Friday, March 21, 2008

A dying breed

While Positive Week continues here at The Black (and Gold) Spot, I thought I might as well highlight this charming story. It's got all kinds of good ingredients: Golden memories of boyhood, father knows best, Roberto Clemente, and an O. Henry twist ending (and I don't mean Rodriguez).

It's also a real slice of history. The tradition of playing hooky to catch a game, if not completely dead, is certainly having a bit of a lie-down right now. The development of the modern game has conspired to put the squeeze on the aspiring truants of today in a number of different ways. A few examples:

1) Ticket prices/availability. Fortunately for us, one of the perks of a record-setting losing streak is a general surplus of good seats; the degree of difficulty is much greater for fans of more successful teams, who can't count on having good seats available at the window on the day of the game. We enjoy similar good fortune in ticket prices, for the same reasons. Still, one general admission seat at PNC Park is $9 on the day-of-game, not a trivial investment for a kid, and there's always a chance that you could get stuck without a chair if it's Sammy Khalifa Bobblehead Night (now with extra fireworks! (special guest: Foghat!)).
2) Scheduling. By my count, the Pirates have scheduled a grand total of eight weekday afternoon games this year. That's good for working professionals and networks airing the game on TV, but bad for a kid who's trapped in Social Studies.
3) Suburbanization. When you're three miles from the nearest PAT bus stop, and then a 45 minute ride from the stadium, it kind of takes some of the fun and spontaneity out of a potential jailbreak.
4) The seven-man bullpen. Every time Tony LaRussa changes relievers, God kills a kitten, and then adds 15 minutes to the length of the game. Longer games cut down your margin for error when implementing an exit strategy.

It's not a huge loss in the grand scheme of things - more than canceled out by improvements like non-white players, instant access to stats and box scores, and the ability to watch games on the internet from anywhere in the world. I just think we should take a moment to note the twilight days of this piece of Norman Rockwell Americana, before it's gone for good.

Time capsule

I was trolling the Google news wires today, and I stumbled across this gem of an article about ex-Pirate Alex Ramirez. It's understandable if you have trouble mentally distinguishing him from Alex Hernandez and other part-timers of similar vintage, but he's actually kind of an interesting case.

Step back with me, for a moment, to the year 2000. It's July. The Republican Party is getting ready to nominate George W. Bush as their candidate for President, the Democrats will follow with Al Gore less than a month later, and the Pirates are playing .430 ball, 100 games into their final season at Three Rivers Stadium. Cam Bonifay is the GM, and J.R. House is edging past Chad Hermansen as the franchise's top prospect. I'm getting ready for my senior year of college, which will start in about a month. I'm not sure what you're doing; I wasn't there. Fill it in for yourself. Are you with me? Good.

On July 28, Bonifay traded starting left fielder Wil Cordero to the Indians, receiving Ramirez and shortstop prospect Enrique Wilson back in return. Cordero was a pretty loathsome character, notorious for a regular series of incidents involving domestic violence against two wives (and various other women). Bonifay had signed him to an inexplicable three-year deal for $9M before the 2000 season, and Cordero had even more inexplicably played up to the contract, posting a .282/.336/.506 line with the Pirates. Cleveland GM John Hart was involved in a desperate push for the playoffs, and Cordero's acquisition was just one part of a lamentable shopping spree that'd also see him deal away emerging star Richie Sexson for three veteran arms (Bob Wickman, Steve Woodard, and Jason Bere).

On the whole, it looked like a good deal for the Pirates. They "sold high" on an overpaid, troublesome veteran, and got back two interesting young players in return. Ramirez was 25, a two-time minor league All-Star who had played well as a reserve for the Indians over the past two seasons. He didn't walk much, but hit for a good average and showed significant power potential. Wilson was even better: a 24-year-old shortstop who had made four minor league All-Star teams, and was generally regarded as one of the best middle infield prospects in baseball. Baseball Prospectus, itself only three years old at the time, was impressed by the deal. Christina Kahrl (still identifying as "Chris" back then), analyzed it thus:
Cam Bonifay is sort of the Anti-Herk in that while he screws up so many things in his pursuit of mediocrity, every few months or so he shakes down John Hart for something he desperately needs. Heck, maybe he's got a running bet with Jim Bowden on who can get the most talent from Hart while giving up the most thoroughly average guys in return.

While Bonifay was being touted for his genius for bringing in Pat Meares because somehow the Twins were obviously cheap beyond words to not overpay for one of the game's worst all-around shorstops, it wasn't long (roughly ten minutes or so) before the Pirates needed another shortstop. Now, almost two years later, they've got a potential All-Star in Enrique Wilson. He's got an outstanding throwing arm, which he'll finally get to show off on a regular basis, and he's a better hitter than most shortstops, especially in the league where the Big Three ain't.

In a world where you can always excuse multi-year deals for mediocre corner outfielders because you can claim that you might be able to peddle them for talent, Bonifay actually pulled it off. He even capped it by rewarding a better hitter than Wil Cordero, John VanderWal, with a multi-year deal. If ever the Bucs finally find a center fielder, they're set in the corners. Alex Ramirez will end up making a great platoon partner for VanderWal, assuming the Pirates can finally sort through their half-dozen good fourth outfielders and make some decisions on who to keep around.

