A quick thought on Pittsburgh patience

We live in a right now, knee jerk, gotta have it yesterday, instantaneous society. It’s a fact that’s tough to argue against when fewer and fewer people are willing to wait a day for their news in a paper and prefer to get breaking information over their Twitter feed, whether it’s confirmed as true or not. It’s a reactionary culture that’s quick to condemn, redeem or otherwise forget anyone or anything that seems to impact our existence at any given time.

Because sports tend to be a large part of many of our lives, it’s not surprising how quickly we decide what the state of our teams are or will be in the near future.

A good example is the firing today of Los Angeles Lakers coach Mike Brown after FIVE games. Did he deserve it? Maybe, but it seemed like a knee-jerk reaction to say the least.

Or how about the Duke lacrosse scandal a few years ago? That team was condemned by the media and public for alleged sexual assault crimes, only to be pardoned after due process and ultimately forgiven.

As difficult as it may be and as frustrating as it sounds, everybody needs to slow down and take a breath. We must all wait a bit to gather our thoughts and let the world play out before we pound the gavel and execute or dismiss. And because of recent events in the Steel City, this is especially true for Pittsburgh sports fans.

Last Sunday, the Steelers executed their finest win of the season, defeating the Super Bowl champion Giants 24-20. And despite horrendous officiating, the Steelers dominated much more than the final score suggested. Eli Manning – the owner of two very large rings and two MVPs to go with them – was held to just 125 yards and completed only 10 completions on 24 attempts. The Giants passing game was stagnant. Their run game was stifled (the G-Men racked up only 68 yards on the ground).

Not only was it an outstanding defensive performance reminiscent of the Steel Curtain teams fans fondly remember, the black and gold also put together a sound performance on the offensive side of the ball. Ben Roethlisberger went 21-30 and threw for 216 yards, two touchdowns and one pick. Back-up running back Isaac Redman carried the ball 26 times for 147 yards and a touchdown. The offensive line opened up holes big enough to drive a garbage truck through. The pass game clicked. The run game cruised. Everything went to plan.

Just about every way you look at it, this game was in stark contrast to what the Steelers looked like through the first five games of the season. At that point, they were 2-3 and suffered brutal losses including two to the Raiders and Titans, two of the worst teams in the league. Pittsburgh ranked dead-last in rushing and the defense allowed an average of 23 points per game while blowing a number of fourth-quarter leads.

They just didn’t look like the Steelers. Had the Browns changed their colors to black and gold? Did Mike Tomlin and Dick LeBeau go on mental vacations?

But after leaving Tennessee with their tail between their legs following a 26-23 loss, it seemed like something started to click. The game plans looked better and the execution was far superior. They went into Cincinnati and shut down Andy Dalton and A.J. Green (who is a top-five receiver in the NFL this year). Pittsburgh trounced rookie phenom and the Redskins 27-12. They finally looked like the Steelers again and everyone’s doubts went out the window and started to drown at the confluence of the Monongahela and Allegheny rivers.

But the problem is, there was never any reason to hit the panic button in the first place, even after losing to Oakland and Tennessee. Sure, the team looked out of sorts, but it was still quite early in the season and the rest of the AFC (minus the Houston Texans) looked no better. Pundits on national radio and television were killing the Steelers. Colin Cowheard of ESPN Radio said that the Steelers were too old defensively and they couldn’t produce well enough to be an upper-echelon team. Now the Steelers are 5-3, only one game back of first place in the AFC North and everyone is once again calling them contenders.

Here’s some advice to all fans and media: Avoid the waffling in the first place and wait until at least halfway through a season before declaring this or that about any team in professional sports. There’s something called a turnaround and we should all be well aware of it by watching the Giants the past few years. If they’ve taught us anything, it’s that all you have to do is make it to the postseason and then anything is possible.

Pirates fans learned this lesson the hard way over the last two years. The team started off their last two campaigns in excellent fashion. Both teams spent time in first place in the NL central division and it appeared that they would be locks to end 19- and 20-year losing skids. But both collapsed. We were all left wondering what happened and how it was possible. But it certainly was possible, if it wasn’t realistic, for both the 2011 and 2012 Pirates to blow up winning seasons because that’s sports. It’s not predictable in many cases for better or for worse. That’s what makes them great in the first place. Anything can happen.

