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A Different Conversation

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Conversations about the Pittsburgh Pirates are very different nowadays.

“Ownership is cheap, the GM is stupid and the manager doesn't know what he's doing. They strike out too much, they can't run the bases and they still don't have a first baseman.”

OK, maybe not everything is different. What is different is that conversations about the Pirates start out with a universally accepted premise: the Pirates are good.

Sure, not everyone agrees on the key issues. But even those disagreements typically center on the constantly shrinking gap between the team being merely "good" and becoming truly elite.

The oft-agreed upon conclusion is usually related to the Pirates’ need to avoid a one-game wild card. In a sport where the best teams in the history of the game lose every third time they play, a one-game playoff is brutally unforgiving.

Following two consecutive wild card appearances, and what appears to be a third straight this fall, many feel as though the Pirates "owe" it to the fan base to advance beyond this point.

And after dealing with two decades of losing, it's a legitimate consideration.

All the players owe the fans however, is to consistently put forth their best effort. Under Clint Hurdle, effort has seldom—if ever—been an issue.

The responsibility of general manager Neal Huntington is just as simple: like most people in the workforce, he does what his boss tells him.

Those orders, when Huntington took over in October 2007, were twofold: 1) totally overhaul one of Major League Baseball's worst minor league systems and, 2) turn one of Major League Baseball's worst teams into a winner.

Nearly eight years later, Huntington's success on both fronts has been absolute.

The Pirates, once 20-year losers, have become perennial winners. The 81-win plateau, once considered an unscalable peak, has become a nearly-forgotten mile marker on the road to much greater accomplishments. The organization's farm system, once a laughing stock, is consistently ranked among the game's best.

Now that he has transformed the entire organization, Huntington's job has also transformed. President Frank Coonelly and owner Bob Nutting have talked openly about a sixth World Series championship as the goal. Both men have also laid out their specific method for accomplishing it.

A steady infusion of homegrown talent, complimented by occasional free agent signings and boosted by extending current contracts, has been their stated goal for several years now. It's Huntington's task to carry out that plan by adding to the current roster but never sacrificing the future to do so.

Huntington is, of course, also working within clearly defined financial restraints; restraints that were defined for him, not by him.

That's a fact that cannot be ignored when judging Huntington's success: he does not set the framework; he merely works within it.

By revamping the minor leagues and turning the big club into a playoff team, Huntington has accomplished two momentous tasks. His current undertaking—keeping this thing rolling—is just as challenging.

Betting against him, despite his challenges, has proven to be unwise.

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