From Danny Murtaugh to John Russell, Mike Wysocki ranks the Pittsburgh Pirates best managers | The Cheap Seats | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

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From Danny Murtaugh to John Russell, Mike Wysocki ranks the Pittsburgh Pirates best managers

John Russell’s milquetoast personality blended in awkwardly with a bunch of rag-tag also-rans

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In 1971, Pirates manager Danny Murtaugh had a rotation including Steve Blass and Dock “no-hitter on acid” Ellis. Behind them was an outfield containing Al Oliver, Roberto Clemente and Willie Stargell. 

In 2008,Pirates manager John Russell had a rotation led by John Van Benschoten and Phil Dumatrait. Behind them was an outfield featuring Nyjer Morgan, Nate McLouth and Xavier Nady. Those are the extremes of what Pirates managers have had to deal with over the years. The others fall somewhere in between. Some had pitching and no hitting; others were vice versa. Some were solid with a superstar sprinkled in. But this is Pittsburgh, and we like to rank stuff, so here is my ranking of the nine managers hired since the opening of Three Rivers Stadium.

9. John Russell (2008-2010). Sometimes you’re just dealt a bad hand, and Russell certainly got a hand with no aces or face cards. In fact, his hand was more like a two, a three, a four, a joker and a card with the instructions on them. His milquetoast personality blended in awkwardly with a bunch of rag-tag also-rans who played out the season and cashed in a sub-par major-league-baseball check. Russell sat in the dugout and tepidly watched the losing with the enthusiasm one might bring to a seminar on whittling wood. Russ went 186-299 in his tenure and was spared the indignity of a 300th loss when he was fired. 

8) Jim Tracy (2007). Tracy replaced Clint Hurdle in Colorado and went on to win Manager of the Year in 2009. Years before that, he had some good teams at the helm of the Los Angeles Dodgers. In between, though, he managed the Pirates. His opening-day lineup card in 2006 had names like Humberto Cota, Jeromy Burnitz and Chris Duffy. Despite bashers like the Duff, Tracy never managed to shake the losing mentality that had permeated the organization. 

7) Lloyd McClendon (2000-2005). Lloyd tried so hard, but his no-nonsense approach was tough to swallow with teams that were so good at losing. The highlight of his tenure was ripping first base out of its place during yet another argument with an umpire. He not only stole the base but walked it off the field before angrily throwing it into the dugout. His 336-446 record actually could’ve been worse. He managed in the big leagues as recently as last season and is currently calling the shots for the Toledo Mud Hens. They might have more talent than Lloyd had here.

6) Gene LaMont (1997-2000). LaMont was left in charge of a sinking ship. He managed to plug a few holes in it and led the 1997 Pirates to a second-place finish. It was the team’s best season between the years 1993 and 2012. The magic quickly evaporated as good players started getting traded at the deadline every year. LaMont was good, but not a miracle-worker.

5) Bill Virdon (1972-1974). Unlike the first four skippers on this list, Virdon inherited a pretty good situation. He took over in 1972 and came within a Bob Moose wild pitch in the deciding game of the playoffs of going to the World Series. The next year, after Clemente’s death and some internal squabbles, Virdon was let go and moved on to the Yankees. Virdon was the best baseball player on this list. He was on the 1960 Pirates and was so good that the Cardinals moved Stan Musial to first base to make room for him.

4) Clint Hurdle (2011-present). Hurdle is almost like the FDR of Pirates managers. Although he didn’t win the Big One like Roosevelt, he did lead them out of the Great Depression. That would make John Russell like Herbert Hoover: Analogy justified. Hurdle changed the losing attitude; was named Manager of the Year in 2013; and has led the team to three straight wild-card berths and one division series. His style plays well with the home crowd because he reminds you of the uncle who can be either good-natured or a little scary if you anger him. His Pirates story is still incomplete, but so far, so good.

3) Jim Leyland (1986-1996). Leyland was the hardest-smoking man in baseball. He was a gruff, sometimes profane managerial icon who won three straight division titles in the early 1990s. Leyland just couldn’t get the Pirates to the next level. He did win a World Series in 1997 with the Marlins. We might hate him for that, but it’s funny because his team beat Cleveland in a heartbreaker. In Pittsburgh, he took over a team rocked by scandal and losing, and helped nurture an average-head-sized Barry Bonds into a superstar.

2) Chuck Tanner (1977-1985). Tanner was the last guy to win it all. I once asked the great Pittsburgh sports writer Gene Collier (name drop) who was the nicest guy and the biggest jerk he ever met in baseball. Without hesitation he said Chuck Tanner and Barry Bonds. New Castle native Tanner endeared himself to the city forever. If you don’t like Chuck, you probably don’t like kittens, cupcakes or toddlers either.

1) Danny Murtaugh (1957-1976 on-and-off). He’s the only manager on the list with a retired number. Murtaugh won two World Series, in 1960 and 1971. It will be a long time before any Bucs manager surpasses that. Murtaugh managed the Pirates from 1957-1964, then came back for the 1967 season, then moved to the front office. He even Jay Leno-ed his job in 1970 by taking back a job he had earlier quit. He went out on top in 1971, retired again, then came back and managed from 1973-76. Altogether he won 1,115 games, second in club history, making him the anti-John Russell, if you will.


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