Winning the Curve's first championship and being named Eastern League Manager of the Year wasn't enough for Matt Walbeck to keep his job.
The Pirates informed Walbeck late Wednesday night that he would not be retained in any capacity by the organization, a decision that came as disappointing news to the Curve's skipper the past two years.
"I am surprised," Walbeck said by phone. "After having gone through a pretty solid year ... to have made improvements and helped develop players get to Pittsburgh, certainly I'm surprised. Of course. I did everything, I felt like, to help the club and the organization and was good for the community."
The Curve finished 82-60 during the regular season, won the Western Division title, then beat Harrisburg and Trenton in the playoffs for the first EL crown in franchise history.
The Pirates never gave any public indication over the past two years that they were dissatisfied with Walbeck.
Bucs farm director Kyle Stark did not return a phone message to explain what went into the decision but did respond in a text message that "We do not comment on internal personnel decisions."
Mirror beat writer Cory Giger weighs in on the surprising news:
This move just makes the Pirates look bad in so many ways.
Walbeck is a winner, plain and simple, based on his managerial record. He's also a good baseball man who -- and this is vital in the minor leagues -- understands how to develop his players on an everyday basis.
The Pirates, meanwhile, have lost for 18 consecutive years. Getting rid of a guy like Walbeck, for whatever their reasons may be, makes them look like they simply don't want to be around winners.
Not once in two years had I heard anyone in the organization speak badly about Walbeck. He could be a little quirky at times -- his postgame policy in 2009 of having the players sit at their lockers to reflect for about 10 minutes after losses seemed like something more suited for high school than professional baseball -- but Walbeck learned a lesson and that policy wasn't in effect this season.
I can tell you this: Matt Walbeck is one of the most professional people I have ever dealt with in 18 years in this business, 15 covering the minor leagues. You ask him a question, he answers it. You call him seeking comment, he calls back. You ask him to comment on a player who didn't perform well or a tough situation, he would give you a straight answer without a lot of BS.
This story broke around 9:30 last night, while I was finishing up some Penn State football work and designing pages in the office. We were on a tight deadline, which prevented me from doing what I will be doing all day today -- which is calling everyone I know to find out the truth of what really happened here.
Hopefully I can get people to tell me what they saw or heard. We'll see.
I will try Pirates executive Kyle Stark again, and also give GM Neal Huntington a call. Maybe they won't say anything, but they will at least be asked.
As it stands, this is very surprising and disappointing news, and the Pirates simply look bad for not being able to find a place in their organization for a guy who clearly knows how to win.
That's a big reason why they don't.
"We appreciate Matt's efforts and wish him the best," Stark added, "but felt like it was best to allow him to pursue other opportunities."
Walbeck called the Mirror shortly after speaking with Stark, the kind of professional, classy move that he frequently made during his Curve tenure.
"I just spoke with Kyle, and basically he felt I wasn't a good fit for what I wanted to accomplish," Walbeck said.
He was given no reason for the decision.
"No, not really," Walbeck said. "Just that it wasn't going to be a good fit. There were some things about how I have some aspirations and [am] highly driven and words like that, but apparently it wasn't going to work out."
Walbeck, who turns 41 on Saturday, had said at the end of the season he would like to move beyond Double-A next year, and his accomplishments as a minor league manager seemed to warrant that. He has now won three league titles and four manager of the year awards in six seasons.
Walbeck was asked if conversations with the Pirates ever got to the point where he was given a chance to talk about his desire to move up in the organization.
"No, it never got there," he said. "They made up their mind."
Walbeck went 62-80 with the Curve in 2009, marking the worst record in franchise history. The record, though, was not indicative of anything he did as a manager, and instead was because the Pirates had very little talent at the Double-A level.
That changed this past season as the Curve featured many players who had won a championship in Single-A, along with a wealth of pitching talent. Walbeck guided the club to a franchise-best 7-1 start, and it had the best record in all of professional baseball into July.
But it's been said before and will be said many, many times in the future: Decisions in the minor leagues are based on very different factors than those in the big leagues.
That's the only way one can explain how a manager with Walbeck's success would be let go, while at the big league level, John Russell remains in charge of a Pirates team that has the worst record in baseball at 56-102.
"I'm a better manager now, having worked for the Pirates and gone through a lot of good stuff, than I was before," Walbeck said.
"A lot of the stuff I gleaned from the Pirates actually made me a better manager -- leading on and off the field, and as far as working with the coordinators and knowing the Pirates' plan. I felt that I was very good at following through with what they wanted me to do and help developing the players in the organization."
He also was good for the Curve franchise.
"Matt Walbeck will always mean a great deal to the Altoona Curve," general manager Rob Egan said. "Obviously he managed here two years, brought the Eastern League championship to the Curve and city of Altoona and the region. And we will forever be grateful for that. A very good manager, and he certainly did great things in the community for us, as well.
"He was tremendous in working with community appearances, and he made himself and certainly impressed on the players what the Curve mean to the community and that it was important to give back. As a result, we had great participation from our players in the community."
Finding out early that he will not be retained actually helps Walbeck in that he will have more time to find a job with another organization. He will not have a hard time doing so given his managerial success and that he was a major league third base coach for the Texas Rangers in 2008.
His next job likely will depend more on what he wants to do than having to settle for just any position.
"I'm actually looking forward to the next chapter in my career," Walbeck said. "I want to be with a team that understands what I bring, and I want to add value to an organization that appreciates what I do. ... I want to be with a team that wants to win and develop and develop winners.
"I haven't managed in Triple-A yet, so I think that would be a good opportunity for me," he added. "Certainly anybody in my position would look at a major league job as an opportunity to get back to where they want to be. But there's one thing I haven't done, and that's manage in Triple-A. I think for development purposes that would be a good opportunity for me."
Cory Giger can be reached at 949-7031 and firstname.lastname@example.org.