And even now after Pirates owner Bob Nutting has decided that his inexperienced, sometimes hair-brained front office is staying intact, that doesn’t mean the team can’t have a winning season in 2013. Does it seem likely? Absolutely not. But stranger things have happened. I suppose it might be easier to expect the Pirates to be bad next season so that if we are surprised, it’s a pleasant one.

The same goes for the Penguins last year. With Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang and Marc-Andre Fluery, we’ve come to expect greatness from the Penguins recently. Not just Pittsburghers either. Last season, Vegas had the Penguins pegged as the odds-on favorite to win the Stanley Cup. And after the regular season, it looked increasingly likely. The Pens finished second in the East and with Sidney Crosby finally healthy again and Evgeni Malkin having assumed the role of best player in the world, the only team that could beat the Penguins was the Penguins.But then they clashed with the Flyers in a less-than-heroic fashion and were defeated in six games. And entire season blew up in two weeks. Fluery, who had won a Cup in 2009, looked like Swiss cheeses as pucks easily found their way past him. Evgeni Malkin didn’t look the same as he did as the MVP in the regular season. Everyone let their expectations get the better of them because the Penguins were SUPPOSED to win. And should the NHL season happen this year, the Penguins are again the favorites to win it all.

Let’s just hold off on that judgement now.

Is it possible the Penguins and Pirates will collapse again? Yes. Is it likely? For the Penguins, no. For the Pirates. Maybe. But we shouldn’t engrave Sidney Crosby on the Cup yet and we shouldn’t fire Clint Hurdle before the season begins.

It’s best not to let any expectations get in the way of our sports. Just watch, listen and enjoy. Let the surprises work themselves out and let fate do what it does.

The 18th-century English poet Alexander Pope may have put it best when he said “Blessed is he who expects nothing, for he shall never be disappointed.”

Kyle Stark Raving Mad

So when I posted my last blog entry last night entitled “How Clueless is Pirates Assistant GM Kyle Stark?” I didn’t think that my opinion of the Pirates assistant GM could get much lower. I noted that he had been obnoxious and disrespectful to two former Pirates players who approached him about jobs within the organization, one of which had helped the Pirates win at least one World Series. This offended me as a Pirates fan, a baseball fan in general and as a decent human being who will always show respect to my elders.

But just like I should stop being surprised that the Pirates keep having losing seasons and employing people like Kyle Stark, I should probably stop being surprised that Kyle Stark continues to come off even more as an ignorant lunatic.

Late last night, Pittsburgh Tribune-Review columnist Dejan Kovacevic posted on his blog the next clue into Stark’s strange and disconcerting journey down the rabbit hole (and his attempt to drag the Pirates minor league system with him). Kovacevic explained in his Friday column that it was an email sent by Stark on June 28 to his minor league managers and coaches (Pirates GM Neil Huntington was copied on the email; Pirates principal owner Bob Nutting and president Frank Coonelly were not).

The following is the email from Kovacevic’s blog and my analysis/response to Mr. Stark (my comments in bold):

From: Stark, Kyle

Sent: Thursday, June 28, 2012 5:22 PM

Subject: SECOND HALF – OUR WHAT

So what do we need to get done in the second half?

Over the last four days, we’ve reconnected with our WHY — turning boys into men so that we can re-bond a city with a baseball team and change the world through baseball.

Turning boys into men isn’t really the goal here, it’s pretty much to turn young men into competent baseball players who can eventually contribute at the big league level, which is especially important because there’s a lot of baseball yet to play and the major leaguers who are already up with the club are bound to get tired in a month or two. Remember that epic collapse last season? Yeah, it happened around the end of July and we should try to solidify the team’s depth with some confident youngsters to make sure that doesn’t happen again this year. I’ll give you credit for stressing that the team needs to re-bond with city, but it might be saying a bit much to “change the world through baseball.” Let’s just try to change the team with a winning season and go from there.

We’ve refocused and clarified our HOW — relentless, systematic and cohesive. All of these discussions have been tied to the ‘one thing’ that we need to move forward in the second half – we’ve trained them up, now we need to help them trust it and transfer it on the field. 

