A treasure map for the Pirates

I’m pleased to present a guest column from Joe Guzzardi, a Wednesday and Saturday contributor here. Today, he looks at the famous struggles of his hometown team.

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Here’s the problem for the Pittsburgh Pirates, the team I’ve supported for more than half a century.

The Bucs, who once inspired, are closing in on their 18th consecutive losing season, and no one’s surprised anymore.

Preseason forecasts are always grim—last place. In April, its cold and kids are still in school. No one wants to freeze to death watching bad baseball.

The Pirates‘ dilemma is compounded since the successful NHL Penguins hit their stride in April on the way to its annual Stanley Cup run.

Why go to PNC Park to watch the Pirates get hammered in a meaningless game when you can stay home to watch the Penguins on your flat screen in the warmth of your living room?

As baseball begins, the Pirates drift toward the cellar fulfilling the gloomy predictions.

By May, the Pirates are the tenth story on the sport page after two or three about the Pens, a couple of items about the Steelers, the latest major golf tournament news, the Kentucky Derby and the most recent sport scandal (Tiger Woods, Lebron James, Ben Roethlisberger, or Rick Pittino—where did he go anyway?)

Early season Pirate newspaper stories heap scorn on the Bucs for their continued futility, thus further diminishing any possible fan interest.

By the All Star Game, the Pirates are 20 games under .500 and solidly in last place. All the dire spring training forecasts have come true. The Bucco season is over.

During what should be the baseball season’s height, local fans turn their attention to the Steelers and Pitt football and basketball, both projected as national Top Ten teams. Save for Pirate games that offer fireworks or concerts, no one goes.

Since .500 is at least two years away, my question is how to save the Pirates from total irrelevance while regenerating a modicum interest among the few remaining fans.

I have three suggestions:

1) Trade manager John Russell for one of the two Pirate announcers: beloved 1971 World Series hero Steve Blass or better-than-you-remember former major league pitcher Bob Walk (105-81)

Debate swirls around  Russell. Should he or shouldn’t he be fired? Some say Russell’s laid back personality isn’t right for the young Pirates while his defenders wonder what he could do with the team’s limited talent.

By trading Russell, the Pirates could see if the players respond better to other leadership. At the same time, the broadcasting booth would get Russell’s experience, i.e. “With Garrett Jones at the plate, I always…”

It’s been done before. In 1960, the perennial cellar-dwelling Chicago Cubs installed broadcaster Lou Boudreau as manager and put its then-pilot Charlie Grimm behind the microphone.

2) Take another page from the Cubs and rotate Pirate coaches monthly into the manager’s seat

After the 1960 “broadcaster for manager” move landed the Cubs in the second-division for the 14th straight year, the North Siders employed the “college of coaches” during 1961 and 1962 that switched managers on a irregular schedule.

“Managers are expendable,” Cubs owner Phil Wrigley said. “I believe there should be relief managers just like relief pitchers.”

Here’s how it could work for the Pirates: In April, pitching coach Joe Kerrigan takes the helm; in May, third base coach Tony Beasley; in June, bench coach, Gary Varsho, and so on.

3) Make a late season acquisition

Normally only contenders add a crucial veteran to their roster. But the questions facing the lowly Pirates are whether it will edge out the Houston Astros for fifth place in the NL Central or if it will fall below the Baltimore Orioles as 2010’s statistically worst team.

I’m thinking Pedro Martinez would give Corsair fans a rare opportunity to see a future Hall of Famer in Bucco black and gold. I’d expect Martinez could do double duty, namely start and serve as pitching coach to the young Pirates.

My wrinkle is that Martinez should pitch only on Sunday. In 1942, Chicago White Sox Ted Lyons became “Sunday Ted” and pitched on that day alone. Once, Lyons reeled off seven complete games in a row to the delight of his fans who packed Comiskey Park to watch the crafty Hall of Fame veteran.

Full disclosure: Only the Lyons experiment worked.

During three years of manager experimentation, the Cubs finished close to the cellar every year. Boudreau was no better than Grimm and five Cub managers couldn’t produce more wins than one.

Still, I like the idea of buzz about the Pirates during August and September. Once again, fans would be talking about baseball.

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Joe Guzzardi belongs to the Society for American Baseball Research, as well as the Internet Baseball Writers Association of America. Email him at guzzjoe@yahoo.com.

0 thoughts on “A treasure map for the Pirates”

  1. The Pirates have actually been alright at home (22-22), it’s when they go on the road that they absolutely stink (11-38). They’ve actually won more home series than lost… 7 series wins, 6 series losses, 1 series tie. They even took 2 out of 3 from the Phillies in Pittsburgh a couple weeks ago. I’m surprised the Pirates aren’t showing this off & saying “come to the games, we’re better at home”

  2. Only wish Bob Prince was still with us. It would have been wonderful to see how this great “homer”, and manager in the broadcast booth would have actually performed managing from the dugout.
    These days the Bucs need more than a bloop and a bomb.

  3. The Pirates are indeed better at home. And for reasons known only to the Baseball Gods always do well against the Phillies at PNC. But how to market the “We Are Better at Home” plan without giving away that they are terrible over all?

    “Come See Us at PNC—Where We Actually Have a Chance to Win” is a slogan you’re not likely to see anytime soon.

  4. @Vinnie: The Great Bob Prince! His memory lives on at PNC Park. On the Club Level, a section is dedicated to the “Gunner,” Prince’s nickname. Included are a couple of his outlandish sportjackets.

  5. But how to market the “We Are Better at Home” plan without giving away that they are terrible over all?

    At this point, I doubt anyone’s surprised. It’d be a cool move if the Pirates showed they weren’t fazed and made light of their struggles. There could be a “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” themed night at PNC Park to call attention to the odd disparity between home and road play, maybe some made-up award like the NL Central Home Crown, perhaps a gift Ford Topaz for one of the players.

    If I were marketing manager, we’d be doing these kinds of things all the time.

  6. Joe, I had no idea of your significant baseball credentials. Bravo. I went to my first Pirate game at Forbes Field at age 5, but my grandfather and aunt fed me hot dogs and pop, so they took me home early and I have no memories except seeing the field from the stands. But my grandfather, a minor leaguer from Louisville whose uncle, George Hubert “Hubbie” Collins is in the Hall of Fame, persisted and by the early 40s into the 50s I was a die hard fan, frequently going to game to see the likes of Ralph Kiner, Rip Sewall, Friz Ostermueller, and Wally Westlake, but by 1960 I was in NYC working, a young father, taking clients to see the Yankees with Maris,Mantle, Ford,etc! Winning never gets old!

    My father, a banker, got invited to the 7th game of the 1960 World Series in Pittsburgh! Maz did it.

    Thereafter, when I moved to Pittsburgh in the 1960s, I got to meet Joe Brown and watch Roberto often, so I got very proud of the dynasty which the Galbreath Family and Joe built. Sad to see the present condition of that franchise.

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