Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Q&A: The big data that helped the Pirates finally reach the post-season

Pirates manager Clint Hurdle might have been a little reluctant to the analytic information he was receiving initially, but he was open to different thinking.(Gene Puskar/AP)

When Travis Sawchik started covering the Pirates for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review in 2013, the franchise had a longer stretch of futility than even the Blue Jays. Not only had the Pirates missed the postseason for 20 years; they hadn’t even had a winning record in that stretch.
Then, with 90 per cent of the roster returned and one of the lowest payrolls in the majors, the Pirates won 15 more games than they had the year before to secure their first playoff berth in more than two decades. Sawchik, like many other observers of Major League Baseball, wondered: “How?”
His book, Big Data Baseball: Math, Miracles and the End of a 20-year Losing Streak, aims to answer that question.
Desperate to improve, but without the financial might of bigger markets, the 2013 Pirates had to be experimental and open-minded. Without the cash to spend on sluggers, they focused on run prevention and three strategies in particular: radically increasing their use of defensive shifts, signing the best free-agent pitch-framer (current Jays catcher Russell Martin), and teaching their pitchers to become ground-ball machines.
But Sawchik went beyond the number-crunching and found a Pirates organization that cultivated a culture of collaboration and respect, where creative ideas could flourish between both the old and new schools.
Big Data Baseball reads like a sequel to Moneyball, Michael Lewis’s seminal book — later turned into a film starring Brad Pitt — about Billy Beane and the 2002 Oakland A’s, who challenged baseball orthodoxy in search of market inefficiencies. Sawchik didn’t have the same access as Lewis, but he similarly pulls back the curtain on the analytically inclined Pirates and the ingenuity with which they ended their 20-year post-season drought. But his book is also about how the flood of data in the last half-decade is not only changing how we think about the game, but also how it is played.
Sawchik, who still covers the Pirates for the Tribune-Review, spoke to the Star about the book, which comes out Tuesday. The interview has been edited for clarity and space
Firstly, the people of Toronto would like to know what the Jays can steal from the Pirates so they too can end a 20-year playoff drought?
(Laughs). Well, every team, except maybe the Phillies, have at least one data analyst, if not a small army at this point. So every team has information similar to what the Pirates have. I think the Pirates’ advantage was in getting this information onto the field.
There’s still somewhat of a barrier between the traditional coach/player and the front-office analyst, and I think the Pirates and (manager) Clint Hurdle deserve a lot of credit for creating a culture where there was collaboration and respect between both the new school and old school that allowed for some of these ideas to be implemented and adopted in Pittsburgh.
This wasn’t just a top-down conversation. The players and coaches helped refine the data. I think that’s where the creativity came from. It led to better questions and better answers and better information.
The Pirates’ collaborative culture seems to have been as much a key to their success as the strategies themselves. Why haven’t other teams been able to create that kind of alliance between the front office and the field?
Not every player bought in. A.J. Burnett, for instance. He hated shifts for the whole season. He had a very public blowup with shortstop Clint Barmes. But I think part of it was having the right players, like Barmes, who was open-minded. The coaches felt if they could get the middle infielders to buy in, they wouldn’t have a problem ratcheting up defensive shifts 500 per cent like they did.
I think it’s personalities. Hurdle and Dan Fox, the lead quantitative analyst . . . Hurdle didn’t trust this information at first and he didn’t trust Fox when he came aboard in 2011. But they interacted more, they talked about a lot of things outside baseball; they had similar interests in military history, they’re both pretty devout Christians. That allowed the trust to increase. Fox believes the more time you spend with someone the more trust you’ll have. They spent more and more time with each other and I think that allowed for the cooperation and collaboration to blossom.
I think that’s where personality comes into play. You can have the best data, but if you don’t have the right personalities and you don’t build a trust level it’s never going to see the field.
You write that Hurdle was initially resistant but it was a combination of “curiosity and desperation” that forced him to change. What about his personality led him down that path and not one where he dug in his heels and refused to change?