You say you’ve trained them up, but you better make sure that they don’t need some further training. In fact, they should probably just keep training for the rest of the season because that’s sort of what ball players do. They keep working on getting better and they never stop striving to be better. A few extra grounders and some time in the cage couldn’t hurt…

Which brings us to our WHAT …

As we talk about turning boys into men and developing them as PROs, this requires a few key characteristics. Those characteristics match our PRO values and are vividly captured by Bernie’s story about Olympic thrower Mac Wilkins and his views on what makes an Olympic champion. Mac explained that gold medal winners live by three golden rules — Dream and be creative like a Hippie. Have the discipline and perseverance of a Boy Scout. Be crazy and take risks like the Hells Angels. …

Woah, hang on a second. Those sound like three types of people who have very little to do with each other. And if I’m being honest, I don’t think any one person should possess all of those characteristics. In fact, if I had to come up with a single person that does, it would definitely be this guy…

Kyle Stark’s ideal professional baseball player.

1. Dream like a Hippie — PASSION — Elite people have big dreams, are driven by those dreams, and believe that they can achieve them.

Yes, and hippies take acid, dance around in the mud and listen to Hendrix. Then, they climb to the roof and jump off because the believe they can fly.

2. Prepare like a Boy Scout — RELENTLESS — Elite people have extreme work ethic, train exhaustively to get better, and prepare fully so they can be their best when their best is needed.

Spot on, Kyle. If this was your only suggestion in the email, I’d say the Pirates farm system will be doing quite well with its development by September.

3. Trust like a Hell’s Angel — OWNERSHIP — Elite people trust their preparation, own their strengths and weaknesses, know what they do best and build conviction around it, and compete with reckless abandon.

Well, I agree with you that trust is important and ownership is key, but let’s take a step back with the Hell’s Angels stuff. It’s probably not the best group of people to strive to be…

The biggest impact we can have in the second half is developing more Hell’s Angels.

Of course! Wait, what?

Well, now that I have given it literally no thought, drank some varnish and closed the car door on my head numerous times, this is starting to sound like a pretty solid idea.

We are really good at working before games. We excel at developing Boy Scouts. However, men play in the Big Leagues and that requires the reckless abandon of a Hell’s Angel. 

Exactly. Because when I see successful teams like the Yankees, Reds, Nationals, etc., it always seems like they just don’t give a damn. In fact, last night I saw Robinson Cano field a grounder and intentionally beam the runner with the ball right in the head. Then he stuck his hat down his pants and tackled the home plate umpire. And then, the Nats announced they were going to keep Steven Strasburg in for about 250 (give or take) pitches every game because the best medicine for a surgically repaired elbow is reckless abandon.

This is a mentality that is developed. It is a harder mentality to develop with less control, more gray area, and less science.  However, it is the separation between good coaches and great ones, good development systems and great ones, and good organizations and great ones.  Training guys to unleash what they’ve got is an art and needs to be our WHAT in the second half.

As you do some research on the Hell’s Angels, you come across three main qualities that set them apart and symbolize their mystique:

I’m going to guess 1. Their propensity for brutal violence — including homicide — against other gangs as well as innocent bystanders. 2. Their willingness to engage in drug-and-alcohol-fueled crime sprees. 3. And oh, I don’t know, their U.S. Department of Justice given status as an organized crime syndicate and public perception as some of the scariest people on motorcycles you’d never want to encounter in your life.

1. Swagger — There is an extreme confidence in themselves, their brothers, and what they’re about. They carry a chip on their shoulder and dare others to knock it off. They have an edge. Do our players have an edge? Do we have an edge? What are we doing to develop that edge?

The Pirates haven’t had a winning season in 19 years. That should qualify as a big enough chip on their shoulders. But I guess if you really wanted to piss them off and lose focus on playing baseball you could have Navy SEALs come to camp and put them through a rigorous training regimen that even common military personnel would find taxing. That ought to make men out of them!

2. Reckless abandon — Not only do they have an edge, but they live life on the edge. They’re described as free-spirited, which can be defined as somewhat irresponsible. 

