Kevin Gorman: New voice of Pirates’ next manager should be bilingual
The Pittsburgh Pirates are searching for not just a new manager but a new voice that will resonate inside a clubhouse that had tuned out Clint Hurdle’s message.
Perhaps that voice should speak in Spanish.
The Pirates love to pride themselves as a progressive club, touting MLB’s first Latin superstar in Roberto Clemente to its first all-black lineup in 1971, but have yet to hire a Latin manager in their 133-year franchise history.
The Pirates should be giving strong consideration to a bilingual candidate who can improve communication, considering the clubhouse chaos last season after several skirmishes created a chasm between Latin players and their teammates.
That’s no small task, no matter whom the Pirates hire.
When the Pirates fired Hurdle, whose message had become repetitive and redundant, general manager Neal Huntington refused to list job requirements that would limit his search.
“We’re not going out looking for one specific thing or one specific person,” Huntington said before the season finale last month. “We’re going out to find the next, best manager of the Pittsburgh Pirates.”
So far, the Pirates look like they are finding a pool of next-best managerial candidates.
That every known Pirates candidate — from Jeff Banister internally to Mike Bell, Ryan Christenson, Derek Shelton and Stubby Clapp externally — is a middle-aged white man is telling. The Pirates seem more concerned with the communication from the front office to the manager than they do the manager to the players.
That’s another sign of process over people.
Being bilingual doesn’t have to be a defining trait for the Pirates’ managerial candidate, but it certainly should be taken into consideration. Spanish-speaking players made up more than 25% of Opening Day rosters, according to the Washington Post, and account for more than 37% of the Pirates’ 40-man roster.
The Pirates have invested greatly in signing international players, especially through their Dominican baseball academy that is ticketed for expansion. Among their prominent Latin players are Dominicans Starling Marte, Gregory Polanco and Erik Gonzalez and Venezuelans Elias Diaz and Jose Osuna.
Like most major league clubs, the Pirates have bilingual coaches in both their dugout and bullpen. They even added veteran pitcher Francisco Liriano and outfielder Melky Cabrera as much for their leadership with the Latin players as anything. Yet the problems persisted, which shows the importance of the manager’s message.
Meantime, bilingual managers have thrived the past two postseasons, as Alex Cora guided the Boston Red Sox to a World Series title last year and Dave Martinez has led the Washington Nationals to their first World Series this fall. Martinez wasn’t fluent in Spanish until he was an adult and improved his communication by speaking to Latin players in Spanish and asking them to talk with him in English. Imagine what that could do for someone like Marte, who still conducts interviews with the assistance of an interpreter.
It’s not just the communication issue. The Pirates’ top priority should be finding candidates whose strengths are improving their weaknesses. There’s no shortage of weaknesses, from pitching and catching to base-running and fielding. One Latin coach connected to the Pirates is Houston Astros bench coach Joe Espada, best known for working with the infield and base-runners. Another they should consider is Pedro Grifol, who spent seven years with the Kansas City Royals on analytics, catching and fielding as quality control coach.
Part of the problem isn’t just identifying the next, best manager but convincing him to come to Pittsburgh. The remaining $6 million on Hurdle’s contract complicates things as the Pirates probably won’t be paying top dollar for their next hire.
It also doesn’t help that Huntington remains on the hot seat, despite an endorsement from Pirates chairman Bob Nutting. The postseason success of Gerrit Cole hasn’t helped Huntington’s cause, as the lopsided returns on his trade to the Houston Astros is a black eye for the Bucs. Huntington has two years remaining on his contract, which could mean that a new manager has a short shelf life to coach a team that is nowhere close to being a contender after its second-half freefall to a 93-loss season that saw it finish last in the NL Central.
What the Pirates want and what they need are not always aligned, especially when they entered the offseason as one of eight teams searching for a new manager. So far, this search has been as inspiring as the 2007 hiring of John Russell, only two years after he had been fired by the Pirates as Lloyd McClendon’s third-base coach.
Of the candidates, Banister is the only one with major league managerial experience. He spent three seasons as manager of the Texas Rangers, leading them to a .509 winning percentage and two AL West division titles before being fired in 2018. But hiring Banister is a sign of staying with the status quo.
And experience is neither a priority nor a prerequisite.
“Experience can always be a benefit, but, in some cases, it’s a hold back because we can become married to tradition,” Huntington said, “and we don’t recognize truth over tradition.”
The Pirates need to recognize the truth of their tradition. They promote their connection to Clemente, yet when it comes to their Latin players, they aren’t even speaking the same language.
Kevin Gorman is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Kevin by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .