Category Archives: Pittsburgh Pirates Pro Shop

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The Pirates picked up left-handed relief pitcher Sam Howard off waivers from the Colorado Rockies as the first move of the post-Neal Huntington era. Howard will be a possible lefty option out of the bullpen for the 2020 season.

Howard has very limited MLB experience and has yet to prove he has the ability to stick with a big league team long-term.

The 26-year-old Howard, a 2014 third-round pick (82nd overall) by the Rockies, appeared in 20 games for Colorado, pitching 19 innings and posting a 6.63 ERA (6.27 FIP), 1.63 WHIP, a 2.30 K/BB-rate, and a 2.37 HR/9.

We are working with small samples on Howard, but even the prospect projections aren’t very high on his abilities.

Howard has a so-so low-90s fastball, slightly above average slider, and a mediocre changeup that showed signs of improving as he increased its usage in the minors. However, not throwing a single change in 2019, he has resigned himself to a fastball/slider reliever more suited for mop up duty and the occasional lefty specialist situations.

Depending on whom the Pirates hire for their new pitching coach, its possible Howard could become a steady middle reliever. Howard held a 3.61 ERA with a nearly 3-1 K-BB ratio through 50 and two-thirds innings for the Albuquerque Isotopes this past season.

So long as lefty Steven Brault remains in the rotation (he deserves another shot), the Pirates don’t have many other alternatives in terms of left-handed relievers. Williams Jerez, picked up off waivers from the Anaheim Angles back on September 13th, and another late-season waiver claim, Wei-Chung Wang (from the Oakland Athletics), are the only other lefties that present themselves as options out of the bullpen.

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The Pirates announced RHP Geoff Hartlieb underwent right foot surgery Wednesday. He is projected to make a full recovery and be ready for spring training.

Hartlieb told me before the regular season finale on Sep. 29 that he had been dealing with pain in his foot for “awhile,” but did not disclose when it started. He said then that he would meet with a doctor the next day.

Being that his right foot is the one he pushes off the rubber with, he said the injury affected his delivery.

The injury was first brought to attention after the game on Sep. 28, when then-manager Clint Hurdle announced Hartlieb was unavailable to pitch that day and the finale. It seemed to come as a surprise to Hurdle. When asked about the health status of some of his pitchers before that game, he said Hartlieb was fine. He was not mentioned in any of the September injury reports by director of sports medicine Todd Tomczyk.

Hartlieb’s final outing of the year came on Sep. 20 in Milwaukee, where he allowed four runs in 1 1/3 innings pitched. Hurdle said on Sep. 28 that he had not seen game action due to the number of other pitchers available and not finding the right spot for him.

Hartlieb, a 25-year-old former 29th round pick, made his major league debut on May 18. He struck out 38 batters over 35 innings for the Pirates and recorded an ERA of 9.00. He had more success in Triple-A Indianapolis, finishing with a 2.50 ERA and a 30.7 K% in 26 games pitched.

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On Wednesday, the Pittsburgh Pirates added five players to their 40 man roster in order to protect them form next month’s Rule 5 Draft
5 PM on Wednesday afternoon was the deadline for MLB teams to add minor league players to their 40 man roster in order to protect them from the Rule 5 Draft. With this, new Pittsburgh Pirates general manager Ben Cherington had his first course of action as the team’s new GM.

Cherington, with the help of assistant Kevan Graves and minor league director Larry Broadway, chose five players to add to the 40 man roster. These five players were third baseman Ke’Bryan Hayes, shortstop Oneil Cruz, first baseman Will Craig, and pitchers Blake Cederlind and Cody Ponce.

Entering Wednesday the Pirates had 39 players on their 40 man roster. Due to this, in order to add five players to their 40 man roster, four had to come off. This led to the team designating four players for assignment. These four players were all pitchers – Dario Agrazal, Luis Escobar, Montana DuRapau, and Williams Jerez.

None of the players added to the 40 man roster come as a surprise. Hayes and Cruz are arguably the team’s top two prospects, and two of the top 100 prospects in all of baseball. If all goes according to plan, Hayes will be the team’s starting third baseman at some point in 2020.

While I am not as high on Craig as others, he has hit for impressive power in the minor leagues and will likely make his MLB debut at some point in 2020. Both Cederlind and Ponce are intriguing relief pitcher prospects. With the exception of Cruz, each of the players that were protected are likely to make their MLB debut at some point during the 2020 season.

