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Kovacevic: Coonelly's passion play pays off

| Saturday, April 5, 2014, 9:40 p.m.

Frank Coonelly was conspicuously left out of all the Pirates' front office contract extensions Saturday at PNC Park, and not without cause: Turns out there was nothing to extend.

“I'm an at-will employee, guess you could say,” the team president came back with a grin when I asked how his terms might compare to the three-year-plus-option extensions he'd just announced for Neal Huntington and Clint Hurdle. “No, really, I don't have a contract. When I came here in 2007 and brought my family across the state, I had one. But I haven't had one for a while.”

Wow. Hadn't heard that.

And double wow to the broader scene at hand.

I mean, think about how much it's changed since the fall of 2012, when the Pirates had just capped their second consecutive Epic Collapse, and questions swirled not only about their performance but also the offseason military-style drills being done by prospects that infuriated many in the organization — “Hoka Hey” ring a bell? — as well as that bizarre October when everyone fell silent as Bob Nutting scoured the organization top to bottom for answers.

To go from that to this point where Huntington and Hurdle being extended almost felt like an afterthought Saturday … yeah, there's all kinds of wow in there.

Say what you want now, but at the time it's something no one could have firmly envisioned.

Not even the man who presented those contracts.

“I'd say I could have pictured this, but … it would have been difficult to say it was realistic,” Coonelly was telling me as he looked across the news conference room at Huntington surrounded by cameras and microphones for all the right reasons. “But could I picture it? Yes. I believed we were heading in the right direction. We stubbed our toe a couple times at the end of 2011 and 2012, but I firmly believed this was the right leadership team.”

He proved that, too, in a way I'm not sure enough fans can fully appreciate.

Coonelly has been a lightning rod. He's said silly things, done dumb things. But the fact is this scene was made possible by his opening the only umbrella when the skies appeared to be caving around them. Based on what I know, Coonelly's voice was the only one that mattered once Nutting came to him for discussions that determined the future of the franchise. All concerned agreed to end the military weirdness — and they did — but Coonelly was otherwise unapologetic and emphatic in his support of status quo. Or, as some at 115 Federal St. are fond of saying, he went into “Frank the Tank” mode.

“I wouldn't say I had to fight,” Coonelly said. “I did strongly defend where we were as an organization and the path we were on. In my judgment, we needed to stay the course and be patient. While it was extraordinarily frustrating, I believed that.”

He paused.

“But I did have to defend because those were legitimate questions being asked. And I'll tell you right now it was gratifying to have a leader like Bob Nutting who's willing to not just say, ‘OK, Frank, you're right,' but to ask the right questions. Some very hard questions.”

First time I'd heard that, too, at least from Coonelly.

None of us can know what might have happened had Coonelly not had his men's backs, but none of us has to now.

Nutting is through talking about that time, and that's just as well. As close as he would come is this: “Have we made some mistakes along the way? Of course we have. Have other teams made mistakes? Of course they have. What matters is where we are now.”

Which, all told, is a pretty good place.

Huntington has built up the minor league system to a No. 1 ranking from Baseball America and, after years of free agent failures, had the offseason of a lifetime last winter. He's “young, smart and knows where he's going,” as Hurdle put it.

Hurdle, of course, has been the guiding light. As Huntington described, “He changed everything about our team, our city.”

Both are eminently deserving of extensions, and the Pirates are only stronger for the continuity they'll offer. It'll make them rightful peers of the Steelers and Penguins in that regard.

The guy who kept it glued might have deserved an extension, too, had such a thing been necessary. But don't overlook what his lack of a contract really spells: Coonelly will be running the place for a very long time.

And based on precedent, he'll stick by those under him as long as he feels is right. Passionately so.

“I'm proud of the work our people have done,” Coonelly said as we wrapped up. “Having said that, it was nice to see the tangible evidence of that at the major league level. At the end of the day, that's how we're all judged and rightfully so.”

Dejan Kovacevic is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at or via Twitter @Dejan_Kovacevic.

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