Shelton reshaping Pirates' clubhouse culture

'I think you have to keep it loose, especially in Spring Training'

February 25th, 2020

TAMPA, Fla. -- If you’d have walked into the Pirates’ clubhouse at LECOM Park a few days ago, you would have seen and finagling with video equipment around the room so players could watch the Deontay Wilder/Tyson Fury fight as a group. Later in the morning, you would have heard cueing up blues music -- a departure from the norm, just to mix it up.

At one point, you’d have seen veteran lefty and other pitchers donning long blonde wigs to match the Twitter-famous flowing locks of relief prospect . Out on the field, you might see pitchers tossing around a football. Every day, you’ll find players gathered around a domino table, cracking jokes and getting to know each other.

This is the way it’s supposed to look.

“I think you have to keep it loose, especially in Spring Training,” manager Derek Shelton said. “We’ve talked numerous times about adjusting the culture here and making it fit to our coaching staff’s personalities, how it’s going to be and making sure guys realize they have fun and they do things with a purpose.”

It’s no secret that “fun” didn’t always describe the mood around the Pirates last season. There were three documented fights that exemplified the tension that came to the surface during a particularly tumultuous stretch of the club’s 25-48 second half, a skid that led to the Pirates’ offseason management overhaul.

It’d be easy to scan the headlines from last year and assume it’s a dysfunctional, in-fighting group. But that hasn’t been the case at all this spring.

Shelton and his revamped coaching staff set out to create a more positive, laid-back and open-minded environment in Spring Training. The new management team has encouraged players to take greater responsibility, and players have taken it upon themselves to improve Pittsburgh’s clubhouse culture as well.

“We understand the respect that needs to be shown for the coaching staff and management and people above us, but they’ve made it very clear that this is about us -- it’s our clubhouse, it’s our team,” Musgrove said. “We need to start taking ownership of our careers and policing each other around here and holding each other accountable. When everybody’s on the same page, it allows for a more fun, loose environment, which ultimately leads to a better team.”

Sometimes that just means remembering to have a little fun -- something Holland encouraged even for players like him who are competing for roster spots.

“I don’t want people taking this the wrong way, where I’m out here trying to goof off and have fun and not worry about it. Trust me, we’re focused,” Holland said. “It’s a long season. We need to be able to enjoy each other. We’re a family. We want to keep things loose in the clubhouse.

“I know what’s happened in the past. I’ve heard about it. We’re not going to let that kind of stuff happen. We’ve got a good group of guys -- a good, strong staff that’s going to keep these guys focused -- and I think that’s what it really comes down to. We really need to enjoy this.”

Kela, who was suspended last July following an altercation with director of cultural initiatives Hector Morales, is doing his part to “change the narrative,” as he put it. Kela has been upbeat and engaging, and he spoke Monday afternoon about making the clubhouse a more inclusive atmosphere -- respecting rookies so they feel like veterans, rotating playlists that appeal to different parts of the roster, things like that.

“I enjoy the clubhouse environment that we have right now. It’s really chill. It’s not lackadaisical, but it is chill,” Kela said. “You can just tell that what [Shelton] wants and what we want, is for guys to show up, get their work in and do their job when that opportunity comes. At the end of the day, that’s all that really matters. However guys go about their business, that’s what they’ve got to do.”

The Pirates also added a handful of well-regarded veteran influences, experienced players known for being professional, positive and candid -- Holland, and among them.

Dyson and Holland are two of the oldest players in the clubhouse, and they’ve each played in two World Series. Heredia, who has said he tries to create a “positive mentality and good energy” in the clubhouse, was lauded by Tampa Bay teammates for his energetic and emotional leadership last season.

“As we look to build depth within the roster and did some of that in free agency, you start with fit. There’s got to be a role on the team first,” general manager Ben Cherington said earlier this month. “Then, yeah, we looked and tried to think about the influence on the environment that guys would have, particularly in a time of change, which we’re going through. That was important to 'Shelty' and important to me.”

Of course, it's easy to get along this early in Spring Training. Nobody’s lost a job yet, everybody’s undefeated and hope springs eternal. Can the Pirates maintain this positive clubhouse culture whenever their first losing streak or significant obstacle comes along? They believe so.

“We’ve got really good chemistry, a good culture in this clubhouse now with our connection to the coaching staff and the front office. It really does feel like one team, one family,” Musgrove said. “Everyone’s comfortable talking to each other. There’s an open line of communication. There’s not a difference in the coaches and the players. We can all mesh and blend really well together, and I think that creates a better environment to work.”