Friday, July 31, 2009

Avoiding repeat of '06 nightmare is issue for Steelers

2009 Steelers report to Latrobe today

Friday, July 31, 2009
By Ed Bouchette, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Sometime tonight, after the Steelers report to Saint Vincent College in Latrobe, after coach Mike Tomlin puts them through their run test, after their first dinner of training camp together, a senior member of the roster will talk about being a Super Bowl champion.

He won't talk much about Super Bowl XLIII, nor even so much about Super Bowl XLIV, but of what occurred in the aftermath of Super Bowl XL. No Steelers team ever fell so flat as reigning champion than did the 2006 edition, and many from that team hope there is a lesson there for this one.

Robin Rombach/Post-Gazette

Hines Ward checks in last year

"Coming back after that Super Bowl," said one captain, Hines Ward, "I think we had that cockiness where [we thought] we could just walk in and walk over anybody."

Instead, the Steelers turned into welcome mats, losing six of their first eight games. Despite a second-half surge, they finished 8-8 in 2006 and out of the playoffs. Coach Bill Cowher topped off one of their most unsatisfactory seasons when he resigned.

"That's the most disappointing thing," Ward said. "You win the Super Bowl and come out the next year and don't even make the playoffs. A lot of guys are still on the team, and we reflect on that."

The current 80-man roster includes 21 who experienced both a Super Bowl victory followed by an 8-8 season. That should be enough to recall the pitfalls and to point out different paths for them to follow this time.

"A lot of guys on this team have experience winning a Super Bowl and seeing what happened the following season," cornerback Deshea Townsend said. "With experience, it makes you better. I'm sure we'll take that experience we have from the first time and try to make it better."

And what did they learn?

"We definitely can't walk into anybody's stadium and think just because we're champs we can go out and not practice and not put in the time and energy and go out and prepare ourselves like we're going in for a battle," Ward said.

Five times, the Steelers have entered a season as Super Bowl champions. Twice, they did not reach the postseason (1980, 2006) and once they lost in the AFC championship game (1976). Twice, they followed with a second consecutive Super Bowl victory (1975, '79).

Today, they report to training camp for the sixth time as reigning champions, and some might say they are due to make it again. Ward was outspoken all spring about how that 2006 team did not take its task seriously enough, and he promised things would be different this season.

"I just think the guys we have on this team -- not to knock the guys we had on our other team, but there's a purpose. The last time we went there, we really didn't come out and do what we were supposed to do the following year, and I think a lot of guys remember that."

Ward also thinks that keeping the Super Bowl team of last season mostly intact should help. The Steelers return 20 of 22 starters from the team that lined up against the Arizona Cardinals in Tampa Feb. 1. The only ones missing are cornerback Bryant McFadden, who shared time with new starter William Gay, and linebacker Larry Foote, who likely would have given way to first-round 2007 draft choice, Lawrence Timmons, anyway.

They also lost No. 3 wide receiver Nate Washington, whose job may be the most difficult to fill. Among the candidates are Limas Sweed, their second-round draft choice in 2008, and a third-round pick from this year, Mike Wallace.

"Both of those guys are right in the mix, along with Dallas Baker and all those guys," said Ward. "With the loss of Nate Washington, we don't have the guy who has the experience to go out there and play if Santonio [Holmes] or I were to go down."

Holmes and Ward are the only experienced wide receivers besides Shaun McDonald, signed in May as a free agent from the Detroit Lions. All looked good in the spring, but, starting this weekend, the playing field changes.

"It's different when you put the pads on -- going across the middle, getting hit, going one on one, it's a totally different ballgame," Ward noted. "We'll see what type of talents and skills they have in training camp."

Ed Bouchette can be reached at
First published on July 31, 2009 at 12:00 am

Pirates' trade of Grabow might be end of line

Huntington plans to tell players today: 'This is the group'

Friday, July 31, 2009
By Dejan Kovacevic, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

So, is that it?

Even after the Pirates dealt pitchers John Grabow and Tom Gorzelanny to the Chicago Cubs yesterday for pitcher Kevin Hart and two prospects, pitcher Jose Ascanio and second baseman Josh Harrison, general manager Neal Huntington could not fully commit to being finished in advance of Major League Baseball's trading deadline at 4 p.m. today.

But he did come awfully close, when asked last night at PNC Park if this trade would be the last.

Duane Burleson/Associated Press

The Cubs sent right-handers Kevin Hart and Jose Ascanio and minor league infielder Josh Harrison to the Pirates for Grabow and lefty Tom Gorzelanny.

"We sit in front of you wanting it to be this one," Huntington replied. "We're working very hard to stop the cycle of losing and, with that, the cycle of trading."

He added that he and manager John Russell plan to share exactly that message with the players in the clubhouse this afternoon, shortly after the deadline.

Huntington and Russell are sure to face two sizable challenges:

1. Even they might need a scorecard after making four trades in nine days that sent away four major league players (Adam LaRoche, Jack Wilson, Freddy Sanchez and Grabow) and two former major leaguers (Ian Snell and Gorzelanny) in exchange for two major league players (Ronny Cedeno and Hart) and nine prospects.

2. The audience will be loaded with skepticism, based on remarks made in public and private by players disillusioned by these trades, especially the ones that sent away Wilson and Sanchez.

Huntington seemed to recognize that.

"They've been through a lot, certainly in the last month or so," he said of the players. "They've lost friends, teammates, some veteran leadership. We're going to address that this is the group. This is the group we need to step up. They need to outwork, to out-prepare, to compete. Every one of those guys has a tremendous opportunity to step forward and become a major league player and to stranglehold a job that's theirs for years to come. And, if they don't, we've got people coming behind them in the system. The days of scholarship are over."

He does not intent to take a prepared speech into the room.

"I'm going to let the emotions take over. I believe so strongly about where we're going."

As of late last night, the Pirates were not engaged in any trade talks that they expected to reach fruition.

Hart is expected to join the Pirates' rotation immediately, though Huntington did not fully confirm that. He pitched yesterday in Chicago -- three runs over six innings in a 12-3 rout of the Houston Astros -- and cannot retake the mound until Tuesday.

The pitcher Hart surely would replace, Virgil Vasquez, is scheduled to pitch tomorrow, but no decision will be made until today when Huntington meets with Russell and pitching coach Joe Kerrigan.

Ascanio will move into Class AAA Indianapolis' rotation, and Harrison was assigned to high Class A Lynchburg.

Hart, a 26-year-old right-hander with a fastball in the low-90s and a four-pitch repertoire, was 3-1 with a 2.60 ERA in eight games for Chicago, including four starts. He entered the season as the Cubs' No. 6 prospect as rated by Baseball America. With Class AAA Iowa, he had a 3.10 ERA in 16 relief appearances, then found his groove as a starter, going 3-0 with a 1.41 ERA.

Huntington stressed Hart's size -- 6 feet 4, 220 pounds -- when discussing why he projects as a starter.

"Now, we have a major league pitcher with a big, strong, physical frame who can fit in a rotation," Huntington said. "But he also has the ability to pitch at the back of the bullpen."

Ascanio, a 24-year-old right-hander, also split this season between Chicago and Iowa. He was 0-1 with a 3.52 ERA and 18 strikeouts in 14 relief appearances with the Cubs, 2-4 with a 3.16 ERA in 12 starts with Iowa, where he was at the time of the trade.

Huntington cited his hard fastball -- 94-96 mph -- and four-pitch repertoire and, although Ascanio will start for now, Huntington did not rule out relief.

"He could fill a lot of roles."

Harrison, 22, hit a combined .327 with five home runs, 20 doubles, eight triples, 42 RBIs and 26 steals for low Class A Peoria and high Class A Daytona. He stands just 5 feet 8, which is why the Pirates are moving him from third base to second, and Huntington added that the outfield could be added, too.

Getty Images

ST. LOUIS, MISSOURI - APRIL 6: Relief pitcher John Grabow #34 of the Pittsburgh Pirates throws against the St. Louis Cardinals during Opening Day on April 6, 2009 at Busch Stadium in St. Louis, Missouri. The Pirates beat the Cardinals 6-4.

Grabow, 30, was part of the Pirates' organization since they drafted him in 1997, and he blossomed into one of the busiest pitchers in franchise history, his 390 appearances ranking eighth on their all-time list.

The names ahead of him: Elroy Face, Kent Tekulve, Bob Friend, Babe Adams, Vernon Law, Wilbur Cooper and Dave Giusti.

Grabow expressed mixed feelings about the Pirates' past few days.

"It's tough because Pittsburgh is such a sports town, and all of the teams are winning except the Pirates," he said. "They've got an awesome stadium, a great fan base ... they're just waiting for a winning team. But, in all the years I've been there, they've tried to build things piece by piece, and it's never worked. So, I think they've come to the conclusion that, well, let's completely overhaul it, get a young group of players and have them all flourish at the same time."

He had planned to settle in Pittsburgh for the long term, as his wife, Karey, is a native.

"I'll always have a warm spot in my heart for Pittsburgh."

Grabow's ERA over six-plus seasons was 4.09, including 3.42 in 45 appearances this year. But his strongest suit was getting out of jams, as his ratio of stranding inherited runners was one of the best in baseball over the past five years, and that trait could serve him well in entering his first pennant race with the first-place Cubs.

"I'm excited about it. I get to play some meaningful games right from the get-go."