I think Hurdle, while he projects a sort of machismo baseball coach personality at times, I think he is also by nature a curious person. His office is always littered with different kinds of books. He’s a voracious reader. He really is a smart guy. I think he only had one B in high school and that was in driver’s ed.
So he’s a bright guy who’s curious and, I think, if he’s open to an idea that’s better than his, he’ll listen, he won’t just dictate. The great questions lead to the best answers and I think he was open to hearing questions that challenged his assertions. While maybe there was some initial resistance, that curiosity, that willingness to listen helped break down some of those traditional barriers
Similarly, a lot of the players didn’t buy in until they saw the data visually. Was that a breakthrough in terms of earning the players’ respect and buy-in?
That’s something that kept coming up when interviewing the players and the analysts. In spring training Fox and some of the other analysts would try to make themselves available to players and through those interactions and conversations they learned the players understood things visually very quickly.
That makes sense when you think of a major-league hitter who has to react to a 95 m.p.h. fastball and has done all this visual learning in his career. It makes sense that maybe this guy isn’t interested in a spreadsheet of numbers, but if you show him a heat map that might sink in more quickly and it might be absorbed better.
That was key. The more you can democratize the data, the better chance you can make an impact in the field.
Russell Martin was specifically targeted by the Pirates for his pitch-framing abilities and they went after him aggressively in free agency. What was his approach to the data?
Martin is an expert pitch framer, but he didn’t know his numbers. He didn’t know he was one of the best pitch framers; he just understood the process. It was taught to him, he had the physical gifts to maximize the lessons he was taught, and he’s just a good receiver. But he didn’t know he was worth 20 runs above average or whatever, he just knew he was good at it.
He was interested in data that made sense to him. He wanted to see what sort of hitters were panic hitters, which hitters would chase with two strikes, which hitters were more patient. He wasn’t concerned about every aspect of a player, but he was curious about some things he thought really mattered and he would run data on that.
He was still instinctual in terms of pitch-sequencing. He thinks that’s still important and I don’t think we’ve quantified that role as hobbyists or in the industry, but he thinks it matters.
Was it difficult to convince the Pirates to open up about their strategies, given how closely teams guard information these days?
They’re more protective about things they’re working on now. They’re not really interested in sharing some of the stuff they’re doing on preventative medical issues, trying to keep players on the field. They’re using some database approaches there. They weren’t willing to open up about their pitching workloads.
They were willing to talk about some of the behind-the-scenes processes, so I’m thankful they were able to open up to a degree. I’m also not sure we’re ever going to see another Moneyball situation, where a team gives a guy all-access for a period. We didn’t get that, but at least we did get some cooperation.
I wonder if part of that was because there was so much public outcry against this front office and against this coaching staff before 2013, so they wanted something positive, they wanted good stories, like ‘Hey, we do have a plan and we do have a process that’s working. We do want this story to be told to a degree.’ No one’s ever told me that, but I wonder if that’s also their willingness, a sort of self-preservation.
Today everybody shifts and there’s wider appreciation of ground-ball pitchers, and the Pirates no longer have Russell Martin to steal strikes. So what are they doing now to gain a competitive advantage?
I think they’re very interested in injury prevention. They had the fewest disabled-list days off last season. Part of what they’re really drilling down into is keeping guys on the field, efficient.
The Pirates mentioned this spring they were studying some NBA and NHL teams to look at how they rested players, what their rest patterns were. It seems like apples and oranges comparisons, but maybe there is something to learn about how to maximize a player’s productivity when he is on the field.
Statcast (MLB’s new player-tracking system, similar to PITCHf/x) is out there now and I think teams are probably going to be overwhelmed at first in terms of what they can glean from that. But I know the Pirates analysts are excited to get a better idea of their players’ true defensive value and that sort of thing. It’s going to be a ton of work done in those areas over the next few years, too.
I suspect those are two big areas of focus right now. I think over the last five years teams have spent over a billion dollars in disabled-pitchers’ salary, so if you could be 10 per cent better than the industry there it would be a big advantage to keep those guys on the field.