NEXT: Pirates Mailbag: November 20th, 2019
Each of the four players that were designated for assignment spent time at the MLB level for the Pirates in 2019. However, each of them struggled in their time with the Bucs. In fact, this is the second consecutive offseason in which Agrazal has been designated for assignment.

The Pirates 40 man roster is now full. So, in order to add anyone to it via free agency, a waiver claim, or a trade that does not send someone on the 40 man roster to the other team involved in the deal, the Pirates will have to take someone off the 40 man. This is just the start of a busy offseason for Cherington and the Pirate front office.

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The Pittsburgh Pirates are reliant upon their farm system, and their 15th-ranked prospect pipeline can’t fill the demand in Pittsburgh.

You don’t have to look too far into the past, the off-season between 2016 and 2017 to be exact, to find a time when the Pittsburgh Pirates had a minor league system ranked among baseball’s elite. At the time the Pirates were ranked fifth in Major League Baseball.

Number one prospect Tyler Glasnow had spent the previous season breezing through AA/AAA with a 1.93 ERA, 144/68 K/BB in 117 inning and allowing just 69 hits. He did struggle in his 23 MLB innings – posting a 4.63 ERA, but his 97 MPH fast ball, along with a plus curveball could easily make you look past that small sample size.

Austin Meadows was battling his way through AA/AAA, struggling with injuries and posting a 266/.333/.536 slash line with 12 homers.

Mitch Keller had performed very well in low and high A. In 130 innings the young Keller struck out 138 batters with a 2.35 ERA.

Josh Bell had shown glimpses of his potential in his first taste of the majors during the previous season, especially with a Grand Slam against the Cubs in only his second game. He had 121 at bats, just under the threshold of 122, so this could skew the numbers a little bit, but not enough to really matter.

Over the past three years the Pirates have quickly fallen from the elite ranking of 2016-2017 to the completely average ranking of #15 this offseason. Several promotions (Josh Bell, Kevin Newman, Steven Brault, Elias Diaz and Trevor William), a glaring swing and miss (Nick Kingham) and an ill-advised trade (Tyler Glasnow, Austin Meadows and Shane Baz) have led the Pirates to this point. Regressions for Will Craig, Ke’Bryan Hayes and Kevin Kramer also have not helped the Pirate’s cause. For some teams this would not have been as detrimental as it has been to the Pirates, but with a limited/restricted MLB salary and less players that have fit the top prospect mold (only 3 currently in the MILB top 100); it has been absolutely devastating. How are the Pirates supposed to compete with this level of lost talent, along with the restrictions (real and imagined) that have been placed on them? Well, their 69-93 record of 2019 should tell you that as the roster, both in the majors and minors, is currently constructed it is a long shot to say the least.

The question now is, how do the Pirates get back to the place they were in prior to the 2017 season? My advice is to look toward some of the successful organizations that both new Pirates’ President Travis Williams and recently hired GM Ben Cherington have mentioned during their press conferences/meet and greets over the past couple of weeks; specifically the Tampa Rays and the Oakland A’s.

The Tampa Bay Rays have long been the gold standard as to how to put a competitive product on the field, while maintaining an extremely low payroll. And, what about the Rays? For one, they always have an elite-level farm system. Currently they are ranked #2 with such highly touted prospects as SS Wander Franco (#1 overall in MILB), LHP/DH Brendan McKay (#15), 2B/SS Vidal Braun (#44), RHP Brett Honeywell (#75) and of course RHP Shane Baz (#96). Over the past five years the lowest the Rays have been ranked is #11 and this only lasted for one off-season before they climbed their way back up to #2. They have also been able to identify, acquire and develop players that other major league teams have set aside, given up on or just haven’t been able to get the best out of.

The A’s on the other hand have steadily moved up and down through the farm system rankings based on promotions/graduations. However, they regularly returned to the top 10; settling in at #7 currently. They have done this through diligent player development, as well as through trades. Currently 10 of their top 30 prospects have been acquired via trade.

So what’s the next step? For now it will be up to Cherington and Williams to assemble an organizational team that recognizes the strengths and weakness that exist under the current structure and is able to move forward in the framework that teams such as the A’s and Rays have created. Or, if they really want to make a difference, one that is on the forefront of player development and acquisition that would make even these teams jealous.

