There is more to John Russell than humility and stoicism, although those two qualities fit the Pirates skipper like a well-worn catcher’s mitt. Now in his second season at the helm in Pittsburgh, the former backstop is Neal Huntington’s sergeant-at-arms, entrusted to help lead a young and rebuilding ball club out of the doldrums of 16 consecutive losing seasons and back into contention in the National League. The Pirates’ third-base coach from 2003-2005 as part of manager Lloyd McClendon‘s staff, Russell also has 10 years as a minor league manager on his resumé, eight with the Twins‘ organization (1995-2002) and two with the Phillies‘ (2006-2007). Being behind the plate for Nolan Ryan‘s sixth career no-hitter in 1990 was the highlight of a playing career in which Russell saw action in parts of 10 big-league seasons, primarily with Philadelphia and Texas.
David Laurila: Do you view your managerial style as old-school, or are you more of a new-age manager?
John Russell: I’d say that I’m a combination of both. When I first started playing, I was kind of in the old-school mentality. I signed in 1982, my first year in the big leagues was 1984, and I managed in the minor leagues for the last eight or ten years, before I got here, so you get a little bit of both. I don’t know if I have a distinctive style. I think the biggest thing is preparation and attention to detail, and I think those come from [the] old school. You want it done the right way, but you have to be able to relate to players and get your message across, which I think is more of the new style. And you have to be able to teach, even at this level. I’d say I’m a combination.
DL: John Perrotto, who has been on the beat here [in Pittsburgh] for over 20 years, told me that he’s never seen a Pirates team work more on fundamentals, so it sounds like you place a lot of importance on that aspect of the game.
JR: Absolutely. I know that when I played, the day I thought I knew it all, I should quit, because you’re not going to get any better. Some of the better players I ever played with always still worked, and I think that’s a big thing for us. Fundamentals are very important to your success. We don’t have a big powerhouse team that is going to score seven, eight, ten runs a game. We’re not going to hit a lot of home runs, so we’re going to have to do things very well to win. Fundamentally, we have to be sound. That’s defense, pitching, running the bases, situational hitting, bunting-we have to be very good at those things, and in order to be very good at something, you have to work at it. You can’t just say, ‘We’ve got it,’ and not work on it anymore. You have to always be fine-tuning your game and I think our staff does a great job with that.
DL: John also said that he hasn’t heard a single player complain about you, which is notable given the work you’re demanding and the fact that it’s almost impossible to keep 25 guys happy all the time. What do you attribute that to?
JR: I attribute that to our program. Not only from the standpoint of here, but the way that Bob [Nutting], our owner, Frank [Coonelly], the team president, and Neal [Huntington], our general manager, started things last year-the change of culture we’ve had. I think that we make it enjoyable and I can’t take all the credit for that. Our staff does a great job of making it fun each day and interesting each day. We teach a lot, but we don’t get stale. It’s not like we’re doing the same things over and over and over. There’s a variety, and I think it makes it fun for the players.
DL: How different is managing in the big leagues than managing in Triple-A?
JR: There’s a difference. I was always a big believer, in Triple-A, that you have to make sure that guys are ready to play at this level. You want to win, but our goal is to make sure that if the major league club needed something, we could give them something, so the work and effort you put in is about developing that. At the same time, you’re trying to develop winning, because I think winning is a big part of development. The teams I managed in Triple-A, that was my philosophy, and it has never changed. I love to win, but the biggest goal was to make sure we had players ready to help the major league club. It was more about development and winning, as opposed to winning and then develop.
DL: Andrew Friedman has said that he considers Joe Maddon a part of the Rays management team. Do have a similar relationship with Neal Huntington?
JR: Very much so. We started this when he hired me last year. We both kind of started at the same time and I think we share the same vision. That’s probably one of the big reasons I got the job: the vision we both had of where we needed to take this organization. And I think that in order to maintain that, we both have to be in constant communication and talk about the problems, talk about the successes, talk about where we’re going and where we need to go and what we need. We need to be on the same page with it. I think I’m a definite extension of that, and I think that Neal is also an extension of me in the things that he does. We work very well together.
DL: Neal Huntington is among the most candid general managers in the game. What impact does that have on you as a manager?
JR: We like it. I mean, we both do that. He’s going to tell me exactly what he thinks and I’m going to tell him exactly what I think, and we don’t always agree on everything. I think that’s important. He tells the staff that he doesn’t want them to always agree with everything. He wants good dialogue; I wouldn’t say arguments, but discussions are much needed. We need to get input from everybody and I think Neal is very open with that. I welcome his thoughts; I welcome his being candid and telling us what we need to know. And if there is something he doesn’t understand, he’s going to ask. I think I’m very good at giving the answer. He doesn’t always like the answer, but it is the answer and he trusts me well enough to know that we’re doing the right thing for the organization.
DL: You managed in the Twins organization prior to coming to the Pirates. How similar are the two organizations?
