Sunday, January 30, 2011

Pittsburgh Pirates Fest Photos and Clint Hurdle vs Recent History

If Pirates management was ever on the fence about firing John Russell following the end of the 2010 season, this weekend's annual Pirate Fest points to a potentially-huge deciding factor for Coonelly, Huntington and Nutting: after a 106-loss season, even these three men, with their collective nerves of steel, couldn't bear the thought of facing another Pirates Fest Q&A with John Russell as the Pirates manager.
A quick glance at this blog's archives will reveal that I have always been one of JR's few supporters. I never blamed him for the Pirates' poor performance; I don't think that any manager is capable of squeezing water from a stone, and even if you're of the opinion that a truly great manager can make the difference of as many as ten wins, we're still looking at a 96-loss season this past year.
I even disagree with the most popular condemnation of JR's coaching: his seemingly-apathetic personality. Every frustrated Pirates fan looking for an obvious object of scorn readily found it here. Win or lose, JR's voice rarely wavered from its made-for-guided-meditation baritone. Fans found it impossible to identify with a man keeping a level head on a sinking ship, and many longed for the days of Lloyd McClendon skinning his knuckles as he ripped first base out of the ground.
I always felt that JR's demeanor was highly desirable in terms of maintaining calm in the clubhouse despite disaster. It might not have been what the fans wanted, but no kind of personality will make anyone forget about 18 consecutive losing seasons for very long.

This is the big challenge that Clint Hurdle will be facing soon enough. Unlike Russell, Hurdle has huge charisma; he could be the best color commentator in sports radio if he so desired, and his way with a crowd instinctively makes me want to go and write his name on a ballot for something or other. However, even the most charismatic of personalities can be rendered entirely ineffectual in the face of a sufficiently-awful record. I don't anticipate the Pirates breaking .500 in 2011, and we will soon learn what Clint Hurdle is truly made of.

Quick aside: God, please prove me wrong about this like you did when I predicted Andy LaRoche and Lastings Milledge having breakout seasons in 2010.

Clint Hurdle is much more than good banter and an enthusiastic attitude, of course. He has a clear vision of what kind of team he wants the Pirates to be. Hurdle thinks that the Pirates need to break out of their losing mentality that has characterized so much of their last few seasons. Furthermore, Hurdle has expressed that he is more than willing to pull a guy from the starting lineup if they begin to struggle, no matter who they are. Take heed, Cedeno. And, apparently, Ryan Doumit.

Hearing a member of the Pirates management earn applause after nearly every one of his responses during the hour-long Q&A was a new kind of experience for everyone in attendance, Huntington and Coonelly included. In the past, these interactions between management and fans have had the tendency to become intensely awkward affairs by the end of which I have always become better-acquainted with the tops of whatever pair of shoes I happened to be wearing. In stark contrast, this weekend's Q&A sessions were largely positive, even for Huntington and Coonelly.
Hurdle is honest enough to acknowledge this ongoing honeymoon between himself and the Pirates fans, at one point making a remark something along the lines of, "We'll see how far it lasts into the season".
It is very good that he realizes this, and that he's willing to admit it.

Clint Hurdle is the kind of guy a fan can get excited about, and that has been sorely missed for far too long with this franchise. Despite my previous praise of John Russell, I will readily acknowledge that he was never the type to inspire this kind of excitement, and after all these years, perhaps this shortcoming ended up being more than enough to necessitate his firing.

But what happens if this team underperforms again in 2011?

Consider this possible scenario: Ohlendorf, McDonald and Correia start off strong, but Maholm continues to struggle. Lincoln and Morton start off better than last year, but they still perform well beneath the expectations that once followed them. Meanwhile, Alvarez continues to hit, but his lack of range at third base becomes an issue that grows in severity due to continued inconsistency from Cedeno. Let's say that Overbay and Diaz manage to hold it down defensively; we are still left with Alvarez as the only real power hitter, which means that the Pirates are once again stuck getting wins through small ball and dealing with a bunch of contact pitchers backed by a defense with more than a few holes.
I don't think many fans would be pleased with this situation, and keep in mind that it's by no means the worst case scenario. If last year has taught us anything, the proverbial "worst case scenario" could absolutely come close to happening again. I didn't even mention the possibility that Chris Snyder might continue to underperform, for instance, or that Tabata and Walker might regress. And there's always the chance that any of our new major-league acquisitions might bomb in a manner similar to Aki Iwamura.
If the Pirates begin to disappoint again in 2011, Hurdle could quickly find himself in a very difficult situation wherein he takes the brunt of the blame for a disappointing team that he can only do so much to improve. He may have to pull rabbits from a hat in order to avoid becoming a human lightning rod and ultimately suffering the same fate in three years as did JR.
I don't mean to nay say, but I like to temper my optimism. I want to believe in Hurdle and the off-season shift in focus to the improvement of the Pirates' performance as the team will exist in 2011, but logic dictates that a 106-loss team can only improve so much from one year to the next. Even if the Pirates improve to 90 losses, putting up an extremely-impressive improvement of 16 wins, will this kind of progress be enough for the fans in this city?
It will be interesting to see how Hurdle's enthusiasm and charisma translates in less-favorable fan interactions. And let's face it: in the coming season, chances are that Hurdle will find himself in this kind of situation at some point or another. Let's hope he does a better job of ameliorating the disgruntled fan base than JR, because as with any other relationship, good feelings can sour oh so quickly.