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Cincinnati Reds Hall of Famer Dave Parker’s remarkable Major League Baseball career and battle with Parkinson’s disease will be the subjects of a 90-minute “MLB Network Presents” documentary titled “The Cobra at Twilight,” set to debut on Dec. 12 at 8 p.m. on MLB Network.

Former Cincinnati Reds player Dave Parker greets fans at Redsfest at the Duke Energy Convention Center in downtown Cincinnati Friday, December 1, 2017.

Former Cincinnati Reds player Dave Parker greets fans at Redsfest at the Duke Energy Convention Center in downtown Cincinnati Friday, December 1, 2017. (Photo: The Enquirer/Meg Vogel)

It will be narrated by Rock and Roll Hall of Famer and long-time Parker fan Chuck D.

Parker graduated from Courter Tech High School in 1970 and still lives in Cincinnati. He has worked often with young players at the Reds Urban Youth Academy in Roselawn.

More from a press release from MLB Network:

MLB Network Presents: The Cobra at Twilight features new interviews with Parker and his wife Kellye, several of Parker’s former teammates and managers, including Hall of Famers Dennis Eckersley, Tony La Russa and Barry Larkin, plus Eric Davis, Phil Garner, Pete Rose, Gary Sheffield and Kent Tekulve, as well as former Pittsburgh Steelers and Pro Football Hall of Famers Tony Dungy and “Mean” Joe Greene. Each speaks to Parker’s on-field dominance and brash, outsized personality that had teammates calling him “the Muhammad Ali of baseball,” and how Parker’s landmark contract in 1979 that averaged $1 million per season earned him intense scrutiny from both media and fans.

Parker is among nine former Major League Baseball players and one executive on the 10-name Modern Baseball Era ballot – to be reviewed and voted on Dec. 8 – for 2020, the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum announced earlier this month.

Parker hit .281 with 107 home runs and 432 RBIs in four seasons for the Reds from 1984 through 1987. He was a two-time All-Star for the Reds and finished second in National League MVP voting in 1985 and fifth in 1986.

Parker hit .290 with 339 home runs and 526 doubles in 19 MLB seasons. He won the National League MVP award for the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1978.

Parker revealed in 2013 that he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, and his Cobra Classic Golf Outing raises funds for Parkinson’s research. He was inducted into the Reds Hall of Fame in 2014.

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When the Nats take on the Houston Astros in Game 7 tonight, it will be just the third winner-take-all World Series game in Washington history. The Nats hope to make it two out of three.

In 1924, the Washington Senators won the city’s only World Series championship, when Walter Johnson came out of the bullpen in the ninth inning to win a 12-inning game against the New York Giants, after losing his two World Series starts.

Unfortunately the magic wore off the next year, in a mirror image for Johnson.

In the 1925 World Series, he won his first two first two starts against the Pirates but lost the seventh game in Pittsburgh, getting rocked for 15 hits and nine runs (five earned).

By now, most Nats fans are probably familiar with the celebrated ‘24 World Series finale, the high-water mark of Washington baseball. Game 7 of the ‘25 World Series, by contrast, is mostly forgotten today, but it was one of the most important and devastating games in DC baseball history.

Johnson – like the Nats’ starter tonight, Max Scherzer – was an ace pitcher north of 35 coming off an injury.

Scherzer, who turned 35 this season, missed his planned Game 5 World Series start because of neck spasms, but says he’s good to go tonight.

Johnson, 37, had strained his leg in his previous start, when he unsuccessfully tried to stretch a single into a double.

Like the Houston Astros, the Pirates were packed with a formidable lineup. They led the National League with a .307 batting average, and also paced the league in on-base percentage, slugging percentage, and runs. Pittsburgh featured three future Hall of Famers – outfielder Kiki Cuyler, who led the team with a .357 batting average; third baseman Pie Traynor, who hit .320; and outfielder Max Carey, who hit .343 and led the league with forty-six stolen bases.

Washington took three of the first four games, but the Pirates won the next two to force a seventh game in Pittsburgh. After rain postponed the game, the two teams squared off on a cold, rainy afternoon, and a wet and muddy field.

A New York Times story described it as:

“… the wettest, weirdest, and wildest game that fifty years of baseball has ever seen … Water, mud, fog, mist, sawdust, fumbles, wild throws, wild pitches, one near fistfight, impossible rallies – these were mixed up to make the best and the worst game of baseball ever played in this century. Players wallowing ankle-deep in mud, pitchers slipping as they delivered the ball to the plate, athletes skidding and sloshing, falling full length, dropping soaked baseballs – there you have part of the picture that was unveiled on Forbes Field this dripping afternoon. It was a great day for water polo… But it was the last possible afternoon that you would pick out for a game of baseball on which hung the championship of the country.”

