Friday, August 31, 2007

Steelers need to get deal done with Faneca

Friday, August 31, 2007
By Ron Cook, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Nine days to go.

To when the Steelers open the regular season in Cleveland, sure. But also to management's self-imposed deadline to sign guard Alan Faneca to a new contract.

There's still time to get a deal done, you know?

Both sides owe it to the other to make one final try.

If this extra long preseason -- which ended happily for the Steelers last night because no significant players were injured in their 19-3 win against the Carolina Panthers -- revealed anything, it's that the team needs Faneca, not just for this season but for beyond. Quite simply, he remains their best offensive lineman. Forger that sack he allowed to Carolina defensive tackle Kris Jenkins in the only series he played. It happens. Actually, it happened exactly the same way two years ago in the final exhibition game; Jenkins blew by Faneca, who was left to pick up quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and tell him he was sorry. Roethlisberger survived. Faneca went on to another Pro Bowl season. The Steelers went on to win the Super Bowl.

It's nice to think the same thing could happen again this season.

There also could have been mitigating circumstances involved in that sack last night. If Faneca's head wasn't in the game, who can blame him? None of the players wanted to play -- their only goal was to get out in one piece -- but he had the added burden of knowing his future with the Steelers is about to be officially determined. The team doesn't negotiate contracts during the season, and Faneca surely will go to the highest bidder if he becomes a free agent after the season.

It doesn't have to go down that way. Really.

"Nothing's happening," Faneca said, shaking his head, when asked if the two sides had reached out to each other or at least have plans to do so. "Nothing's scheduled."

That's OK, it only takes one phone call.

The Steelers need to raise their offer to Faneca. His value to the team only increased this summer, the way new coach Mike Tomlin shuffled linemen in and out of the exhibition games, looking for five starters. It appears center Sean Mahan, right guard Kendall Simmons and right tackle Willie Colon have won jobs, but Tomlin hasn't made it official. Only Faneca at left guard and Marvel Smith at left tackle are rock-solid as starters. That's unsettling, to say the least.

As former Steelers running back Jerome Bettis noted on more than one occasion in his new book, which created so much buzz around town last week, Steelers management not only is hesitant to give big contracts to players older than 30, it starts to look for reasons to get rid of them. Faneca will be 31 before the end of the season, but he's a little different than most older players. For one thing, he's a six-time Pro Bowler, the most-honored guard in franchise history. For another, he's not like a running back or wide receiver or most defensive players. His game isn't based on speed. There's reason to think he still will be effective and able to play at a high level for several seasons. Durability hasn't been a concern to this point; he has missed only two games in his nine NFL seasons, none since 2001.

But Faneca also needs to be reasonable and bring his price down a bit. He can't expect to get the same money now that he would as an unrestricted free agent after the season, not with this year still remaining on his current contract. What he can get, though, is peace of mind and security for his family. If he does a new deal with the Steelers, he won't have to worry about a serious injury sabotaging his future. He already will have cashed that big signing bonus check and won't have to give a cent back.

There has been much speculation since Faneca's infamous minicamp rant in May that he's too bitter to do a new contract with the Steelers. That's nonsense. The man isn't stupid. He'll forget his bitterness real quickly if the Rooneys offer the right money. For their part, they certainly won't hold a grudge because of anything he said out of frustration. This isn't personal, it's business.

The Post-Gazette's Ed Bouchette is reporting today that the Steelers have stepped up efforts to re-sign Simmons, who also is entering the final season of his contract. That's fine, but Faneca is the man they should be targeting.

It's not too late.

First published on August 31, 2007 at 12:06 am
Ron Cook can be reached at

Steelers emerge as work-in-progress contender

Steelers punt returner Willie Reid breaks the tackle attempt of the Panthers punter Jason Baker on a 30-yard punt return in the first quarter at Bank of America Stadium, Aug. 30, 2007.

By Mike Prisuta
Friday, August 31, 2007

CHARLOTTE: Ben Roethlisberger played one series. Willie Parker played one play. And Hines Ward dressed for the apparent sole purpose of joining fellow preseason captains James Farrior and Chidi Iwuoma at midfield for the pregame coin toss.

If any of that or anything else that transpired Thursday night at Bank of America Stadium benefits the Steelers when they have to host Jacksonville on Dec. 16 and play at St. Louis on Dec. 20, we can revisit it then.

In the meantime, the Steelers can celebrate the end of an extended preseason, one that offered promise but at the same time failed to forge Mike Tomlin's first team into a juggernaut.

The good news is there might not be any of those in between New England and San Diego in the AFC, which means the Steelers ought to have a legitimate chance of returning to the playoffs and taking another shot at the Super Bowl.
Still, there are kinks to work out, or around, between here and the postseason.

One involves the backup to starting left tackle Marvel Smith.

The Steelers don't have one.

Their experiment with Max Starks at the position seemingly contributed only to Starks no longer lining up as the starting right tackle.

As for Willie Colon, who started at right tackle over the final four preseason games, he and right guard Kendall Simmons were required to play three series last night while the rest of the offensive starters played one or less.

Apparently, Colon and Simmons needed the work.

Parker, meanwhile, needs to stay healthy, which explains his one-play-and-done appearance against the Panthers.

The Kevan Barlow experiment as a potential alternative to Parker running the ball came to a merciful end Monday when Barlow was released. The Steelers knew long before then that Barlow wasn't the answer. And they're aware that whatever they come up with in the backfield behind Parker will include a configuration of position-flexible role players, specialists and potential contributors, as opposed to a guy capable of carrying the load for weeks at a time.

And on special teams, return man Willie Reid answered a challenge that had been delivered by Tomlin in front of Reid's teammates, and then again by Tomlin to the media, with a 30-yard punt return and a kickoff return with burst at Carolina. But Reid is going to have to do it in a game that matters before those who remember what transpired on punt returns early last season can exhale.

As for the bottom of the roster, it's down to details.

Did the hamstring injury suffered by Marquis Cooper, who was prominently featured again on special teams last night, deny him a shot at making the squad?

Has preseason phenom Darnell Stapleton found a way to overcome knee surgery and sneak into the mix?

And is Jason Capizzi suddenly a candidate for more than just the practice squad?

Finally, it's time to prepare for Cleveland.

The Steelers didn't solve all of their problems this preseason.

But they've done enough to inspire confidence against the Browns and beyond.

Mike Prisuta is a columnist for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. He can be reached at or 412-320-7923.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Honoring 21

Bronx businessman continues push to commemorate Clemente


New York Daily News

Tuesday, August 21st 2007, 11:19 AM

Julio Pabon's (r.) campaign to retire Roberto Clemente's 21 has garnered more than 10,000 signatures, including some from major league ballplayers.

Julio Pabon was in the press room at Yankee Stadium last week, wearing a yellow T-shirt with "Retire 21" emblazoned on the front and back.

"I get more commendations for that shirt than when I wear a shirt and tie," said Pabon, founder of Latino Sports Ventures, a Bronx-based marketing firm with an office and memorabilia shop on Grand Concourse, just a subway stop away from the hallowed grounds.

"Whenever I wear it, all types of people ask me where I got the shirt, or if there's a petition they can sign," Pabon added. "I like to wear whatever I can to spread the message."

The T-shirt is nothing without the slogan, which has been the rallying cry since July 2006 for a national campaign to have Major League Baseball retire Roberto Clemente's jersey number. Clemente, the Pittsburgh Pirates' Hall of Fame right fielder and the first Latin American inducted into Cooperstown, died in a plane crash on Dec. 31, 1972, en route to Nicaragua to deliver aid to earthquake victims.

Pabon, coordinator of the "Going to Bat to Retire #21" campaign, said Clemente's legacy stands in contrast to today's game, which has become defined by corporations and controversy, and should be commemorated by the league.

"In today's world, everybody needs to see the type of person Clemente was," Pabon said. "(They need) to remember that there was a man who gave so much, who wasn't about the dollar sign, who was one of the best in the game, but still had the time for fans and the people ... He went out of his way to help people, not because he was told to it by an agent, or because there was a media relations asking him to do something."

Pabon's push to retire Clemente's number began around last year's All-Star game in Pittsburgh and has continued as one of his business' pro-bono projects. The campaign is currently in its second phase, with a documentary - "The Legacy of 21" - being shown around the country; it debuted last November at the Tribeca Performing Arts Center and will return to New York this fall for Hispanic and Puerto Rican heritage months.

The campaign's initial phase, circulating a petition, resulted in more than 10,000 signatures being collected, and support is starting to grow in major league clubhouses, with players making donations as Latino Sports Ventures gears up for the third phase - a final push to raise awareness beyond the Latino community.

"It will be a serious fundraising drive," Pabon said. "Taking out ads in major newspapers around the country, doing radio ads, posters, bumper stickers, the works - all promoting 'Retire 21'."

Further promotion aside, the idea has been discussed among major league executives and may be gaining traction.

"Major League Baseball continues the effort to retire the number of Roberto Clemente and the issue is under advisement," said Silvia Alvarez, MLB's Director of Multi Cultural and Charitable Communications, who added that the league supports Pabon's cause, and Clemente's legacy by giving an award each year in his name for sportsmanship and off-field efforts.

"I have no doubt in my mind that this is going to happen," Pabon said. "Not because of any overtures we're doing. It's going to happen because someone in Major League Baseball is going to wise up and realize this is good for baseball."

For Pabon, a 55-year-old Puerto Rican raised in the Bronx, "Retire 21" is more than a side project or publicity mechanism for his business.

It's not a political mission, he insists, or an effort to counter the recognition bestowed upon the late Jackie Robinson, who broke basesball's color barrier in 1947 and whose No. 42 was retired 50 years later. It's simply part of his worldview.

Take, for example, last Friday afternoon, just two days after Pabon strolled through Yankee Stadium in his "Retire 21" T-shirt. He is in a restaurant on 48th Street in Manhattan, emciing a luncheon to honor Magglio Ordonez, the Detroit Tigers right fielder, who was named the 2006 American League Comeback Player of the Year by Latino Sports Ventures and the Latino Sports Writers and Broadcast Association.

It is just one in a series of events honoring winners of the 2006 Latino/MVP awards, and a tradition that dates back to 1989.

"The concept is to recognize the contributions and talent of Latino ballplayers in the major leagues," said Pabon, who grew up in the South Bronx and was able to explain how far the Latino community has come.

"When I was a kid, to see a Puerto Rican flag? Forget it," he said. "You'd have to go look in an encyclopedia ... there were no positive role models."

The goal now? Give Clemente his due respect.

"What better way to remember him?" Pabon says of retiring No. 21. "Some people think it's going to be erased from baseball, but that's not the case. It's going to highlight it. Teams will put up a plaque somewhere at the stadium and kids will ask, 'Why can't anyone wear No. 21?' And they'll find out about a fantastic baseball player who was a great human being."

Pens' arena designers focus on rivers rather than steel heritage

This sketch shows the Centre Uphill view of the proposed Uptown arena. The Penguins unveiled the team's plans for the new arena on Tuesday.

By Andrew Conte
Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Designs for the new Uptown arena will evoke a feeling of the city's three rivers and the confluence at the Point -- not of Pittsburgh's steel history -- architects said Tuesday evening.

"It's not the image of the city anymore," said Wayne London, project manager for HOK Sport, the Kansas City firm hired to design the arena.

The Penguins released updated drawings of the building during the final session in a series of public hearings with residents, business leaders and other interested groups. About 260 people attended the meetings.

This sketch shows an interior view of the proposed Uptown arena.

Betty Penny, 66, who has lived in the Hill District for 43 years, went to all nine public meetings and a walking tour of the site. She said the hockey team and public officials seem sincere in wanting to work with residents.

"I'm hoping they really mean it," she said.
With the public sessions complete, the Penguins plan to submit their designs to the city Planning Commission for approval. Team President David Morehouse said officials will keep their ears open.

"As we move forward in this process, we will have an open process with community input," he told yesterday's audience.

Based on comments from the public sessions, architects proposed a grove of trees between the arena and Epiphany Church, extended landscaping across Centre Avenue and expanded a traffic study to route tractor-trailers away from residential areas, London said.

This sketch shows the Fifth Ave. view of the proposed Uptown arena.

Architects said they want to play off the city's unique geography and studied maps dating to 1785. With three entrances, the arena will evoke the "notion of water and flow," said HOK Sport's lead designer, Patrick Lempka.

Drawings show a corridor of glass on the arena's western side, overlooking Downtown and covering a 50-foot change in elevation between Fifth and Centre avenues. On the lower side, terraces will overlook Fifth Avenue at the height of existing buildings.

The arena would be constructed of glass, masonry, brick and cast stone. The $290 million building is scheduled to open for the 2010-11 hockey season.

This sketch shows the Plaza Entry view of the proposed Uptown arena.

Separately, One Hill Coalition, a community group, met with the city-county Sports & Exhibition Authority and local political leaders yesterday morning.

People on both sides of the talks called the meeting positive, and public officials said they would seek consensus on a community benefits agreement for jobs and redevelopment money.

Andrew Conte can be reached at or (412) 320-7835.

Sanchez leaves Cincinnati red-faced in doubleheader sweep

Capps earns two saves as Pirates sweep Reds

Wednesday, August 29, 2007
By Paul Meyer, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

John Heller/Post-Gazette
Closer Matt Capps, left, puts the exclamation point on the Pirates' Game 1 win last night at PNC Park. He also had a save in Game 2.
Matt Capps had a night to remember.

"That was fun," the Pirates' closer said. "It was a blast."

And it wasn't Sky Blast.

Capps got a save in both ends of the Pirates' doubleheader sweep against Cincinnati, striking out pinch-hitter Adam Dunn with two runners on in the 6-4 first game, then finishing the 3-2 second game by striking out pinch-hitter Ken Griffey Jr. with a runner on to earn his 15th save.

"Getting both of them was pretty awesome," Capps said. "But to get Griffey on three pitches? He's a guy I grew up idolizing. Awesome."

Before we get too far here, let's mention that Freddy Sanchez had a lot to do with the sweep which moved the Pirates to within 81/2 games of first-place Chicago.

Sanchez, hitting .386 in August and .312 on the year, went 3 for 3 in the opener with five RBIs -- four coming on his first career grand slam. In the second game, he tripled in the eighth and scored on a single by Adam LaRoche to break a 2-2 tie.

"Freddy's been a model of stability," Pirates manager Jim Tracy said. "He's hitting more and more like the batting champion of 2006."

Playing pretty good defense at second base, too.

"He's improved in all areas defensively," Tracy said. "He's a very attractive player at that position."

Cincinnati Reds pitcher Elizardo Ramirez, right, waits as Pittsburgh Pirates' Freddy Sanchez trots home after hitting a fourth-inning grand slam.

Capps threw 27 pitches in his first-game save.

"They taxed Matt Capps pretty much," Tracy said.

But not enough.

"My arm felt all right [in the second game]," Capps said. "But my legs were pretty much gone. I got kind of wobbly a couple times."

Still, he was fine after yielding a leadoff single to Alex Gonzalez.

Pinch-hitter Javier Valentin flied harmlessly to center. Josh Hamilton lined to left field. Then Griffey Jr. was next -- and last.

Same with Dunn in the opener.

"There was a lot of left-handed thunder on that bench," Tracy noted.

But Capps quieted it.

With runners on first and third and two outs, Dunn stepped to the plate in the ninth.

"Just a little bit of a sticky situation," Tracy acknowledged.

Tracy jogged to the mound to confer with Capps.

The message boiled down to this: "Be aggressive, but don't let him beat you. Yeah, if you walk him, the tying run will be on second base, but we'll take our chances with the next guy."

That would have been catcher David Ross, who also would have been up as a pinch-hitter and been the last position player on Cincinnati's bench.

Thing is, Ross has hit Capps -- 2 for 3 lifetime with a double and home run.

Hence, the "sticky situation."

Capps navigated it well.

He got ahead of Dunn 0-2, threw two balls and then struck out Dunn swinging with a 96-mph fastball.

"Capps is real good right now," Tracy said. "But he has a chance to get even better. There are some things he can do with his pitches. He's not finished yet. But he's awfully special."

The Pirates fell behind, 2-0, in the nightcap when pitcher Bronson Arroyo doubled in a run, then scored on Norris Hopper's triple in the second.

Paul Maholm, who allowed seven hits in the first two innings, steadied and got the Pirates through seven innings.

"Just another fabulous game for him," Tracy said.

The Pirates chipped away, scoring a run in the fifth on Jose Castillo's single and adding a run in the seventh on pinch-hitting sensation Matt Kata's two-out single to left on an 0-2 pitch.

That set the stage for the eighth.

Sanchez tripled on an 0-2 pitch into the notch in left-center field with one out. Then LaRoche softly lined a 1-2 pitch from left-hander Bill Bray into center field for the winner.

Sanchez's slam and Jason Bay's solo home run in the first game gave the Pirates 43 home runs in August. That ties the club record for most home runs in a month, set by the 1947 Pirates, who featured Ralph Kiner and Hank Greenberg.

Tom Gorzelanny got the first-game win, battling his way into the seventh inning.

"A very gritty performance by Tom Gorzelanny," Tracy said.

"I had to fight myself and fight the Reds," Gorzelanny said. "I'd get into jams and then have to fight my way out of them."

Gorzelanny's 13 wins are the most by a Pirates left-hander since Denny Neagle went 14-6 in 1996.

The Pirates have won 14 of their past 20 games to inch to within 81/2 games of the lead in the National League Central crawl.

"We're still playing significant baseball," Tracy said. [Eight and half games] is not an insurmountable task. Obviously, we've got to win a lot, but we've been playing our best baseball of the season over the past three weeks."

First published at PG NOW on August 28, 2007 at 11:44 pm
Paul Meyer can be reached at

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Kreider indispensable to Steelers

Tuesday, August 28, 2007
By Ron Cook, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Last week, it was Steelers running back Willie Parker, who offered the endorsement. "I like to have a fullback. You always want a lead blocker ... Dan Kreider is a good fullback. I love what he does."

