The Pittsburgh Pirates’ collapse since the All-Star break has turned watching their games into an exercise in morbid curiosity.

Sure, it’s a train wreck. It also is baseball limbo. How low can they go?

The pitching, hitting and defense are consistently bad. 

The games tend toward the lifeless and announcers are left to practice verbal slight of hand to try to distract the dwindling audience from the terribly depressing reality of the games.

The past week this produced in-depth discussions of the Steve Blass wardrobe – emphasis on cardigan sweaters a la the late Fred Rogers. Or we got Bob Walk going on at length not on the ragingly inconsistent Pirates starting pitchers or hitters, but on whether it would be wise to have cats and dogs on the same pet night at the ballpark

Perhaps the most amusing moment came in the ninth inning of Thursday’s 7-1 loss to the Washington Nationals, a series in which Pirates pitching made the Nationals look like the 1927 Yankees.

Alas, poor Nationals outfielder Adam Eaton failed to partake fully of that evening’s feast, grounding out in the ninth to put a cap on his 1-for-4 evening at the plate.

Understandably embarrassed at missing the chance to inflate his statistics, Eaton bellowed out an expletive-tinged response as he ran toward first base, verbal frustration that echoed off the acres of empty seats in PNC Park and was picked up loudly and clearly by the field microphones. This produced yet more awkward, forced patter from announcers Greg Brown and Blass.

Eaton, they concluded, was unhappy. You think Eaton was upset, what about the legions of Pirates fans who have watched season after season go by with precious little in the way of winning records over most of the past three decades?

Another diversion in Thursday’s broadcast was to show cute kids in the stands late in the loss, youngsters both ever-faithful and innocent. These kids might be cashing Social Security checks by the time this organization is ready to compete for a World Series win.

Particularly maddening to many is that the guy in charge of assembling talent, General Manager Neal Huntington, and the guy charged with maximizing the on-field performance, manager Clint Hurdle, both have contracts through the 2021 season.

Extensions were given to each in September 2017, with the Pirates on the way to posting their second consecutive losing season. The team’s record nudged back above . 500 to 82-79 in 2018, but this year the Pirates are on pace to post their worst record since the 57-105 finish in 2010.

It has been noted here previously that the frugal Pirates ownership has an unusual take on achieving success. They pay Hurdle a reported $3 million a year, a salary which ranks among the top 10 in the majors, to manage a team whose payroll consistently ranks in the lower portions of the majors.

Presumably Huntington makes considerably less than Hurdle, but likely enough that Pirates owner Bob Nutting wouldn’t be willing to fire him, continue to pay the deposed GM due to the current contract, then need to pay Huntington’s replacement.

It’s the same with Hurdle, who was asked last week about any concern he might have for his job. Hurdle’s lukewarm, evasive response was not inspirational.

Firing Hurdle certainly wouldn’t be a cure-all for the Pirates. The Boston Red Sox are but the latest example of the limited impact of managers.

Alex Cora has gone from leading the Red Sox to victory in the World Series in 2018, to presiding over a depleted team likely to miss the postseason entirely in 2019.

Jim Leyland proved both early and late in his career as Pirates manager the limitations of the guy on the bench, winning big when he had talent, and losing big when he didn’t.

Yet at some point, when a team implodes as the Pirates have in recent weeks, the manager must get some of the blame.

Similarly, when a franchise such as the Pirates fails year after year to produce successful teams, the person putting those rosters together has done a poor job. It is especially galling when that same person talks big every off-season about commitment to winning and producing postseason contenders.

If Nutting is at all interested in rekindling fan interest and demonstrating ownership’s commitment, the time has come for him to make a significant move.

Hurdle, or Huntington, or both need to go if only to indicate Nutting’s unwillingness to accept the downward direction of the franchise.

If, instead, the Pirates offer up token changes such as firing some assistant coaches or lower-level people in talent scouting, it will be just the latest evidence that Nutting and the Pirates are content with mediocrity.

 

Sam Ross Jr. is a freelance journalist who writes a weekly column for The Tribune-Democrat. 

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