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On Discussing the Pirates

(UPDATED below the fold.)

Dejan Kovacevic's article today on how to frame media coverage of the Pirates is a pretty interesting one, and it's something I've thought about a lot. I worry that my response rambles quite a bit, in part because the issues in play here stretch well beyond baseball and into things like politics that aren't really in the purview of this blog. But I'm going to go ahead and publish it anyway, as a springboard for discussion. If you're scratching your head by the time you get to the end, I'm sorry, and I'll try to write something better tomorrow.  

I'm not going to try to "prove" anything here. That seems impossible anyway, since the pro- and anti-management camps that Kovacevic describes as criticizing him from both sides are hard to even define. I can only really describe them using crude generalizations. And I want to be careful here to note that this article isn't a referendum on Kovacevic, who I think mostly does a good job, but on the way we all talk about the team. Anyway:

Without wanting to turn this into a political argument, a big problem with journalism in the past decade or so has been the tendency of journalists to achieve "balance" by presenting both sides of an argument without evaluating what either side is actually saying. Both political parties know that journalists do this, which means they're free to present their talking points without worrying about whether or not they're true. I think journalists have a duty to assess the information that's being fed to them (and to his credit, I'm sure this is what Kovacevic thinks also). I also think it's far from clear that the middle of any given issue is the correct place to be. Sometimes one side is just wrong.

Kovacevic writes:

This is happening all through society and, at the risk of dipping a toe into politics, there is a reason that Fox and MSNBC are both now getting better ratings than CNN, the only one that claims the middle road. 

Kovacevic says this like it's a bad thing. Again, without wanting to get all political here--isn't CNN deadly boring to watch? Isn't it, uh, incredibly uninformative? This could be wrong, because I don't watch CNN unless I'm waiting for a flight or a bank teller, and I'd kind of rather wash my face with acid than watch it in any other circumstance, but in my experience it's 30% commercials, 28% dubious medical advice, 27% the latest analysis of what happened to some pretty girl who disappeared somewhere, and 15% political news that is just about impossible to understand because there's no effort to process the information. Most of the political discourse is delivered either by partisan talking heads who aren't making good-faith efforts to speak the truth, or by journalists who have to speak in an obfuscating sort of code for fear of offending people who think like the talking heads. 

In discussing the Bucs, there has to be another way, a way of speaking the truth without bowing before the Pirates' management or systematically raging against it. The main problem right now with the dynamic between the pro- and anti-management camps is that the anti-management camp doesn't make a whole lot of sense most of the time. The bulk of the criticism aimed at Neal Huntington and Frank Coonelly either demands that the Pirates make some doomed, kamikaze run at contention right now, or blames Huntington and Coonelly for their inability to magically transform a thoroughly trashed organization into a World Series team within a month of being hired. It reminds me of the movie Idiocracy:

I got a three point plan to fix everything. Number one, we got this guy Not Sure. Number two, he's got a higher IQ than any man alive! And number three, he's gonna fix everything! I give you my word as President. He's gonna fix the ploblems with all the dead crops, he's gonna make em' groooow again! And that ain't all, I give you my wooord, he's gonna fix the dust storms tooo! I give you my wooord, he's gonna fiiiiix the economy. And he's soooo smaaaart, he's gonna do it aaaall in one week.

It simply wasn't realistic, given the dilapidated state of the major league roster, the near non-existence of the minor league system, and the fact that most of the Pirates' core players would be free agents after 2009, to have expected Huntington and Coonelly to mold the team they inherited into a contender. That core, the one featuring Jason Bay, Jack Wilson, Freddy Sanchez, Adam LaRoche and Xavier Nady, was given multiple opportunities, and it couldn't muster more than 68 wins. And, again, the Pirates risked losing most of those players by this point.

Further, teams with payrolls below $100 million or so--and I'm not sure I've ever seen anyone even in the anti-management camp suggest that the Pirates can top $100 million--simply must have a good core of homegrown or otherwise cheap young players to compete. The Rays did it this way. The Twins did it this way. The Brewers and the A's and the Marlins, when they were successful, did it this way. The Pirates just didn't have that. They weren't ready to compete, and they had to take some drastic steps to rework the farm system in order to generate young players to create a winning core. And when you have a farm system as busted as the Pirates' was--after 2007, Baseball America ranked it 26th out of the 30 MLB teams--that takes time, because ballplayers take many years to develop.

At the risk of turning this thing into a novel, I'll stop here, but everything in the last two paragraphs strikes me as obviously true. And so I suppose much of what has frustrated me about the way we've talked about the Pirates for the past couple of years is that we've been arguing about these things rather than arguing some of the finer points of what Huntington and Coonelly are doing. It's like if you're trying to talk about politics with someone and they say that the solution to our economic problems is a visit from the Magical Jobs Fairy. That's their opinion, and in some way they're entitled to it, but serious people find it useful to presume that the Magical Jobs Fairy does not exist and to work from there.

