Monday, March 31, 2008
By Gene Collier, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
The Penguins' Evgeni Malkin celebrates his goal in the first period against the Rangers with Sidney Crosby.
Yesterday's Mellon Arena matinee wasn't two minutes old when Penguins goalie Marc-Andre Fleury looked out from the cage and saw a large animal flying straight down Center Avenue in his direction. And not just any animal, The Animal.
Sean "The Animal" Avery, recently christened as such by New York Rangers teammates amused to find that his name, his phone number, and his, umm, nickname, were part of a Page 1 story in the New York Daily News regarding a certain notorious madam's black book, fired a vicious shot that Fleury barely turned aside.
Rather than provide a distraction to New York's churning hopes for favorable playoff position, Avery appeared to be stoking them, but there is a certain law of thermodynamics in the second half of this hockey season that can't seem to be outdone, even by the teams who are so hot they're practically salacious.
Any of the thoroughbred animals frothing for postseason post position might reach a temperature higher than Pittsburgh's at any given moment, but no one stays as feverishly excellent.
"That's kind of the feeling now when you come into the dressing room," Jordan Staal said after the Penguins smothered Broadway's team, 3-1. "You don't want to be too confident, but every time we come in here we feel like we have a great opportunity to win."
That's mostly what comes with being 35-15-5 since Dec. 1, the morning they woke up 11-11-2. With yesterday's 10th victory of March, most in any month, Michel Therrien's team is 29-8-5 in its past 42 games, exactly the kind of sustained heat you need to deal with desperate entities like the Rangers, who had lost only twice in their past 20 games.
"It's definitely a blast," Max Talbot said of playing in this atmosphere. "We've been battling for first place for like 30 games now. The fans, we're just feeding off them, they were so loud. We can't wait to get out there. It's good for us to be in games like these at the end of the season. We're forced to play tight, well-disciplined hockey. Today, every little play can cost you a game, and that's playoff hockey."
But as they moved within a breath of the Atlantic Division title they can put away tonight in Manhattan against these same Rangers, the Penguins were outshot for the 48th time in 79 games. They did uncharacteristically well on faceoffs, winning 30 of 55, but they again took needless risks in their own end and did a lot of the so-called little things questionably if not badly.
The identity that appears to be emerging here is that of a team that's probably a little underrated on defense, and rather than do the little things well, it does the big things well. It wins a lot.
"We try not to panic when we're out there getting outshot by 10," Staal said. "We wait for our opportunities. Personally, I don't think we give up too many good scoring chances. We're patient and we find a way to win."
The Penguins are in the middle of a pretty spectacular demonstration that you can afford to be patient when you can put a fourth line out there that generates such consistently textbook shifts as Talbot, Georges Laraque and Jarkko Ruutu, occasionally joined by Staal and Tyler Kennedy. It was soon after those first three started banging in earnest near the midpoint of the first period yesterday when there was finally enough open ice for Marian Hossa's tying goal.
Like being outshot, failure to get the first goal is not a serious issue to these Penguins as it is to just about everyone else. The Penguins are 24-19-5 when they're outshot, and have the fourth most wins in the league in that circumstance, as well as the fourth most when allowing the first goal.
"We just played another tight defensive game," Staal said after assisting on Talbot's huge insurance goal with 46.7 on the third-period clock. "They're a great defensive team so we just kind of waited them out. There was such intensity right off the bat. I don't have a lot of experience with it, but it sure felt like playoff hockey."
Maybe that's because it can't seem to get here fast enough.
Talbot told anyone who'd listen yesterday the time is now, even if the calendar won't allow a playoff puck to be dropped for another nine days. Soon enough, for a team that does the big things well, it will be time to do big things.
Gene Collier can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1283.
First published on March 31, 2008 at 12:00 am
Sunday, March 30, 2008
Sunday, March 30, 2008
Pittsburgh Pirates manager John Russell watches a spring training baseball game against the Minnesota Twins in Bradenton, Fla., Tuesday, March 25, 2008.
(AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)
Three springs ago, when the Pirates' losing streak was only 12 years long, I asked baseball broadcaster Jon Miller if he could please attempt to articulate the national perception of Pittsburgh's professional baseball club.
"The national view of the Pirates, as a whole," Miller said, "is that people have no idea about them."
This was during a conference call with ESPN's on-air talent. In a related matter, the Pirates are not scheduled to be on that network's Sunday night game of the week this season and have not appeared on one since May 19, 2002, when Aramis Ramirez knocked in two runs to help Kip Wells beat Dave Mlicki at Enron Field.
You remember it like yesterday.
"The Pirates are anonymous nationwide," Miller added. "That's the real problem. Most people don't realize Kevin McClatchy is the owner."
True enough -- and most people probably don't realize McClatchy is no longer running the team. But hear this loud and clear: The Pirates' safe and secluded and terribly sad run of anonymity is about to end.
One way or another, John Russell's boys are going to become a story over the next six months.
To quasi-quote Don Henley, this is The End of the Irrelevance.
Either the Pirates win, in which case the baseball world takes note, or they continue to lose, in which case they become a story of historical significance.
Another losing season makes 16 in a row, which would put the Pirates in select and somewhat tragic company. The only other franchise in the history of professional sports -- yeah, the history of professional sports -- to string together that many losing seasons was the Philadelphia Phillies from 1933-48.
The Pirates already have surpassed the NFL's lengthiest loser, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who had a 14-year reign of error from 1983-96.
The Pirates have tied the longest streaks in NHL and NBA history, both 15 years (NHL's Vancouver Canucks from 1976-91; NBA's Kansas City/Sacramento Kings from 1983-98).
If you think it was a big story last season when the Phillies became the first pro sports franchise to lose 10,000 games, well, you just wait.
It was a big story, by the way. ESPN was all over it, and the first entry on a Google search of that milestone loss turns up something from the International Herald Tribune, for goodness sakes. Soon after, something from a blog called "Failure Magazine."
People love a prodigious loser.
But guess what? I think the streak's going to end.
In a way, that makes sense. Just as the Pirates are poised to garner worldwide attention for their ineptitude, they ruin everything and win.
The law of averages says something has to go right one of these years.
The castaways finally escaped Gilligan's Island, didn't they?
(They did, albeit in a horrifying made-for-TV movie in 1978, the same year the Pirates and Phillies waged a memorable battle for the NL East).
Wile E. Coyote finally caught the Road Runner, didn't he?
(He did, albeit in a Bugs Bunny television special).
I'll cancel this prediction the minute a starting pitcher goes down or a firesale breaks out. Meantime, I hereby proclaim the 2008 Pirates will finish 82-80.
That doesn't necessarily mean the program will have turned the corner, though I like almost everything new general manager Neal Huntington and president Frank Coonelly have done. It simply means the Pirates will take third place in the pathetic NL Central with 82 wins.
Put another way, it means they'll achieve high-end mediocrity for at least one season.
I believe Adam LaRoche and Jason Bay will start fast and post big numbers.
I like Nate McLouth as an everyday center fielder (God, am I sorry I just put that in print).
Mostly, I believe the young starting pitching will carry the team. Tom Gorzelanny, Paul Maholm and Ian Snell will continue to improve, and new pitching coach Jeff Andrews will oversee the rebirth of Zach Duke.
This game still comes down to pitching, and as hideous as they were last season, the Pirates were 58-42 when their starter lasted six innings (10-52 when he didn't).
So go ahead and laugh. I'm sticking with 82-80.
Failure Magazine can find another cover story.
Joe Starkey is a sports writer for the Tribune-Review. He can be reached at email@example.com.
Monday, March 10, 2008
By Gene Collier, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Linda Spillers/Associated Press
Sidney Crosby celebrates after getting a goal against Washington Sunday as the Capitals' Boyd Gordon skates past in the second period.
WASHINGTON -- You might have figured that nominations were closed after Capitals' defenseman Shaone Morrisonn altered Sidney Crosby's consciousness midway through the first period, but nominations for the most spectacular bombing of a high-value target went right through 60 minutes of ultra-physical hockey, 60 minutes that must have played on NBC like Global Gladiators.
Sid melted woozily to one knee after Morrisonn's assault in the high slot, but recovered to ram his tormentor minutes later, just as Jarkko Ruutu drilled Capitals centers Boyd Gordon and Brooks Laich, just as Alexander Ovechkin blasted Evgeni Malkin into the center ice boards in the game's opening minutes, right after Brooks Orpik dropped Ovechkin in the Penguins' goal crease practically before the anthem had ended.