Nearly a century later, in another strange Fall Classic, the Nats and Astros will face off in “maybe the weirdest World Series imaginable,” as Ken Rosenthal wrote in The Athletic this morning.

Game 7 in 1925 turned out to be a microcosm of the series, with the Senators blowing a large early lead. Washington jumped ahead 4-0 in a wacky first inning that featured just two Senators hits. The Pirates did the rest with three walks, two errors, and a wild pitch, in a performance that set the stage for the slippery, sloppy showdown.

Pitching in ankle-deep mud and with a sore leg, Johnson couldn’t match his previous performance, when he had shut out the Pirates in Game 4. By the seventh inning, Washington clung to a 6-4 lead. The Senators sent their workhorse out for the bottom of the frame, but his defense let him down – as did his pitching.

The rally started when shortstop Roger Peckinpaugh, one of the heroes of the ’24 World Series and the winner of the 1925 American League MVP, committed a two-base error – the seventh of the World Series for the normally reliable fielder. The Pirates then tied the game on a double by Carey and a triple by Traynor, with both runs unearned.

Peckinpaugh, who had hit only four home runs in the regular season, briefly made amends for the miscue by slamming a homer into the left-field seats in the top of the eighth, giving Washington a 7–6 lead. But incredibly, he made yet another error in the bottom of the inning, and the Pirates scored three runs – two of them unearned – to take a 9-7 lead.

Pittsburgh reliever Red Oldman pitched a spotless top of the ninth, striking out Washington stars Sam Rice and Goose Goslin, to preserve the victory.

Like the Nats this year, the Senators had blown a two-game series lead, becoming the first team in history to lose the series after leading three games to one.

”Pittsburgh skies wept in sympathy for the lost hopes of Walter Johnson and Washington,” the Washington Post wrote.

After the series, American League president Ban Johnson criticized the Senators’ young player-manager, Bucky Harris, for using the aging Johnson in three games (which of course worked out well the previous year): “You sacrificed a World’s Championship for our league through your display of mawkish sentiment.”

The fiery Harris responded: “You run the American League, and I’ll manage the Washington baseball team.”

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Ken Rosenthal tweets that Blue Jays VP of Baseball Operations and former Red Sox GM Ben Cherington is a candidate for the Pittsburgh Pirates GM opening.
According to MLB Network insider and senior writer at The Athletic Ken Rosenthal, Blue Jays VP of Baseball Operations – and former Red Sox GM – Ben Cherington is a candidate for the Pittsburgh Pirates’ Head of Baseball Operations opening.

Neal Huntington was recently fired as GM, with assistant GM Kevan Graves acting as interim GM. Travis Williams, former Chief Operating Officer of the NHL’s Pittsburgh Penguins, has been hired as Team President. Other rumoured candidates include Jays Senior VP of player personnel Tony LaCava, and former Red Sox and Orioles GM Dan Duquette.

Cherington obviously has an interesting resume as Boston GM from 2011-15, including helping to build the Red Sox World Series Champion team in 2013, although he resigned from Boston in August 2015 after Dave Dombroski was hired as VP of baseball operations. His Red Sox teams finished in last place in the AL East in 2012, 2014, and 2015.

Former #RedSox GM Ben Cherington has emerged as a candidate to be the #Pirates’ new head of baseball operations, sources tell The Athletic. Cherington, 45, was the Sox GM from Oct. 2011 to Aug. 2015, and has been the #BlueJays’ VP of baseball operations since Sept. 2016.

— Ken Rosenthal (@Ken_Rosenthal) November 8, 2019

He was hired in September 2016 to collaborate with Blue Jays GM Ross Atkins as VP of baseball operations in Toronto, with responsibility for player development. Given the success of players he either drafted, signed or helped to develop in Boston, including Mookie Betts, Xander Bogaerts, Rafael Devers, Eduardo Rodriguez, and Andrew Benintendi, as well as the young core developed here in Toronto of Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Lourdes Gurriel Jr., Bo Bichette, Cavan Biggio and Nate Pearson, it’s perhaps not surprising that the Pirates may have interest.

