Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Steelers sign Smith to a five-year deal


Aaron Smith stops Packers running back ReShard Lee for no gain during the first quarter of Steelers' game in Green Bay (11/6/2005).

DE led team's linemen in tackles in 2006

Wednesday, February 28, 2007

By Ed Bouchette, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

The Steelers re-signed one of their starters yesterday, not with an eye toward free agency that begins Friday but the one that takes place in 2008.

Defensive end Aaron Smith is the first of seven starters who could become free agents next year to sign a new contract. Smith signed a five-year contract that will take him through the 2011 season.

Financial terms of the deal were unavailable, but his old contract, which was scheduled to pay him a $1 million roster bonus March 6 and a salary of $3.5 million next season, was nullified by the new deal.

Partly because they have no starters who are unrestricted free agents this year and because they have so many due next year, the Steelers have put their efforts into trying to sign players before they can become free agents in 2008.

Other starters in that category are safety Troy Polamalu, linebackers Joey Porter and Clark Haggans, guards Alan Faneca and Kendall Simmons, and fullback Dan Kreider.

It's possible the Steelers will release Porter before he is due his $1 million roster bonus March 6, which would create $5 million in salary cap room. If they decide to release him, it could come Friday.

Tomorrow, the Steelers must give restricted free agent Max Starks a contract tender to maintain their rights to him. Quarterback Brian St. Pierre is their only other restricted free agent, but they likely will not make him an offer, allowing him to become an unrestricted free agent Friday.

They will pick from one of two tenders -- a one-year $1.3 million salary or one for $1.8 million. If they decided not to match another team's offer, the different tenders would provide different compensation to the Steelers -- $1.3 million would bring a second-round draft choice and the $1.8 million a first-rounder.

Smith, who turns 31 April 9, became the Steelers' starting left defensive end in 2000, a year after they drafted him in the fourth round from Northern Colorado. He has not missed a game in his seven seasons as a starter. Although ends in a 3-4 defense often play in relative anonymity, Smith made the Pro Bowl after the 2004 season when he had eight sacks.

Smith led the team's defensive linemen last season with 64 tackles, 48 solo, to go with 4.5 sacks. His 21 quarterback pressures were second on the team to end Brett Keisel's 23.

At 6 feet 5 and more than 300 pounds, Smith becomes even more important because of his versatility as the Steelers decide whether to switch from their 3-4 defense to a 4-3, or use both. Coaches believe Smith can move to tackle in a four-man line.

Bob Smizik: Penguins better, but it is enough?


Gary Roberts

Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

What only recently had been a full-force assault on first place by the Penguins has turned into a struggle to make the playoffs. The team that was 14-0-2 from Jan. 13 through Feb. 18 has lost three of its past four games in the past eight days. All of a sudden, first place is a distant dream and the playoffs are no sure thing.

After a 1-0 loss to the New Jersey Devils last night, a gallant effort in front of the 13th sellout in the past 15 games at Mellon Arena that was foiled by the great Martin Brodeur, the Penguins are 11 points removed from first place in the Atlantic Division, a virtually insurmountable gap with 20 games remaining. The gap between the Penguins and being out of the playoffs isn't nearly so large. Going into the game last night, they were five points removed from ninth place and six from 10th.

Clearly, it was time to make changes, and, with the trade deadline at 3 p.m. yesterday, general manager Ray Shero was a busy guy. When the off-ice action ended, Shero pronounced his team better than it had been.

He'll get no argument here on that point, considering the only player lost from the team was fourth-line center Dominic Moore, who, despite his defensive prowess and his team-best ability on faceoffs, was expendable.

How much better, though, remains to be seen. The step forward the team took with these deal might be a small one, and it came with future cost. The Penguins gave up on Noah Welch, their second-round draft choice in 2001 and a player who has the look of a top four defenseman in the not-too distant future. It's true the team has depth on defense in its system, but, on the NHL level, that is not the case, and Welch who could have been an important contributor as early as next season.

The two most important additions were veteran forwards Gary Roberts, in exchange for Welch, and tough guy Georges Laraque, for minor-leaguer Daniel Carcillo and a third-round draft choice.

"Getting guys like Gary Roberts and Georges Laraque is a great thing for our hockey club right now," Shero said. "It's a valuable addition now and will be a valuable experience for our young guys."

The Penguins were noncommittal on what Roberts' role would be, but no one would be surprised if he joins the first line in place of Ryan Malone and plays alongside Sidney Crosby and Mark Recchi.

Roberts is a high-character guy, who will bring a strong work ethic, leadership and class to the club. He also was an outstanding player earlier in his career, having once scored 53 goals. But that was 15 years ago. At 40, it's questionable if he's an upgrade over Malone on the first line. He has the intangibles coaches love, but does he possess the speed to keep up with Crosby?

Laraque, widely regarded as the toughest man in the NHL, likely will skate on a fourth line and be quick to insert himself into any situations where fists might be the most important factor. Despite that ability, Laraque's presence will not ease the defensive pressure on Crosby, as some have suggested. That's true not only because Laraque never will be playing with Crosby but also because NHL players don't relax defensive pressure because lurking in their subconscious is the possibility the sport's heavyweight champ eventually will be chasing them down. Players with that degree of fortitude either do not make it to the NHL or do not last very long.

Concerning Laraque's contribution, Shero said, "When we've got Max Talbot having to fight a guy who is 6 feet 4, maybe that's not going to happen the next time. I think it makes us a better team, a more confident team."

Much will be made about the additions of Roberts and Laraque, but, in reality, they will little change the composition of the team.

What Shero did not do and what most had to be done was improve the defense. Upgrading the offense was not a necessity. The Penguins lead the Atlantic Division in goals. Upgrading the defense, where the Penguins are fourth out of five teams in the Atlantic, was more important.

The addition of veteran Joel Kwiatkowski, from Florida for a fourth-round pick, is not an upgrade, but Shero talked as if an upgrade was not needed.

"There were some veteran defensemen available," he said. "Some moved today. Some have contract years left, and I wasn't interested. Some, the price was way too high, in my opinion.

"I think it's time to give some of these guys [the defensive corps] some credit. Ryan Whitney does a great job for us. [Sergei] Gonchar has had a tremendous year. Guys like [Josef] Melichar and [Rob] Scuderi, these guys have played really good hockey."

He should have stopped with Whitney and Gonchar.

It's true, the Penguins are better. But are they good enough?

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Wagner Card Sells for $2.3 Million



This file photo shows the legendary 1909 Honus Wagner baseball card displayed in June 2000 at a news conference in New York. The "Holy Grail of baseball cards," the famous 1909 Honus Wagner tobacco card once owned by hockey great Wayne Gretzky, has sold for a record-setting US$2,350,000, the seller of the card Brian Seigel said. The anonymous buyer has only been identified as a Southern California collector.


By The Associated Press

Tuesday, February 27, 2007


LOS ANGELES - The "Holy Grail of baseball cards," the famous 1909 Honus Wagner tobacco card once owned by hockey great Wayne Gretzky, has sold for a record-setting $2.35 million, the seller of the card said Monday.

The buyer has only been identified as a Southern California collector. SCP Auctions Inc., a company that holds sports memorabilia auctions, said it bought a small share of the card. It is scheduled to be shown at a news conference at Dodger Stadium on Tuesday.

There are about 60 of the tobacco cards in existence featuring the Pittsburgh Pirates shortstop. The Carnegie native is one of the first five players to be inducted in Baseball's Hall of Fame.

The seller, Brian Seigel, in 2000 paid a then-record $1,265,000 for the prize card, which is in much better shape than the others.

"This particular one was preserved in spectacular condition," said Joe Orlando, president of Professional Sports Authenticator of Newport Beach — the company that certified the authenticity of the card. "It's the Holy Grail of baseball cards."

Still, the Wagner cards are so rare that even tattered ones will sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars, Seigel said.

The others "you could stick in middle of the street and let cars drive over it through the day, take it in your hand and crumple it up, and it still would be a $100,000 card," said Seigel, CEO of Emerald Capital LLC, an asset management company, who lives in Las Vegas.

Gretzky and Bruce McNall, former owner of the Los Angeles Kings, bought the card for $451,000 in 1991.

During his ownership of the card, Seigel displayed it at several sports collectible shows, showed it at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum and at brought it to opening bell ceremonies for the NASDAQ stock exchange in New York.

"The Wagner card gave me a tremendous amount of pride, excitement and pleasure," he said. "I hope the new owner will have the same satisfaction I enjoyed over the years."



Honus Wagner


The tobacco cards used to be included in packs of cigarettes. Collectors believe Wagner's cards are rare because he stopped allowing the American Tobacco Co. to use his image, fearing it would encourage children to smoke.

Nicknamed the "Flying Dutchman," Wagner was the National League batting champion in eight of his 21 seasons and finished his career with a lifetime .329 average. He retired in 1917 with more hits (3430), runs (1740), RBIs (1732), doubles (651), triples (252) and steals (722) than any National League player.