This week, it's wide receiver Hines Ward. "Me, personally, I don't think we have to worry about Dan. With what he does day in and day out, it would be real hard for us to cut him. He's still a vital part of our offense. Ask anyone in the league. They know there's still a lot of mileage on his car."

Are you paying attention, Mike Tomlin?

I'm not so sure after listening to Steelers offensive coordinator Bruce Arians after the 27-13 exhibition win against the Philadelphia Eagles Sunday night.

"We have some tough decisions to make," he said. "[Kreider] made it a lot harder by what he did tonight."

That sounds as if Kreider was in serious jeopardy of not making the team before he caught a flat pass from quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and turned it into a 22-yard gain, before he threw a crunching block on an 18-yard touchdown run by Parker.

That sounds as if Kreider still isn't a lock to stick.

That's ridiculous.

The man is one of the Steelers' best 53 players.

"I hope I'm playing well enough to stay here," Kreider said.

There is no doubt about it.

There has been much talk of Arians de-emphasizing the fullback position this season, using more four-wide receiver or three-tight end formations, even though he acknowledges Kreider is the NFL's best blocking fullback. That's fine, but that doesn't mean there isn't a roster spot for Kreider.

Parker's peace of mind is the biggest thing. You're talking about the Steelers' MVP last season, their most indispensable player if it isn't Roethlisberger or left tackle Marvel Smith. He clearly is more comfortable running behind Kreider. He estimated to the Post-Gazette's Gerry Dulac last week that 80 percent of his running plays last season were behind his fullback. That seems high, but so what? So what if it's only 50 or 60 percent? Considering Parker rushed for 1,494 yards and 13 touchdowns, that's a huge chunk of the team's offense.

It's true, Arians could line up one of the tight ends in the backfield as Parker's lead blocker. But is that really what the team wants in short-yardage and goal-line situations and late in games when it's trying to pound the ball, kill the clock and put away wins? A tight end can't get as low as Kreider does to make the blocks. He can't get the same leverage.

We saw how well Parker and Kreider work together on Parker's touchdown run in the second quarter Sunday night. He started off right guard and cut inside Kreider's block to score untouched. Kreider practically knocked Eagles linebacker Chris Gocong into next week.

You think you were impressed?

You might imagine the players' reaction when they saw the play on tape yesterday.

It's not just Parker and Ward who appreciate Kreider's value. All the players do. That's why Tomlin would be sending a bad message to his veterans if he doesn't keep Kreider. The Steelers' backs should be Parker, Najeh Davenport, Kreider, Carey Davis and Verron Haynes or Gary Russell.

Maybe it would be different if the Steelers were in a rebuilding mode. Maybe then you would go with the younger players, Davis and Russell. But that's not the case. The team won the Super Bowl two seasons ago and thinks it can be a contender again. It needs Kreider to have its best chance.

Davis and Russell have been impressive in training camp and in the exhibition games, but it should be mentioned that much of their work came against second- and third-team players. (Davis got playing time at fullback with the first offense Sunday night with mixed results. He did a nice job blocking defensive end Darren Howard in pass protection but was called for holding when he pulled down Gocong as he rushed Roethlisberger). It also needs to be pointed out that Davis was released by four NFL teams before joining the Steelers and Russell was an undrafted free agent. We're not exactly looking at another Franco Harris in either case.

Still, Kreider won't rest well until the final roster cuts are made Saturday.

"All I can do is go out and practice hard and play hard and do what they ask me to do," he said. "Since I've been in the league, that's what I've tried to do. I know, as a fullback, I'm the low man on the totem pole."

Not to Parker, Ward and the others.

"That means a lot," Kreider said. "It means a lot to know the other guys appreciate what you're doing.

"But that's the way this team is. You're playing for the guy next to you. You know he's putting everything on the line for you so you try to do the same for him. That's why I love this team so much. I want to be a part of it. I'm planning on being a part of it. But I know they have some tough decisions to make."

They being Tomlin and Arians.

The question is worth asking again:

Are you really paying attention, guys?

First published at PG NOW on August 27, 2007 at 11:13 pm
Ron Cook can be reached at

From Adam Bomb to bombs away

Pirates' Adam LaRoche surges in second half, while already thinking of ways to avoid another awful April

Tuesday, August 28, 2007
By Dejan Kovacevic, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Peter Diana/Post-Gazette'
First baseman Adam LaRoche's second-half surge in both power and batting average has given the Pirates' offense a huge lift.

No matter how miserably his baseball life was going back in April and May, no matter how many boos he heard or how many third strikes zipped right by him, Adam LaRoche never dragged his bat home.

Not all the way, anyway.

The way he tells it, he would pause at the door, take a deep breath, squeeze out a smile and turn the knob.

"I'd never take it inside," the Pirates' first baseman was recalling the other day. "Even if I was really upset, if I really wanted to yell or scream or whatever, I'd leave it outside."

Trouble was ...

"My wife ... oh, man. I'd walk in there and look at her, and I could see it was driving her nuts. I hated what happened back then more for what it did to her than what it did to me, the team, the coaching staff, the fans or anybody."

LaRoche had become one of the worst everyday players in Major League Baseball in those first two months with the Pirates. April 24, his batting average was .098. May 25, after a microburst quickly was exposed as a mirage, it was at .191.

Moreover, he had struck out 43 times in 157 at-bats, an astounding 27 percent.

That was well short of the messianic expectations that accompanied his arrival from the Atlanta Braves in January as the main piece of the Pirates' highest-profile trade in years. And the predictable result was a public backlash, mostly in the form of steady booing at PNC Park.

For LaRoche's wife, Jenn, it was too much to bear.

"I used to go to every game when Adam played in Atlanta, and I mean every single game," she said by phone from the family ranch in Kansas. "I stopped going in Pittsburgh after two weeks."

Why was that?

"I felt like I just wanted to fight the whole crowd. I knew it didn't bother Adam, but I couldn't handle the idea of anyone saying or doing anything to hurt him. He's such a great person, a great father, and I just can't imagine anyone booing him."

So, she sat at home, stewing.

"I knew he'd come out of it. But it was still so hard, seeing that, and trying to understand it."

Bombs away

It was hard for baseball insiders to figure, too.

It gets no easier now that LaRoche has recovered dramatically to get his key numbers up to .266 with 19 home runs and 77 RBIs.

Those strikeouts?

He has only six in his past 67 at-bats, 103 in all.

"That's the amazing number, to me," manager Jim Tracy said. "From where he was ..."

Wait, there is more ...

LaRoche has batted .346 with 11 home runs and 37 RBIs since June 28. In that span, the only better mark among all first basemen in the majors is the .349 of the St. Louis Cardinals' Albert Pujols.

As an added bonus, LaRoche has shaken his long-cumbersome platoon-player label by batting .301 against left-handers. His previous career mark: .228.

So, what did it?

What converted LaRoche from a strikeout machine into, finally, the left-handed power bat the Pirates so long have needed? LaRoche described the solution as "90 percent mental."

"If you don't step into that box with 100 percent confidence, more times than not, nothing good's going to come out of it. I was pressing. And it didn't help that I was in a new city, trying to make a good impression."

His first step was to expunge the statistics from his life.

"I guarantee you I went a month without looking at them, from late May until just before the All-Star break. Somebody would ask me what I'm hitting, and I'd say, 'All I know is it's between .200 and .240.' Honestly, I didn't care. I needed to have fun again."

He gave credit to his new teammates for keeping him cool and, away from the clubhouse, to his father, Dave, minor-league pitching coach for the Toronto Blue Jays.

"He just made jokes about it. He doesn't take a whole lot too seriously, and that helped."

The fun resumed -- for real this time -- a bit before the break, when LaRoche went on a 16-for-32 tear. By no coincidence, he had just begun hitting the ball to the opposite field. And that was where the other 10 percent of his solution, the technical aspect, was pivotal.

All through April and May, LaRoche stood so far off the plate that pitchers routinely painted the outside corner and retired him without a swing. Combined with LaRoche's naturally docile body language, it must have made him look to some as if he were forfeiting at-bats.

Ugly with a capital K.

His response -- again, just before the break -- was to move a full 6 inches closer to the plate, in effect altering his strike zone.

"I wasn't hitting the ball the other way," LaRoche explained. "So, I said to myself that I'm going to try to pull everything."

Say what?

"I had to get back to hitting that pitch on the outer corner. And, to get that, I needed to have those pitches look like strikes to me."

But that means ...

"Yeah, I know. If they painted me inside, they had me. But I had to give up something to get back that pitch away. That pitch suddenly looked like a strike to me, and I started swinging full-bore again, just like I do when I pull the ball. So, I started driving the balls in the middle to center field and the balls away to the opposite field."

None of which has a terribly fundamental sound to it.

"Don't try this, kids. It's not something I'd ever teach anyone."

And now?

"I've moved back a little. But I'm still up on the plate pretty good."

That showed Friday night in Houston, when LaRoche stayed with Travis Driskill's splitter on the outside corner and sent it the opposite way for that three-run home run in the 15th inning.

The one aspect of LaRoche's approach that never changed, by every account, was the long, powerful swing that has drawn praise across baseball for years.

