Pirates' problems are short-term and long-term


August 09, 1991|By JOHN EISENBERG

NEW YORK -- The called strikes went the wrong way again yesterday on a warm, windy afternoon, and the rest of the division moved another game closer, and Jim Leyland wound up in the visitor's clubhouse at Shea Stadium fingering a pack of cigarettes -- the pack he was supposed to give up when he felt chest pains a few weeks ago.

This was a man not without reasons to defy his doctors' orders, however. He has two problems. A short-term problem. A long-term problem. The short-term is 10 losses in 12 games for the Pittsburgh Pirates, whom he manages. The long-term is too many free agents on a team in a small market, resulting in the Pirates' ungainly predicament as a lab experiment for all of baseball.

The short-term problem was the one on his mind, naturally, after the 4-3 loss to the Mets yesterday. Not that he was going to lose too much sleep on the ride home. Bony and laconic with a silver-gray mustache, a railroad song come to life, a baseball lifer making a late move as a major player, Leyland, 46, possesses an admirable world view.

"I want to win," he said, "but we don't have to win. There are 25 teams that don't win every year. It's rare when you do. I tell my team my rules are be prepared and have fun. As long as that happens, I can take losing. It's no different than a guy working on a car line in Detroit. If he does his best and the part still breaks on him, he can accept that."

So: no complaints from Leyland, not yet, anyway. Not that he is happy when Barry Bonds gets picked off in the ninth inning representing the tying run, which happened yesterday. Or when his top two starters, Zane Smith and Doug Drabek, get battered on successive days by the previously-moribund Mets.

"We're just not going well," said Leyland, whose team still leads the National League East by 5 1/2 games. "It isn't one thing. It's just something that happens. I'm not happy about it, but if you have been in this game as long as me, you learn about the cycles. Good teams just play badly sometimes."

The Pirates are indeed a good team, arguably the best in their league. And the organization built the team the classic way, scouting, drafting and weaning young talent. They developed Bonds, the league MVP a year ago. They developed Bobby Bonilla, a near-Bonds talent. "We did," Leyland said, "a damn good job."

Suddenly, though, they find themselves resembling lab animals as the Great Experiment in a sport in which the financial future is stirring considerable debate. "I'm sure people are watching us to see what happens," Leyland said. "I'm sure a lot of people are saying we won't be able to keep this team together."

He is right. People are saying that. Management people mostly. People who say the recent bang-zoom-to-the-moon salary escalation has the sport teetering on catastrophe. Yet for each warning there sounds an opposite. Players, agents, union leaders -- they say teams aren't in such dutch, that everyone is getting rich off TV fees, that management has been crying this wolf for years.

Enter the Pirates. Bonilla is a free agent after this season. Bonds and Drabek go free after next year. Jose Lind, Mike LaValliere, Zane Smith, Bob Walk -- just about any Pirate of consequence will require a new contract in the next few years. And it will cost a staggering sum.

Consider that Bonilla already has turned down a four-year contract worth $16.8 million, preferring to test the open market. And Bonds should be worth more than Bonilla. Can the Pirates pay out all this cash? It certainly will be a test of their financial wiles. Their local TV contract is small. They don't draw huge crowds. Their revenues just don't add up to that much.

All of baseball is watching because most teams have reasonably similar ledgers. Those in New York and Los Angeles earn more from local TV, but the rest fight the same fight as the Pirates. And what's the lesson if the Pirates can't keep together this team? Well, why build a winner if you know it will cost too much to maintain?

"It's a tough spot," Leyland said. "You don't come across franchise players too often, and when you find a couple and develop them, like we did, you need to hang onto them. Too much good work and money has gone into it. But if the price is just too high for you, what can you do about it?"

His position is squarely in the middle. 'I don't blame Bobby [Bonilla] for turning down $16.8 million," he said. "He wants to test the market and that is his right. That is how the system works. At the same time, I didn't get here falling off the pumpkin truck. I want him. I want the others. But it's out of my hands. We'll see what goes down."

It has all led to the unusual and very modern situation of a young team making perhaps its last run together. Who knows if Bonilla will be here next year? Or Bonds the year after? One certainty is that the animals are running the experiment this time. The players will get their money from some owner somewhere. The Pirates franchise is the one with something to lose.

Leyland doesn't have the time to worry about all that right now, though. Yes, that's Bonilla over there in the corner admitting, "This might be our last run together," but Leyland has pitchers who can't get through the fifth and MVPs getting picked off in the ninth and, well, even if he can take the losing, sometimes a man just needs to smoke a pack of cigarettes when it's against the rules. He'll quit after the season. Maybe.

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