"In the first period, I think there [were] more hits than shots," Crosby said after the Penguins' collision-choked, 4-2 victory here yesterday, a nationally televised episode played so chaotically that the winning goal accidentally was stuffed past Washington goaltender Christobal Huet by teammate Nicklas Backstrom.
There was ample concern for Backstrom's mental health in the immediate aftermath, but the Penguins weren't offering any apologies, instead bolting for the airport on a fresh wave of evidence that they are playoff ready in the most physical sense.
"There's something about these guys," a very nearly beaming Michel Therrien was saying in a Verizon Center concourse late yesterday afternoon. "I'm not worried about the physical aspect of hockey with these guys. They've got a lot of character; they've been through a lot of adversity, and that's how I know they have character."
They also have the two points they swiped in the final minute to match the two the New Jersey Devils swiped in the final minute Saturday night in Toronto, slicing the distance between them at the top of the Eastern Conference to a single point again with four weeks remaining in the regular season.
"We knew coming in here that they were going to play a very physical game," said Penguins winger Ryan Malone. "But we had a lot of fans here from Pittsburgh, and it was just a tremendous atmosphere, really a playoff atmosphere.
"The Capitals really brought everything; they were finishing their checks. In that kind of situation, when you know you're going to get banged off the puck, you've got to be really careful every time the puck is on your stick. Any mistake can be decisive."
Linda Spillers/Associated Press
Penguins goalie Marc-Andre Fleury makes a save against the Washington Capitals' Viktor Kozlov as teammate Ryan Malone looks on in the first period of yesterday's game.
In the kind of tight-checking affair on which the Capitals have insisted of late -- they had allowed only 11 goals in their previous seven games -- Crosby could have thought he'd decided it late in the second period when he swept the rebound of a Malkin blast behind Huet for his first goal since Jan. 12 and a 2-1 lead, but the residue of the continuous banging caught up with the Penguins when Orpik went off for roughing a minute later, causing a 5-on-3 predicament for the second time in the game.
Alexander Semin cashed that in with only 13.2 seconds remaining in the period, a significant goal in that Washington was 0-24-2 when trailing after two.
"For 50 minutes, we were definitely the better team," said Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau, "but you could see they turned it up a notch in the last 10 minutes. Chris [Huet] had to make a couple really, really good saves to keep us in it. I thought we got to the last minute, we were fine, we're going to take it to overtime and we usually have some success there. But, as it turns out, that's not the way it happened."
It happened that with the clock blinking past 0:30, Backstrom had just cleared himself of Penguins winger Pascal Dupuis on Huet's doorstep, just as Crosby got the puck in the left faceoff circle and whipped it past Malone through the slot. Backstrom tried to rake it out of danger into the corner behind him, but instead banged it past Huet.
Generally you can't count on a winning goal from someone in the other sweater, but the fact is the Penguins brought so much heat from so many talented offensemen at the climax of this one that the Capitals did a superb job merely surviving into the final seconds. It was the kind of excellence that could carry them toward May, and it wasn't lost on anyone that it came at the end of a very rough couple of hours.
"That was the kind of game that proves our character," said defenseman Ryan Whitney. "When you see Ruutu and Orpik with so many big hits, taking it to them, you know we can win that way, whether their guy puts it in or not."
Gene Collier can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1283.
First published on March 10, 2008 at 12:00 am
Sunday, March 09, 2008
By Gene Collier, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Evgeni Malkin and Alexander Ovechkin on Draft Day 2004.
For Pittsburgh's hockey sanity, the return of Sidney Crosby couldn't have materialized too early, even if Sid's somewhat sudden reappearance this week smudged the most lustrous angle of today's nationally televised drama in the nation's capital.
As nimble in the conference room as Crosby is on the ice, the NHL and NBC had, by Friday, recast this episode as another Crosby vs. Ovechkin showdown for their urgent promotional purposes, and that may be as you like it, but today's 12:38 faceoff between the Penguins and the desperate Capitals clearly has a superior subplot.
The league's top two scorers are the brilliant Washington sniper Alexander Ovechkin and the Penguins' often equally breathtaking Evgeni Malkin, two Russian superstars skating against each other within weeks of erecting an unprecedented block of NHL history. No Russian player has ever won the Art Ross Trophy, awarded since 1948 to the league's top scorer.
"Ovechkin is not a motivation for me," Malkin said in a translated national conference call this week. "I just try to improve my game, try to be better than I was last year. I'm just trying to make sure our team makes the playoffs. We had a great game against Washington in Pittsburgh, and I'm sure it's going to be another good one."
Malkin led the league in scoring until Ovechkin awoke from an odd seven-game goal-less snooze to put together one of the most spectacular weeks of his career. He had a hat trick before the first period ended Monday night against Boston, scored twice Wednesday night in Buffalo and, after an assist in a 2-1 loss at Boston yesterday, he has six goals and five assists in his past five games.
Ovechkin's 93 points led Malkin by four, and you can't help but wonder what this kind of conspicuous success might be having on the politics of talent procurement in the former Soviet Union. We're still less than two years removed from Malkin's daring detachment from his Russian team at the Helsinki airport and the resultant globe-trotting intrigue that seemed to involve everyone but Boris Badenov before it ended favorably for the Penguins in U.S. District Court.
"Coming out of the  lockout, the Russian federation declined to be part of the player transfer agreement that had been negotiated with the International Ice Hockey Federation, which sets the terms of players transferring between North American and European leagues, and as a result, we're seeing less transfers of Russian players to the NHL," deputy commissioner Bill Daly said Friday on the phone from New York. "Having said that, the best Russian players seem to want to continue to play in the NHL and continue to view it as the premier league in the world, which it is. Those players are still coming. What we're missing is the kind of more marginal players, who are opting to say in the Russian leagues.
"The bottom line is that it hasn't impacted the quality of the product in the NHL, which is still getting the best players in the world, as evidenced by Mr. Malkin in Pittsburgh and Mr. Ovechkin in Washington."
The question is whether the lingering sting of the Malkin episode eventually will have a detrimental impact, or might the transfer agreement ever again be all inclusive.
"We're in discussions about a new agreement and [the Russians] did participate in those discussions on Jan. 16," Daly said. "We certainly want to maintain a dialogue. We've had a very professional, cordial relationship with them."
The president of Malkin's Russian team, Gennady Velichkin of Metallurg Magnitogorsk, called Malkin "a national treasure," and generally sovereign states dislike losing national treasures in foreign court rulings thousands of miles away. It would be a shame if any of the NHL's international agreements were damaged in ways that cramped the kind of talent traffic that's seen the game's level of excellence rise with its global diversity.
"The league absolutely sees the value in diversity," Daly said. "Both from the perspective of widening everyone's horizons and purely from the basic business perspective. Thirty percent of NHL players are born outside North America, which presents an opportunity for connectivity to European hockey and European hockey fans, and that's something we didn't have in the years leading up to the lockout. In the third year post-lockout, a ranking priority will be to grow our brand recognition throughout the world."
Whether the league can ever grow something like a Malkin-Ovechkin duel into a decent television rating for NBC on a Sunday afternoon may or may not be unrelated to this global posture. While no one has to be reminded that there's no shortage of people who just don't like hockey, you can't help but be reminded from time to time in this noisy culture that there's another significant segment of people who just doesn't like foreigners.
On both counts, it's their loss, and that will be obvious for what figure to be three memorable hours this afternoon.
Gene Collier can be reached at email@example.com or 412-263-1283.
First published on March 9, 2008 at 12:00 am
By Shelly Anderson, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
By Keith Srakocic, AP
Alex Ovechkin, front, and Evgeni Malkin, the top two picks in the 2004 draft, are also the top two players in the scoring race.
CORAL SPRINGS, Fla. -- Two seasons ago, the Penguins-Washington rivalry was built around the rookie-of-the-year race between Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin, with the Capitals' Ovechkin edging Crosby for the Calder Trophy.
Last season, it turned into more of a two-against-one, with Crosby and Calder winner Evgeni Malkin standing as suitable rivals for Ovechkin.
This season, the Malkin-Ovechkin matchup has moved ahead. That is mostly because, going into the nationally televised game between the teams today in Washington, Ovechkin and Malkin are dueling for the NHL scoring title, with each trying to become the first Russian player to win it. Each also could be in line to win the Hart Trophy as league MVP.
