The wreck of the Pirates

2019-08-18 PittsburghPirates
The Pirates have more problems than just the reputation for headhunting earned by such brawls as this with the Reds on trade deadline day . . .

The iconic Roberto Clemente would have been 85 today. He’s probably playing a game in the Elysian Fields and, when getting news of his old club on earth today, shaking his head in dismay. Any way you look at it, and several have over the past couple of days, the Pirates are a mess.

Even winning three out of five from the Angels and the Cubs entering Sunday can’t turn this wreck of a leaky boat into the U.S.S. Constitution. The wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald was nothing compared to the wreck of the Pittsburgh clubhouse. These Pirates couldn’t raid an Everglades airboat and get away with it.

No baseball team likes to lose. The Pirates’ 7-26 run since the All-Star break would harry in a hurry anyone to the rack of their regrets. But there’s no hard written, hard enforced rule that that kind of futility on the field has to equal a clubhouse carpeted by rubber wall to rubber wall eggshells, either.

And nobody seemed to know just how deeply troubled the Pirates may have been until a couple of days ago. When The Athletic‘s Rob Biertempfel published a piece headlined, “A pair of altercations between players and coaches highlights the Pirates’ fraying clubhouse.” I’m not entirely certain all hell has broken loose as a result, but consider.

The worst kept secret in the National League was the Pirates’ pitching staff riddled by injuries and inconsistencies. The second-worst has been the Pirates’ apparent indifference to the periodic scrums into which they get when their penchant for pitching inside and tight crosses the lines between inside tight and headhunting. But . . .

“While the problems with health and performance are well-chronicled,” Biertempfel wrote, “the clubhouse conflicts have not been as apparent, aside from the team’s announcements of a pair of suspensions in July for separate altercations involving coaches and two relievers, Keone Kela and Kyle Crick.

“The details of those incidents, many of which have not previously been reported, illustrate rifts caused by envy, charges of favoritism, and overt insubordination against manager Clint Hurdle and his staff.”

Not been previously reported? The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, which covers the Pirates daily, almost looked willfully ignorant about it. In early August, the paper’s Jason Mackey did a run-down of the Pirates’ problems on the field that hit things squarely enough. But almost nothing in the paper has appeared to shine even a flicker on the team’s deeper issues beyond almost rote announcements of suspensions involving two relief pitchers and one of those pitchers, Keone Kela, denying profusely that he’s a clubhouse pain.

Notoriously, Kela got himself a ten-game suspension for instigating what ultimately became a wild trade deadline-night brawl when he threw at Derek Dietrich—over a pair of April home runs one of which landed in the Allegheny River—and admitted outright he wanted to decapitate the Cincinnati outfielder.

But over a week earlier Kela got into a tangle with performance coach Hector Morales. The team announced his two-day suspension “for violating team rules.” What wasn’t revealed at the time was manager Clint Hurdle having to intervene and Kela engaging Hurdle in a shouting match that Biertempfel and others say amounted to downright insubordination against the skipper.

“Clint wasn’t even in the vicinity to break up anything,” Kela told Mackey. “I was letting [Morales] know that we had some differences in terms of what we believe with [team] culture. Clint and I have never had a shouting match at each other. And honestly, if you can’t tell, I’m truthful. I don’t have anything to lie about.”

Kela missed two months this season with shoulder inflammation. Since his return he’s been one of the Pirates’ better relievers. But after the Dietrich incident people were reminded that Kela had a reputation for trouble with the Rangers, including but not limited to “confronting players and causing disruptions” after spring training 2017.

They seem to have included what the Fort Worth Star-Telegram described as “multiple heated exchanges with more established teammates.” When the Rangers sent Kela down to AAA Round Rock as that spring training ended, that paper said most Rangers players agreed with the move.

“The Rangers decided that Kela, projected to be a key member of their bullpen, should be sent to the minors in an effort to preserve clubhouse chemistry,” wrote the Star-Telegram‘s Jeff Wilson. “It is the first known punishment for Kela since he joined the Rangers, even though sources have indicated he has a track record of confronting players and causing disruptions in only two seasons in the majors.”

So why did the Pirates deal for Kela in 2018 at the former non-waiver trade deadline? They liked his arm and the idea of adding him to a promising bullpen, even though, as Biertempfel notes, “they knew he came with a history of clubhouse issues.” But after the blowup with Morales and the outrage over the brawl with the Reds, “sources with the Pirates told The Athletic that many players are wary of Kela because his demeanor can be so mercurial.”

A week after the Kela-Morales-Hurdle showdown, bullpen coach Euclides Rojas was suspended by the team over a confrontation with Crick. Apparently, Crick challenged Rojas over preferential treatment perceived to be given to closer Felipe Vasquez and Rojas ordered Crick to mind his own business. When they argued over the issue, Biertempfel wrote, “a player went to management and insisted that Rojas should get the same level of punishment as Kela had.”

You expect certain key performers to get a few breaks on the team, and Vasquez is both a veteran and a two-time All-Star. He “is not always on the field during the pregame period when other relievers are stretching and shagging flies,” Biertempfel wrote. “Earlier this season, Vázquez explained there are times when he is doing other things — such as getting a massage, working with a conditioning coach or taking a nap — to sharpen his performance during the pregame period.”

If Crick was annoyed over such preferential treatment, and he may not be alone, you might expect one of the Pirates’ veterans to step in and settle him down. But that’s the problem, Biertempfel wrote: “many sources say the Pirates are lacking leadership — the no-nonsense, active type that was brought by players such as [long gone] A.J. Burnett and David Freese, as well as the low-key, calming presence of veterans like [long gone] Andrew McCutchen and Josh Harrison.”