Ken Rosenthal previously tweeted over a year ago that Cherington could be interested in a GM gig that would allow him to “build an organization from the ground up”, but that he had withdrawn his name for consideration with the Mets and Giants.

Former #RedSox GM Ben Cherington withdrew from consideration for #Mets’ and #SFGiants’ openings, but remains interested in becoming a GM again in right situation. Wants to build an organization from ground up. Happy in current role as VP of baseball operations with #BlueJays.

— Ken Rosenthal (@Ken_Rosenthal) October 4, 2018

SNY’s Andy Martino also tweeted in October 2018 that Cherington was “in play” for the Orioles GM role which may still be appealing given the opportunity there to rebuild an entire organization?

Ben Cherington, another name who has passed through Mets’ radar, also said to be in play for Orioles.

— Andy Martino (@martinonyc) October 16, 2018

Would the Pirates represent an opportunity for Cherington to completely rebuild a team and organization? Clearly, yes. They have a proud history, winning a total of five World Series Championships, but none since 1979 when Chuck Tanner managed the “We Are Family” team to a 98 win season and a Championship over the Orioles, on a team featuring Dave Parker, Willie Stargell, Bill Madlock, Omar Moreno, Burt Blyleven, John Candelaria and closer Kent Tekulve. The Pirates haven’t been back to the NLCS since 1992, when they lost to the Atlanta Braves, although they did win 280 games between 2013-15 with three consecutive early playoff exits.

The current team, which had a similar 2019 record as the Blue Jays at 69-93, features some pieces to build around, including 24-year old LF Brian Reynolds, 26-year old starter Joe Musgrove, 26-year old SS Kevin Newman, and 27-year old corner infielders in1B Josh Bell and 3B Colin Moran.

Potential trade chips include 31-year old CF Starling Marte (on a friendly $11.5 million dollar deal in 2020 with a club option for 2021), 28-year old RF Gregory Polanco who was on the 60-day IL after left shoulder surgery in September 2018, but is under team control until 2023, 26-year old set up man Keone Kela who will be an UFA in 2021, and potentially also 28-year old closer Felipe Vazquez (5-1, 28 saves, 1.65 ERA over 60 innings pitched with 90 Ks), although he may never pitch in MLB again given he’s facing criminal sexual assault charges and immigration issues, and his contract could be voided depending on the court ruling and league discipline. 31-year old former Tampa Bay Rays starter Chris Archer, who has been regressing since 2015, and pitched poorly for Pittsburgh in 2019, could also be moved as he is on an affordable $9 million dollar deal in 2020 with an $11 million club option for 2021.

Would Cherington be interested in rebuilding the Bucs under tighter salary constraints after working with big budgets for the larger market Red Sox, as well as with the Blue Jays at least in the earlier 2016-17 part of his tenure here?

The low-budget Pirates opened 2019 with a payroll of $74.8mn, but Spotrac has them committing $62.1 million at present using MLBTR’s estimates for arbitration salaries. Assuming no non-tenders, and that Vazquez’s $5.75 million contract is voided, plus $6-7m for the pre-arbitration players on the 26-man roster, the incoming GM might have approximately $30 million in additional salary budget if owner Bob Nutting is willing to return an Opening Day payroll, which was over $90 million each season from 2015-17. Perhaps that’ll be enough to lure him away from Toronto.

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The year was 1924 and, at long last, the Washington Senators shed the woeful distinction of being “first in war, first in peace, and last in the American League.” Compiling a record of 92-62 under their youthful player-manager, second-baseman Bucky Harris, those former-day Nats faced the New York Giants of John McGraw in the World Series.

It was not a case of no one giving the Senators at shot at victory, although the Giants were the Giants — and they boasted the best record in baseball. But like many teams that seem to have fate working in its corner — or dugout, as the case may be — these Senators had the look of a “team of destiny.” Especially after they forced a seventh game, despite aging ace Walter Johnson losing twice earlier in the Series.

That merely set up the theatrics of Game 7, deemed one of the more dramatic in Series history. The Senators fell behind 3-1 in the eighth inning and looked like goners until fate — that word again — intervened in the form of a pebble. Harris slapped a grounder toward New York third-baseman Freddie Lindstrom, who squared his body to catch it only to see the ball hit that pebble and bounce over his head. Two runs scored on the play, tying the game.