When Ovechkin's name was mentioned after the Penguins' practice yesterday, Malkin broke into a wide grin. He slammed his fist into the palm of his other hand. "Ovechkin!" he said, then laughed.
It's a good-natured rivalry, one that heightened in the Capitals' 6-5 shootout win Jan. 21 at Mellon Arena. With Crosby out because of a high ankle sprain, Malkin and Ovechkin put on a show, flying up and down the ice. Each had two goals and an assist. Late in the first period, Malkin was behind the goal line in his end when Ovechkin came flying in. Malkin got out of the way, taking just a glancing blow while Ovechkin slammed into the boards.
"Yeah, last game was a good game," Malkin said in English, a language the shy forward is just now becoming a little comfortable speaking, whereas the outgoing Ovechkin has been a willing, smiling chatterbox since he arrived in North America.
Since that game and while stepping up in Crosby's absence, Malkin marched toward and overtook Ovechkin in the scoring race, although Ovechkin regained the lead with a strong week, including three goals, two assists Monday against Boston.
Ovechkin was held to an assist yesterday in Washington's 2-1 loss at Boston, leaving him at 93 points. Malkin has 89.
"We'd rather have Sid in the lineup, but [his injury] gave an opportunity to players to prove what they can do, and they responded very well, especially Malkin," Penguins coach Michel Therrien said. "He got in the race with Ovechkin. He stepped up his game really well."
Malkin has one goal, an empty-netter, in two games since Crosby's return, but could catch a spark playing against Ovechkin.
"Any guy who's competitive, when there's a little bit of a stage, you want to perform," Crosby said. "Both of those guys are competitive."
Malkin said Washington is more formidable because of Ovechkin.
"It's a hard game," he said. "Ovechkin's a good player, the best scorer in the NHL."
In his big game against Boston, his 67th this season, Ovechkin eclipsed the 50-goal mark and now has 54. He reached 50 the fastest of any player since 1995-96, when the Penguins' Jaromir Jagr did it in 59 games and Vancouver's Alexander Mogilny did it in 63.
"It's all players want to score 50 goals or something like that because it's very hard to do," Ovechkin said during a league-sponsored teleconference last week. "You know, it's NHL, and it's hard. Especially when you score 50 goals, you are happy. I'm actually happy, very happy right now."
The NHL has begun doting on Ovechkin, who has 152 goals in his two-plus seasons, the most of a player since the start of 2005-06.
"To score that many and be that consistent, that's big-time. He's a pure goal-scorer," said Crosby, who won the NHL scoring title and MVP last season and also is highly promoted by the league.
Ovechkin likely won't face Crosby and Malkin at the same time. Therrien put Malkin on Crosby's wing in a 5-2 loss Thursday night at Florida to try to kick-start his team, but Malkin was back at center with wingers Petr Sykora and Ryan Malone in practice yesterday.
Regardless of which Penguins stars go head-to-head with Ovechkin, all three could have a big game. Malkin has four goals, nine points in seven career games against Washington, Crosby five goals, 17 points in 10 games. Ovechkin has six goals, 13 points in 11 games against the Penguins.
While the Penguins are jockeying for first in the Atlantic Division and Eastern Conference, the Capitals are fighting for their playoff lives in the Southeast Conference, which might send only its champion to the postseason.
Therrien hopes that doesn't give Washington an advantage.
"We're talking about scoring races, Ovechkin-Malkin, but ... Ovechkin's team, they are in their playoff mode because they're surviving to try to make the playoffs," Therrien said.
Shelly Anderson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1721.
First published on March 9, 2008 at 12:00 am
Wednesday, March 05, 2008
Jan. 17, 1937 - Feb. 29, 2008
Wednesday, March 05, 2008
By Ed Bouchette, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Buddy Dial played only five seasons for the Steelers, but he made such a lasting impression that he remains high in their record book and on their highlights films.
"He came at a time when you were really switching over to the modern-day game," Steelers chairman Dan Rooney said. "He was a great receiver for us and played extremely well and gave us an opportunity to play in that transition."
Mr. Dial, 71, will be buried today in Magnolia, in his native Texas, where he lived most of his life. He died Friday in a Houston hospital, where he had been receiving treatment for cancer and pneumonia. He also had a long history of kidney problems and recently discontinued his dialysis treatment.
Acquired in a trade from the New York Giants after they drafted him in the second round in 1959 from Rice University, where he was an All-American, Gilbert Leroy Dial played from 1959-63 with the Steelers. He was traded to Dallas, where he retired after the '66 season.
But it was with the Steelers where Mr. Dial made an impact. Even though the NFL has turned to a more prolific passing game the past 30 years, Mr. Dial set the Steelers' record for most touchdown receptions in a season, 12, in 1961 -- it has since been equaled by Louis Lipps and Hines Ward. Mr. Dial also ranks 11th in team history with 229 receptions and sixth with 4,723 receiving yards. His 235 yards receiving against Cleveland in 1961 are second in Steelers history. His 1,295 yards receiving in '63 rank sixth highest on the team in a season, and his 42 career touchdowns are fourth.
"Buddy Dial was a heck of a receiver," said former Steelers halfback and teammate Dick Hoak. "He was the real deal. He had some speed, the moves, had great hands and no fear -- he could catch the ball over the middle. He had all the things you want in a receiver. He had pretty good size [6-1, 194] too for the position. He was very good."
Although the Steelers never won a playoff game until 1972, their best seasons until the 1970s occurred when Mr. Dial played for them. They had three winning seasons in his five years, made the old Playoff Bowl in '62 and came within a last-game loss of playing for the NFL championship the next season.
Mr. Dial, born in Oklahoma, was elected to the College Football Hall of Fame in 1992 and the National High School Hall of Fame in 2002. His 20.8-yard average per catch over his career still ranks second in NFL history.
Although he was among the league's most accomplished receivers, an enduring vision of Mr. Dial remains on one of NFL Films' blooper films. After he caught a touchdown pass in a 1962 game, Mr. Dial was startled in the end zone when the Steelers male cheerleaders, called the Ingots, fired a cannon packed with powder seemingly right into Mr. Dial's face.
A theatrical man by nature, Mr. Dial leaped as if he were truly shot.
"He jumped up in the air and dropped the ball," Mr. Hoak said. "Only he would think of doing that. He was a funny guy. He was a buddy of [playboy quarterback] Bobby Layne's, even though he didn't drink like those guys did. He was a clean-living religious guy, really."
"He was somewhat of a showman," Mr. Rooney said.
Former cheerleader Bill Hunt recalled for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette last year that "I went up to Buddy to apologize to him after it happened, and he said, 'Aw, shucks, it wasn't nothing. Just scared me, that's all.' "
After his playing career, according to The Associated Press, Mr. Dial settled in the Houston suburb of Tomball, where he was a prominent speaker for civic, church and charity groups.
Survivors, according to the Houston Chronicle, include sons Darren Dial of Katy, Texas, and David of Tyler, Texas; a daughter, Sherri Dial of Houston; and five grandchildren.
Ed Bouchette can be reached at email@example.com.
First published on March 5, 2008 at 12:00 am
Wednesday, March 05, 2008
By Shelly Anderson, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Sidney Crosby made an impact in his first game back last night in Tampa, Fla., assisting on the deciding goal by Max Talbot late in the third period.
TAMPA, Fla. -- This was the color of rust, Sidney Crosby style: He jumped over the boards at the St. Pete Times Forum 46 seconds into the first period, the first time his skates touched the ice in an NHL game in more than six weeks.
Seconds later, working off a short two-on-one with Max Talbot against Tampa Bay defenseman Alexandre Picard, Crosby took a pass from Talbot near the top of the crease, but goaltender Mike Smith got his skate out and Crosby put the puck off the post.
Several scoring chances later, Crosby helped to set up Talbot's winning goal at 17:13 of the third period that broke a scoreless tie in a 2-0 Penguins win against the Lightning.
"He was creating all night. He had a great game," Penguins defenseman Ryan Whitney said of Crosby, who missed the previous 21 games because of a high right ankle sprain.
"I'm sure he was pumped to get back, and we were glad to have him back."
Whitney was returning from an injury, too, having missed the previous two games because of a sore groin.
Evgeni Malkin, who carried the team in Crosby's absence, scored an empty-net goal with 4.9 seconds remaining.
Goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury, making his second start since returning from another of the several high ankle sprains that have dogged the Penguins this season, made 35 saves to pick up his third shutout of the season and improve to 11-8-1.
