Pirates fire title-winning manager at Class AA Altoona
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MIAMI -- The Pirates fired Matt Walbeck as manager of Class AA Altoona late Wednesday night, less than two weeks removed from an Eastern League championship that provided a rare winning sight in a losing organization.
And management did so with full conviction, according to multiple sources Thursday, because of a long-held internal view that Walbeck was not fully following the prescribed development programs of the minor-league system. Most notable, according to the sources, was a lack of extra work before games. Another was a lack of communication with players and the Pirates' staff.
General manager Neal Huntington, accompanying the Pirates on this final trip, declined to offer specifics for the firing, which was made official late Wednesday night with a phone call to Walbeck from director of player development Kyle Stark.
"We appreciate Matt's efforts and wish him the best in his future endeavors but felt that it was best that we allow him to pursue other opportunities," Huntington said.
Huntington added he was aware that the move would not be well received, especially in Altoona, where Walbeck was popular in the community, and where the pitching-rich Curve went 82-60 before beating Trenton for its first championship. But Huntington said the Pirates preferred to make the move now to give Walbeck the best chance to hook up with another employer, rather than waiting closer to the Oct. 31 expiration of his contract.
Walbeck, 40, just completed his second year as Altoona's manager. In 2008, he was third base coach for the Texas Rangers. In the previous four years, he was a manager in the Detroit Tigers' system, where he was his league's manager of the year three times in four years.
Walbeck said he was "shocked" upon hearing the news from Stark.
"Kyle just told me that, hey, you're driven, you have aspirations, you have goals, and we feel it's best for your development and growth to move on," Walbeck recalled. "It's funny in this business where you think you're in, and then you're out."
Walbeck expressed pride in the Curve's overall results. Among the individual highlights were producing the Pirates' minor-league pitcher of the year, Rudy Owens, and player of the year, outfielder Alex Presley, now in the majors.
Walbeck also described his pregame preparation and routine as "great," adding, "One of my main objectives this season was to follow the guidelines within the minor-league system. Early ground balls. Bunting. Pitchers' fielding. I felt like I became a better teacher because of it. Look at the innings pitched. Look at the games played. You can go up and down the roster and see the number of players who were healthy and realize, within that, that it was a successful season, for wins and for development."
Of communication, he added, "I've always communicated everything."
According to the sources, the Pirates were disappointed with Walbeck in 2009 but decided to give him a second chance.
Under Stark, the Pirates' system has had the air of rigid discipline, from strict enforcement of rules to pitch counts to all players being required to wear their socks high. Other managers and coaches in the past have criticized the Pirates for being too rigid and for not allowing instructors to be individuals.
Huntington's stance is that managers and coaches "can be individuals within our framework," he said Thursday, "but it all has to work together. Winning games and championships in the minors is nice, but our goal is to get players prepared for games in Pittsburgh."
Walbeck had told the Altoona Mirror recently that he was interested in moving up from Class AA, but he and the Pirates said a promotion was never discussed. The Pirates were under the perception that Walbeck wanted to move up, perhaps from the Mirror article, which is why Stark told him in the phone call that he could pursue other opportunities to move up and that none was available in the Pittsburgh organization.
"This never was about me trying to take someone's job or anything like that," Walbeck said. "My aspirations are personal, and it's not something I ever brought up with the Pirates."
First Published September 30, 2010 10:55 am