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Savran: Pirates desperately need leadership

Saturday, June 28, 2003

After another particularly galling somnambulant performance this week by the Pirates, Manager Lloyd McClendon challenged his challenged players to "step up." He underscored his request, plea, whatever, with several colorful adjectives -- or are they adverbs? -- that they play better when it mattered most, like on those rare occasions when they actually were in ballgames with a chance to win.

What McClendon was seeking was not only better play, but also better leadership. More leadership. Some leadership.

It can be successfully argued that leadership is best provided with a clutch two-out hit or getting a strikeout with the bases loaded.

True enough.

But while those performances do create leadership, leadership often creates those performances.

We know what leadership can mean to a team, but getting a grip on what leadership actually is can be like trying to eat soup with a fork. But you know it when you've got it, or in this case, when you don't.

It's entirely true that outsiders don't have an exact picture of a team's internal dynamics.

The access is greater for the media than that of the fans, but it's still superficial. But you see and hear some things, sometimes entirely by accident.

I'm reminded of the leadership consistently demonstrated by Joe Greene. Not what he would say in the huddle or in the locker room at halftime, because obviously I wasn't present in either case. But it was the way he carried himself and the way he interacted with other players, especially the young players.

One brutally hot and humid August afternoon at St. Vincent's College in Latrobe, Mean Joe was walking from the lunchroom to the dormitory (today the players ride on carts, which might tell you something). I was walking perhaps 10 yards in front of him. Ten yards in front of me, two rookies were walking back to the dorm as well.

Along the way, a couple of youths about10 years old approached the two and politely asked for autographs. The two rookies blew the youths off, peppering their refusal to sign with a few expletives.

Greene witnessed the encounter and immediately accelerated his pace, passed me like Jeff Gordon on a straightaway until he caught up to the two rookies.

I crossed to the other side of the driveway to remove myself from what was intended to be a private conversation, but I couldn't avoid hearing and seeing. Never once did Joe raise his voice, but he told them in no uncertain terms that their behavior with those youths was totally unacceptable. It was not the way things were done with the Pittsburgh Steelers, and he strongly suggested he better not see them engage in such behavior ever again.

The look on their faces was one of fear, respect and shame.

One of those rookies made the team; the other did not. The one who did was a model citizen during his time with the Steelers.

On the Pirates, some veterans spend their time and energy devising ways to haze the younger players rather than teaching them the game and teaching them the proper way to conduct themselves as major-leaguers. More than one veteran has admitted that this "situation" was a particular problem for the past couple of seasons.

Some Pirates have taken the approach of blaming management for not providing enough talented players to supplement the sparse talent already assembled. And they're right. However, they fail to understand that were they not being paid what they're being paid to underachieve, the team would be able to afford better players and more of them.

They're too arrogant to tip their cap to a sellout crowd giving them a standing ovation, too cool to acknowledge the fans who pay their salary.

That's setting an example?

They're too busy building clubhouse shrines to departed players, a direct slap in the face of management. What kind of message does that send?

And shame on management for allowing it to happen. Dave Littlefield should have gone into the Pirates clubhouse and put an ax to the Pat Meares memorial ... in full view of the 25 inhabitants.

While I applaud Lloyd McClendon's tirade, it's not enough. I want to see one of the "leaders" grab the mantle of responsibility. I want to see him, whoever he is, throw a bowl of potato salad against the clubhouse wall and call out his teammates for yet another I-still-get-paid-even-if-I-stink sleepwalk.

Maybe this is as good as this team can be. But somehow, you think the Pirates ought to be getting more for their $50 million.

Leadership isn't a replacement for talent, but it is a component of success. And leadership isn't always exhibited vocally or by physical displays, but sometimes that's called for. Now would be a pretty good time for either or both.


Stan Savran is the host of a sports talk show from 3 to 6 p.m. weekdays on WBGG-AM (970).

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