by Justin Long, Associate Sports Information Director
(This article appeared in the 2008 Spring issue of the Amherst College Alumni Magazine)
For the Pittsburgh Pirates, 2007 was, to put it mildly, a disappointment. The team lost 94 games, capping off its 15th consecutive losing season. Looking to make changes, the management turned to Neal Huntington '91, who'd brought a unique philosophy and approach to the front offices of the Cleveland Indians and the Montreal Expos. On Sept. 25, 2007, the Pirates named Huntington as general manager—and asked him to completely reshape the organization.
Huntington introduced the philosophy of focusing on the development of the person as well as the player. "We work with players on learning abilities, discipline, work ethic, interpersonal skills and leadership," Huntington says, "to help them become successful after baseball."
Huntington's thinking originated from his own experiences, particularly while he was assistant director of player development for the Expos. After talking with a player who had failed his first drug test, and after witnessing Latin American-born players struggle to order food in U.S. restaurants, he began to fully understand that the men in his organization were not only baseball players—they were people facing life problems.
Huntington will not soon forget the day when he crushed a young player's dreams by releasing him after three and a half years with the Indians. "He wasn't getting any better as a player, but we kept him for so long because we saw personal growth in him," Huntington says. "His ability to interact with teammates and staff had improved dramatically, and we saw a noticeable change for the better in his attitude, demeanor and presence—he had more self-confidence. It broke my heart to release him, but when he left he proudly shook my hand, thanked me and vowed to make a difference in the world. We had just crushed him, and he thanked us—it was a very proud moment in my career."
It's easy to claim an interest in developing players off the field, but it is almost unheard of in professional baseball for a general manager to make that a core of his philosophy.Huntington says that players and fans often have a hard time believing that managers care about anything other than wins and losses. "In some cases, you get a roll of the eyes," he says. "But they'll believe you if you put your actions where your words are."
At Amherst, Huntington had a successful career as a first baseman, and was named to the All-America Second Team during his senior year. He received a master's degree in sport management from UMass Amherst. He worked for the Expos from 1992 to 1998 and eventually became special assistant to the general manager of the Indians. For his success, he gives much credit to great baseball minds like Dan Duquette '80, Dave Jauss '80 and longtime Amherst baseball coach Bill Thurston. Huntington admits that at first, he struggled with the demanding environment at Amherst. "[Thurston] was one of several people who supported me and helped me mature and make the adjustment," Huntington says.
The objective of any team is to win a World Series, and the Pirates are no exception. But Huntington wants more than a championship ring. "My long-term goal," he says, "is to look around the baseball industry and see successful coaches, managers and players who came through and were positively impacted by the Pirates' system."
With so much scandal and controversy in Major League Baseball these days, it's nice to hear about teams that haven't lost sight of what's important and that are making sure the game is played, coached, managed and respected the way it should be. It's hard not to root for a team like that.
Read more about Neal Huntington '91 and his work with the Pittsburgh Pirates
Chatting with Neal Huntington '91
On reshaping the Pirates' organization:
"Our mindset needs to be one that anticipates and expects winning and success, and I needed to bring in outstanding people to the leadership team. I want to work with people who share the integrity, passion and desire required to be successful. Certain personnel changes were difficult to make, but the way things were being done around here clearly wasn't working."
On the challenges that come with being a general manager:
"The most challenging element of the position is returning the pride and passion to this prestigious organization and bringing this passionate fan-base in Pittsburgh a championship caliber baseball team."
On the Pirates' leadership team:
"One of the primary reasons I made the number of changes last off season was because the organization lacked cohesiveness. As we assembled the new baseball operations leadership team, it was imperative that we expand beyond our comfort zone to attract talented people that understood and shared our passion for the pursuit of excellence. We have brought together a group of experienced and skilled people from a variety of backgrounds. Over the past seven months, that group has merged better than we could have imagined.We've taken significant steps to make sure there is cohesion. It's not about me and what I want—it's become what we want, and we've developed mutual trust and respect. We challenge each other and have disagreements, but we respect and listen to each other."
On defining success:
"On the surface, we will be measured by wins and losses at the Major League level. The true measure of our success will be the impact we, as an organization, have had on the people who progressed through our system. It is our focus to provide every person in the organization with the resources and the guidance to utilize the available resources needed to attain their personal and professional goals. Success will be the fulfillment of potential as individuals and as an organization."
On player accountability:
"We need to respect the game and carry ourselves in such a way. The players can't accept anything less than their best and they need to understand they are here to help a team win baseball games, not to have individual success. Guys who go about it their own way won't last very long here. This major league teams battles from the first pitch until the last. Our Manager, John Russell, and his staff deserve a lot of credit for creating an expectation of how we expect players to prepare, work and perform and for holding those players accountable. Additionally, we have added some quality veteran players (Doug Mientkiewicz, Chris Gomez and Jason Michaels) that have been in playoff caliber atmospheres that lead by experience and example."
On the team's identity:
"We are working on building an organization that plays the game the right way. We will respect the game and will never quit or stop working to improve. We will play intelligent baseball with a quality effort until the final out of the game. Offensively we need to be tough outs that grind through at bats and never give the pitcher a chance to relax. Defensively we need to play soundly fundamentally and protect the baseball. We expect our pitchers to efficiently and effectively attack the bottom half of the strike zone and make hitters swing the bat and hit a pitcher's pitch. Succinctly stated, we will work tirelessly to maximize our ability to perform at our highest level."
On the Pirates' streak of 15 consecutive losing seasons:
"The goal is to build and sustain a championship-caliber organization, not just get a 15-year monkey off our back. We want to restore pride to those who cheer and work for the Pirates. We're taking a young group of guys who will play better as a team this year. They didn't perform to their level last year, but we have the coaches in place to help get the most out of our players."
On the team's 22-24 start to the 2008 season:
"Overall things have been fine. Obviously our goal is to win every game we play, but we are in the process of building a sustainable championship organization and that is not going to occur overnight. Behind the scenes we have made tremendous progress in our systems and processes while working to develop our personnel in scouting and development. Successful scouting and development is the foundation upon which our future success will be built. At the major league level, the club competes until the final out of the game and believes it can win. The hitters are doing a good job of being tough outs and the late inning relief pitchers have been outstanding. We have some areas to build upon but we also we have others areas in which we need a lot of work. Taking a global perspective, we have some solid young talent but we need to add to the overall depth of talent in the organization."
On his time at Amherst College:
"I am certain that without my experiences at Amherst College, I would not be in this role. The academic demands in the classroom combined with the learning opportunities outside the classroom create a unique a culture of development."
On Amherst head baseball coach Bill Thurston:
"Coach Thurston remains the top pitching technician I have been fortunate enough to work with in baseball and the impact his program has had on me as a professional is on-going. He taught me how to play and respect the game properly. We had a similar background and he helped me through some tough times. I was able to keep my head above water and essentially excel, but he played a vital role in that. I would not be anywhere near where I am without Coach Thurston. He gave me the opportunity to learn and develop under him, and he has been a continuing resource—he opened the initial door for me. I feel that because of his support and through my hard work, I was able to meet and exceed expectations and prepare myself to tackle life's challenges after Amherst. I hope to have a fraction of the passion he has at his age."
Huntington was a .380 lifetime hitter at Amherst and is part of the winningest class in program history. The Class of 1991 posted a four-year record of 91-27, won two ECAC Championship titles, and was a perfect 13-0 against Williams College.