Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Kyle Stark will race you up Curahee!

We've been pretty silent here for a while. I'm sure you can figure out why. No matter how much we saw it coming -- AND WE DID -- the Pirates' August-September collapse was the most deflating, painful baseball hurt anyone 'round these parts has felt for the better part of two decades.

But the revelations from Dejan Kovacevic's column in today's Tribune-Review have inspired in us some weird amalgamation of anger and amusement.

When this Hoka Hey crap started leaking out during the season, it seemed kinda harmless. Plenty of teams do military-led or military-inspired training. Hell, Michel Therrien had the Pens doing drills at West Point back in 2007. No big deal, right? 

Then, DK came out with details, and the Trib published the full text of an e-mail Kyle Stark, the club's director of player development, sent out to the rest of the front office, and this stuff was exposed as outright lunacy. 

Dejan writes today:
Management stressed at the time it was only a three-day event, Sept. 14-16. But it turns out that, even though those ex-SEALS have long since left Pirate City, their methods didn’t. On Oct. 14 at 11:45 p.m., the Pirates’ minor-league coaches and instructors broke the midnight silence by banging on dorm rooms throughout the complex shouting, “It’s Hell Week! It’s Hell Week!" 

This is what happens when you pledge Phi Mega Stupid chapter of Mu Lambda Beta.

Players were told to be dressed in 20 minutes and to meet outside by the 2batting cage. Waiting there were Kyle Stark, the assistant general manager and architect of the team’s “Hoka Hey” ways, as well as Larry Broadway, the first-year farm director who never before held any instructional position at any level of baseball.

This is probably the most noteworthy thing in the entire piece. We'll come back to this.

Broadway told the assembled players this would be their “rite of passage” to become Pirates, then sent them on a two-hour scavenger hunt for envelopes hidden across the complex. 

Technically, they became Pirates when the Pittsburgh Pirates baseball club signed them to contracts to play baseball. I mean, I'm just a guy in somebody's mom's basement, but that's my understanding of how that whole thing worked. They give you you a contract, you sign the contract. BAM! You're a Pittssburgh Pirates! And then they lead you off to a side room where you're measured for a uniform, they take a few pictures of you for the media guide, and then you're given a canvas and an array of oil paints and watercolors, and tasked with creatively writing your name (or if you're Jeromy Burnitz, drawing stick figure animals because let's face it, you're in it for the lulz). 

At 5 a.m., after a wink or two of sleep, they were bused over to Bradenton Beach for a two-mile run, followed by relay races in which they ran back and forth filling garbage cans with sand.

Valuable baseball skill. In fact, new metrics I was just reading about over at FanGraphs suggest that the reason the Rangers have fallen short each of the last three years was that their EqSAND Runs Above Replacement was way out of whack.

On the “Hell Week” finale Friday, with a 10 a.m. road game on tap, the players again were awoken at 5 a.m. This time, it was to perform sliding drills on a still-dark field lit by a solitary quartz lamp. The coaches took turns manning second base and tried — not always successfully — to leap over players sliding into the bag, generally making a mess on the basepaths.

I don't know. Maybe if you're trying to teach rudimentary first aid and you want real-life scenarios for practicing applying tourniquets and setting broken bones, this would be a good way to go about creating a few of those.

Look, this is sheer lunacy. And not because Deadspin and ESPN's baseball guys are calling it that. It's lunacy because there's no reasonable explanation by which this is an acceptable approach to developing baseball talent.

Once players sign professional contracts, whether it's out of high school or college or some ramshackle Dominican town where they're farm-raised for this stuff, those guys are professional baseball players. There's a lot made of how unlike professional athletes in the NBA or NFL, baseball players don't usually have any college experience. A lot of these guys do go right from living with their parents as 17- and 18-year-olds right into the dugout, and so they're not socialized the way most people are, and organizations do take on some of the burden of trying to continue to shape these guys into respectable adults. THIS IS NOT HOW IT'S DONE.

I don't understand -- not on any level -- the notion that these guys need team-building activity. In any given baseball farm system, there are, across five or six levels of play and a couple hundred different players, maybe five or six guys who might one day reach the majors. Perhaps two of them will reach with the club that drafted them. This is out of hundreds of players. The minor leagues are all about individual development. Wins and losses do not matter at all when you're solely focused on trying to maximize the output of every single player -- especially since different players have vastly different needs. 

If one of your minor league affiliate teams puts together a good season, good for them. That's nice. But it doesn't really mean anything. And given that so many guys will never, ever make the majors, that minor leagues jump between levels and organizations on a week-to-week basis, these groups of guys never stay together very long. Trying to instill some kind of immense sense of organizational pride in guys who are here one day and gone the next is like holding practices and collecting advanced data on balls in play to try to improve your ironic adult rec league kickball team.

Here's all you need to know about team chemistry and camaraderie in professional baseball. Good teams have good clubhouse chemistry because they're good teams -- not the other way around. Good chemistry can't help you win, and losing always poisons the room. Good teams have good atmospheres. Bad teams don't. It's that simple.

Finally, and this might be the most important thing, the guys the Pirates have had in charge of player development for the last five years do not come from anything resembling baseball backgrounds.

Larry Broadway was once rated the 12-best prospect in the game by Baseball America, but he never panned out. He spent about four seasons in Triple-A ball, signed with the Pirates as a minor league free agent in 2009, had a shit year, then retired and became a scout with the team. The guy's not even 32 years old and he's the director of the farm system.

Kyle Stark played volleyball in college, then, for reasons I'm still not clear on, became the pitching coach at St. Bonaventure, and somehow parlayed that into a four-year stint in the Cleveland Indians front office. He has a law degree, an MBA and no military background unless you count his haircut. I can't find a single instance of him playing organized baseball. Honestly, this guy just seems like some stupid asshole who watches "Band of Brothers" a lot. And I'm not knocking "Band of Brothers," -- it's great stuff; it just has nothing at all to do with baseball. None of this does. How do you invest the kind of money the Pirates have in players and be so egregiously negligent when it comes to developing that talent? 

I don't know if Nutting is doing an investigation or not. I don't know what he's got planned. But it's abundantly clear that when your unconventional training methods have scared draft picks, their agents, their parents and their parents' agents, and you're regularly conducting non-baseball drills that put your most valuable prospects at risk for undue injury, and when your own players are going to the press to complain that your whole operation is a joke, something's got to change. 

Nutting needs to clean house. These guys are all stupid assholes, and they all have to go.

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