Sawchik hits a home run with 'Big Data Baseball'


By Michael Waterloo
michaelwaterloo@ldnews.com @MWaterloo_LDN on Twitter
May 19, 2015


Big Data Baseball, by Travis Sawchik, takes a look at the hidden values in the game of baseball. Submitted

It would be far too easy — not to mention lazy — to call Travis Sawchik's debut book "Big Data Baseball: Math, Miracles, and the End of a 20-year Losing Streak," Moneyball Part 2. Frankly, as great as "Moneyball" was, it's not on the same level of "Big Data Baseball" when it comes to the content.
"Moneyball" was terrific at explaining the value of on-base percentage (OBP) in baseball, which Oakland A's general manager Billy Beane used to find undervalued players.

On-base percentage — while still a better metric to use instead of batting average — is old news to the stat and sabermetric community. What Sawchik does is highlight the secrets to success by using hidden value for the 2013 Pittsburgh Pirates.

For a quick history lesson, the Pirates were the laughing stock of baseball for 20 years, as they endured the longest losing streak in North American professional sports. After two straight second-half collapses in 2011 and 2012, manager Clint Hurdle and general manager Neal Huntington were on the hot seat, knowing that they had to make 2013 a success, or they were out of a job.

When the Pirates hired Hurdle, a big part of it was due to the Pirates feeling he was a manager who would adapt from the old-school mentality of managing, as the book illustrates. After managing the Colorado Rockies, Hurdle had a brief stint with the data-heavy MLB Network as an analyst. The Pirates, a small-market team with a payroll consistently in the bottom 10 percent of a sport without a salary cap, needed to find a way to be competitive. It wasn't with an increased payroll, but it was by installing an analytic department within the team - a model that the Tampa Bay Rays used to lead them to success.

The secret for the Pirates, thanks to quantitative analysts Dan Fox, a former writer for baseball prospectus, and Mike Fitzgerald, a MIT graduate, was to get the most value out of their current roster by aligning their defense in shifts. Instead of having their infielders play in traditional spots, they would align them accordingly for each hitter based on his batting tendencies.

Sawchik describes the resistance that some players had, as it was breaking the mold that they've grown up with since they were kids. In spring training, Kyle Stark, assistant general manager, would put an X on the ground for the players to know where to position themselves. Fox and Fitzgerald would show the players proof that their idea worked, thanks to devices such as PITCHf/x and TRACKman.

Getting the fielders to buy in was one thing, but they had to get the pitchers to buy in, too, including stubborn veteran A.J. Burnett. In order to best utilize the infield shift, the Pirates went away from the straight four-seem fastball for their pitchers, and shifted — no pun intended — to having their pitchers throw more two-seam fastballs and sinkers, which had a downward trajectory to induce groundballs. Pitchers like Burnett and Charlie Morton bought in, and saw the results.

Burnett, for example, according to a chart in the book, threw his sinker just 13.6 percent of the time in 2011. In 2012, he threw the pitch 35.7 percent of the time, lowering his earned run average from 5.15 to 3.51. The importance of defensive alignment could be seen in Burnett's 2011 numbers. Although his 5.15 ERA was high, his xFip — expected independent fielding pitching, which takes into account factors out of his control, such as defense — was just 3.86.

The next step for the Pirates, with their limited budget, was to find hidden gems in free agency that fit the prototype they were looking for. Fox and Fitzgerald found two guys they believed would be perfect for what they were trying to accomplish — veteran catcher Russell Martin and veteran pitcher Francisco Liriano.

Martin's offense in New York with the Yankees left much to be desired, other than his power numbers, which were aided by a hitter-friendly ballpark. But the Pirates didn't want him for his offense. They wanted him for his leadership, throwing arm and his pitch-framing ability. Pitch framing, as Sawchik goes into great detail, is the ability for a catcher to get borderline pitches for strikes. It was another hidden value in the game of baseball that was overlooked by many, but not the Pirates. It's a skill that Martin used to make Jeff Locke — an average pitcher, at best — an All-Star in 2013. He also used it to revitalize Liriano's career, as the combination of pitch framing, an aligned defense, a wipe-out slider and a new arm slot made Liriano an ace during the season.