Ron Cook: Big Ben must return with better work ethic



Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

It's quite plausible, as former Steelers offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt suggested over the weekend, that Ben Roethlisberger's physical trauma contributed significantly to his lousy season in 2006. It had to have some impact, didn't it? A near-death experience in a horrific motorcycle accident. An emergency appendectomy. A concussion. How much abuse can a body take? How much mental anguish?

But while we're talking plausible, here's another theory:

Big Ben's poor work habits had just as much to do with his rotten play.

In that sense, Whisenhunt's candid observations about Roethlisberger at the NFL Combine in Indianapolis might do the Steelers considerable harm. The last thing Roethlisberger needs about now is an excuse. A kick in the fanny from new coach Mike Tomlin, perhaps. But definitely not an excuse.

In fairness to Whisenhunt, now the Arizona Cardinals' head coach, he wasn't trying to put the Steelers in a bad spot. He merely answered a question about the potential impact of Roethlisberger's injuries and appendectomy on his performance. He said, stressing hindsight, that he, along with everyone else in the organization, including former coach Bill Cowher, might have underestimated the effects of the accident on Roethlisberger. He said he noticed Roethlisberger seemed gun-shy in the pocket much of the season. He also said, again in hindsight, that the team might have been better off playing backup Charlie Batch in the second game against the Jacksonville Jaguars instead of starting Roethlisberger, who was just 15 days past his appendectomy and had missed the opener against the Miami Dolphins.

An honest answer to a fair question, to be sure.

But let's get one thing straight:

Hindsight or no hindsight, Cowher, Whisenhunt and the others did nothing wrong in their handling of Roethlisberger last season. Team doctors cleared Roethlisberger. He wanted to play. He's the franchise quarterback. The Steelers had to play him. They can live with his failures, his 23 interceptions, the team's disappointing 8-8 record. But losing with their backup quarterback would have been intolerable.

No one can say for sure what effects Roethlisberger's trauma had on him. Even now, he probably can't determine that. How do you measure something so ambiguous?

What we do know, though, is Roethlisberger almost certainly would have played better if he had cared more about his job. Maybe it was his immaturity. He won't turn 25 until Friday. Maybe he was a bit too full of himself after his first two NFL seasons were so spectacular. Who knows? But it wasn't exactly a secret at the Steelers' South Side headquarters that Big Ben wasn't the team's hardest worker. A lot of people -- team executives, coaches and even players -- joked how he frequently was the last on and the first off the practice field, although they didn't see much humor in it. Seldom did he stay after practice to throw to his receivers and work on his timing with them even though Hines Ward missed training camp with a hamstring injury, Nate Washington was getting his first real playing time and Santonio Holmes was a rookie. Maybe it would have been different if he had been putting in extra time in the film room. But he wasn't. He's no Peyton Manning that way.

It's nice to think Roethlisberger learned from everything that happened to him last year. One day soon, when he meets with the local media for the first time since the end of last season, he'll be asked about Whisenhunt's comments. Here's hoping he responds by saying: "You know what? I didn't play well last season. The reasons don't matter. I'm going to do everything I can to make sure it doesn't happen again."

Actually, Roethlisberger said something along those lines after he threw two interceptions in a home loss to the Baltimore Ravens in December, a defeat that eliminated the Steelers from playoff contention.

"I told some of the receivers and some of the other guys that we need to get better. I'm going to stay around here a lot. We'll work out together this offseason and get better together."

Thursday is March 1.

It's time for Roethlisberger to start living up to his word and honoring his commitment.

It's up to Tomlin to make sure he does.

Getting Big Ben right has to be the new coaching staff's No. 1 priority.

Monday, February 26, 2007

John Mehno: NFL forgot the players who made the league

Mike Ditka

Beaver County Times

02/25/2007

Have you ever just found yourself with too much money?

Of course not.

For most people, it's a challenge to pay all the bills, put some money away and maybe have enough left over for a movie and pizza.

But for a small group of professional athletes, too much money is a life-changing problem.

That's how someone like Tennessee Titans defensive back Adam "Pacman" Jones winds up in trouble after scattering $81,000 in cash just so he could make a conspicuous 5 a.m. entrance at a Las Vegas strip club. A melee ensued, some shots were fired, and now the Titans are seriously reconsidering the wisdom of a contract that guaranteed Pacman $13.63 million.

No matter what happened at the club, the fact is the guy had $81,000 on him. His walking-around money would buy a decent house in some neighborhoods.

Pacman's nocturnal adventures are interesting in light of another NFL-related story that's been in the news lately.

Aliquippa native Mike Ditka and former Green Bay Packers lineman Jerry Kramer have been leading a fund-raising effort to help old NFL players who are battling serious medical problems.


Jerry Kramer

Paltry pensions don't begin to cover their needs and often the players are unable to work.

Ditka and Kramer have auctioned donated memorabilia and raised more than $200,000. But that kind of piecemeal help is minor.

Ditka sent letters asking each NFL owner to donate $100,000. In a business that generates $6 billion in revenue, writing a check for $100,000 is like buying a $1 candy bar from a band kid.

Ditka got two responses - one with a $10,000 donation, the other with a $5,000 check. He sent them back.

"It's embarrassing," Ditka said.

So are some of the pensions. Herb Adderley, who played for the Packers in the '60s, gets $126.85 per month. Kramer receives $358 a month.

By contrast, former Pirate Bill Virdon, who was fully vested in the baseball pension, gets more than $100,000 per year.

Most baseball players come away with fewer long-term physical problems than football players do.

Of course, this isn't as simple as taking care of the old timers. Lawyers get involved and scammers crawl out of the woodwork, too.

It just seems like something is fundamentally out of whack when a guy who sacrificed his body to play football can't pay his rent while someone currently in the game can literally toss around $81,000.

--

Some purists are alarmed that Wrigley Field will have advertising on non-ivy portions of the outfield wall.

A lot of people thought outfield advertising added to the charms of old parks. The Brooklyn Dodgers even had a sign that said, "Hit spot, win a suit" from a clothing store.

If it was quaint then, why is it a lamentable sellout now?

Sports correspondent John Mehno can be reached online at johnmehno@lycos.com.

Spring Training: McCutchen on fast track


Andrew McCutchen races and reaches for a line drive shot out of a machine yesterday in Bradenton.

Premier prospect could reach Pirates by season's end

Sunday, February 25, 2007

By Dejan Kovacevic, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

BRADENTON, Fla. -- A point guard in basketball is a better player when his forwards finish plays near the hoop.

A center-iceman in hockey is a better player with wingers who can shoot the puck.

And Andrew McCutchen will be a better player when he reaches Pittsburgh than he will be this summer in Altoona.

But not necessarily because of his teammates.

Because of the opposition.

As he puts it, "Let me face good pitchers. Give me that any day of the week over the A-ball guys."

Consider the 2006 path of McCutchen, the 20-year-old outfielder who is the Pirates' premier prospect and, perhaps, greatest natural talent at any level of the organization.

He started out with Hickory, the low Class A affiliate, and struggled in his first full professional season after being the team's first-round draft pick the previous summer. It was late June, his average had dipped to .215, and his trademark patience was all but gone. He was frustrated at opponents avoiding him and flailing at pitches he once coolly ignored.

"That wasn't me," McCutchen said. "Chasing everything."

He leveled his head and his swing to mount a .352 surge over the next month, enough for management to promote him. He skipped high Class A and headed for Class AA Altoona, mostly because the Curve was playoff-bound and would offer more at-bats.

Some saw it as a risk. McCutchen saw it as long-sought freedom.

Finally, the opposing pitchers would have some idea what they were doing. Finally, the pitches would look as refined as he always envisioned they might. Finally, all his knowledge and instinct for the strike zone would pay off.

And it did: He played 20 games as the youngest player in Altoona history -- 19 years, 10 months -- and batted .308, including a 15 for 40 opening tear, a line-drive home run in his Blair County Ballpark debut and 12 RBIs.

It was only afterward, it seemed, that it all made sense.

"There was never any doubt in my mind," McCutchen said. "A pitcher's not going to be wild like you see in A-ball. A hitter like me, that helps a lot. I don't have to worry about focusing above my head or below my knees or whatever. I can pinpoint a lot better."

Pinpoint and pound.

"The pitching is much better at this level," Altoona manager Tim Leiper said. "And these guys, they wanted to challenge Andrew. They wanted to go after him.

"And he hit them."

The concept was no revelation to Leiper. Elsewhere in his minor-league coaching career, he worked with the Florida Marlins' Hanley Ramirez and the Cincinnati Reds' Brandon Phillips, each a fine, young infielder whose performance improved with promotions. Ramirez, for example, batted .271 in Class AA in 2005, then .292 with the Marlins last season in winning National League rookie of the year.

"With each of these guys, you'd see them struggle in the minors and wonder what's wrong," Leiper said. "You look at Hanley, he was coming off what some people thought was a disastrous year. When he finally blossomed, it happened in the big leagues."

It does not take much to detect that the Pirates believe McCutchen is on a similar path. He will start back in Altoona, with an eye toward a midseason bump to Class AAA Indianapolis, and then ... Pittsburgh in September?

Not even close-to-the-vest general manager Dave Littlefield will reject the possibility.

"The ball's in his court," Littlefield said. "We'll see how he does. We want him to do well."