"People talked about his swing when things weren't going well, but we talked about nothing but rhythm," Pirates hitting coach Jeff Manto said. "There was nothing -- nothing -- wrong with his swing. He just wasn't comfortable. I told him back in April, 'Man, you are going to be a great story by the end of September.' And he's made a hell of a comeback. He really has."

Defusing the next bomb

Despite the let-life-happen exterior, LaRoche admits to some serious anguish in April and May.

"It wasn't the comments that hurt or the booing. It was the facts," he said. "It was looking at the numbers and saying, 'Man, I am 0 for 20.' That's what gets you. You know you're good, but you see the facts and ... those numbers hurt."

Now that he has remained in a good groove for quite a while, fresh off a six-RBI weekend in Houston, he insists every aspect of the slump is behind him.

"I've forgotten about it, really."

But then, he quickly corrected himself.

"Well, except one thing: How many more games would we have won if I started better? We probably wouldn't be in first place, but how much closer would we be, especially with how we've played lately? You can't erase that part of it."

No, but he can try to change that slow-starting trait -- he is a .184 career hitter in April -- when the Pirates reconvene in 2008.

"I'm already thinking about it," LaRoche said. "I need to change something. I've always been a guy who hasn't done really well out of the gate, but I always just shrugged it off like it's a coincidence. Not next year. This can't happen again."

To that end, LaRoche is pondering doing less work on his 2,500-acre ranch, the duty that dominates his offseason. He might take fewer at-bats in spring training, too, this after regularly adding minor-league games to his docket for extra swings.

He also might stop thinking about numbers altogether.

"I need to get rid of this idea that I'm going to have career highs in everything. The team goal will be the same. The team goal will be that we're going to win the division. But, individually, I set the standard so high that, if I get zero RBIs one week, I need 10 the next week. That's it. No goals. Have fun. Win games."

Sounds like a formula to get the wife back to the ballpark.

Jenn LaRoche has been back on the North Shore more often lately, but it seems that she, unlike her husband, still has some healing to do.

"Everybody's cheering for him in Pittsburgh now, and me ... I just want to say, 'Um, excuse me, weren't you guys just booing him?' Believe me, you don't forget. It's a shame but, even now that he's doing well, I still go there and think about how it was for those two months."

First published at PG NOW on August 27, 2007 at 11:17 pm
Dejan Kovacevic can be reached at

Monday, August 27, 2007

Ron Cook: Offense moving in right direction

Willie Parker runs into the end zone for a touchdown against the Eagles in the second quarter last night.

Monday, August 27, 2007
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Relax, Ben Roethlisberger told us.

The Steelers' offense isn't that bad, isn't as off as it was in the preseason games against Green Bay and Washington.

Really, Roethlisberger insisted, his offense isn't far from being season-ready.

Wise man, Big Ben.

The Steelers beat the Philadelphia Eagles, 27-13, in exhibition football last night, but that's hardly important. What's significant is that the offense took strides in the right direction. No, it's not ready for Super Bowl XLII. Not even close. But you know what? They don't play that game until February. For late-August, the offense looked pretty good. It scored 13 points in the first half and would have had 20 if not for a fumble by running back Willie Parker at the Eagles' 1 late in the first quarter.

It's encouraging that Roethlisberger threw for 247 yards in his two quarters of work, hitting passes of at least 14 yards to seven different receivers. If he plays that well in the season opener in Cleveland Sept. 9, the Steelers should beat the Browns. If he eliminates the dumb interception he threw early in the game and doesn't miss open wide receiver Hines Ward twice, the Steelers could win big.

The interception last night was hideous, bringing back horrible memories of last season when Roethlisberger led the NFL by throwing 23 picks. On a first-and-10 play at the Eagles' 49, he threw up a duck as defensive tackle Mike Patterson was flinging him to the ground, handing a gift interception to defensive end Trent Cole.

Roethlisberger also threw badly and behind Ward twice, the first time nearly resulting in another interception, the second costing Ward a touchdown. But those poor passes seemed to be timing problems, more than anything. That's what the exhibition games are for. To work out the kinks.

"I told Hines, 'I'll get better.' I'll be sure to hit him the next time," Roethlisberger said.

"I can't say I'm happy about tonight because we left a lot of plays on the field. If you ask us, we'll tell you we left quite a bit out there. We were still a little off.

"But we're close enough that we can keep moving forward."

Roethlisberger's good plays easily trumped his bad ones. His best pass might have been a 22-yard dart to wide receiver Santonio Holmes on a third-and-4 play in the second quarter. Four times, he stepped up or out of the pocket to avoid pressure before hitting Ward for 13 yards, wide receiver Cedrick Wilson for 14, running back Najeh Davenport for 25 and Ward for 18. Three of those plays were on third down and sustained drives.

Roethlisberger even threw a 38-yard pass to tight end Heath Miller, who also had a 12-yard catch.

What a concept, throwing to the tight end.

"I give a lot of credit to my offensive line. They did a good job with protection," Roethlisberger said.

The line was definitely better, probably because there wasn't so much substituting. Kendall Simmons started at right guard and Willie Colon at right tackle and they played the first quarter. Right guard Chris Kemoeatu and right tackle Max Starks took over in the second quarter when the offense seemed to be more efficient. What that means in coach Mike Tomlin's final evaluation for starting jobs won't be known until after he sees the tape. But Kemoeatu stood out, at least on the block he threw to spring Davenport for a 33-yard gain on a screen pass.

Parker can thank the line for his 18-yard touchdown run in the second quarter. He went in untouched. His nine other carries produced only 14 yards, but he did pick up 20 yards on a screen pass.

Parker's fumble after a big hit by linebacker Takeo Spikes was troubling. "That was the only real disappointing play we had all night," offensive coordinator Bruce Arians said. If there's one thing that will keep Parker from being a truly elite NFL back, it's his carelessness with the ball at times. That fumble in a regular-season game could have been costly. You have to score a touchdown when you get to the opponents' 1. The Steelers couldn't do it in their game at Oakland last season and that loss to a dreadful Raiders' team cost them making the playoffs.

"I think that fumble woke Willie up," Arians said. "He looked like the real Willie Parker after that."

Parker certainly looks ready enough for the season. There's no need for him to play in the final exhibition game at Carolina Thursday night. For that matter, Roethlisberger, Ward and the two key offensive linemen -- left tackle Marvel Smith and left guard Alan Faneca -- shouldn't have more than cameo appearances.

It has been a long preseason.

Based on last night -- not just with what the offense did, but with the first defense holding the Eagles to three first-half points -- it's starting to look as if it has been a productive one.

The important thing now is to finish it off injury-free.

First published at PG NOW on August 26, 2007 at 11:48 pm
Ron Cook can be reached at

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Bettis book riveting, brutally honest

By Joe Starkey
Sunday, August 26, 2007

OK, so Jerome Bettis throws some folks under The Bus in his soon-to-be-released book.

So what?

That is part of what makes for a riveting read, and those who feel the need to defend themselves -- perhaps including Bill Cowher, whom Bettis says lied to him more than once -- will have ample opportunity.

"The Bus: My Life in and Out of a Helmet," co-written with Gene Wojciechowski, is chock full of controversial opinion, and judging by the reaction to excerpts published this past week, it should enjoy a lengthy shelf life.

Let's pluck some passages for further review:

• In training camp of 2000, Bettis, fearing he would be cut, faked a knee injury in a goal-line drill. He'd come to camp with an injured knee, so he knew the Steelers would find something on an MRI. "Man, did I do a nice job of acting," he writes.

Review: Teams can tear up a contract any time they want. Bettis was simply protecting himself. No shame there. It's not as if he quit on his teammates in the middle of a game.

• Bettis aggravated a groin injury early in the 2001 AFC Championship against New England. "I knew I couldn't run, but I gutted it out," he writes.

Review: If he knew he couldn't run, he was selfish to stay on the field.

• Bettis admits to selling drugs when he was 16, growing up in a rough neighborhood in Detroit. "Not a lot of drugs, and not for long, but I did sell them."

Review: Credit him for having the courage to tell the sordid parts of his story.

• Bettis says the Steelers set up Kordell Stewart to fail in 2002 because they did not want to have to lavish him with a second consecutive mega contract. "I can't prove it, but in my heart I really believe Kordell was set up for failure that season."

Review: One could argue Stewart was set up for failure in multiple years, given his multiple coordinators and lack of firepower at receiver, but 2002 was not one of them. He was plain bad early that year, presiding over a team that was about to go 0-3, and backup Tommy Maddox played well in his place.

• Bettis describes going from "a high school that had barely any white students" to "prestigious, world-renowned, predominantly white, Catholic, affluent Notre Dame." His first roommate was white and had a habit of hanging his shorts and underwear on his bed. Bettis, accustomed to using "street tactics" to solve disputes, did not know how to broach the subject. "I was so conditioned to confront people that I didn't know how to just talk to somebody about a situation."

Review: The most poignant section of the book, aside from Bettis' tribute to his late father, Johnnie.

• Bettis says the Steelers pushed his close friend and blocking back, Tim Lester, aside in 1999 because running backs coach Dick Hoak, a Penn State grad, wanted Penn State product Jon Witman at the position.