None of his stops was bigger than the one at 11:44 of the third period, while the game was still scoreless.
Tampa Bay's leading scorer, Vincent Lecavalier, swept in on Fleury on a breakaway.
"I was like, 'Oh, [expletive],' " Fleury said. "He's got such a good shot, good hands. I just tried to wait as much as I could."
He waited out Lecavalier long enough to be able to fall forward on the puck.
"Both goalies played well, but Marc was huge for us," Crosby said..
Crosby, the reigning NHL scoring champion and MVP, declared himself ready to return after the morning skate.
Although coach Michel Therrien went into the game intending to manage Crosby's time closely and perhaps limit it if his star center struggled, let Crosby go.
That was, in part, because the Penguins lost forward Jordan Staal in the first period when his ribs were bruised in a collision. And partly because Crosby let his coach know he was doing fine.
"We gave him ice time, and the No. 1 reason was we lost Jordan early in the game," Therrien said. "I asked him on the bench how he felt. He felt pretty good."
Crosby finished the game with 22 minutes, 7 seconds of ice time. He had three shots, won 11 of 15 faceoffs, had a plus-minus rating of plus-2 and picked up his first point since being injured Jan. 18 when he was leading the NHL with 63.
He played on a line with wingers Talbot and Pascal Dupuis, and that line produced the winning goal as Talbot plunked the puck past Smith from the top of the crease to cap a three-on-three rush. Dupuis got the other assist.
After his first-shift scoring chance, Crosby's next best chance came at 16:13 of the first period, when defenseman Brooks Orpik, just out of the penalty box, sprung him on a breakaway, but Smith stopped Crosby's wrist shot from the slot.
Crosby had played well with Malkin on his wing, but Malkin played even better at center with Ryan Malone and Petr Sykora while Crosby was out, so Therrien stuck with that top unit.
"We didn't want to touch Malkin's line because they have been doing a great job," Therrien said.
Crosby's return gave Therrien some decisions to make with his power play.
"What a great problem to have," he said.
He kept Malkin's line together on the top unit for the Penguins' first power play, with Crosby mopping up along with Jeff Taffe and Tyler Kennedy. On the team's subsequent power plays, Crosby skated with Malkin and Malone.
"He brings so much to our team," Talbot said. "He had a lot of scoring chances, a lot of energy."
Energy that waned as the game went on, Crosby admitted.
"It's good to get it over with and get that feel, my timing a little back, but I'm still not there," he said. "I had some great chances I would have loved to put in. It didn't happen. Sometimes, that's the way it goes."
Shelly Anderson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1721.
First published on March 5, 2008 at 12:00 am
Tuesday, March 04, 2008
Tuesday, March 4, 2008
Evgeni Malkin was named the league's first star yesterday after leading all scorers with 26 points in 14 games and pushing the Penguins to the top of the Atlantic Division and into a tie with Montreal atop the Eastern Conference.
Penguins center Evgeni Malkin has taken the NHL by storm since teammate Sidney Crosby suffered a high right ankle sprain Jan. 18 in a loss to Tampa Bay.
The league has taken notice.
Malkin was named the league's first star yesterday, essentially player of the month for February, after leading all scorers with 26 points in 14 games and pushing the Penguins to the top of the Atlantic Division and into a tie with Montreal atop the Eastern Conference.
Since Crosby was sidelined the Penguins are 11-6-4, and they now have 81 points. In those 21 games without the defending scoring champion and league MVP, Malkin has 14 goals and 36 points. He is second in the NHL in scoring with 88 points, after Washington Capitals forward Alexander Ovechkin (90) passed him with three goals and two assists last night.
The Penguins have scored 64 goals in their last 21 games, and Malkin has had a hand in 56.3 percent of the team's goals -- with some of the best checking defensemen and forwards guarding him. He is also one of only two Penguins players - Jordan Staal is the other - to dress in all 67 games this season for the injury-plagued squad.
Though the first and second overall picks in the 2004 draft will meet for the fourth and final time on Sunday at the Verizon Center, his personal showdown with his fellow Russian Ovechkin will take a backseat until after the Penguins get through games today and Thursday against Tampa Bay and Florida.
"For me, the most important thing is the team result," Malkin said through interpreter and teammate Sergei Gonchar. "Ovechkin is not motivation for me. I just try to improve my game and be better than I was last year."
With a scoring title on the line and the potential for the Penguins to win both their first division title and the top seed in the conference for the first time since 1997-98, the team will need Malkin producing at a high pace, something he wasn't able to in his rookie year.
"It was a tough situation at that time and ... (I) was dealing with a lot of things at that time," Malkin said. "Because of the preseason, (my) conditioning probably wasn't at its best, and that's probably why, at the end of the season, (I) wasn't playing as well."
Last season, after essentially defecting to the Unites States to play in the NHL and suffering a shoulder injury in training camp, he scored 70 points in his first 58 games. But over his last 20 games, he produced just four goals and 15 points and was held without a goal in the five-game playoff series against Ottawa.
"This year (I) had a much better summer workout, and he knew what to expect and what was waiting for him," Malkin said. "That's why (I'm) a lot better and much stronger now, and (I'm) much better prepared for the playoffs."
In addition to allowing Malkin to live with him for the second consecutive season, Gonchar has helped in other ways, including his offseason preparation and conditioning program.
"We work out together and we have an advantage because I've been working with the conditioning guy (Chris Stewart) for a couple of years now, and we've built a program especially for the NHL and especially for Pittsburgh with a lot of skating and all that stuff," Gonchar said. "He had an advantage in that the entire summer program was designed for him and for Pittsburgh's style, and that's one of the reasons why he's playing better."
Keith Barnes can be reached at email@example.com or 724-853-2109.
Tuesday, March 4, 2008
Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger smiles as he speaks to the media on the South Side about signing a new contract to stay with the team for eight more years, March 3, 2008.
The numbers enthusiastically agreed upon by Dan Rooney said all that needed to be said.
Ben Roethlisberger piled on, anyway, just in case the obvious was somehow lost in all of those zeroes.
You can do that when you're minutes into signing a contract with more than $33 million guaranteed in a $102 million deal.
Speaking of his newfound status as one of the highest-paid players in the NFL, and of all the voicemails and text messages he was receiving from teammates, Roethlisberger hit perspective in the hands and in perfect stride Monday on the South Side.
"It means a lot to be here and be their leader," Roethlisberger said.
Roethlisberger had, in effect, become that fewer than seven quarters into his NFL career, when he took over as a rookie in place of the injured Tommy Maddox.
He was as reluctant then to assume a leadership role, as at least one of his teammates was publicly skeptical of the Steelers' prospects with Roethlisberger thrust under center ahead of schedule.
The Steelers' 15-1 record in 2004 proved Alan Faneca's initial concerns were unfounded.
Super Bowl XL, while not one of Roethlisberger's better individual games, secured his place in the organization's pecking order.
Around then, he would reluctantly acknowledge to having become one of the Steelers' leaders, but it still wasn't a subject Roethlisberger appeared comfortable discussing.
Then, last season, free at last from the yoke of a head coach who insisted on micro-managing his quarterback and riding herd over his offensive coordinator, Roethlisberger finally began to embrace the concept of becoming "the guy," as well as the guy who was asked to make plays.
He began spending more time at the practice facility in the offseason and justifying the newfound faith and freedom being afford to him.
He led by deed and by example.
And he authored a comeback season that set franchise records and carried the offense on his back.
The Steelers responded by perceiving him the way the Colts perceive Peyton Manning where it really matters -- under the salary cap.
And now the Steelers are officially Ben Roethlisberger's team.
It doesn't matter that James Harrison was voted team MVP last season.
It doesn't matter how many times Hines Ward reminds everyone of his leadership qualities.
When you receive more than $36 million guaranteed, they never look at you the same way again.
Nor should they.
The Steelers will continue demanding more from Roethlisberger in the intangible department, as well as when things break down and it becomes necessary to improvise a big play.
Late last season, they saw him embrace the concept of analyzing still photographs of defenses and coverages with his teammates; Roethlisberger had previously been a guy who liked to keep to himself on the sideline.
Now, they'll expect even more from him, in ways they may not as yet have imagined.
"Keep growing," offensive coordinator Bruce Arians said Monday, when asked to assess Roethlisberger's latest challenge.
He's been up to each and every one so far.
