Monday, August 28, 2006

Faneca, Ward and Townsend have endured the good and the bad

Monday, August 28, 2006
By Ed Bouchette, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

They are defending Super Bowl champs now. One, a Super Bowl MVP. Another, one of the most-decorated offensive guards in football. A third, the late bloomer, a starting cornerback who played well enough to hold off two young second-round picks.

Hines Ward, Alan Faneca and Deshea Townsend are at the top of the NFL world as they prepare to help the Steelers defend their championship. Yet, they remember when things weren't going so well in Pittsburgh, when they were so far near the bottom they could not see the top.

They are the '98ers, a trio of players remaining from the draft eight years ago. Two are 30 years old, one is closing in on it. They joined the team when it was on a roll, having barely missed a Super Bowl visit three months before they were drafted. Bill Cowher had coached each of his first six Steelers teams into the playoffs, tying a coaching record held by Hall of Famer Paul Brown. Three of those teams reached an AFC championship game, and one a Super Bowl.
There was no reason to believe it would ever stop.

"You had to think, 'Hey, we're coming to a good situation,' " Townsend said. "You know you're going to a good organization, the championships they've won, Mr. Rooney and how they run their organization."

But in the '98ers' rookie year, the Steelers lost their final five games and finished 7-9. Then things turned poorly. They lost seven of their final eight in 1999 and plummeted to 6-10. Tom Donahoe, the director of football operations and the man who drafted them, was fired after that season. In minicamp that June, an ugly brawl broke out in their locker room. They lost their first three games of 2000 and missed the playoffs for a third consecutive year.

Townsend and Ward, roommates, looked at each other and wondered if they hadn't jinxed the team that drafted them.

"Me and Hines said, 'Man, we must be the reason we're losing,' " Townsend said.

Chuck Noll often noted that steel must go through fire to be strengthened, and the heat was relentless on the Steelers, particularly for the '98ers, who celebrated going to such a successful organization only to wonder what had happened after their first three years.

Looking back now, from atop the perch that includes a 15-1 2004 season and the franchise's first Super Bowl victory in 26 years, one thing the '98ers learned early in their NFL careers is that nothing can be taken for granted.

"I think you appreciate it more when you've been there in the bad times," Faneca said.

The rookie trio did not think the club was in disarray as the 1998 season began, but there were omens. Offensive coordinator Chan Gailey left the team late to become head coach of the Dallas Cowboys. Cowher, no doubt to his everlasting regret, invited quarterback Kordell Stewart to have input on the new coordinator. The hiring of Ray Sherman, whose play-calling duties were usurped by Cowher late in his only season on the job, set Stewart and the offense back through two fired coordinators before Mike Mularkey righted things in 2001.

Yancey Thigpen, the team's best receiver, left in free agency before '98 and an aging Courtney Hawkins tried to replace him. Safeties Carnell Lake and Darren Perry were on their last legs and final season with the Steelers. Linebacker Greg Lloyd was injured, angry and released that summer.

There was more, but there was something bubbling below the ruins of the Steelers' long playoff run. A foundation sprouted that would bring the team back in the new century, starting with Ward, Faneca and Townsend.

"At the time, we were just going through, I guess, a transition stage," Ward said. "We lost a good deal of our veteran guys. It was just a matter of rebuilding. We were going through some new coaches. It was hard overall just to get everyone on the same page.

"And throughout the draft, we started to build our team. The '98 class -- me, Faneca, Deshea -- it kind of went from there. The next year was Joey and his class and as we grew and evolved into our own, we had a pretty good ballclub."

Joey Porter and Aaron Smith in 1999, two more future Pro Bowl players. Another in 2000, Marvel Smith, along with Clark Haggans. Another in 2001, Casey Hampton. The talent restocking that ultimately would bring a Super Bowl victory had begun.

"The one thing about coach Cowher, he stayed the same throughout," Townsend said. "He's been very consistent. That's one thing I'll say if anybody asks me about him is how consistent he is.
"Sometimes when you go through changes, things happen. But the one thing about it, we kept the same focus, did the same things and worked our way out of it."

Not before rock bottom arrived in June 2000. In their final days practicing at Three Rivers Stadium (they moved to the South Side that fall), an ugly fight broke in the locker room in minicamp. It started between linebacker Earl Holmes and halfback Richard Huntley and spread with players swinging wooden chairs and threatening each other.

When the Steelers began the season 0-3, it only seemed to confirm that they had disintegrated.

But, "guys just kept working," Townsend said.

They won five in a row and finished 9-7. They followed by making the playoffs four of the next five seasons, including three AFC title games and one Super Bowl victory.

Starting Friday, the Steelers gear up for a run at a second consecutive championship, knowing through experience that past results do not guarantee future returns but that eight years later the foundation is stronger.

(Ed Bouchette can be reached at or 412-263-3878.)

Sunday, August 27, 2006

When it comes to self-motivation, Ward has no peers

Sunday, August 27, 2006
By Ron Cook, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Can you picture Terry Bradshaw saying something like this in his prime?

"Don't forget about me."

Can you imagine this from Lynn Swann or any of the other Super Bowl heroes the year after they are named MVP in the big game?

"The young wide receivers on this team are good. Nate Washington, Santonio Holmes, Willie Reid ... They're spectacular players and they're going to do great things. But don't forget about me. I'm still a playmaker. I haven't lost that yet. Yeah, I might be a little older, but I'm no less of a ballplayer."

Do we really need that reminder from Hines Ward?

Of course not.

But I'm here to tell you that hearing it from Ward last week was a beautiful thing.
Not because he has anything to prove.

Because he has done the impossible and found a new way to motivate himself even as he stands on top of the NFL world as the Super Bowl MVP.

Ward's hamstring injury, which has left much of Pittsburgh in a collective hysteria, might turn out to be the best thing to happen to the Steelers this season.

It's OK that Ward might be the most insecure Super Bowl MVP in history. He needs that motivation to be successful. He needs to believe he's the underdog. "I've always played with a big chip," he said. "I have to play with a big chip."

Early on, Ward felt he had to prove he belonged in the NFL after being a third-round draft pick.
Later, he had to show he could start on a team that drafted wide receivers Troy Edwards and Plaxico Burress in the first round. Then, he had to prove he could make the Pro Bowl. After that, he had to show he could get the big money. Then, he had to prove he was worth the big money.
All of it took Ward to extraordinary heights.

But what's left after you kiss the Vince Lombardi Trophy and they name you the Super Bowl MVP?

Thank goodness for that hammy problem.

That doesn't mean it's not a real injury, even a potentially serious one. Ward couldn't play in the Steelers' first three exhibition games and almost certainly will miss the final one Thursday night against Carolina. He said the injury is different than his hamstring injury last season. He had to miss the Jacksonville game -- the only regular-season game he has missed in his eight-year career -- but came back to play the next week.

"I thought it would be the same this time -- miss a week and then come back -- but it's in a different spot," Ward said. "When I cut, I feel it. I know there's nothing torn in there or even pulled. It's just a strain. That's what's so frustrating, that something so minor can be so painful."

There's no question Ward's injury is legitimate.

Just don't be surprised if opposing teams end up paying for it.

Ward has convinced himself there are people out there who think his injury is a signal he's breaking down now that he's 30.

"That's ridiculous," he said, fairly spitting out the words. "I don't see any of my skills fading. It's not like I've gotten slower. My game has never been predicated on speed, anyway. I can still get open and still make plays for you. I've gotten open out here [at training camp] on one good leg."

Ward also has convinced himself people are saying that maybe he spent too much time celebrating in the offseason and not enough training.

Yes, he traveled the world, he said. But he always found a way to work out.

"I'm lighter now than I've ever been. I'm 205 pounds. I played at 210-212 last season."

Maybe most significantly, Ward has convinced himself that people are wondering if he has lost his passion now that he has enjoyed the ultimate success.

"I hear 'em ask, 'What's his motivation?' I'll tell you what it is. I want to win another one." Then, later, "They ask, 'What's his motivation?' Well, watch me. I'll show you. I'm just as hungry as ever. I don't want to be a guy who had some success and let it slip away."

If you saw the look in Ward's eyes, you'd believe him.

That's why it's hard to think Ward won't be ready for the Steelers' regular-season opener against Miami Sept. 7. This is a guy who long has been the ultimate gamer. He's always done whatever it takes to play. Last season, he said he took repeated pain-killing injections to play with his hamstring injury. "I played in the Super Bowl with a sprained shoulder joint," Ward said. "I fell on it in practice the Friday before the game. Saturday was ice and treatment all day. Sunday was shoot it up and play."