Some might suggest that the Pirates would be foolish to promote McCutchen at such a young age, if only because he would begin to accrue service time in Major League Baseball. Once he gets three years, he is eligible for arbitration. Six years, and he can leave through free agency.

Why not wait and start him at an older age to ensure more of his prime years are spent in Pittsburgh?

"That is a part of your decision-making process, but it's sixth, seventh or eighth down on the priority list," Littlefield said. "What's most important is having people at the levels that they can handle and being able to have success. You never want to put guys in a position where it's a coin flip as to whether he's going to do OK or not. That's A-No. 1."

Which might explain why Littlefield is not ruling anything out with McCutchen.

"No question he's already been above expectations. Just look at the masses of players who, in their first full professional season, can finish up in Double-A. And this was a high school signee."

Brian Graham, director of player development, usually bristles at any discussion of rapidly advancing young players. Not so with McCutchen.

"His performance will dictate how quickly he moves through the system and when he arrives in Pittsburgh," Graham said. "He's a very talented player and, because of that, he doesn't need as much experience to learn how to play the game."

It is fairly common for talented draft picks signed out of college to accelerate so quickly, but it is rare for a high school pick such as McCutchen.

He started out in the Gulf Coast League last summer and batted .297, then moved up later that summer to the New York-Penn League and improved to .346. And last season, he batted a cumulative .294 with 17 home runs, 74 RBIs and 23 steals in 134 games.

That earned him the Pirates' Minor-League Player of the Year designation, as well as unusual national attention for someone in their system: McCutchen is rated the No. 14 prospect in all of the minors by Sports Illustrated, No. 15 by MLB.com.

It is no accident.

"The biggest thing about Andrew is ... well, he does everything well," Leiper said. "He can hit, he's eventually going to hit for power, he has a great glove, he has exceptional speed, and he can throw. And he works hard, too, and isn't full of himself."

One National League scout rates every aspect of McCutchen's game to be above-average, with the exception of his arm, which grades at average.

What stands out to most observers is his eye.

"This was a 19-year-old kid last season, and you would see him looking to drive the ball early in counts, not chasing pitches out of the zone with two strikes, and shortening up to swing for right field when he was behind," Leiper said. "Those are things you look for in players with a lot, lot more experience. It's incredible."

McCutchen's compact but swift swing makes for a perfect complement.

"His bat stays tight in the zone and, because his bat speed allows him to wait so long for his pitch, he can put that bat right where he wants to," Leiper said.

With force, too. Although McCutchen stands only 5 feet 11, 170 pounds, his bat speed -- which reminds some scouts of Ron Gant -- makes for powerful contact.

"No question, he's going to hit home runs," Leiper said. "Right now, they're line drives. That will change as he fills out."

That might explain why, when asking management types what McCutchen can do to upgrade his game, the initial reaction tends to be a long hesitation.

"I don't see a shortcoming," Graham said. "He just needs to play more baseball."

"He just needs to keep playing," Leiper said. "He just needs more games."

Even McCutchen fails to deliver a firm answer, other than citing his goal of improving upon his 2006 stolen-base total of 23.

"The steals are the main thing," he said.

And other facets?

"The hitting's there. The fielding's there. But there are some things I still need to work out with stealing."

McCutchen's humble, quiet nature -- apart from the occasional clubhouse crooning he does to entertain teammates in the minors, acquaintances say---- limits his boasts about his potential. But it apparently does nothing to limit his expectations.

"It crosses my mind a lot, playing in Pittsburgh this year. I think about it all the time. I look at the lineup they have right now, which I think is going to be pretty strong, and ... I'll be honest with you: I believe I can add to that. It's just a matter of time."

Maybe not much.


--------------------------------------------------------------------------------

(Dejan Kovacevic can be reached at dkovacevic@post-gazette.com. )

Saturday, February 24, 2007

Clemente's son hopes museum catches on

Roberto Clemente, Jr. visits the future site of the Roberto Clemente museum in the Strip District Friday, February 23, 2007.

By Rick Starr
PITTSBURGH TRIBUNE-REVIEW
Saturday, February 24, 2007


Pittsburgh renamed the Sixth Street Bridge in his memory, and the PNC Park right field wall stands 21-feet high to reflect the number worn by legendary Pirates outfielder Roberto Clemente.

Now his son, Roberto Clemente Jr., believes the time has come to create a museum in Pittsburgh to honor his father's legacy.

"A museum is something that could fit perfectly with school programs, a place where students could gain insight into my father's life and the lessons he taught us all," Clemente Jr., 41, said Friday after speaking to about 140 Bethel Park middle school students.

Clemente, a native of Puerto Rico, became the second Hispanic player elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1973 and the only exception to the mandatory five-year post-retirement waiting period. He died in a plane crash off the coast of Isla Verde, Puerto Rico, on Dec. 31, 1972, while attempting to deliver aid to Nicaraguan earthquake victims. His body was never recovered.

Yesterday, his son led students on a tour around the potential museum site in the former Engine 25 fire station on Penn Avenue in Lawrenceville.

"I think this site is perfect," Clemente Jr. said. "It's a beautiful building. It's just the right size."

He plans to hold an open house at the former firehouse at 10:30 a.m. today for anyone who wants to see his father's memorabilia.

Built in 1896, the firehouse serves as the studio for its owner, commercial photographer Duane Rieder, who produced a Roberto Clemente calendar in 1993 and assists the family as archivist.

"Today was a test," Rieder said. "We're trying to figure out if this thing has legs, and after today I'm positive it can work. But if this firehouse is going to be the Clemente Museum, I'll have to move out."

Clemente Jr. said he's seeking grants for the project, or a financial partner.

The photo studio houses a sizable collection of Clemente memorabilia, including bats, wedding photographs, uniforms, personal correspondence and one of his 12 Gold Glove awards.

"There's a photo of my father in a fireman's helmet which we'd like to enlarge (to) the size of a wall," Clemente Jr. said. "It's an impressive collection."

If the museum opens, Clemente Jr. said the collection will include the automobile his father won as the Most Valuable Player of the 1971 World Series.

Clemente Jr. said the response of the Neil Armstrong Middle School students was the most gratifying part of the museum's trial run.

"It was a chance to talk to them about the example my father left us, about being better people, and the decisions they'll have to face at a very young age," he said.

The Pirates honored Clemente with a statue that stands outside PNC Park, and retired his No. 21 in 1973. The city maintains Roberto Clemente Memorial Park along North Shore Drive.


Rick Starr can be reached at rstarr@tribweb.com or (724) 226-4691.

Friday, February 23, 2007

Armstrong stuns Panthers, delivers Penguins 2-1 OT win


Penguins right winger Colby Armstrong celebrates scoring the winning goal in overtime against Panthers goalie Ed Belfour last night.

Colby Armstrong's rising shot breaks his 15-game goal-scoring drought as well as the Florida Panthers' heart

Friday, February 23, 2007

By Dave Molinari, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette


SUNRISE, Fla. -- Yeah, Colby Armstrong said, it had been awhile.

Way too long, really.

Fifteen games and more than a month, if anyone was keeping track.

But he figures it was worth every frustrating shift and second of it to get a goal like this, the winner in the Penguins' 2-1 overtime victory against Florida at the BankAtlantic Center last night.

Armstrong scored it at 2:39 of overtime when, after using Maxime Talbot as a decoy on a two-on-one break, he beat Panthers goalie Ed Belfour high on the glove side.

"It was a good feeling," Armstrong said.

Belfour had been nearly unbeatable all night -- he stopped 39 of 41 shots -- but gave Armstrong a bit of room on the short side, and Armstrong lasered the puck there.

"Their [defenseman] kind of got back on me, and I think then [Belfour] started cheating over when he thought I was going to maybe pass it," Armstrong said. "And I decided to shoot just when he came off [the post] a little bit. He went down, so I put it up high."

If Belfour was the major reason the Penguins had to work beyond regulation for the victory -- "He made a lot of real good saves on us," right winger Mark Recchi said -- goalie Jocelyn Thibault was the biggest one for why they were able to survive Belfour's brilliance.

He finished with 32 saves and, while he wasn't forced to be quite as spectacular as Belfour, he made numerous stops on quality scoring chances for the Panthers.

"It was a pretty good goaltending duel," Armstrong said. "[Thibault] played awesome for us. He made some huge saves."

The victory was Thibault's third in his past three starts and, although he insisted he is not looking to plant the seeds of a goaltending controversy, his strong play of late does give Penguins coach Michel Therrien an option if he remains dissatisfied with the performance of No. 1 goalie Marc-Andre Fleury.

"I've been working real hard all year in practice and watching Marc-Andre play," Thibault said. "I was just waiting for my chance and, when I get a chance to play, I try to make the best of it. ... It's a great feeling to be able to chip in like that toward the end of the season."

The victory elevated the Penguins' record to 33-18-9, and kept them in fourth place in the Eastern Conference.

"Who would believe the Pittsburgh Penguins would be in fourth place in the Eastern Conference?" Panthers center Olli Jokinen said. "They struggled in the past few years, but they've been rebuilding and getting players like [Sidney] Crosby and [Evgeni] Malkin and doing good drafting."