Gorzelanny, 27, fell immediately out of favor with Kerrigan this spring and was among the Pirates' earliest cuts. He never rediscovered peak form after winning 14 games in 2007, but he did pitch well for Indianapolis this season, 4-3 with a 2.48 ERA in 15 starts.

Chicago assigned him to Iowa.

The Pirates are left with no left-handers in the bullpen other than sparingly used Rule 5 draft pick Donnie Veal, and they have no compelling left-handers at the Class AAA or AA levels, either, except for rehabilitating Phil Dumatrait.

"We feel the left-handed specialist role is drastically overrated in the game," Huntington said. "We'd rather have seven pitchers who can get right and left-handed hitters out."

Grabow shared that stance.

"You'll see that the bullpen that's still there will be fine, including against lefties," he said.

As expected, the Pirates today will promote outfielder Lastings Milledge from Indianapolis, and Huntington declared that he would be a "regular." That would put Milledge in left, Andrew McCutchen in center and torrid Garrett Jones in right, leaving Brandon Moss -- who has hit much better of late -- on the bench, except that the Pirates will try to use him frequently.

"We won't forget about Brandon," Huntington said.

Jones could play first base, too, as it is his natural position, but the Pirates sound determined to give Steve Pearce an extended look there.

Dejan Kovacevic can be reached at
First published on July 31, 2009 at 12:00 am

Burnett: Pirates the 'laughingstock of baseball'

Reliever, Morgan return tonight after sizzling debuts with Nationals

Friday, July 31, 2009
By Dejan Kovacevic, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Peter Diana/Post-Gazette

Nationals pitcher Sean Burnett on his former team, the Pirates, "They're the laughingstock of baseball right now."

Nyjer Morgan and Sean Burnett will return to Pittsburgh tonight as members of the Washington Nationals, and they will do so feeling plenty good about their own status.

And, from the sound of it, they will feel badly for their former team and its followers.

"It's funny, but Nyjer and I knew this was going to happen," Burnett said last night from Milwaukee, shortly after hearing that the Pirates continued their trading binge by sending away John Grabow and Tom Gorzelanny. "They're the laughingstock of baseball right now. They've gotten rid of everybody. They won't keep anybody around. Some of the guys here, they don't understand it, but Nyjer and I knew this was coming."

Burnett and Morgan each said the Pirates' trades have been a hot topic in the Washington clubhouse, especially those involving Jack Wilson and Freddy Sanchez.

"What I keep telling the guys here is that the hardest part is that Pittsburgh, as a sports town, is unbelievable," Burnett said. "With what the Steelers and Penguins have done, they're dying for a winner in baseball, too. They're dying to cheer the Pirates on. And now, they don't have anybody they even know. Guys like Jack and Freddy, the faces of the franchise, players they're supposed to be locking up, they're all gone. What's going to bring people to the ballpark now?"

He allowed for the possibility that the trades could benefit the Pirates in the long run.

"But, even if these trades do work out, you're not going to see these guys for a year or two, at least. That's the part that's got to be hard for the fans to understand. It's got to be tough."

Morgan, not nearly as outspoken through his career as Burnett, seemed to choose his words more carefully.

"I feel bad for the fans," Morgan said. "There are people in that city who know and love baseball. And it's the city of champions now. It's not right... I don't know. I don't want to go all crazy, so I'll just leave it at that. I'm happy with how things are going here."

He has ample reason to be, as does Burnett.

Morgan's 3-for-4 output in the Nationals' 7-3 loss to the Brewers yesterday at Miller Park, one that included two doubles and his 32nd steal, raised his season average to .310. More striking, he tied a Washington record for hits in a month with 40 and is batting .404 in July, all of that encompassing his time with the Nationals after the June 30 trade.

He also has a home run, six doubles, a triple, seven RBIs and 14 steals and 19 runs in those 25 games.

Asked what was going on, Morgan fairly shouted, "I'm just playing ball! Hey, this is what I know. This is it. I've got no answer for you. I'm a ballplayer, and I'm having so much fun. I feel like the leash is off now, like I'm coming into my own, you know?"

The leash?

"They've welcomed us with open arms here, and it's been awesome."

Not many think of the Nationals as "awesome," given their 32-70 record that is worst in Major League Baseball. But they are sure to have a superior lineup to the Pirates this weekend, even though there pitching is not a match.

"I think it's going to be a good team really soon," Morgan said. "There's a lot of talent here. We're going to be good, man. The pieces are there. You'll see."

Part of the reason for that confidence, no doubt, is that Washington's greatest shortcoming in the first half was a disastrous bullpen, but that has settled of late, thanks in large part to Burnett.

His scoreless inning yesterday lowered his season ERA to 2.24, and that figure is 0.75 in 12 appearances with the Nationals. He has allowed only four hits in 41 at-bats for a .097 opponents' batting average, and he has 10 strikeouts and four walks in 12 innings.

That continues a trend Burnett had begun in Pittsburgh just before the trade.

"It's just like when I left," Burnett said. "I was just starting to get a feel for all my pitches, and here I am, a month later, and it's still going. Whenever I'm healthy, I can pitch. I've got no pain, the ball is moving, I'm keeping it down, and I'm throwing strikes."

Morgan and Burnett will face both of the players for whom they were traded, as the Pirates plan to promote outfielder Lastings Milledge from Class AAA Indianapolis, and reliever Joel Hanrahan already was in their bullpen. To make room for Milledge, the Pirates are expected to demote outfielder Jeff Salazar.

Burnett does not sound as if he is lacking in motivation. "We want to make them look stupid for making that trade," he said of the Pirates.

Dejan Kovacevic can be reached at
First published on July 31, 2009 at 12:00 am

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Grabow, Gorzelanny traded to Cubs

Thursday, July 30, 2009
By Dejan Kovacevic, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

The Pirates have traded pitchers John Grabow and Tom Gorzelanny to the Chicago Cubs.

According to a release the Pirates acquired right-handed pitchers Kevin Hart and Jose Ascanio and infielder Josh Harrison from the Cubs.

Evan Vucci/Associated Press

New Pirates pitcher Kevin Hart is 3-1 with a 2.60 ERA in eight games with the Cubs this season.

The 26-year-old Hart went 3-1 with a 2.60 ERA (27.2ip/8er) in eight games (four starts) this year with the Cubs. As a starter, he was charged with two earned runs or fewer in three of his four starts and won his final outing this afternoon after allowing three earned runs in 6.0 innings of work against the Astros at Wrigley Field.

Hart, who will immediately join the Pirates, entered the season rated by Baseball America as the Cubs' sixth-best prospect. He began the year with Triple-A Iowa of the Pacific Coast League, where he went 3-3 with three saves and a 3.10 ERA (52.1ip/18er) and 57 strikeouts in 22 games (six starts). Hart made each of his first 16 appearances with Iowa in relief before going 3-0 with a 1.41 ERA (32.0ip/5er) and .157 batting average against in six starts. In 146 career games (100 starts) in the minor leagues, Hart struck out 575 batters and allowed just 224 walks in 604.1 innings pitched.

The 6-foot-4 righthander was originally selected by Baltimore in the 11th round of the 2004 First-Year Player Draft before being acquired by Chicago on December 6, 2006. During his first season in the Cubs minor league system in 2007, Hart was named the organization's Pitcher-of-the-Year after going 10-1 with a 2.80 ERA in 17 games (10 starts) before making his Major League debut in September. During his first stint in the big leagues as a September call-up that year, he posted a 0.82 ERA (11.0ip/1er) in eight relief appearances.

Ascanio split the 2009 campaign between Chicago and Iowa. He went 0-1 with a 3.52 ERA (15.1ip/6er) and 18 strikeouts in 14 relief appearances with the Cubs while averaging 10.6 strikeouts per nine innings pitched. He posted a 2.38 ERA (11.1ip/3er) and 13 strikeouts in his last 12 relief appearances before being optioned back to Iowa on June 30.

The 24-year-old Ascanio was charged with a total of just three earned runs in his first eight starts (33.2ip) in two separate stints with the I-Cubs. He also did not surrender a home run in his first 11 starts with Iowa before doing so for the first time in his last outing on Monday night at Albuquerque. In 2007, Ascanio was ranked by Baseball America with the "Best Fastball" among Southern League pitchers while also being named to the league's mid-season All-Star team. He posted a 2-2 record and 2.54 ERA (78.0ip/22er) in 44 games (one start) before being directly promoted from Double-A to the big leagues with Atlanta, where he made 13 relief appearances.

Harrison hit a combined .327 (122-for-373) with 20 doubles, eight triples, five home runs, 42 RBI, 61 runs scored and 26 stolen bases in 97 games with Single-A Peoria and Single-A Daytona.

The 22-year-old Harrison began the season with Peoria, where he hit .337 (102-for-303) with 17 doubles, seven triples, four home runs, 33 RBI and 16 stolen bases in 79 games. He hit .373 (25-for-67) in 19 games in April, which was the second-highest batting average in the Midwest League and .342 (41-for-120) in May, which ranked 10th among all Midwest League hitters. He also was named to the Midwest League mid-season All-Star team before being promoted to Daytona on July 8.

Since joining Daytona, Harrison posted seven multi-hit games in his 18 contests while being named the Florida State League's Player-of-the-Week this past week after going 11-for-26 (.423 average) with seven stolen bases.