Roethlisberger perceives his financial windfall as a mandate to put "a bunch more trophies" in the Steelers' Super Bowl display case.
Nothing less should be expected from the new face of the franchise.
It's money well spent.
Mike Prisuta is a columnist for the Tribune-Review. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-320-7923.
Tuesday, March 04, 2008
By Ed Bouchette, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger smiles with Dan Rooney after signing a new $102 million contract.
There's little of Ben Roethlisberger that underwhelms. He's Big Ben, after all, not Average Ben.
He became the first quarterback to go 13-0 in a season, the youngest to win a Super Bowl, the first on the Steelers to hit a 100 passer rating and the one who survived a spectacular motorcycle crash.
His favorite offense, naturally, is the hurry-up. Yesterday, one day after his 26th birthday, he obliterated all of the Steelers' records for player pay when he signed an eight-year, $102 million contract. It includes so-called guaranteed money of $33.2 million and has a $25.2 million signing bonus.
Roethlisberger had the Steelers in the same spot he had the Baltimore Ravens last season -- right where he wanted them. They had little choice but to give him what he wanted, and they did just that. There are many different ways to measure compensation anymore in the NFL, but by most of them Roethlisberger ranks No. 3 in the league.
His average of $12.75 million per year ranks behind only Peyton Manning at $14 million and Carson Palmer at $13.2 million. And his guaranteed money ranks behind Michael Vick, who really does not count anymore, and Manning.
Roethlisberger's signing bonus, payable over the next two seasons, is almost 2 1/2 times more than the largest paid by the Steelers -- Troy Polamalu's $10,975,000 last summer.
"This is a great birthday present to know that I am going to be a Pittsburgh Steeler for a long time," said Roethlisberger, who made his first Pro Bowl this year.
Roethlisberger's salary cap number will reach almost $8 million this year, a little higher than it would have been had he not signed his new deal. The contract is not an extension but a new 8-year deal that will pay him $2.5 million in salary this year and $4.75 million in 2009, plus a roster bonus next year of $3 million.
His salary leaps to $8.05 million in 2010. He will earn $11.6 million annually through the 2014 season. He will earn $12.1 million in the eighth and final year of the new contract, 2015, unless -- like his rookie contract -- this one is reopened when it has two years remaining.
"You're talking about a really serious commitment on the team's behalf," said agent Ryan Tollner, who, along with his brother Bruce, worked on the deal with the Steelers' negotiator Omar Khan and club president Art Rooney II.
Of course, all of that does not count the additional incentive bonuses he can earn, one reason his salary cap number would have risen this year under the previous deal.
The contract also contains a standard clause that forbids Roethlisberger from participating in "hazardous activities." While the clause does not list each activity, among the examples it cites are riding motorcycles, with or without a helmet.
His $33.2 million in guarantees -- his signing bonus, plus $4 million payments in 2009 and '10 -- protects him in case of a football injury, which would not include a motorcycle accident.
"He is a Steeler, and he will always be a Steeler," owner Dan Rooney said. "We are very pleased with that and what the future will be for us."
Roethlisberger's contract will limit what the Steelers can spend in free agency in the future, but that's the price a team pays for having one of the best quarterbacks in the league. The cap, too, will grow, as it did this year for each team from $109 million to $116 million.
Roethlisberger did alter one of his earlier requests, when he said he would like to see the Steelers keep Alan Faneca (he signed with the Jets) and land a tall wide receiver.
"I believe that we have all the pieces to the puzzle that we can be a championship football team," he said.
Kevin Colbert, the Steelers' director of football operations, said Roethlisberger's salary cap number this year did not rise much because of the new contract. "As you move forward, obviously it will have different ramifications."
"Quarterbacks get compensated a lot, so you knew that going into the season that this was going to be the time that we were going to talk to him," Colbert said. "Then he had a special season, and he earned the big contract. The organization recognized that and was willing to compensate him for that.
"We always have to keep in mind the big picture, but a big part of that big picture is the quarterback."
Ed Bouchette can be reached at email@example.com.
First published on March 4, 2008 at 12:00 am
Tuesday, March 04, 2008
By Ron Cook, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
There never was any doubt that the Ben Roethlisberger contract would be done. Teams don't allow a franchise quarterback to leave in today's NFL. They are too precious. Look at what the Dallas Cowboys did with Tony Romo. They rushed to sign him to a mega-deal in October even though he had made just 17 regular-season starts and hadn't won a playoff game.
Of course, Big Ben was staying.
He's one of the most accomplished young quarterbacks in NFL history, having won a Super Bowl and played in another AFC championship game in his first four seasons.
The kid didn't even turn 26 until Sunday.
But how much would it cost to keep him?
Would Roethlisberger pull a Peyton Manning and take every dollar on the table? Or would he do a Tom Brady and take less so the team could sign some good players to put around him?
From this angle, it looks as if Roethlisberger did the money grab.
Not that there's anything wrong with that, to quote a famous Seinfeld episode.
Forget any sort of loyalty. Pro football is nothing but a big business. The Steelers always are going to do what's in their best interests. They proved that again last summer when they offered guard Alan Faneca -- a Super Bowl hero and one of their all-time greats -- a lot less than he ended up getting from the New York Jets the other day. Don't misunderstand; don't hold that against the club. Management made what it felt was a smart business decision. But don't blame Big Ben for going after every dollar. We're talking about a two-way street here.
Sure, it would have been nice if Roethlisberger had followed Brady's lead. Brady signed a six-year, $60 million deal -- well below market value -- after the 2004 season, after he had won three Super Bowls with the New England Patriots. That enabled the team to add, among others, wide receiver Randy Moss. Brady and Moss had a record-breaking season in 2007 and nearly made NFL history, falling just short of an unbeaten season in Super Bowl XLII.
But Roethlisberger's eight-year, $102 million contract -- including a $25.2 million signing bonus -- is more like Manning's seven-year, $98 million deal with the Indianapolis Colts after the 2003 season. Who knows? Maybe the Steelers didn't push harder for Faneca because they knew their day of reckoning with Roethlisberger was coming. Certainly, it's fair to assume the team won't be able to sign a veteran offensive lineman who even approaches Faneca's skill as a replacement or the tall wide receiver that Roethlisberger had on his wish list after last season.
Not that Big Ben was in a complaining mood yesterday.
After this contract, he should be ashamed of himself if he complains about the Steelers' personnel anytime soon.
"I believe that the guys we have on this team right now are exceptional players," Roethlisberger said. "I believe that we have all of the pieces to the puzzle that we can be a championship football team."
How Roethlisberger performs will go a long way toward determining the Steelers' chances. The scrutiny on him next season and beyond will be unlike any that any Pittsburgh athlete has faced. The biggest contract in Steelers' history assures that, although he was right on when he said, with a wry grin, "In this town, there is always pressure [on the quarterback] to play well."
It would be nice if Roethlisberger doesn't have a serious injury during the next eight seasons, which might be a challenge unless his offensive line gets better in a hurry. (Sleep easy: There's no indication Big Ben will ride a motorcycle again.) It would be nice if he doesn't have another 23-interception season, as he did in 2006. It also would nice if he doesn't throw three interceptions in the first half of the Steelers' next playoff game, as he did against the Jacksonville Jaguars in January.
The Steelers clearly are counting on none of those things happening.
"The kid has done tremendous things," Steelers director of football operations Kevin Colbert said. "He has a chance to do some really special things in his career. He probably hasn't played his best football yet."
Regardless of how the Roethlisberger era turns out, this was a contract the Steelers had to do. Team owner Dan Rooney knows it. That's why he looked remarkably robust yesterday despite being potentially $102 million lighter.
"He's a Steeler. He always will be a Steeler," Rooney said of Roethlisberger.
Said a humbled Big Ben, "Hopefully, I can pay [that faith] back with championships."
For $102 million, nothing less will be expected.
Ron Cook can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
First published on March 4, 2008 at 12:00 am
Sunday, March 02, 2008
Sunday, March 2, 2008
Steelers offensive lineman Alan Faneca blows a kiss to the crowd after his last game with the Steelers, Jan. 5, 2008.
While attending the franchise's 75th anniversary gala in November, All-Pro guard Alan Faneca unofficially came to grips with the 2007 season being his last with the Steelers.
"Rod Woodson said there were guys who didn't get to finish their careers as Steelers, but they'd always bleed black and gold," Faneca said Saturday night. "That resonated with me.
