They say imitation is the most sincere form of flattery.
In which case, Pirates fans should be tickled pink these days. Not because the team is in the thick of a division race that has become more intense in the past two weeks.
Not because the Pirates have, arguably, the deepest, most versatile roster of any in playoff contention.
It’s because the rest of the baseball community has taken notice of what the Pirates organization is doing, has shown an appreciation for it, and may be taking steps to re-create it.
It happened in Oakland, when Billy Beane’s Athletics won a total of 392 games and three AL West division titles from 2000-03 with one of the lowest annual payrolls in baseball, inspiring Michael Lewis’s best-seller Moneyball and also bringing the once-obscure sabermetric movement to the forefront of baseball discussion.
Two of Beane’s top lieutenants, Paul DePodesta and J.P. Ricciardi, were eventually tabbed as general managers for other teams. DePodesta was hired to run the L.A. Dodgers’ baseball operations (2004-05), and Ricciardi ran the Toronto Blue Jays from 2001-09.
Even Beane’s predecessor and mentor, Sandy Alderson, found himself in a general manager’s role again in 2010, charged with re-building the New York Mets. Now flanking Alderson in his front office are Ricciardi and DePodesta, and the Mets are sprinting toward the NL East title with a 9.5-game lead in the division standings as of Tuesday morning.
It also happened with Boston Red Sox, who had Beane for less than 24 hours as their general manager in 2002, but then Beane changed his mind and decided to stay in Oakland. The Red Sox, owned by an analytically-minded businessman-turned billionaire named John Henry, promoted assistant GM and sabermetric enthusiast Theo Epstein and within five years, Boston laid claim to two World Series titles.
Epstein eventually left the Red Sox to become president of baseball operations for the Chicago Cubs in 2011, bringing his former assistant Jed Hoyer with him to become his new general manager. Another former assistant, Ben Cherington, stayed in Boston to take Epstein’s old job and led the Red Sox to another World Series title in 2013.
Now armed with a remodeled ballpark and a minor league system churning out young, elite talent, the Cubs are nipping at the Pirates and Cardinals’ heels in the NL Central race.
If the Pirates’ path this season leads them to a World Series, this same chain reaction could happen in Pittsburgh. In fact, recent events suggest it may have already started.
Marc DelPiano, who joined the Pirates as a special assistant to GM Neal Huntington in 2008 (and worked under Epstein as a scout in Boston), was been hired a week ago by the Miami Marlins as their new vice president of player development.
The Pirates’ current director of player personnel, Tyrone Brooks, was given permission to interview for the open GM job with the Milwaukee Brewers. Brooks is credited with being responsible for the addition of Jung Ho Kang, to provide some perspective.
“That’s what happens when you have a good team,” Huntington said last week. “It’s an honor to have our guys get that kind of recognition.”
The truth is the Pirates as an organization are getting more recognition, and it stands to mention that five teams: the Red Sox, Anaheim Angels, Brewers, Philadelphia Phillies and Seattle Mariners are all looking for a new GM. And another is looking for a new president: the Cleveland Indians.
By the way, the Indians are Huntington’s former employer. Their general manager is Chris Antonetti, a former grad school classmate of Huntington and Cherington at UMass-Amherst. That sets the stage for a repeat of Alderson’s Oakland-New York reunion in Cleveland.
Yes, sometimes the dominoes can fall just that easily, and if the Pirates win their first world championship since 1979, the disbanding of their front office could continue in the name of upward mobility, even though Huntington says his possible departure should be the least of the fans’ worries.
In my opinion, the prospect of losing the man who turned Major League Baseball’s poster child of ineptitude into what some are calling a model of sustainable long-term success should be a concern. But it should also be considered one of the best indicators of what this team has accomplished.
After all, nobody wants to copy what you’re doing if you’re not doing something right.
Pirates fans could easily take it as a threat, but they should ultimately take it as a compliment.