On the other hand, I am very excited to see how Hurdle plays out here, and at the end of the day, excitement and intrigue is what any fan wants from their team, especially after such a prolonged period of stagnation.

And now-onto the photos!

No more Nyjer, no more Lastings, no more Andy, and Tabata is still learning English: Andrew McCutchen is now the host of the annual Guitar Hero competition.
Clint Hurdle and Evan Meek meet the fans.

The vaguely-demonic-looking giant Parrot bouncey house.
"I'll trade you my free popcorn-and-hot dog voucher for that signed Aki Iwamura baseball".
Garrett Jones encourages an apparently-perturbed Pirates fan during a game at the Fan Fest stage.

Another fan competes for a fancy baseball cap.
The challenge: knock all of these cups off of this table using the air expelled from an inflated balloon. This is not a healthy shade of red.
Even a balloon inflated by a professional athlete's huge lung capacity is no match for the plastic cups. A crowd of hundreds looks on.
Jones marvels at the man who finally defeats the cups. As did the rest of us. It really was a tough challenge. Or maybe that's just my asthmatic lungs talking.
Jones on the mic.

The next challenge: empty a box of tissues one-by-one in sixty seconds.
I'm not even going to attempt to explain this challenge, but this guy once again prevailed.
The final challenge: keep three balloons in the air for sixty seconds. This is just not possible, in my opinion. Once the balloons collide, it's all over.
He still did a pretty good job of avoiding the inevitable, however.
But alas.
The line for the autographs when it was still fairly short.
Ross Ohlendorf looking sketchy at the start of the We Are Fam-a-Lee Feud.
Jeff Karstens picks the members of his 'family' from the crowd.
Ohlendorf meets his temporary "son" for the first time.
Karstens and his "kids" attempt to figure out the all-time third-best Pirates third baseman.

Ohlendorf wins (2 and 11!), and Brad Lincoln takes the stage.
Clint Hurdle gesticulates.

No one ever mentions what great heads of hair the Pirates Front Office happen to possess. I know plenty of guys my age whose hair would run in fear from what these guys have going on up top.
Coonelly suddenly finds himself to be the second-best orator in the Pirates front office.
Fam-A-Lee Feud day Two: Neil Walker and his temporary family.
Jeff Karstens realizes the futility of trying to beat a Pittsburgh native at a game of Pirates trivia.

Evan Meek takes the stage during the Pirates Players Q&A. He is apparently very excited to do so.

Very excited.

Ohlendorf waves hello to the crowd.
Kevin Correia takes the stage.
Tabata, proud owner of fifteen new pounds of muscle.
Andrew McCutchen, best center fielder in all of major league baseball.
And, in the opinion of Neil Walker, possessor of the best hair in baseball. Somewhere, Manny Ramirez gets pissed off.

Tabata's ink.
Andrew McCutchen ponders a post-baseball career. His response? "I'd probably produce Charlie Morton's music".

Players react to one of Hurdle's many funnies.

Tabata's favorite football team: "Black and Yellow". High fives and cheers ensued.

James McDonald listening to Clint Hurdle.
When asked about clubhouse nicknames, McCutchen informs the crowd that he enjoys saying "DOOORRRFFFF" in response to many of Ohlendorf's comments. Ohlendorf's chagrin is evident.
Rocco DeMaro asks Morton, "Which Charlie are we going to see this year?" I stare at my shoes. I am sensitive to awkward moments.
Paul Maholm, everyone's favorite Pirates twitterer, responds to a question. Tony Sanchez is a close second.

The one good reason to listen to Clear Channel: Rocco DeMaro (right). It takes a special kind of personality to properly contextualize 90+ losses in a season, and he nevertheless got fired. Maybe he didn't do enough commercials trying to sell gold. 93.7 "The Fan" really should be giving DeMaro and former AA manager Matt Walbeck a radio show. I hate missed epic opportunities.