Waaaay back in September of 2007 Frank Coonelly had a vision. (Or at the very least a fair idea). The Pirates president was searching for the man who could lead his team to the promised land. Coonelly desired a GM with a vision of success and the tenacity to accomplish it. The new GM was to be a baseball-minded executive, with strong leadership skills. Coonelly also wanted someone with skin thick enough to do what he knew needed to be done. After a two week search that winded through the scouting trails and dirty areas of baseball development, he settled on Neal Huntington.
Neal came with some pretty lofty credentials. He had spent 16 seasons in baseball player development (a place where the Pirates SEVERELY lacked), starting out with the (then) Montreal Expos and moving to the Cleveland Indians for ten seasons. He managed to work his way up the ladder of the Indians system culminating in his hire as special assistant to the General Manager. How much Neal is truly credited for in the rise of the Indians organization is open to debate. What can be said is that he was certainly involved (or at least a witness) in several key moves that helped launch the Indians into contention. The most laudable being the acquisition of Cliff Lee, Brandon Phillips and Grady Sizemore in a
fleecing of trade with the aforementioned Montreal Expos at the very end of the 2002 trade deadline. At the time Colon was in the midst of a stellar year, he finished 2002 with a combined 20-8 record and a 2.93 ERA, including 76 earned runs with 70 walks in 233.1 innings, three shutouts, and eight complete games. The fans and press at the time flayed the Indians front office for the move. Before the season began they had unloaded Roberto Alomar, perhaps the most beloved Indian at the time. First year GM Mark Shapiro new going in that he was going to have to make some unpopular moves, and if the Alomar trade didn't clue anyone in, the Colon trade sure did. Fans and media alike lambasted the Indians front office for what, at the time, was perceived as a salary dump. (Deric McKamey of BP wrote an excellent article on this trade, which you can find here). In the end this trade rejuvinated the franchise, and if not for Grady Sizemore's rash of injuries, might still be reaping the benefits of this deal.
When Huntington took over at the end of the 2007 season, his first order of business was to completely revamp the way the Pirates approached player development. He fired Jim Tracy, who at the time wasn't much thought of (though writers and fans alike would later use this as ammunition after the Rockies climb to the World Series), which was expected. The intriguing part of all of this was Huntington's philosophy:
"We are going to utilize several objective measures of player performance to evaluate and develop players. We'll rely on the more traditional objective evaluations: OPS, WHIP, Runs Created, ERC, GB/FB, K/9, K/BB, BB%, etc., but we'll also look to rely on some of the more recent variations: VORP, Relative Performance, EqAve, EqOBP, EqSLG, BIP%, wOBA, Range Factor, PMR and Zone Rating. That said, we will continue to stress the importance of our subjective evaluations. Succinctly stated, we believe that a combination of quality objective and subjective analysis will allow us to maximize our probability of success and to make the best possible decisions."
Right off the bat Huntington was viewed as a quack, a numbers only GM completely out of touch with the pulse of baseball in Pittsburgh. Destined to fail in yet another rebuild, just like those that came before him. This was exacerbated during the summer of '09 when the senior club was skinned for promises and what might be's.
Flash forward to the present. Baseball in Pittsburgh is in the midst of a renaissance. Andrew McCutchen is being viewed as a legitmate superstar by peers and pundits alike. With every homerun, chants of MVP echo around the ballpark. Fireworks night is no longer just a way to get fans into the stadium, they are a celebration of sorts, a booming chorus of triumphs several years in the making.
So a tip of the cap to you Mr. Huntington. You stuck to your guns, got bloodied as the first man over the wall always is. Yet you have given this city a summer made even sweeter from 20 years of waiting. A dream like spectacle that no one can ever take away from you. What makes this even sweeter is that as enjoyable as this thing is, this foray into the realm that is competitive baseball... the future is even brighter... Thank You.