That game turned out OK.

The guess here is this season will go pretty well for Ward, too.

Maybe his game will suffer a bit until he gets his timing down with Ben Roethlisberger. But he has played enough with Big Ben to think that won't be a serious problem. It's safe to say he'll still be the first guy Roethlisberger looks for.

Ward said he can't wait.

"Once I do get out there, I'm going to catch a lot of balls and make a lot of plays and knock some people's heads off."

On Sept. 7?

"On Sept. 7," Ward said, steely.

Bad hammy? What bad hammy?

(Ron Cook can be reached at or 412-263-1525. )

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Malkin earns Crosby's admiration in a hurry

Wednesday, August 23, 2006
By Shelly Anderson, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Having turned 19 earlier this month, Sidney Crosby is too young to remember the days of hockey stars defecting from Eastern Bloc countries to play in the NHL. But he has heard the stories.

The Penguins' star got a sense of the old days by tracking the events surrounding soon-to-be teammate Evgeni Malkin, the hulking Russian center whose trip from Magnitogorsk this summer has been immersed in tension and foreign intrigue.

For Crosby, it provided not only a history lesson, but also some insight to Malkin.

"I can't imagine [going through that], but I know that for anyone who has a dream of playing in the NHL and a passion to play, this is the league you want to be in. For him, that's the way it is," Crosby said yesterday between sessions of the Penguins' youth hockey school, where he served as a special guest instructor at the RMU/Island Sports Center on Neville Island.

"I think when you get that opportunity, you're willing to do whatever it takes and take those risks to get here. It shows that he wants to be here. He went through a lot of adversity to get here, so, when he does come, I think he's going to want it bad and want to play well and expect a lot of himself.

"That's only going to make everyone around him better."

Crosby has the same agent as Malkin, Pat Brisson, and got a little bit of the inside scoop on Malkin's journey -- being pressured late one night into signing a new contract with Metallurg, then slipping away from the team in the Helsinki airport and hiding in that city until he got a visa last week and flew to Los Angeles, where he has been working out.

"It showed a lot of guts for him to go through that and come over here," Crosby said. "I'm just looking forward to having him here and making him feel as comfortable as possible."

Crosby, the top overall pick in the 2005 NHL draft, is a year younger than Malkin, the second overall pick in 2004. Although he had intense scrutiny as a rookie, Crosby led the Penguins with 39 goals, five of them game-winners, and 63 assists for 102 points.

He had advantages Malkin won't have, such as speaking English (and French) and growing up in a North American culture.

Nevertheless, once the Penguins sign Malkin, the two centers could help give the Penguins a couple of formidable forward lines.

"If we're both at our best and if both lines are at their best, it's going to be tough," Crosby said.
Crosby is eager to get into training camp and see Malkin there.

"I can't wait," he said. "I've played against him and seen him play a lot. I'm just looking forward to getting out there and learning from him, too. Hopefully, we can build some chemistry and make some things happen out there. We're going to be a deeper team and a harder team to play against."

"I think the attitude coming into the season is [that] a lot of guys want to prove that we're a better team than last year. We all have high expectations. We know we're young, but I think we're coming in with the right attitude -- to start off strong and win."

Malkin will be one of many new faces, thanks to changes made by first-year general manager Ray Shero after a 58-point season that left the Penguins second-to-last in the NHL standings.
One of the new players is Mark Recchi, who re-signed with the Penguins after being traded to Carolina in March. Recchi and Crosby had a falling out over a locker-room incident. Recchi and Shero have claimed all was well, and Crosby confirmed it.

"Things happen," he said. "We just have to make sure we move forward. That's the most important thing."

Crosby's stop in Pittsburgh will be brief. Under the NHL's collective bargaining agreement, he can't be compensated, so he paid his way here and donated his time at the youth camp.
On the ice, he smiled nonstop while encouraging the budding players ages 5-17.

"I can remember being 6, 7 years old, Brad Richards [of Tampa Bay] taught me at a hockey school, and now I play against him," Crosby said. "It's kind of funny how things work like that. You always remember those times in your life when you meet people like that. To be able to do it here is nice."

He will return to his hometown in suburban Halifax, Nova Scotia, briefly before heading to Rimouski, Quebec, where he played junior hockey and where he and several other pros will work out before training camps open next month.

After playing in the world championships and vacationing in Europe, Crosby felt like he didn't have a terrifically long offseason.

"It wasn't much of a vacation," he said.

(Shelly Anderson can be reached at or 412-263-1721. )

Sunday, August 20, 2006

Karen Price: Malkin Finally Out in the Open

Additional Stories
Metallurg: Pens engaged in 'sports terrorism'
Agent mum on Malkin's whereabouts
Gonchar: Malkin probably pressured
Malkin files resignation letter
Malkin mystery ends; he skates in LA
Malkin search yielded few clues
Escape to L.A.
Steigerwald excited about Malkin
Gonchar: Malkin staying in Russia
Malkin flees Russian team
Metallurg says it'll take Pens to court
Malkin drama takes another twist
Agent: Malkin wants to be in Pittsburgh this season
Junker: Talented Malkin skating on thin ice
Malkin fires agents -- again
Pens, Malkin's agent opening talks

The Malkin file:
Who: Evgeni Malkin
Born: July 31, 1986, Magnitogorsk, Russia
Position: Center
Height: 6-3
Weight: 186
Drafted: 2nd overall, 2004
Shoots: Left

Karen Price
Sunday, August 20, 2006

SANTA MONICA, Calif. -- Evgeni Malkin sat back in the lobby of his luxury beachfront hotel overlooking the Pacific Ocean on Saturday.

He couldn't be farther from the life he left behind in dramatic fashion earlier last week, escaping from his Russian team and life in the tiny, Siberian industrial town of Magnitogorsk. He also couldn't be farther from his family, friends and culture.

Two weeks ago, the Russian hockey star and Penguins top prospect was pressured into signing a new contract with his Metallurg Magnitogorsk in the middle of the night. It was a decision that drove him to tears and a decision that, in the hours immediately following, he knew he couldn't live with.

After his team arrived in Finland days later for a tournament, Malkin fled, hid out in an apartment in Helsinki with his agent and an interpreter while awaiting his visa and finally made it to the United States on Wednesday.

Now he waits under sunny California skies to see what legal drama might unfold as a result of his actions. It wasn't what he wanted to do, but it was what he had to do in order to realize his lifelong dream of playing in the NHL.

Yesterday, Malkin told his story to the Tribune-Review through interpreter Olga McQueen, a native Russian who lives in Vancouver and is working for Malkin's agents, Pat Brisson and J.P. Barry.

"Definitely I never expected anything like that to ever happen to me, but life is full of surprises, good and bad, and this is one of those times," Malkin said. "This is life. Sometimes you have to accept things the way they go or try to alter your situation."

When Malkin disappeared from his Russian team on Aug. 12 and immediately went into hiding just days after signing a new contract, people from Moscow to Moose Jaw were stunned.

Why sign a new contract with a team only to leave them days later? And why flee the way Russian players had to under the Communist regime when the country is now free and anyone can leave at any time?

The story goes back to last summer when team officials made a verbal promise to Malkin that if he played one more year for them, they would support him leaving for the NHL and the Penguins in 2006.

But those same team officials had other ideas, and after a transfer agreement between the Russian Ice Hockey Federation and the NHL fell through on Aug. 2 of this year, it sparked a series of events that led to Malkin's dramatic escape to the United States.

With an easy transfer no longer a possibility, Malkin's then-agents, Newport Sports, took advantage of a loophole in Russian labor law that allows an employee to give two-weeks' notice and walk away from the job, even if the employee is under contract. But what Malkin didn't know was that, inexplicably, his Russian-based Newport agent had turned his passport over to the team.

When Malkin asked for it back, general director Gennady Velichkin refused to hand it over.
So while Malkin himself wasn't being held hostage, his passport was.

Malkin fired his agents at Newport and went back to Brisson and Barry, who represented him for several years up until June. They barely had time to figure out their next course of action before Malkin and his parents were "invited" to a 9 p.m. meeting with team officials at a lakeside business center outside of Magnitogorsk.

That was on Aug. 6.

Team president Viktor Rashnikov started the meeting and, according to Malkin, expressed "his point of view" and the team's interest in Malkin staying another year. But Malkin and his family said that they would not sign a new contract.

