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Madden: Don't put blame on McClatchy

Saturday, September 23, 2000

Blaming owner Kevin McClatchy for the Pirates' woes -- which seems to be all the rage lately -- is the kind of knee-jerk observation that puts the simple in simpleton.

McClatchy didn't commit any baserunning gaffes. Didn't underachieve at the plate. Didn't turn fielding ground balls into an adventure worthy of a National Geographic TV special. Didn't develop a sore arm, though if he'd been coached by Pete Vuckovich, he probably would have. Didn't make promises concerning the emergence of Chad Hermansen and Aramis Ramirez. Didn't manage in a boring, lifeless style that couldn't inspire. Didn't get routed on a regular basis.

As for McClatchy speculating that the Pirates could win 90 games, it was certainly ill-advised from a lay-your-money-down-in-Las-Vegas standpoint. But to say it put too much pressure on the manager and players is silly. You need to be able to handle a minimal amount of pressure to earn the big baseball bucks. In fact, you need to be able to handle a whole lot more pressure than that.

God forbid the owner should actually share his optimism -- cockeyed as it might have been -- with the fans. I mean, McClatchy only signs all the checks. How dare he have an opinion?

As for the idea that making Manager Gene Lamont a lame duck by not extending his contract past this season somehow rendered the team ineffective, that's just flat-out stupid.

According to the Pirates who have spoken out about Lamont since his pending dismissal became public, Gene is a good manager -- and, more important, a good man.

Let's assume that's true, which it isn't, but let's humor the notion. Given that Lamont is a good manager -- and, more important, a good man -- wouldn't the players have played hard for him regardless of his contract status? In fact, wouldn't they have played even harder in an attempt to save his job? If the Pirates finish .500, it's tough to ditch Lamont. If they somehow win 90, it's impossible to fire him.

But, with some notable exceptions such as Jason Kendall, the Pirates just went through the motions most of the season. Even with a good manager -- and, more important, a good man -- at the helm. I guess you stop being a good manager and a good man if your contract is about to run out.

If the players tanked the season because Lamont was the managerial equivalent of a substitute teacher, that's on the players, not McClatchy.

The bottom line is that Lamont has done a terrible job. Not that anyone was expecting him to be Bill Cowher in his jaw-jutting, saliva-spraying prime, but Lamont has always been utterly devoid of fire and emotion. Players didn't fear failing him even when his contract had years to run.

Including the 12-2 humiliation Thursday at Milwaukee, the Pirates have lost 16 games by seven or more runs, six by double digits. No big-league baseball team should be seven runs worse than the opposition that often. Teams get beat that badly on a regular basis when they tank on a regular basis. That doesn't reflect well on Lamont even if he is a good manager -- and, more important, a good man.

Speaking of collapse, who can forget that 5-25 finish in 1998? The Pirates under Lamont haven't hustled from start to finish since 1997, his first season.

Lamont and his staff don't know how to develop young players. They don't seem to even want to bother trying. Giving scrubs like Keith Osik and John Wehner at-bats during this time of year proves that. Every hack those two take is one less swing a young player can use to gain experience and get better.

Lamont might be a good man. But he is not a good manager. There is little evidence to suggest that he is. He has never had a winning season out of his four in Pittsburgh. True, Lamont hasn't always had a lot to work with. But he and his coaches haven't worked enough with what they've had, either. Individual player improvement has been negligible.

So, Lamont has been terrible. The players have been terrible. You've got to lay blame at the feet of General Manager Cam Bonifay, too.

At this point, Bonifay's five-year plan resembles the 15-minute plan Poland executed at the start of World War II. Barring a host of career years by Pirates players next season, it won't get any better. No free agent that can go somewhere else is going to come to Pittsburgh. Nor will any top-shelf manager.

If any of this is McClatchy's fault, it's because he hired Lamont and Bonifay in the first place. Or because he was dumb enough to buy a franchise in baseball hell.

But to blame McClatchy specifically for the Pirates' humiliating performance on the field is ludicrous. Nobody ever buries Dan Rooney for how bad the Steelers are. Nobody will ever blast Mario Lemieux if the Penguins falter. But McClatchy, not being a local legend, is an easy target.

McClatchy didn't make this season a mess, but he can make next season better. Kevin, when it comes to Lamont and his staff -- and Bonifay, too -- I can say only one thing: Ready, aim, fire.

Mark Madden hosts a sports talk show 4-8 p.m. weekdays on WEAE-AM 1250.

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