Harrison was selected by the Cubs in the sixth round of the 2008 First-Year Player Draft out of the University of Cincinnati. During his first professional season, he was named to the Northwest League post-season All-Star team after hitting .351 (40-for-114) with 11 doubles, two triples, one home run, 25 RBI, 27 runs scored and 12 stolen bases in just 33 games with Boise.

Ascanio will be assigned to Triple-A Indianapolis of the International League while Harrison will join Single-A Lynchburg of the Carolina League.

Check PBC Blog for details, updates.

First published on July 30, 2009 at 5:54 pm

Steelers' Miller signs six-year extension

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Tight end Heath Miller may or may not have been free to test the market at the conclusion of the upcoming season, but the Steelers weren't taking any chances.

AP Photo

Pittsburgh Steelers tight end Heath Miller (83) drives against Arizona Cardinals defense during the first quarter of the NFL Super Bowl XLIII football game, Sunday, Feb. 1, 2009, in Tampa, Fla.

Prior to the new deal, Miller had been scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent at the conclusion of the 2009 campaign, unless the NFL failed to achieve an extension of the collective bargaining agreement with the NFLPA by the end of February. In that eventuality, Miller would have, instead, become a restricted free agent.

The Steelers no longer need to concern themselves with such contradictory scenarios as they relate to Miller, a first-round draft pick in 2005 and a player who is regarded around the league as one of the NFL's best two-way tight ends.

Miller caught 48 passes for 514 yards and three touchdowns in the 2008 regular season and added 11 receptions for 156 yards and another score in the Steelers' march to victory in Super Bowl XLIII.

Miller's signing concludes a most productive offseason for the Steelers, one that has seen the team lock up linebacker James Harrison (six years, $51-plus million), offensive tackle Max Starks (four years, $26.3 million), wide receiver Hines Ward (five years, $22.1 million) and guard Chris Kemoeatu (five years, $20 million).

Getty Images

PITTSBURGH - JANUARY 18: Heath Miller #83 of the Pittsburgh Steelers runs for yards after the catch against the Baltimore Ravens during the AFC Championship game on January 18, 2009 at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Prior to the 2008 season, the Steelers secured the services of linebacker James Farrior (five years, $18.5 million) and quarterback Ben Roethlisberger (eight years, $102 million, including $32.5 million guaranteed).

This year's No. 1 draft pick, defensive lineman Ziggy Hood of Missouri, was signed to a five-year, $11.3 million contract, including $6.1 million guaranteed.

Safety Ryan Clark, defensive lineman Nick Eason, defensive lineman Travis Kirschke, defensive end Brett Keisel, running back Willie Parker and kicker Jeff Reed are among those scheduled to become unrestricted free agents following 2009.

The Steelers are scheduled to report to Saint Vincent College for the beginning of training camp Friday.

Pirates turn double-play trade: Wilson, Sanchez

Snell goes with Wilson to Mariners, Sanchez to Giants on 'crazy' day

Thursday, July 30, 2009
By Dejan Kovacevic, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

One last time, the Pirates turned a double play with Jack Wilson and Freddy Sanchez.

In a whirlwind span of a few hours yesterday, the team continued the thorough rebuilding of its roster by trading its two most popular players: Wilson, along with pitcher Ian Snell, were sent to the Seattle Mariners for five players in the morning. And Sanchez was sent to the San Francisco Giants for one player in the evening.

As quick as 6-4-3.

"Crazy," Sanchez called the day.

Ted S. Warren/Associated Press

Mariners third baseman Adrian Beltre, left, visits with new Mariners shortstop Jack Wilson, right, after he arrived in the dugout during their game against the Toronto Blue Jays yesterday at Safeco Field in Seattle.

"The deadline is unpredictable," Pirates general manager Neal Huntington said last night, referring to Major League Baseball's 4 p.m. Friday trading deadline. "We thought we could have both those players back, then we thought we'd have one, and now this. But the reality is, we really feel very good about the returns. We know we gave up good players, but we like the quality and quantity we got back."

From Seattle, the Pirates received veteran shortstop Ronny Cedeno, Class AAA first baseman Jeff Clement and Class A pitchers Aaron Pribanic, Brett Lorin and Nathan Adcock.

The Pirates also will send $3,308,702.19 to cover most of the remaining 2009 salaries of Wilson and Snell. The Mariners are responsible for all 2010 obligations, including Snell's $4.25 million salary, and club option buyouts for Wilson and Snell. The Pirates' payment, according to team officials, was made to ensure the best return of prospects.

From the Giants, the Pirates received Class AA pitcher Tim Alderson, the best prospect culled on the day. He immediately becomes the Pirates' best pitching prospect, though that is saying little given the lack of organizational depth at that position.

No cash changed hands with the second trade.

Wilson, 31, was the Pirates' most tenured player, having been their everyday shortstop since the team moved into PNC Park in 2001 and an All-Star in 2004. He appeared in 1,128 games at his position, fourth-most in franchise history after Honus Wagner's 1,887, Arky Vaughan's 1,381 and Dick Groat's 1,242, and he likely will be remembered as one of the finest -- and flashiest -- defensive performers in franchise history.

He was batting .267 this season and playing Gold Glove-caliber defense.

Sanchez, 31, was just selected for his third All-Star Game in six years with the Pirates, an honor bested only by his 2006 National League batting title.
He was batting .296 this season and was charged with only two errors all season.

Together, Wilson and Sanchez, inseparable best friends on and off the field, formed a double-play combination rivaled in the Pirates' 123-year history only by the Groat-Bill Mazeroski duo of the 1960s. The current team's 111 double plays are the most in the majors, even though improved pitching has resulted in fewer baserunners to erase.

Wilson and Sanchez also were among the Pirates' most active representatives in the community, participating in many charitable initiatives, and always were a hit with fans seeking autographs, photos or even hugs.

Each took the news hard.

In San Francisco, Wilson cried after getting his early-morning phone call from Huntington while riding in a taxi to AT&T Park, where the Pirates would later lose to the Giants, 1-0. He was emotional again when informing Sanchez -- "Freddy thought I was joking," Wilson recalled -- then in doing interviews.

"It's very tough," Wilson said. "I don't even know what to say, really. I'd love to have another chance to play in Pittsburgh to get back home and say goodbye to the fans. Once you hear the news ... I was pretty upset. To have that time to say goodbye to the people who really, really carried you through the good years and the bad."

Wilson paused while against getting visibly emotional.

"That's one thing you think about, not being able to go back. Hopefully, sometime in my career, I can show my appreciation to them."

Seattle is expected to visit PNC Park as an interleague opponent next summer.

Right after Wilson's trade, Sanchez declined interviews because he, too, was emotional.

Once composed, Sanchez said of Wilson, "Jack in my mind is the Pittsburgh Pirates. He's the face of the Pirates. Everybody loved Jack, the fans, his teammates. He played the game the right way. You knew you were going to see a great play when the fans came to watch him. This was his team. It hurts to see him go."

Sanchez was discussing his own departure shortly after 6 p.m. Pittsburgh time.

"I think seeing Jack go made this move a lot less emotional for me to come over here, because he was gone," Sanchez said.

Wilson and Sanchez had tried a double play of another kind two weeks ago, when they jointly approach the Pirates' management about getting contract extensions, each having expressed for months a strong desire to stay in Pittsburgh.

Wilson is making $7.25 million this year, Sanchez $6.1 million, and each can be a free agent this winter. Sanchez has a vesting option for 2010 he can trigger if he achieves 600 plate appearances.

On July 17, the Pirates approached them with extensions: They offered Wilson two years at $8 million, Sanchez two years at $10 million with a voiding of the vesting option. The offers were rejected the same day, Wilson doing so on the grounds that he insisted on Sanchez staying, too, even though he was mostly satisfied with the term and dollars.

When it became clear to Wilson and Sanchez that they could be traded in the past few days, their play on the field suffered, coincidence or not, and they spent most of their free time consumed by trade reports and speculation.

On Tuesday, with word that the Pirates were in trade talks regarding both players, each grew increasingly nervous and instructed his agent to call Huntington, who was at PNC Park.

Eric Risberg/Associated Press

New Giants infielder Freddy Sanchez sits between manager Bruce Bochy, left, and general manager Brian Sabean, right, during a news conference at AT&T Park in San Francisco yesterday. The Giants acquired Sanchez from the Pirates.

Paul Cobbe, Sanchez's agent, did so that afternoon and made his first counter-offer to the Pirates' proposal: It was for three years with salaries of $6 million, $6.5 million and $7.5 million. The Pirates flatly rejected it.

Page Odle, Wilson's agent, left three messages with Huntington Tuesday evening, none of which was returned. Huntington explained that the messages came after a trade agreement "in principle" with Seattle already had been reached.

"I saw Page's name on my phone," Huntington said. "It was too late."

The Wilson trade took shape over several months, as Seattle general manager Jack Zduriencik, a New Castle native who had interviewed for Huntington's job two years ago, had been trying to get Wilson since shortly after spring training.

The Boston Red Sox also expressed interest in Wilson, to the point of making an offer.

A tentative agreement on the Sanchez trade was reached Monday, but San Francisco balked after Sanchez's aching left knee kept him out of the game there that night. The Giants' doctors examined him Monday, including an MRI, then again yesterday afternoon before the team called the Pirates back to accept the original deal.

The Minnesota Twins and one other team were talking to the Pirates about Sanchez.

