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Old 08-04-2007, 09:04 PM   #1
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Default Needed: Exorcist for Pirates' woes

Needed: Exorcist for Pirates' woes
Forget about the CEO, what Pirates need most is an exorcist

Friday, August 03, 2007
By Bob Smizik, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

The most difficult challenge facing the Pirates' next CEO will not be upgrading the team's current talent level or expanding the Latin American base of operation or persuading owner Bob Nutting to increase the payroll significantly.

Those are only secondary issues to what makes the Pirates perennial losers.

The primary and most difficult job for whomever succeeds Kevin McClatchy will be to erase the pervasive culture of losing that has brought down almost everyone who has been connected with the organization for the past 15 years.

The Pirates, understandably, don't know how to win. But that's not the half of it. They don't know how not to lose.

Every season, brave words come out of spring training. Every season, they ring hollow. Managers, coaches and players join the organization full of confidence and inspired by the belief that they can alter this culture of losing. No one has. And there are legitimate doubts as to whether anyone can.

Good men have tried and failed.

Jim Leyland, arguably the best manager in baseball, had a sense of being overwhelmed by the defeatism that infused the organization and got out with his reputation intact in 1996, but not before four consecutive losing seasons.

Gene Lamont, an astute baseball man and with a previous stint of managerial success with the Chicago White Sox, simply couldn't handle it.

Lloyd McClendon confronted it as well as anyone and, even in the end, seemed to be battling, as opposed to giving in. But fighting the good fight against this foe isn't enough.

We can only imagine what Jim Tracy is thinking. He arrived believing this was a challenge he could handle. He understood the problem was a culture of losing but believed he could create a winning atmosphere. As he nears the two-thirds point of his second season, he's overwhelmed by the immensity of the task. He doesn't say it, but it's clear he never has seen anything like this. He won't leave with his reputation intact and could well follow Lamont and McClendon into a lifetime of coaching, but not managing.

Nor have players been immune from the beating down of steady defeat.

Who was more mentally tough than Jason Kendall? Not many. But even he was trampled by the losing. He arrived in Pittsburgh a rookie with a veteran mind-set and ready to take on the world. He left sullen, bitter and often a bad teammate because he could do nothing to alter the tradition of defeat.

Who thought Jack Wilson would get crushed by this? But he has. Wilson can't wait to get out. Every time the phone rings he's hoping it brings official word of the much-reported trade that will send him to Detroit and the promised land of a winning team and an upbeat atmosphere.

When the Pirates announced their only trade Tuesday, the last day a non-waiver deal could be made, there was one joyous player and 24 unhappy ones. The player smiling, Rajai Davis, had been released from the prison of defeat that is the Pirates' clubhouse. His 24 teammates were left wishing they could join him in departure.

This isn't to suggest the Pirates have a clubhouse of losers. They just have a clubhouse full of players who can't overcome the losing.

The culture of losing does strange things to how the game is played. Is there any other way to explain the team's ridiculous failure to execute the most basic fundamentals? Techniques they should have mastered as Pony Leaguers, if not Little Leaguers, are too often beyond these players. Even Nate McLouth, who for a time looked like a moderately talented player but at least one who knew how to play the game, has succumbed. All of a sudden, McLouth is throwing rainbows to home plate from center field when he has to know that's not how it's done.

The losing just eats away at focus, which is so vitally important to staying sharp at the highest level of baseball.

Players like Kendall and Wilson resisted the losing culture to the end. By all indications Joggin' Ronny Paulino isn't as mentally strong. How else to explain his plunge from rookie-of-the-year candidate to second-season flop. Sure, he might have played over his head in 2006, but that doesn't explain his current steep decline, particularly in catching the ball.

What a jolt this atmosphere must have been to Adam LaRoche. He came from a situation where not just winning but championships were expected to one where defeat is ingrained.

It's not always all downhill. There are peaks, like the current two-game winning streak. But there are far more valleys, like losing 14 of 16 after the All-Star Game. In the end, the tradition of losing prevails and grows stronger.

There's not even a clue as to who Nutting will hire as his new CEO. He needs to be a man familiar with all facets of baseball and sports administration. It also wouldn't hurt if he knew a thing or two about exorcism.

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