Minggu, 21 Agustus 2011

Signing Bell another homer for Huntington

Sunday, August 21, 2011

This was Friday, in the hour before an almost biblical rainfall soaked the North Side, and Pirates general manager Neal Huntington had moved to the shadows of a PNC Park conference room to take in a scene that should and likely will cement his future in Pittsburgh.

Uber agent Scott Boras was perched at a microphone, sweet-swingin' stud schoolboy Josh Bell sat next to him in a Pirates cap, and the air was thick with the smell of a $5 million gamble that a lot of smart people will tell you is no gamble at all.

"You know me," Huntington said of a job status that still doesn't officially extend into 2012. "I control what I can control."

Among all Huntington's hotly debated moves as the top baseball mind in a mostly listless franchise, none has packed the potential electrical wallop of the chain of events that led to this day.

It started with Mike Leuzinger, a Pirates area scout working North Texas and Oklahoma. Leuzinger joined the Pirates in 2004 after 12 years scouting for the Los Angeles Dodgers, for whom he signed a Mr. Matt Kemp.

Kemp, you may have noticed, was hitting .319 before the weekend in a summer that still is projecting to 37 homers and 117 RBIs.

"It would be easy for me to say that I knew Matt Kemp was going to be hitting .320 today with 20-plus homers," Leuzinger was telling me on the phone from Wisconsin. "I had visions of how high he could go, but to see what he's done, I'd be lying [if I said] I knew that would be the case.

"With Josh, I have expectations of him being a very elite player, but I'm not gonna compare him to anyone but Josh Bell, a tremendous young man from a wonderful family. I've been in and out of the homes of many, many players and I can tell you this one is different. He's very intelligent. Very respectful."

They were part of this scene, too, the elegant family, father Earnest, mother Myrtle, sister Joy. One look at them, a couple of sentences exchanged, and you knew the whole don't-draft-me-I'm-going-to-the-University-of-Texas thing was no ruse.

"We're academics," Myrtle was saying about her side of the family. "I'm a professor of management [University of Texas-Arlington] in the school of business. My mother was a professor at Southern University. My sister just got her PhD from UMass, and I've got multiple cousins at the University of North Texas and Johns Hopkins, so, yes, it was important to me that Josh get the best education, but the bottom line for me was what was best for my son."

So it was about the nature of commitment, because commitments come in all sizes. You can commit to eating a healthy lunch for a change, you can commit to a future at the University of Texas, and then you can back up a commitment with $5 million, and that's maybe a whole other kind of commitment.

"I can't tell you how many times I was back and forth," Josh Bell said on his first day in Pittsburgh. "But, when someone has that much faith in a player, you can't turn them down."

When the Pirates started building their draft board this spring, they wound up positioning Bell as the sixth-best player in the entire pool. The whole Texas scold-'em scenario left him available when they were on the clock to start the second round, and Leuzinger's words were still ringing in their ears.

"Mike did what a great area scout does," Huntington said. "He allowed us to believe in the Bells."

Leuzinger surely was gratified that the Pirates would walk out on this limb, and he wasn't surprised by the price, either.

"I didn't know it was going to be $5 million," Leuzinger said. "I didn't even know if he'd take $5 million. But he's a guy who's never been shy about what kind of player he expects to be and wants to do it sooner rather than later."

It's not just Huntington and his staff who think that with Josh Bell and No. 1 pick Gerrit Cole they have two of this draft's top-six talents. This Pirates draft has been described as a landmark haul on seam-head sites web wide.

It's the kind of bold stroke financially and strategically the organization tried to convince Clint Hurdle it was capable of in November.

"Absolutely," the manager said. "And I've been seeing it before this, too, from the acquisitions of Derrek Lee and Ryan Ludwick; I was copied on every conversation Neal had throughout the whole process, the ones who were hangin' and the ones that fell off. His commitment has been consistent. He's told me who we were and where we're going and how we're gonna get there, and he's stuck to it.

"He's showed me models of how we're doing things against how it was done in the past, and I've just been so impressed with the last three years."

It's time to give Huntington a shot at the next three. Maybe players like Josh Bell can take him from there.

Gene Collier's "Two-Minute Warning" videos are featured exclusively on PG+, a members-only web site from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Our introduction to PG+ gives you all the details.

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