In nearly three years as the Pirates' manager, John Russell has lost and lost and lost. His record is 182-293 and, by the time this most miserable season ends Oct. 3 in Miami, he could have an astounding 300 losses in three seasons.
The team has played better of late, with a five-game winning streak preceding the 9-2 loss to the St. Louis Cardinals Thursday at PNC Park, but it is 53-99 and virtually assured of the eighth 100-loss record in franchise history as well as one of the most lopsided run differentials in Major League Baseball history.
In an interview with the Post-Gazette Thursday morning at PNC Park, Russell was asked if he felt he had earned the right to return for another season.
"It's a tough question because I've never looked at it that way, of earning the right," Russell replied. "I do this because it's what I'm supposed to do. I don't have a reason to believe I won't continue with this. Whatever happens with this team, it's going to happen. In the near future, things are going to be a lot of fun around here. And, yeah, I'd love to be a part of it."
He motioned to the clubhouse, just outside his office.
"If the players respond, that's all I can look at. They know what I expect of them. They know I expect them to play hard, and that we're going to do things the right way, even though it might not always look like it. They have a lot of respect, and that's always been my driving force. They know I've got their back, and all I need is for you to bust your butt. These guys have done that."
"Do I deserve to be back? ... I'm here. I'm here, so I don't think about if I'm not here. I'm under contract for next year, and I have no indication from anybody in the organization that that's going to be different. All we talk about is what we need to do today, the offseason camps, spring training ... all I'm looking forward to is the planning."
Russell is under contract for 2011, but team president Frank Coonelly, the man who will make that decision, told the Post-Gazette a month ago that "nobody's job is absolutely safe" when asked about Russell and general manager Neal Huntington, also under contract for 2011. Coonelly has declined to discuss the matter since then, although there is a growing internal perception that Russell's job is in greater immediate jeopardy than Huntington's.
Russell was asked if he took pride in the team's clearly demonstrated spirit in recent weeks.
"A lot," he said. "We've taken pride in that all year. But, when you're losing, things like that can go unnoticed. And some of the times, we just didn't play well. When you don't hit, especially, you look flat. It doesn't matter how well you play otherwise, how clean ... if you don't swing the bat or get just three hits, well, they didn't play hard. I've been, for the most part, pleased with the way the team has competed all year, with all the losing, all the questions about the losing, about the attitude."
He mentioned, in particular, the young core of everyday players, including rookies Neil Walker, Jose Tabata and Pedro Alvarez, as well as center fielder Andrew McCutchen, in his first full season.
"This last month, month-and-a-half, they're starting to get the taste of competing. I don't think they're still in the survival mode, at least not players like McCutchen and Garrett Jones. They've been here for a little bit. But it was still a case of, OK, here I am, now what? Here's a different city, a different situation. How do I handle it? But they've also fed off each other. If it were just one or two guys, maybe this would be a slower process. But they're a close-knit group, they're doing this together, and I think that can actually make things go faster."
He cited back-to-back victories Aug. 24-25 against St. Louis, back when the Cardinals still were contending, as pivotal.
"That's where things started to turn, mentally and physically, and our guys started competing with teams that, really, from a record standpoint, should have been beating up on us. And then you could see we're standing toe-to-toe with some of these teams."
Beginning with those August wins against the Cardinals, the Pirates are 12-15, including four losses in extra innings. There also have been six losses by six runs or more, including Thursday.
"We were doing a lot of things well, but we kept losing," Russell said of the early part of this month. "We played three great games in Cincinnati, did everything right, and they took two out of three. We played well in New York except for one really bad inning but lost all four. We'd get close, and we'd lose. But we kept fighting."
Then, another last-place team, the Arizona Diamondbacks, arrived in Pittsburgh this past weekend, and the Pirates recorded their first sweep since early May.
"That's when they realized we could get close and win. We really believe we can win now. I'm really proud of the way they've stayed together, continued to talk, to compete. It's a great group with a great future, and I'm looking forward to that future here."