And so a lot of my personal frustration not so much with Kovacevic, but with all the discourse that surrounds the team, is that we're talking about Magical Job Fairies. We're arguing about whether the Bay/Nady/Wilson Pirates could have been molded into a contender. (Not a chance.) We're arguing about whether this management team is any different from the last one. (Clearly, it is.) We're arguing about why Huntington and Coonelly haven't gotten any results yet. (Because what they inherited was so far from being ready, obviously. It's like arguing with your neighbor that his three-year-old son should be dunking a basketball already.)

Most of this talk is really unhelpful. And if the Pirates were widely discussed on CNN, they'd never sort any of this out, because they'd never have anyone authoritative point out that one side is largely basing its arguments around premises that are unrealistic. I think that, obviously, Huntington and Coonelly's actions should be questioned, but it's really hard for me to take seriously most of the questioning that's currently going on. And since Kovacevic is such an important voice in discussions about the Pirates, it's no surprise that he feels like he's at the center of this.

I think if he's using the CNN model, though, he's getting things wrong, and he should call out more of the Magical Job Fairy stuff, so that the rest of us can talk to each other without navigating through so much of the "I'M DONE WITH THIS TEAM" and "IT'S A CULTURE OF WINNING, SRSLY" stuff that litters many online discussions. (It probably doesn't help that the opinion columns about the Pirates in the Post-Gazette, which are not written by Kovacevic, are mostly ridiculous garbage.) Maybe Kovacevic can't do this because moderating and calling B.S. aren't part of his job, but then I think those are tragic limitations of his job. A lot of my favorite journalists are the rare few who aren't afraid to appear to have an opinion, because their freedom from "balance" allows them to say what's actually going on. Kovacevic really is the sort of authority figure who could set a lot dialogue about the team back on the right path. Of course, he'd probably have to offend people to do that, so it'll never happen.

It is, actually, not at all clear that what Huntington and Coonelly are doing will work. There is, for example, the fact that they've shown no real ability to construct a bullpen. Their concept of "internal value" seems at times to be almost dogmatic, and it may get them into trouble if the team reaches the point where a couple extra million spent on a veteran really could make a big difference. Huntington and Coonelly have talked a great game about Latin America but so far haven't signed a prospect there for more than a few hundred thousand bucks. And then, of course, there's the giant, honking and totally legitimate question of whether the Pirates will really open the checkbook once they've built a good core of competitive young players. Those things are all fair game, and to the credit of Bucs fans everywhere, they've all been pretty widely discussed. We'll be further along, though, when we don't have to deal with so much Magical Job Fairy stuff along the way.

UPDATE by Charlie (2:00 PM):

Kovacevic responds:

Charlie incorrectly presumes that I find the middle -- or CNN, in this instance -- to be the correct path toward resolving a discussion or covering this beat. A couple replies:

1. I never wrote any such thing. I merely described the other two networks as gaining ratings on CNN, once the leader, as an example of how the nation appears to be moving toward the poles and how it increasingly prefers its news to come with views.

2. If I felt the middle ground was the answer and never deigned to challenge information that was presented to me, I am guessing we would not have had 3-4 weeks of extensive Matt Capps conversation here at this point. Nor would the very commonly held perception that the Pirates have been pocketing profits been addressed -- whether or not to anyone's full satisfaction -- with a month's worth of work on the finances series last month.

This is taking information presented, challenging it and, hopefully, fortifying its clarity for the readers.

I most assuredly never have viewed the beat as hearing the polar opposites and cutting a line down the middle. I do listen to all arguments, hear all cases and try to find out whichever way that goes. If that leads to one of the polar extremes, so be it.

I do, however, appreciate the general sentiment Charlie expresses about our coverage here, as well as his many excellent general thoughts in this particular post.


That's all fair enough. I don't want to go into too much detail in response because, again, I don't want this to be a referendum on Kovacevic.

Someone did ask in the comments about what I would like to see happen, though, what I meant by setting the dialogue on the right path. I guess what I'd like to see is for someone with a very loud voice to explain, historically, why the Pirates' plan is the right idea, and then write in a way that presumes the plan is a good one and that, instead, focuses on the Pirates' tactics. From the limited amount I've heard, Rocco DeMaro seems to do a pretty good job of this, but unfortunately he's a radio guy, so what he says basically disappears into the ether as soon as it comes out of his mouth. There are some bloggers who already do this, but I don't think our voices are loud enough to make much of a difference. Kovacevic's series on the Dominican and on the team's finances are definitely the right idea, but there's still way too much dithering throughout Pirate Nation about whether the rebuilding the Bucs have undergone is a good idea, when to me it transparently is. I don't know--maybe I'm overestimating Kovacevic's role in shaping the discourse.