With pitch framing and defensive alignment comes saved runs. According to Sawchik, every 10 runs saved is equivalent to one win. The Pirates had a 93-run improvement in 2013, good for an increase in 9.3 wins. Using the wins above replacement (WAR) metric, purchasing a player in free agency with a 1 WAR costs $5 million. A player worth a 9.3 wins would cost around $50 million, but the Pirates were able to add that value to their team by shifting their defense and getting their pitchers to throw groundballs without spending an extra penny.

For Martin, in his two years in Pittsburgh, according to Sawchick, a Pirates beat writer for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, he produced a 9.4 WAR, which is worth approximately $50 million on the open market. The Pirates spent just $17 million on him, finding a $33 million value.

The Pirates went on to the National League Division Series, before losing in a decisive Game 5 to the St. Louis Cardinals. But it was a successful season for the Pirates, and the rest of baseball took notice. Teams throughout the league implemented an analytic department, and shifting was taking place in baseball more and more around the league.

"Big Data Baseball," published by Flatiron Books, not only appeals to hardcore baseball fans and Pirates fans, but everyone in general. Sports fans will understand and appreciate the model, while non-sports fans will be able to understand the basic principal ideas, thanks to Sawchik's clear explanations.

"Big Data Baseball" is a home run debut for Sawchik, and is a must-read for all, especially baseball fans.

Monday, May 18, 2015

Pirates stop 4-game slide with 3-0 win over Cubs


By Jay Cohen
May 17, 2015
Pirates stop 4-game slide with 3-0 win over Cubs
Pittsburgh Pirates starting pitcher A.J. Burnett throws against the Chicago Cubs during the first inning of a baseball game, Sunday, May 17, 2015 in Chicago. (AP Photo/David Banks)

CHICAGO (AP) -- The Pittsburgh Pirates needed another strong outing from their most consistent starter, and A.J. Burnett stepped up again.

Pitching Details

Burnett worked around five walks while pitching seven innings in his third consecutive win, and the Pirates stopped a four-game losing streak by cooling off the Chicago Cubs with a 3-0 victory on Sunday.
Burnett (3-1) allowed three hits and struck out seven while handing Jake Arrieta his first loss in six career starts against Pittsburgh. He has allowed two runs or less in each of his eight starts this year after losing 18 games with Philadelphia last season.
''Just trying to keep the ball down. I mean, that's it,'' Burnett said. ''Not get away from my game, try to keep to my strengths, no matter what the guys at the plate are trying to do.''
Burnett's seventh consecutive outing of at least six innings came after Pittsburgh used seven relievers in the series opener on Friday, and then Antonio Bastardo and Arquimedes Caminero for a second straight day in Saturday's 4-1 loss.
''He pitched with the will to win,'' manager Clint Hurdle of Burnett, who lowered his ERA to 1.38. ''Competed very, very well.''
Francisco Cervelli had a hand in Pittsburgh's first two runs after the catcher was shaken up in the fourth when he was hit in the groin by a foul tip. He had an RBI single in the fifth, and then singled and scored on Neil Walker's two-out double in the eighth.
''He's a tough man,'' Hurdle said. ''He's swinging the bat well. We liked him for a lot of reasons. You're seeing them play out right now.''
The Cubs had won six in a row and seven of nine. Rookie third baseman Kris Bryant was pulled after four innings, and the team said he was dehydrated.
''How can I possibly be upset right now?'' manager Joe Maddon said. ''It's impossible. We played well again today.''
Arrieta (4-4) also pitched seven innings, allowing five hits with seven strikeouts and one walk. He began the day with a 4-0 record and a 2.70 ERA in his career against Pittsburgh.
''It's one of those games where you feel like you won,'' he said, ''because you played fairly well, you were just unable to scratch across a couple of runs or get the big hit in that certain situation.''
Chicago's best scoring chance came in the fourth, when it loaded the bases with one out on two walks and Starlin Castro's single. But Jorge Soler looked at a called third strike and Chris Coghlan flew out to the warning track in center field.
Tony Watson escaped a jam in the eighth when Castro lined to center with two on, and Mark Melancon finished the five-hitter for his ninth save in 10 chances. Addison Russell bounced into a fielder's choice with runners on the corners for the final out.
Bryant went 1 for 2 before he was replaced by Jonathan Herrera on a warm, muggy day at Wrigley Field. He hit .455 (10 for 22) with three homers and eight RBIs on Chicago's 6-1 homestand.
DEFENSIVELY SPEAKING
Cubs center fielder Dexter Fowler made a terrific diving catch to rob Andrew McCutchen of a hit in the first inning. But Walker got Fowler back in the third, making a nice stop on sharp grounder to second before throwing to first for the out.
''When we play defense like we did today and get a pitching performance like A.J. put together, you're going to have a pretty good chance of at least getting (an) opportunity to win,'' Walker said.
TRAINER'S ROOM
Cubs: INF Tommy La Stella left a rehab appearance with Double-A Tennessee in the fifth inning. The Cubs said he aggravated the inflammation on the right side of his rib cage and was traveling back to Chicago for evaluation. ... LHP Tsuyoshi Wada (mild left groin strain) will come off the disabled list to start Wednesday at San Diego.
UP NEXT
Pirates: Following an off day on Monday, LHP Francisco Liriano (1-3, 2.96 ERA) gets the ball for the opener of a two-game set against Minnesota. RHP Ricky Nolasco (3-1, 6.38 ERA) goes for the visiting Twins.
Cubs: RHP Jason Hammel (3-1, 3.11 ERA) is scheduled to start of the opener of a six-game road trip on Tuesday night at San Diego. After three against the Padres, the Cubs travel to Arizona to take on the Diamondbacks.
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Jay Cohen can be reached at http://www.twitter.com/jcohenap