"I still wanted to play in the NHL this season," Malkin said.

Malkin said Rashnikov stood up, thanked everyone and left.

But it wasn't over.

Not even close.

Malkin and his family left the office and went outside where they were joined again by Velichkin and another team official who suggested they follow the Malkins home to continue "negotiations."

"They didn't want to give up," Malkin said. "They hoped very much that the contract would be signed at that point at our house."

By this time, Brisson and Barry, who knew the meeting was taking place, were getting concerned. They'd called the Malkin home at 11 p.m. and Malkin's brother informed them that his family wasn't home yet.

Later, McQueen, who was already working with Barry and Brisson, called the house and got Malkin's mother, Natalia, on the phone. She whispered that she could not talk, and told them that Magnitogorsk officials were there in the home, talking to Malkin.

Malkin's Russian advisor and ally of Brisson and Barry, Gennady Ushakov, was also there, but there was not much he could do to help. McQueen relayed to Natalia Malkin that her son had the legal right to get up and leave at any time. But although Malkin said he was never in physical danger, Velichkin was nonetheless pressuring the 20-year-old, preying on his feelings of loyalty to the only team he'd ever known, the town he grew up in and his country.

This continued from midnight until 2:30 a.m., Malkin said, until finally he couldn't stand it anymore and gave in. He signed a one-year deal to stay in Russia even though his only wish was to go to the NHL and play for the Penguins.

He went to his bedroom in tears.

The escape

Malkin felt betrayed. The team had nurtured him throughout his career and had always been there for him, but when he knew it was his time to be in the NHL, he realized they were concerned only with their own interests.

"After I had the contract signed, I felt so upset and I felt deceived by Velichkin," Malkin said. "I felt something had to be done about that, so I phoned J.P. the next day and asked him to help me to leave. I was so determined."

Magnitogorsk was scheduled to play a game in Moscow and then travel to Helsinki for a tournament. His team believed he was staying, and Malkin had to get his passport back in order to leave Russia. So Barry and McQueen planned to meet him in Helsinki, and when Malkin hit Finnish land, he snuck away from the team in the airport, met Barry and McQueen and the three went into hiding in a Helsinki apartment waiting for the U.S. Consulate to re-open so Malkin could get his visa.

He knew it was his only option.

"I was not frightened," Malkin said. "I was calm."

The whole time, Malkin was just blocks from his Russian team, and for that reason his agents hired security guards to ensure the safety of everyone involved.

At no time was Malkin in fear of any physical harm, he said. But he was worried about his family.

"I was very much concerned about my family because I expected Mr. Velichkin to start making phone calls and be not quite polite with my family," he said. "I was also worried that lawyers would start calling and contacting my family trying to get them to sign any kind of documents. Which has already happened. They received calls and were asked to sign papers."

But he knew it was his only choice.

Settling in

Malkin got his visa Wednesday and late that night he arrived at Los Angeles International Airport. Since then he's skated with a few current NHL players including defenseman Rob Blake and forward Anson Carter, dined on steak, found a favorite breakfast haunt in Venice and spent a lot of time swimming in the hotel pool under the warm California sunshine.

"I'm glad that I'm here," Malkin said. "I wish things could have been done in a different way, amicably. It's been a very difficult decision for me to make. But I knew that I had to do that. I do recall that Velichkin said if I leave that there can be a huge, huge scandal, which obviously has happened. But I do know that now that I am in the right place for myself.

"It was the only way, unfortunately."

Malkin's ordeal may not yet be over.

He will remain in Santa Monica with Brisson and McQueen at least through Aug. 28, two weeks after he again gave written notice that he was leaving the team. Velichkin has claimed that the faxed notification is partly illegible and has threatened to sue. While no lawsuits are currently pending, Brisson said that their legal team is forming its own plan right now.

The Penguins' top pick in 2004 (2nd overall) also still has to sign a contract with the team, although at this point that is considered to be a technicality.

But he's a lot closer to being in the lineup on Oct. 5 when the Penguins open the 2006-07 season against the Philadelphia Flyers than he was two weeks ago. And as much as the Penguins and their fans want to see that happen, Malkin probably wants it 10 times as much.

Otherwise he wouldn't have gone through all he did the past few weeks and then brush aside the suggestion that what he did required courage or bravery.

"I believe that anyone who would have such a dream to play in the NHL for a long time would probably have made the same step as I had to do," he said, "to follow the dream."

Karen Price can be reached at

Friday, August 18, 2006

Freddy or not, here comes last leg of batting race

Sanchez still swinging hot bat, but how important is title to him?
Friday, August 18, 2006
By Dejan Kovacevic, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

It is a Tuesday afternoon in Houston, and Freddy Sanchez is bouncing about the visitors' clubhouse inside Minute Maid Park. He has a hello for everyone he sees, a smile for all who acknowledge him.

And, invariably with each encounter, a favor to ask.

"Got any hits for me? I could use a hit."

He is not entirely joking, it would seem. He has gone all of 10 hitless at-bats, and it is driving him buggy.

For some hitters, 0 for 10 means a bad doubleheader. For Sanchez, it spells disaster.

That night, the hits return. The Pirates squeeze out only four against the Astros in a 4-1 loss and seldom achieve solid contact, but Sanchez accounts for half that total with a line-drive single to center and a double to right.

So long, slump.

"Amazing, isn't he?" manager Jim Tracy would say that night. "Nothing stops him."

That sparked Sanchez's ongoing nine-game hitting streak that has kept his season average atop the National League at .346 and, maybe most important, kept him sane.

"I feel like I should get a hit every time up there," he says. "That's what I want every time."
And not for the reason one might think.

"The batting title?" he replies to a question as if insulted. "No, that's not it at all. As far as I'm concerned, our team is playing some decent baseball in the second half, and that's what's most important to me. I want to go out there and get my hits so we have a better chance of winning."

Does he want it?

The temptation is to roll the eyes when an athlete says such things. Perhaps aware of that, Sanchez makes the point more emphatically when asked if the batting title is important to him.
"It's not. It's just not!" he answers with voice rising but smile intact. "Why should it be important? Tell me that. I don't understand that."

He is reminded that no member of the Pirates has won one since Bill Madlock in 1983. He is told that he could add to a franchise legacy in which nearly a quarter of all batting titles won that century -- 24 in all, eight by Honus Wagner -- belonged to Pittsburgh. He hears other names such as Wade Boggs, Rod Carew ...

"OK, I understand all that. I know what it means. But it comes to a point where you can only control half of what goes on. It's not something I'm really shooting for."

And how would he feel if he won it?

"If it happens, I'll just say that's great. It'd be wonderful. But it's not something where I'm thinking about winning a batting title when I go out there."

His coaches and teammates back him firmly on that.

"You're not exactly looking at a selfish ballplayer," first base coach John Shelby says. "For a guy who's supposed to be worried about the batting title ... well, he isn't worried."

Shelby cites a sequence Monday at PNC Park, where the Pirates had men on first and second, nobody out. Golden opportunity to crush a pitch right down the pipe.

Sanchez squared to bunt and placed a perfect sacrifice, drawing polite applause from the 16,279 on hand but also, no doubt, prompting many to wonder why it happened.

"That's what we were thinking," Shelby says. "I went into the dugout and found out he did it on his own."

"I shook my head, too," Tracy says. "But that's just how Freddy thinks. With him, it's team first."

Shortstop Jack Wilson, Sanchez's best friend on the team, confirms the batting title is far from becoming all-consuming. Still, just to be sure, he pulled Sanchez aside two weekends ago in Chicago, just after the last game of that 0-for-10 catastrophe.

"Freddy was furious that day, just because he wasn't getting hits," Wilson recalls. "Well, one of the things I reminded him about his goals coming into the season. You wanted to establish yourself as a major-league starter? You did that. You wanted to show you could play three infield positions? You did that. You wanted to hit .300? OK, well, unless you swing a Wiffle bat the rest of the season, you're going to do that, too. There's nothing to worry about."

Sanchez has, indeed, come a long way.

From a kid with a club foot, told by doctors as a young child he might not walk.

From an 11th-round draft pick by Boston, signed to a $1,000 signing bonus, then trapped behind Nomar Garciaparra on the Red Sox's depth chart.

From a year and a half of waiting out a relentless ankle injury that kept him from playing for the Pirates.

From learning in December that the team had signed Joe Randa to take his spot.

From opening April on the bench, then limited to seven starts in the first 24 games.

It was Tracy who kept him there, and it was Tracy who made him an everyday player once he noticed that .360-plus average simply was not going away.

