Smizik: Pirates can't change culture with talk
Share with others:
The New York Yankees recently offered contracts to Alex Rodriguez, Jorge Posada and Mariano Rivera that totaled close to $400 million. It was the largest potential team spending spree since last offseason when the Chicago Cubs paid out about $230 million to attract new players or keep old ones. The Cubs' willingness to spend was rewarded. They went from last place to first in the National League Central Division and joined the Yankees in the postseason.
On a much smaller scale, but equally telling, the world champion Boston Red Sox earlier this month exercised their option on pitcher Julian Taveras and agreed to pay him almost $4 million next season. They did this although Taveras barely figures in their plans, and proof of that was he was not included on any of their three postseason rosters.
The Red Sox, like the Yankees and Cubs, are doing what they feel is necessary to return to the postseason by exercising a well-known baseball rule: You have to spend money to win.
Which brings us to the Pirates, whose intent also is to win but not necessarily by spending much more money than they have in the recent past. This means they'll again have one of the lowest payrolls in baseball. The Pirates have indicated they will not venture into the high-priced, free-agent market, not that any such players would agree to play for them. Nor does their current roster call for any significant pay increases.
Which means, the Pirates payroll will be about $50 million, with almost 20 percent of that going to pitcher Matt Morris.
This doesn't mean the Pirates don't have a plan. Oh, they have one for sure, and they're sticking to it. To listen to their new management team, turning a loser into a winner won't be hard. They're simply going to change the culture of the clubhouse.
When hired in September, president Frank Coonelly said there was a need to "change the entire culture" of the Pirates.
Earlier this month, when introduced as manager, John Russell said, "It is my responsibility to restore the culture of pride and passion in the clubhouse."
Oh, that that culture were so important or that it were so easily changed.
Jim Tracy made almost exactly the same point when he took over as manager in 2005. He thought his techniques, and those of his coaches, would have the kind of impact that turns a loser into a winner. Tracy was fired after extending the Pirates' consecutive losing streak to 15 seasons.
You don't change culture with talk.
Go back to 1993, the beginning of the losing. The Pirates were coming off three consecutive division titles. They had one of the best managers in baseball in Jim Leyland. No one could doubt the culture in the clubhouse was excellent. In fact, with the departure of Barry Bonds and the return of such solid baseball citizens as Andy Van Slyke, Jay Bell, Jeff King and Don Slaught, the clubhouse only figured to be better.
Yet the Pirates went from 96-66 in 1992 to 75-87 in 1993 and have not won since.
The culture in the clubhouse means almost nothing.
The players on the field mean almost everything.
The notion that a change in attitude will make a startling difference is a ruse, the only one left for the Pirates to keep the fans who value good baseball interested. If anything, it will be more difficult to change the culture in the clubhouse because the Pirates will have pretty much the same cast of players next season as last. These guys have been beaten down by the losing to the point it will be difficult for them to embrace any new program, no matter how convincing Russell might be
Russell understands the enormity of the task. He has been here before. He was the team's third base coach for three seasons, ending in 2005.
"We're going to compete," Russell insisted the day he was hired. "I know people are going to look at me like, 'This guy's stupid.'
"I've been here. I know what it's like. But that's my goal."
Player personalities are molded by many forces. When Jason Kendall joined the Pirates in 1996 he had an upbeat, positive attitude and he remained that way for a number of years. But the losing wore down Kendall. He turned into an unhappy player, whose attitude, although not intentionally, dragged down the clubhouse. Kendall played the game as hard as anyone, and he played it the right way. But he was defeated by the losing.
That's the culture that remains in the Pirates' clubhouse. There's only one way to change it, and it's not talk. It's better players. Better players cost money.
The same rule of baseball that applies to the Yankees, Cubs and Red Sox also applies to the Pirates -- whether they want to acknowledge it or not.
First Published November 25, 2007 12:00 am