Review: Ridiculous. Witman was a good player. Lester was five games from the end of his career.

• On the play call that resulted in Bettis' infamous fumble against the Indianapolis Colts, offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt is quoted as saying to Cowher, "You give the ball to Jerome because Jerome doesn't fumble."

Review: The notion that Bettis rarely fumbled is one of the great frauds perpetrated on mankind. In fact, he'd lost fumbles in two of his previous three playoff games, including one that nearly led to a loss against the Jets.

• In describing the fumble against the Colts, Bettis subtly mentions that guard Alan Faneca went off script and thus contributed to the big hit by Gary Brackett. Bettis also claims he was adequately protecting the ball.

Review: It's terrible form to implicate anyone but himself on that play -- and he should've been protecting the ball with two hands, not one.

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

Bob Smizik: Why raise low payroll for Pirates?

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Sunday, August 26, 2007

A major complaint of Pirates fans concerns the fact owner Bob Nutting keeps the team's payroll among the lowest in baseball. At the start of the season, the Pirates' payroll was $30 million less than any other team in the Central Division, an enormous gap. What's more, annually, the team's payroll is at or near the bottom of the Central Division.

Since it has been reported the team is turning a significant profit, it's understandable fans want more money put into player salaries. After all, the common wisdom is the higher the payroll, the better the chance of winning.

As the result of this and the fact the team is in the midst of a 15th-consecutive losing season, Nutting is regularly skewered by fans and the media.

Allow me, for a minute or two, to play Nutting's Advocate.

Why should he raise payroll? What's in it for him?

By most indicators, the ticket-buying public -- as opposed to the whining Pirates-obsessed public -- is content with the product Nutting puts on the field at PNC Park. The team's attendance is close to what it was last year, when the All-Star Game was a lure for season-ticket buyers. Without the All-Star Game as a carrot, attendance is down less than 600 a game.

In July, a well-organized protest asked fans to leave their seats after the third inning of a home game as a show of discontent. There were about 27,000 fans at the game. About 5 percent of the fans joined in the protest. That means about 95 percent of the fans were signaling, if not their approval of the way the team was being run, at least their acceptance.

In an astonishing display of product approval, 142,948 tickets were sold for four home games between Aug. 16-19. Three of those games featured fireworks and concerts. Some say such promotions cheapens the attendance figures. They're missing the point. The Pirates, through expert marketing, have developed a fan base that likes baseball but loves the extra promotions the team regularly has -- be it fireworks, bobbleheads or other giveaways.

There are other reasons why Nutting should be slow to increase payroll.

Although increasing payroll might give a team a better chance of winning, it is by no means a guarantee. For example, the Houston Astros entered the season with a payroll of $87.7 million, almost $50 million more than the Pirates. Going into the weekend the Astros had two more wins than the Pirates. That means the Astros, compared to the Pirates, are paying about $25 million for each additional win. The Cincinnati Reds have a payroll that was $31 million higher than the Pirates. They also had more wins than the Pirates.

So when Nutting ponders increasing payroll, sure he sees what Arizona is doing with a $53 million payroll and what Cleveland is doing with a $61 million payroll, but he also sees Houston and Cincinnati.

But here's what might be the clincher for Nutting. Suppose he does increase payroll and suppose, unlike Cincinnati, the Pirates get appreciably better. Suppose they are flirting with or are above .500 and it's not utterly ridiculous to mention the Pirates and wild card in the same sentence. Let's say the excitement this amount of winning generates raises attendance to an average of 30,000. That would be an increase of about 7,500. At, roughly, $30 a paying customer over the course of the season, that would translate into about $18 million in additional concession and ticket revenue.

You don't get good players for $18 million. Sure, that more than covers a season salary for one player. But the good players, the ones who can change the fortunes of a team, want four- and five-year contracts. Who's to say the additional player or players will make a difference? And if they do, can they maintain that difference for the life of that particular contract?

The Pirates' steady losing has been accepted by the ticket-buying public. But what happens if the team gets decent or even good for a year or two? Maybe the taste of success will turn them into baseball fans who want more than gimmicks? Maybe if the team goes bad again they'll no longer be happy with just promotions and stop coming to games.

In effect, it could be counterproductive -- in terms of profit -- to increase payroll.

Nutting is a bottom-line guy, not a baseball guy. From the little we know of him, profit trumps victory. Fans might not like that, but it's his team and he has the right to set payroll where he wants. That's particularly true if increased payroll does not necessarily increase chances of victory.

First published at PG NOW on August 25, 2007 at 8:03 pm

Ron Cook: And the leaders are ...

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Sunday, August 26, 2007

First, there was Jerome Bettis, who ranks with Joe Greene as one of the great leaders in Steelers history. His former teammates don't care that he faked an injury in the 2000 training camp so he wouldn't be released. Every time they think back to Feb. 5, 2006 -- to the night they hoisted the Super Bowl trophy in Detroit -- they're thankful he did.

Then, there was Joey Porter. "There will never be another one like him," Steelers linebacker Larry Foote was saying last week. "He was one of kind in what he brought to this team. He opened his door to everyone. We were his guys. He didn't listen to his own hype. He was just a real person."

And now there is?

"Oh, we have enough chiefs," Foote said. "You don't have to worry about that. That isn't a problem."

The Steelers' locker room still is strong despite the losses of Bettis and Kimo von Oelhoffen after the Super Bowl season of '05 and Porter and Jeff Hartings after last season. There isn't the dominant personality of a Bettis or a Porter, but there will be plenty of options for new coach Mike Tomlin when he picks his team captains before the opener in Cleveland Sept. 9.

Ben Roethlisberger drew several votes in my exhaustive poll of the players. (OK, I talked to more than just Foote). It's not so much because he's a wise old veteran; in some ways, at 25 and entering his fourth NFL season, he's still a big goofy kid. "He's the quarterback. That automatically makes him our leader," wide receiver Hines Ward said.

Defensive end Aaron Smith also was mentioned by numerous sources. That might surprise you because he doesn't get a lot of press. "I really don't like the attention." But he's huge among his teammates. "I don't think he's ever had a bad game," Foote said.

It was Smith whom former coach Bill Cowher chose to speak to the squad the morning of the New Orleans game last season when the Steelers were 2-6 and fading fast. Smith got so emotional during that meeting that he cried. Who knows what impact it had on the 38-31 win later that day or the Steelers' 6-2 finish to the season? But this much is certain: "Aaron doesn't say much, but when he does, everybody listens," nose tackle Chris Hoke said.

It must be a defensive lineman thing.

Cowher asked von Oelhoffen -- an enormous presence in the locker room -- to speak to the team the night before the Steelers played the Denver Broncos in the AFC championship game after the '05 season.

Talk about speaking softly and carrying a big stick.

Guard Alan Faneca -- the Steelers' most decorated player, at least in terms of Pro Bowls -- knows all about that. He was the players' choice as an offensive captain the past three seasons under Cowher, when the voting was more of a democratic process, and, he, ordinarily, would be an easy choice for Tomlin, as well. But these aren't ordinary times for Faneca. He's bitter toward management about his contract status as he heads into his final season before free agency. He said in the spring during his explosive minicamp rant that he couldn't imagine being a captain for an organization that no longer wants him.

"It doesn't matter. Alan will always be a captain to us if he has the title or not," Ward said. "That's how much the guys respect him."

Ward is certain to be one of Tomlin's picks, which is only appropriate, Hoke said. "Hines is the one guy who always seems to be speaking up for us. He has our backs."

Ward also had the second-most votes in our survey.

"It's one thing to talk," Hoke said. "Hines backs it up every day in practice and the games by how hard he plays."

That leaves just one player, the winner of our little poll.

Would you believe a "Potsie" is going to lead the Steelers this season?

"Definitely, Potsie," Ward said.

"Easily, Potsie, no question," cornerback Deshea Townsend said.

It's a role linebacker James Farrior takes seriously.

Yes, he's Potsie, nicknamed after the character from the old "Happy Days" television show.

"It's important because there are a lot of young guys looking up to you and following your example," Farrior said, quietly, which is how he says just about everything.

The man definitely isn't as loud as Porter was. Nor is he as popular with the media as Bettis was. But maybe those are two reasons he's so admired by his teammates. How do you not admire quiet strength? The players are suckers for it. They voted Farrior one of their defensive captains the past three seasons.

"The coaches can only tell you so much," Townsend said. "James shows you. 'This is how we do it here. This is the right way.' If you're a young guy and you watch James, you learn quick."

"They should be watching his every move," safety Troy Polamalu said. "Same thing with Hines and Alan. They've been very successful for this team in this city for a long time."

You should have seen a clearly moved Farrior blush.

"I guess this means I must be the oldest guy on the team," he said.

No, just the most respected.

First published at PG NOW on August 25, 2007 at 7:42 pm
Ron Cook can be reached at

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Steelers' Timmons proves to be quick study

Saturday, August 25, 2007
By Gerry Dulac, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Coach Mike Tomlin cautioned several weeks ago not to give up on Lawrence Timmons, and he wasn't just feigning optimism or sympathy for the Steelers' No. 1 draft pick.

