Monday, June 29, 2009

NHL Draft: Penguins'2nd-round pick is Philip Samuelsson

Ulf's son can be nasty on ice

Sunday, June 28, 2009
By Dave Molinari, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

MONTREAL -- Philip Samuelsson is not, by any measure, a clone of his father.

That's OK, because no one is.

Or probably ever could be.

But the Penguins saw enough of Ulf Samuelsson, one of the most fierce hitters and competitors in team history, in his son to invest a second-round draft choice in him yesterday during the NHL draft at the Bell Centre.

"Every discussion we had, there was that comparison," said Jay Heinbuck, their director of amateur scouting. "Because Philip is a very smart player who plays with some tenacity, which sounds familiar."

Ryan Remiorz/Associated Press

Philip Samuelsson, right, has his picture taken by a familiar face to Pittsburgh fans, his father, Ulf. Philip was taken in the second round by the Penguins, his dad's former team, yesterday in Montreal.

That's definitely genetic, given that his father was as relentless as a sled dog.

And while Philip Samuelsson didn't inherit a mean streak quite the size of Ulf's, Heinbuck was quick to note that, "he has some nastiness to him."

Just not the most in his immediate family.

"He's a modernized version," Ulf Samuelsson said, smiling. "He can play without getting tossed [out of games] too much."

Samuelsson wasn't the Penguins' only legacy selection during the final day of the NHL entry draft.

They took Belleville center Andy Bathgate, grandson of the Hall of Famer with the same name, with the final choice in the fifth round.

Bathgate, 6 feet 1, 175 pounds, had four goals and 12 assists in 44 games with the Bulls of the Ontario Hockey League. His grandfather was the Penguins' leading scoring in 1967-68, their first season.

Their other choices:

Round 3 -- Right winger Ben Hanowski (6-2, 198), the top point-producer in Minnesota high school hockey history. He had 57 goals and 53 assists in 25 games with Little Falls H.S. this season. He will attend St. Cloud State.

Round 4 -- Right winger Nick Petersen (6-3, 183) of Shawinigan in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League. He had 37 goals and 53 assists in 68 games.

Round 5 -- Defenseman Alex Velischek (6-0, 200), son of former NHL defenseman Randy Velischek. He had 16 goals and 35 assists in 30 games for Dalbarton (N.J.) High School.

Round 6 -- Defenseman Viktor Ekbom (6-2, 194), who had two goals and four assists with Oskarshamn in Sweden.

Samuelsson, who will be 18 July 26, is 6-2 1/2, 198 pounds. He had no goals and 22 assists in 54 games with Chicago of the United States Hockey League.

And while he doesn't possess the attack-dog mentality that was an integral part of Ulf's game, he's not shy about venturing into challenging situations.

If he were, he wouldn't be planning to attend a school, Boston College, in a city where his dad still ranks among the most reviled sports figures, mostly because of some epic run-ins with Bruins winger Cam Neely.

"If I get some comments every now and then, that's going to happen and I'll learn to deal with it," Samuelsson said.

Fact is, he seems to have no more misgivings about how his father went about his work than Ulf does.

"He played the game how he played it," Philip Samuelsson said. "You can't take anything away from him.

"You get some enemies every now and then in hockey. ... I'm extremely proud of him and his career."

Ryan Remiorz/Canadian Press

Penguins' second- and third-round picks Philip Samuelsson, right, and Ben Hanowski.

Samuelsson, like his father, isn't a particularly fluid skater -- "He realizes that's an issue," Heinbuck said -- but is quite responsible in his own end.

He described himself and his father as "shutdown defensemen who can really eat some big minutes on the ice."

Ulf Samuelsson, now an assistant coach in Phoenix, considers that to be one of his son's most impressive traits.

"He's a player who, as a coach, you keep putting out," he said. "That's really the best way I can describe it.

"As a coach, that's extremely valuable, if you have someone you trust and keep putting out."

Playing for the Penguins someday won't be easy for him, because his father remains one of the most celebrated defensemen the team has had, but that isn't likely to be a major issue.

"He's going to Boston to play college," Ulf Samuelsson said. "If he can handle that, he can certainly handle going to Pittsburgh."

Dave Molinari can be reached at
First published on June 28, 2009 at 12:00 am

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Tough choice for Scuderi

Sunday, June 28, 2009
By Ron Cook, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Kentucky men's basketball coach John Calipari gives the best advice I've ever heard to players torn between staying where they are or going after the really big money with another team.