"Ten years is a long time. You'd like to finish it, but it's not always meant to be."
Faneca agreed Saturday night to a free-agent contract with the New York Jets. The deal is worth $40 million over five years, with $21 million guaranteed.
"It was a gut decision," Faneca said. "I just felt like that was the best place for me."
Faneca said the St. Louis Rams, San Francisco 49ers and Arizona Cardinals also were vying for his services.
Faneca, 31, came to the Steelers as a first-round draft choice in 1998 (26th overall). He made seven Pro Bowls and was named an All-Pro five times during his 10 years with the Steelers, including 2007, when he once again received both designations.
Faneca also was selected as a member of the Steelers' 75th Anniversary All-Time Team in November, one of three current players to be honored (wide receiver Hines Ward and strong safety Troy Polamalu were the others).
Faneca said he will fly to New York late this morning. He has yet to pass his physical or sign his contract with the Jets.
"I'm excited," Faneca said. "It's like a new challenge. I'll be playing with new players in a new environment. I'm going to go get my feet wet and get after it.
"It's very exciting."
Steelers director of football operations Kevin Colbert could not be reached for comment last night.
Faneca had announced during last spring's minicamp that the 2007 season would be his last with the Steelers after negotiations for a long-term contract extension broke down. Subsequent talks proved unproductive.
Mike Prisuta can be reached at email@example.com or 412-320-7923.
The New York Times
Published: December 21, 1997
What became of Amelia Earhart?
Where is Jimmy Hoffa buried, if not in Giants Stadium?
Have creatures from outer space really sampled New Mexico's tourism?
And then, yet another of the great unanswered questions of the 20th century: was Franco Harris's Immaculate Reception kosher?
Also: was it legal?
The Immaculate Reception will not be remembered as far into the future as the Catholic doctrine from which its name derived. Yet, thanks to the energies of NFL Films, which constantly feeds the appetites of television networks and syndicators, the catch by Harris, then a Pittsburgh Steelers rookie, revisits our screens to this day, heading toward its 25th anniversary this Tuesday as the most-publicized play in American sports.
Mary would be amazed, if not irked. Television is not giving us Bartoleme Estaban Murillo's timeless 16th-century painting, ''The Immaculate Conception,'' is it? TV is showing the Reception.
Ah, but Mary and Franco share. Some doubt the Virgin Birth (which, by the way, non-Catholics confuse with the Immaculate Conception). John Madden, then the coach of the victimized Oakland Raiders, doubts the Immaculate Reception.
Again, was it legal? It was. I know where the proof lies to this very day.
After the game, I dined with my wife, then drove to Pittsburgh's WTAE-TV studios to deliver a commentary on the game for the 11 o'clock news. Meanwhile, a Steeler fan in his late 20's, Michael Ord, was celebrating Harris's catch at a downtown bar, fittingly named The Interlude. Boisterous fans toasted the victory. Ord climbed upon a chair and, with a spoon, tapped his glass for attention. ''This day,'' he proclaimed, ''will forever be known as the Feast of the Immaculate Reception!''
Then, to a friend, Sharon Levosky, he suggested, ''Call Myron Cope.''
When my phone rang in the newsroom, I listened to Sharon and said: ''That's fantastic. Let me give it some thought.''
The Immaculate Reception? Tasteless? I pondered the matter for 15 seconds and cried out, ''Whoopee!'' Having conferred upon Harris's touchdown its name for 11 o'clock news viewers to embrace, I accept neither credit, nor, should you hold the moniker to be impious, blame. Whichever, I can lead you by the hand to the repository wherein lies the proof that Harris made a legal catch of Terry Bradshaw's pass.
But first, a refresher.
22 Seconds Left And 60 Yards to Go
On a Saturday afternoon, two days before Christmas 1972, the Steelers and the Raiders engage one another at Three Rivers Stadium in Pittsburgh in a first-round playoff game, the winner to advance to the American Football Conference championship game. With 22 seconds remaining, the Raiders lead, 7-6. The Steelers' offense faces fourth-and-10 at its 40-yard line.
One of NFL Films's marketed videos is especially arresting. Bradshaw breaks the huddle, jogging to the line behind No. 56, center Ray (the Old Ranger) Mansfield. Whoops, was not Jim Clack centering for that play? True, but NFL Films had no particularly dramatic from-the-rear film of the Steelers breaking that huddle, so an earlier play had to do. The Old Ranger, who died of an apparent heart attack last year hiking down a mountainside in the Grand Canyon, is preserved for posterity. That's O.K. The revisionist Oliver Stone might have plugged in J.F.K. snapping the ball from a Hyannisport touch football game.
Anyhow, Bradshaw drops into the pocket but is soon chased backward and to his right by Horace Jones, the Raiders' right defensive end. Bradshaw slips Jones, who grazes a hand across Bradshaw's midsection, and desperately rockets a pass that travels 37 yards from his fingertips to the Raiders' 34. He has spied John (Frenchy) Fuqua, an undersized but talented halfback, hooking into the middle of the field, racing free. Raiders safety Jack Tatum, however, also has spotted Frenchy. Tatum abandons the tight end he was covering and advances upon Fuqua. At the instant the ball arrives, a fierce collision occurs.
Tatum said afterward: ''I thought I might have a chance for the ball, until he got in front of me. But when he did that, I just went for the man'' -- meaning Fuqua. Tatum, whose autobiography published years later was titled ''They Call Me Assassin,'' delivers a Tatum special -- a wicked right forearm that appears to strike Fuqua flush in the head.
At that moment, the ball emerges from the collision, flying back toward midfield. And here comes Harris.
Said Dick Hoak, the Steelers' backfield coach then and still today:
''Franco's assignment was to stay in the backfield and block the outside linebacker. If the guy didn't come, Franco was to try to chip someone, then get out for a pass.''
The Catch, And the Confusion
Harris finds nobody to block or even chip. He glances over his right shoulder and, seeing Bradshaw in trouble, gallops upfield. Little does he suspect that he is about to collect a priceless reward for good habits.
''From the day he came into the league that year,'' Hoak remembers, ''he ran 'em out. In practice, no tackling, he'd run clear to the end zone from 40 yards out. In games, he was always around the ball, whether he'd run a pass pattern or was blocking. If he ran a pass route to one side of the field and Bradshaw threw to the other side, Harris would run there.
''Maybe the pass would be batted into the air, or maybe there'd be a fumble. I tell our young guys in practice: 'Run to the end zone. Get to know it. Franco Harris did it every time and got to the Hall of Fame.' ''
Harris's simple explanation following the Steelers' victory? ''I started running to block if Frenchy caught the ball,'' he said.
But here comes the ball, and Harris cups it in his upraised palms, possibly as neat a shoestring catch as Roberto Clemente has made in this same stadium. Scarcely breaking stride, Harris points himself at the left corner of the end zone. The Raider defensive back Jimmy Warren angles in pursuit from the middle of the field. Inside the 15, Harris reaches back with a stiff-arm, fighting him off. At the 11, Warren lays hands on Franco's back. But he slides off, landing on his belly. As Harris crosses the goal line, a reported hundreds -- but actually, maybe not even a hundred, the estimate being significant, as we shall see -- pour onto the field.
But was this a touchdown? The referee does not signal touchdown.
The rule book at that time specified, as it no longer does, that for a pass to be legally caught, two players of the same team could not touch the ball consecutively. The National Football League frowned upon receivers playing volleyball. Thus, if Bradshaw's pass had touched Fuqua en route to Harris, it was not kosher. But if it had caromed off Tatum to Harris, fine.
Referee Fred Swearingen confers with his crew, particularly with Umpire Pat Harder and Back Judge Brian Burk, the two officials presumed to have had the best view of the Tatum-Fuqua collision. Remarkably, Swearingen then disappears into a Pirates baseball dugout, escorted to a telephone by a Steeler official, Jim Boston. Swearingen phones the press box and asks to speak to Art McNally, the N.F.L. supervisor of officials. Then, he emerges to throw up his arms. Touchdown!
Did Babe Ruth predict his 1932 World Series home run by pointing to Wrigley Field's center-field wall? Or was he merely gesturing, or not even doing that? History is a mess. Did Harris make a legal catch? How shall we ever know the answer? We will. Here.
And now, a word about the principals.
THE CORPULENT COACH
John Madden, head coach of the Raiders, described as more stunned than angry in the Raiders' locker room, declared, ''If the officials really knew what happened, they'd have called it right away.'' He had a point.