Kahrl's take made sense. Offensively, longtime reserve Vander Wal had been a revelation in right field, hitting .314/.424/.599 against RHP, and Ramirez would've seemed to fit well as his platoon partner. Wilson, along with Jack Wilson and AAA's Abraham Nunez, seemed to give the team a wealth of middle infield options. Kendall and Giles were at the top of their respective games, Aramis Ramirez and Warren Morris were getting established in the infield, and the oldest man in the rotation was 28. If you squinted and fudged a little, it wasn't too hard to be optimistic.

Unfortunately, reality got in the way. Ramirez totally tanked during his audition with the Pirates, batting .209 and making 3 errors in the outfield. He was unceremoniously sold to Japan's Yakult Swallows that offseason, disappearing from MLB without a ripple. Wilson looked better in his audition, but played horribly in 2001, and was ultimately revealed to be two years older than his listed age, casting his past success in a less flattering light. Bonifay learned the wrong lesson from the Cordero signing, picking up another mediocre veteran outfielder with behavioral issues on yet another above-market deal, setting the wheels in motion for Operation Shutdown. In so doing, he alienated Vander Wal, who after much complaining was sent to the Giants later the next year as part of the disastrous Jason Schmidt trade. Bonifay himself preceded Vander Wal out of town by a few weeks, paying the price for a catastrophic failure in PNC Park's inaugural season, as the team notched triple-digit losses for the first time since 1985. Even the Indians weren't immune. They missed the playoffs by one game, Sexson emerged as a star in Milwaukee, and after another season of fighting against the tide, Hart took a job with the Texas Rangers, jumping before Cleveland had a chance to push him.

In all the noise and confusion of things breaking, collapsing, and just generally falling apart here in Pittsburgh, I lost track of Alex Ramirez, but it turns out that he's right where I left him. He's still playing left field for the Yakult Swallows, getting ready to enter his eighth season with the team (among active Western gaijin, only Tuffy Rhodes has had a longer term in Japan, and even he's changed teams three times). He still doesn't walk much (season high of 34, season low of 19), still hits for a pretty good average (career .301 in NPB), and still shows pretty good power (averaging a little over 30 homers a season). Best of all, he's happy being a fan favorite in Japan, and wants to spend the rest of his career there.

I've seen comments on some other sites that Pirate blogs in general are too negative, and there's some truth to both sides of that argument. There's no denying that we've had an awful lot to be negative about over the past few years, and even with good management (not a given), that's probably not going to change for at least a few more years. Still, if you want a reason for optimism, I think Ramirez is as good a reason as any. Even though he was damaged by his association with that cursed team, he still managed to carve out a little space for himself, where he could enjoy playing baseball. It's pretty much a given that the Pirates are going to suck this year, and probably also next year and the one after that as well. That's just the way that it is, and lying to yourself won't change it. Still, there are going to be things to enjoy along the way: surprising individual achievements, memorable games, a beer in the the sun with your dad on a Saturday afternoon. Enjoy the good parts, and don't let the things you can't control weigh you down. There's always another game tomorrow.

UPDATE, 11:00, 3/23/08: As patthatt noted in the comments, Ramirez just changed teams this offseason, signing a big deal to become the cleanup hitter for the Yomiuri Giants (basically the Yankees of Japan). Here's hoping that the offseason's changes work out well - for both him and us.]

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Not what I wanted to hear

In the words of the immortal Hank Hill: "Don't play lawyer ball, son."

Ever since our beloved overlords first took over, they've taken great pains to make it very clear that they would not repeat Littlefield's draft errors of the past. No more settling for the Moskoses of the world: The vault doors would be open to acquire the best possible talent in the draft. A few quotes:

Coonelly at PirateFest, via the P-G:
Stressing each syllable when asked if the Pirates "honestly" will draft the best available player at No. 2 overall in June: "I'll say it again: We are going to select the best player. This organization has been criticized in the past for not doing that. We are going to do it."

Huntington at
The budget for Latin American signing bonuses has been doubled, and the money available for signing bonuses in the amateur Draft has also significantly increased. As a result, management has said that financial limitations will no longer dictate Draft selections.

A Dejan Q&A in October of 2007:
As for whether the Pirates will take the best player, Neal Huntington told me in the stongest language possible that, if his baseball people tell him there is an exceptional player and the Pirates are in position to draft him, they will do so. If that means moving money from one pocket to the other -- reallocating, if you will -- that will happen.

Believe me: He is well aware of the Matt Wieters incident here., in the story announcing Smith as the new scouting director:
There have also been questions regarding how much Creech was bound financially in being able to draft the best players and not just the most affordable. When Smith was asked if he was assured the financial ability to draft the player he and his staff target with the overall No. 2 pick next season, he didn't hesitate.

"Absolutely," Smith said. "After meeting with [Pirates president] Frank [Coonelly] ... I think there is no doubt which direction which way our club needs to go."

There are many more examples, but I think you get the idea.

