Major League Overhaul

Three years ago, Neal Huntington ’91 took over as general manager of the Pittsburgh Pirates. Losers now for 18 consecutive seasons, they show few signs of improvement. Can Huntington’s skills and dedication turn that around?

By Roger M. Williams '56

Neal Huntington '91

In the world of bigtime sport, how’s this for bleak?

The franchise has posted a sub-.500 record for 18 seasons in a row—the longest such streak in U.S. pro-sports history. And far from improvement, the 2010 season produced the team’s worst won-lost in 58 years—a poorer record than any other team at the sport’s top level. The last pre-season guide of the venerable Sporting News asked, “How low can they go?” and declared that the team has “become the league’s official poster child for futility.”

Nearly every fan favorite of the last few years has been traded; with very few exceptions, the players obtained in return have yet to make the deals look good; and an inordinately heavy load of expectations has been placed on the “farm system,” the lower-level teams affiliated with the parent club.

The player payroll for 2010 was the lowest among all 30 competing teams. In 2009, home attendance was next to worst in the league, and only an attractive, newish stadium has kept it from declining further and faster.
Most serious of all, the owners of the club steadfastly decline to invest the kind of money needed to rise from the current depths.

That’s the challenge facing the Pittsburgh Pirates, one of Major League Baseball’s oldest and most storied franchises. It is therefore the challenge facing Neal Huntington ’91, the Pirates’ general manager. As what amounts to the club’s chief operating officer, Huntington carries the weight of cumulative failure on his shoulders. But unlike corporate CEOs, he operates in a constant public spotlight under incessant second-guessing, with relatively modest remuneration and no golden parachute, all the while dependent on “employees” who are famously unpredictable, prone to satisfactory performance one season and mediocrity or worse the next.

Huntington, right, watches pitcher Ross Ohlendorf during spring training in 2009.

Huntington by no means created all the adversity cited above. He has been general manager for only three seasons. The entire 18 have seen three other GMs, as well as three principal owners and six managers, come and go. Given that history, and the fact that he had never before held so high a baseball post, one might have expected Huntington to come in on tiptoes. Instead, he promptly turned the place upside down, dismissing all of the Pirates’ key personnel and sending the most-established players packing. In the past 80 years, only the Florida Marlins have dismantled the player roster in that fashion, and they won two World Series in the process.

Huntington’s trading frenzy—which began in July 2008 and ended in a two-day flurry a year later—surely set some kind of record. When the smoke cleared, six of the eight starting “position” players—non-pitchers—were gone, including the entire outfield (one of them the team’s top power hitter), a former batting champion and the league’s second-ranking double-play combination.

The architect of that mash-up is a boyishly handsome 41-year-old who ended his own baseball career as one of the best hitters in Amherst College history. Huntington’s genial, soft-spoken manner masks a toughness, one might say defiance, that he has developed in dealing every day with the plight of the Pirates and the often-stinging criticism that has accompanied it. The Pirates’ failures, and by extension his, are exacerbated by the triumphs of Pittsburgh’s other major sports teams, the football Steelers and the hockey Penguins, as well as ongoing athletic successes at the University of Pittsburgh.

What’s it like to operate in a cauldron of this kind? Huntington replies promptly and with evident sincerity: “I love every day of it. I’ve been passionate about baseball since I was a kid, and here I get to work at it every day with great people and with an opportunity to put an organization together against significant odds.” What about the bombardment by naysayers? “I learned quickly to develop a thick skin. I believe in the plan we’ve put in place and in the people we’ve chosen to carry it out.”

Huntington admits to being impatient with critics—mainly of management’s tight-fisted spending policies—whom he characterizes as shortsighted. The critics include the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette's widely read sportswriters, Dejan Kovacevic and Bob Smizik, plus a small army of bloggers. Says Huntington, “We inherited an organization that had lost for 15 consecutive seasons and was projected to continue to lose 90-plus games a year into the foreseeable future; in addition, it had a large number of players eligible to sign elsewhere after the 2009 season and had one of the worst minor-league systems in baseball. Every move we have made has been to return winning baseball to Pittsburgh. Nobody would do what we’ve done here without a commitment to win.”

