Pirates Fire Gene Lamont

Monday, October 2nd 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

PITTSBURGH (AP) — Gene Lamont couldn't catch the St. Louis Cardinals with two injured starting pitchers and rookies at third base and outfield who couldn't last the season.

The next manager of the Pittsburgh Pirates will carry an even heavier load — the pressure of fielding a winning team in a brand-new ballpark.

The Pirates fired Lamont Monday after the team finished 69-93 and fifth in the National League Central, 26 games behind the Cardinals. Lamont said a second-place finish in 1997 created expectations that proved impossible to meet.

``It was fantastic the way things happened, but it was kind of a mirage, really,'' he said.

The firing — technically a decision not to renew Lamont's four-year contract — had been rumored since June, despite the manager's popularity with some players.

Pirates catcher Jason Kendall said the folksy Lamont is ``like another Dad with me. I think everybody in this clubhouse hates to see him go.''

``It's going to be tough,'' said Kendall.

Also tough will be meeting general manager Cam Bonifay's goal of having a winning record in the Pirates' first season at PNC Park.

Owner Kevin McClatchy had said he wanted to take a winning team into the ballpark. Before the 2000 season began, he said the Pirates could win 90 games behind Kendall, Brian Giles and Kris Benson — a prediction he now regrets.

``You will never get another prediction from me as long as I live,'' McClatchy said. ``Should I have said that? Probably not. As for next year, I will not be in the prediction business.''

Lamont on Monday called 90 wins unrealistic, considering the loss during the season of starters Francisco Cordova and Jason Schmidt to injuries. Benson (10-12, 3.85 ERA) was inconsistent.

Lamont said he started Chad Hermansen in center field and Aramis Ramirez at third base this spring to season them for what he expected would be future playoff years. Neither stuck with the team, although Ramirez returned and hit two grand slams before a separated left shoulder ended his season on Aug. 28.

``I'd like to think PNC Park will help the Pirates,'' Lamont said. ``Look at Cleveland. They're a small-market team, and they were able to do it. It's never easy in a small market. I'd hate to think what would have happened if we didn't have Brian Giles and John Vander Wal this year.''

Lamont, who was 553-562 in eight seasons with the White Sox and Pirates, said extra fans in the seats keep players excited about the game. He cited the record crowd of 55,351 Sunday in a 10-9 loss in the last baseball game at Three Rivers Stadium.

``You could really hear the fans last night. The way it has been for a while, you could hear one fan at a time,'' Lamont said.

Both Giles and Vander Wal will be back next season. Giles has hit 74 home runs in his two years with the Pirates. Vander Wal came from San Diego in the Al Martin trade, shed the label of career pinch-hitter and hit 24 home runs in 134 games.

As for Kendall, Bonifay said ``odds are good'' that the Pirates will sign him before his contract expires at the end of 2001. The team has offered a six-year, $60 million contract, but Kendall objected to the delayed payment of up to $24 million of that.

``We are going to be aggressive. You'd like to see that situation resolved,'' Bonifay said.

McClatchy said a projected attendance boost at PNC Park should expand the Pirates' payroll by $20 million, including the salary for a new manager.

He would not name candidates or discuss whether the job would be offered to Dusty Baker, the Giants manager who is a friend of McClatchy's.

Possible replacements include A's bench coach Ken Macha, Nashville Sounds manager and former Pirates infielder Richie Hebner and Terry Francona, a western Pennsylvania native who was fired Sunday by the Phillies.

Bonifay said the Pirates will act ``quickly and decisively'' as they compete with teams also changing managers — the Phillies; and Cincinnati, which fired Jack McKeon.

``We have to win. Everybody understands that. There is no five-year plan. It's a one-year plan, and that one year is next year,'' Bonifay said. ``We are sick and tired of losing — period.''