn't happened by accident.

Some of the blunders have been downright sad. Moving into publicly financed PNC Park in 2001, promising to field a winner, losing 100 games that first year and then raising ticket prices comes to mind. Other moments have been comedic. In 2006, the team brought in Pittsburgh-born actor Michael Keaton to throw out the opening-day first pitch only to have him lash out at ownership for not spending money for a winning team. Then, there was the bizarre handling of the Russell and Huntington announcement.

It turns out the deals were done during the off-season. Pirates president Frank Coonelly tried to explain why they were kept a secret until Thursday, but he didn't make a lot of sense. What was clear, though, was his admission that "in retrospect, I made a mistake."

Huntington and Russell were asked repeatedly about their contracts during the season, as was Coonelly. They were put in the awkward position by Coonelly of, if not outright lying, bending the truth. The dishonesty was most disrespectful to the fans. Insulting, actually.

After someone squealed the news to FoxSports.com earlier Thursday, Coonelly was forced to make the announcement at the worst possible time. He and the organization look like fools.

Not surprisingly, Coonelly defended the extensions. He praised Huntington for the Xavier Nady-Damaso Marte trade, which brought Jose Tabata, Ross Ohlendorf, Jeff Karstens and Daniel McCutchen, and for finding gems Garrett Jones and Evan Meek from other clubs. "Neal had the tough assignment of turning over our roster and building the organization the right way at a time when he had very little to work with. He's had great success in terms of scouting and drafting young players."

As for Russell, Coonelly said, "John has a tremendous, intense passion for winning baseball and developing young players. He is an outstanding teacher. The players respect him, trust him and believe in his leadership."

It might have been fine if that's all Coonelly had said. But in the team's announcement and a later interview, he said, "Contracts are irrelevant. If we believe someone isn't getting the job done, a contract won't prevent us from doing what needs to be done. We'll make a change."

Amazing, isn't it?

The Pirates make what should be an exciting announcement about two key employees and their future. At the same time, they publicly bring up the possibility that one or both guys will be fired, maybe before their extensions even kick in.

What a franchise!

Russell talked a good game after the announcement. "It's a big challenge, but we're [both] very much up to it. We're excited about finishing the process. ... I expect to be in Pittsburgh for a lot of years. So does Neal."

If I'm Huntington or Russell, I'm not sitting too comfortably in my office after hearing what Coonelly had to say.

For their sake, if they do get fired soon, I just hope Coonelly actually, you know, tells them.


Ron Cook: rcook@post-gazette.com


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