Sunday, May 21, 2006

Littlefield Evaluation Day

Joe Starkey and Bob Smizik both took it on themselves, independently, to evaluate the performance of the general manager yesterday and today. The two columns don't cover much that hasn't been covered on this and many other Pirates blogs and message boards for some time, and it's hard not to react to both with, "Well, duh!"

It's nice to see Big Media finally coming around, though. I also saw Kovacevic with Steigerwald on the Nightly Sports Call last night, and I was surprised at his level of cynicism and negativity toward all things Pirates. Why has it taken them this long? One reason, I think, is that newspaper writers depend on face-to-face access to players, coaches, managers, general managers, and owners. They need--or think they need--to develop positive personal relationships with these people, and it could be that those relationships affect their ability to dispassionately recognize failure when they see it. Bloggers, on the other hand, have only the objective record of performance--stats and public statements--on which to base opinions and conclusions.

For a long time, and still to this day, people dismissed the insights that Bill James brought to baseball on the grounds that he had never played the game. He argued that, paradoxically, it was his relative detachment from the game that allowed him to see things that those closer to the game could not see. Times have changed, of course--Bill James is now on the payroll of the Red Sox, and there is at least one general manager who has succeeded in a small market by capitalizing on the insights of an unabashed outsider. But a baseball fan who really wants to know about and understand the state of the Pirates today still gets a much clearer picture from Bucs Dugout, Van Slyke, Honest Wagner, Baseball Primer, and Wilbur Miller than from the Post-Gazette and the Tribune Review. As more and more people get their news online, which is inevitable, this is going to represent a bigger and bigger problem for Big Media. Unless they change--which they probably will.

This quote from Smizik today was particularly remarkable:
When Littlefield's contract was extended in April, this column called it a positive move. Chalk that up to temporary insanity on our part. What's Littlefield's excuse for this abysmal record?
No one who has read Smizik for years can reasonably expect that the return to sanity is permanent, but temporary spells of sanity seem now to be more frequent and accompanied by the occasional hint of humility.

A quick fact-check, though; I believe that Smizik got this wrong:
Outfielder Jeromy Burnitz was lured to Pittsburgh with a $6 million contract, considerably more than he earned last year when his skills were beginning to erode with the Chicago Cubs. In fact, the Chicago Tribune reported earlier this month that Cubs general manager Jim Hendry suggested to Burnitz that he retire.
As I wrote a recently, the article that Smizik is referring to, which is unfortunately no longer available online, actually said this:
"It's kind of weird how it worked out, honestly," Burnitz said. "Jim asked me (about retiring the last day of the season). I basically told him I wasn't sure what I was going to do. … I was trying to get a job closer to home [in Southern California]. Once that kind of didn't pan out, basically, he just seemed like he decided to go in another direction.

"I would have loved to [return], especially as I realized those job opportunities toward home weren't really materializing. I loved it here and loved the guys."
This does not say that Hendry "suggested to Burnitz to retire." It says that Hendry checked with Burnitz to ascertain his plans, that Burnitz told Hendry he was hoping to hook on with a team in California, and that, in the end, things didn't work out with re-signing with the Cubs. It's quite possible, even likely, that Hendry recognized that Burnitz's skills were degrading and that he wasn't interested in re-signing him, but the impression given by Smizik--that Hendry had a fatherly, heart-to-heart talk with Burnitz ("Son, maybe it's time you think about what you're going to do with the rest of your life")--is a misinterpretation by Smizik of the words on the page in the Chicago Tribune.

(Another example of how the environment is changing for Big Media: An army of fact-checkers can now dissect every published assertion and verify its correctness. We all win by getting better and more accurate information. The only ones who lose in this game are those journalists who cling to their positions as arbiters of what is and is not true and refuse to acknowledge that the rules of the game have fundamentally changed.)

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