Today I found myself in a discussion about the Pirates with some knowledgable fans of other teams. One of the first questions I was asked was, "Is Dave Littlefield retarded?"
I said that no, I did not believe that Littlefield was retarded, that he mostly did exactly what the Pirates' ownership expected him to do. Someone else then asked, "Is Cam Bonifay more retarded than Dave Littlefield?" I said yes, but that Bonifay was at least trying to build a good team, whereas Littlefield isn't.
This wasn't a very nice thing to say. First, "retarded" is not really an appropriate term, so it wasn't right of me to accept the framework of the question. Second, it's not right to insult people who have actual disabilities by comparing them to people I don't like very much.
Third, neither Littlefield nor Bonifay is "retarded" by any definition. Certainly, if one looks at a list of their transactions, one might be inclined to conclude that both have screws loose.
However, it is never quite right to look at these transactions in a vacuum. No, it wasn't a very good decision for the Pirates to sign Derek Bell to a multiyear contract. But Bonifay (or the ownership) had to deal with other factors besides baseball performance before deciding to sign Bell. For example, Bonifay probably had to deal with the fact that other players didn't want to sign with the Pirates. He also may have been under instructions from ownership to make a splash by signing a free agent. At some level, Bonifay probably did make some error in judging Bell's baseball talent. But his hand was probably also forced by these and other factors.
It is even more complex to decide what, if anything, Littlefield's transactions say about his baseball acumen, because it seems that near the end of Bonifay's tenure, the Pirates' ownership decided to avoid risk by keeping payroll low and attempting to field a 70-win team each year. So while some of Littlefield's decisions seem like the result of mistakes or errors in judgment of baseball talent - the Jeromy Burnitz signing comes to mind, as does the Rule 5 debacle - it's difficult to say what factors other than baseball talent went into those decisions.
Even the Jeromy Burnitz transaction may have been influenced by non-baseball factors. Yes, it displaced a better and more popular player in Craig Wilson. Case closed, right? It was dumb. But, as WTM has pointed out, the Pirates' minor spending spree this offseason may have been the result of an attempt to avoid attention when the players and owners get together to discuss the Collective Bargaining Agreement, which currently enriches the Pirates by providing them with revenue sharing money. If it's clear that the Pirates aren't spending the revenue sharing money they receive, the next CBA might keep them from receiving so much of it. Then consider that the Burnitz signing occurred late in the offseason, when most of the expensive players were already signed. It's at least possible that Littlefield agrees that Wilson is a better player than Burnitz, but he felt he had to spend the money so that the Pirates wouldn't get in trouble.
I was thinking about this idea with regard to the extension for Salomon Torres that was reported yesterday. Yes, it's dumb from a baseball perspective, but it doesn't prove that Littlefield himself is dumb. The contract may have been an attempt to excite fans for the coming season, or it might have been another attempt to avoid problems in the next round of CBA negotiations.
This doesn't mean, of course, that we shouldn't blast the Pirates for making dumb baseball decisions, since those decisions run counter to our interests as fans, and, really, to the interests of all fans. But neither is it clear that Dave Littlefield, or anyone in the Pirates' franchise, is "retarded."