Florida, meanwhile, remains mired in 13th place and surrendered a precious point by losing in overtime.

"It's tough, but, as long as you still have a chance, you have to keep fighting," Panthers defenseman Jay Bouwmeester said. "We still have a lot of games against the team's we're chasing. We need a lot of help, but, at the same time, all you can worry about is what you're doing."

Penguins rookie Jordan Staal got the only goal of the first period when he deflected a Malkin shot past Belfour during a five-on-three power play at 16:25 for his 25th of the season.

Crosby picked up the second assist, raising his league-leading points total to 96.

Despite giving up that goal to Staal, Belfour had a strong first period, a portent of his play all night.

He stopped Crosby from the left side just 15 seconds after the opening faceoff, scurried across the crease and threw out his left leg to deny Malkin from inside the right circle during an early Penguins power play, then rejected an uncontested shot by Recchi from in front with 1:52 to go before the intermission.

Neither goalie lost his edge during the intermission as Belfour stopped Recchi from the slot at 8:50, and 90 seconds later, Thibault thwarted Ville Peltonen from the inner edge of the left circle.

"I had some great chances," Recchi said. "Obviously, you'd like to put them in, but Belfour's done that to a lot of people."

The Panthers finally spoiled Thibault's bid for his first shutout since Oct. 8, 2003, at 17:41, when Juraj Kolnik took a feed from Chris Gratton and beat Thibault from the front edge of the crease.

That was the final goal either team got until Armstrong buried the overtime winner behind Belfour.

"He's a good goalie," Thibault said. "It's nice to beat him."

And even nicer to get a superb performance from Thibault at a time when Fleury is not at his best.

"This gives [Fleury] a little breather, and we'll get him sharp again," Recchi said. "Then we'll be rolling."



--------------------------------------------------------------------------------

(Dave Molinari can be reached at DWMolinari@Yahoo.com. )

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Once snubbed, new chance for Oliver


02/18/2007 10:00 AM ET

Vets' Hall ballot features versatile hitter among hopefuls

By Chris Girandola / MLB.com

On Sept. 14, 1968, Al Oliver received the call that the Pittsburgh Pirates had summoned him to the Majors.

Soon after, he received another call that his father had passed away from silicosis, a condition that results from dust build-up in the lungs.

It was a day that understandably changed his life.

Oliver, who had lost his mother when he was 11 years old, would have to tackle the rigors of professional sports without the two biggest influences in his life.

In addition, the 21-year-old Ohio native would have to do so as a replacement parent, as he raised his younger brother and a teenage sister who was pregnant.

Facing such hurdles, Oliver accepted his fate.

"I was instilled with great confidence and a strong sense of responsibility," Oliver told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. "I had enough common sense to listen to what my parents said and took heed. Everything my dad said to me as a young kid was true. I was taught as a youth to be a self-motivator and to have a standard of high self-esteem."

Oliver used those values well, overcoming his difficult situation to churn out Hall of Fame-type numbers, retiring after the 1985 season after amassing an impressive 18-year career with seven different organizations.

Oliver finished with more than 2,700 hits, a .303 lifetime batting average, more than 500 doubles and 1,300-plus RBIs. He was a seven-time All Star and finished in the top 10 in MVP voting several times.


In addition, he earned a World Series championship ring with Pittsburgh in 1971.

In 1991, it was expected that Oliver's resume would lead to induction into the Hall of Fame.

But not only did the Baseball Writers' Association of America decide not to induct Oliver, having 19 out of 443 votes on the first ballot knocked him out of any future chances.

Oliver gets another opportunity, though, in 2007, as one of 27 former Major League players on the Hall of Fame Veterans Committee ballot.

And the Oliver supporters might descend on Cooperstown in droves to ensure his induction, considering his accomplishments on and off the field.

"It's hard to imagine why Al Oliver is not in the Hall of Fame," said Bill Neri-Amadeo of the Black Athletes Sports Network. "Statistics tell a story and they tell that during his playing career, only Pete Rose and Rod Carew had more hits. However, there is a whole other side to Al Oliver and that side includes public speaking engagements as well as creating a foundation in his name that is dedicated to helping the youth, elderly and veterans build self-esteem through a variety of activities."

Oliver played half of his career with the Pirates, from 1968 to 1977, before being traded on Dec. 8, 1977. He was part of a four-team deal that included the Atlanta Braves and the New York Mets, traded by the Bucs with Nelson Norman to the Texas Rangers.

Complete Hall of Fame coverage > Oliver spent four years with the Rangers and became the club's all-time leading hitter with a .319 batting average. He reached the club's top 10 in every batting category before being dealt to the Expos in a March 1982 trade for third baseman Larry Parrish.

Playing first base for Montreal in 1982, Oliver batted a career-high .331 and captured the NL batting title while also leading the National League in hits, total bases, doubles, RBIs, runs created and extra-base hits. He made the Silver Slugger team for three straight years and was the first to do so at three different positions (left field in 1980, designated hitter in '81, and first base in '82). He also became the first player to amass 200 hits and 100 RBIs in both the American and National Leagues.




Oliver was involved in trades with the Giants and the Phillies in 1984 and spent the first half of the 1985 season with the Dodgers before winding up in Toronto, for whom he delivered a pair of game-winning hits in the 1985 League Championship Series.

Oliver retired after the 1985 season and ranks in the Majors' all-time top 50 in games played (2,368), hits (2,743), total bases (4,083), RBIs (1,326), and extra-base hits (825). His hits rank 47th on the MLB all-time list and his 529 doubles rank 28th on the all-time list.

He finished second in the 1969 NL Rookie of the Year voting after batting .285 with 17 home runs, and from 1970-76 he helped the Pirates win five division titles, including the World Series banner in 1971. He batted .300 or more 10 times in his career and, despite a relatively low home run total (219), he put up numbers at his position which were the best in terms of most runs created (1,341) during the period from 1961-1999.

Despite these numbers, Oliver was snubbed in the 1991 Hall of Fame balloting, a year after Joe Morgan was inducted with numbers that included a lower career batting average (.271) and lower numbers in hits (2,517), doubles (449) and RBIs (1,134) in more games (2,650).

But Oliver isn't bitter. In fact, he's pleasantly surprised he's been given another opportunity.

"I would never, ever thought I would have a second chance," Oliver said. "Surprisingly, [the low total in 1991] didn't bother me. Everybody else was mad for me. I was disappointed, but never angry."

The Veterans Committee electorate (currently at 83 members), is comprised of the living Hall of Fame members (60), Ford C. Frick Award recipients (14), J.G. Taylor Spink Award recipients (eight) and former Veterans Committee members whose terms have not yet expired (one).

"The only thing I can say is that, sure, the numbers are there," said Oliver. "If they look very closely at the total package, I like to think, if they are fair, there's a good possibility. My suitcase is open."

Chris Girandola is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

Bucs' LaRoche wants playoffs, not .500



By Rob Biertempfel
PITTSBURGH TRIBUNE-REVIEW
Thursday, February 22, 2007

BRADENTON, Fla. - The first full-squad spring training workout is a day for high hopes and feel-good stories.
So when the Pirates tugged on their gear and stepped onto the grass Wednesday afternoon, there was a rush of optimism that maybe -- just maybe -- this is the year they reach .500.

Adam LaRoche, one of the newest Pirates and a huge building block for the team's future, wanted none of that.

LaRoche demands more than just a break-even record.

"I don't think in three years (with Atlanta), I don't ever think I heard the word .500 mentioned," LaRoche said. "That's what I want to bring over here. I don't want to do it in a way like, 'This is how it is. I know everything.' I want to feel these guys out and, hopefully, we'll get to the point where we come to spring training with a common goal, and that's the playoffs."

LaRoche began his career with the Atlanta Braves, and he slugged 65 home runs over three seasons. Last season was the first time since 1990 that the Braves did not make the postseason.

"In my opinion, if you don't get in the playoffs, it's a losing season," LaRoche said. "Just getting to .500 is never going to be my goal, and I'd like to get that out of everybody's heads here. But, that's easy for me to say because I haven't been here playing with these guys and I haven't seen the struggles and frustrations."

LaRoche is aware the Pirates are riding a string of 14 consecutive losing seasons. That dismal run discouraged him, he admits, when he first heard he had been traded from Atlanta.

But LaRoche said he felt better about the situation after meeting with general manager Dave Littlefield and manager Jim Tracy.

"It's refreshing to see the direction they want to go," LaRoche said. "They don't want to stay a mediocre team."

LaRoche was a little surprised by the enthusiasm he felt from fans when he was in Pittsburgh last month for PirateFest.

"My dad played for a long time, up in Cleveland and for other northern teams," LaRoche said. "My mom told me, 'You're going to love it up there. Those are true fans, not like in some southern cities.' "


Newly acquired first baseman Adam LaRoche greets Hall of Famer Bill Mazeroski before the Pirates' first full squad spring training workout at Bradenton, Fla.

In Atlanta, divisional-round playoff games have not been sellouts in recent years.

"They're 100 percent spoiled," LaRoche said. "They got so used to it, it's like, 'Hurry up and get to the World Series and then we'll show up.' It's not that easy."

