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Savran: Pirates need to look within to improve

Sunday, February 18, 2001

You can just about hear ball slapping leather from here. I've already seen it on TV. But what we see and hear from the Pirates in spring training isn't necessarily what we'll get in the regular season. Or what we want. Or what they need. Because what they accomplish on the green fields of Florida won't be nearly as important as what goes on in the clubhouses behind or adjacent to them.

The Pirates likely are to open this new season with basically the same 25 players who closed the old one. Perhaps a change of five from the team that lost its 93rd game Oct. 1, 2000. The additions of Derek Bell and Terry Mulholland aren't going to flip that record around. They won't be nearly enough to add 12 wins and subtract an equal number of losses to finish at .500. The returns of Jason Schmidt and Francisco Cordova likely will have a greater impact.

Whatever improvement the Pirates make this season will come from within ... from the same underachievers who clearly had better talent than to finish 24 games under .500. But of even greater importance is what's inside the minds of these same men.

Assuming 80 percent of the players are going to be the same, nearly 100 percent of the veteran leadership will remain the same. And that, ranking even higher than skills and talents, may be the most important thing to watch. Leadership, and the attitudes that develop as a result of it, won't turn this team into a contender, but it could keep them from becoming the hangdog quitters they degenerated into last season. It was a club that not only didn't play well, but didn't compete well. It was a team that shamed then coach, now manager, Lloyd McClendon, so much so that the theme of his off-season addresses, to players and fans alike, has been, "Pirates fans will no longer be embarrassed by this team." Ouch.

Why should we expect these select few leaders to be any different? Because of McClendon's presence? Perhaps. His fierce competitiveness is commanding. But a manager can take it only so far. At some point, the leaders have to deliver his message to their teammates. They are lieutenants, taking the baton from the general, and passing it on to the foot soldiers.

No matter how close a coach or manager is to his team, he can't penetrate the inner sanctum, the circle which bears the invisible sign, "PLAYERS ONLY". It's what happens within that circle that truly defines a team.

Looking at the recent past, it's a wretched definition. We've had alleged leaders criticize the work ethic of a teammate. Not to his face in the privacy of the clubhouse, but in the newspaper! We've had leaders complain about position switches, even though they were made in an attempt to improve the team. Remember the team? Now we have complaints in December about playing time in April. This cadre of leaders, McClendon's trusted lieutenants, will be the same group that led this dysfunctional group in the wrong direction a year ago. Is McClendon strong enough to change them by the sheer force of his personality? He must before he can hope to shape the attitude of the entire team.

There's much at stake. The buzz about the Pirates right now is rooted in their new building, not their baseball. It's one thing to lose, it's another to lose for eight consecutive seasons with no end in sight. And it's yet another when the fans were another baserunning blunder away from pulling a bag over their heads. So who hits what and when, who pitches three scoreless innings and makes a stunning play in the hole isn't what to look for this spring. It's not even trying to determine which players want to win. Every player wants to win. Who hates losing is the issue, and that's not as readily discernible as a batting average or ERA.

To further complicate matters, this is an organization without much depth. If a player doesn't perform well in the spring, he may have to be kept simply because there's no one better. So if a prominent player doesn't come north in six weeks, that's going to tell me that it wasn't his baseball that got him cut, it was his attitude. A rotten apple McClendon doesn't need in his barrel. If you're not part of the solution, more than likely you were part of the problem.

Stan Savran is host of a nightly radio sports talk show from 8-9 on WBGG-AM (970).

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