Former catcher becomes 38th skipper in Bucs history
By Jenifer Langosch / MLB.com
PITTSBURGH -- Introduced on Monday as the next manager of the Pirates, John Russell joked that the Peoria, Ariz., grocery store that he and his wife, Jamie, stood in on Friday when he received a call from general manager Neal Huntington offering him the job will never be the same.
"We just got excited," Russell explained a few minutes later. "Some people turned their heads. My wife was a little vocal screaming, and I was pacing."
The grocery store may never be the same, and neither will Russell. And ultimately, he hopes neither will be the culture and the disappointing results that have attached to the Pirates for so long.
Speaking to reporters at PNC Park on Monday, Russell, 46, used the words "accountability," "discipline," "pride" and "passion." Those were adjectives Russell believes will be attached to the club moving forward, and are words that Huntington believe already describe the man that he brought in to replace Jim Tracy.
"It's being a tireless instructor, being a tireless communicator," Huntington said, expounding on his expectations of Russell. "It's instilling pride back and expecting it to be done the right way. It's holding the staff accountable and the players accountable."
Throughout much of Huntington's month-long search process, speculation strongly suggested that he would look to name someone to the managerial post that he had a previous professional tie to. Though Russell didn't fit that criterion, Huntington said that he was indeed on his initial list of candidates from the start.
As the process lengthened throughout the month of October, Huntington became more convinced that Russell's vision more perfectly aligned with his. In naming Russell as the club's next manager, Huntington made his first major announcement since becoming the organization's GM near the end of the season.
"I've never worked with John before and I've never had a relationship with John before, but because of how he has managed before, I wanted to do more research on [him]," Huntington said. "It wasn't a guy I had a preexisting relationship with, but it's a guy who I had a preexisting respect for."
While the hire was ultimately a decision made by Huntington, Pirates president Frank Coonelly used his network around baseball to also assist in the process of gathering information on potential candidates. What he saw in Russell confirmed Huntington's initial assessment and convinced Coonelly that Russell was the one needed to turn the organizations' on-field results around.
"I think it became more evident to me that we needed to get someone here that had previous managerial experience," Coonelly said. "It wasn't necessarily someone who has done it at the Major League level, but has actually managed a club and written out a lineup card. I think it's important that John has done it and has done it for a long time."
Not only has Russell done so for many years, but he has also done so in numerous different capacities. He has managed from rookie ball up to Triple-A, as well as in both the Arizona Fall League and in Venezuela.
Russell's return to Pittsburgh is a homecoming of sorts, after he spent three years as a third-base coach under Lloyd McClendon. Before that, however, the 46-year-old Oklahoma City, Okla., native spent the majority of his post-playing days as a manger.
His last two years were spent managing the Phillies' Triple-A affiliate, which included a season in which Russell earned International League Manager of the Year honors in 2006 for guiding the team to the International League North title.
Russell, who also served as the manager in the International League All-Star game in 2007, managed an Ottawa club last season that finished last in the standings; however, their 55-88 record should not be read into with much concern.
"[Phillies owner] Dave [Montgomery] said he was named manager of the year in 2006 because we won the division, but that though the record was poor, he did an even better job in 2007," Coonelly said. "[The Phillies] gave him absolutely no talent whatsoever, yet John continued to work with those players through the entire season."
Prior to his time in Pittsburgh, Russell spent eight seasons managing in the Twins' Minor League system, during which he earned Baseball America's nod as the 2002 Minor League Manager of the Year and Best Managerial Prospect. The baseball publication had also named Russell the Eastern League's Best Managerial Prospect four seasons earlier.
Russell put together a 10-year playing career after joining the Phillies in 1984. After five years with Philadelphia, Russell spent one season with Atlanta before finishing his career in a Rangers uniform. Though his primary duties were behind the plate, Russell played six different positions during his time in the Majors, which included making one relief appearance.
He also holds the distinction of having caught Nolan Ryan's sixth-career no-hitter.
Now back in Pittsburgh, Russell is charged with the task of doing something that the Pirates' last three managers -- Gene Lamont, McClendon and Tracy -- couldn't do: have a winning season.
He replaces Tracy, who was let go by Huntington on Oct. 5, after the Pirates improved their 67-95 showing in 2006 by only one game. And he will also be handed the immediate task of helping the club to avoid a 16th consecutive losing record.
Handed a relatively young team, Russell arrives with a successful track record as an instructor, as a communicator and as one very in tune with details. While Tracy often took a more hands-off managerial approach during his two years as the helm, Russell is expected to be a strong clubhouse presence, and most importantly, a teacher.
"It was really his passion for the game and his passion for teaching," Coonelly said. "I could see immediately that John could accept accountability for how his players were playing. And I think it's fair to say that that's something that we haven't always seen in Pittsburgh the last couple of years."
While it's too early for Russell to have specific groundwork in place as to what is going to change, both on and off the field, Russell knows where he is going to start.
"Accountability to me is the backbone of what we're going to have to do on the field," he said. "Great players that I have been around are accountable for what they do. They are hard workers. That's what we're going to do. If the program runs true and the players do it, then we'll get better."
Asked how soon this team -- and this city -- can expect a winning team on the field, he never hesitated. "April," he confidently answered. "That's my goal. We're going to compete. I know people are going to look at me like, 'This guy's stupid,' but that's my goal. If I had any other thought in my mind, then I don't deserve this job."