By win, Huntington means really win. When reporters ask if he’d be pleased with a .500 record, he shows a flash of irritation: “We don’t set a goal to win 82 games. We could have brought in a few stop-gap veteran players in an effort to do that. But our goal is to build this organization the right way—in order to win the World Series, then wake up the next day and start working to win it again.” The current and foreseeable Pirates rosters make that seem like the dreamiest of pipe dreams. Nonetheless, it’s pure—and honest—Huntington.

As the GM explains his plan for resurrecting the Pirates, some of his principles emerge:   

  1. “We did not have enough talent to win at the major league level, nor did we have enough in the minors to win in the future. To accumulate much-needed talent, we made the difficult decision to trade popular guys who were nearing free agency”—the system that lets players negotiate and sign with any club when their contracts expire. One of the keys to that strategy is having the guts and foresight to trade a player when he’s had a good year—not, as human nature prompts, when he’s had a bad one—in order to get the most in return.   
  2. Don’t hold onto players of substantial value whose contracts are about to expire. If you’re the Pirates, you can’t afford to sign them, and when they sign elsewhere, you’ll get no compensation. “Instead, trade them for a large number of prospects.”   
  3. “Take intelligent risks,” a maxim that applies to all so-called small-market franchises. “We have to be right more often and more creative, too, than the big guys are. If we try to battle them toe to toe—in player signings, for instance—we’ll lose 95 times out of 100.” If the 2010 Pirates paid superstar Alex Rodriguez what the Yankees pay him—$33 million per year—they’d have essentially nothing left for the other 24 players on their roster. (The 2010 New York Yankee payroll was about six times that of the Pirates.)   
  4. Pour money into player acquisition via the amateur draft and especially into Latin America, a huge source of talent for major league baseball. In the 2008 and 2009 drafts, the club invested over $18 million, more than any of its competitors. “We nearly quadrupled our signing-bonus budget for international players and invested over $5 million to build a state-of-the-art complex in the Dominican Republic.”   
  5. In working with young players, practice what Huntington calls “holistic development,” a term that, when he first used it, must have sent many a baseball oldtimer running to his dictionary. As with medicine, it involves treating the whole person, not simply, in this case, his batting/fielding/pitching skills. “We work to develop life skills that will help them on and off the field. So few are going to make it to the major leagues, and we want those who don’t to take something positive along to whatever else they go on to do.”   
  6. With all players, employ “mental conditioning” and “sabermetrics.” The former emphasizes self-discipline and a focused mindset; the latter is a data-based system that purports to rate player value more accurately than traditional methods alone. (Applying metrics to baseball forms part of the approach developed by Oakland Athletics GM Billy Beane and celebrated in Michael Lewis’ widely acclaimed book Moneyball.)

Although all that makes sense in principle, many baseball people doubt that it can pay off in practice. The Pirates, by Huntington’s design and his ownership’s tight-fistedness, remain notably short on power hitters, first-class starting pitchers and skilled veterans. In addition, relying on even very good prospects for victory at the major league level is, by most expert reckoning, baseball’s version of drinking the Kool-Aid.

In any case, fans want winning teams, not theories about how to change losing ones. Discontent about the Pirates rumbles more or less continuously in “Bucco Nation.” In the midst of consecutive losing season number 15, a local businessman promoted and led a mid-game walkout; a few thousand people left their seats. But sports fans tend to be a forgiving lot. In Huntington’s view, “20 percent of our fans are going to support us no matter what we do and 20 percent are going to object. The other 60 percent are the ones we have to win over.”

One day early last March, representatives of all three of those factions, most of them snowbirds down from the Pittsburgh area, were on display at Pirate City, the club’s spring-training complex in Bradenton, Fla. They clustered against the fences to watch batting practice, compare observations on players and hustle for autographs. A grizzled oldtimer, when asked if the team would be better this year, declared, “Nah, how can they be? It’s a bunch of minor leaguers. They traded away all their good players.” But dreams always flourish in spring training, and in the next breath even that doomsayer was chattering about how competition between two Pirate outfielders could provide a needed spark.

