Former Pirates manager Russell has no regrets
SARASOTA, Fla. — John Russell has put the Pirates behind him, but he hasn't gotten very far away from them.
Russell lost 299 games over three seasons as the Pirates' manager. In November, five weeks after being fired, Russell was hired as the Baltimore Orioles' third base coach and catching instructor.
He and his family still live in Bradenton, Fla., a short drive from the Pirates' spring training facilities. The Orioles train about 12 miles away and will face the Pirates five times in the Grapefruit League, starting Feb. 28 with a game at McKechnie Field.
A potentially more emotional visit awaits Russell in June, when the Orioles will come to PNC Park for an interleague series.
"People say to me, 'Oh, you probably don't want to go back there,' " Russell said. "It doesn't affect me. It was a part of my career that I'll always remember and cherish. I have a lot of friends over there."
After being fired, Russell declined to speak with media outlets in Pittsburgh, though he kept in touch with some of his confidants in town. A few days ago, before the Orioles began their early-morning workouts, Russell agreed to talk with the Tribune-Review.
Russell still believes the Pirates, who have absorbed 18 straight losing seasons, can turn things around.
"There's hope for any franchise," Russell said. "The biggest thing is patience, and that's tough in Pittsburgh because of the number of years they haven't won."
During Russell's tenure, the Pirates endured some of their lowest points — baserunning gaffes, historic blowouts, the fewest single-season road victories by any club in nearly 50 years.
The major league roster was gutted in Russell's first two seasons, as Jason Bay, Xavier Nady, Jack Wilson and Freddy Sanchez were traded. Last year the combination of a stagnant, rookie-laden offense, rotten starting pitching and a patchwork bullpen led to 105 losses.
"I thought the last quarter of the (2010) season we played pretty good baseball," Russell said. "Guys started to come on a little bit. I thought it was very much headed the right way. But you can't negate the losses."
Some of Russell's coaching decisions — using extreme outfield shifts, hitting the pitcher in the No. 8 spot — were questioned. More frequently, he was criticized for seeming to be emotionless on the field and aloof toward his players.
Looking back, would Russell do anything differently?
"You can always second-guess," he said. "But you have to believe in what you do. That's the way I tried to approach it every day in Pittsburgh. I tried to do what's right not only for the players but for the organization to make sure we stayed on track with the major plan. We knew it was going to be tough. We knew we were going to have to be patient to make it work. Unfortunately, it didn't work out for me."
Asked if he was made the scapegoat for the Pirates' low-budget, slow-motion rebuilding plan, Russell paused a moment.
"I'm not going to get into all that," he said. "It's a plan that (makes it) tough to ride the storm. When you feel that changes need to be made to keep the ship afloat, that's their decision. But a scapegoat• Who knows?
"I'll never forget my (six) years in Pittsburgh as a coach and manager. It's a great city with great fans. I'll never regret it. I wish I could still be there as a manager. But I'm very happy where I am now. I'm looking forward to this season and what the future holds for me."
Russell walked into a familiar situation. The Orioles lost 96 games last year and had the second-worst record in the American League. They haven't finished above .500 in the past 13 seasons.
But while the Pirates continue to build with young, homegrown players, the Orioles this past offseason imported veterans such as Derrek Lee, J.J. Hardy, Mark Reynolds and Vladimir Guerrero.
When Guerrero signed, he asked for and received uniform No. 27 — taking it away from Russell.
"That's OK," Russell said, grinning. "I don't mind, in this case."
New manager Buck Showalter brought in Russell, a backstop during his playing days, to work with the catchers, specifically prized young slugger Matt Wieters.
"The kid's very attentive and very gifted," Russell said. "The thing I like about him is, even though he caught quite a bit in the major leagues last year, he likes to work. He wants to be a solid, great catcher."
The Orioles drafted Wieters fifth overall in 2007, snatching him when the Pirates made what was considered a stunning decision to take pitcher Dan Moskos. Wieters chuckled at the irony of being coached by the Pirates' former skipper.
"It's been great," Wieters said. "John's pretty laid back. He keeps to himself. I like that, even through all the highs and lows, he's going to be the same guy."
Where are they now?
What the Pirates' past nine managers are doing now:
Bill Virdon (1972-73): Retired
Danny Murtaugh (1973-76): Deceased
Chuck Tanner (1977-85): Deceased
Jim Leyland (1986-96): Tigers manager
Gene Lamont (1997-2000): Tigers third base coach
Lloyd McClendon (2001-05): Tigers hitting coach
Pete Mackanin (2005): Phillies bench coach
Jim Tracy (2006-07): Rockies manager
John Russell (2008-10): Orioles third base coach