The next day, Madden spent a miserable Christmas Eve back in California, reviewing game film. He subsequently asserted that Bradshaw's pass could not have ricocheted off Tatum because Tatum had positioned himself behind Fuqua. Perforce, the ball had struck Fuqua.
But Madden was rationalizing. The Raiders' game film had cleared up nothing. (Nor had the Steelers'.)
Nonetheless, the Corpulent Coach plunged forward, charging that Swearingen had phoned the press box and asked McNally to review instant replay. NBC was televising the game, but not to Pittsburgh. Though the game was a sellout, Congress had not yet got around to pressuring the N.F.L. into televising home-game sellouts. Television carried the game into Three Rivers on at least one monitor, but the telecast played to the public only beyond a 75-mile radius of the city. Steeler fans, if sober, held their foul breath in Youngstown, Ohio, motel rooms.
Sneaking a Peek At the Instant Replay?
Instant replay remained 14 years away from being approved (for a time) as an officiating tool, so it could not be invoked by Swearingen or McNally. Yet Madden, furious, charged that McNally had stolen a peek at a replay.
Several days later, a United Press International article with an Oakland, Calif., dateline reported: ''Oakland writers said Steeler Public Relations Director Joe Gordon told reporters in the press box that the N.F.L. officials had made the decision from the replay.''
''That's a total fabrication,'' said Gordon, long regarded by pro football writers across the country as the nonpareil of N.F.L. publicists. He had answered the phone call from Swearingen and called McNally to the phone and stood by, hearing McNally's end of the conversation. Gordon said McNally never viewed a replay. He said Swearingen simply was checking with McNally to determine that his interpretation of the applicable rule was correct. If so, Swearingen had no business making the phone call. A high school official would have understood the rule.
Madden pressed on, taking an additional tack: ''There was no way they were going to call it any other way with all those people on the field. Somebody would have been killed.''
Hey, the stands had by no means emptied.
''I didn't hit the ball,'' Tatum said.
He is, of course, remembered as the man who delivered the blow to Darryl Stingley that put the New England receiver in a wheelchair for life. Stingley reviles him for afterward showing only a minimum interest in his, Stingley's, fate. If you depended on this man's testimony, would you put him on the witness stand?
One of my Steeler favorites. John Fuqua, from Detroit, called himself Count Frenchy, claiming to have descended from a French count. To teammates and beat writers, he was simply ''the Frenchman.'' He confided that at weigh-ins at the start of training camp, he carried a 5-pound weight in his athletic supporter so as to make 180 pounds and avoid being cut.
Down through the years, he has insisted he knows whether it was he or Tatum who touched the football, but that he will reveal the truth in his own good time. About 10 years ago, in a Detroit hotel bar, the Frenchman urged me to write his autobiography. Short of time, I declined with thanks. Was it a book that would reveal the truth?
Forget it. The Frenchman has no idea whom Bradshaw's pass struck.
''Everything was dizzy,'' he at first told reporters crowding around his locker. Tatum's ferocious forearm had sent him sprawling.
The Frenchman seemed unaware of the rule that governed the Immaculate Reception. When reporters explained it to him, his mischievous mind cranked into action. ''No comment; I'll tell you after the Super Bowl,'' he said. The Super Bowl was a game the Steelers did not reach, going on to lose to Miami in the A.F.C. championship game.
Fuqua added: ''I'm not chopping down any cherry trees'' -- perish the thought that Count Frenchy would fib -- ''but no comment.'' Twenty years later, the Steeler free safety Mike Wagner opined about Fuqua: ''He doesn't know. How could he? He was getting drilled from behind.''
DIVINE INTERVENTION (POSSIBLY?)
The Rev. John Duggan, sojourning from Ireland to study in Boston for a doctorate in psychology, had made the acquaintance of several sons of the Steelers owner Art Rooney Sr. A good luck charm, they decided.
''Get him to the games,'' Rooney ordered.
Relatively young for a priest, his face cherubic, Father Duggan in this fateful season had attended 12 games, preseason included. The Steelers had won 11 of them. Saturday nights he conducted Mass for Steeler Catholics and candidly admitted he prayed for victories.
Friday, the day before the playoff game, he looked on as the Raiders took the field at Three Rivers to practice. Notwithstanding Father Duggan's collar, the Raiders suspected a spy and ordered him off the field.
Said the priest, in his rich Irish brogue, ''I consulted their manager, a Mr. Madden of all names, and told him I would speak to my superiors about this.''
You asked for it, Madden, and you got the Immaculate Reception. Harris, for his part, allowed in the dusk of that Dec. 23, ''I'd believed all along, but after today I believe in Santa Claus, too.''
Not far east of Pittsburgh, in a woodland favored by deer hunters, stands WTAE's 1,000-foot-high television tower and, about 150 feet distant, a squat, concrete-block, one-story, fenced-in structure. In the basement are stored film and videotape of times past. There lies my proof that the Immaculate Reception was legal.
In the early 1970's, I made my living writing for magazines, chiefly Sports Illustrated, but had been dabbling increasingly in broadcasting for WTAE radio and TV. I served as color analyst (and still do) for radio broadcasts of Steeler games and weekdays delivered sports commentaries on both radio and television. On Christmas Day 1972, two days after the Immaculate Reception, I obtained from our television newsroom the film of Harris's catch that one of our cameramen had shot. Neither it nor the excerpt from NBC's telecast had made it the least bit clear to audiences whether Tatum or Fuqua touched that football. I ran the film through a device called a viewer, slowly cranking the handle that allowed me to watch the film frame by frame, again and again, at a snail's pace. No question about it: Bradshaw's pass struck Tatum squarely on his right shoulder. I mean, I saw it.
Bradshaw's powerful arm (he drilled that pass), combined with the inflexible polycarbonate plastic epaulet that topped the right side of Tatum's shoulder pads, would account for the football rebounding a full 8 yards into Harris's hands. With great relish, I broadcast my findings. The film could not be televised frame by frame, so I simply related my findings in a commentary I scripted. That was that.
In today's age of advanced technology, to say nothing of valued collectibles, that film, I suppose, would have been made airable in slow motion and then placed in a safe. For my part, I had magazine and broadcast deadlines to meet and an A.F.C. championship game for which to prepare, so I simply returned the film to a newsroom shelf, from which it would in time be sent to WTAE's transmitter building for storage.
It lies there, proof of the legitimacy of the Immaculate Reception, but virtually unfindable.
''It would be like looking for a needle in a haystack,'' I am told by Bill Hillgrove, the Steelers' play-by-play radio broadcaster, who for many years has been the sports director of WTAE-TV.
All right, why?
''About 1977, our station went from film to videotape,'' Hillgrove said. ''In the film days, when Franco made his catch, TV people didn't think much about systematically filing stuff for the future. It was, 'Just get it on the air.' About two years after we went to tape, we became more conscious of future need, if for no other reason than legal purposes.''
But would not the Immaculate Reception film have been stored chronologically, by date? ''It isn't,'' Hillgrove said. ''See, we played that film from time to time for a while -- we'd get it from the transmitter, then send it back -- but each time we sent it back, it was added to all the stuff that preceded it. Who can remember when we last used it, let alone know a date? To go in there and find it, well, you'd have as good a chance of hitting the lottery.''
Absent the film, Madden might say I have concocted my story of viewing that film frame by frame. Would he be calling me a liar? If so, I would confront him and, to borrow a Madden trademark, pow! Then again, maybe not. I stand 5 feet 5 inches and 140 pounds.
A statue of Franco Harris greets visitors at the Pittsburgh International Airport.
The Hero And His Legacies
In early November, I had lunch with Harris, still a Pittsburgh resident and businessman. A huge, stately man, black on his father's side, Italian on his mother's, he wore a neatly cropped beard. Not long ago, he led a group that purchased Parks Sausage, a venerable but failed company in Baltimore.
''It's hard work,'' he told me, ''but we're getting near to turning the corner.''
The coming weekend he would be in Philadelphia to watch the Princeton-Penn football game. His alma mater, Penn State, would be playing Michigan at Happy Valley, where he wanted to be, but his son Dok -- not a football player -- had enrolled at Princeton. ''I've never attended an Ivy League game,'' Harris said, wincing.
Then, hesitantly -- but what father could resist mentioning it? -- he said, ''Dok made 1,600 on his S.A.T.'s.''
I told Harris about the film I had put through the viewer. ''Wow!'' he exclaimed. ''Can I see it?''
