Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Bad Pirates: June in Review

As bad as the Steelers' June has been, they've got nothing on the Pirates.

That's right: The Steelers' entire off-season, as tumultuous and negative as it has been, arguably has nothing on the month just concluded by the Pirates.

Just a couple of telling examples of how June went:

  1. On June 17, the Pirates had more errors (six) than hits (five) in a 7-2 loss to the White Sox in a display of fielding, pitching and batting ineptitude that overshadowed rookie Pedro Alvarez's debut. In that game, they committed four errors in one inning.
  2. On June 27, the Pirates committed more errors (four) than the opponent scored runs (three) in a 3-2 loss to Oakland. In that game, they committed two errors on one play.
But there's more, oh so much more, and we'll get to that shortly.

During most of the past 17 years, the Pirates typically go into a June Swoon, spiraling completely out of contention and further into irrelevance, as people begin to count the days until Steelers' training camp.

This year, however, the Pirates outdid themselves. Beginning June 6 and all the way through June 27, the Pirates won two games. Two! For the month as a whole, they bumbled their way to a 6-20 record -- including 2-13 in interleague play and 2-17 on the road ... two-and-17!!??!!! -- to bring their overall season record to 27-51 (a .346 winning percentage) ... for a June Swoon to end all June Swoons.

Actually, they went above and beyond.

Yes, the Pirates indeed outdid themselves with their on-field incompetence but worse -- much, much worse -- with their front office mendacity, hijinks, shenanigans, tomfoolery, incompetence, chicanery, venality, and sheer incompetence.

Let's review.