Huntington and Frank Coonelly, the Pirates' president, sounded braced for a public backlash related to these trades, one comparable to other trades they have made since the current management team took over in late 2007, notably those of Jason Bay, Xavier Nady, Nate McLouth and Nyjer Morgan.

"We know how the fans felt about Jack and Freddy, and we know this will be unpopular," Huntington said. "Those two did so much on the field and in the community that they deserved to be loved by the fans the way they were."

"Jack was extremely popular with our fans, and many will be disappointed they don't have a chance to watch him play here, especially on defense," Coonelly said. "But the fact is, Jack was going to be a free agent in two months, and this trade gave us an opportunity to continue to build an organization that has the talent at all levels that can lead to a winning major league team again. I think fans will be excited by some of the prospects we were able to secure."

Of the 25-man roster Huntington inherited, only five players remain: catcher Ryan Doumit and pitchers Paul Maholm, Zach Duke, Matt Capps and John Grabow.

And that is not all that has been slashed: The Pirates' payroll, which was $50.8 million on opening day, now stands at roughly $31 million. The highest-paid player, now that Wilson is gone, is Maholm at $3.5 million.

Coonelly declined comment on how that decline will affect payroll for 2010, but that decision probably will be influenced by the team's direct needs and the nature of the free-agent market more than a feeling of obligation to return to the $50 million level.

Coonelly and Huntington were emphatic that neither move yesterday was based on finances or pressure from owner Bob Nutting.

"We don't have to make any of these moves," Huntington said. "We're making them because those of us in baseball operations feel this is the right way to build a team. We're fortunate to have the support of Bob and Frank to make these difficult and unpopular decisions. But we're making them because we're trying to create a winner. We're not out to get to .500. We don't feel like we've broken up the '27 Yankees."

Meanwhile, Wilson and Sanchez move on, finally in separate directions.
Wilson will meet the Mariners today in Dallas, where they face the Texas Rangers. His familiar No. 2 will be replaced by No. 9 -- "my old number from high school," he explained -- and the uniform will be the first other than the Pirates that he was worn in the majors.

"I'm looking forward to it," Wilson said. "Jack sounded excited to have me."

Zduriencik strongly hinted that the Mariners will try to extend Wilson's contract beyond this season, and one source indicated talks on that front could begin within two weeks.

"As we move forward over the next few years it is nice to know that we have solidified the shortstop position," Zduriencik said.

If not, the Pirates could become a player for Wilson in free agency.

"Without getting into tampering and mentioning any player, we'll explore all our options," Huntington said.

Sanchez will play for contending San Francisco tomorrow in the same stadium the Pirates just left.

Brian Sabean, the Giants' general manager, excitedly introduced Sanchez to the local media last night by saying, "Our long-awaited next move is consummated."

"It's good to get everything over with and be in a Giants uniform," Sanchez said. "Hopefully, I can do what I can to help this team in this playoff run. I'm not going to say I'm going to come in here and be a savior or hit .300 or .400 or that. I'll tell you this: There won't be any plays where I'm not giving 100 percent."

Dejan Kovacevic can be reached at Post-Gazette staff writer Chuck Finder contributed to this report from San Francisco.

First published on July 30, 2009 at 12:00 am

Huntington and his plan get pass until 2011

Thursday, July 30, 2009
By Ron Cook, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

On a stormy late July day and night, when Pirates general manager Neal Huntington moved the team's final two popular veteran players -- Freddy Sanchez and Jack Wilson -- in yet more painful, starters-for-prospects trades, wheel-and-deal Neal said two things that stood out from his typical rhetoric because they made such perfect sense.

John Heller/Post-Gazette

Banner of Pirates Freddie Sanchez still hangs outside PNC Park after the announcement of his trade to San Francisco Giants.

"We don't feel like we've broken up the '27 Yankees ... It's not like we've taken something on the rise and tore it down."

And ...

"If it doesn't turn around [for the franchise], I get fired."

Please, don't even try to tell me that you will dispute either point.

There's a good reason Huntington has traded, sent to the minors or parted ways with all but five players on the 25-man roster he inherited late in the 2007 season. The Pirates stunk, both on the major and minor league levels.
They had no future.

As for that firing business, well, of course Huntington will be fired if his moves don't work. That's as it should be. By the end of the 2011 season, it says here. We have to give him that long to see if he knew what he was doing when he traded, among others, Jason Bay, Xavier Nady, Nate McLouth, Nyjer Morgan, Adam LaRoche and, now, Sanchez and Wilson.
But no longer than 2011.

I don't know if Huntington will go down or not. I have my doubts that he'll succeed, mostly because he works for maybe the worst owner in all of sports. But I do know this about the man: I love his commitment to the plan that he's convinced gives the Pirates their best and maybe only chance of winning. If he's going down, he's going down swinging.

You knew the Sanchez and Wilson deals were inevitable. Once you decide to start a rebuilding phase -- remember, this is the first that Huntington has directed -- you have to go all out. Sure, it hurts after 17 years of losing, but it's the path that must be taken.

Just as predictable were the silly screams of outrage about losing Sanchez and Wilson. Maybe you are among those who said, "I'll never go to another Pirates game. They keep giving away their best players. I've had enough!"
Or, better yet, did you say, "Think about how good a team the Pirates would have if they had kept Bay, Nady, McLouth, Morgan, Sanchez and Wilson."?


I'll tell you what the Pirates would be if they had kept those guys: Losers with no hope for the future.

At least now they are losers with a slim shot at some success down the road because of the alleged young talent that Huntington has gathered.
Slim is better than none, I say.

"We didn't come in thinking we had to trade everybody," Huntington said. "We wanted to change the culture ...

"We know we traded guys the fans identify with. But our goal is to give them a lot of players to identify with and also a winning team. We feel the people of Pittsburgh are dying to have a winning team in PNC Park. We're closer to that than we have ever been."

To Huntington, that means reversing course soon because of the organizational depth he has accumulated and starting to trade prospects for proven players. It means using the money freed up by his deals to perhaps lure quality free agents after the season in what figures to be a buyers' market. And it means being able to keep many of the team's top players in the seasons ahead for the long haul.

I have serious doubts about parts two and three. It's hard to imagine any top free agent signing with the Pirates as long as he has an option elsewhere. It's also hard to believe owner Bob Nutting ever will agree to spend a little money on the team. He appears to have great interest in making a profit and little interest in fielding a winner.

But even if Nutting is willing to spend, who knows if Huntington will make sound decisions? This is the general manager who invested nearly $9 million in Ian Snell before the '08 season only to send him to the minors in June when Snell quit on the team and asked for the demotion, then traded him to Seattle yesterday in the Wilson trade. He's also the general manager who agreed to Sanchez's $8.1 vesting option for next season, a number he conceded is too high before he sent him to San Francisco last night. Shame on him for those deals.

It's too soon to evaluate Huntington as a talent evaluator and too soon to evaluate the minor league developmental staff he has put together. That's why we need to give him through the '11 season.

But what if Huntington and his people are right about the prospects they've brought into the organization? It looks as if Ross Ohlendorf, Jeff Karstens and Charlie Morton belong on a big league pitching staff. It appears Lastings Milledge, Jose Tabata and Gorkys Hernandez have a chance to be every-day outfielders. First baseman/catcher Jeff Clement, acquired in the Wilson trade, comes with impressive credentials. It's too early to write off Andy LaRoche and Brandon Moss, although we'd surely like to see more.
And maybe, just maybe, a few of the lower-level pitchers who came into the system -- including highly touted Tim Alderson in the Sanchez trade -- will develop into quality major-leaguers.

Then, there is 2008 No. 1 draft choice Pedro Alvarez, who looks like a real power hitter at Class AA Altoona. Down the road, there could be Dominican Republic super prospect Miguel Angel Sano, who would love to play for the Pirates.

Hey, slim hope is better than no hope, right?

If it all goes according to Huntington's plan, we'll soon forget the pain associated with the Sanchez, Wilson and McLouth trades.

And if not?

"I lose my job," Huntington repeated.

Man, I love that commitment.

Ron Cook can be reached at More articles by this author
First published on July 30, 2009 at 12:00 am

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Pirates trade Sanchez to San Francisco; Wilson, Snell to Seattle

Wednesday, July 29, 2009
By Dejan Kovacevic, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

The Pirates tonight traded All-Star second baseman Freddy Sanchez to the San Francisco Giants for Class AA pitcher Tim Alderson.

Jack Wilson

The move came the same day they traded shortstop Jack Wilson, their most tenured and popular player, to the Seattle Mariners, along with starting pitcher Ian Snell, who has recently pitched in the minors.

In return, they received first baseman Jeff Clement, shortstop Ronny Cedeno and right-handed pitchers Aaron Pribanic, Brett Lorin and Nathan Adcock.

The 25-year-old Clement was Seattle's first-round selection (third overall) in the 2005 First-Year Player Draft and was rated by Baseball America as the organization's No. 1 prospect for both 2006 and 2008, the Pirates said in a news release.

Ian Snell

Clement hit .288 (107-for-372) with 33 doubles, three triples, 14 home runs, 68 RBI and 65 runs scored while also producing a .505 slugging percentage in 92 games this year with AAA Tacoma of the Pacific Coast League.

Cedeno spent his entire career with the Chicago Cubs organization before being acquired by Seattle in January in a three-player deal. The 26-year-old infielder played in 59 games this year for the Mariners and entered today's action with a .238 career average (259-for-1090) with 39 doubles, nine triples, 18 home runs and 105 RBI in 388 games in parts of five years in the big leagues.