The 36-year-old Johnson entered the contest in the ninth and held the Giants scoreless through the 12th. In that inning, lightning struck twice. Earl McNeely stroked a grounder, once again toward Lindstrom, and again a pebble — the same pebble? — came into play. The ball skittered away from the future Hall of Famer, and catcher Muddy Ruel raced home with the winning run in the 4-3 clincher.

The Senators returned to the Series in 1925, but the magic was gone; they lost to the Pittsburgh Pirates in seven games. Eight years later, in 1933, the Senators, again led by a Boy Manager, 26-year-old shortstop Joe Cronin, won the American League pennant but fell to the Giants in the Series. That would be the last time a Washington team would grace the Fall Classic.

Until this year. And, just as in 1924, these Nats — the Nationals, now residents of the National League — had the markings of a “team of destiny.” For starters, they faced five elimination games and won them all. What’s more, they displayed an amazingly annoying proclivity to fall behind, only to come back. This started in the so-called “wild card” game with the Milwaukee Brewers and continued throughout their stutter-step through October.

Just as in ’24 with the American League Senators, this tendency reduced the team’s fan base to tenterhooks in the climactic seventh game of the Series. With the Houston Astros’ Zack Greinke spinning a masterpiece, the Nats entered the seventh inning down 2-0. And then it happened, as it always seemed to: Anthony Rendon hit a homer, halving the Astros’ lead. And then after a walk to Juan Soto (Greinke’s last hitter), Howie Kendrick, king of “Los Viejos” (The Old Ones), pinged one off the right-field foul pole … and suddenly the score was 3-2. The Nats would tack on a run in the eighth and two in the ninth for a historic 6-2 victory.

Historic for the fact that the home team won nary a game in this Series, but more so because a “team of destiny” broke a city’s 86-year drought. Immediately, these Nats are part of baseball’s rich lore.

Walter Johnson, Bucky Harris, and the Nats of ’24 would be proud.

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PITTSBURGH, Pa. (WJAC) — The Pittsburgh Pirates have dismissed manager Clint Hurdle, who directed the team for nine seasons and led the Pirates to multiple playoff births after 20 consecutive losing seasons.

The Pirates announced the news in a statement before their final game Sunday, which included quotes by their much-maligned general manager Neal Huntington, who the team also announced will stay on as GM. The Pirates came into the game 69-92 on the season and last place in the National League Central Division.

“We will be forever grateful for his dedication to the Pirates organization on and off the field,” said Huntington. “This was an extremely difficult decision for us. As an organization, we believe it was time for a managerial change to introduce a new voice and new leadership inside the clubhouse.”

Hurdle came to Pittsburgh after eight seasons with the Colorado Rockies, including a World Series appearance, and posted a 735-720 record in his time as skipper for the Pirates. He finished his tenure fourth all-time in team wins, behind Fred Clarke (1,422 wins), Danny Murtaugh (1,115) and Jim Leyland (851).

Hurdle led the team to three straight postseason appearances between 2013-2015, which ended the longest streak of losing seasons in the history of the four major American sports leagues. Hurdle managed after that to keep a depleted roster afloat, including a surprising above .500 campaign in 2018, but was derailed by a catastrophic 25-47 second-half collapse this season.

“This has easily been the most difficult season of my tenure,” Pirates chairman Bob Nutting said in a statement. “Today we announced that we are parting ways with Clint, but make no mistake about it, this is by no means a statement that our shortcomings are solely Clint’s fault. The entire organization is accountable and that begins with me.”

Hurdle told The Athletic earlier last week he had been informed he would be back as the manager. The Pirates quickly distanced themselves from that statement, and Hurdle turned non-committal over who gave him the assurances.

Pittsburgh’s Bench Coach Tom Prince was named the interim manager of the team for their final contest of the year against the Cincinnati Reds, after Hurdle declined to do so.

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Star 19th Century barehanded catcher Deacon White was elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame on Monday. White played from 1871-1890, logging 2,067 hits in 1,560 games. He gained fame in the days when catchers wore no gear and the job required a substantial amount of courage.

Peter Morris, author, Catcher: How the Man Behind the Plate Became an American Folk Hero


Earlier this week, Deacon White was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame. And yes, we know, you’ve never heard of him. White’s career began in 1871, at the dawn of professional baseball. He played catcher in the days when catchers use no equipment at all: no glove, no pads, no facemask. They became heroes celebrated for their courage and their wits, and Deacon White stood out as one of the best.