Now, he is Sanchez's most unabashed supporter.

"Give the player the credit," Tracy says. "You saw where he was at the beginning of the year, how he carried himself, how he never complained. He's the one who put himself in the position he's in right now, and I couldn't be happier for someone like that to have a chance like this."

Whether Sanchez wants the batting title or not, Tracy is making no secret of how much he wants it.

Well, little secret, anyway.

On the day after the All-Star break, Tracy wrote Sanchez's name in the No. 3 spot of the lineup, rather than fifth or sixth where he had spent much of the first half with little protection. Now, Jason Bay would have his back.


Tracy grins.

"This could be something very special."

How does he do it?

A Sanchez batting title might represent a great defeat for baseball talent evaluators and instructors everywhere. And that is because they cannot pinpoint what he does at the plate.

Listen to Pirates hitting coach Jeff Manto:

"Freddy has such a simplistic style of hitting. There's nothing really to mess with, like a rhythm or form. It's all in his head. It's almost too simple."

Too simple?

"Well, I know it's a cliche to say he does things you can't teach. But Freddy really does things you can't teach."

Even Tracy, seemingly able to break down any baseball minutiae, punts on Sanchez:

"Somehow, someway, he gets the head of the bat on the ball."

Some hitters -- the Pirates' Nate McLouth, for example -- have ultra-mechanical swings. And theirs tend to be most pleasing to the eye of those inside the game. There is a plan, a precision, a consistent path that is followed. Even when hitters such as McLouth strike out, the elegant follow-through can be a beautiful thing.

Sanchez, in contrast, is the prodigy student who aces the algebra test without opening the book. He can pull an inside pitch with a two-fisted tomahawk or lunge outside like Manny Sanguillen to drop a cheesy single into shallow right.

Manto, pressed for more analysis, offers an attempt:

"Freddy has what we call an inside-outside swing. That's the basis for what he does. Other hitters do that. But from there, his bat can take all kinds of different routes to the ball. Whatever it takes."

The end result?

"Bat meets ball."

That sounds like the sole extent to which Sanchez analyzes it.

"All I'm trying to do is hit it here," he says, pointing to the head of the bat. "It's the hand-eye coordination. That's how it's always been for me. I've just always been able to do it. However I swing at it, that's how I swing. Wherever it goes, it goes."

It tends to go everywhere. Sanchez's machine-gun spray of a hit chart shows a virtually even distribution from left field to center to right, six beaten out in the infield, five over the fence.

As a result, as Manto points out, opposing pitchers are not the only ones guessing:

"How'd you like to have to position your fielders against him?"

Other matchup issues abound, if only because Sanchez has yet to show any obvious shortcoming.

He seldom is patient, but he bats .406 when swinging at the first pitch.

He falls behind too much, but he bats an above-average .233 with an 0-2 count and has struck out only 34 times.

He is .457 against left-handers, best in the majors, and .313 against righties.

He is .314 with bases empty, .400 with men in scoring position.

Got any other ideas?

And, for all the surprise that has accompanied his breakout year, these two most basic numbers show why none of this should be considered a fluke: His career average as a minor-leaguer was .318. As a major-leaguer, since joining the Pirates at the start of last season, it is .309.

Can he win it?

Sanchez knows the names. Assuming he wants to, he cannot escape them.
There is Miguel Cabrera, right behind him.

And Chipper Jones, fresh off a 4-for-5, three-home-run outburst Monday.

And Garciaparra, still shadowing him in a way.

Oh, yeah, and Albert Pujols, too.

Keep an eye on this one, as well: Atlanta's 22-year-old catcher, Brian McCann, has a .343 average that is close to Sanchez's, but he does not yet have the required 3.1 at-bats per his team's games. He should achieve that by season's end.

Sanchez laughs when asked to identify the prime threat.

"Are you kidding me? Look at these guys. Miguel Cabrera. Unbelievable player. Chipper, too.
Pujols. It doesn't take a genius to figure out that any of those guys can win it with a month and a half left. That's a lot of baseball."

Sanchez has some factors working against him:

* Twenty of the Pirates' remaining 41 games are against four pitching staffs that rank among the league's top six in lowest opponent's batting averages. That includes seven meetings with Houston.

* The Bay protection plan has not worked out as well as hoped. Because Bay is batting .242 with runners in scoring position, managers have intentionally walked Sanchez four times since the break.

* Only 13 batting champions in history have come from a last-place team.

* He never has been involved in such a race, where leader lists are old hat for most of the rest.

On the other hand:

* His name has been atop the leaders since July 3, so he has had some time to get comfortable there.

* No hitter has been more slump-proof. Since becoming an everyday player May 2, Sanchez has not gone more than two games without a hit. And he has topped .300 each month.

* Sanchez's .394 mark at PNC Park, where he will play 19 games, is 20 points higher than anyone else on his home field.

* He has an excellent chance to sustain his spot this weekend in Cincinnati. He has tortured the Reds like no other opponent -- 13 for 22 -- and will see them in the season's final three games, too.

And when that closing weekend ends ...

"Freddy can be the batting champion," Wilson says without hesitation. "No doubt in my mind. He just needs to be Freddy. Don't read the paper. Don't watch the highlight shows. Just relax, and keep having fun."

That is the plan, according to Sanchez.

So long as those hits keep coming.

"The way I see my goal right now is this: Whether I'm at .360 or .310 and I drop a little bit, I don't like that. I want to stay where I am. Once I set the bar for myself somewhere, that's where I want to stay. Maybe someday I'll realize that's not the bar, not where I'm supposed to be. But not right now."

(Dejan Kovacevic can be reached at )

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Dan Kreider Relishes His Unsung Role As a Standout Blocker

Thursday, August 17, 2006
By Ed Bouchette, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

There's not a team in the NFL that runs more than the Steelers; not in each of the past two seasons and none in total since coach Bill Cowher took over in 1992. This occurred, even though they manacle one of their backs.

You will find no rule that the Steelers' fullback cannot run with the ball, nor one that prohibits him from catching it. It's more a team policy, or coaching philosophy: You can't throw to the offensive guard and you won't throw it to the fullback, who also will not run with the ball.

The fullback in the Steelers' old offense, back when they won their first four Super Bowls, was Franco Harris, their most prolific runner and the player with the biggest reception in NFL history, nicknamed Immaculate.

The fullback in the Steelers' new offense, the one they used to win their fifth Super Bowl, is Dan Kreider. He carried three times last season. He caught seven passes, none immaculate.

It seems a paradox for the NFL's most productive ground game to have as its one constant in the backfield a runner who does not run. Since his rookie season in 2000, Kreider has lined up next to four starting halfbacks: Jerome Bettis, Amos Zereoue, Duce Staley and Willie Parker. He stood behind four starting quarterbacks: Kordell Stewart, Kent Graham, Tommy Maddox and Ben Roethlisberger, not counting the occasional start by Charlie Batch.

During that time, Kreider never had more than seven rushing attempts in one season. He caught 18 passes when he was overused in 2002, but his next-busiest season was 2004 when he caught 10. His most exhausting game as a runner happened Sept. 21, 2003 when he carried three times in Cincinnati for 13 yards. Add two receptions in that game for 7 yards, and it is the most he has touched the ball in one game, five times.

Yet not only does Kreider, 29, not complain, he relishes his role. And what is that? He blocks, mostly as the lead man for the halfback. He does it so well that few notice, including those who vote for fullbacks for the Pro Bowl. Like blocking tight ends, it's not the kind of thing that lands you on the cover of Sports Illustrated. But it helped deliver the Steelers a Super Bowl victory and plenty of yards rushing.

The Steelers consider Kreider, who stands 5 feet 11 and weighs 255 pounds, to be the best blocking fullback in the NFL, and that's good enough for him and them.

"I've always played this game to win," Kreider said. "I've always known my role on this team, and that is to be a lead blocker. Anytime you can concentrate on one thing, you can excel at it. I feel like if I can concentrate on blocking and be the lead blocker and we can run the ball successfully, I feel like that's a success for me. I don't worry about all those extras."

It has long been a joke that a Kreider carry is considered a gadget play, and now it's official. Kreider is one option on a slant play the Steelers list in a special section of their playbook.
"It's down on the trick plays as like Slant 14," Kreider said, laughing.

Yet to show how well he performs as a blocker, Kreider is the only undrafted player to win the team's rookie of the year award in the 22 times it has been presented, and he had only two carries that year. He began that season, 2000, on the Steelers' practice squad and got his chance because starter Jon Witman was in the throes of an occupational hazard for fullbacks, back problems.