Pribanic went 7-6 with a 3.21 ERA while surrendering one home run in 17 starts for Class A Clinton of the Midwest League this year while being named to the league's mid-season All-Star team.

The 22-year-old right-hander was Seattle's third-round selection (98th overall) in the 2008 First-Year Player Draft from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

Lorin, 22, went 5-4 with a 2.44 ERA, 87 strikeouts and just 25 walks in 16 starts this year for Class A Clinton. The 6-foot-7 right-hander was named to this year's Midwest League All-Star team after leading the league with 77 strikeouts at the All-Star break.

Adcock went 5-7 with a 5.29 ERA in 21 games with Class A High Desert of the California League. The 21-year old Adcock was selected by Seattle in the fifth round of the 2006 First-Year Player Draft from North Hardin, Ky. High School.

Wilson says he was 'pretty shocked' by trade

Wednesday, July 29, 2009
Chuck Finder, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

AP Photo

Pittsburgh Pirates shortstop Jack Wilson, right, leaps around St. Louis Cardinals' Albert Pujols (5) to make the throw to first to complete a game-ending double play on Cards' Chris Duncan in a baseball game in Pittsburgh Wednesday, May 13, 2009. The Pirates won 5-2.

SAN FRANCISCO -- Here are comments from Jack Wilson about his trade today from the Pirates to the Seattle Mariners:

"I got the call in the cab this morning. Pretty shocked. But at the same time I'm not completely overwhelmed. My wife is here. They have a game today. Then they're -- we're -- going on the road to Texas.

"It's very tough. So many things are going through your head right now.
"I talked to the GM. He used to be a GM [Jack Zduriencik, a Pittsburgh native] in Milwaukee. I used to hit Milwaukee pretty good. He said, 'Man, I couldn't stand you when I was on their side.' So he was really excited about the deal.

"That's my thing. I don't even know what to say, really. I'd love to have another chance to play in Pittsburgh, to get back home and say goodbye to the fans. ... Once you hear the news, I was pretty upset. To have that time to say goodbye to the people who really, really carried you through the good years and the bad. [got emotional] That's one thing you think about, not being able to go back. Hopefully, sometime in my career, I can show my appreciation to them."

Wilson said his first call was to wife, Julie, who's in San Francisco as part of a Pirates' Wives Trip. She was in the shower, so he waited to tell teammates because he wanted her to know first.

"Julie finally called back to see what I wanted. She reacted as such: 'What? What are you talking about? You're kidding. You're lying.' 'No, honey, I'm not.' So she's at the hotel, perfectly calm."

Wilson flew to Seattle late this morning.

First published on July 29, 2009 at 3:21 pm

No surprise! Wilson, Snell gone

By Bob Smizik
Wednesday 3 p.m.

When it comes to trades, there’s nothing quite so exciting as anticipating the deal and, with the Pirates, nothing quite so agonizing as actually learning the details of it.

Shortstop Jack Wilson is gone. Starting pitcher Ian Snell is gone. No surprises there.

AP Photo

Pittsburgh Pirates shortstop Jack Wilson (2) throws to first base after touching second base as New York Mets left fielder Fernando Tatis (17) tries to break up the play in the second inning of a baseball game Tuesday June 2, 2009 in Pittsburgh.

Both went to the Seattle Mariners this morning. No great surprise there.
In return to the Pirates come a borderline shortstop, who’ll take Wilson’s place, a power-hitting prospect and three young pitchers. Based on almost all of general manager Neal Huntington's trades there are no surprises there.

Check back in three years. Or will it be five?

Coming to the Pirates are shortstop Ronny Cedeno, 26, whose 2009 salary is $822,500, Class AAA first baseman Jeff Clement, 25, and three young, right-handed pitchers who currently are in Class A -- Aaron Pribanic, Brett Lorin and Nathan Adcock.

Any thoughts the Pirates might get immediate help in exchange for Wilson were dashed by this trade. Cedeno is a serious downgrade at shortstop. Clement offers some possible help in the near future, but he's no sure thing and will have to win the first base job from Garrett Jones or Steve Pearce. The three young pitchers might have significant upsides, but don't figure to offer any help until 2012, at the earliest.

Huntington has made another trade that weakened the Pirates in the present -- while lowering payroll -- and offered only hope for possible future improvement. The Pirates are a worse team today than they were yesterday.

In fairness to Huntington, Wilson is what's known as a "rental player.'' Seattle has the use of him only for the final two months and few days of the season. Such players rarely bring blue-chip prospects in return.

The deal marks Huntington’s continuing demolition of the Pirates, and that’s also no surprise. Since becoming general manager in September, 2007, Huntington has traded every position-player starter except second baseman Freddy Sanchez, who could be dealt at any minute. That list includes Ronny Paulino over Ryan Doumit as catcher. When Huntington was named, Paulino, not Doumit, was considered the starter. Other starters traded by Huntington are outfielders Jason Bay, Xavier Nady and Nate McLouth, first baseman Adam LaRoche and third baseman Jose Bautista.

Clement, the third selection in the 2005 first-year player draft, would appear to be the key to this deal for the Pirates. Although a catcher for most of his career, a position where the Pirates need little help, he is being listed as a first baseman and presumably will play that position in the Pirates organization. He has been assigned to Indianapolis, but could join the Pirates in the near future.

He's a left-handed hitter who was batting .288 with Tacoma in the Pacific Coast League. He had 14 homers and 68 RBIs and a .505 slugging percentage. He was second in the league in doubles with 33 and sixth in RBIs and total bases.

In 243 at bats with Seattle in 2007 and 2008, Clement hit .237 with seven homers and 26 RBIs.

Concerning Clement, Huntington said, "Our scouts have consistently projected him to be an every day contributor with the power to hit 20-plus home runs. He has been an extremely highly-regarded prospect since he was drafted third overall in 2005 and has performed consistently since then, showing the tools to be a quality offensive player."

Cedeno rarely has been a full-time starters in his MLB career, first with the Chicago Cubs and this season with the Mariners. He’s played in more than 100 games only once, in 2006. He was batting .167 (31 for 186) at the time of the trade. If Wilson was considered a below-average offensive shortstop, as Huntington recently acknowledged, Cedeno is way-below average. His career numbers go like this: batting average, .238, on-base percentage, .276 and slugging percentage, .339. All numbers are well below those of Wilson.

"Ronny is a solid Major League defensive-oriented shortstop," said Huntington. "We feel we can help him become more productive with the bat, while his defense helps our pitching staff.’’

Of Cedeno, it can be said: He’s not much but he’s all the Pirates have.
As for Wilson, once he declined a recent Pirates offer of $8 million over two years, he was as good as gone. Although Wilson publicly maintained a great loyalty to the Pirates, he had to be pleased by moving to a winning team, although the Mariners, 52-48, are in third place and 7 1/2 games back in the AL West and hardly a prime candidate for the post-season.

Snell sealed his fate by requesting a demotion to the minors after almost two full seasons of disappointing pitching. He had performed exceptionally well at Indianapolis and could give the Mariners rotation a boost.

Posted: Bob Smizik with 27 comment(s)

Gorzelanny belongs in Pittsburgh

Jul 29 2009
Gorzelanny belongs in Pittsburgh
By Bob Smizik Wednesday, 12:30 a.m.

Earlier this season, when there was grumbling that manager John Russell was resting Freddy Sanchez so Sanchez would not achieve the number of plate appearances necessary to trigger an $8 million contract option for 2010, Pirates president Frank Coonelly roared with indignation.

He said, "I am very surprised and, quite frankly, offended that anyone would suggest that, in the middle of our worst slump in his tenure as a major league manager, John Russell would do anything other than put out the lineup he believes gives us the best chance to win the most baseball games.’’

In other words, how dare anyone question Russell's commitment to winning.

OK, we won’t do that. But how about questioning the commitment to winning of Coonelly and general manager Neal Huntington?

AP Photo

Pittsburgh Pirates' Tom Gorzelanny (24) pitches during the eighth inning of a baseball game against the Washington Nationals, Thursday, May 21, 2009, in Washington. The Nationals won 5-4.

Night after night, the Pirates continue to deliberately not field their best team. And in doing so they are playing into the hands of the team’s many critics, who maintain the foremost concern of Bob Nutting’s Pirates is making money and not winning game.

Plain and simple, Tom Gorzelanny belongs in the starting rotation in Pittsburgh, not Indianapolis.

As long as Coonelly and Huntington insist on keeping Gorzelanny in Class AAA for purely financial reasons, they are making a mockery out of everything they say about a commitment to winning.

Virgil Vasquez, a borderline major leaguers, at best, has put together a few decent starts since being recalled from the minors late last month and, more recently, a couple of awful ones. If this were last year, and no one of quality was available in the minors, sticking with Vasquez might be an option.

But there’s plenty available in the minors, with the most notable option being Gorzelanny. If Gorzelanny did not have a successful major-league stint behind him, it might be possible for the Pirates to ignore what he’s doing at Indianapolis. But this is the guy who was 14-10 with a 3.88 earned run average in 2007. He’s done it before and he’s pitching like he can do it again.

Since returning to Indianapolis, after a three-week stint in the Pirates bullpen, Gorzelanny has an ERA of 1.16 in eight games. In view of that kind of pitching and his previous history of success, there should be no reason Gorzelanny isn’t taking the spot of Vasquez in the rotation.