The Littlefield regime's decision to select Moskos in the draft, followed by their decision to trade for Matt Morris at the deadline, was quite possibly the single biggest public relations blunder of that whole sorry chapter of Pirate history. Which, given the presence of the Aramis Ramirez fiasco on the same administration's ledger sheet, is saying something.

Huntington, Coonelly, Smith, et al. have been given a free pass by many fans up until this point. Most realistic fans recognize that the 2008 Pirates aren't likely to contend for anything more significant than fourth place in a weak division, and they're OK with that, in large part because the men in charge have indicated that building for the future is going to be handled in a serious and sensible manner. When the team didn't pursue any free agents of significance this offseason (with no disrespect intended to Chris Gomez), and didn't consummate any trades, that was OK because management was conserving financial resources for the draft. There would be no quicker way for them to squander their borrowed credibility, and in so doing lose the support of the team's loyal followers, than to waffle on the draft-related promises they disseminated so lovingly this offseason.

For this reason, it was extremely discouraging to watch Coonelly hedge on Sunday:
It will be interesting to monitor the Pirates' economic approach to the draft under Coonelly. They have the second overall pick in June. Would they bust slot?

"We'll pay attention to the slot, but we'll take the best available player that we believe we have a chance to sign," Coonelly said. "If we think a player's value is over the slot, we'd certainly consider it." -The Philadelphia Inquirer, via Charlie

Did he just let the mask slip because he was tired? Did he think that it was safe to speak his mind in a Philadelphia paper that most people here won't be able to read?

Mr. Coonelly, let me be blunt. The 2008 draft is going to make or break you. You need to make a significant demonstration of financial outlay this July, including not only a top first round talent, but also some "tough signs" from later rounds. If you do any less, you are forfeiting your public credibility in baseball-related matters henceforth and forever. Fans are going to turn from you, go back into hibernation, and wait for your inevitable dismissal four or five years down the road, when they might hope to see some improvement under the next guy. Your empire will be over before it even began.

UPDATE: 3:45, 3/5/08
I e-mailed Dejan at the P-G to find out his reaction, and he graciously allowed me to summarize his response here. He feels that Coonelly's statement from last Sunday isn't a departure from his past statements on the matter. Dejan also believes that the language on Sunday is not inconsistent with their past statements on the matter, and that signability has been a part of the conversation all along. In Dejan's opinion, Coonelly was talking about signability in part to prevent agents from holding the team over a barrel during negotiations by preemptively issuing outrageous demands. He thinks that management knows that they will be under the microscope during this year's draft, and that they will act accordingly.

I hope that he's right. I trust Dejan in his response about the team's past statements when communicating with the press, but it certainly seems to me like they've gone out of their way when speaking to the public to imply that money will be no obstacle when acquiring prospects. I follow the team more closely than many fans, and this is the first time I've seen anyone currently connected with the team quoted as using the "S"-word. A quick Google News search turns up one hit for [Pirates baseball signable]: This February 11 ESPN column by Jerry Crasnick, which includes the line: "Under chairman Bob Nutting, the Pirates promise not to make trades simply to dump salaries (can you say Aramis Ramirez?) or choose less-talented draft picks simply because they're 'signable.'" Either they appear to have been somewhat disingenuous when dealing with the public, or the exact nature of their true position has not filtered down through the media. Nuance doesn't always transmit well to the masses, but I remain somewhat skeptical that their intent is pure.

In part, I am skeptical because the changes to the draft deadline eliminate much of the players' leverage when holding out for an unreasonable payday. The elimination of the draft-and-follow has made it much harder for agents to hold out the threat of re-entry into the draft, since a college junior/draft-eligible sophomore can no longer bank a strong follow-up season to enhance their draft status. That player can spend a couple of months in a wood-bat league (like the Cape Cod league), and then he has to fish or cut bait as far as turning pro is concerned. If we take the best available player, and then aren't able to sign him, we'll get the third overall pick next year (in addition to another probable top-10 pick for this year's likely out-of-the-money finish). That's not an ideal outcome, but the downside for us is much less than the potential downside for the drafted player, who would be risking a drop in the next year's draft due to injury or ineffectiveness, and even in the best-case scenario would be delaying the start of his pro career by a year, thus costing himself a year of service time (and in turn one year's ML salary from the middle of his career).

It's also possible that this will all be a moot point. There's plenty of time for players to shuffle around on the Big Board, and the best player at our slot may very well be someone who isn't preoccupied with maxing out the dollars on his rookie deal. Justin Smoak, for one, is on the record as saying that he'll sign quickly if he's offered a fair deal. I guess we'll just have to keep our fingers crossed, and keep a few torches and pitchforks on hand in case Coonelly and Co. try to cross us up.

UPDATE #2: 5:00, 3/5/08
Coonelly again addressed the issue of signability in a chat at today.
Regretably, signability has been a principal factor for many clubs as they evaluate players in the Draft. What the Pirates will do going forward is select the best player available who we believe will help us build the championship-caliber teams we are trying to build. No one can ignore inflated demands by agents or players, but we will not allow signability to dictate our decision making.

So there you have it.