Kreider has not experienced those difficulties nor the other common fullback troubles with the neck and/or shoulders. It's what often happens when your job requires you to constantly run 3 to 5 yards and slam your body into another large mass.

"Once you do it, you have a better appreciation for what he does," said tight end Heath Miller, who gave Kreider a Bo Derek-10 for his blocking ability. "It's a lot different when the guy you're blocking is 5 yards off the ball and has a run and go."

That craft displayed by Kreider, who grew up in Lancaster County Amish country, has become the horse and buggy of college football. NFL scouts have more trouble finding good blocking fullbacks because they're disappearing from the college game.

"Colleges are going more to the spread offense," said Kevin Colbert, the Steelers' director of football operations. "It's just the way college football is now. There are more multiple-receiver formations, so really the tight end and the fullback positions are becoming extinct."

That could prompt eventual extinction in the pro game, too, because of a lack of supply. But there might be a team or two such as the Steelers who will insist on picking through the thin talent for that one person they feel can handle the job, which comes with these bottom-line instructions from Kreider:

"It's a challenging position. You just have to go in there hard and hope for the best."

(Ed Bouchette can be reached at or 412-263-3878. )

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Gene Collier: Willie Parker's Feel-Good Story Has a Ring To It And a Brand New Cadillac

Tuesday, August 15, 2006
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

It was not yet the end of June, and Willie Parker had already been relieved of his Super Bowl ring.

The massive, sparkling chunk o' bling and the black box it came in rolled straight out of Pittsburgh in the dark of night, surfacing later in the trunk of a Cadillac in North Carolina, a showroom new pearl white Caddy driven by a man in the company of a woman, both on a mission of deceit, conspiracy, and, dare we say it, skullduggery.

But it's all good.

The driver was Parker's brother, Jamal, his companion Parker's sister, Kimberly, and the fleet Steelers' scatback was himself a co-conspirator, happy again to indict himself yesterday after practice at Saint Vincent College.

"My father worked in a factory and it was very tough on him," Parker said from beneath a layer of late afternoon sweat. "He had no college education, so he had no choice but the factory, and he worked there, I don't know, 30-some years I guess."

So Willie Parker Sr., a North Carolina factory worker who with his wife put four kids through college essentially to keep them from becoming factory workers themselves, was the greatly admired target of this delicious caper. It was all for him. The ring. The car. The love.

But it had to start with a lie, of course.

When they asked the 25-year-old who had just ripped off the longest touchdown run from scrimmage in the history of the Super Bowl what size ring he wore, Willie Parker stone lied.
"I told 'em 13 and a half," he smiled. "That's not my size. That's my dad's."

Oddly enough, there was precedent for this idea.

For a player whose 75-yard touchdown run against Seattle represented more than 40 percent of the yardage gained in his senior season at North Carolina, Parker had previously accumulated a surprisingly expansive collection of athletic jewelry. There was that Peach Bowl ring, for example, and there were two rings awarded him for whipping the Clinton Dark Horses to high school championships.

"I gave all my rings to my dad, so I felt there was no need to change up," Parker said.

He's not one to doubt his instincts, no matter that he pinballed all over the depth chart in college, no matter that he got to Latrobe just two years ago last month with about as much fanfare as a night sale at unclaimed freight. Undrafted free agents with anorexic NCAA resumes often prove to be pretty pliable in NFL training camps, but from the moment Parker got here, he has rarely taken a tentative step.

He has long believed in himself more than others have, and now it's time everyone caught up.
On this Latrobe lawn yesterday, every Parker stride seemed to be 5 yards long, his chiseled physique flashing in and out of creases and bolting free for another 40 yards just for the sheer joy of it.

He's back from his first season as a starter, in which he gained 1,202 yards, and if that looks less than wholly spectacular on its face, consider that Franco Harris gained more only once in a Hall of Fame career, and that in another Hall of Fame career, John Henry Johnson never gained as many. And for all the crying coming out of the Pacific Northwest on allegedly questionable officiating spasms that might have altered the course of Super Bowl XL, there was simply nothing that could be said about Willie Parker streaking across three quarters of the Ford Field floor in just a few thoroughbred heartbeats. When you're smoked, you're smoked.

But back to our story.

Parker's best laid plans for his father's surprise had gone off with some precision. Willie bought him a Cadillac, because he'd always loved Cadillacs, and arrangements had been made for Jamal and Kimberly to drive it all night to North Carolina. But then a snag: Willie Jr. got a good look at the ring.

"When I saw it, I knew I wanted it back," he said sheepishly. "But you know, I couldn't. It's such a good feeling now. I wish I could have been there to see him get it. I know he started crying."

Parker couldn't get out of Pittsburgh that week. Jamal and Kimberly pulled a theatrical delivery off perfectly, with Jamal telling dad that yes, this was his new car from Willie, but that he had just spilled something in the trunk. They brought dad over to open the trunk, and there was the black box.

"When I gave my dad those high school rings, my mom never felt left out because I guess she didn't think it was that big a deal," Parker said. "But now it's a Super Bowl ring and I guess she is feeling left out. But she'll get hers in due time."

Did I mention that he was confident?

(Gene Collier can be reached at or 412-263-1283. )

Gerry Dulac: Bettis' Comments Bother Cowher

Tuesday, August 15, 2006
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Jerome Bettis isn't in training camp anymore, but he is still delivering big hits that reverberate through Saint Vincent College in Latrobe.

In his first appearance in his new role as a studio analyst for NBC Sports, Bettis said he believes coach Bill Cowher will retire at the end of the 2006 season, based on a conversation he had with Cowher after the Steelers won the Super Bowl.

Bettis made the comment before Sunday night's nationally televised preseason game between the Cincinnati Bengals and Washington Redskins.

The comments did not sit well with Cowher, who phoned Bettis yesterday and told his former running back he is "very disappointed" about what he said.

"He understands my position and I wanted to make sure he understood it," Cowher said. "I think a lot of people thought he and I have been speaking [a lot]. We haven't been speaking.
That was one conversation we had and there was nothing confidential given to him at the time."
In a conversation with studio host Bob Costas during his network TV debut, Bettis said about Cowher's future:

"I really think this is the last year for coach Cowher in Pittsburgh, and I say that because I got the opportunity to talk to him after the season was over, when everything really settled down, and he was a different coach, he was a different guy.

"He was very reflective, talked about his family, talked about spending more time ... after that he bought a house down in Raleigh [N.C.], his daughter enrolled in school there. All that leads to coach not coming back after the season."

Cowher, though, said the conversation took place in March, about a month after the Super Bowl, and that he has "refocused" since then.

Bettis could not be reached for comment.

Cowher has typically received an extension whenever he has two years remaining on his contract, but the Steelers have stopped talking to his agent, Phil DePicciotto, about a new deal. Sources close to the situation have told the Post-Gazette that Cowher has told associates he is considering retirement at the end of the season.

"Jerome and I talked in March, which is about a month after the Super Bowl, and there was no confidential information given," Cowher said. "We were both very reflective at the time. ... We have not talked since then. He has to understand, like anything, this has been a long year, but as you get closer to training camp time has a way of refocusing people.

"Last year was a special year, and you probably do, like anyone normal would do, you reflect. I think, as the time came off, as I got closer to training camp, we had about five weeks off, and by the end of that fifth week I was ready for training camp.

"I've been very focused on getting this football team back this year, and that's where my focus is. I don't like talking about anything other than that, anything personal, because it's about our football team."

Cowher said this is the last time he will publicly discuss his future with the Steelers.

"I think there's been a lot of speculation about my future. I'm here to say once again it's purely that -- speculation. I don't like talking about the contract because we're in camp. I love coaching football. I love coaching here ... and I'm going to leave it at that."

Sunday, August 13, 2006

Joe Starkey: Big Ben's Play Calms Fans' Fears

Joe Starkey
Sunday, August 13, 2006

GLENDALE, Ariz. -- In year one, he outdid every quarterback in NFL history by winning all 13 of his regular-season starts.

In year two, he became the youngest quarterback to win a Super Bowl -- and that led many to wonder what Ben Roethlisberger could possibly do for an encore in year three.

Would you believe he topped himself on the opening drive of the first exhibition game?

Two months removed from a death-defying motorcycle accident, Roethlisberger played Saturday as if those seven hours of reconstructive facial surgery had never happened.

