Sunday, May 8, 2011

DBS, Dave Littlefield, and a Pastrami Sandwich

As I watch the Pirates today with a strange feeling (I think people call it "optimism"), my mind wondered if Dave Littlefield looks in on this team at all. For those that don't know, Dave Littlefield was the GM before Neal Huntington and is widely considered to be one of the 10 worst GM's of modern times.

His list of sins that he committed on this franchise are too numerous, but well-documented, to go into here but suffice it to say that Huntington had his work cut out for him when he arrived in October 2007.

Littlefield was all about minimizing risk. He would routinely take "major league ready" players back in trades, who would subsequently show they weren't ready for the major leagues. DL would avoid dealing with difficult agents (Scott Boras) at all costs. Draft picks were made with signability in mind. What brought me to thinking about DL was when I started to think about the Pirates current bullpen. Hanrahan, Meek, Veras, and Resop all routinely gas it in to the plate at 94 mph at a minimum. That was a trait unheard of with a DL-constructed bullpen. Sure, Mike Gonzalez was a flamethrower for a few years, but he was the exception not the rule. And there sure as heck weren't multiple guys like that in the pen. Huntington, especially in recent years, has targeted players that bring the heat but may have needed some delivery tweaks to fully harness it. For the most part, it has been a successful strategy in recent seasons.

All of this reminiscing about Littlefield made me think about the time I got to meet the man. Well, substitute "meet" for "accost while eating". It was 2004 and I had just finished reading Moneyball by Michael Lewis. It was a game-changing book for baseball and for me, as well. The surface takeaway from the book is that Billy Beane, the GM of the Athletics, found guys with bad bodies but could get on base a lot. The deeper message in the book is that Beane found market inefficiencies in free agent costs and draft picks and exploited them to the A's advantage.

As a newly energized stat-dork, with a nascent interest in minor league prospects, I was quite taken with the lessons learned in Moneyball. It was early in season in 2004 and it was quite obvious that Kris Benson was going to be traded by the Pirates at some point that season. At the time, there were three high-end 3B prospects in the minors (Dallas McPherson from the Angels, Andy Marte from the Indians, and David Wright from the Mets) and I hoped that the Pirates could get one for Benson.

So on one sunny May day, the previous IT guy at my job and I went to lunch at the Smallman Street Deli. We're just finishing up our fantastic sandwiches when in walks in the hair gelled-one himself, Dave Littlefield, and a small entourage of other front-office types.

"That's Dave Littlefield," I said to the redneck-tinged IT guy.
"Who's that?" said the IT guy. If he was a NASCAR driver, he would have known.
"He's the GM of the Pirates. I'm going to talk to him."

DL had ordered and was waiting in line so I approached him cautiously. He was way bigger than I thought, at least 6'-3" or 6'-4". He had on a well-cut navy blue pinstriped suit with a gray shirt. And, of course, the hair was perfect.

"Mr. Littlefield?"
He turned with a pleasant enough look on his face. It wasn't the countenance of a person you would expect to be synonymous with "incompetance" by the end of his tenure.
"I wanted to know if you had read Moneyball and, if so, what you thought of it?"

He seemed amused.
"Yeah, I read it. It sure is easier to run a franchise and have a book written about you when you have Mulder, Zito, and Hudson in the rotation."
Wow. I guess DL was going to wash his sandwich down with a warm glass of sour grapes.

"OK, but are there any philosophies in there that you found interesting enough to adopt?" I asked.
"There's some things in there that we already do," he answered. No you don't, I thought.

I decided to change tack, like an expert sailor on the high seas.

"I know you're going to trade Benson. The Angels need a pitcher. You should ask them for McPherson."
He sort of chuckled.
"There's no way the Angels will give him up."
"They should if they want a chance to win the AL," I answered. "Look, the Pirates desperately need a 3B after you traded Ramirez and there are 3 guys...Wright, Marte, and McPherson...who are going to be stars." I didn't mention "after you traded Ramirez in one of the worst trades in Pirates history".

We went back and forth for a minute or two until his sandwich was ready and I bid adieu. At that time, I didn't quite realize how awful of a GM he was. He was still riding the Jason Bay-Oliver Perez trade which looked like a huge coup for the Pirates. That was the last time I ever had a chance to speak person-to-person with Littlefield, but that day made quite an impression on me.

History would show that of those 3 high-end prospects, only David Wright would succeed. McPherson had debilitating back problems and strikeout issues, while Andy Marte (ironically currently the AAA starting 3B for the Pirates farm team) just never amounted to anything in the majors.

The Scourge of the Pirates would last for 3 additional seasons until the end of the 2007 season, which was one of the worst single GM'ing displays in a single year. It's only now in May 2011 that I feel good days are ahead for this franchise.


  1. Ahhh, the Homonculus of Hairspary. I'll bet where ever his is now, he has at least one of his hands down Jim Hendry's thong(That's right, I just accused Jim Hendry of wearing a man-thong. What of it?).

    I want to hate him, I really do.....but that hair is simpy just too awesome.

  2. Dale Berra's StashMay 12, 2011 at 7:46 AM

    Conversation from July 2003:
    Dave Littlefield : If I make this Ramirez trade with you, they'll fire me. Will you promise me a job?

    Jim Hendry: Are you kidding? No one's paying attention to what you do. It could be 4 years before they notice.

    DL: Right, but just in case.

    JH: OK. You can be a pro scout, help adjust my man thong, assist me in waiver claims....

    DL: Whoa, whoa. Back up. What was that second one?

    JH: Waiver claims?

    DL: No. Before that.

    JH: thong...yeah, I wear one. Do you want a job or not?

    DL: (sigh) All right.