Except for this: The Pirates are putting finances ahead of winning.

If Gorzelanny is brought back to the majors this week or any time soon, he will be eligible for arbitration next season, which could cost the Pirates millions. If he’s kept in the minors long enough to shut the door on arbitration in 2010, the Pirates can pay him little more than the MLB minimum, which would put in at around $430,000.

The additional money Gorzelanny might receive in arbitration is not insignificant, but let’s not forget, the Pirates made a killing last week by unloading Adam LaRoche’s contract, which had almost $3 million remaining on it. And let’s not forget they earlier unloaded Nate McLouth’s contract, which would have paid him $4.5 million in 2010.

This is not a situation similar to the one where the Pirates kept Andrew McCutchen at Indianapolis at the start of the season. If McCutchen had opened the season in Pittsburgh, it would have affected his eventual free agency. Whether Gorzelanny joins the Pirates this week, next month or next season, he won’t be eligible for free agency until after the 2013 season.

This is the perfect opportunity for the Pirates to show their fans they care more about winning than saving a buck. Gorzelanny has earned a promotion. The players on the Pirates deserve to have their best teammates beside them.

Shame on Coonelly and Huntington if Gorzelanny is not the starter the next time Vasquez is due to pitch.

Posted: Bob Smizik with 13 comment(s)
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Sunday, July 26, 2009

Steelers training camp 2009 forecast: Hot sticky summer

Sunday, July 26, 2009
By Ed Bouchette, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Peter Diana / Post-Gazette

The course of the Steelers' upcoming three weeks in Latrobe took an unexpected turn this week. Mike Tomlin will expect the players to deal with it. But history shows that previous Steelers teams have not always dealt well with distraction when it's time for camp.

An old maxim comes into play as the Steelers prepare to report for training camp in Latrobe Friday: Be careful what you wish for: you may receive it.

To be fair, Mike Tomlin did not wish for distractions to gather around his reigning Super Bowl champions when the coach was asked how important it was to avoid them. The question was delivered at his most recent news conference June 11 that concluded his team's rather quiet spring practice sessions.

"My mentality in regards to distractions is really changing and that is probably how I am growing with the job," Tomlin said that day. "If you are going to be good, distractions are a part of it."

Welcome to Camp Distraction, only a couple vowels removed from destruction. That is what happened the last time the Steelers entered Saint Vincent College as Super Bowl champs, in 2006. That was the summer of the motorcycle accident involving quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, and Bill Cowher's last as their coach.

This will be the summer of the Lake Tahoe effect involving Roethlisberger. There's no telling what effect the sexual assault civil lawsuit will have on Roethlisberger and his teammates, but history shows such distractions can be harmful to the Steelers.

The most immediate occurred in 2006, when the Super Bowl champs lost six of their first eight games. Roethlisberger's motorcycle accident may not have caused all that losing, but it certainly set an ominous tone for the season.

A more intriguing comparison occurred during the Steelers' otherwise glorious decade of the 1970s. You want distractions, 1977 was the summer of destruction for the Super Bowl Steelers.

They had won Super Bowls after the 1974 and 1975 seasons and lost to the Raiders in the AFC title game after 1976; Oakland went on to win the Super Bowl. After that season, Raiders defensive back George Atkinson filed a $2 million lawsuit against Chuck Noll after the Steelers coach labeled him part of the NFL's "criminal element" for a hit on receiver Lynn Swann.

The trial took place in the summer of 1977 and spilled into training camp. Noll left assistant coach George Perles in charge and spent the whole trial in San Francisco.

Others also testified, Swann and Dan Rooney included.

It was a fiasco that Sports Illustrated writer William Oscar Johnson described as "a spectacle so bizarre, so beyond the realm of common sense and ordinary imagination that it might have been the creation of some mad comic producer."

Noll and the Steelers won the case, but lost the season. As an exasperated Dan Rooney said then, "This trial has been the most depressing thing I have ever done."

Noll, during his time on the stand, was forced to acknowledge that he would include four of his own players as part of the league's criminal element: Mel Blount, Joe Greene, Ernie Holmes and Glenn Edwards. That so upset Blount that he filed his own $5 million lawsuit against his coach and held out that summer.

Linebacker Jack Lambert also held out for all of camp because he did not have a contract.

The Steelers were a mess.

"Chuck Noll used to always preach about distractions," then-Steelers personnel head Art Rooney Jr. said this week. "That was a true distraction. I was in camp and they all went out to the West Coast."

But Joe Gordon, then the Steelers public relations director, had other thoughts looking back on it.

"In my opinion, it was not a great distraction," Gordon said. "That season was almost the result of human nature, where you go through a cycle. We had great years in '74, '75 and just missed in '76. I think we were kind of due for a little down season."

"Down" for that team meant a 9-5 record and quick elimination in the playoffs to Denver. They rebounded from all those distractions by winning the next two Super Bowls.

Compared to 1977, the summer of 2009 has been quiet for the Super Bowl champs. Of course, training camp has not yet begun. And Roethlisberger's legal problems may have not yet either. If the civil suit filed against him last week is not settled, who knows how long it could drag on. At least in 1977, everything was contained to one summer.

And, it's not a backup offensive lineman this involves, but the heart and soul of the entire team. A debate began this year whether the Steelers could overcome the Patriots as the team of the decade; surely they do not want to become the team of the decadent. The longer the civil suit drags on against their quarterback -- who likely would have to attend if it goes to trial -- and the more lurid details that might emerge cannot help but become a distraction to the entire team.

"We have the desire to be a good team, a consistently good team, a world championship-caliber team," Tomlin said back in June. "You have to acknowledge some attention; some potential distractions come with that. I am not running away from that. I want to make sure we are very good at dealing with it and staying singularly focused on what is important and that is, of course, our winning performances."

Practice starts Saturday.

Ed Bouchette can be reached at
First published on July 26, 2009 at 12:00 am

Eddie Johnston: A Hockey Life

As farewells go, 'What a way for me to go out'

Sunday, July 26, 2009
By Ron Cook, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

The legendary Scotty Bowman? "He was the captain of the first team I played for," long-time Penguins official Eddie Johnston was saying the other day in his Upper St. Clair home. "The Montreal Royals of the Quebec Junior League. I was 16 or 17. He terrorized me."

The great Bobby Orr? "Best man at my wedding and godfather to one of my kids," Johnston said.

After moving to Pittsburgh, Johnston was present at the dawn of the Age of Mario.

The one and only Mario Lemieux? "He's been good to me and my family. I've been so blessed," Johnston said, eyes tearing up just a bit.

Are you thinking what I'm thinking?

That everybody should be so lucky to retire after a career touched by such greatness?

Johnston, 73, gave up his title as senior advisor to Penguins general manager Ray Shero after the team won the Stanley Cup last month. He'll still be on the payroll because everyone in the organization, from Lemieux on down, loves him and wants him around. He'll still be at some home games, make a trip or two with the club, appear at corporate and alumni functions and be there should Shero ask for advice about anything. But mostly, E.J. --- as everybody knows him -- will spend the rest of his days just being E.J., playing a lot of golf, shaking a lot of hands and telling stories from a life in hockey and one of the most remarkable careers in Pittsburgh sports history.

Many of those stories will be about Orr, who joined the Boston Bruins at 18 in 1966 and quickly became the best player in NHL history. Johnston was a goaltender on that Boston club, a high-profile guy known as "Downtown Eddie" because of his love of the nightlife. This was long before Johnston's wife, Diane, and three kids, Michele, E.J. Jr., and Joe came along.

Orr's father asked Johnston if Orr could live with him.

"Ah, I don't know if that's such a good idea, Mr. Orr," Johnston said.

"I insist," Orr's dad said. "It'll be good for the boy."

This is when the stories really get good.

"Bobby would drive me into town every night in my Cadillac," Johnston said. "He'd go to a movie or something and then pick me up at the bars. I'd hop into the backseat and he'd drive us home. I ended up buying him a chauffeur's hat. He'd wear the thing. Can you imagine that? The best player in the game by about eight miles doing something like that?"

Orr and Johnston still laugh about those days. They talk at least twice a week by telephone, often reminiscing about their great Bruins' teams that won the Cup in 1970 and '72. One of Johnston's most prized possessions is a limited-edition picture of Orr and fellow Boston legends Ted Williams and Larry Bird that Orr gave him as a gift. The photograph -- autographed by all three Hall of Famers -- has a prominent spot on Johnston's basement/game room wall, not far from pictures of him with Joe DiMaggio, Perry Como and Canada Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, among many others.

"A special guy," Johnston said of Orr.

Johnston also treasures his relationship with Lemieux. He was the Penguins' general manager when the team made Lemieux the No. 1 overall pick in the 1984 draft. There was some pressure to trade that pick for a package of players because the Penguins were so awful.

"When I first got here as the coach [in '80], we only had 23 players on the roster," Johnston said. "Every guy at camp made the team. Our extra guy was a kid named [Jim] Hamilton.

"The only reason we made the playoffs that year was our power play. I used the pick play. I learned that from [Boston Celtics Hall of Famer] Tommy Heinsohn."

In a Boston bar, of course.

Using beer cans and ketchup bottles as players.

Boston legend Bobby Orr (No. 4) was important to Bruins goalie Eddie Johnston both on and off the ice. (AP)

But back to Lemieux ...