Afterward, everybody said everything was normal out there. No surprise to us. Ben was his usual self.

In many ways he was, completing 3-of-4 passes for 29 yards on his only series of the day. He fearlessly and resourcefully dodged Arizona Cardinals' pass rushers, took a hit and even answered reporters' questions with the usual hint of defiance.

Did it feel like a normal preseason game, Ben, or was there a little extra to it?

"No, you guys make it a bigger deal than I do. I felt just as comfortable and normal as always."
How was it taking the hit (the one where three defenders weighing a combined 820 pounds or so buried him)?

"I was fine. I didn't feel any different than any other hit."

It wasn't until the final question that Roethlisberger revealed what everyone knew: This was not a normal game. There was something bigger going on, and not just because it marked the christening of a state-of-the-art, $465 million stadium and was televised nationally by the NFL Network.

"It kind of hit me right before the kickoff to sit here and say, 'Thank you that I am able to be out here, to put on the jersey, to be in front of people playing again, two months to the day after a pretty bad accident,' " Roethlisberger said.

The plan called for Roethlisberger to play one series, even if the Steelers went three-and-out. It appeared they might, after two handoffs to Willie Parker.

On 3rd-and-3 from his 30, Roethlisberger lined up in the shotgun and whipped a quick screen to Verron Haynes for a first down. On the next play, he ran away from 290-pound Darnell Dockett and hit Parker for 7 yards.

After an end-around to Nate Washington, offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt called another first-down pass because the Cardinals were crowding the line.

This time, Roethlisberger twirled out of the grasp of safety Adrian Wilson, sprinted to his right and threw a strike against the grain to Heath Miller -- between two defenders -- for an 11-yard gain.

Every time Roethlisberger dropped back, Steeler Nation no doubt held its breath as it watched him attempt to leap yet another hurdle.

By the end of the drive, he was Roger Kingdom, clearing each with ease.

First game. Check.

First pass. Check.

First scramble. Check.

First hit. Check.

First late hit: Check.

On the series-killing sack -- Jeff Reed would miss a 54-yard field-goal attempt -- defensive end Bertrand Berry grabbed Roethlisberger, as Antonio Smith took a diving shot at the back of Big Ben's legs. Linebacker Chike Okeafor piled on late but wasn't whistled.

That hit wouldn't have happened if Quincy Morgan had come down with a perfectly lofted ball along the sideline a play earlier, but it probably was a blessing.

As Whisenhunt said, "It's good, because next week the emphasis won't be on, 'Can he take a hit?' It'll be on how he plays and how the offense plays, which is what it should be. All the other distractions, maybe they've been put to rest."

Amazingly enough, they have.

Joe Starkey is a sports writer for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. He can be reached at

Friday, August 11, 2006

Ron Cook: Hampton's Value? It's As Big As He Is

Friday, August 11, 2006

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

You know Hines Ward was the Super Bowl MVP, right?

You also know Ward was the Steelers' co-MVP last season.

But can you name the other co-MVP?

Here's a hint: It wasn't Ben Roethlisberger, Troy Polamalu, Joey Porter, Alan Faneca, Marvel Smith or Willie Parker.

"If you know it was me," Casey Hampton was saying after a steamy Latrobe practice this week, "you're a true fan."

Has there ever been a more obscure co-MVP on a Super Bowl champion?

Hampton is cool with it. The recognition from his teammates is enough. He'll always take that over all of the Pro Bowls and newspaper headlines. He knows how it works in the NFL.

"All these people," he said, looking around at the hillside throng of Steelers fans at Saint Vincent College, "they're all for the offense. We can stop 'em all day and all night and nothing. But the offense makes one run or one pass, and everybody goes crazy."

But what about that huge roar only moments earlier when Polamalu intercepted a Roethlisberger pass?

"Troy's different," Hampton said. "He might be the most popular player on the team."

Among the fans, maybe.

But among the other players?

Here's a guess it's Hampton, hands down.

Part of it is his immense size. Think of a big, lovable lug with a sweet personality. That's Hampton. He's so big you could show a drive-in movie on his backside. The players gave him the perfect nickname: "Big Snack." They say it lovingly, of course.

Teammates also like Hampton's selfless nature. He doesn't complain about being taken out on third down, even though he could be a dominant inside pass rusher on a lot of teams. He also doesn't mind taking a beating by gobbling up the opposing center and a guard so the Steelers' linebackers can swoop in to make tackles and be the stars.

But mostly, the other players like Hampton because he makes their defense what it is.

"I hate going up against those guys during training camp," Steelers offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt said, "because you just can't move Casey."

Hampton is a big reason the Steelers held NFL MVP Shaun Alexander to fewer than 100 yards in Super Bowl XL. He also picked that game to get his first sack of the season. It was a huge play -- Seattle, trailing, 14-10, had a first down at the Steelers' 29 early in the fourth quarter when he tossed aside center Robbie Tobeck and dumped quarterback Matt Hasselbeck -- that was lost in the excitement of Ike Taylor's interception two plays later, then really lost in the delirium of Antwaan Randle El's gadget-play touchdown pass to Ward four plays after that.

Such is the life of a nose tackle.

"I got another sack in the Pro Bowl," Hampton said. "That's two sacks in two Pro Bowls."

It was suggested to Hampton that Pro Bowl sacks don't count.

He wasn't buying it.

"I count 'em," he said. "I don't get many, so they all count in my book."

It says something about what the rest of the league thinks of Hampton that he has made two Pro Bowls as a two-down player. Opposing teams build their offense with him in mind. The Cleveland Browns signed free-agent Pro Bowl center LeCharles Bentley for big money in the offseason so he could deal with Hampton twice a year. That's why the Browns were so devastated and their fans outraged on team message boards when Bentley's knee was injured on the first day of camp and he was lost for the season.

"Roethlisberger hits a windshield face-first at 50 mph and is just fine and our guy is done after the first practice ... "

Steelers management also is aware of Hampton's value. A year ago, the team signed him to a five-year, $22,775,000 contract, including a $6,975,000 bonus, then the third highest in team history.

If you made that kind of jack, you'd probably be cool about being overlooked by the fans, too.
That doesn't mean Hampton didn't enjoy his moment in the spotlight. It happened when the Steelers visited the White House June 2. President Bush practically knocked aside Steelers owner Dan Rooney, team president Art Rooney II, coach Bill Cowher and Ward to shake Hampton's hand first. The two go back to their days in Texas, when Hampton played his college ball for the Longhorns and Bush was the governor.

"We used to pump iron together," Dubya said.

Hampton beamed.

A lesser man might not have been so humble.

Take that, Hines!

(Ron Cook can be reached at or 412-263-1525. )

Saturday, August 05, 2006

Ward Still Working Hard

Hines Ward jokes with newcomer Santonio Holmes during the second day of practice at St. Vincent College in Latrobe (7/31/06).

Ward still one of hardest-working Steelers

By The Associated Press
Saturday, August 5, 2006

As the Pittsburgh Steelers' all-time leading receiver, and fresh off a Super Bowl MVP performance, Hines Ward could probably ease into his ninth NFL training camp. But then he wouldn't be Hines Ward.

"I asked him the other day why he takes so many plays," said newcomer Ryan Clark. "I mean, he's already a superstar receiver. But he said he still has to work, still has to make the team every year. When you see a guy like that, a veteran leader, a Super Bowl MVP, there's no reason why a free agent or a young guy can't work hard every day."

Ward reported to camp at 205 pounds, which he says is the lightest of his career. He stays after practice every day to catch passes from a machine — sometimes using just one hand to perfect his technique. He stays longer still to work out with rookie receiver Santonio Holmes.

Ward, a four-time Pro Bowler, just turned 30. Wouldn't simply maintaining his level of play at that age be enough work?

"Technically, yeah," Ward laughed. "But for me, that's who I am. I'm very competitive.

"I'm not content with winning a Super Bowl and Super Bowl MVP. I think there's a lot of room in my game I can always improve on and I won't be satisfied. I want to hit that 10,000-yard mark for my career; I want to be mentioned right there along with Stallworth and Swann; and of course I want to go out and win another Super Bowl."

Ward caught everything Ben Roethlisberger threw Wednesday night, the quarterback's best practice yet. But if Roethlisberger is back, so is Ward.

After averaging 95 catches for 1,124 yards each of the previous four seasons, Ward caught 69 passes for 975 yards last season. He did have 11 touchdown passes, just one off his career high, and moved into first place on the Steelers' all-time receptions list.