Even after watching LaRoche's smooth swing launch deep fly balls off the fences at Pirate City yesterday, Tracy and Littlefield played it cool about the new first baseman.

"He worked out. That's it," Tracy said.

"I do sense there is a little bit of an uplift," Littlefield said. "This is something that will help us. But I think when you look around there are a lot of good things happening."

However, LaRoche is well aware he faces giant expectations this season.

"I love it," LaRoche said. "In Atlanta, there were enough older guys -- Chipper (Jones), Andruw (Jones), (John) Smoltz -- that took on that responsibility. I feel lucky I was able to sit around for three years and learn from them, just the little things about leadership and about taking a team on your shoulders.

"This is my turn on a young team. It will be a little different, but I think I'm ready for it."


Rob Biertempfel can be reached at rbiertempfel@tribweb.com or (412) 320-7811.

Spring Training: For Pirates, a day in the sun


Adam LaRoche signs autographs during the Pirates' first full-squad workout in Bradenton, Fla.

A step-by-step walk through the first full-squad workout

Thursday, February 22, 2007

By Dejan Kovacevic, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

BRADENTON, Fla. -- Jeff Cox, the Pirates' animated, affable third base coach, woke at the crack of dawn, tugged open the curtains and smiled.

Upon arrival at Pirate City yesterday morning, the smile grew wider.




Freddy Sanchez fields ground balls during the Pirates' workout.


"Christmas, New Year's, Thanksgiving, Easter, birthdays ... and the first full-squad workout!" he shouted to no one in particular. "Best days of the year!"

Few at any level of baseball would dispute it.

It is the one day when all is pristine, when everyone has a chance, when all hope for the season ahead is endless as the bright, blue sky that yesterday overwhelmed this immaculately manicured four-field complex framed by an orange grove.

A walking tour ...

***

The day began at McKechnie Field, about a 10-minute drive across town, for all 67 players. That is where they dress, commiserate and, for the position players who just reported Tuesday, check in with equipment manager Roger Wilson.

That also is where, as per the latest clubhouse fad, they eat peanut-butter bagels.

"Not bad," pitcher Zach Duke mumbled through a full mouth.

***

They tend to drive in groups to get to Pirate City, and they started arriving at about 11 a.m., an hour before manager Jim Tracy's annual spring speech.

Among the pitchers who came earlier for bullpen sessions was Shane Youman, and he was visibly frustrated on the mound. His first dozen pitches were too high, his next dozen too low. He turned to bullpen coach Bobby Cuellar and asked how to address a timing issue.

Next came 10 strikes.

"I was leaning in," Youman said. "I'm fine now. It's early."

***

Masumi Kuwata, another early bird pitcher, was not the media star for once. Rather, one of the Japanese media was.

Yuko Aoyama, a TV anchor for Japan's national NHK network, might be as well known there as Kuwata. And, on this day, perhaps as a show of respect from the rest of the media, she stood next to Kuwata during his 15-camera interview session and was allowed to ask nearly every question.



Shortstop Jack Wilson greets Hall of Fame second baseman Bill Mazeroski before the Pirates' first full squad spring training workout at Bradenton, Fla.

Minutes afterward, she explained why she would travel such a distance to cover the story of a 38-year-old pitcher whose last good season came in 2002.

"He was a star in Japan, and he dropped everything to come here," Aoyama said through a translator. "Everybody in our country has the same question: Why?"

And what, she was asked, might the answer be?

"For the Japanese, a challenge is very important. What Mr. Kuwata is doing, even though he had an established career, is working to extend his dream."

***

Noon was time for Tracy's speech, and some coaches who had been working other drills sprinted toward the cafeteria, fearing they might be late.

Tracy's message, predictably, stressed his oft-stated goal of carrying over the good feeling from the second half of last season, when the Pirates were 37-35 after the All-Star break.

"That's all there was to it," Tracy said of the speech. "Beyond that, there's not really a whole lot to say. I just think it's really important for these guys to realize two things: One is that they're pretty good. Two is to realize that what they did over the course of the last three months of last season and take that into April 2007."

Tracy also pushed the notion that players will be bypassed if they do not perform, now that, in his eyes, the Pirates are improving.

"If you're not interested in raising your level, we're going to move on."

***

Nearly 100 uniformed personnel took the field at 1:05 p.m. with no cloud in sight and temperatures in the 80s.

But that was not the most powerful sign that the Pirates' spring training is under way. That always comes when the man with uniform No. 9 shows up, bat and golden glove in hand, and it did this year during the opening stretches.

"Amazing," Bill Mazeroski said. "It's always nice weather on this day each year."

He and another member of that fabled 1960 team, Bill Virdon, who still looks as if he could challenge Chris Duffy for work in center field, hit fungoes and infield grounders.

***

Not everyone was thrilled about all those people in the grass. Andy Berrones, one of the Pirates' groundskeepers from nearby Palmetto, cringed in watching hundreds of spikes trample his year-round project.

"It's a little frustrating," he said. "There's a lot of work that goes into this. We water it, we mow it every second day, we patch it up and ... aw, it's OK, man. It's a privilege to work around major-leaguers. And they're nice, too. They always shake your hand when you walk by."

***

The 200 or so fans, milling through the chained-off center of the complex, have a clear view of all four fields from behind all four batting cages.



Adam LaRoche waits his turn at the batting cage yeterday.


But, at 2:19 p.m., all eyes turned toward the most anticipated event of the day -- at least for the non-Japanese -- as new first baseman Adam LaRoche stepped to the plate for his first batting practice.

The first six of his trademark sweet swings graduated from grounders to lazy flies to looping liners. Bench coach Jim Lett, standing in the outfield, predicted that the next round would have LaRoche hitting one "into the swamp" beyond right field.

Sure enough, the last swing of that round brought a high, deep, fly ball to right-center ... that clanged off the tin 370-foot sign atop the mesh fence.

Afterward, hitting coach Jeff Manto spent a few minutes outside the cage with LaRoche.

Giving pointers?

"No, he's giving them to me," Manto said.

***

The newsiest event of the day came with Jose Castillo taking grounders at third base, making at one point for the highly unusual sight of Castillo standing idle while looking to his left as minor-league middle infielders Brian Bixler and Don Kelly turned a double play.

Castillo, the Pirates' second baseman for three years, was moved to third base for the day -- and maybe more -- in what caused the most buzz among those in attendance.

The beleaguered Castillo, having been criticized and losing his starting job this offseason, mostly kept to himself.

***

Freddy Sanchez and Jack Wilson, close friends, were inseparable all afternoon. From turning double plays on the field next to Castillo, to running other drills, to signing autographs, they moved everywhere in lock step.

One autograph seeker apologized to Sanchez for wearing a Red Sox T-shirt until he remembered that Sanchez was developed in the Boston system.

When that same guy handed his pen to Wilson, Wilson playfully shot back, "What do you want mine for? I never played in Pawtucket."

***

The instruction happens all over. Some of it is structured and personalized, as with prospect Neil Walker's continuing lessons on becoming a third baseman. Some of it is spontaneous, such as when Tracy lifts the bat out of a bunter's hand to teach proper technique.

And some of it cannot be found in any manual.

David Parrish, a journeyman catcher, let out a loud grunt after Kevin Gryboski's final pitch of a bullpen session skipped off his big mitt.

He rose to fetch the ball at the backstop when pitching coach Jim Colborn, standing near the mound, yelled out, "David!"

Parrish turned to see a ball coming his way, lobbed by Colborn.

"Always finish with a catch," Colborn said.

***

The day ended at 2:45 for the catchers, dripping wet even after peeling off their equipment. The rest followed shortly before 3.

Players are met by the media as they leave the field, and most of those interviewed expressed unbridled optimism for the coming season. Such a sentiment, of course, is the only thing more common on this day than the sparkling weather.



Manager Jim Tracy and general manager Dave Littlefield watch the Pirates' first full squad spring training workout in Bradenton, Fla.

General manager Dave Littlefield spoke to reporters of detecting a "more positive" vibe this spring, partly as the result of the LaRoche trade.

Few would dispute it, including the straight-shooting Jason Bay.

"LaRoche makes a difference, no question," Bay said. "But I think the biggest thing is that we've had so many uncertainties since I've been here, whether it was staff, coaching, players, all that stuff. This year, there aren't many spots open. And I think that's where our good feeling comes from. We're not hoping anymore from certain spots. We know what we're going to get."

He paused.

"And there are good players. That's when you know you're starting to improve."

***

One of those good players, at least according to mammoth expectations that followed him from Atlanta, will be LaRoche.

His day?

"It's always a good day, the first big workout, and this one felt really good," he said, heading to the car with his bag slung over his shoulder. "Anytime you go to a new team, there's a lot of getting used to things and different expectations. And I'll tell you what: I like what I heard and saw out there."


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(Dejan Kovacevic can be reached at dkovacevic@post-gazette.com. )

Bob Smizik: Lange back, but will he remain here?



On the air with Bob Smizik

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Sometimes the printed word fails us. Consider the following, 17 seconds of radio play-by-play by Mike Lange in the final minute of the Penguins' loss Monday to the New York Islanders. The call opens with Sidney Crosby in control of the puck behind the Islanders' net.

