PITTSBURGH—The Pirates have a couple of top-tier talents rising through their system in righthanders Gerrit Cole and Jameson Taillon, with Cole projected to arrive in Pittsburgh as soon as this summer.
There also are a handful of impressive prospects out of Latin America in righthander Luis Heredia, shortstop Alen Hanson and outfielder Gregory Polanco.
In any other system, those few plus a couple of others might be the primary talking points. But the Pirates aren’t just any other franchise, losers of a professional sports-record 20 seasons in a row, and their system isn’t just any other system.
Reports in the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, Yahoo! Sports, ESPN and Baseball America have cast a harsh light on the militaristic methods used not only in three days of hard training by former Navy SEALS in September but also as part of a year-round mentality. A midsummer e-mail to minor league instructors from assistant general manager Kyle Stark, obtained by the Tribune-Review, included bizarre language such as “Hoka Hey,” which is the Sioux translation for “It’s a great day to die,” as well as “Dream like a hippie” and “Be crazy and take risks like a Hells Angel.”
The e-mail initially had been passed around the baseball community, mostly through scouts mocking its contents. When it went public, the “Hoka Hey” phrase became virtually synonymous with the broader topic on talk shows and Internet discussions.
The various news reports included accounts of prospects, parents and even team instructors being furious and/or embarrassed by some of the drills required of players, including being sprayed by a hose, rolling around in sand and carrying small telephone poles along the beach near the Pirates’ training facility in Bradenton, Fla.
Taillon and Polanco were reported to have sustained minor injuries in such drills, Taillon a tweaked knee as the result of some mixed martial arts-style workouts and Polanco an aggravated ankle as the result of a drill involving ice water and sand.
The public outcry that followed the reports was among the strongest the current management team experienced since taking over in late 2007, no doubt bolstered by the Pirates just having completed their second consecutive epic collapse after being 16 games over .500 in July.
On Nov. 6, franchise owner Bob Nutting met with the media to announce the results of his month-long in-house review of all baseball operations, and his only significant declaration—other than saying that no one was immediately getting fired—was to sharply denounce the physical aspect of the military-style drills.
“I believe that our primary responsibility is to develop baseball players to play baseball and win championships at PNC Park,” Nutting said. “We are not and we should not be a military organization. We should not run a boot-camp environment.”
He also added, “We should be focusing on baseball drills.”
One might think the story would have ended there, but all through December, team president Frank Coonelly and general manager Neal Huntington continued to speak glowingly of the methods, remaining in lockstep as if Nutting had never spoken a word.
Coonelly described the team’s methods in the minors as “mental conditioning,” adding that they are “techniques that have been used with overwhelming success by numerous industries and athletic teams.”
No other major league baseball team was known to have used such training.
Coonelly and Huntington praised Stark and farm director Larry Broadway—two men who had no experience in teaching baseball at the professional, major-college or even high school levels—as quality executives.
According to MLB.com, when a fan at the annual PirateFest question-and-answer session asked Huntington about the qualifications of Stark and Broadway, Huntington asked the fan to name the team he felt had the best development system. The fan named the Tampa Bay Rays.
Huntington replied: “Mitch Lukevics, who runs their system, had no prior experience with that. Some people have training in their background; others get very good at it on the job.”
Lukevics, this year’s winner of the Chief Bender Award from Minor League Baseball for distinguished service in player development, has spent 38 years in professional baseball as a pitcher, coach and minor league administrator. Before becoming the Rays’ director of minor league operations seven years ago, he most recently had served as the Yankees’ farm director (1989-96) and one season as a pitching coach in Tampa’s system.
Coonelly called criticism of the Pirates’ methods “overblown,” even after his boss had been among those expressing criticism in public.
“We’re teaching minor leaguers how to push through the grind, and somehow that’s a bad thing?” Coonelly said. “We want the next generation of Pittsburgh Pirates to be able to get through a 162-game season.”
Huntington went so far as to tell Pittsburgh’s WTAE-TV that Nutting had never given any directive to the front office to stop the drills, saying, “We’ve not been told not to. It’s something we believe in.”
The Tribune-Review reported that Nutting’s stance has not changed, that he will never again allow the physical drills in question but that he’s open to legitimate mental preparation techniques from any type of “elite” instruction.
What this means for the future of the system is difficult to discern, if only because Nutting clearly has put his management team on the thinnest of ice. In the same meeting with the media on Nov. 6, the owner was bluntly critical of the scouting department’s return on $52 million invested in drafts, as well as Huntington’s acquisitions through trades and free agency. Nutting said he expects the team to contend for the playoffs in 2013, which ups the ante for all involved.
How much, if at all, the front office is affected by the debate about the martial drills remains to be seen. For now, there are no firm indications anything will change. Coonelly spoke of the front office doing “an honest self-evaluation” but offered no specifics. The only personnel changes were four additions to the pro scouting department that Huntington himself described as routine, a couple of minor moves on the major league coaching staff and the resignation of Mike Leuzinger, the Pirates’ longtime—and outstanding—Texas amateur scout. Among others, Leuzinger has signed Matt Kemp and Josh Bell, the Pirates’ $5 million second-rounder in 2011.
When he resigned shortly after the season, Leuzinger told the Tribune-Review that he praised the work ethic of top scouts Greg Smith and Joe DelliCarri but that the losing “does wear you down . . . I was there for eight of those 20 losing seasons.”
Huntington acknowledged in a mid-December interview with a group of bloggers that Leuzinger was “one of our best area scouts” and that Leuzinger had “expressed some disappointment at being passed over a couple times” for a promotion to supervisor. His explanation for that: “For whatever reason, we made a decision—reasons I support—we made a decision to hire Scout X or Scout Y as a supervisor over Mike.”
Unless Nutting has a quick—and unexpected—change of heart in changing his management team, the current administration will get one last chance at drafting a quality player beyond the top two overall. (That’s where Pedro Alvarez, Cole and Taillon were taken.) The Pirates will have two first-rounders, at Nos. 9 and 13 overall, because of their failure to sign Stanford righthander Mark Appel last summer.
One can only guess at the adventures still to be experienced along the way.
Dejan Kovacevic is a columnist for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review