"Even though I didn't have great stats, I had a better year last year than I did the year I caught 112 balls," Ward said. "What I had to do without a guy like Plaxico Burress on the other side, and to still put up double-digit touchdowns and up my yards per catch, I did the little things, converted third downs and made big plays when I had to. So for me, that counts way more than stats."

Friday, August 04, 2006

Penguins, Lange agree to 1-year deal

Lange agrees to one-year radio contract, to describe hockey action for 31st season

Friday, August 04, 2006
By Bob Smizik, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

A humble and somewhat humbled Mike Lange agreed to a one-year contract yesterday to become the radio voice of the Penguins.

It will mark the 31st year Lange has announced Penguins hockey.

Lange was fired as the team's television voice June 29 by FSN Pittsburgh, which owns the Penguins television rights. He was immediately replaced by Paul Steigerwald, who had been the team's radio voice. The Penguins, who had been aware of FSN's intentions and did not strenuously object, used the opportunity to bring Lange back to radio, where he started with the team.

"I'm grateful for the opportunity to get back in the booth and do some broadcasting, something I've done my whole life," Lange said. "I had to make a major decision whether to stay in it or not. Obviously, we're going to give it a go for at least one more year."

The firing of Lange stunned his legion of supporters, to whom he had acquired legendary status as the longtime voice of the Penguins. In the pre-Mario Lemieux days, Lange often was the best thing the team had to offer. He played a large role in educating Pittsburgh fans to the sport.

FSN had hoped Lange would immediately accept the radio job and defuse any backlash. But during Lange's delay in accepting the job, FSN heard from his fans.

The decision by the Penguins to offer Lange only a one-year contract was a surprise.

"It was their decision," Lange said. "That's what they wanted. What can I say? I had to do what they wanted. There was not a lot of room for negotiation. I'm grateful for the chance. It keeps me in hockey for this year. It's a chance to work in radio. I've loved that."

Lange said that he knew from an early age he wanted to be a sports broadcaster.

"I've been very fortunate in my life to do something that I don't consider work. Not many people can say that. The broadcasting game is something I love. I loved it from the time I was 9 years old."

Lange knew his calling in the late 1950s, when the New York Giants moved to San Francisco, near where Lange was growing up. Russ Hodges and Lon Simmons were the Giants announcers.
"I'd lay in bed listening to the games on my transistor radio like a lot of kids. I knew that's what I wanted to do. Lon Simmons was one of my favorites. So was Bill King [a well-known announcer in the Bay Area]."

Lange will work with Phil Bourque, a member of the Penguins two Stanley Cup championship teams who will be returning for his third season in the booth.

"I look forward to working with Phil and teaching him," Lange said. "He's hungry to learn."

Although details have not been finalized, the Penguins will have a new flagship station this season. They are about to renew their contract with Clear Channel but will move from WWSW-FM (94.5), where they've been since 1999, to WXDX-FM (105.9), which brings a more youthful demographic to the broadcast.

The games also will continue to be carried on AM by Fox Sports Radio 970.

Lange is looking forward to his 31st year.

"I have to put the headset back on and get in the booth," he said. "I ain't dead yet."

(Bob Smizik can be reached at or 412-263-1468. )

Thursday, August 03, 2006

Gene Collier: Whisenhunt heir apparent to Cowher?

Thursday, August 03, 2006
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Maybe it was because a demonic highlands sun had turned the floor of Saint Vincent's natural amphitheatre into a microwave, and maybe it was that 80-some Steelers each seemed at that moment a viable candidate for spontaneous human combustion, but as offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt left the practice field in the merciless daylight yesterday, the prospect of being somewhere else seemed like an appropriate question.

"You know," someone mentioned, "you could be spending this week at the Napa Valley Marriott Resort and Spa, summer home of the Oakland Raiders."

"Instead of beautiful Latrobe?" quipped the o.c.

The Steelers' gifted play-caller came within an oft-chronicled Al Davis compulsion of being the head coach in Oakland the week after Super Bowl XL, with only the eccentric owner's chronic inability to dismiss himself totally from the football operation likely sending Whisenhunt back into the arsenal of one William Laird Cowher.

"I don't think about it now," Whisenhunt said.

Fair enough, but if he did think about his own career path, rather than merely the innovative ways in which he'll probably coax another 5,000 yards from this Steelers offense in 2006, those thoughts would be ricocheting through a very different context than the one he inhabited in February. At that time, no one knew the correct interpretation of Cowher's comments on the morning after Steelers 21, Seahawks 10, to wit: "The rest of this week I'm going to sit back and reflect for the first time on this football team, on this season, and on what we were able to accomplish. You're taught with other players never to reflect when you're in the middle of something, and I really like to practice what I preach. But I can tell you, this I'm going to do a lot of reflecting and enjoying every minute of it."

In hindsound, the auditory equivalent of hindsight that I just made up, it seemed that Cowher took a little too long getting from one end of the word "lot" to the other: "I'm going to do a lohhhht of reflecting." But, of course, like hindsight, hindsound is 20-20. Or something.

Obviously, we all know about the big house the Cowhers have purchased near Mt. Pilot, the maturing of the three basketballing daughters and the notion that the head coach might have reflected all the way to where, if he can't see the end of his career, he can certainly see the end of the black-and-gold part. With negotiations essentially stalled on a contract extension for the Jaw, Whisenhunt goes from somebody's-head-coach-before-too-long to the heir apparent in the Noll-Cowher lineage that's made winning football and Pittsburgh virtual cultural synonyms.
"I've been around a very successful organization [going on six years]," was about all Whisenhunt would say about such naked speculation yesterday. "I've always felt I have to do what's right for me and my family, and this is what's right for me."

There are plenty of ways to oversimplify Whisenhunt's impact on the Steelers' organization as constituted, but the one that shrieks for attention is the fact that with this 44-year-old Georgia Tech grad helping to design and calling Cowher's plays, the Steelers are 31-7, including 5-1 in the postseason. (In the five years before Whisenhunt ran the offense, Cowher was 44-35-1 and twice had losing seasons.) The glorious postseason freshest in the memory included a stunning and practically pristine offensive performance through which the Steelers averaged 27 points per game, in large part by converting a staggering 54 percent of their third-down situations, eight of 15 against a flummoxed flock of Seahawks.

You're clearly entitled to any selected postseason moment freeze-framed for the memory, but you'll have a hard time beating Fake Toss 39 X Reverse Pass, the play Whisenhunt spoke into his headset with 8:56 left in Super Bowl XL and the Steelers leading, 14-10. Four players handled the ball on what turned into the only touchdown pass thrown by a wideout (Antwaan Randle El) in the Steelers' Super Bowl history. And wasn't it just the prettiest thing, spiraling most of 43 yards and landing in the dead-sure hands of Hines Ward, who took it deep into the Super Bowl's extensive visual history?

"People don't remember the ones that don't work," Whisenhunt said modestly. "Those kinds of things sometimes work for us because Bill believes in them, and we all have trust in the players to execute them. Those kinds of plays are devised by a great staff, late at night, and a lot of the success we've had is because we've used them in the context of our basic stuff."

But they also work because the gadgets themselves are part of Whisenhunt's basic stuff as well.
The Bengals, pursing Randle El hard in the first playoff game in January because they had seen him throw from the same formation, were scalded by Whisenhunt when Antwaan stopped, threw back across the field to Ben Roethlisberger, who found Cedrick Wilson floating near the Cincinnati goal line for the touchdown that put the Steelers up by 11 points as the third quarter was ending. That kind of thing not only electrifies an audience, it inspires an offense even here, eight months later.

"Duce [Staley] and Willie [Parker] seem to think they're auditioning for some type of throwing role," Whisenhunt noted yesterday. "I see them throwing out here every day, it seems. Hines can throw. Cedrick can throw. Santonio [Holmes] can throw. Miller can throw."
Heath Miller can throw?

"Oh yeah," said the o.c.

He wouldn't be mentioning that here in August just to give somebody something to think about would he?


(Gene Collier can be reached at gcollier@post-gazette or 412-263-1283. )

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Ron Cook: Pirates Still Pathetic After Trades

Tuesday, August 01, 2006
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

The Pirates didn't trade Jason Bay for Armando Rios, Ryan Vogelsong and Jody Gerut yesterday.

That, right there, tells you they had a pretty good trade deadline day, at least by their shabby standards.

Not to be critical.

