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Madden: Patrick the gem among GMs

Saturday, June 16, 2001

This past decade has provided Pittsburghers quite a contrast in the fine art of being a general manager in pro sports. Craig Patrick of the Penguins has shown us the right way. Cam Bonifay of the Pirates showed us the wrong way. Each got what he had coming to him this past week.

Patrick was named to the Hockey Hall of Fame. Bonifay got fired. Patrick accepted his honor with humility. Bonifay went out with a torrent of excuses, most made by him.

Patrick has helped the Penguins make the playoffs in each of the past 11 seasons. Bonifay's Pirates finished under .500 in each of his nine seasons. The Penguins are poised to contend for another decade. The Pirates are so bad it defies description, and they're going to get worse before getting better.

OK, so Bonifay worked with financial constraints. That might excuse having a decent team that couldn't get over the top because it couldn't afford costly free agents.

But it doesn't excuse a minor-league system bereft of talent or an organization that lacks competent baseball people. Nothing could excuse signing Wil Cordero, Terry Mulholland and Derek Bell. Nor could anything excuse re-signing a host of pitchers with arm problems. Bonifay had every right to be upset when Jason Schmidt, Francisco Cordova and Kris Benson had arm trouble in spring training. But he had no cause to be surprised.

Bonifay could trade Ricardo Rincon for Brian Giles 10 more times, and he still wouldn't make up for his mistakes and shortcomings. He was an unmitigated disaster.

But this purpose of this column isn't to bury Bonifay. It's to praise Patrick.

Patrick is the closest thing to a genius I've met in pro sports. He combines the determination of a marine with the patience of Job and the hockey knowledge of, well, a member of the Patrick family. Patrick adapts, overcomes and succeeds.

Ever since Howard Baldwin departed and the Penguins stopped spending cash they didn't have, Patrick has operated under financial constraints. But you won't hear Patrick whine about it -- I don't think Patrick's Steven Wright-style monotone could be transformed into a whine, anyway -- and you won't see him get fired over it.

The Penguins can no longer afford Jaromir Jagr. Patrick won't call a news conference to sob on the media's shoulder. He'll make a good deal for Jagr, and the Penguins will be legitimate Stanley Cup contenders again next season. When that happens, Patrick won't pat himself on the back. He'll just show up for work the next day.

Patrick involves the rest of his organization meaningfully, but there's no doubt about who's in charge. You won't see a conflict within the Penguins like the conflict Tom Donahoe and Bill Cowher had within the Steelers. You'll never see making the right decision become secondary to who gets to make it.

Patrick isn't perfect. Trading Markus Naslund to Vancouver for Alek Stojanov proved that. Hiring Coach Ivan Hlinka -- and retaining him for next season -- is questionable, too.

But Patrick is consistent, which is the most important thing a general manager can be. He's consistent in philosophy and deed. He doesn't grandstand by attempting to face-lift the Penguins every few years. Patrick just tries to make the right move every day. Sometimes his deals seem benign. Sometimes they are benign. And sometimes a guy like Johan Hedberg comes out of nowhere.

Patrick often comes off as totally vanilla. But those who know him say he's a deeply sensitive, caring man. Patrick cried when Mario Lemieux told him he was coming back. Patrick choked back tears on HBO when he talked about the legendary accomplishments of the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team, a team he helped coach.

Patrick doesn't get emotional on the job, though. Patrick competes. He won't give in if it means not doing what's best for the Penguins. Ask Petr Nedved, a contract holdout for more than a year until Patrick traded him to the New York Rangers for Alexei Kovalev. Think determination and patience paid off there?

This off-season might be Patrick's toughest. He has to trade Jagr, contradicting his own philosophy that whichever team gets the best player in a swap gets the better of the deal. Every other important player on the team is seemingly a free agent. Patrick has a budget to adhere to, and it's a budget that won't grow much until the Penguins get a new arena. Next weekend's draft is in the middle of all that, too.

But Patrick will handle everything, he'll handle it well, and he won't complain in the process. That's what Hall-of-Famers usually do.

Lemieux has referred to Patrick as the most important member of the Penguins' organization. Lemieux includes himself in that evaluation.

No offense, Mario, but you're absolutely right.

Mark Madden is the host of a sports talk show from 4 to 8 p.m. weekdays on WEAE-AM (1250.)

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