Athletics

Neal Huntington '91: The Personal Touch

Huntington
Neal Huntington '91 (right) is in his first season as general manager of the Pittsburgh Pirates. 

by Justin Long, Associate Sports Information Director 

(This article appeared in the 2008 Spring issue of the Amherst College Alumni Magazine) 

For the Pittsburgh Pirates, 2007 was, to put it mildly, a disappointment. The team lost 94 games, capping off its 15th consecutive losing season. Looking to make changes, the management turned to Neal Huntington ’91, who’d brought a unique philosophy and approach to the front offices of the Cleveland Indians and the Montreal Expos. On Sept. 25, 2007, the Pirates named Huntington as general manager—and asked him to completely reshape the organization.

Huntington introduced the philosophy of focusing on the development of the person as well as the player. “We work with players on learning abilities, discipline, work ethic, interpersonal skills and leadership,” Huntington says, “to help them become successful after baseball.”

Huntington’s thinking originated from his own experiences, particularly while he was assistant director of player development for the Expos. After talking with a player who had failed his first drug test, and after witnessing Latin American-born players struggle to order food in U.S. restaurants, he began to fully understand that the men in his organization were not only baseball players—they were people facing life problems.

Huntington will not soon forget the day when he crushed a young player’s dreams by releasing him after three and a half years with the Indians. “He wasn’t getting any better as a player, but we kept him for so long because we saw personal growth in him,” Huntington says. “His ability to interact with teammates and staff had improved dramatically, and we saw a noticeable change for the better in his attitude, demeanor and presence—he had more self-confidence. It broke my heart to release him, but when he left he proudly shook my hand, thanked me and vowed to make a difference in the world. We had just crushed him, and he thanked us—it was a very proud moment in my career.”

It’s easy to claim an interest in developing players off the field, but it is almost unheard of in professional baseball for a general manager to make that a core of his philosophy. Huntington says that players and fans often have a hard time believing that managers care about anything other than wins and losses. “In some cases, you get a roll of the eyes,” he says. “But they’ll believe you if you put your actions where your words are.”

At Amherst, Huntington had a successful career as a first baseman, and was named to the All-America Second Team during his senior year. He received a master’s degree in sport management from UMass Amherst. He worked for the Expos from 1992 to 1998 and eventually became special assistant to the general manager of the Indians. For his success, he gives much credit to great baseball minds like Dan Duquette ’80, Dave Jauss ’80 and longtime Amherst baseball coach Bill Thurston. Huntington admits that at first, he struggled with the demanding environment at Amherst. “[Thurston] was one of several people who supported me and helped me mature and make the adjustment,” Huntington says.

The objective of any team is to win a World Series, and the Pirates are no exception. But Huntington wants more than a championship ring. “My long-term goal,” he says, “is to look around the baseball industry and see successful coaches, managers and players who came through and were positively impacted by the Pirates’ system.”

With so much scandal and controversy in Major League Baseball these days, it’s nice to hear about teams that haven’t lost sight of what’s important and that are making sure the game is played, coached, managed and respected the way it should be. It’s hard not to root for a team like that.

 

Read more about Neal Huntington '91 and his work with the Pittsburgh Pirates