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McClendon's deal takes '03 off board

Saturday, July 19, 2003

On the bottom of the contract, there was a line where Lloyd G. McClendon signed his name. Below that there were lines designated for the signatures of Kevin S. McClatchy and David M. Littlefield. But aside from the obvious result of the contract extension given to the Pirates' manager, it's between the lines on that contract where Littlefield made his strongest statements.

My interpretation is that by extending McClendon's contract, the Pirates' general manager was telling everybody he's going to go ahead and make the trades he had intended to make, artificial pennant race or not.

By extending McClendon's deal, he's taking this year's final record off the table as the sole criterion for keeping him as manager. If we assume he was managing for his job this season, and that the trading of veterans presumably would weaken the team in the short term, then those trades likely would have sealed his fate at season's end. But now that he's safe for at least one more season, the final record this year won't affect his job security.

So if Littlefield makes trades ranging from the mundane to the "Did I hear that right?" variety, and if the returns from those deals make the team younger and somewhat weaker for the remainder of the season, McClendon won't be tied to a win-loss ledger compiled by a presumably lesser team.

I believe Littlefield has claimed his place at the poker table, sleeves rolled up, eyeshade visor on, ready to deal. His glass is half empty when it comes to a realistic evaluation of his team. They might be within sniffing distance of first-place Houston, but they're closer to the stench of last place in the National League Central Division. And they were 10 games under .500 heading into the weekend with the fourth-worst record in the National League. Contenders? Littlefield steadfastly has challenged his team to play its way into proving they're legitimate challengers. Have you seen any evidence of that? Littlefield doesn't have to rely on faulty intelligence to fortify his position.

Second, by keeping the manager's position static, he's sending a not-so-subtle message to his core players. He's saying he holds them most accountable for the team's underwhelming performance, not McClendon. So many times there have been cries for help from the clubhouse, "Get us better talent, and lots of it!" Littlefield believes he has complied, yet their record is annoyingly similar to last year, when there was much less talent.

Consider those Littlefield added in the off-season and their performances to date. Every one of the players he brought in has performed to his respective level of expectation, such as Reggie Sanders, Matt Stairs and Randall Simon. More substantially have exceeded expectations. Kenny Lofton, of course, and especially Jeff Suppan and Jeff D'Amico, who have pitched even better than in Littlefield's wildest dreams.

So help was prayed for, and those prayers were answered, yet the team's record is virtually the same. Logic tells you it's the performance of the foundation that's faulty, not the additions.

Third, the "lame duck" issue has been removed as an excuse for uninspired play. After the Pirates gave up in Gene Lamont's final half-season, there were those who blamed management for the team's lethargic performance, suggesting that it dug its own grave by declining to give Lamont the extension he sought, thereby giving free rein for the inmates to run the asylum.

To me, this is akin to a bunch of adolescents going nuts in a classroom because the regular teacher is out sick. Why should the players' performance be tied to the contract status of the manager? If he's walking a tightrope, does that give alleged professionals the license to see what and how much they can get away with? Like schoolkids with a substitute teacher? Littlefield has made sure that's off the table, although it's disturbing such a notion would even be considered.

Finally, extending McClendon's contract is a low-risk proposition. Given the dearth of talent at Class AAA Nashville, given that because of existing contracts and the omnipresent concerns over finances, this team doesn't figure to be much better next year than it is now. If things aren't going well 14 months from today, or sooner, Littlefield can make his move for 2005, when the minor-league system might actually begin to bear some fruit. It's the safe play, the smart play at this point.

When the Pirates made the announcement, all you might have heard was that McClendon's contract was being extended. But I believe Littlefield was saying much, much more.

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

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