Analysis: Tracy's future with Pirates was not in cards
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June 24, Anaheim, Calif.: The Pirates are less than 24 hours removed from a 10-1 loss, and strength coach Frank Velasquez is working out feverishly in the exercise room of the Angel Stadium visitors' clubhouse ... alone. The room next to him, a smallish cafeteria, is packed to the walls. About eight players are engaged in a pair of card games. Several others are watching.
Aug. 24 Houston: The Pirates are less than 24 hours removed from a scintillating, 15-inning triumph against the Astros, the clubhouse is deadly serious, some players studying the opponent on laptops, others preparing equipment, and Jim Tracy engaged in an upbeat manner throughout the facility.
Sept. 25, Pittsburgh: Neal Huntington, freshly introduced as the new general manager, addresses the players in their clubhouse, raising at least once the subject of the professionalism he expects.
Ten minutes later: No sooner is Huntington done and the clubhouse open to the media than four players circle a table for another round of cards. One is reliever Romulo Sanchez, a recent call-up from Class AA.
Make no mistake that, when new team president Frank Coonelly spoke early in his tenure about a need to change the Pirates' "culture in the clubhouse," he was not taking a wild stab at assessing the situation. He saw it and heard about it for nearly a month.
There was little leadership from the players.
Maybe even less from the manager's office.
And that, without a doubt, became a dominant factor in the decision to fire Tracy, as Coonelly confirmed yesterday when he said of the clubhouse, "Since coming on board, I did conclude that there was a lack of leadership."
On those rare occasions when things went well for the Pirates, Tracy stood front and center, often too much so. Outfielder Nate McLouth's offensive surge in August, for example, was attributed to hitting coach Jeff Manto's adjusting his hips. Paul Maholm's quality pitching in the second half was attributed to pitching coach Jim Colborn tightening his delivery.
But when things went poorly, which was most of the time, Tracy seldom discussed the staff's role. He never mentioned the coaches' involvement in first baseman Adam LaRoche's down-then-up 2007 until it had hit the upward curve. He never could explain how outfielder Jason Bay mysteriously regressed. He bristled, too, at the universally held perception that Colborn's inexplicable tinkering with Zach Duke's pitching mechanics in the spring of 2006 transformed a promising rookie into a punching bag.
And the clubhouse itself, in those down periods, ran on auto-pilot.
No one described it better than LaRoche, who genuinely likes Tracy, in the season's final weekend: "If there's anything we need to get under control -- and it's nothing major -- is that he's so laid-back that I think he can be taken advantage of. And that's probably more our fault than his. It's the older guys in here who need to address things."
That practice is the norm in Major League Baseball clubhouses, but it starts with the manager.
When Lloyd McClendon held the position with the Pirates, anytime a reporter would ask him to identify his team's leader, he would unflinchingly reply, "You're looking at him."
When Tracy called a July summit as his Pirates were early in a 2-14 nose dive, he summoned seven team leaders -- nearly a third of the active roster -- to set goals for the second half. That could have meant that the team really had no leaders, or that Tracy was too out of touch to identify them, or that he went the all-inclusive way for fear of offending anyone.
No matter which, it reflected poorly. As several veterans pointed out in the season's waning days, it is a challenge for any player or players to lead if they do not feel they have the firm backing of the manager. In this case, many felt Tracy either was unaware or did not care that such a void existed.
To be sure, the topic of leadership was one Tracy never broached without being asked.
The strange parallel to all of this was that LaRoche was far from the only player who liked Tracy. Most of them did, and it was easy to see why: He has a warm, fatherly personality, a caring for those around him to the extent that he would remember the names of security personnel in each road city and, above all, he maintained an even keel no matter the Pirates' misfortunes. His voice might not have been raised in two years.
He also would go out of his way to excuse his players' glaring lapses in effort, even to extremes. On May 11, 2006, when a reporter questioned Tracy about Jeromy Burnitz jogging to first on a grounder, Tracy replied, "Did you think he was going to be safe?"
Similar to the clubhouse issue, that approach was abused more than it was appreciated. Some players simply stopped hustling because they knew there would be no repercussion.
Early this season, Tracy ordered the removal of a ping-pong table that had been in the clubhouse for more than a year. Otherwise, the rules were minimal: A ban on cell-phone conversations in the clubhouse became ignored by nearly everyone. Pitcher Tony Armas would place his Bluetooth device above his ear before addressing the media. One player -- though no one will identify him -- was said to leave the dugout during games to check voice mail at his locker stall.
Tracy relishes the tactical aspects of the game, as if baseball were akin to managing a chess board. And, although his lineups and late-inning bullpen usage were too old-school for some, few took issue with his strategic work. Blessed with an encyclopedic memory, he could effortlessly see four batters ahead on the opponents' card and map out which reliever might face which pinch-hitter.
Quite curiously, the shortcomings that Tracy had in personnel or instructional matters seemed to originate from his never-ending emotional tie with the 2004 Los Angeles Dodgers, the $100 million team he managed to the West Division title.
He spoke about them incessantly, to the media and to the players. He even tried to recreate them, it seemed.
Before Tracy had donned a Pirates uniform, in the winter of 2006, he met with center fielder Chris Duffy and told Duffy he should play like Dave Roberts, the Dodgers' leadoff man, even though all Duffy and Roberts had in common was being fast. Among the instructions: Duffy, a line-drive hitter, was told to pound the ball into the ground. He failed miserably, quit baseball for a month and has yet to recover.
Tracy told shortstop Jack Wilson, a three-time runner-up for the Gold Glove, that he did not like his approach to ground balls, that it should be more like Cesar Izturis of the 2004 Dodgers. Wilson had his worst defensive year in 2006 and, at Tracy's behest, Izturis was acquired from the Chicago Cubs this past July. It was at Tracy's urging that Wilson nearly was traded to Detroit in late July, after which Wilson batted .401 in the season's final two months.
There was more: Jose Castillo was told to be like Adrian Beltre. Bench players were told to be versatile like Jose Hernandez, who also was acquired. Even Tracy's batting orders were modeled based on profiles of the 2004 Dodgers.
Another fallout of that connection, possibly, was that a mostly inexperienced group of Pirates was expected to perform -- and behave -- just as those veteran Dodgers did, without extra instruction or attention.
Catcher Ronny Paulino clearly regressed defensively from last year to this year. He was worse at blocking pitches, at preventing stolen bases and, most glaring, at holding onto throws from the outfield. When Tracy was asked in June if the staff had been working with Paulino on the latter, he replied that they did drills simulating the play in spring training.
"We do it enough," Tracy said.
Paulino never was seen addressing that play in an on-field workout all summer.
Tracy's strategic skills, demeanor and experience might bring him another opportunity to manage in the majors. But that team probably will need to be talented, experienced and prepared to manage its own clubhouse.
And one or two members of those 2004 Dodgers would not hurt.
First Published October 6, 2007 12:00 am