Late in the morning, Huntington appeared from his office. It was a Sunday, and his family was in town for a few days, or he would have been on the field much earlier. Spring training may seem laid back to fans, but for a general manager, it is intense. “My job,” Huntington says, “is to be aware of everything. Not do everything, but oversee it, be involved in it.”

Involvement may mean principally, as it did on this particular morning, chatting with a baseball reporter here, a coach there and, on a handy bench, this writer. He also spent time gazing from the top floor of a structure that overlooks Pirate City’s four playing fields. Through it all, he seemed unhurried, every bit as casual as his polo shirt and slacks would suggest. Up close, Huntington looks strikingly young, as if he could still be Amherst’s star first baseman, and  he’s as genial as a talk-show host.

Alongside one of the fields, Bill Lajoie, a special adviser new to the Pirates, reflected on them in the context of his 55 years in baseball (including seven as GM of the Detroit Tigers). Although at heart a baseball traditionalist, Lajoie of course endorses The Plan and what he terms “its modern techniques.”

In the clubhouse after practice, a sampling of coaches and players yielded a uniform opinion that the 2010 edition of the Pirates has more spirit, deeper starting pitching, just enough long-ball hitting, and at least a decent chance of filling the big holes left by Huntington’s trades. Former Pirates outfielder Bill Virdon chomped on his chewing tobacco and pointed out that one of Huntington’s most controversial trades, of center fielder Nate McLouth, had been made because the brain trust believed that it brought in return three quality prospects and that an outstanding replacement for McLouth, Andrew McCutchen, was ready to step in. (Rookie McCutchen had a much better year than McLouth. Score one for Huntington.) Like Lajoie, Virdon was careful in commenting about The Plan. “As with any other GM,” he said, “Neal has to put a winning team on the field, and he’s going about doing that in his way. In a small market especially, that’s not easy. If you make many mistakes... ” He paused to spit into a small paper cup.

 “When I started as a player,” said Jeff Banister, one of the few minor league staff holdovers from the previous regime, “the numbers on the back of your baseball card [batting average, earned run average and the like] were what counted. Neal’s brought in the idea that ‘development’ requires a more intricate analysis of skills. In judging a hitter, what’s his ‘contact ratio’—that is, swinging and hitting the ball versus swinging and missing? What’s the quality of the pitching he’s been facing? Can he come through in clutch situations?”

Huntington was one of the best first baseman in Amherst's history.

Neal Huntington hails from another Amherst, a small suburb of Manchester, N.H. The son and grandson of dairy farmers, he played high school basketball and starred in baseball. A first baseman who stood a mere 5-foot-9 but possessed an extraordinary batting eye, he hit over .475—an eye-popping number—in both his junior and senior years.

Numerous colleges, including Division I institutions in New England, recruited Huntington. His high school coach suggested to Amherst head coach Bill Thurston that he do the same. Thurston, who retired last year, vividly recalls the result:

“I drove to Milford, N.H., to see Neal play. Upon arrival, his coach came over and apologized: Neal, due to an injury to the shortstop, would be playing that position! Left- handed people don’t play shortstop, and Neal threw as well as hit from the left side, so I figured I wasn’t going to see much that day. Well, he hit two home runs, and that was enough to convince me.”

The high school coach and others urged Huntington to take advantage of Thurston’s interest. “They told me, if you have a chance to get a degree from Amherst, you should definitely do it.” Although a visit to the campus made Huntington a believer, Thurston told him frankly, “You’re a long shot to get in.” The star from the other Amherst did get in, successfully pursued a psychology major and met his future wife, Becca Anderson ’91.

In taking that “long shot,” the college gained one of the very best first basemen in its history. Following his senior season, Huntington was named first team All-New England and second team Division III All-America. He holds Amherst’s single-season records for batting average and runs batted in. In addition, he was one of only two players in the Thurston era to be elected captain in both junior and senior years.

