CHICAGO — Fortysomething years into putting on a baseball uniform, and John Russell still enjoys it. Russell, with the same low, unchanging baritone voice he’s had since he was a kid in Norman, slowly listed all the charms of his job.
Each day a new challenge. The daily preparation of trying to get 25 players to bond for a common goal. Seeing the fruits of labor. The intensity of the game. "You never (know) what you’re going to get; I enjoy that,” Russell said. "Each game has its own personality.” Russell certainly has his own personality. Quiet. Stoic. Steadier than a cruise ship. Now in his third year managing the Pittsburgh Pirates, Russell hasn’t been changed by the stress and frustration of working for one of sport’s chronic losers. When Russell walks out to argue a call, his face unchanged, his gait unhurried, Pittsburgh writers sometimes will joke, "John’s livid now.” Russell, a 1979 Norman High School graduate and a star at OU in the early ’80s, doesn’t apologize for his self-control. "I try to be consistent, try to be even-keeled,” Russell said the other day in Wrigley Field’s visitors clubhouse, after a 4-3 loss to the Cubs. "Consistency is what you want out of players. If I’m inconsistent, it’s tough for your players to be consistent.” Trouble is, the Pirates are historically consistent. They’ve reeled off a baseball-record 17 straight losing seasons, and Pittsburgh is 19-25 this season. In two-plus seasons running the Pirate dugout, Russell’s record is 148-219. Of the 294 men in baseball history who have managed at least 320 games, Russell’s winning percentage of .403 ranks 281st. Managing the Pirates is a thankless job. But Russell is thankful for it and says the culture in Pittsburgh is changing. "We’ve shown signs this year,” Russell said. "We’re not a club that can be scoffed at anymore.