by Wilbur Miller
SOME of the discussions here recently led me to think about the reasons for the Pirates’ plight over the past 13 years. Much of the discussion centers, of course, on bad decisions at the GM level, because as fans that’s what we notice: trades, free agent signings and the like. When you’re a Pirate fan, these moves can take on added significance, because they’ve been so bad most of the time. Most baseball fans probably don’t even know what the Rule 5 draft is, but I’ll bet virtually all more-than-casual Pirate fans do.
I don’t think focusing entirely on player moves really gets to the heart of the problem, though. That’s not just me, either. The St. Petersburg Times ran a series last March on what’s wrong with the Devil Rays. The opening article focused on the owner, and started right off with comments from industry execs saying that when you have no success over a lengthy period, there has to be something wrong right at the top. The article made the point very firmly that chronic failure comes from upper management.
So if you want to look at what’s caused the Pirates’ soon-to-be 13-year losing streak, you can either look at the very different sets of bad decisions that were made under Cam Bonifay and Dave Littlefield, or you can focus on the larger problem of an ownership that’s responsible for those situations. The mere fact that the team has had a consistently poor record under two very different GMs, by itself, should indicate that the real problem may lie higher up. Bonifay and Littlefield couldn’t be much more different, in terms of both their personalities and their approach to baseball issues, yet the Pirates right now seem to be settling into the same, unsolvable pattern of chronic losing under Littlefield that existed under Bonifay.
I look at the issue as a series of problems that ownership caused or allowed to exist. With that in mind, here’s a sort of undated timeline that attempts to explain what got the Pirates where they are today, and why the ownership is responsible for the team’s problems:
1. Ownership failed to identify the team’s needs in the GM’s office. Bonifay wasn’t qualified to run a team, or at least not this one. His experience was mainly as a scout and the Pirates, with their budgetary problems, needed somebody with strong business and organizational instincts. The result was, among other things, an organization that was staffed very poorly, especially the scouting and development areas. Until late in his tenure, Bonifay never really had a scouting director. His drafts were run, in some instances, by people who were obviously unqualified. He didn’t settle on a capable, experienced scouting director until he brought in Mickey White to run the department in his last three years. Bonifay never had a competent development system, leading to poor coaching and bad decision-making in trying to develop prospects.
2. The scouting and development budget was totally inadequate until White took over. The Latin American scouting operation, once the best in the game, fell apart. The team also was forced to make signability picks in the draft, culminating in the ridiculous choice of Clint Johnston in the first round.
3. Bonifay had the right plan (build through the farm system with power bats and arms), but was incompetent at implementing it. He was hampered by a manager, Gene Lamont, who disliked rookies and hated playing them, leading to an inability to integrate young players into the major league team. Bonifay made numerous bad choices about veteran players, as he seemed to develop an increasing inability to decide whether he was rebuilding or trying to win right away. This problem may have stemmed in part from interference by ownership, which became paranoid about young players after the team’s late-season collapse in 1998. This led to still further reluctance to follow the ostensible plan of building through young players, which was in fact the only viable option the Pirates had, and the only one they still have. Ownership failed to recognize Bonifay’s shortcomings and allowed the team to lose all sense of direction.
4. In the wake of Bonifay’s firing, the team went back to being cheapskates in the scouting and development areas. It abandoned the highly successful strategy pursued by White of targeting difficult-to-sign players in the later rounds and then signing them. It decided not to pursue top prospects in the international market, including the Dominican, a decision that has cut the team off from significant sources of talent and left it severely handicapped in comparison to other teams.
5. Financial mismanagement led to the disastrous decision to give away Aramis Ramirez. This had two devastating consequences. One, obviously, was the loss of the most precious commodity in baseball, the shortage of which is now by far and away the Pirates’ single biggest problem: a young, middle-of-the-order hitter. The second consequence was the spin campaign — or to be more blunt, lying — about the reason for dumping Ramirez, as Littlefield spent extensive time telling the fans that the move was made to allow the team to bring in better players. Since then, the team’s personnel moves have been influenced heavily by (often inaccurately) perceived fan reaction. The Pirates continue to believe that their fans don’t want to see young players and prefer to see mediocre veterans. This is all a direct result of the team’s lack of adequate financing and foolish decision to spend money on veterans in 2003 in the hopes of jumping into contention and increasing attendance.
6. Bonifay was replaced by a GM with firmly entrenched, unimaginative, traditionalist views, who lacks the analytical ability or inclination to search for ways to succeed with limited resources. Little is known about the reasons that went into Littlefield’s hiring, but it shows an inability on the part of ownership to grasp the Pirates’ need for innovative thinking. Given Littlefield’s propensity for, and skill at, spin games, it also seems likely that his hiring had a great deal to do with his ability to tell ownership what it wanted to hear. Some rumors at the time held that any GM candidate who was honest enough to tell Kevin McClatchy that turning the team around would take time was quickly shown the door. As a result of this decision, the Pirates have made no attempt to find approaches that might work for a low-revenue team, and continue to employ the same personnel philosophies as teams like the Yankees, only without the money. Under Littlefield, the Pirates overvalue veterans and major league experience. This tendency is especially damaging to a franchise that can only afford veteran players whom no other team wants, thus consistently leaving it with bottom-of-the-barrel players. The scouting approach is rigidly skewed toward tools, especially speed, which is the least useful tool. The team’s scouting approach, in contrast to more successful organizations, places little emphasis on performance, leading to terrible decisions like the one to let go of Chris Shelton. As a result, the team under Littlefield has had a series of poor drafts. The rigid adherence to traditional notions, like “pitching is 90% of the game,” has led to bad approaches like trying to build the farm system almost entirely by accumulating young pitchers, baseball’s most unreliable commodity. This approach has not succeeded for any other team in recent years that I’ve been able to identify. The overall management of the team shows almost no inclination toward analysis of any kind, and instead seems to rely entirely on clichés. In my view, this is an ownership problem, because the owners are not insisting that management strategy be based on principles or philosophies that can be shown analytically to be viable. There also is no accountability, as shown by Ed Creech’s continued presence as scouting director despite bad drafting and a completely unproductive international scouting program. Like the team’s scouts, ownership shows no inclination to use performance as a measure.
7. A perverted economic system built on subsidies from taxpayers and successful teams allows the ownership to make a healthy profit with a bad product. The Pirates’ owners have found that they can make money simply by maintaining a minimal payroll and ensuring that the team remains just talented enough to win 70-75 games each year. There is no economic incentive for the team to take any approach that might lead to greater success. Ownership’s goal of simply “not being too bad” informs nearly every decision the team makes, effectively eliminating any realistic chance of greater success.
This can all be pretty easily summed up. The Pirates started off with ownership that was unqualified from a business or leadership standpoint, and inadequately financed, to run a major league team. That evolved, through extensive bungling and eventually the disastrous Ramirez trade, into a cynical, greedy, small-minded ownership that has found a formula for producing healthy profit at the cost of a consistently bad product, with no motivation to improve the product. The team, like its ownership, has gone from directionless to a tight, unwavering focus on the wrong direction.
The evolution in the focus of the ownership has been reflected in the team’s fortunes. Under Bonifay, the team at times truly was close to being a good team, especially in mid-1999 at the time of Jason Kendall’s ankle injury. The lack of direction and some bad luck, however, caused the team to veer quickly toward disaster, culminating in the 100-loss season in 2001. Since then, the tighter focus on being just mediocre enough to keep attendance from collapsing has produced much more consistent, mediocre teams that seem unable to break out of the 72-win cycle. These are fundamentally ownership problems and won’t be solved until there’s a different ownership.