Huntington prefers to talk about the quality of the teams he played on. “In my last two seasons, if the college had participated in post-season play back then, I believe we would have won the Division III national championship.” During his career, Amherst went 13-0 against Williams.

“Pound for pound, Neal was the best position player I coached at Amherst,” declares Thurston, who worked with 44 years’ worth of position players. “He played the game smart and all out.” Huntington had enrolled with the goal of becoming a professional, and his gaudy statistics appeared to provide a perfect springboard. Reality, and Thurston, said otherwise. Huntington’s size and self-admitted lack of outstanding physical skills made a career in the major leagues (the only level worth aspiring to) unrealistic.

“I saw guys in the minors who I was better than,” he says. “But in one way or another, they all had more potential than I did. I was as good at that point, at age 22, as I was going to get. I made the decision to get started with the next phase of my life.”

Given his passion for baseball, that next phase was obvious: work in a major league “front office.” Recalls Huntington with a chuckle, “As my friends were making plans for law school, med school, Wall Street, I was talking about interning with a baseball club.” Which is just what he did, beginning during winter break senior year. His entrée came via Dan Duquette ’80, who was then with the Montreal Expos. (Duquette engineered notable turnarounds as GM of the Expos and later the Boston Red Sox.)

“During the break,” Huntington says, “I disappeared to Florida to work for the Expos, entering scouting reports into a database.” The Florida gig led to a regular job with the club in June 1992. Primarily administrative, the job again involved lots of grunt work, but Huntington did it happily. Before taking that position, however, he pursued (and later received) an M.S. in sports management at UMass. He coupled the studies with an Amherst athletic department Hitchcock Fellowship, which enabled him to serve as an assistant coach for the football and men’s basketball teams as well as the baseball team.

Two years later the Expos promoted Huntington to assistant director of player development—very near the nerve center of any major league franchise. One of his duties was to evaluate amateur and professional players, which helped him create critical evaluation skills that not all general managers possess. Another duty, which would figure heavily into The Plan at Pittsburgh, was implementing a player data-tracking system “to enhance objective analysis.” In October 1997, partly on the recommendation of Duquette, the Cleveland Indians hired Huntington for their front office. They eventually promoted him to director of player development, then to assistant general manager.

When the Pittsburgh general manager position became available, in September 2007, Huntington did not apply. “In baseball,” he observes, “you don’t go to them about being GM. They come to you.” They weren’t long in coming. A day or two after Huntington heard about the job, Pirates President Frank Coonelly contacted him about interviewing for it. Cleveland GM Mark Shapiro strongly supported his candidacy: “I thought he was perfect for the position. He had the depth of experience, and he also had—from his work with the Expos—an understanding of small-market dynamics.”

Coonelly and Pirates owner Bob Nutting offered Huntingon the job after a single interview. Nutting is a Williams graduate. Recalls Huntington with a laugh: “He said that despite my educational background, he was willing to take a chance.” At least a few other up-and-comers interviewed for the Pittsburgh opening. So did the highly regarded Jack Zduriencik, then an executive with the Milwaukee Brewers, now GM of the Seattle Mariners. “People here in Pittsburgh would’ve loved Zduriencik,” says the Post-Gazette’s Kovacevic. “He’s already showed in Seattle that he can spend money wisely to bring in established, veteran players.” Pause. “Of course, that wouldn’t fly here: the payroll is so much smaller than the Mariners.” At the end of the 2010 season, Zduriencik’s Mariners, despite a considerably larger payroll, had only a slightly better record than Huntington’s Pirates.

As the GM, Huntington can, within reason, spend as much time as he chooses on personnel and their arcane “stats” (vs. more-conventional areas of management). He is not fond of negotiating contracts. “In that area,” he muses, “I’m probably tough to deal with. I’m not a guy who likes to go back and forth a thousand times.”

It is hard to be sanguine about the Pirates’ short- or even medium-term future. The club faces two formidable barriers: few established, dependable players and a serious shortage of money to apply to salaries. If Huntington and his scouting/evaluation team make the right judgments—and by all accounts, he is good at making them—the first of those barriers can be overcome. Within a few years, however the prospects who succeed at the major league level will have to be signed to new contracts, and the economics of free agency make that virtually impossible without a big hike in pay. For years, Pirates owners have shown no inclination to engage in that kind of spending. And Huntington acknowledges that they probably never will.