"If you want to do what's right for me and my family, stay," Calipari tells his guys. "If you want to do what's right for you and your family, go."

Makes sense, doesn't it?


Rob Scuderi upends the Flyers' Darroll Powe during their 2009 first round playoff series.

An athlete's pro career is short. He has to grab for as much as he can for as long as he can. Forget loyalty. There is no such thing in sports anymore. It's all big business. As soon as the team finds a better option, that player is gone, anyway.

Calipari's advice really is sound.

That doesn't mean it's always easy to follow, though.

Ask Rob Scuderi.

He's Penguins' property, but maybe for just three more days, until the NHL free agency period starts Wednesday. He was terrific during their run to the Stanley Cup, so good that he's expected to get at least one blockbuster offer from another hockey club -- perhaps as much as $4 million per year, which would be an extraordinary number for a defensive defenseman and more than five times what he made this past season -- that the Penguins almost certainly won't be able to match.

"I know the type of player I am," Scuderi said late last week. "I'm not sure the market will be there like this for me again."

If you want to do what's right for you and your family ...

But it's not quite that simple for Scuderi.

"I've never been the type to just chase the money," he said. "I've seen too many guys go for the highest contract and end up in a bad situation and be completely upset for three or four years. I don't want that happening to me. It's no fun going somewhere and losing, especially after you've been spoiled playing here. That would be just miserable."

Former Penguins winger Ryan Malone is the poster boy for that. He left for the Tampa Bay Lightning after the 2007-08 season because the Lightning made him offer he couldn't refuse -- $31.5 million for seven years. But they missed the playoffs this past season and he had to watch his Penguins' buddies hoisting the Stanley Cup.

Miserable, indeed.

"If he had to do it all over again, he'd take a lot less to stay here," Penguins defenseman Brooks Orpik said of Malone during the Cup odyssey. "I know at the trade deadline, he was begging to come back here. A lot of guys who left feel that way."

Scuderi knows. He has talked to Malone about that very thing. Scuderi also knows Orpik took less to stay with the Penguins after the '07-'08 season, not that $3.75 million per season for six years is chump change. "This is why I came back," Orpik said after he had his turn with the precious Cup after the clinching win in Detroit earlier this month.

No doubt, Scuderi has much to consider.

"By far, the best situation for me is staying in Pitt," he said. "I know how I fit in here. I know my role. And I want to be a part of another winner. Just because we won this year doesn't mean I'm going to shut it down. I want to win again. I know they can do that here for a long time. With the young core they have -- especially the centermen -- and the system they have and the way they run the organization, it's hard to imagine them not having long-term success."

Clearly, the Penguins would love to keep Scuderi. General manager Ray Shero is a big believer that defense wins championships. He has watched Scuderi, 30, grow from a mediocre young player into one of the NHL's top shutdown defensemen.

"When I first got here and found out he had a one-way contract, I was like, 'Are you kidding me?' " Shero said. "But he just kept improving. Now, I wish I had signed him for three years instead of two [after the '06-'07 season for a $1.425 million]."

Scuderi, for $725,000 this past season, was an incredible bargain.

"He's a very, very smart hockey player, and he has one of the best sticks in the league," Shero said. "He played against the other team's top player in every series of the playoffs -- [Jeff] Carter, [Alex] Ovechkin, [Eric] Staal and [Henrik] Zetterberg. He was kind of our glue back there on defense."

Added Hal Gill, Scuderi's defensive partner and another free agent-to-be on Wednesday: "You could always count on him."

The problem is the Penguins don't appear to have the wiggle room under the salary cap to keep Scuderi. They probably could go $2 million per season, but not much more. That would be quite the hometown discount from a $4 million-a-year offer.

Really, who could begrudge Scuderi if he doesn't give it to the Penguins?

One more time:

If you want to do what's best for you and your family ...

"We'll see what happens," Scuderi said. "I told Ray in our exit meeting that I'd give Pitt the last shot. I'll take him the offer I'm most comfortable with and say, 'How close can we get?' "

No matter what Shero says at that point, Scuderi will have a tough decision.
Doing the right thing for you and your family really isn't always easy, no matter how astronomical the money is.

Ask Malone.

Ron Cook can be reached at More articles by this author
First published on June 28, 2009 at 12:00 am

Rod Woodson: The Steelers, the breakup and his date in Canton

Sunday, June 28, 2009
By Ed Bouchette, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

On occasion, a player comes along who does not belong in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, a player so dominant in his sport that he deserves a higher honor.