Baseball historian Peter Morris serves on what used to be called the Veteran’s Committee at Cooperstown. It’s now called the Pre-Integration Era Committee. He’s also the author of “Catcher: How the Man Behind the Plate Became an American Folk Hero” and joins us now from the studios at Michigan Radio in Ann Arbor. Good to have you with us today.

PETER MORRIS: My pleasure to be here, Neal.

CONAN: And in your book, you argue that the generation that came of age after the Civil War looked around for some heroes and found them behind home plate.

MORRIS: Yeah. It’s hard to understand today just how much the catcher, especially in the 1870s, dominated the baseball game. A single baseball game was – really revolved around the catcher’s ability to harness what the pitcher was pitching, and everything revolves around that. The pitcher couldn’t use his best pitches if he had – he didn’t have confident – confidence in the catcher.

So he really was a sort of iconic folk hero, dominated the game in a way that I think no player ever has before or since and – at a point to where people resented it and would say, you know, this is a game played by two players while the other seven just kind of watch.

CONAN: The pitcher and the catcher and everybody else watches. The catcher’s – well, we are familiar with the crouched position right behind home plate. That was not what they did in the 1870s.

MORRIS: No. They stood, sometimes a little stooped but mostly straight up, and they would just catch the ball and be ready to throw it to bases immediately. And the way that they would throw it sort of made them look like gunslingers. And so that really fed into the whole icon of them, the whole idea of them as American folk heroes.

CONAN: Folk heroes. Give us some idea. You quote any number of sources, literary and otherwise, in your book who worshipped these men.

MORRIS: Yeah. One of the most prominent was Stephen Crane, the great American novelist, and he really – most of his preparation for writing the “The Red Badge of Courage” and his other novels was spent being a catcher. And in fact, he really had two very unsuccessful stints in college where he spent most of his time trying to be the catcher for the college nine and didn’t go to too many classes. And really, all he developed was a kind of love of baseball and a sense of what it took to be – to have great courage. And I think both of those really fed into “The Red Badge of Courage.”

CONAN: And courage, we see the beating that catchers take today. They got the same foul tips and balls off their various parts of their body back then too.

MORRIS: Oh, it was tremendously difficult position to be in. You were right in the line of fire, and of course, you know, you could be the most prepared possible and then the batter might foul tip it. And it would just, you know, the angle will change just enough that it would, you know, hit your forehead usually. And a few of them had such great reflex. I mean, Deacon White was known for his great reflexes and became an incredibly durable catcher. But it was sort of known that, you know, if you put a neophyte behind a plate, he would usually get injured within an inning or two. That was – the danger was so great.

CONAN: And the early history of baseball is replete with teams that raided other teams for their catchers.

MORRIS: Oh, and particularly in the 1870s that the best teams were the ones with the best catchers. You really couldn’t be successful without one. And Deacon White stood above everybody else to the point where he played on five consecutive championship teams. And he went from team to team and the championship just followed him around wherever he went.

CONAN: He was quite a good hitter too.

MORRIS: He was a great hitter. He was a way above-average hitter, playing a position where, you know, the defense was so all-encompassing as a skill that you could, you know, you could really just put anybody there if they could field the position and not worry about their bat. But he was a consistent .300 and above hitter.

CONAN: And I wonder – statistics then and now are so different. The game essentially was so different. When you were talking with the people on the Veterans Committee about Deacon White, what were you saying that finally convinced them that this man, at long last, deserves to be in the Hall of Fame?

MORRIS: Well, we had some great conversations about what it took to play the position. And you know, Bob Watson, who started out as a catcher, was one of the committee members. Phil Niekro, Bert Blyleven and Don Sutton, Pat Gillick, all pitchers, all Hall Famers, were really able to add a lot of insight to what it must have been like.

And the other – one of the main things we talked about was just how they played much shorter schedules in the 1870s. So when you look at career statistics, that’s a huge distortion. Deacon White ended up with 2,000 career hits, but he was playing in a – in an average of 40, 50, 60-game schedules a year. So there was no way to generate the kind of career milestones that we look at as benchmarks today. You know, 3,000 hits would be all but impossible. And 2,000 was a terrific accomplishment.

CONAN: And the number of errors he recorded even as a great defensive catcher would have been, you know, totally unacceptable by today’s standards.

