McClendon’s Firing Fails To Address Bucs’ Core Issues

By Joe Starkey
Updated: September 7, 2005

Lloyd McClendonPITTSBURGH — They gave Mac the knife Tuesday. They want you to believe he was the problem.

We’re talking about the Pirates’ executive branch, of course, and if firing manager Lloyd McClendon was a sign that real change lay ahead, great.

Let’s see the payroll pumped to $50 million-plus.

Let’s see Jason Bay signed to a long-term contract.

Let’s see an expensive power hitter or two signed in free agency.

Let’s see a drastically improved team next season and a financial commitment to keep it together beyond 2006 — after the All-Star Game leaves town and takes all those ticket-buying incentives with it.

McClendon didn’t do himself any favors lately, what with his ridiculous insinuation that St. Louis Cardinals pitching coach Dave Duncan is a racist. It was getting harder and harder to defend the man.

Pirates CEO and managing general partner Kevin McClatchy insisted the incident had nothing to with McClendon’s dismissal. McClatchy and GM Dave Littlefield also claimed that Littlefield initiated the firing, not McClatchy or the heavily influential Nutting family.

McClatchy, meanwhile, reiterated his promise that the payroll will rise appreciably next season (from a paltry $33 million or so) and that the franchise will make a significant financial commitment for an experienced manager.

OK. But who can we really believe around here anymore? The news conference yesterday, as one might imagine, was like something out of Alice in Wonderland. Hard to tell what was real and what wasn’t.

You had to roll your eyes, for example, when McClatchy said, “I really, actually, for the first time feel pretty good about some of our young talent.”

That’s funny. I thought he’d been praising the team’s “young talent” for the past nine years. Just to make sure, I checked Sports Illustrated’s 1998 MLB preview. In it, McClatchy said, “By developing young talent, we have given our fans one thing back — hope.”

Following the Great Payroll Purge of 2003, McClatchy said, “We actually played better with the younger players. Not many people in this marketplace know that.”

To be fair, though, the Pirates do have more promising, 20-something players than at any time since the late 1980’s.

Now, let’s see if they screw it up.

By making a dramatic shift toward youth in the middle of the season, incidentally, the Pirates had to know their record might suffer. That’s why Littlefield made little sense when he referenced the team’s recent poor record and said, “We have higher expectations with the players that we have.”

Back on May 22, Littlefield issued a strong backing of McClendon, saying, “When I look at the issues we need to address and where we’re deficient, I don’t see the manager as being a problem.”

He got that right. The fundamental problems are MLB’s economic system, the Pirates’ low payroll and ownership’s failure to make a tangible commitment to winning.

The first issue won’t be rectified anytime soon, and that in itself could kill the Pirates’ future. Consider that before yesterday’s games, there wasn’t a single team in playoff position — save for the San Diego Padres of the pathetic NL West — with a payroll under $75 million.

Only two of the eight teams with a payroll under $50 million had a winning record.

All of which brings us back to this: Even if the Pirates bring in the next Sparky Anderson, they’re not going anywhere without plenty of spending money.