J. Monroe Butler II/Post-Gazette

Rod Woodson -- A journey complete

A player such as Rod Woodson.

Who says? How about these guys:

"Without a doubt,'' Bill Cowher said, "he'll go down as one of the greatest players to ever play the game.''

"If you tell me Rod Woodson is your top defensive back of all time," said Dick LeBeau, "you will get no argument from me because he certainly merits that."

"He was a player you get once in a long time," said Dan Rooney.

And more ...

"He, in my opinion, might be the greatest athlete that Chuck Noll ever drafted," said Mel Blount. "And that's saying a lot when you think of all the Hall of Famers. This guy was special."

"He was one of those rare top draft picks who probably even exceeded what people thought he would be," said Tom Donahoe.

And, from Tony Dungy on coaching Woodson his first two seasons with the Steelers: "You could see the specialness. We felt he'd be a multi-year Pro Bowler. You could see that from the first day."

Woodson, who will be enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame on Aug. 8, ranks among the best defensive backs in NFL history -- if not the best -- by testimony, by performance and by gaudy statistics.


His 71 career interceptions rank third in NFL history while his 1,483 yards in returns and 12 touchdowns on interceptions are No. 1. He made the NFL's 75th Anniversary team in 1994, one of only five active players to do so -- 10 years before his retirement. He made 11 Pro Bowls in his 17 NFL seasons and was the only player to ever make it as a cornerback, safety and return man. No defensive back ever made more.

"Gosh, I guess I was all right," Woodson said when presented with the evidence. "It's kind of tough putting myself on that pedestal. I have a hard time doing that."

Instead, he took the stand to thank the many coaches who helped school him, those such as Noll, Dungy, John Fox, Rod Rust, LeBeau, Marvin Lewis, Brian Billick and Jim Mora.

"I was taught extremely well by some of best coaches in NFL history right there in Pittsburgh," said Woodson, 44. "Without them, I don't think I'd be in the Hall of Fame. I was naturally gifted, but how many times do you see naturally gifted guys who don't do anything?"

Woodson spent his first NFL decade with the Steelers, then left as a free agent to play one season in San Francisco, four in Baltimore and two in Oakland. He played in Super Bowls with the Steelers and Raiders and earned his only NFL championship with the Ravens after the 2000 season, after he moved to safety.

There are reasons some athletes dominate a sport more than others, and there was no mystery why Woodson was able to do so. Not only did he have good size at 6 feet, 200 pounds to play either cornerback or safety, he had everything else to go with it.

"Let's look at it this way: What is his minus? What is his weakness? He had none," said LeBeau, Woodson's secondary coach and later coordinator with the Steelers in the 1990s. "He had size, he had strength, he had speed, he had reaction, he had great instinct and he was very, very smart."

He also did not take his talent for granted. Dungy recognized that quickly, especially as Woodson and the rest of the Steelers endured a 5-11 season in 1988.

"He was very, very determined. His mindset was, "We have all these young guys who are going to be great players and I'm going to be one of this group'. You couldn't measure that pride, the determination, the desire to be the best."

And to think the Steelers got him with the 10th pick in the 1987 draft from Purdue. Think Cleveland and Arizona might like a redo on that one?

The Steelers once passed over Jim Brown in the draft, but it was payback time when the Browns passed over Woodson to claim Mike Junkin with the fifth overall pick (Junkin played three NFL seasons, two in Cleveland). Arizona drafted quarterback Kelly Stouffer with the sixth pick (Stouffer held out all of '87, was traded and played four seasons in Seattle).

"You can always count on those franchises for help,'' said Donahoe, then a Steelers scout who would become their director of football operations. "Everyone was shocked he kept sliding.''

So shocked that when Dungy asked Noll when he should visit Purdue in the spring of '87 to see him -- as was traditionally done by the position coaches -- Noll told him not to bother because they would not have a chance to draft him.

Shortly after they snapped him up with the 10th pick, Noll declared, "I'm in love with him."

That love affair had a rocky start because Woodson did not sign until early November of his rookie season after the 1987 players strike. During that summer and fall away from football, he ran for the L.A. Track Club on the European track tour and his time of 13.29 seconds in the 110 hurdles was the fourth-best in the world that year.

The only four-time Big Ten champ of the 55-yard hurdles still wishes he had run in the 1988 Olympics. "It always haunted me; what could I have done?"

Instead, he spent a long career haunting quarterbacks and receivers. He even played wide receiver for a few plays one game after hounding new coach Bill Cowher to try him there.