"Look at Crosby dance with it. Around back the other side to the near wing. Crosby's putting on the Ritz. Open man ... Recchi ... good shot ... better save DiPietro.

"Loose puck. Crosby wants it. Can't get it.

"The Islanders have it. Here they come. Hilbert on the left wing to the Penguins' end. Drop pass to Sillinger. Wrister ... scores."

You had to be there to believe it.

Lange used short bursts of words, full of emotion, to convey the drama and the emotion of the closing seconds of what had been a tie game. Even though the goal meant defeat for the Penguins, Lange never let on the team that pays his salary had lost. He was there to call a hockey game, not root for the home team. It was radio play-by-play at its best, as good as it gets.

Suffice to say, Mike Lange is back.

Lange, in his 31st year as a Penguins broadcaster, won't say it, but he's determined to prove the people who fired him wrong. His career is not over. In fact, it's flourishing.

Lange was fired in June as the Penguins' television announcer by FSN Pittsburgh, which owns the rights to the games. He was replaced by Paul Steigerwald, his former color analyst who had been doing radio. Lange was humbled. A few weeks later, he agreed to do the radio, where the rights are owned by the Penguins.

He makes no attempt to hide his disappointment about losing his job nor the fact he remains unhappy with how it was handled.

"I won't lie to you," Lange said the other day. "There is more money in TV. I took a gigantic hit."

He won't be doing Penguins television any time soon. FSN is happy with Steigerwald and Lange remains unhappy with FSN.

"I don't think [the firing] was done in a professional manner. They called my agent [in late June] and said, 'As of tomorrow he's fired.' If they wanted me to change some things, at least they could have offered me that. They didn't."

Lange had signed a two-year contract with FSN before the 2005-06 season. But FSN had the option for the second year and exercised it. With the firing coming so close to the start of the hockey season, Lange had little choice but to accept the radio job, which was a one-year deal. He might be more discerning after this season.

"I'm committed to working with the team and finishing the season," he said. "We'll see what happens after that. I still enjoy broadcasting, and we'll just have to see what presents itself. I'm going to explore every option. If I find something that's comparable ...

"I do love Pittsburgh, but the scene has changed for me. There isn't any doubt about that. I've been turned aside from TV. I'm not their No. 1 guy any more. I have to do what's best for me. I have to consider my career."

Working against Lange is this: As good as he can be, the era of announcers approaching the importance of players, a status Lange once had, is over. It's not like 20 years ago when the vast majority of games were handled by a small number of hometown announcers. Today, games are everywhere; often we don't know the announcers' names.

They might not be interchangeable, but the public hears so many it almost approaches that level. Consequently, the value of play-by-play announcers, particularly on radio, has declined.

What also might hurt Lange, but what definitely should not, is he's not a homer. If you listen to his broadcasts, you know he's the Penguins' announcer, but he's not there to provide excuses and alibis. He calls a game much more down the middle than announcers for most teams. That's the right way to do it, but not all teams might look at it that way.

Once Lange was as big a story as the players. He took on iconic status when the Penguins weren't particularly good and chronicled the glorious Stanley Cup years. He's proving again he's as good as he ever was. That might make him too good to stay with the Penguins.


Elsewhere


Dennis Galloway, a Pittsburgh native, has been hired by the Mid-Atlantic Sports Network to be director for Baltimore Orioles' telecasts. Galloway directed Pirates telecasts for 20 years before being fired after the 2005 season ... Richard Sutphen, long-time KDKA and FSN employee, is FSN's new producer for Pirates telecasts. ... The 1979 Steelers will be profiled tonight at 8 on "America's Game," on the NFL Network.


--------------------------------------------------------------------------------
(Bob Smizik can be reached at bsmizik@post-gazette.com. )

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Spring Training: Freddy not scripting sequel



Sanchez says consistency the priority, not another batting title

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

By Dejan Kovacevic, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

BRADENTON, Fla. -- Two springs ago, Freddy Sanchez kept a low profile in a quiet corner of the McKechnie Field clubhouse. His main concern: Stay healthy after a long bout with an ankle injury.

Last spring, Sanchez was back in that same corner with another modest concern: Earn a place on the bench, backing up Joe Randa.

This spring?

Suffice it to say that it is amazing, given all Sanchez has experienced in the past year, that his head fit through the doorway when he showed up at McKechnie yesterday morning for a light workout.

Never mind that National League batting title.

Or even the multimillion-dollar contract he signed last month.

This is someone whose offseason included having "Freddy Sanchez Day" declared in his native Burbank, Calif., having his uniform No. 21 retired by Burbank High School and being counted among Pittsburgh Magazine's 25 most beautiful people.

"Yeah, it's been a lot," he said yesterday after suiting up for the first time. "But nothing's going to change about me, I can promise you that. Nothing's going to change as far as the hunger and the way I play my game, no matter what happened last year. My game stays the same."

Well, one aspect might change, as he allowed in the next breath.

"What I think can change is that I go into the season with a little more confidence, and maybe I can try to become a little more of a leader. We all need to get things going early for us to be successful, and we need to work together to make that happen."

It is not uncommon for Sanchez to talk about the team even when asked about himself, and that again appears to be his mind-set.

"It's time for us to start winning. That's what I'm thinking about. No more excuses. And that means players like me, Jason Bay, Jack Wilson, Xavier Nady ... we all have to step it up and make sure we're setting the right example."

For Sanchez to step it up individually might be more difficult than for the team. It is not easy to produce an adequate sequel for a season's output that includes a .344 average, 200 hits and 53 doubles.

Which probably explains why he is setting no such goal.

"It's not a matter of trying to get better. It's a matter of being consistent, of doing it year in and year out," he said. "I'm not looking at this like I've got to do better than last year. Am I going to hit .340 every year? No. Not even the best hitter in the world hits .340 every year. But can I take the same approach and be consistent for my team? Yeah, I think I can do that."

As such, this spring promises little new for Sanchez, save a couple of elements.

One is that he might not know which position he will play this season until just a few days before the April 2 opener in Houston. Management is having Jose Castillo and Jose Bautista duel for the lone remaining starting job in the infield. If Castillo keeps his place at second base, Sanchez will stay at third. If Bautista wins, Sanchez will switch full time to second.

"I'm not worried about that at all. I'm used to it," Sanchez said. "Wherever they play me, I'm ready for either. Obviously, I'm going to have to work hard at each position. It's possible I might not know which one I'm playing until three days before the opener, but that's fine. If I work hard at both all spring, it won't matter."

The other change: Sanchez's locker stall finally is out of that corner and part of a set of three that stands prominently at the forefront of the clubhouse, alongside fellow All-Stars Bay and Wilson.

As for that head fitting through the doorway ...

"It's not swelled," Sanchez said. "I'm a firm believer in that it doesn't matter what you did last year, whether you hit .202 or .342. I'm the same person, and I'll work hard to be the same player."


--------------------------------------------------------------------------------

(Dejan Kovacevic can be reached at dkovacevic@post-gazette.com. )

Bob Smizik: Penguins' turnaround defies odds


Jordan Staal of the Penguins checks Patrik Elias of the Devils (2/16).

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

How did this happen?

Here are, in no particular order, the top five reasons why the Penguins are where they are today, according to Bob Smizik:


* Jordan Staal: He wasn't supposed to make the team. In the slight likelihood he did, he would be along for the ride to kill penalties and play on a fourth line. After all, he is only 18. He was barely old enough to be drafted. But he has 24 goals and has moved from center to left wing to give the Penguins a formidable second line. Not bad for a kid who scored 28 goals in Juniors last year.


* Sidney Crosby: Everyone knew he was marked for greatness. But at 19? He leads the league in scoring with a 15-point lead over Vincent Lecavalier. The 16th-leading scorer in the league is closer to Lecavalier than Lecavalier is to Crosby.



* Evgeni Malkin: He will do what Crosby could not do last year -- win the Calder Trophy as rookie of the year. He leads all rookies in scoring by 14 points. His 67 points are double the output of all but three NHL rookies. He's on pace to score 93 points, a Crosbyesque total.


* Marc-Andre Fleury: He's living up to the hype that comes with being the first pick in the draft. His 29 wins are fourth best in the NHL. Despite being only 22, he's developing into a franchise-type goalie. It's looking more and more like the Penguins made a serious mistake by not keeping him with the team at the start of last season.
















* Michel Therrien: Best known as a harsh disciplinarian when he took over the team last season, Therrien has been tough but also flexible enough to let his young team grow. He installed a system that makes their NHL growth come easier.In the recent history of professional sports, there have been rare occasions when a team has gone from last place to first place in one year. The Atlanta Braves, for example, went from sixth and last place to first place in 1991. The advent of free agency in all sports and the ability it gives teams to make an almost immediate and drastic revamping of their roster, along with a trend toward smaller divisions, makes this unusual development possible.

But here's what would figure to be impossible.

Going from last to last to last to last to first.

That's what the Penguins, who are 14-1-2 in their past 17 games, are attempting to do. After four consecutive sixth and last-place finishes, the Penguins aren't just playoff contenders, they're candidates to finish first in the Atlantic Division and a threat to any team in the Stanley Cup playoffs.