"The first day of camp, Mr. DeBartolo" -- Penguins owner Edward DeBartolo Sr. -- "says to me, 'Thank God you didn't trade that pick,' " Johnston said. "There was no way I was going to trade it. We were getting a guy who comes along once in a lifetime. Mellon Arena would be a parking lot now if not for Mario. There would be no hockey in Pittsburgh."

Johnston built much of the foundation for the Penguins' Cup-wining teams of '91 and '92, but he wasn't around to enjoy those moments. He left in '89 to become general manager of the Hartford Whalers and made the '91 trade that sent Ron Francis and Ulf Samuelsson to the Penguins for John Cullen and Zarley Zalapski. The deal put the Penguins over the top and led to Johnston's firing in Hartford, though he still defends it.

"The only reason I traded Ulf was because his agent said he was going back to Sweden to play," Johnston said. "I had to trade Ronnie before the deadline because the owner [Richard Gordon] ordered me to trade him. He had some sort of falling out with Ronnie ...

"That wasn't a bad trade for Hartford. Cullen was a good player and Zalapski scored 20 goals for us."

Still ...

"That was such a great trade for the Penguins that they probably should given me a small ring or something," Johnston said, fairly giggling.

General manager Craig Patrick did much better, bringing Johnston back to the Penguins for good to coach the team in '93. Johnston still holds club records for games coached (516) and won (232).

Over the years, Johnston has served in a variety of roles, including assistant general manager and assistant coach. Invariably, he was the guy Patrick and then Shero turned to when they needed something.

What a career ride for Johnston.

What a ride for Pittsburgh.

"Do you realize how blessed this city has been?" Johnston asked. "We've had the best player in hockey for the past 25 years. Mario. [Jaromir] Jagr. Then, Mario came back. Now Sid [Crosby] and [Evgeni] Malkin ... it's crazy. Some teams never get one guy like that.

"They got a real pop at a few more Cups now. The best young players in the league, they're here right now. It should be that way for the next 10 years or so."

Johnston isn't greedy. Three Cups are enough for him. "I can give each of my kids a ring now," he said.

Johnston had his day with the Cup July 11, hauling it all over Upper St. Clair. It was hard to tell who had a better time -- him or those who had the honor of being in the Cup's presence.

"What a way for me to go out," Johnston said. "It's time. They have such a great hockey staff in place now."

The man's eyes teared up again.

Bruce Bennett

Among the last official duties Eddie Johnston performed in his professional hockey career came during the Penguins' victory celebration June 12 at Joe Louis Arena in Detroit. He hoisted the Stanley Cup.

What a life it's been for a kid who literally had to fight his way out of Montreal's mean West End, making $7 a bout against small-town tough guys and convicts from the local penitentiary.

Here's hoping Johnston's retirement is just as wonderful.

He has his family. He has his health. My goodness, the man is 73 and still doesn't need glasses. He shot his age at Williams Country Club in Weirton, W. Va., this month! He has his memories. And he has his friends.

There will be plenty of time this winter for Johnston to finally use the Florida home in Pompano Beach that he's owned for 40 years. Dead ahead, though, is another golf match with Lemieux and former Penguins star Pierre Larouche at the Club at Nevillewood.

Really, we all should be so lucky.

Ron Cook can be reached at More articles by this author
First published on July 26, 2009 at 12:00 am

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Ben and Shaq stage thriller in Ambridge

Filming of show gives Roethlisberger brief escape from reality

Saturday, July 25, 2009
By Colin Dunlap and Victor Zapana, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Hollywood came to Ambridge last night in the form of a tremendously scripted, undeniably staged football reality show.

But for Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who was one half of the made-for-TV-event's star power, the evening stage and the field's floodlights had to serve as a welcome respite from the spotlight he has been under as the subject of a lawsuit claiming he sexually assaulted a Nevada casino worker last summer.

John Heller/Post-Gazette

Ben Roethlisberger arrives at Ambridge Area High School stadium yesterday evening.

Last night, Ambridge Area High School's Moe Rubenstein stadium was turned into a giant stage for the taping of an episode of "Shaq Vs.," a new ABC reality television show starring Cleveland Cavaliers center Shaquille O'Neal.

This taping featured Mr. O'Neal going head-to-head against Mr. Roethlisberger in a football competition. And at the end of the "game," Team Ben defeated Team Shaq, 21-14. But truth be told, the athletic component was just a portion of what Steelers fans had on their minds as about 5,000 of them settled into the stadium.

Mr. Roethlisberger arrived about 6 p.m., and was greeted with a roar from the crowd that had already gathered, as he walked toward the locker room wearing a black T-shirt, jeans and sneakers. He was listening to some music on his earphones. A line of fans cheered and clapped for him, and many wanted autographs.

A minute later, he was gone, already in the basement locker room, followed by staffers, security crews and TV cameras. The fans continued to wait in line to enter the stadium. They were ecstatic; some waited more than three hours.

There was a significant buzz in and around the stadium as fans waited for a glimpse of the two stars. For them, last night was more than a Friday night at a high school stadium in Western Pennsylvania.

It also was a chance to see -- and support -- Mr. Roethlisberger, the two-time Super Bowl winning quarterback, now facing a serious lawsuit.

"I know it's not true," said fan-for-life Justin Laveing, 13, of Beaver Falls. "Big Ben is a great guy, and I don't think he'd do something like that."

Tammy Goodwin, 46, of Economy, stood near the front of the line with her husband, Shawn. A bus driver for the Ambridge Area School District, she arrived on line at 4:30 p.m. because she had to drop off her two teen-age daughters, Breanna and Allison, who were performing as flag twirlers for the taping.

Coming to see the daughters was her main objective, she said.

"But they're now the bonus," she added, referring to the athletes.

As for Mr. Roethlisberger's legal issues, she said, "I don't think anybody cares. We're all here for him."

By 5 p.m., when Shaq arrived in a red Ford, more than 150 fans were already waiting in line.

Mr. O'Neal, in a white T-shirt and patchwork madras shorts, sat down in front of locker No. 10, while the ABC cameras rolled.

"Lemme get my yoga on," he said, as he started to focus for the game.

Outside, 5-year-old Trevor Danielson was waving a multi-colored cardboard sign: "Shaq vs. Ben: Incredible."

Trevor's cousins, 14-year-old Wes Johnson and 12-year-old Dillon Johnson, were here with their grandmother, 61-year-old Kellyne Johnson, who was under a red-and-white umbrella. The Johnsons drove three hours from Jamestown, N.Y., to come to the event.

The kids wanted autographs. "I said, 'Don't plan on it,' " said Ms. Danielson, with a smile.

Meanwhile, everything was in place on the field. And it was pure Hollywood.

Six giant props -- more than 20 feet high -- in the shape of the show's logo, an intertwined capital "V" and lowercase "s" dotted the field.

By the time the gates opened, much later than advertised, Mr. O'Neal had left the field after warming up, leaving the field for Mr. Roethlisberger.

In what seemed like equal-parts fun and a public relations move, Mr. Roethlisberger played catch -- from the field -- with fans in the bleachers for at least 20 minutes before taping began.

During that time, Steelers coach Mike Tomlin -- flanked by his wife, Kiya, and three children -- walked up to Mr. Roethlisberger and exchanged a greeting.

Mr. Roethlisberger was introduced to the expected loud cheers from the largely partisan Steelers crowd.

Mr. O'Neal -- wearing a gold No. 8 jersey, the same color as his alma mater, Louisiana State University -- was also greeted with loud cheers when introduced.

At 9:15 p.m., the "game" began.

While the other players, members of the Pittsburgh Colts semi-pro team, wore full pads, neither Mr. Roethlisberger nor Mr. O'Neal wore pads or a helmet in the seven-on-seven passing scrimmage format.

Mr. O'Neal's athletic ability was evident early on as he threw a touchdown from 20 yards on the third snap he took.

A handicapping system was agreed upon that required Mr. Roethlisberger's team to go 40 yards for a touchdown while Mr. O'Neal's needed to travel only 20.

Mr. Roethlisberger, looking as if he could have thrown a touchdown just about every time he dropped back if he really wanted to, sort of took it easy on Mr. O'Neal, only tossing three touchdowns to the basketball great's two scores.

That elicited this from Mr. O'Neal, "I let you win, Ben! I let you win!"

Mr. O'Neal then pointed to Mr. Tomlin, standing in the corner of the end zone and jabbed Mr. Roethlisberger even a little more, continuing, "I didn't want to beat you in front of your coach, I couldn't embarrass you like that, Ben. That's why I let you win."

And for one summer night in Western Pennsylvania, football once again was king.

"Shaq Vs." will premiere at 9 p.m. Aug. 18 on ABC.

Colin Dunlap can be reached at or 412-263-1459. Victor Zapana can be reached at or 412-263-1956,
First published on July 25, 2009 at 12:00 am

Friday, July 24, 2009

Few rival Wilson's ability to make twin killing

Friday, July 24, 2009
By Brian O'Neill, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

The Pirates' Jack Wilson has made more double plays in fewer games than any shortstop in the past half-century.

Wilson's tally -- 830 after only 1,125 games in nine seasons -- is also the most prolific in the century-plus history of the National League.

John Bazemore/Associated Press

Jack Wilson is one of the best shortstops in history when it comes to double play totals.

