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Mark's Madness: Notes on the Pirates, Pitt and coaching

Wednesday, April 09, 2003

By Mark Madden

I don't want to demand a contract extension for Pirates Manager Lloyd McClendon. I merely want to ask a question: What, exactly, does McClendon need to do to get a contract extension?

McClendon must be wondering at this point.

When the Pirates signed McClendon to a three-year deal before the 2001 season, I thought it was a bad move. An in-house hiring made on the cheap. Good PR decision to appoint a black dude, though.

But since taking command, McClendon has done nothing but make the Pirates improve. The Pirates lost 100 games in 2001, but only 89 last year, and they seem poised to do even better this season. Sure, the acquisition of better players has facilitated the Pirates' rise, but McClendon has maintained a firm grip on the reins. He micro-manages the pitchers perfectly, and his team plays hard on a daily basis.

When Jason Kendall flew into second base to bust up a double play and allow a crucial run to score in a 2-0 win Sunday at Philadelphia, McClendon didn't tell Kendall to do it. He didn't have to. Under McClendon, plays like that are expected. The consequences of laziness are feared.

An intense manager breeds an intense team. If that's the biggest contribution McClendon makes as Pirates manager, it's a big one. The Pirates barely had a pulse under Gene Lamont.

McClendon has one quirk: A psychopathic desire to make sure Rob Mackowiak gets at-bats. That character flaw, however, is more than offset by the time he wanted to punch Derek Bell.

So, what does McClendon need to do to get a contract extension?

Sadly, nothing he does might be enough.

McClendon was already manager when David Littlefield became the Pirates' general manager in July 2001. Every general manager wants his own guy to manage, and that's no knock. It's only fair.

When he became general manager, Littlefield likely looked at the Pirates' roster, looked at McClendon's contract status, and figured, well, this is a bad team. I'll have reason to sack McClendon long before his deal expires. If I ditch him now, my guy takes heat McClendon can absorb between now and his exit.

But the Pirates got off to a good start last season and wound up improving by 10 1/2 games. The Pirates are off to another good start this season. McClendon is making himself tough to fire.

In the meantime, Littlefield has the Pirates' organization stockpiled with potential successors to McClendon, including Brian Graham, John Russell and Pete Mackanin.

Littlefield won't complain if the Pirates keep getting better under McClendon. But that trend has skewed Littlefield's best-laid plans.

And it will eventually force Littlefield to make a tough decision.

Despite the Pirates' improvement under McClendon, Littlefield might feel a different manager is required to take the team to the next level, assuming anything better than merely finishing over .500 is possible in Pittsburgh. McClendon could conceivably finish .500 (or better) and not get offered a new contract.

That would be an unpopular decision among Pirates players and fans, but, again, it's Littlefield's prerogative to bring in his own manager even if logic appears to dictate otherwise.

Logic also dictates that Littlefield make a decision about McClendon before the midway point of the current season. McClendon seems dynamic enough to keep lame-duck syndrome from infiltrating his team, but a long losing streak in June could set his clubhouse a-quackin'. No matter how good a manager might be, players always listen a little less when they think his days are numbered.

That's not Littlefield's way. He makes decisions in very careful and measured fashion.

So, barring a Pirates collapse during the season, Littlefield probably won't address the managerial situation until after the campaign is over.

That brings to mind this far-fetched yet possible scenario:

Let's say the Pirates win 90 games, missing the playoffs but contending well into September. The Pirates offer McClendon a new contract after the season ends. But so do a few other clubs. Getting a team on a small budget within shouting distance of the postseason could make McClendon a wanted man. Making a small-market team overachieve can turn a manager into a hot commodity.

What if lame-duck McClendon soared away from Pittsburgh like an eagle?

I would re-up McClendon now, by the way. He has navigated a difficult situation almost flawlessly. McClendon was hamstrung by a bunch of bad decisions made by former general manager Cam Bonifay, but the Pirates still improved. McClendon has a herd of potential successors looking over his shoulder, but hasn't flinched. The Pirates are focused, prepared and intense on a daily basis, just like their manager.

Joe Torre is not going to leave the New York Yankees to manage the Pirates. I've barely heard of Graham, Russell and Mackanin.

I'm not sure the Pirates can do any better than their current manager. So make mine McClendon.

One strike against Mac: He doesn't have local roots. The insane desire of the yinzers to have one of their own succeed Ben Howland as Pitt men's basketball coach has me in shock and awe. Skip Prosser and John Calipari have the resume. Herb Sendek is a slight reach but deserves consideration.

Sean Miller, however, does not.

Miller, a former Panthers guard who is now an assistant at Xavier, has been touted as a potential Pitt boss by far too many callers to my talk show. His main qualification? He's local.

True, Miller learned how to recruit from the best, namely his dad, high school coaching legend John Miller from the University of Blackhawk. He learned to handle high-pressure situations when, as a mere child, he did dribbling and ball-handling exhibitions on the "Tonight Show." He was undeniably a fine player during his tenure at Pitt.

But there is no reason to even remotely consider hiring Sean Miller as coach of a Sweet 16 program. Other than the fact that he's local. Which means he won't spurn the yinzers someday by leaving Pitt for a better job. Assuming we can con ourselves into actually believing that.

Pitt also is looking for a women's basketball coach. The choice there is obvious: Kathy McConnell-Miller, sister of Suzie McConnell Serio. Forget her 53-65 record as Tulsa coach. She's super hot. Easy decision.

Mark Madden hosts a sports talk show from 3 to 7 p.m. weekdays on WEAE-AM (1250).

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