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June 19, 2001

6-4-3

A Change to the Graceful

by Gary Huckabay

I was ready to write a 6-4-3 this week that gave Cam Bonifay as fond a farewell as possible, focusing on his tremendous deal that brought Brian Giles to the Pirates in exchange for Ricardo Rincon. It was an absolutely masterful deal, one that could have been the cornerstone for a very successful franchise.

Mr. Bonifay was also one of the first front office people to give us the time of day, something for which we here at Baseball Prospectus will always be grateful. However, despite Mr. Bonifay's kindness towards a young enterprise, and despite my preference to not kick someone when he's down, I just can't write that 6-4-3. Instead, we'll look at The Beginning of the End of Pittsburgh's Nightmare, and a few other points of alleged interest.

I probably could have put together a positive piece on Cam's tenure, had Mr. Bonifay shown more decorum and taken greater responsibility during his farewell address. Instead, he spent his airtime pointedly and aggressively demonstrating how thoroughly unqualified he was to be running a major-league ballclub. His wasn't the most deranged act of semi-defiance on June 11, but it was certainly puzzling.

Bonifay reportedly was asked to resign by Pirates' CEO Kevin McClatchy, but declined. At his Monday press conference, he passed the buck like a seasoned public-sector middle manager nearing a pension. "I was disappointed because I didn't feel it was time for me to leave this post," said Bonifay. "There is no club in major-league baseball that could have undergone the injuries that we've suffered this year." The injuries of which he speaks are presumably Kris Benson, Francisco Cordova, Jason Schmidt, and Terry Mulholland. Obviously, these injuries are completely random, and are the main reason why Pittsburgh is basically the Tampa Bay of the National League.

Bonifay is a hard worker, but was more or less uneven in his execution. Part of the optimism of the 1997 season was the result of a Mexican program that netted Rincon and Cordova. During that same year, Bonifay oversaw an outstanding salary purge, dumping a number of veterans who were expensive and unproductive, including Jay Bell, Orlando Merced, and Carlos Garcia. In short, he was demonstrating exactly the kind of player personnel acumen needed to run a ballclub. Paying for excellence is OK, but don't pay for mediocrity.

A couple of years later, Bonifay appears to have been possessed by either Tommy Lasorda or Jim Frey. Players that not only aren't valuable, but are downright detrimental to a club's success, have been signed to long-term deals. Pat Meares? Meares was more or less without other career options after 1998, so he hooked up with Pirates...who awarded him a long-term deal, one that's paying him nearly $4 million this season. Derek Bell? Another old guy without any demonstrable ability to help a club, and who usurps the position of a productive and inexpensive player in John Vander Wal, who, incidentally, has been highly productive despite not sticking to his role.

Bonifay seemed genuinely surprised by the Pirates' poor play. The question is pretty simple: if you assume he's telling the truth, why could he possibly be surprised?

  • Did he expect Jason Schmidt to come back immediately from rotator cuff surgery and be effective?

  • Did he expect Kris Benson, who worked more innings than ever in 2000, only to see his numbers drop alarmingly in the second half (strikeout rate down, ERA up from 3.00 to 5.00), to be healthy and effective?

  • Did he think that Derek Bell, Pat Meares, and Terry Mulholland would be young and more productive than they've ever been?

  • Did he expect the farm system, which has been among the least effective in baseball at developing offensive players, to suddenly start churning out talent?

If Bonifay thought all these things would happen, he clearly had lost sight of his plan, or he didn't have one in the first place. W. Edwards Deming once said, "Management should not be surprised when expected outcomes become actual outcomes."

Deming was pretty smart.

Bonifay wants to be a GM again. Until he's ready, he shouldn't get that opportunity. He has been somewhat successful at unearthing talent through international programs. Perhaps he should spend some time in an organization doing what he's good at, and learn from a GM who's better at the other facets of the job (player development, contract negotiation) than he is.

It's not easy to keep trying to learn all the time at any age. Sometimes, people mistakenly think you're unsure of your own abilities. But Cam Bonifay isn't yet ready to be a successful major-league general manager. Until he invests the time to learn the skills, opens his mind to new ways of doing things, and develops a method to separate the valuable skills from the non-valuable skills, he'll never succeed.

Which is true for all of us.

Gary Huckabay is an author of Baseball Prospectus. You can contact him by clicking here.

Gary Huckabay is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Gary's other articles. You can contact Gary by clicking here

Related Content:  Farewell

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