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Madden: Pirates must find scapegoat soon

Saturday, May 19, 2001

How can the Pirates improve? That's easy. They can't, not appreciably. They have maybe five guys who could play significant roles on a respectable big-league team, which the Pirates are not.

The problem for the Pirates, then, is how to make the burgeoning disaster that is their 2001 season into a better situation public relations-wise. Kris Benson can't put spin on a breaking pitch right now, but the Pirates can certainly put a better spin on their awesome level of failure. It would all be a rarefied form of bull, of course, but never underestimate the public's willingness to be misled.

First and foremost, Pirates fans need a scapegoat and a sacrifice. Bring them the head of General Manager Cam Bonifay.

The Pirates' level of incompetence might not be all Bonifay's fault, but he's certainly responsible for much of it. You can't blame payroll and market size for the garbage product the Pirates defile the field with. The Pirates are paying more than $50 million to this collection of stiffs. Many teams are doing a lot more while paying a lot less, most notably the Minnesota Twins, a franchise that has actually figured out that effective drafting and developing is preferable to signing, say, Wil Cordero or Derek Bell.

Bonifay put this team together. It stinks. So Bonifay must go. Pirates fans won't feel what it's like to win this year -- or ever -- but at least they can glory in having run somebody out of town.

Once Bonifay is out of PNC Park, let the fans enter said facility with the occasional big sandwich and/or cooler filled with Kool-Aid. I understand the Pirates' need to maximize all revenue streams. But I also understand that you can't appear to be gouging the public when your team gets routed most games. This "controversy" has been blown way out of proportion -- after all, you can't brown-bag it at Mellon Arena or at the local movie theater -- but perception equals reality, and the Pirates look like the bad guys. My advice to owner Kevin McClatchy: When the Pirates reel off a five-game win streak, triple soda prices. But until then, let the citizens bring in whatever non-alcoholic refreshment they like.

Also, let the high school baseball teams play their championship games at PNC Park. But don't let them play the Pirates. That result could be embarrassing.

I'm a big Lloyd McClendon fan, and I think he's going to be a heck of a major-league manager. But he should be a little more pragmatic when he talks to the media.

Callers to my talk show already are tired of McClendon's talking about hard work and effort in the wake of 10-run losses. The world doesn't want to hear about the labor pains, Mac. It just wants to see the baby. Occasionally offering fair criticism of struggling players would appease the public, make McClendon look smarter and perhaps give a much-needed wake-up call to those criticized.

(By the way, McClendon is a solid manager for a rookie, but he's not Danny Murtaugh yet. The Pirates need to improve drastically in the fundamentals of the game. They lead the National League in errors, they're undisciplined at the plate, their pitchers are too often behind in the count, and they can't run the bases. The Pirates can't suddenly wake up one day and be more talented. But they can execute better. If they did, they would still lose a lot, but at least they wouldn't be getting beaten so badly.)

The Pirates need to make some trades. When a team is this bad, it can't appear to stand pat willingly. General managers in all sports say that you don't make a trade for the sake of making a trade. That's a lie. Sometimes you make a deal specifically to detract attention from the awful product at hand.

I give McClendon a lot of credit for preventing a clubhouse explosion to this point. How would you feel right now if you were Jason Kendall or Brian Giles, and you had hitched your considerable talent to this broken-down wagon?

True, some of the Pirates' problems are beyond their control, namely the assorted arm maladies of virtually every pitcher who matters. But let's be honest. If Benson, Jason Schmidt and Francisco Cordova were all healthy, would the punchless Pirates have many more wins? No. They might lose 3-1 instead of 12-1, and the games would be more exciting, but you've got to score to win.

Maybe the Pirates can placate the faithful by convincing them that watching this year's team is a chance to watch history -- a chance to watch the worst Pirates team ever. The 1952 Pirates went 42-112, and they were definitely crap, but they played in an undiluted 16-team major-league environment that happened to have a few National League dynasties -- such as the Brooklyn Dodgers and New York Giants -- in their prime. The current Pirates, meanwhile, get crushed by the Milwaukee Brewers.

Oh, it's probably not the worst Pirates team ever. But unless management does something to put a better PR face on things, the fans might start thinking that in a hurry.

Of course, the Pirates could solve their problems by winning a lot of games. Haw, haw, haw, haw! Sorry, I couldn't write that with a straight face.

Mark Madden's talk show is heard from 4-8 p.m. weekdays on WEAE-AM (1250).

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