In June, the Pirates managed to effect, endure and/or bring to culmination several public relations disasters and on-field fiascoes that included but were not limited to ...
  • Deceit, Mendacity, Truth-Shading, and -- let's get real -- Prevarication by the Front Office -- This tops the list. Displaying all the PR savvy of BP and all the opaque transparency of North Korea, Frank Coonelly, Pirates president, finally revealed, grudgingly and on the crest of a 10-game losing streak, that general manager Neal Huntington and manager John Russell had received contract extensions during the off-season. "Gasp!" We're okay with Huntington and Russell receiving extensions -- what else were they going to do? -- but why withhold the information? What was the point? Why be coy (deceitful) about it? What were they trying to accomplish (hide)? This isn't like other businesses. To a degree, it's a public trust. Are Coonelly and owner Bob Nutting ashamed to admit they gave their two most visible, public-facing guys contract extensions? Coonelly and Nutting should be ashamed -- not that they handed out extensions, but that they shaded the truth, withheld vital information and deceived the media and (more importantly) their customers. While doing so, they let Huntington and Russell twist in the wind of myriad rumors and rampant speculation that they were about to be fired. For no discernible reason, either. The result? Pirates' president Frank Coonelly torpedoed his own fragile credibility, and that of the entire corporate management team (including [and especially] owner Bob Nutting), by repeatedly refusing to disclose this information. With this tomfoolery, Coonelly and Nutting shredded their own credibility. Trust and credibility cannot be bought and cannot be easily rebuilt. Not by those characters (Coonelly, who has the appearance of a law-degree-wielding hatchet man; and Nutting, who operates in the shadows). Would you trust anything else these guys say? Didn't think so. Not at this point. It's as if they deemed the public not worthy of the information. It's as if they were saying, "We don't trust anybody else because ... well, we don't even trust ourselves. And we don't trust ourselves to be open, candid and honest because ... well, because we know better. We know we're shifty. Shaky. Slithery. Snaky. Underhanded. We just assume everybody else is, too. We don't trust anybody else because we ourselves are not trustworthy." That's a terrible, terrible thing. It's a shame. Sadly, pitiably, however, that's the message team president Frank Coonelly sent. Only the Pirates.
  • Speaking of Management Foolishness -- Expressing dismay at the Pirates' performance by saying he was "shocked" and "frustrated," owner Bob Nutting evoked Claude Rains's Capt. Reynaud in Casablanca: "I am shocked -- shocked! -- to find incompetence in this organization!" Yeah, okay, cheap shot, but really, how could he be shocked? He presides over this mess.
  • The Standings -- The Pirates opened the month 10 games under .500 and closed it 24 games under .500. On June 1, the Pirates were in fourth place, ahead of Milwaukee and Houston. Today, of course, they’re in last place -- 16.5 games out of first place.
  • The Great Pierogie Purge of 2010 -- This stupidity made national news and truly made the Pirates' organization a laughingstock. Someone in Pirates' management apparently had nothing better to do than ... monitoring the Facebook postings of part-time pierogies? That even SOUNDS ridiculous. And who gave THAT directive? Really, don't they have anything better to do? Apparently not. Only the Pirates.
  • The Curious Case of Aki Iwamura -- After finding no takers in a trade, the Pirates finally demoted Iwamura, their big off-season acquisition and highest-paid player ($4.85 million salary) to Class AAA Indianapolis. This, after Iwamura couldn't his weight, batting .182 or something, while showing absolutely no ability to play defense or even run. At all. Ridiculous. Only the Pirates.
  • The 12-Game Losing Streak -- This losing streak speaks for itself. The Pirates went from June 6 to June 19 without winning a game. Only the Pirates.
  • A Six-Game Losing Streak -- Apparently uncomfortable with winning a game or two after losing merely 12 in a row, the Pirates returned to their familiar comfort zone -- and promptly resumed their losing ways with a six-game losing streak. Here's a nugget that frames the entire month of June: Beginning June 6 and all the way through June 27, the Pirates won two games. Two!!! Now that is truly amazing. Only the Pirates.
  • Seventeen Consecutive Losses on the Road -- The Pirates in June managed to achieve major league baseball's second-worst road losing streak of the past 40 years. The Buccos capped their streak in astonishing, if not unbelievable fashion, by losing in Oakland after two bizarre play sequences late in the game: (1) Catcher Jason Jaromillo dropped a foul pop-up in the eighth inning of a tie game, only to have the batter hit a home run two pitches later; and (2) End the game by having a base runner, Pedro Alvarez, get hit by a batted ball ... which is something you rarely see in major league baseball -- and certainly never to end a game. You couldn't make this stuff up. Unbelievable. Only the Pirates.
  • Two Serious, Concussion-Inducing Collisions Involving Second Basemen and Right Fielders -- Unbelievably, and this ain't funny, the Pirates in June managed to have two infielder/outfielder collisions ... within three days ... at virtually the same spot on two different fields ... involving two separate sets of second basemen and right fielders ... resulting in concussions for the two second basemen, Neil Walker and Bobby Crosby, both of whom were playing well at the time they got hurt. That's right: two cities; two Pirates' second basemen; two Pirates' right fielders; two collisions; two concussions. Only the Pirates.
  • Ryan Church, Now Batting .174 – On June 11, Manager John Russell inserted outfielder Ryan Church, batting .190 at the time, into the lineup as “Designated Hitter” to open an interleague series in Detroit. Predictably, Church went oh-for-four. As the DH. Over the month of June, for what it’s worth, Church batted .100, going 4-40 at the plate. Yikes. That particular night’s lineup in Detroit also had Lastings Milledge, with no home runs, starting in left field; Aki Iwamura, batting .178, starting at second base; Jason Jaromillo, batting .185, at catcher; and catcher Ryan Doumit starting at first base. Jarmomillo had a passed ball and Doumit, playing out of position, had a fielding gaffe that could have been called an error, and the Tigers unceremoniously beat the Pirates. For what it’s worth, later in the month, Russell once again fielded a lineup with three position players batting .200 or less. Only the Pirates.
