Analysis: Coaches' firings assert Russell
New Pirates pitching coach Ray Searage talks with Paul Maholm in the second inning Sunday at PNC Park. The team fired coach Joe Kerrigan earlier in the day.
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Perhaps the four most important words spoken Sunday morning about the Pirates' firings of pitching coach Joe Kerrigan and bench coach Gary Varsho were these, from manager John Russell:
"I made the call."
Russell did, indeed, make the call, according to general manager Neal Huntington, who authorized it and supported it emphatically. Those two jointly announced the firings, as well as the interim replacements. Ray Searage, who had been the assistant pitching coach, will take Kerrigan's place, and Jeff Banister, who had been the minor league field coordinator, will take Varsho's place.
In the broader sense, the call was a bold assertion of Russell's status in his job, maybe the boldest of his three-year tenure, instigating the firings of the two men who worked the closest with him, on and off the field.
The message: Do not cross the manager.
According to multiple accounts Sunday, Russell's call was motivated by a perceived lack of loyalty, though Russell declined to discuss any specifics. Several players and others inside the team described scenes on recent road trips to Texas, Oakland and St. Louis where Kerrigan and Varsho either were openly critical of Russell or having mini-meetings with some coaches or players away from Russell.
Russell tends to be the patient, unmoved type, but that apparently changed in St. Louis. Management began discussing the firings as early as Wednesday, and action was taken early Sunday morning.
"It was a very gut-wrenching decision," Russell said, seated in his office with Huntington standing at his side. "There are some issues I've been working through for quite some time now that could not be resolved in a way I felt would be for the betterment of this organization. I respect both men greatly. I lost two friends today. That's tough to deal with. But my main focus is this team, and I felt moving forward that this was the time to do this. With two months left in the season, I wanted to accomplish something this year moving into next year."
Asked if those issues involved loyalty, Russell replied, "Just some issues that I felt we needed to change, things I tried to work through. I'm not going to go into details out of respect of those two men. I'm just going to leave it at that."
Recently, Russell has looked and sounded emboldened on other levels, as well, no doubt fueled by the promising play of the Pirates' rookies Pedro Alvarez, Jose Tabata and Neil Walker. That might have been best evident with his declaration Saturday night after Alvarez's three-run, walk-off home run in the 10th inning to beat Colorado, 8-7: "Finally, I think the baseball gods have looked down on us, and said, 'Enough's enough.'"
There was speculation about Russell's future in mid-July, when the Pirates took a seven-game losing streak into a 10-game homestand. But an offensive outburst early in that homestand, fueled largely by those rookies, was followed by adamant denials from the front office that Russell was in jeopardy, and the matter never seemed to arise again.
Huntington's statement on the firings Sunday: "Both Gary and Joe are quality baseball men who have worked hard during their time with the organization. However, JR felt strongly, and I agreed, that they were no longer the right fit for our staff and a change at this time was in the best interest of the club."
He, too, declined to discuss specifics.
Asked how important it is to the Pirates to have a unified focus, he replied: "Two separate answers. One, and not addressing the question specifically, there were some issues JR was trying to work through. It's not something that popped up overnight. He obviously made me aware of those issues, and I support the decision. Second part, completely different answer, is that we talk a lot about cohesiveness."
Kerrigan and Varsho were fired before the clubhouse was open to the media and, thus, unavailable for comment.
There was a baseball component to this, as well, certainly regarding Kerrigan.
Kerrigan, hired in October 2008, oversaw some of the worst starting pitching in franchise history, with the rotation a combined 21-58 with a 5.38 ERA, both figures the second-worst in Major League Baseball, better than only the Baltimore Orioles. He also oversaw clear regressions with two of the Pirates' most important young pitchers, Charlie Morton and Brad Lincoln, both now back with Class AAA Indianapolis after failed stints with the Pirates.
In the case of Lincoln, Huntington cited at the time of his demotion July 25 "some mechanical changes at the major league level" as being responsible for a drop in velocity, a jarring public criticism of an active coach.
The primary knock against Kerrigan, according to several sources, was that he emphasized batter-pitcher matchups above the pitcher's mechanics and mental approach. He relied extensively on statistics and technology, able to cite off the top of his head if the other team's No. 8 hitter could handle an 0-2 changeup with a runner aboard second.
There was interaction with the pitchers regarding mechanics, and most of the pitchers had no issue with him, but his matchup approach might have been a better fit for a contender than for a team desperate to turn young starters into reliable starters.
Kerrigan's replacement is as different as can be.
Searage, 55, has spent 33 years in professional baseball, the past eight rising through the Pirates' system. He was promoted from Class AAA Indianapolis to the Pirates this past offseason to get what management described as on-the-job training as Kerrigan's assistant. Most of his work came in the bullpen.
He is old-school to the core, and unapologetically so.
"Sometimes, I fly by the seat of my pants, but don't read into that," Searage said with a laugh. "I go by my instincts, by my relationships that I develop with the pitchers. I get their feedback, and it's not my way or the highway. It's our way. We're trying to create a winning situation and pick off some things, whether they're mechanical flaws or sequences."
Asked if he is the tinkering type: "I try not to do that. Minor adjustments are what I look for. Usually, if you take care of one, two will fall right into place and, before you know it, it makes it a lot easier to execute pitches. Joe has taught me a lot on numbers and percentages, and I'll try to integrate that, too."
Russell and others praised Searage.
"Ray's been here, and he has a feel for the league a little bit now, a feel for the staff. We feel like he knows the system, knows where we are."
"I'll tell you this: Ray Searage has the confidence of every guy in here," catcher Ryan Doumit said.
Varsho, part of Russell's original staff and hired in November 2007, was responsible for instructing and positioning the outfielders in addition to his duties as bench coach. The general view of his work in the latter capacity was glowing, though he often rubbed players the wrong way in something of a bad-cop role in meting out discipline. This season, he engaged shortstop Ronny Cedeno and right fielder Lastings Milledge in heated arguments, visible to the public, in or near the Pirates' dugout.
Here again, Varsho's replacement provides quite the contrast.
Banister, 45, is in his 25th year with the organization and is among its most respected and beloved people in any capacity. He has served as a player -- including a single in his only major league at-bat July 23, 1991, at Three Rivers Stadium, for a 1.000 career average -- as well as a minor league manager and coach, and he also has spent time on the major league staff. Each year in Bradenton, Fla., it is Banister who gives the annual pep talk to the newest minor leaguers about the Pirates' storied history and what it will take to become the next Willie Stargell or Roberto Clemente.
Banister was traveling to join the team Tuesday in San Diego and unavailable to comment.
"Banny, the leadership he has shown as field coordinator, the leadership he's shown in our system, the dedication, the drive, the commitment to the Pirates as a whole, it's a great addition," Russell said.
Huntington said both coaches "have the opportunity to shake the interim tag," depending on what they show the rest of this season.
The only other related shift: Bullpen coach Luis Dorante will resume those duties full-time, having carried that title but actually having worked more with the catchers after Searage's arrival.
First Published August 9, 2010 12:00 am