It's questionable whether the Penguins' furious charge up the NHL standings eventually will carry them to first place in the Atlantic Division -- they trail New Jersey by seven points -- but the mere fact the subject is up for discussion is testimony to one of the great revivals in sports history.

No one expected this. There was hope the team would make the playoffs, which often does not require a winning record. But the Penguins are 32-18-9 going into their game tomorrow night at Florida. Considering the team's youth, their slow start was not unexpected, but now the Penguins are among the elite of the league.

With 23 games remaining, they already have 10 more wins than last season and nine more than the previous season.

It has all served to markedly increase the interest in the Penguins. Games are regularly sold out, and there is a distinct buzz about the team that hasn't been here since the 2000-01 season, when Mario Lemieux was at the height of his comeback and the Penguins were thick with talented veterans. That's the beauty of this team and why the buzz is so intense. It's thin with talented veterans. Mark Recchi, at 39, is enjoying a memorable season -- 20 goals and 55 points. Sergei Gonchar, 32, is the second-leading scorer among NHL defensemen. There are five other players over 30, 14 in their 20s and two teenagers. Eleven of the team's players were born in the 1980s.

It is too early to call this a dynasty in the making but such a future is not out of the question. What makes that future even brighter is that the Penguins will become a desired destination for free agents. With the salary cap in place, there's not a tremendous difference between what teams can pay free agents. Why not come to Pittsburgh where a championship team is being built? If you're a winger, why not come to Pittsburgh and play beside Crosby or with Malkin and Staal?

It looks like all those last places are soon to be equaled and surpassed by first places.

Penguins' streak comes to an end


Marc-Andre Fleury surrenders the winning goal in the third period yesterday against the Islanders at Nassau Coliseum in Uniondale, N.Y. The Islanders defeated the Penguins, 6-5.

Fleury caps shaky performance by allowing a goal with 26.8 seconds remaining

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

By Dave Molinari, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

UNIONDALE, N.Y. -- Marc-Andre Fleury obviously did not stop every shot he faced during the Penguins' 14-0-2 run.

He didn't even stop every one he could have. Or should have.

But Fleury invariably seemed to come up with the key save when his team needed it most. Sometimes in regulation. Sometimes in overtime. Sometimes in a shootout.

Almost always, when it truly mattered.

Not yesterday. Fleury's performance in the Penguins' 6-5 loss to the New York Islanders at Nassau Coliseum -- their first defeat in regulation since a 5-2 setback Jan. 10 at Florida -- ran the gamut from awful to abysmal, with a bit of average sprinkled in.

And his afternoon came to a horrific end when, with 26.8 seconds left in regulation, Islanders center Mike Sillinger took a drop pass from Andy Hilbert and beat Fleury with a terribly ordinary shot from the top of the left circle to break a 5-5 tie.

"[Sillinger] shot from beside my defenseman's leg," Fleury said. "I don't know. It went [between] my pads and my glove."

Fleury's teammates, not surprisingly, had no qualms about giving him a mulligan for stopping just 24 of 30 shots. They noted that they were guilty of breakdowns that let New York score twice in 15 seconds early in the second period, and that they had leads in every period and were unable to protect any of them.

"We made some mistakes that really, really hurt us," right winger Mark Recchi said. "Especially when it was 3-1. There were some big momentum-killers there."

Coach Michel Therrien, however, wasn't nearly as charitable.

People near the Penguins' dressing room immediately after the game reported that Therrien gave Fleury a blistering assessment of his play, and he wasn't much easier on him when speaking with reporters.

"Fleury was not good," Therrien said. "This is four games in a row that he's given up way too many goals. ... Lately, we give him like four or five or six goals to help us to win games.

"He's got to be better than that. It can happen once in a while. This is four games in a row that I think Marc was ... fair. That's not good enough."

Therrien said that the idea of replacing Fleury with Jocelyn Thibault during the game "crossed my mind," but he did not make that switch.

While Fleury had a game he can't forget soon enough, his co-workers shrugged it off as an unfortunate, but inevitable, occurrence.

"He had a tough night, but we all have tough nights," center Sidney Crosby said. "When a goalie has a tough night, there are a lot more eyes on it than [when it happens to] a forward or a defenseman.

"He's saved our butts a lot this year. Hopefully, we'll all bounce back."

Fleury, one of the game's truly happy spirits, was visibly upset after the game, removing his equipment in a manner that bordered on violent, and punching the door that separates the visiting team's quarters at the Coliseum.

Whether that was Fleury's response to his own play -- or to Therrien's critique of it -- isn't known. What seems clear, though, is that Therrien's harsh evaluation almost certainly will have some sort of impact, positive or negative, on Fleury.

The loss stripped most of the luster for a spectacular afternoon by the Penguins' No. 1 line, which accounted for all five of their goals.

Left winger Ryan Malone got his second hat trick of the season -- the other came against the Islanders Dec. 15 at Mellon Arena -- by scoring in the first minute of each period, while Recchi scored two goals and assisted on the other three and Crosby had four assists to push his league-leading points total to 95.

Few would have expected the Penguins to lose a game in which their best line was so productive.

"That's how the hockey gods work sometimes," Crosby said. "It's not always fair or right."

There was, however, probably some justice in the Penguins finally losing a game in which they squandered yet another multiple-goal lead. That has become a staple of their game and the hard reality is that if a team lives on the edge long enough, eventually, it's going to fall off.

Especially when its goaltender isn't there to save it. Which is why the Penguins' 14-0-2 streak is now nothing more than a footnote in franchise history.

"Everybody wanted to keep it going," Fleury said. "It was going well for us. ... It would have been a good two points."


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(Dave Molinari can be reached at DWMolinari@Yahoo.com.)

Ron Cook: Malkin outplays Ovechkin again



Sergei Gonchar and Evgeni Malkin celebrate Malkin's second-period goal against the Capitals yesterday at Mellon Arena.

Malkin continues to get the best of Ovechkin in rivalry

Monday, February 19, 2007

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Where was George Birman when we really needed him?

A Penguins employee, he serves as the team's Russian translator.

Where was he when the Penguins' Evgeni Malkin hooked up with the Washington Capitals' Alex Ovechkin in the bowels of Mellon Arena early last night after the Penguins' 3-2 win?

Wouldn't you have loved to been a part of that little chat between the two good friends and former Russian national teammates?

Here's a guess how their conversation might have went:

"Hang in there, Ovie. Keep playing hard. One of these days, you'll get the best of Sid and me."

Actually, we won't attempt to speculate Ovechkin's response.

It can't possibly be suited for One of America's Great Newspapers.

"Yeah, of course, I'm enjoying playing against him, especially when we win," Malkin had said through Birman a bit earlier in the Penguins' locker room. "He's getting pretty mad."

No translation was needed to decipher Malkin's and Birman's laughter.

Yes, these are fabulous times for the Penguins, who ran their unbeaten-in-regulation streak to 14-0-2 with another workmanlike performance. These are fabulous times for Malkin, who, strange as it seems now, was something of a consolation prize for the Penguins in the 2004 NHL entry draft. Despite finishing with the league's worst record the season before, the Penguins lost the draft lottery to the Capitals, who took Ovechkin No. 1. The Penguins settled for Malkin at No. 2.

Talk about a lovely parting gift.

Talk about the start of a beautiful rivalry between friends.

For the next 10 or 15 years, the Penguins-Capitals series figures to be noted for the duel between Sidney Crosby and Ovechkin. Because of the NHL lockout in 2004-05, the two came into the league together last season. Ovechkin edged Crosby for the Calder Trophy as rookie of the year.

That's about the only time Ovechkin has beaten Crosby, by the way. His Capitals are 1-6 against Crosby's Penguins.

Ovechkin has had even less success against Malkin, who almost certainly will succeed him as the Calder Trophy winner. The Penguins are 3-0 against the Capitals this season with Malkin playing a huge role in two of the wins. Ovechkin, meanwhile, didn't score a goal.

"I'm sure [Malkin] gets extra motivation when he plays a good friend," Penguins coach Michel Therrien said.

That first showed when the clubs played a mid-December game in Washington. Malkin tied the score with a goal late in regulation, then won it in a shootout. It showed again yesterday when Malkin gave the Penguins a 2-1 lead late in the second period with a sick goal, beating goaltender Brent Johnson to the short side with a rocket shot from a ridiculous angle to Johnson's left.

"An amazing shot," Crosby said.

"An incredible goal," teammate Mark Recchi said.

"A perfect shot," Therrien said.

Yeah, that sick.

"Only a few guys can score that goal. Most don't even try that shot," Recchi said, shaking his head.

Thing is, Recchi has seen that goal before. In the same old building, no less. That goes back to his first stint with the Penguins in the late '80s and early '90s. Though he admits to feeling sacrilegious at times, he has not been afraid to compare Malkin to you know who.

Mario.

"I've said that from day one," Recchi said. "His size, his hands ..."

Malkin has a ways to go to match Lemieux's popularity here, but he's off to a nice start. Look at the adversity he has shrugged off. His odyssey from Magnitogorsk last summer. The language and cultural differences. A shoulder injury in his first exhibition game that wiped out most of his preseason and cost him the first four games of the regular season.