NHL should stop trying to slow down game


By Mark Madden
May 18, 2015

Canada’s Sidney Crosby, right, takes a shot at goal, next to Russia’s Dmitri Kulikov, left, during the Hockey World Championships gold medal match in Prague, Czech Republic, Sunday.



Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin, hockey’s biggest A-list stars, played for a B-list hockey championship yesterday in Prague.
In North America, the winner of the sport’s most coveted trophy is boiling down to who can block the most shots and be systematically superior.
Don’t hate the players. Hate the game.
These Stanley Cup playoffs might seem exciting because of the preponderance of one-goal games. Heck, that’s literally all the New York Rangers play.
But it’s not exciting hockey. Games are seldom decided by offensive flurries, though good goaltenders (read: huge goalie equipment) have something to do with that. Intangibles like “intensity” and “grit” are glamorized, but where’s the real glamour?
On Sunday, it was in Prague. If, Sunday afternoon, you flipped back and forth between the final at the World Championships and the Anaheim-Chicago game, the prevailing quality of the former was readily evident.
If you’re tired of reading this column over and over, I’m no less tired of writing it. This is not my vision of hockey. Skill should not be minimized.
Pittsburgh owes NHL commissioner Gary Bettman much gratitude because he fought to keep the Penguins in Pittsburgh. But when Bettman says the league is better off with a bunch of 60-point scorers instead of a few 100-point scorers, it shows utter disregard for the marketability of star power.
Coaches are to blame. Any coach has more influence than a standout player.
The NHL is reportedly considering outlawing the two-line pass again. The NHL began to allow passing from the defensive zone to the far blue line in 2005. In theory, that opens up the rink. Visions of breakaways danced in our heads.
But the coaches ruined it.
When that rule change was implemented, coaches quickly found a way to be conservative on both sides of the puck. On defense, they moved the trap back. On offense, they started utilizing that stretch-pass tip-dump that makes too much of a game fly by with teams on the forecheck trying to force a mistake.
Change that rule back, and the trap moves up. Just a different kind of dull.
Few coaches coach to win. Most coach to not get fired. None coach to entertain.
Even the statisticians fouled the waters. In 2005, blocked shots became an official stat. It gave jabronis a number to compile, to show GMs at contract time. Then coaches made it a religion. Using shot-blocking as “strategy” has replaced things fans want to see -- goals and saves -- with something people don’t care about.
Some of the things that slow hockey can’t be legislated out.
Some of the things that slow hockey won’t be legislated out.
The referees are never going to call the rulebook exactly as written on a consistent basis. Every time there’s a mandate for more penalties, it quickly recedes.
The NFL understands that it’s in the entertainment business. The owners determine the method of play. They’re tied directly to the bottom line. In the NHL, the GMs determine the method of play. Tight and close equates to more job security for them.
Hockey’s direction puts the Penguins in an odd position. What wins more in a boring, low-scoring league: Two superstars, or systematic excellence better strengthened through depth? Do you ditch your legacy to pursue bland success?
I never want to see the Penguins park the bus. I can’t see owner Mario Lemieux leaning in that direction, either. If that’s the price of winning, don’t pay it.

