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Madden: Lessons in sports logic lost on dopey majority

Wednesday, July 16, 2003

Sports fans are dopes. Take it from someone who has worked in the sports talk industry for what seems like the past seven decades.

Talk-show caller: "The Pirates should trade Jason Kendall! Dump his salary! They're paying a singles hitter $8.5 million! They should get rid of him!"

Super-genius host: "OK. Who would the Pirates get for Kendall, what would they do with the money they save and who would catch?"

Caller: "Uh ... (click)"

Have a plan, for cryin' out loud! For every action, there's an equal and opposite reaction. I don't know what that means exactly, but I think it enabled us to blow up Hiroshima and win WWII (the big one). It also applies to making moves in sports.

The Pirates could probably trade Kendall. But it would be a salary dump, not a baseball trade. The team taking on the $8.5 million singles hitter would feel that relieving the Pirates of their financial obligation to Kendall would be payback enough and would therefore not feel compelled to give the Pirates much actual baseball talent in return (see Kovalev, Alexei).

So if the Pirates swap Kendall for zilch (see Schmidt, Jason), they give away a .300 hitter. Face it, the Pirates just don't have very many of those. I don't care if all of Kendall's hits are singles. At least they're hits. And although Kendall seems to shy away from blocking the plate these days, he's far preferable to having Craig Wilson or Humberto Cota as your regular backstop.

"Aha!" you say, in triumphant tones to boot, "But if they trade Kendall, my beloved Buccos will have tens of millions of dollars to work with when it comes to signing free agents!"

"Idiot!" I say, with more than a small trace of disgust, "Who are they going to spend it on?"

The argument is thus won by the man with a tested IQ of 166 (although, idiots being idiots, they don't always figure things out so quick).

To extrapolate, no good players want to play for the Pirates. The Pirates get only the dregs of free agency. If the Pirates are lucky, they're cheap and perform decently (see Lofton, Kenny, and Sanders, Reggie). If the Pirates aren't so lucky, they're expensive, they tank, and they disrupt the clubhouse in radical fashion before leaving (see Meares, Pat, and Bell, Derek).

So, you end up spending tens of millions on junk. Or you put it back into scouting, drafting and development, which is no sure thing, either (see Davis, J.J.).

By the way, if you require further proof that no good players want to play for the Pirates, consider the case of Lofton. Faced with choosing between playing for the Pirates or not playing at all, Lofton took much of spring training to debate his options.

I hasten to add, by the way, that not all sports fans are dopes. Just the vast majority. But there are a few bright, intelligent sports fans who have much to offer in the way of healthy debate.

If you'd like another lesson in sports logic, consider the Pirates extending the contract of Manager Lloyd McClendon through the 2004 season (with a club option for 2005).

McClendon is good enough, cheap enough and black enough. Hey, Commissioner Bud Selig wants more minority managers in baseball (even though his Milwaukee Brewers replaced an African American with a white guy not long ago).

McClendon might not be that experienced, but he's more experienced than his potential replacements within the Pirates organization (see Graham, Brian, Russell, John, and Mackanin, Pete).

With 18 of the Pirates' 25-man roster legitimate possibilities not to return next campaign thanks to free agency, eligibility for arbitration and contracts with club options, next year's team could make this year's team look like the 1931 Philadelphia A's. (I wanted to avoid that '27 Yankees cliche.) So, if General Manager David Littlefield wants to eventually hire "his guy" -- whether it's Graham, Russell, Mackanin or Chris Chambliss -- he won't hire him to manage in a season when the Pirates could take a big step backward.

As noted, no good players want to come to Pittsburgh. The same goes for good managers. Tony La Russa wouldn't see guiding the Pirates to third place in the National League Central someday as a resume builder.

Lou Piniella only took over the Tampa Bay Devil Rays because he wanted to go home. But who knows? Maybe some quality manager with local ties who is stiffing at his high-profile job will get canned and want to come home to Pittsburgh (see Howe, Art).

But the Pirates need to be careful. A lot of so-called "quality" managers got their reputations solely because they had great teams, not because of any actual managerial expertise (see Howe, Art).

McClendon is a solid manager and a good man. Extending his contract is the right move. If the Pirates are to continue living out their far-fetched dream of making a run at the NL Central championship this season, they need a manager with the credibility to go to the whip. McClendon has that now.

Mark Madden is the host of a sports talk show from 3-7 p.m. weekdays on WEAE-AM (1250).

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