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Kovacevic: Hoka Hey! Why change a thing?

Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Pirates manager Clint Hurdle talks with team owner Bob Nutting in the dugout at the start of the game Sunday July 22, 2012 against the Marlins at PNC Park.

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By Dejan Kovacevic
Tuesday, Oct. 23, 2012, 10:58 p.m.
 

It's been nearly a month since the Pirates completed their second straight epic collapse, and so far they're off to their second straight offseason of doing nothing about it.

Not one personnel move has been made, unless you count hitting coach Gregg Ritchie quitting for a college job he'd been plotting for months.

Not one member of the front office has spoken to any change in processes.

There's been nothing at all.

I took Bob Nutting's word when he told me for a Sept. 28 column that “it's obvious the status quo is not an acceptable option” and that he'd undertake a no-job-is-safe organizational review. And I have ample cause to still believe him. I know — for a fact — he's doing his due diligence, just as I appreciate that it takes time.

In the meantime, though, all that's obvious is more status quo, in people and in practice.

Remember those Navy SEALS exercises the Pirates put their prospects through to open their Florida Instructional League session last month in Bradenton?

If not, maybe the term “Hoka Hey” will jog the memory.

Thought so.

Management stressed at the time it was only a three-day event, Sept. 14-16. But it turns out that, even though those ex-SEALS have long since left Pirate City, their methods didn't.

Pull up a stool, all you aspiring hippies and Hell's Angels ...

On Oct. 14 at 11:45 p.m., the Pirates' minor-league coaches and instructors broke the midnight silence by banging on dorm rooms throughout the complex shouting, “It's Hell Week! It's Hell Week!”

Players were told to be dressed in 20 minutes and to meet outside by the batting cage. Waiting there were Kyle Stark, the assistant general manager and architect of the team's “Hoka Hey” ways, as well as Larry Broadway, the first-year farm director who never before held any instructional position at any level of baseball.

Look it up.

Broadway told the assembled players this would be their “rite of passage” to become Pirates, then sent them on a two-hour scavenger hunt for envelopes hidden across the complex.

(Don't ask. No idea.)

At 5 a.m., after a wink or two of sleep, they were bused over to Bradenton Beach for a two-mile run, followed by relay races in which they ran back and forth filling garbage cans with sand.

(Don't ask. No idea.)

This garbage — pardon the pun — went on all week.

On the “Hell Week” finale Friday, with a 10 a.m. road game on tap, the players again were awoken at 5 a.m. This time, it was to perform sliding drills on a still-dark field lit by a solitary quartz lamp. The coaches took turns manning second base and tried — not always successfully — to leap over players sliding into the bag, generally making a mess on the basepaths.

(Now this one explains a lot.)

I know about the above because I continue to hear from prospects worried about injury (some among the team's most expensive draft picks), from parents who wish their sons had never signed with the Pirates, from angry agents, even from men who answer to Stark and GM Neal Huntington.

I'll repeat: The Pirates' development system is the laughingstock of baseball.

And most unfortunately, it isn't just a harmless sideshow.

Gregory Polanco is one of the Pirates' top five prospects. He's a 21-year-old, 6-foot-4 outfielder who was named Most Outstanding Prospect in the Single-A South Atlantic League after batting .325 with 16 home runs, 85 RBI and 40 steals for West Virginia.

The kid can do it all, but that apparently isn't enough.

Polanco's ankle was sprained in mid-August, and it cost him most of his final month of play. But the Pirates still saw fit to have him participate in that first day with the SEALS last month, and as you might guess, the ankle was reinjured.

Worse than before.

It happened during a drill in which Polanco sprinted across the outfield, through an above-ground pool of ice water, then leaped into a sand pit.

(You're still seeking logic?)

I know this because I asked Polanco himself. Through an interpreter, he described it in vivid detail.

I know this because a pitcher in his drill group independently described it the same way.

But sadly, I wouldn't have known this if I had relied solely on the Pirates' word.

When I initially asked the team two weeks ago about Polanco, this was the emailed reply from baseball operations — no name assigned — through a team spokesman: “Polanco was NOT injured during that workout. He actually injured his ankle during the season. He opted out of those workouts, as he has continued to battle swelling but no pain.”

If you believe the players — and I do — the statement was a bald-faced lie.

Not from the spokesman, but from baseball ops.

The truth: Polanco asked to be removed from a later workout on the beach when the pain worsened on the bus ride. By day's end, the team had to fit him for a boot, which wasn't the case when he first hurt it.

Why try to hide this?

Maybe Nutting will start uncovering the answers.

 

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