On Wednesday morning, Ron Cook wrote the following about John Russell:
One of this city’s great sports mysteries is how Russell got the Pirates’ job in the first place. Something must have made Coonelly leave their interview, rush to Nutting and scream, “We’ve found our guy! This is the man we have to have!” But what? Please, tell me. What? Russell’s strategical brilliance? Haven’t seen much of that. His communication skills with the players? Not good, I hear. His passion for the game and fire in the dugout? Yeah, right.
I wouldn’t say that I agree or disagree with any of this, but I think Cook is missing the true reason that Russell is managing the Pirates. And Cook is not the only one, as I rarely see this referenced in any discussion regarding the Pirates’ manager. Here is a quote from Frank Coonelly from the day Russell was introduced in November 2007.
“[Phillies owner] Dave [Montgomery] said he was named manager of the year in 2006 because we won the division, but that though the record was poor, he did an even better job in 2007,” Coonelly said. “[The Phillies] gave him absolutely no talent whatsoever, yet John continued to work with those players through the entire season.”
In the short time after Russell was hired, his work with the 2007 Triple-A Ottawa Lynx (the team in which Coonelly is referring to above) was mentioned repeatedly by the Pirates’ front office. Management will not admit it publicly, but it has been clear since long before Coonelly and Neal Huntington arrived in late 2007 that the Pirates had a few years of lousy baseball approaching. In June 2007, Charlie Wilmoth wrote the following at Bucs Dugout:
Right now Dave Littlefield is behaving as if he’s worried the Pirates are going to be contracted. I’ve written at length many times going back to last season about what a mess the Pirates are going to be once 2010 rolls around, and this Daniel Moskos pick is more evidence that Littlefield and the ownership just do not care what happens to the team after 2009. They just want a player who can get through the minors quickly, never mind that he has little upside. (And for what it’s worth, I’d also bet against Moskos getting through the minors quickly.)
Littlefield is acting like he’s a member of a cult whose leader is claiming the world will end on December 31, 2009. But the Pirates will still be here once the ball drops, and we’re going to know they are, because we’ll be feeling the reality of an impending 110-loss season.
Even after Huntington came in and did his best to clean up the mess, and it appeared the Pirates would avoid Charlie’s 2010 110-loss prediction, management knew the rebuild would be trying. (Of course, the disastrous seasons from Andy LaRoche, Charlie Morton, Jeff Clement, Ryan Church and Aki Iwamura have torpedoed the Bucs back to that 110-loss pace.) So they brought in a guy with a history of keeping under-talented players motivated. Someone who drew rave reviews for his work with a team that posted an awful 55-88 record. A guy who wouldn’t destroy the post-game spread after every six-game losing streak.
Russell is not a great manager, by any means. If/when the Pirates accumulate enough talent to compete, it wouldn’t hurt to bring in a smoother in-game strategist. I think Pat Lackey of WHYGAVS even speculated the Pirates would do just that, way back when Russell was originally hired (couldn’t find it in the archives, though). But Russell is capable of leading a 100-loss team without losing his mind. He does not publicly throw his players under the bus for mistakes, as his predecessor Jim Tracy often did. He absorbs criticism, rightfully so or not, and calmly brushes it off. Right now, as the Pirates struggle to crack the two-run mark on a nightly basis, as fans scramble for someone, anyone, to blame for this travesty, he might just be the right guy for the job.