Despite it all, Malkin is the NHL's leading rookie scorer with 29 goals, 37 assists and 66 points. He has scored at least a point in his past 14 home games. And he has been his best in the clutch with 12 goals and 14 assists in the third period and overtime.

There is one more thing.

Malkin has pulled within six points of Ovechkin in their personal battle.

Do you think Malkin might have mentioned something about that to Ovechkin last night?

Really, has anyone seen George Birman?


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(Ron Cook can be reached at rcook@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1525. )

Thibault brilliant in 3-2 win



High-flying Penguins don't lose any momentum with Fleury getting the day off as Thibault stops 29 shots

Monday, February 19, 2007

By Dave Molinari, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Jocelyn Thibault didn't steal the Penguins' No. 1 goaltending job from Marc-Andre Fleury yesterday.

He didn't earn his own segment in the team's highlights tape, and didn't make the folks who selected the Eastern Conference All-Stars second-guess the decision to leave him out of the game.

But he did stop 29 of the 31 shots he faced during the Penguins' 3-2 victory against Washington at Mellon Arena. And, in the process, reinforce bosses' and teammates' faith that he can be a significant contributor during the stretch drive.

Whether they all share center Maxime Talbot's feeling that "he's definitely the best backup in the league" isn't clear, but they clearly expect quality work from Thibault anytime he's called upon.

"We have full confidence in him," defenseman Mark Eaton said. "He showed us again today that he's a top-notch goalie."

The start was Thibault's first since a 7-2 victory in Phoenix Jan. 27, but he isn't likely to go three weeks without working again this season. Not with 17 games shoehorned onto the schedule in March.

"We're going to have to use both goalies, because there's a lot of hockey to be played in a short period of time," coach Michel Therrien said. "It was great to see Jocelyn performing the way he's capable."

Thibault helped to extend the Penguins' surge to 14-0-2, raise their record to 32-17-9 and move them back into sole possession of fourth place in the Eastern Conference, two points ahead of Ottawa.

They have the third-highest total in the East, but are ranked fourth because Tampa Bay, which has four fewer points, leads the Southeast Division. Division winners get the top three seeds in each conference.

Penguins center Sidney Crosby recorded a narrow victory in his head-to-head competition with Capitals left winger Alexander Ovechkin, who beat him out for the Calder Trophy last season.

Crosby picked up one assist, raising his league-leading points total to 91. He has one goal and two assists in three games against Washington this season, and four goals and eight assists in seven all-time meetings; Ovechkin has two assists against the Penguins this season, three goals and five assists all time.

Ovechkin tied Alexander Semin for the team lead with five shots on goal yesterday, but was held fairly well in check. Therrien credited that mostly to the defense pairing of Eaton and Sergei Gonchar.

"They were really solid," he said. "They didn't give [Ovechkin] much."

The Penguins did a lot of solid things, like neutralizing Ovechkin. The only spectacular moment of the game, however, carried the signature of Penguins rookie Evgeni Malkin.

With the score 1-1 late in the second period, Gonchar threw the puck to Malkin, who was along the right-wing boards, near the bottom of the circle.

The logical play was for Malkin to take the pass, then look for a teammate in a more favorable scoring position and try to set him up.

Malkin apparently didn't see the need to involve a middle man, however, because he rifled the puck past Capitals goalie Brent Johnson from a ridiculously sharp angle without ever bothering to stop it.

Therrien described it as "a perfect shot," which might have been understating its brilliance. And while Malkin isn't the only one in the world who could pull that off, the contingent of guys who can could commute to work together in a minivan.

"Probably nobody in the building was thinking that he would shoot from that angle," Gonchar said. "But he's a special player who sees the ice differently.

"I'm sure he saw an opportunity, and decided to take advantage of it. That's why he's a great player."

And why Thibault, who watched the play unfold from about 175 feet away, could empathize with Johnson.

"I thought [Johnson] got across [the crease] pretty good," he said. "But it was just one of those shots where it's almost impossible to stop."

Penguins right winger Mark Recchi (5:59) and Richard Zednik of the Capitals (7:04) had traded goals in the first period, and the outcome was in doubt until Malkin scored at 18:44 of the second.

His goal invigorated the Penguins -- "We attacked the third period with confidence," Therrien said -- and Talbot put them ahead by two at 1:10 of the final period.

Semin, who hit the crossbar on a third-period penalty shot -- "It was luck," Thibault said. "I was beaten" -- made the score 3-2 on a blind backhander with 43.6 seconds to play, but that infusion of suspense didn't last.

"That was one of the better thirds we've had in a while," Recchi said. "We did a lot of good things. They scored at the end, but we really had a good, solid third period."

And their goalie had three of them.


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(Dave Molinari can be reached at DWMolinari@Yahoo.com.
)

Penguins hold on to beat Devils, 5-4


Devils goaltender Martin Brodeur reacts after giving up a a goal to Sidney Crosby of the Penguins.

Crosby nails winner as Penguins keep riding high, close gap on East-leading Devils

Saturday, February 17, 2007

By Dave Molinari, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- How can a hockey team tell when things are going its way?

Sometimes, there can be a few subtle clues.

Like when the fourth-line left winger just can't make it to the bench for a line change and ends up getting a goal.

And when a defensive defenseman who has not scored in 110 games -- and has done nothing to suggest he will do it in the next 110 -- beats the best goaltender in the game with a long-range wrist shot a couple of minutes later. Then can't give the goal away, no matter how hard he tries.

And especially when the team finds itself on a 13-0-2 roll, as the Penguins are in the wake of their 5-4 victory against New Jersey at Continental Airlines Arena last night.

The victory gave the Penguins (31-17-9) sole possession of fourth place in the Eastern Conference -- they actually leapfrogged Atlanta for third place in total points, but division-winners are guaranteed the top three seeds -- and, more important, moved them within five points of the Atlantic Division-leading Devils.

The Penguins are hardly a lock -- or even a reasonable bet -- to overtake New Jersey, even though they have a game-in-hand on the Devils. But the fact that it is a mathematical possibility at this point is little shy of remarkable.

"We were pretty far away not too long ago, and now it just seems like we can win our division," goalie Marc-Andre Fleury said. "We just have to keep going, keep winning, keep getting points, and we'll see."

Mind you, the Penguins make every point an adventure. After blowing multiple-goal leads in each of the previous three games, they failed to protect three separate three-goal advantages last night, although the Devils never pulled even after the Penguins got the first goal.

"We're not going to be able to beat good teams toward the end of the year if we keep doing this," defenseman Rob Scuderi said. "We'll take the win but, at the same time, it's becoming a bigger and bigger issue."

The Penguins took a 1-0 lead at 3:02 of the opening period, when left winger Jarkko Ruutu didn't have a chance to get off the ice when his line was replaced by the Penguins' No. 1 unit.

That meant Ryan Malone couldn't make it off the bench for that shift -- and that Ruutu was in position to steer a Josef Melichar shot past Devils goalie Martin Brodeur.

"I wanted to go change, but then I realized to go deep, that there was nobody in front," Ruutu said.

If that goal surprised the Devils -- and it clearly did -- the Penguins' second one absolutely had to stun them as Scuderi threw a shot past Brodeur from along the boards at the top of the right circle.

Scuderi immediately told the officials that Malone had deflected in his shot -- "It was pretty obvious that it was tipped," he said -- but the scorers did not find video evidence to support his contention and gave the goal to Scuderi, whether he wanted it or not.

The goal was his first since March 7, 2004, and pretty much filled his quota for the decade.

That gave the Penguins two goals on their first three shots and Melichar, who hadn't had a multiple-point game all season, two assists in a span of two minutes, 17 seconds.

Jordan Staal put the Penguins up by three at 17:54, thanks to a slick setup. Linemate Michel Ouellet had the puck behind the New Jersey net and slipped it to Staal, who was near the left side of the crease and stuck it inside the far post for his 24th.

The Devils finally broke through at 7:29 of the second, when defenseman Brian Rafalski beat Fleury with a wrist shot from the top of the right circle.

Sidney Crosby ended his eight-game goal drought by tossing a shot past Brodeur from above the right dot at 10:27 -- "I knew it would finally go in, so it was nice to get that one," he said -- and after Patrik Elias made it 4-2 at 12:33, Ruutu scored at 16:52 to lock up his first two-goal game as a Penguin.

But Zach Parise's power-play goal at 2:38 of the third made it 5-3, and New Jersey pulled within one when Fleury let a long shot from Travis Zajac bounce off his glove and tumble into the net at 8:50.

"Someone put Vaseline on my glove, I think, before the third," Fleury said, smiling. "I should have made the save. It just slipped out. I should have had that."

Yeah, he should have. But his mistake was frustrating, not fatal. And the Penguins, incredibly, are in position to contend for a division title during the final 25 games of the regular season.

"I don't think it's something we need to worry about," said Crosby, who finished with a goal and an assist to raise his league-leading points total to 90. "We all realize we play them three more times. We're just worrying about getting as many points as we can and wherever that brings us, so be it."



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(Dave Molinari can be reached at DWMolinari@Yahoo.com. )