Sorry, Franco. Laying your hands on it is as unlikely as a second Immaculate Reception.
Myron Cope is a longtime sports commentator in the Pittsburgh area.
By Bob Smizik, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Peter Diana / Pittsburgh
Myron Cope, 1929 - 2008
Actual proof that a secret can be kept in today's society, even among the media, is this: At a private funeral service Friday for Myron Cope about 160 invited people were in attendance, about 10 more than expected
Had the secret of the service and its site not been kept, had the invited relatives, friends and colleagues of the great Cope been blabbers, tens of thousands would have descended on the Slater funeral home in Green Tree. Such was the affection for Cope, who died Wednesday after a long illness, that the parkway in both directions would have been clogged. Greentree and Cochran roads, the two main arteries leading to the funeral home, would have been parking lots.
The mark of a man is not just by the lives he has touched, because that's only the half of it. The greatness of Cope, as a journalist, as an entertainer and as a human being, was how the other half of the equation played out. He reached back to those adoring fans. And they loved him for it.
Through all the zaniness that made him famous and admired, the Cope's impeccable character could not be hidden. He was a child of another era, born in 1929, raised in the hardscrabble 1930s. He had old-world manners that he would not relinquish. He was kind and courteous. He did not abide profanity in the presence of women. He said please. He said thank you. When people wrote or called, he responded. He was adored by the public and basked in that adoration. He was a ham with a large ego. But larger than that ego was his heart.
How big that heart was we've only just begun to learn. After his death came word that about $2.2 million, proceeds from his trademarked Terrible Towel, went to the Allegheny Valley School, a private, non-profit that cares for children and adults with intellectual development disabilities. Because his son Danny was so afflicted, the school was close to Cope's heart for decades.
Much has been made in the days since his death of Cope's love for print journalism. It's where he began; it's where thought he'd end. He drifted into broadcasting almost by chance and eventually had to give up writing. The praise of his writing that has appeared was not exaggerated. As both a newspaper reporter, covering Pitt for the Post-Gazette, and later as a magazine writer for Sports Illustrated and other national publications, he was a master of the craft.
My fondest recollections of Cope are not for the way he put words on paper or even for the way, as a rank amateur, he become first a radio and then a television star of the first magnitude in Pittsburgh. As strong as Cope's writing skills were, as gifted as he was at running a talk show, it was his work ethic that most stood out.
My profession, the print media, is full of workaholics -- men and women who won't call it a day until the last phone call has been made, the last fact checked, the last rumor run down. In his prime, Cope outworked everyone in the print media. He was a one-man staff who often out-scooped entire newspaper staffs.
At the height of his radio and television career, he did 19 commentaries a week. They were thoughtful pieces, sometimes humorous, sometimes provocative and always superbly crafted.
He didn't report for work at 5 p.m. for his 6 p.m. talk show. He was out in the field in the morning or afternoon talking to the people who made the news. If there was a news conference, he was there. If there was a media luncheon, common in the 1970s and '80s, he was there. When that work was done, he'd head to the WTAE studio in late afternoon to prepare for his talk show. Nor was he finished when he signed off.
If there was a hockey or baseball game, there's a good chance Cope would be there. Because of his 8 p.m. signoff time, he'd arrive in the second period of hockey games. The guys in the media lounge saved him a sandwich. That was his dinner. When the game was over, he'd head for the locker room where everyone knew him by name.
In baseball season, he'd make a point to come to at least one game in every home series. When the game ended, he headed to the clubhouse where he cast aside his celebrity, even if the players wouldn't have it, to be a reporter. Once finished interviewing, he'd repair to the press lounge for a toddy. He'd then sit by himself in the back, pecking away on his typewriter and composing his commentary for the next morning.
Although he might have become best known for his connection with the Steelers as the color commentator of their radio broadcasts, it was the talk show and the commentaries that brought Cope the most early attention and allowed his talent and personality to shine.
It was here he endeared himself to listeners and made them laugh.
At the funeral Friday, Steelers president Dan Rooney, one of five speakers, said, "My favorite Christmas carol is 'Deck The Broncos They're Just Yoncos.' "
Indeed, who can forget this immortal Cope line: "Pete Rostosky show 'em who's boss-ky."
He lived life hard. He liked a toddy, or two, and he wouldn't give up his cigarettes. He loved a good time and didn't mind chasing it into the night.
At his funeral Rooney; Sally Wiggin of WTAE; Bill Hillgrove, his long-time broadcast partner; Franco Harris and Elizabeth Cope, his daughter, spoke. They recalled the man, the friend, the father.
His hundreds of thousands of fans across the country, members of the Steelers Nation he helped popularize, will recall him as their heart chooses. An era has ended, a legend has left us.
Bob Smizik can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
First published on March 2, 2008 at 12:00 am
Saturday, March 01, 2008
By Moriah Balingit, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Mark McEwen holds up his "D-Fence" sign during yesterday's "Terrible Towel Wave" farewell to late Steelers broadcaster Myron Cope on the steps of the City-County Building, Downtown.
The man who is synonymous with the official flag of Steelers Nation was given a send off by its citizens yesterday in a ceremony that could only be characterized as Terrible.
A Terrible Towel twirling tribute seemed a fitting farewell for Myron Cope, the famed Steelers broadcaster and sports journalist who died Wednesday.
So yesterday, in the midst of a winter snowstorm -- "Steeler weather," Mayor Luke Ravenstahl called it -- about 350 fans and friends gathered with their Terrible Towels outside the City-County Building to pay tribute to the man who became their leader, sporadically erupting into cheers of "Let's go Myron!" and his trademark "Double Yoi!"
Addressing the snow-drenched fans, Mr. Ravenstahl recalled watching Steelers games with the television turned down and the radio turned up to hear Mr. Cope's broadcasts.
Dan DelBianco, the executive director of the Pittsburgh Vintage Grand Prix, recalled Mr. Cope's lesser-known contributions to the community, including co-founding the charity car race that benefits the Autism Society of Pittsburgh and the Allegheny Valley School. Mr. Cope's son has been a resident at the school for people with developmental disabilities since 1992. He donated the Terrible Towel trademark to the school 11 years ago so that royalties from towel sales go to the school.
Sharon Cubarney, of Morningside, grasps her Myron Cope memorabilia during the ceremony.
"He became known across this country as the voice of the Steelers ... but Myron had another voice. It was one that was softer and it spoke for thousands of those who cannot speak for themselves," Mr. DelBianco said. "I'm talking about individuals and families in the region dealing with the challenge of autism and developmental disabilities."
Much like the Terrible Towel he named -- which he once called "a positive force that lifts the Steelers to magnificent heights" -- Mr. Cope's impact on Steelers football eludes definition.
"Myron did so much for the Steelers it can't be put into words," Steelers chairman Dan Rooney told the crowd. "The biggest thing he did was to keep us loose, brought humor to it."
"I remember when we went to play Super Bowl IX, we were playing the Vikings. We were there for the first time, but we were very loose."
Though he never played a game, Mr. Cope came to symbolize the Steelers Nation as much, if not more, than many of the players.
For Mike Scott, a teacher at Allderdice High School where Mr. Cope is a graduate, the fact that Mr. Cope never donned his own jersey does not diminish his importance in the Steelers Nation.
VWH Campbell Jr./Post-Gazette
First-graders Ryan Greer, left, and Max Sybert cut out paper Terrible Towels during class yesterday at Connoquenessing Valley Elementary School in Zelienople, where teachers, students and staff honored Myron Cope.
"He never played a down, he never took a hit, but ... he's a Steeler," he said.
"He brought a sense of identification and a voice of all the fans and the hard-working attitude of the fans," said Marco Wuslich, a tech support engineer at the ceremony. "He was noticeable to everybody and he really brought us together."
For Sylvia Corcoran, a Pittsburgher and bank employee, he was more than that. Surrounded by raucous towel-waving fans, she stood and cried.
"He was Pittsburgh. I just loved him. I just loved hearing his voice," she said.
At the end of the speeches, Mayor Ravenstahl, Allegheny County Executive Dan Onorato and Mr. Rooney led a minute of silent towel-twirling, turning the rambunctious crowd startlingly solemn.
For a man who was known for his voice and stirring the passion of Steelers fans everywhere, it was an ironic tribute.
Moriah Balingit can be reached at email@example.com or 412-263-2533.
First published on March 1, 2008 at 12:00 am