The only shortstops to pile up twin killings faster were Hall of Famers Phil Rizzuto and Lou Boudreau, and Eddie Joost, an All-Star for the Philadelphia Athletics in 1949 and '52.

"Wow," Wilson said when he saw his name atop a list computed at the Post-Gazette's request by Sean Forman, founder of "That's crazy.

"You don't even think about it. It's part of the game and, obviously, I've been blessed to have some great second basemen with me ... and getting the pitchers to throw the ground balls."

This is often the point in a DP story where an avid baseball fan scoffs and says this only happened because the pitchers put so many runners on base. As if great range, good hands, a strong arm and a quick release are meaningless.

Modern baseball statistics blow away that theory. Baseball Prospectus says the Pirates have had the fewest DP situations in the NL this year, yet they are second to Houston in total DPs.

The team's success is a credit to the entire infield, but mainly the duo flanking the keystone sack. Getting back to simple addition, Freddy Sanchez leads all NL second basemen with 61 double plays. Wilson is second among shortstops to Houston's Miguel Tejada, 62 to 68, despite Wilson playing about 200 fewer innings. Since his rookie season in 2001, Wilson has made the most DPs of any NL shortstop.

How many times have such rally-snuffing plays prevented runs or been the difference in a ballgame? Erik Manning recently wrote in that Wilson is "by far the leader" in runs prevented through double plays since 2002, but that number is only 15.6 runs above average.

It might be best to think of the DP as simply another indicator of a shortstop's skill, in the way, say, Albert Pujols' RBIs are an indicator of his power. Pujols can't knock base runners in if they aren't there, and Wilson can't help a pitcher out of a jam if the guy isn't in one. But no player can top a list such as this without being awfully good at his job.

Fangraphs suggests that Wilson would save more than 18.6 runs above the average shortstop in the course of 150 games, putting him comfortably ahead of everyone else. That Ultimate Zone Rating measures the arm, range, hands (absence of errors) and DP skills, but today's subject is simply what Wilson does at a historic rate.

I asked him what he thinks about in a DP situation, how he decides whether to go for the lead runner or go to first base.

"The speed of the runners: the guy on first and the guy at the plate," Wilson said. "Most importantly, it's the speed of the ball. How hard it's hit is going to tell you if you have a chance to turn two."

"Once that ball's hit," he said, snapping a finger, "you know right away. If it's a slow roller, I have to get the guy at first."

Game situation matters, too. Wilson will take more chances early. That's not something he has to think about. "It's embedded in there," he said.

Wilson was quick to mention his second basemen. In his nine seasons, the man across the bag has gone from Pat Meares to Pokey Reese to Jeff Reboulet to Jose Castillo to Freddy Sanchez. Of those, Sanchez has played the most games at second (443) and also made the most DPs (342).

Sanchez walked over as we were talking, and Wilson told his buddy, "He's talking about our double plays and how much we rock."

Sanchez immediately brought up one he recently had messed up and wished he had back. They figured they work on the play 40 or 50 times before each game. They'll purposely make some bad throws so they'll be ready to handle bad feeds at crunch time.

"Every time there's a runner on first," Sanchez said, "the only thing that's on my mind is to turn a double play."

Sanchez is, of course, a successor to the greatest defensive second baseman in baseball history, Bill Mazeroski, who finished with 1,706 double plays, the most in baseball history, in 2,094 games for the Pirates.

Could Wilson chase the same record for shortstops? Right now, he's somewhere around 60th all-time, but keeping pace with the leaders.

Omar Vizquel leads all shortstops in career double plays with 1,713, Ozzie Smith is second with 1,590 and Cal Ripken third with 1,565. But the report showed that all trailed Wilson's .737 DP/G at similar points in their careers. Ripken was at .685 after eight seasons (12th best), Vizquel at .674 after nine seasons (18th) and Smith at .668 after eight seasons (21st).

Wilson and Sanchez are in contract limbo, but those weren't numbers we got into. What is the market price of an extraordinary-field/middling-hit shortstop? Wilson entered the game last night batting .267 with a .300 on-base average and .391 slugging average. The average NL shortstop was at .263/.321/.386. Wilson's Achilles' heel always has been on-base average; he doesn't walk enough.

Solution: Continue to bat him eighth, where the NL keeps its gloves, and count the blessings. (They often arrive in pairs.) A low-strikeout, pitch-to-contact pitching staff needs a shortstop exactly like Wilson.

Double vision

Jack Wilson has made more double plays per game than all but three shortstops in baseball history, and more than anyone in National League history at similar points in their careers. checked where shortstops ranked after playing between 1,020 and 1,220 career games at the position, and these are the top five:

Rank - Debut - Double Plays Per Game

1. Phil Rizzuto, 1941 - 0.772
2. Lou Boudreau, 1939 - 0.754
3. Eddie Joost, 1936 - 0.739
4. Jack Wilson, 2001 - 0.737
5. Neifi Perez, 1996 - 0.729

Brian O'Neill can be reached at or 412-263-1947.
First published on July 24, 2009 at 12:00 am

Roethlisberger denies rape accusation

Friday, July 24, 2009
By Jonathan D. Silver, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

With pursed lips and a somber expression, Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger denied to the world yesterday that he sexually assaulted a Nevada casino worker who claims in a lawsuit that he raped her last summer.

Matt Freed/ Post-Gazette

Steelers coach Mike Tomlin, left, stands with his quarterback at yesterday's news conference.

"The allegations against me are reckless and false," Mr. Roethlisberger, 27, told reporters at the Steelers UPMC training facility on the South Side, speaking publicly about the case for the first time.

He did not address whether he had any sexual relations at all with the woman, a 31-year-old Canadian national who has worked in Nevada since at least 2003.

The woman sued Mr. Roethlisberger Friday in civil court in Washoe County, Nev., claiming he raped her July 11, 2008, after luring her into his 17th-floor room at Harrah's Lake Tahoe resort under false pretenses.

Also named in the complaint are eight current or former mostly high-level Harrah's employees accused of, among other things, trying to cover up the alleged incident.

At the time, Mr. Roethlisberger was participating in the American Century Championship golf tournament, and the woman was acting as a concierge for the event tasked with serving celebrity guests.

Word came yesterday around 11:30 a.m. that Mr. Roethlisberger was prepared to break his silence within a few hours. Around 2 p.m., Steelers spokesman Dave Lockett told a reporter, "It's going to be a brief statement, and he's not going to take any questions."

A few minutes later, Mr. Roethlisberger strode into the media conference room on the facility's second floor and took his place behind a black lectern adorned with the Steelers logo.

Referring to a piece of paper, he launched into a prepared statement without preamble and spoke for 61 seconds. His demeanor was grim.

Although Mr. Roethlisberger named his accuser, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette is withholding her identity in keeping with the newspaper's policy of not naming alleged victims of sexual assault.

"I did not sexually assault [the woman]. Saturday was the first that I learned of her accusations," Mr. Roethlisberger said, his words carried live on local TV stations and ESPN.

Her attorney, Calvin R.X. Dunlap, confirmed yesterday that Mr. Roethlisberger was served with the suit while he was attending this year's golf tournament in Lake Tahoe, which ran from July 14 to this past Sunday.

"Her false and vicious allegations are an attack on my family and on me. I would never, ever force myself on a woman. I'm going to fight to protect my family and my reputation," Mr. Roethlisberger continued.

Wearing a brown, pinstripe suit with a pocket square, dress shirt open at the neck and no tie, the two-time Super Bowl winner seemed a bit haggard, sporting stubble and tousled hair.

Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin stood behind Mr. Roethlisberger's right shoulder, looking on stoically on as his quarterback spoke. Also attending the news conference were Kevin Colbert, the Steelers director of football operations; the quarterback's agent, Ryan Tollner; and his lawyer, William David Cornwell Sr.

Mr. Roethlisberger spoke forcefully, and when he said, "I'm not going to discuss my private life or this civil case in the media," he emphasized the words "civil case."

In a statement Monday, Mr. Cornwell took pains to note that there has been no criminal complaint or police investigation of the woman's allegations.

Her attorney acknowledges that his client did not seek out the police. Her lawsuit said she was "afraid of the consequences of reporting it to police authorities since it was obvious to her that Harrah's and its personnel ... would side with and support Roethlisberger. ..."

Records in Douglas County, Nev., show the woman after other incidents had contacted the sheriff's department -- this January, March 2008 and September 2005 -- to report harassment, a burglary at her home and annoying phone calls, respectively.

The department has said it will not launch an investigation into the rape allegation unless the woman files a complaint.

Mr. Roethlisberger said he would remain focused on his team, which heads to training camp at the end of the month.

Hanging on the walls outside the conference room where he was speaking about a low point in his life was a picture of Mr. Roethlisberger at a high point: a trophy presentation in February after winning Super Bowl XLIII against the Arizona Cardinals.

In closing, Mr. Roethlisberger said, "As much as I'd like to answer everyone's questions, I'm going to respect the legal process, and I am confident that the truth will prevail. Thank you."

With that, he turned and walked out, ignoring two shouted questions: How upsetting was the situation, and did he have any sexual relations with his accuser.

Mr. Dunlap, contacted after the news conference, said he did not watch it because "I was busy." He declined comment after he was told what the quarterback said.

Staff Writer Dan Majors contributed to this story. Jonathan D. Silver can be reached at or 412-263-1962.
First published on July 24, 2009 at 12:00 am