So you want your players to be somewhat irresponsible? Well I guess the Red Sox did get a TON of good media last year after they started being irresponsible in the locker room. I like where your head’s at Kyle…

They risk. They have no fear. They have a care-free and “care-less” attitude. You could argue that on one hand they care so much about who they are and what they do, but on the other hand they could care less in some areas such as what others think of them, of potential risks, of probabilities, etc. They’re more focused on possibilities than probabilities. They’re not consumed or swayed by what others think. They sell out to their purpose and live life fully and in-the-moment (“this pitch”). There has actually been a leadership book written about this approach to life, i.e. living life, experiencing it, and learning from your experiences. 

I bet it’s entitled “The Hell’s Angels: Why Modern Day Politics and Sports Would Benefit From Their In-Your-Face-Style” By Chuck Manson.

Their name comes from World War II fighting squadrons known for their extraordinary and dangerous feats of aviation. Do our players play with reckless abandon? Do we have reckless abandon? What are we doing to develop this mentality?

Well, I suppose we could bring in some Navy SEALs and…oh, already suggested that. I guess we could make them all fly fighter jets and shoot at each other? (And as far as the major league club goes, signing Clint Barmes, Rod Barajas and Nate McLouth in the off-season should count as reckless abandon, right?)

3. Bound by brotherhood — At the end of the day, they are fiercely loyal to each other. It is about the group and the bonds that exist between members. They can fight with each other, but someone external better not say anything negative about them. They love each other. Are our players bound by brotherhood? Are we bound by brotherhood? What are we doing to develop this bond?

That settles it. All players from every minor league team and managers too, grab a knife, cut your hand and shake on it. We’re gonna be blood brothers!

As the calendar turns to July, we are selling out and committing to this approach. We’ve trained them. We need to train their trust now. Our focus should be on developing Hell’s Angels. That requires …

Or you could teach them how to bunt, steal bases, turn double plays correctly and be mindful to know the situation while on defense and offense. Ahhhh, no, you know what? You’re right, that’s what all the other teams do. We need to be different. And…not good…at baseball.

– Building confidence (helping players know what they do well, perfecting those traits so we’re not just working on weaknesses, speaking greatness into them, etc.)

But working on weaknesses would probably be a good idea too. You know, so they aren’t so bad at basic fundamentals. Did I mention bunting?

– Encouraging risk (pushing players beyond their comfort zones, putting them in risky situations, viewing the risk as success rather than its result, celebrating risk taking, etc.)

Damn straight! Who says we can’t all try to stretch singles into triples? Bollocks to the system, let’s skip practice and go base jumping!

– Going alongside them (being a ‘guide on the side’ rather than a ‘sage on the stage,’ asking questions rather than giving answers, celebrating aggressive failure and the lessons that come from it, etc.)

– Adding chaos and intensity to our training (get them out of their comfort zone, add stress, add competition to the work day, etc.)

Yes, the more stress the better. Because I know for a fact that scientists and doctors have no idea if stress can negatively impact a person’s health or not. Whatever doesn’t kill ya only makes you stronger, right Mr. Stark? Besides, playing anywhere from 135-144 games over the course of a summer to try to earn a promotion to the majors while staying healthy and keeping their numbers high enough to avoid a demotion probably isn’t stressful enough. I know, let’s light their gloves on fire and hold their families hostage during games! That should really get them out of their comfort zone!

– Preparing them to compete rather than training all the time (get the focus on the competition, shift our purpose to preparation rather than working a physical technique, outward focus rather than inward, etc.)

But what if they don’t know the physical techniques yet? Yeah, you’re right. They could probably find some Tom Emanski videos on YouTube in their spare time anyway.

– Getting them outside of themselves and into the team (care about someone else, take care of each other, have each other’s back, etc.)

Yeah they definitely gotta have each other’s backs, just in case a rival motorcycle gang rides into town and tries to take their turf!

For this to happen, we must get out of our comfort zones and flex our own Hell’s Angel muscle. We must be extreme in our commitment to these ideas. This is ultimately about developing a mentality and a culture where this becomes our identity. A culture of risk and less control is unsettling for us control freaks! 

…and successful baseball clubs, but go on…

However, it is the answer to letting skill out and WHAT we need to do in the second half.

LB and Bernie will be following up with more details as we move forward. Sell out and commit to this. Coach with swagger, reckless abandon, and bounded by brotherhood and we’ll see those same traits in our players.

HOKA HEY — It’s a good day to die!!!

Yes, I’d say we’re all about ready to commit suicide after that. Thanks for the pep talk Mr. Stark.
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