“Bob [Nutting] takes a ton of criticism for operating the Pirates like a business, but very few teams have a big-daddy owner willing to lose millions of dollars for very long,” Huntington says. In an interview with Kovacevic before the 2010 season, Coonelly said the Pirates made less than $11 million in profit in 2008 and 2009 (about one-third of what Forbes magazine was estimating) and that all of it was put back into the baseball operation.

Then, during the season, the Associated Press, citing “team documents,” ran a story declaring that the club had made a lot more than that—more than $29 million in 2007 and 2008. Further, said the AP, its partners had been paid $20.4 million in 2008.  A Pirates fan could easily be pardoned for wondering what that $20.4 million in presumably optional payouts would have bought in terms of proven major-league players (why, almost two-thirds of an Alex Rodriguez!).

Dan Duquette, who has worked with various degrees of financial constraint, faults Pittsburgh’s owners for their fundamental attitude toward winning: “The challenge with the Pirates is to completely overhaul the attitude that accepts under-.500 baseball. That can’t be done by the general manager alone. Ownership cannot tolerate playing below .500 every year. Why can Minnesota and Florida and Oakland, all small-market teams, sometimes play a lot better than that, while small-market Pittsburgh can’t?”

Huntington considers wife Becca to be his intellectual superior and the rock of the family: “She loves being a mom, but has made sacrifices to raise our kids due to the nature of my job.” The primary sacrifice has involved a long delay in pursuing a much-desired career: working with socially and economically disadvantaged children in the schools. A psychology and sociology major at Amherst, Becca abandoned one job because of the difficulty of juggling it and the kids with Neal on the road. But she has accumulated credits toward a master’s degree and has volunteered in her field at stops along her husband’s trail. Now, with the youngest of their three children 8 years old, she says, “I’ve spent the last year trying to ease my way” back into education. Although neither mother nor children are likely to commiserate over a trade that hasn’t panned out, they nonetheless manage to love the trader.

Although this latest version of the Pirates lost 105 of 162 games, including a stunning 64 of 81 on the road, there were signs that Neal Huntington’s faith in prime young prospects was well placed. Second baseman Neil Walker hit over .300 throughout most of the season; so did outfielder José Tábata. Outfielder McCutchen batted .286 and stole more than 30 bases. In team statistics, however, Pittsburgh was woeful: last in the league in batting average, runs scored, defense and pitchers’ earned run average, all by considerable margins; in runs batted in, no Pirate came close to 100, the standard for truly productive hitting.

In the aftermath of continued disaster, if only to placate fans and the media, somebody had to go following the 2010 season, and it was John Russell, the low-key manager. General Manager Huntington had already had his contract renewed, and he will presumably remain in the job at least through 2011. “I’m not shy about taking responsibility [for the 105 losses in ’10],” Huntington told the Associated Press. That record, he said, “goes beyond just the manager.” Nevertheless, he added to Amherst magazine, “We are in the midst of executing our plan. It may not be happening as quickly as anyone wants, but it is happening.”

If Huntington succeeds in the daunting Pittsburgh job, he would be a strong candidate to general manage a richer club in a larger market. But the only step straight up would be club president, and he does not find that appealing. “I’d rather be an evaluator/adviser again. Actually, for a long time I thought I’d go back to the college and coach—succeed Bill Thurston. I talked to him about that over the years.”

Huntington’s success has in any case negated that move. But some years down the line? Teams can always use a guy who still swings a good bat. “Now pinch-hitting, Number 16, Neal Huntington!”

Roger Williams, a magazine journalist since graduation, is a frequent contributor to Amherst magazine. He is writing a play set in Budapest during the Holocaust.

Top photo by Bill Wade / © Pittsburgh Post-Gazette 2010

Middle photo AP / Tony Dejak

Bottom photo from Amherst College Archives and Special Collections

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