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Savran: Baseball decisions led to Pirates' mess, rebuilding plan

Saturday, July 26, 2003

There comes a time when it makes no sense to put another coat of paint on a jalopy whose engine is rusted out. Even Earl Scheib would tell you that. At some point, a plastic surgeon must have told Frank Gifford, "One more facelift and your forehead is going to fall off." The Pirates' jalopy is coughing and wheezing its way to an up-the-track finish for the 11th consecutive race. Is cosmetic surgery going to make it run better for No. 12?

The reasons for the decade plus one of losing are numerous. But we should agree that they cannot and will not be rectified through superficial means. Which means, it's time to blow it up. It means more losing in the short term, to be sure, but if done properly and purposefully, it can mean attaining an objective, not driving in a circle.

I know fans have heard this before, but there's nothing wrong with the plan. It's the only way to go. It's the execution of the plan that challenges General Manager Dave Littlefield and the Pirates' staff.

Financial concerns are a big part of this apparent commitment by the organization, but financial concerns always are going to be a factor. Even the cost of a roll of tape is going to be scrutinized. But the Pirates must stop totally blaming economics for their plight. While financial constraints are omnipresent, the truth is they are in this spiral because of horrible baseball decisions.

Had the baseball wing of the operation been competent, one could reasonably argue that their financial operation would have settled on more stable ground. Give the people a sniff of a pennant race once or twice in 11 years, and more would have come to the ballpark. Not really all that complicated, is it?

Minnesota and Montreal almost weren't in business thanks to the ill-conceived contraction idea, yet they're more than competitive, overcoming obvious financial hardships with good baseball strategies. It can be done, because it has been and is being done by others. The truth is, the Pirates have no one but themselves to blame. It didn't have to be this bad for this long.

There are those who point the finger at Kevin McClatchy. That's fair, because ultimately, the man who signs the paychecks should be held accountable. But as with the rebuilding, it was the execution, not the plan. He came here as a businessman, not a baseball guy, and so he let the baseball people run that part of the organization. That's the right plan, because you don't want a George Steinbrenner dictating what trades should be made. So McClatchy was right not to meddle; he just didn't put the right team in place to execute. I believe he has now.

There are those who angrily challenge that building PNC Park was supposed to enable the Pirates to avoid their current predicament. No, it wasn't. PNC Park was built to keep the franchise here. It was a tourniquet to stop the bleeding; it could never be a cure for bad baseball decisions. It may have provided more money, but, if you throw that good money after bad as the Pirates did, you've negated whatever margin of error that extra cash provided.

Although finances are a motivation for this latest effort, they aren't central to it. This is a baseball decision. The Pirates are saying: "We're paying $55 million in salaries to be a floundering team, bobbing below the .500 water line. We can do that for a lot less money." So, off with their heads!

But that's only a start.

Now, Littlefield must take the next step by acquiring a foundation. But, when you trade Aramis Ramirez, despite his deficiencies, you expect building blocks in return, not the spare parts Littlefield appears to have acquired. We'll see who the player to be named later is, but he had better be the next Ernie Banks.

The fans are angry. And bitter. And who can blame them?

For them, it's deja vu all over again ... once burned, twice shy. But this time it's Littlefield calling the shots, and it comes down to your faith in him. I believe he deserves the benefit of the doubt, no matter how severe that doubt may be.

The plan is solid, but it's the execution that matters. The road to hell is paved with good intentions.

Frankly, it's fair to say the Pirates already have traveled the road and are in baseball hell right now. It's up to Littlefield to get them out.

Stan Savran hosts a sports talk show weekdays from 3-6 p.m. on WBGG-AM (970).

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