Mark Madden: Pirates’ horrible season didn’t put damper on Steve Blass’ career
It was some year for the Pirates. The black cat that crossed their path was a rabid panther on meth.
The Pirates went 25-48 after the All-Star break, finishing last in the NL Central.
There were three fights between Pirates personnel that we know about.
Closer Felipe Vasquez got arrested for crimes connected with allegedly having a sexual relationship with a 13-year-old girl. This doesn’t remotely diminish the accusation, but the Pirates bypassed generous trade offers for Vazquez.
The Pirates’ team ERA was 5.19. Meantime, former Pirates Gerrit Cole and Charlie Morton are legit Cy Young Award candidates in the American League. Ex-Buc hurlers Tyler Glasnow and Jordan Lyles blossomed upon departure.
The Pirates made enough embarrassing on-field gaffes to fill a blooper reel. (I saw one on Twitter. It was funny. Except it wasn’t.)
President Frank Coonelly apologized for the team’s performance.
Manager Clint Hurdle told reporters he’d be back in 2020. Then ownership told him he wouldn’t be.
Even as a horrible season sputtered to a close, the Pirates announced they would be starting a team Hall of Fame. That is so Pirates. Put lipstick on a pig. The timing was incredibly tone deaf.
Rumor says the first inductees will be owner Bob Nutting’s accountant and whichever pierogi won the most races.
The dismissal of Hurdle is conflicting.
Never mind Kyle Crick founding the Pirates’ version of Fight Club (except it got talked about), the Pirates made so many mental mistakes that it’s impossible to believe accountability existed in any significant form.
It’s a bit dramatic to say Hurdle lost institutional control, but also accurate. Hurdle postured as a tough guy, but this season finished morphing into a paper tiger that the players didn’t take seriously beyond lip service.
Firing Hurdle is the right move.
But he’s clearly a mere sacrificial lamb.
GM Neal Huntington is more responsible for the Pirates’ collapse.
Huntington could be dismissed just for how the Chris Archer deal turned out, with Glasnow and outfielder Austin Meadows immediately becoming standouts in Tampa Bay while Archer went rotten. That deal reflects Huntington’s lack of trading acumen and his organization’s abject inability to develop young talent.
Hurdle’s attempt to polish excrement was weak.
But the man who plucked a roster out of the toilet should pay a price.
Everyone connected to baseball ops should be fired. The Pirates need to start over.
But Nutting gave Huntington and his staff a nauseating endorsement Sunday.
The Pirates will go in-house and appoint a low-budget jabroni like bench coach Tom Prince or special assistant Jeff Banister to succeed Hurdle. A new coaching staff will complete the illusion.
Nothing will change. The Pirates won’t get better. Salaries will plummet.
It’s not impossible to win in MLB with a small payroll. Tampa Bay has the lowest in baseball, and is in the playoffs. So is Oakland, which ranks 23rd.
But to do that, you must approach baseball as an exact science and make all the right moves.
The Pirates approach baseball like a preschooler approaches finger-painting.
The timing of Hurdle’s sacking seemed spurred by the Chicago Cubs ditching Joe Maddon. It also put a damper on Steve Blass’ swansong as a member of the Pirates’ broadcast crew.
But nothing could put a damper on Blass.
Most of Blass’ 60 years with the Pirates were spent witnessing misery. But it never for one second made Blass miserable. Not when he played, and not as a broadcaster. Blass has been a nonstop breath of fresh air.
Blass’ baseball heroics are well-documented. His leap into the air upon winning Game 7 of the 1971 World Series is a moment that will live forever for those who saw it (and many who didn’t).
Blass’ career ended prematurely when his control abandoned him in 1973, just one year after winning 19 games. But his inexplicable struggle further endeared and ennobled. Blass has a bond with Pittsburgh like few do.
Whenever Blass tells a story from the old days, it makes me feel like I was there.
Perhaps that’s because some of the time, I was.
Before MLB’s financial structure combined with cheapskate owners to ruin the Pirates, I was a die-hard, especially as a kid. I went to 42 games in that ‘71 championship season and have the ticket stubs (somewhere) to prove it. I got Blass’ autograph dozens of times. He was always friendly and gracious. He brought me that much closer to baseball.
Blass was beloved in all corners of the Pirates clubhouse during his pitching days, and helped bring a racially diverse team together in an era when that wasn’t easy. His deep friendship with the late Roberto Clemente validated that.
The Pirates broadcast team is the franchise’s hidden gem, their overselling of optimism while Rome burns an understandable shortcoming. It’s part of the job.
But when Blass did that, you knew he deeply wanted things to be better. His heart was always on his sleeve. He’s still a Pirate, just like in ‘71, and always will be.
Blass’ retirement was a bittersweet finish to a Pirates season with too many terrible optics. There’s no hope in sight. Blass is taking it with him.