MORRIS: Oh, exactly. Yeah. And again, an issue where we had to really sort of look at what – compare him to people from his own era. And when we did that, you know, it became really obvious just how much he stood above his contemporaries.

CONAN: Are the records from those days good enough that you have reliable accounts of who was good and who was great?

MORRIS: Well, they’re getting a lot better. I mean, we have a very good full statistical record now. We’re getting a better sense – it’s becoming easier and easier to get back to the contemporary accounts of them in the newspapers and generate an idea from it then. And you know, the trouble over the years in putting people in the Hall of Fame has been that that’s been either on a partial statistical record or, you know, after all their contemporaries are dead, so we don’t have that record. And of course we can never bring those people back to life.

But by accessing the newspaper accounts, we can get a better sense of it, and I think it’s really encouraging to be able – to be able to – to be on a committee that, I think, did such great work in bringing back an era that happened so long ago that even when the Hall of Fame was founded in 1939, it was ancient history back then.

CONAN: And it’s interesting, your book had pictures of the hands of some of the great catchers of those days, gnarled and twisted. Anybody who played catcher could expect to be crippled – their hands – for the rest of their lives.

MORRIS: Exactly. And people would say, you know, I don’t know what this guy looks like but just look for a catcher’s hands. And as soon as you’ll see – you see those hands, you recognize, oh, that’s – that must be who it was.

CONAN: Are there stories about Deacon White? You mentioned he traveled from team to team. I guess he had one fantastic year in Boston. But what kind of a man was he? Do we know?

MORRIS: He was a really high-character man. In a time when baseball had a lot of guys who spent their evenings drinking and carousing, Deacon – he was known as Deacon because he went to church and he was a Sunday school teacher. And family came absolutely first for him.

And so the only season in his first 15 years in the big leagues where he missed any significant amount of time was when his father was ill. And when his father passed away, he signed a new contract to come back and play. But he actually signed it – he signed a very unique contract that said he would only have to play for two months, and then he could decide for himself whether he needed to go back home when the harvest was ready to (unintelligible) ready and his mother would need help around the house. So he was a man of family.

He was – family came first and his religion came first. He never played on a Sunday. And he was teammates with Connie Mack and Billy Sunday towards the end of his career. So…

CONAN: Two other well-known gentleman of the game, yes.


CONAN: And it’s interesting, you talked about the hero worship these catchers generated in the 1870s. When protective equipment did start to come in, gloves and then masks and pads, Roger Bresnahan and shin guards, that – the view of the catcher began to change.

MORRIS: Exactly. It really – in a way it almost emasculated what had been this ultimate American hero. And instead of, you know, being able to look at themselves as this sort of ultimate warrior, this ultimate gunslinger, they started to see themselves, you know, they would – people would make fun of them, you know, this man with a mattress on, this man with a bustle on his face. You know, people would compare the mask to a bustle, which is part of a woman’s dress, and it was very, you know, very insulting. And a lot of catchers had a really hard time adjusting to that.

CONAN: And the gloves were pretty primitive by today’s standards, but even the first ones were no more than just a pad, I guess, on the palm of the hand. The fingers were left exposed.

MORRIS: Exactly. Because the idea was you really – you had to catch the ball with both hands and then throw it with one. So catchers would have really very light gloves on both hands. And often they just cut the fingers off altogether because the idea was you would catch it, you would catch it like a spring, kind of like a receiver catches the ball where you just – you let it hit your hands and your hands moved back. And then you have to immediately adjust into the throwing position. So again, very much like a gunslinger.

CONAN: And it’s interesting. As you talk about this, the catcher today has regained some of that reputation from those days.

MORRIS: I think so. I think the catcher’s toughness is really recognized. And also, the catcher’s unique position, as somebody who’s part of the offense and part of the defense, plays a key role in what the pitcher throws and the pitcher’s ability to throw, you know, particularly balls in the dirt, which are very hard.

You know, if you don’t have a good catcher back there, then the whole team is lost. And so I think the catcher has really started to regain the reputation of being a key contributor to both, and I think that’s why so many great managers are former catchers.

CONAN: We’ve been talking about Deacon White, the newest member of baseball’s Hall of Fame. Baseball historian Peter Morris, thanks very much for your time today.

MORRIS: You’re very welcome. Thank you.

CONAN: Peter Morris wrote the book “Catcher: How the Man Behind the Plate Became an American Folk Hero” and joined us from the studios at Michigan Radio in Ann Arbor. It’s the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.