The team that is best known in recent years for giving away Aramis Ramirez at the trade deadline for absolutely nothing, yesterday dealt, essentially, Sean Casey, Craig Wilson, Kip Wells, Oliver Perez and Roberto Hernandez for outfielder Xavier Nady and pitcher Shawn Chacon.

OK, the Pirates got Nady.

From here, it looks like they just about broke even.

What? You think that was the '27 Yankees that general manager Dave Littlefield was breaking up? You think he was going to build the '61 Yankees with what he had to trade? You still can't believe the St. Louis Cardinals wouldn't give up Albert Pujols for Jeromy Burnitz?

Yeah, right.

The Pirates were an awful team yesterday.

They're still an awful team today.

Spare me the crying about the Pirates giving up on Perez so quickly. Yes, he led the majors in strikeouts per nine innings in 2004 at age 22. But what did he do in 2005 at 23? Other than show up for spring training out of pitching shape and then ruin his season by kicking a laundry cart? And what did he do this season at 24? That's right, he pitched his way back to the minors by going 2-10 with a 6.63 earned run average.

"I don't think it's a case of us giving up on Perez," Littlefield said. "We just feel like we have some depth with our left-handed starting pitchers. Ultimately, we made the decision [to trade Perez and Hernandez to the New York Mets] because we like Nady that much."

That makes one of us who is thrilled at having Nady.

His statistics are eerily similar to Wilson's.

Maybe that's a little unfair. Nady is two years younger and two years cheaper. He also strikes out a lot less and plays much better defense in the outfield and at first base. But for the trade to have an impact, Nady is going to have to play like Bay -- not Rios and Gerut -- and fill one of the huge holes the Pirates have in right field and at first base. We'll see.

Casey clearly wasn't going to be the answer at first. I know what you're thinking. The Pirates couldn't get more for a .300 hitter than a Class AA pitcher? No, actually. You remember what the Pirates gave up to get Casey last winter, don't you? Dave Williams, who's pitching in the minor leagues. Casey, playing a power position, hasn't hit a home run since May 31, a span of 171 at-bats. He's making $8.5 million this season and will be a free agent at the end of the year. He's also injury-prone.

If you want to knock Littlefield for not getting enough, knock him for the Wilson-for-Chacon deal with the New York Yankees. Chacon has been terrible this season. Wilson, at least, will hit a few home runs and get on base if you can tolerate all of the strikeouts, his below-average defense and the fact he'll be a free agent at the end of the season.

And if you want to fret about a trade, fret about the one that sent Wells to the Texas Rangers for a Class AAA pitching prospect. Of all the players Littlefield moved, Wells has the best chance of jumping up and biting him in the behind. Can you say Bronson Arroyo? Jason Schmidt? Esteban Loaiza? Jon Lieber?

The toughest part of Littlefield's job as a small-market general manager -- other than having to work for Kevin McClatchy and the Nuttings -- is he has only six seasons to decide on a player before the player can become a free agent. Not all pitchers develop in six years. Arroyo, Schmidt, Loaiza and Lieber didn't. Wells certainly hasn't. But just because Wells is 1-5 with a 6.69 ERA this season and was 8-18 last season doesn't mean he won't be 15-9 next season and 21-8 in 2008.

The Pirates weren't wrong for trading Wells -- they couldn't keep investing in him and getting so little in return -- but the deal should scare them to death.

"I don't want anyone to think this was an exciting day for me," Littlefield said when the dealing finally stopped. "I don't want to be in this situation, having to make trades. I want to win games. I want to be out there trying to acquire players because we're fighting for a playoff spot."

The only way this trade deadline day will help the Pirates get to that point is if Nady turns out to be a star.

Pardon me if I'm not holding my breath.

Pardon me if I can't get past Littlefield's lame track record, his trade for Bay aside.

Nothing really has changed for the Pirates.

It doesn't matter how many Caseys and Wilsons they delete or how many Nadys and Chacons they add, the only way this team is going to win anytime soon is if its young starting pitchers -- Zach Duke, Ian Snell, Paul Maholm and Tom Gorzelanny -- stay healthy, keep growing together and start pitching lights out at the same time.

You know, like Perez at 22.

Not like Perez at 23 and 24.

(Ron Cook can be reached at or 412-263-1525. )

Polamalu's Unique Spirit Uplifting For Steelers, Fans

Tuesday, August 01, 2006
By Ed Bouchette, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

When: 3 p.m., open to the public
Where: St. Vincent College, Latrobe
Of note: The campus opens about 90 minutes before practices that are open to the public.
Related articles

Steelers Notebook: Hamstring injury slows Holmes
Training Camp 2006 photojournal
More about training camp
Map and camp schedule

Citizens of Western Pennsylvania already know the Steelers can lift spirits, but can these Super Bowl champions save lives?

All-Pro safety Troy Polamalu, speaking in the type of calming tones of a Benedictine monk on the Saint Vincent College campus in Latrobe, proclaimed yesterday that Steelers indeed not only can save lives but they do. He has seen it, and not the kind where they use the Heimlich Maneuver.

Merely walking into a room where a Steelers fan is on his death bed can improve the health of that person, Polamalu said, and it's an uplifting experience.

"You can truly save people's lives like that," Polamalu said. "I've been in situations where people are at home and getting ready to die, doctors have given up on them, you know?"

But after a visit by Polamalu, he has seen the deathly ill improve to the point where "they've been living for, like, three, four months already.

"It's really beautiful in that way that you can affect people. In some ways, football is life here in Pittsburgh, it's their only hope. It's cool to affect people in that way."

By now, most Steelers fans -- in various stages of physical health -- know that Polamalu thinks, talks, trains and plays differently than the average pro football player. He's a California native, but that doesn't fully explain it. His approach to football and life follow on a different path than most athletes, and he's not afraid to express himself.

He refrains from lifting weights for the most part and he has ridiculed the NFL training camp routines along with one of the league's major corporate sponsors, Gatorade. He swiped again at the drink yesterday saying that the Steelers training staff does not give him any guidelines "besides spreading their Gatorade propaganda."

Polamalu may be the best Steelers defensive back since Rod Woodson and he's definitely the most unique with his long hair covering the name on the back of his jersey, and the extraordinary way he plays the position of strong safety, one that landed him in the past two Pro Bowls.

One more unique thing to him: Here is a Californian who prefers to live in Pittsburgh (he prefers Troy Hill over Nob Hill). He and his wife, Theodora, spent all summer at their North Hills home, venturing only on one three-day trip to California. It does not all have to do with the hills and rivers here, although he enjoys the fly-fishing. He derives much of his pleasure within the confines of the Steelers' UPMC facility on the South Side and at Heinz Field.

"I told my wife, around my second year, that there's no better place to be than here in Pittsburgh," said Polamalu, starting his fourth training camp. "That's one thing Pittsburgh has over everybody else is this camaraderie of this team and the great coaching situation, how coach Cowher takes care of you, the training staff and the ownership."

The popularity of Steelers players -- with him among a handful of the most admired -- does have its drawbacks.

"It's pretty hard to go out here without getting hassled too much," Polamalu said. "When I go out in California, people could care less, even if you're a Tom Cruise, unless you're a paparazzi. And, they don't follow football. They're not a big fan of football like they are out here.

"It stinks in a way if you're eating dinner and people are bothering you, but it's beautiful in a way when you have a kid who has only five days to live and the biggest thing in his life is wanting to meet a Steeler. That's where it's positive. It's happened to me a few times and it's really awesome to affect people's lives."

His own was affected on the field when free safety Chris Hope, a fellow 2002 draft choice, left as a free agent in March.

"We went through scout team together my rookie year and breaking into the starting lineup, so we learned everything together and won a Super Bowl together," Polamalu said.

"We got to a point where Chris and I didn't even have to talk. I got to do what I do and he just reacted to it. To form that type of relationship is tough, being how different a safety that I am. You really can't practice at it unless you're on the field playing 11 on 11 or in these preseason games."

A trio of players will compete to join him in the defensive backfield: Tyrone Carter, Ryan Clark, and rookie Anthony Smith. Whoever it is can expect Polamalu to pursue the same kind of style that has turned him into a linchpin of the Steelers' defense, something fans -- in good health and poor -- can appreciate.

"I feel I approach what I do and my living as a football player the way they do, in this blue-collar mentality," Polamalu said. "That's a term thrown around a lot, but to say it and live it and to experience it -- even though it's a high-paying job like a football player -- it's no different to a hard-paying construction worker, a landscaper. It's a blue-collar mentality."

(Ed Bouchette can be reached at or 412-263-3878. )