Despite missing the entire offseason conditioning program and more than the first two weeks of training camp, Timmons is doing a good job of playing catch-up at outside linebacker in the Steelers' defense -- so much so his coaches have not ruled out the possibility of him playing every bit as much this season as the team's other rookie outside linebacker, LaMarr Woodley.

"We're seeing him catch up, but that's pretty much what we expected," Tomlin said. "He's a sharp guy, a very talented guy. All he needed to do is get back on the field."

In his first preseason game against the Washington Redskins, Timmons did not have to wait long to get on the field, being inserted in the nickel defense on the first defensive series and rushing the passer.

In the fourth quarter, when the Redskins were trying to rally for a late score, Timmons was dropping into coverage downfield and running with tight ends, running backs and, yes, wide receivers.

"I'm getting there," said Timmons, the 15th overall selection in the NFL draft. "I'm glad they give me an opportunity like that. I'm trying to help them out and live up to the aspirations they have for me in this defense."

He will get more playing time tomorrow night when the Steelers (2-1) face the Philadelphia Eagles (1-1) in a preseason game at Heinz Field, but his role will be slightly different. Timmons will continue to get some snaps in the nickel defense, but Tomlin said he will get a more extensive look in the base defense with the second unit.

"Last week, we played him in packages where we wanted him to get out there and play and not worry too much about situational things, assignment things," Tomlin said. "We cut some of those things down so he could turn it loose and play. This week, we're going to take the training wheels off him, and he's going to play in all phases of the defense with the second group."

Timmons' chances of being a contributor this season appeared to diminish when, three days into training camp, he aggravated the same groin injury that caused him to miss nearly the entire offseason program.

After missing the next two weeks of camp, Timmons went to Dr. William Meyers, a noted groin and abdominal specialist based in Philadelphia, and was diagnosed with an inflammatory condition known as osteitis pubis -- the same diagnosis he received from the Steelers. Timmons received an anti-inflammatory injection designed to expedite his return to the practice field.

Less than a week later, he was back on the practice field and back in the Steelers' plans for the regular season. So far, they have not been disappointed by what they've seen.

"He's got the explosiveness we saw in college," said linebackers coach Keith Butler. "Once he figures everything out, he'll be quicker in his play. Right now, he's slowed down because he's thinking a lot. Once he gets the feel of the defense, he'll be all right."

"He's definitely got the tools," said inside linebacker James Farrior. "The coaches wouldn't have picked him that high if he didn't. You definitely see the burst here and there, and he's supposed to be good off the edge. They'll find some way to put him on the field."

While Woodley, a converted defensive end, is used primarily as a pass-rush specialist in the nickel and dime defense, Timmons will be used in more varied roles in the sub packages because he is more accustomed to playing the outside position.

Butler said Timmons can blitz, cover running backs and tight ends, and, on occasion, run with wide receivers.

"I'm trying to be used as many places as possible," Timmons said. "I'm trying to concentrate on third-down packages and, hopefully do more in the base stuff.

"I'm definitely making progress, without a doubt. When I was out [with injury], I was still paying attention and being in meetings like everybody else. I think I'll be fine."

"When I was out [with injury], I was still paying attention and being in meetings like everybody else. I think I'll be fine."

First published at PG NOW on August 24, 2007 at 11:08 pm

Gerry Dulac can be reached

Friday, August 24, 2007

Pirates' Clemente makes all-time Gold Glove team

Wednesday, August 22, 2007
By Dejan Kovacevic, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

DENVER -- Roberto Clemente was the only member of the Pirates to make the all-time Rawlings Gold Glove team announced today, joining Willie Mays and Ken Griffey Jr. in the outfield.

Clemente took 21 percent of the votes -- close to 1 million cast by fans at national sporting goods stores and online -- and finished just behind Mays (23 percent), with those two well above the pack. Griffey had 9 percent.

Bill Mazeroski, the only other Pirates representative on the ballot, finished fourth among second basemen with 19 percent of the vote behind the winner Joe Morgan (27 percent), Roberto Alomar (22 percent) and Ryne Sandberg (21 percent).

The rest of the team had pitcher Greg Maddux, catcher Johnny Bench, first baseman Wes Parker, shortstop Ozzie Smith and third baseman Brooks Robinson.

Former Steelers star Bettis mum on book details

By Mike Prisuta
Friday, August 24, 2007

Jerome Bettis, presumably, wasn't faking it when he said during a Thursday afternoon visit to Wilkinsburg that he's prevented by his publisher from discussing his controversial new book until it's released to the public next month.

"The one thing I'm going to say about it -- I really can't talk about it -- is that I want everybody to get an opportunity to read it," Bettis said. "Nobody's been able to read it except in excerpts. You really need to read it.

"When the book is released, I'll kind of explain my thoughts. At the end of the day it's my opinion, what I feel. I want to explain it, and if there are any questions from a public standpoint I want to address them."

"The Bus: My Life In and Out of a Helmet" will be available on Sept. 4.

The book includes a revelation that Bettis faked sustaining an injury to avoid being released by the Steelers in training camp prior to the 2000 season.
His enthusiasm seemed most genuine during a Thursday visit to Hosanna House, a community service center in Wilkinsburg.

Bettis arrived unannounced to check on the progress of children in the process of building computers through The Jerome Bettis Cyberbus Computer Engineering Program, an offshoot of The Jerome Bettis Bus Stops Here Foundation.

The children didn't finish their computer construction yesterday, but when they do they'll get to take the fruits of their educational labor home with them.

"We try to bring kids in and get them involved in computers by first teaching them how to build a computer," Bettis said. "And then once they build a computer, now they learn how to actually use that computer and they get to take that computer home.

"It takes kids from learning about computers to getting vested in the sense that, 'I built this computer, I have ownership in this computer and I want to learn about this computer.' I think that's a great way to teach kids about computers and computer literacy."

Bettis' foundation is sponsoring the program here and in his hometown of Detroit, with plans to "at some point, possibly" introduce it in Atlanta.

"When you build something, it's yours," Bettis said. "It's like anything else: If you've worked on something long enough, you feel the ownership and you want to do everything you can to try to get all the benefits from it.

"I really believe it closes the digital divide that we see sometimes in the inner cities."

Mike Prisuta can be reached at or 412-320-7923.

Bettis said he faked injury to keep Steelers from cutting him

Pittsburgh Tribune-Review
By The Associated Press
Thursday, August 23, 2007

Jerome Bettis, the No. 5 rusher in NFL history, claims in a new book that he faked a knee injury during training camp in 2000 so the Pittsburgh Steelers wouldn't cut him and install Richard Huntley as the starter.

Bettis was worried offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride favored Huntley over him and the Steelers were ready to let Bettis go, partly so they wouldn't have to give him a new contract. Huntley had just signed a $4 million, three-year contract.

"Man, did I do a nice job of acting," Bettis wrote in the book, "The Bus: My Life in and Out of a Helmet." "The thing is, I wasn't faking that I had an injury. I was just faking that the injury happened on that short-yardage play. I had to fool the coaches and the team's medical department into thinking the injury had occurred on that play. Otherwise, the Steelers would have had their reason to cut me and my salary."

Teams cannot cut an injured player during camp unless they reach an injury settlement with him.

"I effectively negated any funny business they were trying to pull on me," Bettis wrote in the book. "I took the pressure off a head coach (Bill Cowher) who was probably trying to get rid of me."
Bettis' recollection may be more anecdotal than fact-based.

While Bettis was held out early in that 2000 camp because of a hip injury, his knee injury -- the one Bettis said he faked -- was not revealed until later in camp. Huntley had a hamstring injury at the time and played in only one preseason game, gaining 13 yards.

Bettis didn't disclose how a player who was so injured that he missed all but a few days of camp could beat Bettis out of a job and force the Steelers to release him.

An MRI test by the Steelers during that camp revealed Bettis, who had undergone knee surgery the year before, had blood swelling behind his kneecap as a result of a hit during practice.

Bettis did not write in the book, co-written with Gene Wojciechowski, how a fresh injury that supposedly didn't occur could cause such test results. He did write that he showed up to camp with a knee problem that had occurred the season before.

Bettis, who had worked out extensively during the offseason before that camp, said at the time he was very relieved the injury wasn't worse.

"I was worried about it initially. The MRI showed a bone bruise," Bettis said. "That's when the blood came in. That was refreshing for me because whenever you're dealing with a knee and swelling, you always assume the worst. I assumed the worst, but it tuned out not to be the case."

Bettis would go on to rush for 1,341 yards that season and later signed a $30 million contract with the Steelers. Huntley gained only 217 yards and was cut after that season, hooking on with Carolina in 2001.

Bettis also wrote that the Steelers were never sold on Kordell Stewart as their quarterback -- despite giving him a $27 million, five-year contract before they moved into Heinz Field in 2001 -- and did everything possible to hand the job to Tommy Maddox.

In the book, Bettis said Stewart had become too rich for them as he entered the last year of his contract in 2002 and they wanted him out.

"Anybody who tells you money isn't a factor in personnel decisions doesn't know the NFL," Bettis wrote. "I can't prove it, but in my heart I really believe that Kordell was set up for failure that season."