Early in the 2018 season, when former Nationals manager Dusty Baker was interviewed and the subject of the Nats’ reportedly skittish clubhouse came up, Baker said it flatly: “Jayson Werth. That’s who they miss in that clubhouse.” Werth at the time had signed with the Mariners as a free agent, after an offseason in which his agent may or may not have deflected several offers, but he retired that June.

The Nats prize veteran leadership, even if some such as Max Scherzer, Anthony Rendon, Ryan Zimmerman, and since-departed Bryce Harper often seemed more likely to lead by example rather than with a vocal, gently-but-firmly hands-on approach. Or, a rah-rah rousing. This year, however, the Nats’ clubhouse is one of the game’s more fun loving and cohesive. So are Harper’s Phillies. The cost-obsessed Pirates, of course, have unloaded several veterans in recent years on behalf of the ledger more than the field.

As the Nats once missed Werth, it’s entirely likely that the Pirates really miss McCutchen, whose skills may not be as acute as they were during his glory seasons in Pittsburgh but whose gentle style of off-field leadership might have gone a considerable distance in keeping the current waters undisturbed. He might even have kept the Pirates from adding such a known pot-stirrer as Kela in the first place. Might.

But there have been chronically losing teams who’ve found ways to band up and brace each other up in the lowest of hours. When the 1988 Orioles opened the season with a 21-game losing streak, players and manager alike took to gallows humour to keep their spirits from flying south. A new reporter on the Orioles beat coming aboard at the absolute depth of that streak? “Join the hostages,” Hall of Famer Cal Ripken, Jr. cracked to welcome him aboard.

Hall of Famer Frank Robinson, handed the bridge after Ripken’s father was fired earlier in the collapse, merely displayed similar wit and displayed a button handed him by a fan: “It’s been lovely, but I have to scream now.” Told of a local radio personality determined to stay on the air until the Orioles finally won a game, Robinson sympathised: “We’re gonna kill the poor guy.”

Hall of Famer Richie Ashburn finished his career as maybe the only conservatively decent player on the expansion, 1962 Mets—losers of 120 games, who managed somehow to avoid losing 21 straight at any point. (Their longest losing streak: seventeen.) Ashburn was most impressed by how the losing didn’t affect the morale of those Mets, made of veterans (mostly) and youth (somewhat) alike.

“Any losing team I’ve ever been on,” said Ashburn, who’d played with several as the 1950s Phillies faded following their unlikely 1950 pennant, “had several things going on. One, the players gave up. Or, they hated the manager. Or, they had no team spirit. Or, the fans turned into wolves. But there was none of this with the Mets . . . So we lose 120 games and there isn’t a gripe on the club. It was remarkable. You know, I can remember guys being mad even on a big winner.”

When the 1958 Yankees clinched their pennant on the road, the team flight home was ruined by a nasty incident in which relief star Ryne Duren, in his cups and celebrating the clinch, walked up and down the aisle of the plane planting big cigars between assorted Yankee lips. He came to Ralph Houk, third-string catcher-turned-coach, and his thanks for putting a cigar between Houk’s lips was to get his face smashed in.

An enterprising New York Post reporter named Leonard Shecter—the future editor of Jim Bouton’s Ball Four—was aware of the incident. Being chewed out for missing one story, Shecter mentioned the Duren-Houk incident. The Post verified it and ran with it. The Yankees were so furious that then-general manager George Weiss canceled the usual pennant-clinching party.

And God only knew the “Mustache Gang” Athletics of the early-to-mid 1970s ran roughshod over the league—and each other. And not necessarily in that order. Even with three Hall of Famers on the team. (Rollie Fingers, Catfish Hunter, Reggie Jackson.) Even managed by Dick Williams, a Hall of Fame manager who changed from the tyrant he was with the 1967-69 Red Sox to a far more laissez-faire skipper when he took the bridge of the Swingin’ A’s.

Wrote Bouton, in “I Managed Good But, Boy, Did They Play Bad”, Williams this time figured there was no point to rules if they weren’t making the team play better. He probably would have gotten his own lights punched out if he figured otherwise.

From what I know of the new Dick Williams and the bunch of guys on the 1972 Oakland team, they didn’t have many rules. Oh, maybe they weren’t allowed to punch each other in public. No punching a teammate, I suppose, in a nightclub. Fighting only allowed in the clubhouse. No screaming at each other when the wives are around. And don’t embarrass the manager to more than two wire services during any homestand.

. . . Which doesn’t mean the A’s won the championship just because they had long hair, or their manager had long hair, or their manager was permissive and let them do things their own way. That was maybe 10 or 15% of the reason. The other 85% was because they had a lot of good baseball players.

The Pirates don’t have a lot of good baseball players. They have a few good hitters who amount to a reasonably empty team .270 traditional batting average and a couple of decent pitchers who’ve kept them from worse than a team 4.99 ERA and 4.69 fielding-independent pitching rate. And owners to whom competing isn’t supposed to cost, you know, money—despite the franchise and its owners said to be worth $1 billion. Each.

Gallows humour? From the look of it, these Pirates have all the humour of a tax examiner. There’ll sooner be a real gallows on the PNC Park field than there’ll be even gallows humour in the Pirate clubhouse.

Kela, for one, thinks the Pirates’ dissension is all in the game. “It’s in any major sport,” he told Mackey. “When you’re playing at an elite level and you’re here to win, it’s a livelihood. You’re going to have disagreements because everyone has a viewpoint on how things should be done.”

Elite level? The only thing elite about these Pirates is that they can fight among themselves at the Swingin’ A’s level. They’re not good enough baseball players to get away with it for very long. If you see bolts of lightning hit PNC Park this afternoon, that’ll be Roberto Clemente telling his old organisation, “I am not amused.”

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