  • The Ryan Doumit Experiment at First Base – Apparently wanting to prove that Doumit could indeed play first base, manager John Russell put Doumit back in the lineup at first the very next night in Detroit. Doumit committed a crucial error that led to Detroit scoring the go-ahead run late in the game, which the Pirates lost 4-3 for their seventh straight loss, dropping them to 16 games under .500 -- on June 13.
  • Andy LaRoche, Utility Infielder – Following that same June 13 game in Detroit, general manager Neal Huntington admitted the obvious and let it be known publicly that struggling third baseman Andy LaRoche would lose his starting job at third base to super-prospect Pedro Alvarez once Alvarez was promoted to the big club. Huntington didn’t say when that would be, or why Alvarez hadn’t been promoted already, but he did make it clear that soon, LaRoche would no longer have a starting job. It might have had something to do with the fact that it took LaRoche more than a third of the season to accumulate just 11 RBIs. Projecting to about 33 runs batted for the entire season – for a corner infielder – that ain’t good, but it’s incredible.
  • The Stephen Strasburg Debut – Also on June 8, The Pirates played the Washington Generals to rookie Stephen Strasburg’s Harlem Globetrotters in Strasburg’s sparkling major-league debut, which rightfully received unparalleled national media coverage as the most-anticipated rookie debut in generations. Strasburg more than lived up to the hype by striking out 14 Pirates and walking just one in seven innings to win his first major league game. He closed out his performance by striking out the last seven Pirates he faced.
  • NFL Head Coach Rex Ryan “Strikes Out” Two Pirates – Following Strasburg’s debut, even New York Jets head coach Rex Ryan used the Pirates as comedic stooges. Having fun at a press conference in New York, Ryan showed spliced video clips of Pirates batters Lastings Milledge and Delwynn Young flailing away at pitches from Strasburg – but appearing to have been thrown by Ryan, who had thrown the ceremonial first pitch at a New York Mets game earlier in the week. The rotund Ryan was just having fun – it just happened to be Pirates superimposed onto the screen to make them appear to be swinging and missing at “pitches” thrown by the roly-poly, white-haired coach. Only the Pirates.
  • The 40th Anniversary of Dock Ellis’s LSD No-Hitter -- On June 12, the Pirates – okay, maybe not the Pirates, but Pirates fans and baseball observers across the nation – noted the 40th anniversary of the late, great Dock Ellis’s LSD No-Hitter in San Diego. For a particularly trenchant take on the feat, watch the DVD, “Weapons of Self-Destruction” by comic Robin Williams, who offers uniquely appreciative and insightful observations on what it must be like to pitch on LSD in a major league ballgame. It took years for Ellis to overcome his reluctance to talk about pitching a no-hitter on LSD. He overcame his reticence, however, after becoming a counselor on addictions – it was as if he said, “Oh, what the hell ... " – and described one play accordingly: “One point I covered first base, and I caught the ball and tagged the base, all in one motion, and I said, ‘Oh, I just made a touchdown!’” Rest in Peace, Dock Ellis.
  • The MLB Draft -- On June 8, the Pirates participated in the yearly amateur player draft. The Bucs, holding the second pick in the draft, rolled the dice and selected hard-throwing high-school pitcher Jameson Taillon. It was a gutsy pick and, in fact, general manager Neal Huntington called it “gut-wrenching” – which indicates doubt, angst and anxiety – and therefore may not impart a lot of confidence to anxious fans longing for an infusion of talent. It may not matter much in the long run: The Pirates still have to sign Taillon to a contract, and that’s not a given.
  • Tony Sanchez’s Season-Ending Injury – This was another of those freaky “bad-luck” incidents where 2009 first-round draft pick Tony Sanchez, who had been playing extremely well, was hit by a pitch that broke his jaw. This was a real shame for Sanchez, who in recognition of his all-around play had been named to the Future All-Stars game the very day he got hurt. He had been playing so well, in fact, that many observers (like this one) had been wondering aloud why he had not been promoted to Class AA Altoona already -- which turned into frustrated and dismayed second-guessing after the injury. Now Sanchez's forthcoming promotion will be delayed indefinitely. He will likely lose the rest of the season -- a huge step back, as he loses valuable developmental time in his quest to reach the majors.
  • The Beer-Stein Typo – With everything else going on, this gaffe went under the radar a little bit, but the Pirates even screwed up a promotional giveaway to fans attending PNC Park on June 19. The team handed out very nice ceramic beer steins to highlight the Pirates’ 1960 championship season. The glasses contained a picture of the 1960 team and box scores of all seven games in the 1960 World Series. Just one problem, from what we understand: One of the scores contained a typo – and showed the Yankees beating the Pirates in a game the Pirates had actually won. “E-Bay here we come!” Only the Pirates.
  • The Dana Eveland Debacle -- This may not have matched the sheer futility and absurdity of the Aki Iwamura Fiasco, but still … on June 23, the Pirates released newly acquired pitcher Dana Eveland, for whom general manager Neal Huntington had recently acquired in a trade. Pitching just nine-and-two-thirds innings in just three games with the Pirates, including one start, Eveland surrendered 15 hits and posted an 8.38 ERA. The Pirates released Eveland following a losing effort – not all his fault, or even mostly his doing -- in Texas in which the Rangers scored 14 runs on 17 hits -- and, incredibly, still left 13 on base! Thirteen LOB on top of 14 runs scored … all without slugger Josh Hamilton in the lineup ... so let's be thankful: It could have been worse. Only the Pirates.

Yep, this was a doozy, a memorable June for the ages -- a memorable month to forget.