Mark Madden hosts a radio show 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WXDX-FM (105.9).

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Steelers RB Le'Veon Bell: 'Marijuana not an important thing for me'

Coley Harvey, ESPN Staff Writer
May 15, 2015
In his first interview since his three-game suspension was handed down last month after being charged with marijuana possession and DUI, Pittsburgh Steelers running back Le'Veon Bell said Thursday that he had no problems with the length of his NFL punishment, and that he planned on taking whatever other penalties were ultimately handed to him.
"I made a mistake. I'm going to just have to do my time, whatever the final decision may be," Bell told ESPN's Josina Anderson. "Get past it, and get ready for next season and continuing to be the great football player I know I can be."
Bell was suspended April 9 for an incident in August 2014 involving himself and then-teammateLeGarrette Blount. As soon as the suspension was announced, sources indicated Bell appealed the decision.
During his hourlong sit-down with Anderson for an upcoming piece in ESPN The Magazine, Bell said he hoped the December plea deal he reached and the subsequent community service he has completed might help reduce the league's punishment.
In February, he was sentenced to 15 months' probation in a first-offender's program. He was required to abstain from drugs and alcohol, complete any recommended treatment, pay a $100 fee and court costs and complete a safe-driving class.
Bell's attorney, Robert Del Greco, told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in February that upon completion of the program, he expected Bell's record to be wiped clean.
"I did everything that they needed me to do and I did it quick," Bell told Anderson. "So eventually that's going to be off my record. Obviously, like I said, I still have to do my time that they gave me, but if [the league] were to look into that and all the community service that I did and the classes that I had to take in eventually getting it off my record, that should be something that maybe they consider and help me knock off some time."
Bell, 23, and Blount, 28, were arrested Aug. 20 after a motorcycle officer in Ross Township, a suburb just north of Pittsburgh, smelled marijuana coming from a vehicle Bell was driving hours before a team flight to a preseason game in Philadelphia. Blount, who was later released by Pittsburgh and signed by New England, faced only a marijuana possession charge. It was eventually dismissed when he completed 50 hours of community service. He was suspended for the season opener.
The Steelers and Patriots will open the new season in prime time Sept. 10.
Calling this entire ordeal an "embarrassment" to his family, his teammates and himself, Bell said Thursday he has learned from it.
"Marijuana is not an important thing for me," he said. "It's something I easily can set by. If I wanted to do it later on down my life, I'll enjoy it later on. It's something that got me in trouble. Football is what I love. I love the game of football and nothing will come to jeopardize that."
Bell was the NFL's second-leading rusher last season, gaining 1,361 yards and scoring eight touchdowns. He also was Pittsburgh's second-leading receiver with 83 catches for 854 yards.
In addition to spending the offseason moving beyond his off-field incident, Bell has been rehabbing his right knee, which was injured in the regular-season finale against Cincinnati. The injury caused him to miss the Steelers' wild-card playoff loss to Baltimore.

