I must admit that the Indians have long surpassed “tolerable to watch” for me (with the exception of yesterday’s game). This is one of the first seasons that I can remember (and I’ve been following baseball obsessively since 1987, when I was eight) that I really just want the Indians’ season to end. Not necessarily for baseball to end for the year, just the walking disaster that has been suiting up in Indians uniforms for the past three months. While the Indians have been my “primary” team for years, there are a few other teams that I follow and root for on a regular basis. One of those teams happen to be the Pittsburgh Pirates, who for most of my life have served as my NL team, while the Indians were my representative in the AL. Since I don’t follow football as I do baseball, there really seems to be no contradiction for me in following both of these teams. They only play each other every few years, for just a few games.
This season the Pirates have managed to be almost more disappointing than the Indians. After 19 straight losing seasons, it seemed as if they would finally break the streak. For a while, they were within striking distance of the Reds and just a couple of games out of one of the wild card spots. They have endured another epic collapse – falling out of contention and now falling below .500. People have discussed the Indians’ problems and theorized who may lose their jobs after the season; now Pirates fans are also calling for heads on a platter after their second consecutive season of falling apart at the end of the year.
You may wonder why I’m spending a blog post on an Indians blog, talking about the Pittsburgh Pirates. (I swear that I’m not trying to distract myself from paying attention to the Indians.) I mention the Pirates because a lot of the “villains” in their story have ties to the Indians organization. Their general manager, Neal Huntington, was with the Indians for a number of years. When he took the GM position with the Pirates in 2007, he said he wanted to model the organization after the Indians and their success. (It was 2007, so they were still flying high). He took some people with him to Pittsburgh, including the Pirates’ current assistant general manager, Kyle Stark.
Back in 2007, Mark Shapiro was still the general manager of the Indians, while Chris Antonetti was the assistant GM. Many people within baseball thought that Antonetti was a huge talent, and that it was just a matter of time before some team lured him away from Cleveland. (Now, I wish someone would have done so). It’s never been apparent whether or not the Pirates preferred Antonetti, but took Huntington as their consolation prize. What seemed odd at the time is that Huntington had taken a demotion with the Indians in the early 2000s. He claimed it was just a reorganization, and that the move played to his strengths as an evaluator. The fact remains that at one time, Huntington was Shapiro’s assistant GM before he fell behind Antonetti and John Mirabelli on what was referred to as the “front office depth chart” in 2005. (Disclaimer – I’ve never had a very high opinion of Mirabelli, and blame him for many of the Indians’ bad drafts in the early 2000s).
Huntington went to Pittsburgh and was tasked with rebuilding a barren minor league system for a team that hadn’t had a winning season since the lineup boasted names like Barry Bonds and Andy VanSlyke in 1992. It was a difficult task for whoever was selected as the new Pirates’ GM – Cam Bonifay and Dave Littlefield left the organization with a “scorched earth” minor league system. It was never expected to be something that was turned around overnight; it would take several years to fix the disaster created by Bonifay and Littlefield. When the Pirates played well in 2011 though, it started to give people hope. That finally, the better decisions over the past four years and the attempts to fortify the minor league system were paying off.
As the team crumbles once again during the final weeks of 2012, it’s almost as if all hell is breaking loose just two hours away. No matter what you may say about the Indians’ organization, really the only person to speak out publicly against the team is Chris Perez. It seems as if almost everyone not named Neal Huntington and Kyle Stark in Pittsburgh is anonymously reaching out to the press to complain about their methodology. Dejan Kovacevic of the Pittsburgh Tribune Review recently wrote a story about how the Pirates are incorporating Navy SEAL drills into their instructional league program. Rather than working on baseball fundamentals, prospects will instead participate in activities such as “running along the beach with a telephone-type pole, carried by five or six players,” “being sprayed by a hose,” and “diving into a sand pile.” Some people have argued that this SEAL training isn’t the end of the world, that it only amounts to a handful of days during the instructional league. However, when one of the complaints about your young players is that they lack basic fundamentals, it seems like the time may be better spent actually working on these fundamentals. I should add that one of their prized pitching prospects, Jamison Tallion, suffered a knee injury during these drills. Tallion and Gerrit Cole are expected to be a really potent 1-2 punch in the Pirates rotation in the near future. Why would you risk injury to a player like that? What about less highly-touted players who may see their career end because of the military-style training for which they were not prepared?
Who appears to be the brains behind this training method? None other than assistant GM Kyle Stark, who started his career in the Indians’ baseball operations department in 2004 at the age of 26. With the Indians, Stark worked on amateur, professional and Pacific Rim scouting and development and was eventually named assistant farm director in 2006. Mark Shapiro reportedly gave him the nickname “Oz,” “because of his multifaceted role as ‘the man behind the curtain’.” So what would “Oz” tell Dorothy if she was in the Pirates’ minor league system? Due to a now famous e-mail sent by Stark and leaked by unnamed sources in the Pirates’ organization, Stark offered suggestions such as “dream like a hippie,” prepare like a Boy Scout,” and “trust like a Hell’s Angel.” In this e-mail, Stark also thinks that the organization should develop more “Hell’s Angels,” in part because they should compete with reckless abandon. And speaking of players that approach the game with “reckless abandon,” I should mention that it was Neal Huntington that recommended the Indians acquire Milton Bradley in 2001.
When I look at the 2012 Cleveland Indians, I don’t have much hope for the future. I’m not saying that there are no reasons to have hope, but just that I’m so frustrated by the state of this organization that I find it hard to think positively. As a Pirates fan, I’d finally started to have a bit of optimism that’s also been smashed with their recent collapse. While I know they have some high-level talent in the minors (Gerrit Cole and Jamison Tallion, for starters) I’ve been feeling pretty negative about them as well. This all goes back to the same group of men, with a shared philosophy on organizational development that doesn’t seem to be working that well in either city. (I guess as Indians fans we should at least be glad they’re not blasting players like Francisco Lindor and Jesus Aguilar with hoses and giving them Navy SEAL training in our minors). While the current Indians’ organization don’t seem to have the brazen arrogance of Kyle Stark, they still stubbornly believe their “plan” was working when there are a number of indications that it is not. I’m almost more forgiving to the Pirates, because it takes time to turn an entire organization around. With the Indians, 2012 and 2013 were supposed to be their “window” – their chance to win before they underwent another rebuilding. Instead, the 2012 Indians have already lost 90 games with a week and a half yet to play.
As the 2012 season draws to a close, there is rampant speculation in both Cleveland and Pittsburgh that there may be changes within the front office. For two groups of men with shared ideals and similar strategies, it seems fitting that both groups find their teams crashing and burning, while they ponder their own job security.