Bettis was incorrect in writing that Stewart's contract was up that season; the deal ran through 2003.

Stewart had led the Steelers to a 13-3 record the season before and was chosen as the team MVP but played poorly in the playoffs, and that sub-par play and a visible lack of confidence carried into the 2002 season.

With Stewart at quarterback, the Steelers lost their first two games to New England (30-14) and Oakland (30-17) and were on the verge of losing a third, to Cleveland, when Cowher inserted Maddox late in the second half with Pittsburgh down 13-6. Maddox rallied the Steelers to a 16-13 overtime victory and would go on to start the rest of that season and in 2003, except for several games when he was hurt.

Stewart played so poorly at the start of 2002 that some teammates felt the team's season would be lost if he remained the starter. After Stewart was benched, there was no visible sentiment on that team that he should be reinstated.

Bettis also wrote that the Steelers became too reliant on the pass with Maddox, one reason they didn't go further in the 2002 playoffs; that he had an undisclosed appendectomy before the 1999 season; and that he became incensed when Steelers fans booed him early in the 2004 season for replacing Duce Staley in goal-line situations.

Bettis' book full of surprises

Wednesday, August 22, 2007
By Ed Bouchette, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Long before the fairy-tale ending to his career on the floor of the Super Bowl in his hometown of Detroit, Jerome Bettis says the Steelers wanted to release him in the summer of 2000 -- and would have had he not faked a training camp injury.

That and several other surprising revelations are contained in "The Bus. My Life in and out of a Helmet," an autobiography by Bettis with co-author Gene Wojciechowski set for its release in bookstores in a few weeks.

Among the stories told by Bettis is an accusation that former coach Bill Cowher conspired with Steelers management to run quarterback Kordell Stewart out of Pittsburgh because he was due for another big contract after his 2001 Pro Bowl season.

Bettis said he avoided being run out as well because of the injury to his left knee. The Steelers, he wrote, wanted to turn his job over to Richard Huntley in 2000 and noted that Huntley turned down a $2 million signing bonus from the Miami Dolphins as a free agent to remain with the Steelers.

Bettis cited a Post-Gazette story that Huntley told his agent that Bettis would be released and that coordinator Kevin Gilbride "loved Huntley."

Bettis entered that training camp with an injured left knee that he said never was right after surgery the previous summer. He kept quiet about the injury, thinking the Steelers would release him right then had they known about it.

Instead, he waited for a chance in practice to fake it. He went down in a short-yardage drill, yelled and grabbed his left knee.

"Man, did I do a nice job of acting,'' Bettis wrote. "The thing is, I wasn't faking that I had an injury. I was just faking that the injury happened on that short-yardage play. I had to fool the coaches and the team's medical department into thinking the injury had occurred on that play. Otherwise, the Steelers would have had their reason to cut me and my salary."

Once hurt in camp, the Steelers could not release him.

"I effectively negated any funny business they were trying to pull on me," Bettis wrote. "I took the pressure off a head coach who was probably trying to get rid of me.

"In my mind," Bettis continued, "what I did was justifiable because the original injury occurred while I was playing for the Steelers."

Bettis ran for 1,341 yards that season and left the game after the 2005 Super Bowl on his own terms.

It did not happen that way for Stewart, the team's MVP in 2001.

"For some reason, Coach would never really commit fully to Kordell ... and because of that, we had no consistent leadership from the quarterback position," Bettis wrote of Stewart's on-and-off stay as starting quarterback from 1997 until Tommy Maddox replaced him in the third game of the 2002 season.

Bettis blames Cowher for not knowing what to do with Stewart and for affecting his development as a quarterback.

"Nothing against Tommy, but I always had my doubts that he won the job fair and square."

He said Stewart was too rich for them as he entered the last year of his contract in 2002. Actually, his contract ran through 2003.

"Anybody who tells you money isn't a factor in personnel decisions doesn't know the NFL," Bettis wrote. "I can't prove it, but in my heart I really believe that Kordell was set up for failure that season."

The Steelers did not discuss a contract extension after Stewart's Pro Bowl 2001 season, something they always had done previously when he had two years to go. Then, he was benched quickly in 2002 in favor of Maddox.

"You bench your Pro Bowl quarterback for a guy who had been out of football for years, who hadn't started an NFL game in 10 seasons?" Bettis wonders in his book. "That just doesn't happen by accident.

"I think they pulled Kordell partly because they didn't want to pay him a big salary and signing bonus. It was cheaper for them if he didn't have success. If he recovered and had a huge year, then the public sentiment would be, 'Hey, you've got to re-sign him for whatever it costs.' I'm telling you, it was a monetary decision. The Steelers had no interest in paying Kordell his market value."

Among other revelations in the book:

* Bettis wrote that relying more on the passing game in 2002 rather than the running game is why the Steelers came up short in the playoffs behind Maddox.

* He was not happy when the team cut fullback Tim Lester before the 1999 season.

"I even told the Steelers I'd give part of my salary to keep him. But they had no intention of keeping Tim. It wasn't about money [they never offered him a contract]; it was about wanting to give the job to Jon Witman. Witman was a Penn State guy handpicked by another Penn State guy, Coach [Dick] Hoak. ... Without Lester, there's no question my rushing numbers wouldn't have been as good as they were."

* Bettis had a secret appendectomy before the 1999 season.

"The funny thing is, the Steelers didn't want the media to know about the surgery. So, when I went to the hospital, someone told me to register under the name Tex Goldstein. That was my alias. Do I look like a Tex Goldstein?"

* He called Denver linebacker Bill Romanowski "a coward" for grabbing his ankle and twisting it.

* He said halfback Amos Zereoue "wasn't the hardest-working guy in practice" and he told him so. "Amos listened, but he didn't take it to heart."

* On being booed at home for replacing Duce Staley near the goal line in 2004 and scoring a touchdown: "Steelers fans -- at my home stadium -- were booing me for scoring a touchdown. I was so angry that you could have grilled a hamburger on my forehead."

* He felt ashamed when Notre Dame fired its first black head coach, Tyrone Willingham, after just three years.

* The White House staff misspelled Cowher's name on the Steelers' visit to meet President Bush as "Cower" on the stage floor where the coach was to stand.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Ron Cook: Standing on the corner

Despite frequent challenges, Deshea Townsend remains a starter

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

OK, so maybe it's corny.

Corny, but meaningful.

"Look at this shirt. This is my motto," Steelers receiver Hines Ward was saying yesterday, pulling a yellow jersey out of his locker.


"That's been me my whole career," Ward said, "and that's him," pointing at the man in the next locker.

Deshea Townsend.

"To me, he's still our best corner," Ward said. "Maybe he isn't the tallest in the NFL and maybe he isn't the most talented, but you need more than physical tools and talent to make it in this league. You have to be smart and you have to know the game. He does. That's why he's lasted so long with this team."

Ten seasons and counting, making Townsend, along with Ward and guard Alan Faneca, the most-tenured Steelers' players.

They came in together in the 1998 draft class -- Faneca, the can't-miss No. 1 pick who has become the most-decorated guard in franchise history, Ward, a third-rounder now the team's all-time leading receiver in catches who was a Super Bowl MVP, and Townsend, who, as a fourth-round choice ...

Hey, he's still starting.

No one can beat him out.

Not that they haven't tried.

It was supposed to happen at training camp last season. Bryant McFadden was going to be The Man. He had done a nice job as a rookie in '05, giving the Steelers a big push toward Super Bowl XL by knocking away a late pass in the end zone against the Indianapolis Colts and Peyton Manning in the AFC playoffs.

Townsend held him off.

Skip ahead to this camp. Again, McFadden was supposed to win the starting job. He played well in nine starts last season when the Steelers' big-money cornerback, Ike Taylor, was in coach Bill Cowher's doghouse. He had three interceptions, matching Troy Polamalu for the team lead.

But guess who was running with the first defense at practice yesterday opposite Taylor, who has re-emerged as a key player for new coach Mike Tomlin?

Guess who has been there all summer?

Yep, Townsend.

He had a nice game at Washington the other night. In one three-play sequence in the second quarter, he chased down Redskins back Derrick Blaylock from behind for a 1-yard loss, closed quickly to tackle wide receiver Brandon Lloyd after a 2-yard catch and sacked quarterback Todd Collins for a 9-yard loss.

"I can still run with people out there," Townsend said.

But there's so much more to it.

Ward was absolutely right.

"The mental part of the game allows me to slow things down," Townsend said.

Townsend never stops working at his trade, never stops studying it.

"I don't take anything for granted," he said. "I take the same notes now that I did as a rookie. In our meetings, I always write down every player's assignment. That helps me to be better prepared to do my job.

"I learned that from coach [Bill] Cowher. He always said, 'Nothing is etched in stone. When you come to camp, be prepared to win your job.' That's what I've done every year since I've been here."

Even Townsend thought he might be finished with the Steelers after the '05 season. He did the NFL tour as an unrestricted free agent and was at New England Patriots headquarters, ready to sign a deal, when Cowher got him on his cell phone. He sheepishly excused himself from that meeting with the Patriots and wound up signing a four-year, $8 million contract with the Steelers through the '09 season.