JR: When I first started with the Twins, I think there are a lot of similarities. There wasn’t much depth in the minor league system when I first started and the major league team was on the back end of winning. We started a pretty tough stretch at the major league level. We looked in our minor league system and we did not have a lot of depth, and they started to make some tough trades at the major league level. The draft went very well for the Twins and we started adding some quality players, like Torii Hunter, Jacque Jones, [Doug] Mientkiewicz, [A.J.] Pierzynski, [Corey] Koskie-guys that we drafted. Morneau, Mauer. It just continued to develop, and that’s a correlation I see here that Neal has really started. We have to have better talent in our system, younger talent, and he’s done a great job of doing that. So they’re similar, very much so, but when you take the blueprint from another organization, you can’t do it exactly the way they do, but the overall philosophy is the same in my opinion. In order to have a sustainable championship club, we need to have talent; we need to have guys in the minor leagues who can come up and help us. We need to have guys who can make an impact here, and Neal has done a great job of putting that in motion. Bob and Frank are giving him the resources to do it, our minor league department is doing a great job of developing, and our scouts are doing a great job of drafting talent. We’re heading in a very positive direction.
DL: You played for John Felske in both the minor leagues and big leagues. How much did he influence what you do as a manager?
JR: Well, he’s the first manager I had in professional baseball, so I remember a lot of the things he did. He had a little bit of a calm demeanor and he talked to us quite often. He explained things, and I think that helped. You knew that he was there and had your best interests at heart. He wanted you to be a good player, so he worked with you and talked to you about it. He was also stern and didn’t let you get away with things, either. He was my first professional manager and when I went to Double-A, he was there, so he had a big influence on me.
DL:Is there any one manager who influenced you more than the others?
JR: You know, I’m not sure. I learned a lot from John, and from Lee Elia and Bobby Valentine. I had so many different managers; when I was in Philly, we had a few there. In Texas we had a few. So I think it’s a blanket question that deserves a blanket answer. So many people touch you throughout your career, and some guys have a great impact in one area, and other guys have more impact in another area. They all seem to kind of work their way in there. I learned a lot from Tony La Russa. I talked to him a lot in my career and learned from him as well, so it doesn’t necessarily have to be a guy you played under. Tom Kelly taught me a lot when I was with the Twins. You try to absorb what you can, so it’s probably the answer you’re going to get from most everybody-so many people touch you in your life, everywhere you go, that it’s hard to pinpoint just one.
DL: Were there any defining moments in your playing career, maybe with how a manager handled a situation, which helped to shape how you do your current job?
JR: I think that being a catcher was a really big plus for me, because you have everything in front of you and you handle the pitching staff, you handle the bullpen, you get to hit, you see the defense. So that’s one thing, although I don’t know if there was any one defining moment. I think it was an accumulation and having the opportunity to catch and having to learn how to pitch to hitters and how to hit pitchers. It was in having to watch your bullpen work and your starting rotation and defense. It really got my mind working in the right direction. And also, there were the people, the managers and coaches I had, that helped me to develop. There really wasn’t a single defining moment that was a real plus for me.
DL: You caught in the 1980s and early 1990s. How has pitching changed since that time?
JR: It’s more specialized now; you have guys who are specialized out of the bullpen. I think that pitchers are a little stronger overall. You don’t see the guys who, back then, were the horses, throwing 140-150 pitches a game, like Nolan Ryan and J.R. Richard. You do see guys who are very polished as far as velocity nowadays, and I think that has to do with the strength-and-conditioning programs around now; we didn’t have those back then. So I think there is variance in the way that you can look at it. They were a little stronger back then, because they threw more pitches, but velocity seems to have gone up a little, on average, for everybody. There are changes, but you still have to throw strikes; you have to throw quality strikes, regardless of the velocity. The pitchers who throw quality strikes are the ones that win. The pitchers that miss their spots consistently, no matter what they have, they lose. The game is still the same that way. So there are some differences, but the overall philosophy of getting people out is still the same.
DL: Nolan Ryan is expecting pitchers in the Rangers organization to throw more pitches and work deeper into games. Do you share his philosophy?
JR: I think it absolutely, totally depends on the pitcher. People talk about pitch counts, and how you have to take him out, but if you’re sitting on the side and watching, you know when a guy is starting to lose arm strength and starting to get tired. It doesn’t take a pitch-count monitor to really see that. You also have guys who get stronger as the game goes. You kind of monitor it that way. Pitchers are always going to give you red flags; they’re all going to have the alarms. With some pitchers, the alarm starts at 75 pitches, while with others it starts at 105 pitches. From the side is where you’re going to get that determination. We like our pitchers to throw deeper, but again, if they’re not very effective there is no sense in leaving them out there. That’s the biggest way to determine it.
JR: The knowledge that I gained. Things worked for them that obviously wouldn’t work for me, but it was the way that they played and prepared. That’s the biggest thing I learned from watching Hall of Fame-type players, and not only then, but when I started managing, is how they worked-how they prepared. It wasn’t just, “OK, I’m really good so I’m just going to show up and play.” Those guys really worked hard, daily. That’s one of the big things I took from it. If a guy is one of the elites of the game, and he works that hard, there is no reason in the world that somebody at my level, or anybody’s level, can’t work just as hard, or harder. So that’s the biggest thing I learned from those guys-the amount of preparation and work they put into it.
DL: Any final thoughts?
JR: I think the biggest thing… people ask about your style, and for me it’s about accountability and being prepared. My biggest fear is coming to the park and not being ready mentally or physically for that game. Sitting in this chair, I want to be sure that, on a daily basis, that we’ve done all we can do to be prepared to play. Then we go play, have fun, and make sure that we’re doing it right. People say, “Well, he’s kind of stoic sometimes.” I just expect it to get done right. If you do it right, good things happen. If you do it wrong, bad things happen. There’s no substitute for playing the game right.