Friday, May 15, 2015

Clayton, Steelers and 'Shouldergate'


Thursday, May 14, 2015, 10:42 p.m.
July 23, 1976; Latrobe, PA, USA: FILE PHOTO: Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Chuck Noll during training camp at St. Vincent College.

The New England Recidivists are getting what they deserve. Be sure of that. But let's not forget that outside of Foxborough, Mass., there are 31 NFL cities where home teams reside in glass houses.

Everybody cheats.

Better said, every team has cheated. More than once. That would include the one that plays at Heinz Field and used to play at Three Rivers Stadium, where, on June 1, 1978, a cub reporter named John Clayton — now of ESPN fame — broke a story in The Pittsburgh Press titled, “Steelers' Secret Slips Out.”

Did it ever. In fact, it was way “more probable than not” that the Steelers broke NFL rules, and powerful coach Chuck Noll was far more than “at least generally aware” of it.

A wonderful website called yourteamcheats.com reminded me of the incident. The site chronicles cheating episodes from all 32 NFL franchises. The Steelers, of course, have had a bunch.

Clayton's story began this way: “What secrets lurked behind Chuck Noll's closed doors at Three Rivers Stadium?”

The second paragraph answered the question: “Noll locked the doors of rookie camp to the media and was very selective about who could watch the activity. No wonder. The Steelers were holding contact workouts in pads, a violation of league rules which will probably result in a substantial fine.”

Actually, it resulted in the forfeiture of a third-round draft pick.

Then-NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle didn't need to launch an investigation to get to the bottom of what Clayton, in his story, termed “Shouldergate.” He only needed to look at the photograph next to the story — the one of Steelers lineman John Banaszak wearing shoulder pads!

The modern equivalent would be a shot of Tom Brady sticking a needle into a football before a game.

Clayton, then 24, remembers how quickly the storm gathered. Born in Braddock and a graduate of Duquesne, he didn't need anyone to tell him how big the Steelers had become after winning two Super Bowls. Or how such a story might infuriate the masses.

When it broke, Clayton went from Barely Regarded to Most Wanted. Fans called the newspaper and threatened to break his limbs. Or worse.

Clayton remembers iconic talk-show host and team broadcaster Myron Cope ripping him on the air. One day, Cope fielded a call from an irate fan who knew Clayton well.

“My mother called up Myron,” Clayton recalled Thursday. “She said, ‘I agree with you. He shouldn't have done that.' ”

At first, Clayton hadn't realized the Steelers were breaking NFL rules. One defensive lineman mentioned he was sore from practice and another — rookie Randy Reutershan from Pitt — said hard pads irritated his sunburned shoulders.

But it wasn't until Banaszak, a veteran, asked Clayton to help remove his shoulder pads that alarm bells went off. It remains the only time in a career spanning parts of five decades that Clayton had a player ask for such assistance. He maintains it was because Banaszak wanted the story out.

Clayton called the league offices to check on the rule.

“Within five minutes, the Steelers called and said, ‘You can't report we practiced in shoulder pads,' ” he remembered.

The irony, Clayton said, is that it was the Steelers who wanted the no-pads rule because “they felt the Raiders were having offseason practices.”

He felt bound by duty to write the piece.

Noll went ballistic. Clayton went on vacation. It was a preplanned trip. He and Noll never did discuss Shouldergate though, according to Clayton, they developed a cordial relationship when Clayton became a beat writer and later went national.

Had Twitter been around, Clayton might have suffocated under an avalanche of hate tweets. The phone messages were bad enough.

And when he returned from vacation, he discovered he'd been temporarily barred from the Steelers facility.
A few months later, Clayton recalls walking toward the stadium and running into a rather important person: legendary Steelers owner Art Rooney. The Chief.

The encounter could have gone poorly. It did not.

“The Chief looks at me and says, ‘Hey, I heard they were kind of rough on you,' ” Clayton recalled. “Then he said, ‘You done good, kid.' ”

Joe Starkey co-hosts a show 2 to 6 p.m. weekdays on 93.7 FM. Reach him at jraystarkey@gmail.com.


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