Now, who's to say Townsend -- 32 on Sept. 8, the day before the opener in Cleveland -- won't last long enough to play it out?

"People always put so much emphasis into age, but I don't think you can do that nowadays," he said. "The way we train year round, the medical staff we have ... It's easy to keep playing at a high level as you get older."

That's if you consider hard work easy.

"It's never been easy for me and Deshea," Ward said. "It seems like they're always bringing in someone to replace us ...

"Go back to that '98 draft. If you would have asked then what players would still be with the Steelers 10 years later, I guarantee no one would have said me and Deshea."

Sometimes, it's nice to be wrong.

For Pittsburgh's Tomlin, it's all about the details

Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin walks on the field before before a preseason game against the Packers earlier this month. Tomlin will hope to be on the Pittsburgh sidelines for a long time, like his predecessors Bill Cowher and Chuck Knoll.

By Chris Colston, USA TODAY

LATROBE, Pa. — The bass thumped from a portable stereo, a cool rap groove, when Mike Tomlin entered the room the morning of Oct. 30, 2002.

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers were in the middle of their Super Bowl season. Coach Jon Gruden likes to split the 16-game schedule into quarters, and for each quarter he assigns an assistant as "head coach" for the big Wednesday team meeting that sets the tone for the week.

Tomlin and linebackers coach Joe Barry drew the third quarter. So with the music blasting, they and their "posse" — assistant coaches Raheem Morris and Joe Woods — burst in wearing matching black T-shirts riffing off the "third quarter" theme. "Something the players could relate to," Bucs cornerback Ronde Barber says.

The entrance grabbed players' attention. Tomlin, then 30, spoke and his confidence proved rapturous.

"Some guys can have that kind of presence in a meeting room, with his positional players," says Denver Broncos safety John Lynch, a member of that Bucs team. "But when Mike stepped in front of everybody his thoughts were precise, succinct, and he never faltered in his delivery. It's a talent and he pulled it off. That was the first time I thought, 'Wow, this guy is going to be a special head coach one day.' "

But the ranks are filled with qualified assistants. For Tomlin, 35, to leapfrog them and become coach of the Pittsburgh Steelers fascinates many who follow the NFL. One reason he commands the respect: Every detail matters.

It also helps explain why, for the love of Art Rooney Sr., Tomlin wears a long-sleeved shirt and black pants in the stifling August heat of training camp. "The man in black," cornerback Deshea Townsend says. "He's a cool cat."

So much interest in his wardrobe perplexes Tomlin, who says he always has dressed this way.

"All of a sudden, it's newsworthy," he says. "That's been the most surprising thing about the job for me at this point — that it's a big deal what clothes I choose to work in."

But Tomlin's style has a purpose: to create consistency. "It's a little mental warfare on my part," he says, then cracks a smile. "All I have to do is get through training camp. After that, this is appropriate wear."

Such thinking might explain how Tomlin landed one of the NFL's most prestigious jobs. Low-profile stops at Virginia Military Institute, Memphis, Arkansas State and the University of Cincinnati and one year as an NFL coordinator exposed him to many situations; he held six jobs in his first seven years of coaching.

But during that NFL championship season, working with players such as Barber, Lynch, Brian Kelly and Super Bowl XXXVII MVP Dexter Jackson, Tomlin began to get a better sense of his destiny.

"I had a great room, but it was a hard room to coach," Tomlin says. "If you stand in front of Lynch and Barber and Kelly every day, it doesn't matter if there are 50 other guys in the room. That's a tough crowd.

"They had a desire to be great, and they demanded that you deliver for them. That's when I realized I might be capable of doing something like this."

Tomlin's authenticity won over Barber.

"He wasn't phony, and some coaches don't have that quality," Barber says. "Mike always seemed like he loved what he was doing and loved the guys he worked with. Some part of him rubbed off on us.

"To me, that's a great head coach's quality, and you could see that in him from the very beginning."

Having said that, even Barber raised his eyebrows when Tomlin landed the Steelers job.

"Surprise is the wrong word because I knew he'd be there at a young age," Barber says. "But this year? No. Next year, I thought maybe."

Rising to the top

When Steelers coach Bill Cowher left after 15 years, the franchise had two good candidates on staff to replace him: offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt and offensive line coach Russ Grimm.

But if one team does due diligence in the hiring process, it is the Steelers. The Rooney Rule, which forces teams to interview minorities for head coaching vacancies, is named after Steelers Chairman Dan Rooney.

"Let's bring Tomlin in and see how he looks," Rooney said.

Steelers players were watching the hiring process.

"It wasn't like we were going to go on strike if he didn't get the job," safety Ryan Clark says. "But the majority of players are of African-American descent, so it's something we looked at."

Tomlin, who keeps boxes loaded with old coaching planners and notebooks and has a log of every practice, impressed the Rooneys enough to reach the second round as one of five finalists.

"The second interview did it," Rooney says. "He was prepared and understood what we were saying. He just really sold us."

Although he had been the Minnesota Vikings' defensive coordinator for only one season, Tomlin felt confident.

"But I didn't know about the landscape of getting a head job," Tomlin says. "I didn't know if it was politics. And if that was the case, I didn't know how to play those politics."

With the Rooneys, it was all about competence; that Tomlin was then 34 didn't bother them.

"We don't have a prohibition against hiring young coaches," Rooney says. "Chuck Noll was 35, Bill was 34. Mike fell into the same age bracket they did. But that's not why you hire somebody, because they can relate to younger players. You hire them because they can do the job regardless of age."

Then Rooney adds, "If we didn't hire him this year, somebody else would soon."

On Jan. 22, Tomlin joined Romeo Crennel, Tony Dungy, Herman Edwards, Marvin Lewis and Lovie Smith as the NFL's African-American head coaches. Whisenhunt landed in Arizona, bringing Grimm with him.

Transition has bumpy moments

Tomlin's two-a-day schedule with first-week contact was different from how Cowher ran the show. The transition took some adjustment for many Steelers veterans.

"We're still feeling each other out, still learning the process, the schedule," says Pro Bowl guard Alan Faneca, who favored Whisenhunt or Grimm for the job. "For a while there, it was like, 'What are we going to do today?' So many guys had been doing the same thing day in and day out."

Tomlin acknowledged some bumpy moments: "It's human nature to resist change. We're all creatures of habit."

But the Rooney stamp of approval lent credence to the movement.

"The Rooneys are smart. In the last (40) years, they've had three coaches," Steelers defensive end Brett Keisel says. "You have to trust them. The decision shocked a lot of guys. … But this was the direction they wanted to go in, and I don't think there is a soul on this team who will question the Rooneys' opinion on this."

Clark says the Steelers have someone "who understands where we are in life. Sometimes, with older coaches, they're far removed from being 26, 27 and having to deal with the things we deal with. But he also has the expertise of a guy who's been in the league for 20, 30 years. I think it was a hire based on merit, not on color."

Starring role

The Steelers are beginning to see what the Rooneys saw in the coach and what his William & Mary teammates saw when Tomlin played wide receiver from 1990-94: a facile mind, attention to detail, his ability to relate to people of different ages and backgrounds. He is a fit 6-2, with a beard trimmed along his jaw, a stylish mustache, twinkling eyes behind Versace sunglasses.

"I worked side-by-side with him for five straight years in Tampa," says Barry, now the Detroit Lions defensive coordinator and a rising star himself. "In that situation, you see people's moods, their good days and bad. And every single day, I knew what I was getting with Mike Tomlin: someone who is smart, tough and consistent."

In an alternate life, Clark sees Tomlin running a Fortune 500 company.

"Some people are better at giving orders than taking them," Clark says. "And it seems like he's pretty good at giving them. If he wasn't a football coach, he'd have to be somewhere, bossing somebody around."

But the most striking thing about Tomlin is… what, exactly?

Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger nodded when posed this question.

"He has a presence, without being boisterous," Roethlisberger says. "There is something about him that makes you want to know what he's thinking."

William & Mary teammate and Kappa Alpha Psi fraternity brother Terry Hammons sensed something, too.

"You can feel his presence when he walks into a room," Hammons says. "You might not know who he is or what he does, but you get the sense he's special. … I don't want to sound too cheesy, but he has an aura about him.

"How do I explain this? Some coaches feel they need to control situations by screaming. Mike doesn't need to do that. There might be a gymnastics meet going on inside his body, but you wouldn't be able to tell by the look on his face."

Townsend senses it, too. He says Tomlin has the charisma of an actor — "A Denzel Washington type."

"An actor? Yeah — I think so," tight end Heath Miller says. "That's actually pretty good. … I think he'd do well."

Tomlin laughs when he hears this. He considers himself "nerdy" because he loves crossword puzzles.

But in Pittsburgh, he has achieved celebrity status. When movie star Will Smith accompanied Tomlin to dinner at a local restaurant, fans mobbed their table — to meet Tomlin. According to Hammons, Smith told Tomlin it was the first time in 20 years he had eaten in a restaurant and hadn't been asked for his autograph.

"The irony is, Mike had been to the restaurant once before but couldn't enjoy it because fans kept interrupting him," Hammons says. "He figured if he took Will Smith, he'd have a peaceful meal."