Woodson helped revive a Steelers team that had slumped in the mid-to-late 1980s, making the playoffs for the first time in five seasons in 1989. Starting in 1992, when Cowher became coach, Woodson was part of the Blitzburgh defense that dominated the NFL, but did not win a Super Bowl.

"It was a thrill really to just watch somebody be able to dominate the backfield like that," said former Steelers safety Carnell Lake, now coaching UCLA's cornerbacks. "Rod was a true professional in every sense. He was one of the last guys out at night, one of the harder workers on our team. He knew football, had a great instinct for football and wasn't afraid to take risks on the field. He's one of those guys that when we needed a play to happen, it happened."

Woodson's only appearance in the Super Bowl with the Steelers came after his most devastating moment in the NFL, when his ACL tore while he tried to tackle Detroit's Barry Sanders in the 1995 season opener at Three Rivers Stadium.

Since it generally was understood to take one year to recover from such an injury, Woodson's season seemed over. Well, his regular season anyway. Rather than place his star on injured reserve, Cowher took an unprecedented approach and held a roster spot open all year, just in case.

"That's one of the great feel-good stories of my coaching career," said LeBeau. "Coach Cowher saved that spot throughout the season and never saw fit to take that last spot and saved it for Rod. It was, in a way, a tribute to what a great player Rod was."

As Cowher remembers, "He was making progress and it was Rod Woodson. It meant so much to us. We put Carnell Lake at corner and Willie Williams started. Rod was coaching those corners and it kept him alive and ready. He had given so much of himself to our team, I thought it was a small thing to give him an opportunity to play in a Super Bowl."

Woodson did make it back to play in the nickel and dime defenses of the Steelers' 27-17 loss to Dallas in Super Bowl XXX.

It was the beginning of the end for Woodson with the Steelers. He played one more season and left as a free agent under sour circumstances.

Woodson had another Pro Bowl season in 1996, his last under contract with the Steelers, but he was not the same player as before the injury. At the end, Dan Rooney said he thought Woodson should be moved to free safety but that Cowher and Donahoe believed his knee and an injured shoulder would limit him there.

"There was a lot of medical evaluation with Rod and where he was in his career and where Rod thought he was," Cowher says today. "And certainly it proved out Rod was able to play a lot longer than we thought at the time."

Blount, the Hall of Fame cornerback from the 1970s, believes the Steelers did not try hard enough to keep him.

"This guy was special," Blount said. "The Steelers might not ever admit it, but I said it when it happened and I'll say it today, they made a big mistake when they let him get out of here. I think he proved that by having a great career and winning a championship somewhere else. He was a Steeler." Woodson, bitter at the time, now believes leaving helped him. He played one year in San Francisco, then moved to Baltimore, to free safety and to a Super Bowl ring.

"It was a journey I had to take as person and player,'' Woodson said. "Even though I wanted to stay in Pittsburgh, it wasn't in my journey, it wasn't for me."

He arrived in Baltimore in 1998 with great young defensive talent surrounding him.

"I saw this young talent and all the stuff I learned in Pittsburgh I got to give back a lot more in Baltimore, where they put me in the locker room in the middle of Peter Boulware, Ray Lewis and Jamie Sharper.

"All the stuff I learned from all these coaches, I got to talk to them about. It was fun to take that role, kind of an elder spokesman."

It was a two-way street in Baltimore, where the Ravens helped Woodson as well.

"Rod was kind of an anchor for us," says Brian Billick, who became the Ravens' coach in Woodson's second season there. "Obviously, by the time he came here, he had established Hall of Fame credentials.

"At that point in his career, it was all about one thing -- he had the big contracts, the Pro Bowls, the fame and everything that goes with a Hall of Famer. But he did not have a ring. His purity of intentions was a great benchmark for us."

Billick said rather than want to hog the spotlight, Woodson often deferred to Ray Lewis and let him have the spotlight "because Rod saw it was good for the team. That says a lot about Rod Woodson. Sometimes guys demand that role, but he saw a purpose in Ray Lewis having it."

He also had a new role with the Ravens, that of free safety. He played the position in high school and college but played cornerback his first 11 years in the NFL.

"That's a tougher transition than people realize," Billick said.

Said LeBeau, one of the NFL's great corners himself, "You're seeing a different perspective on plays." But, "Rod was one of those rare guys who could play any position at any stage of his career."

And Woodson kept playing, and playing. In a sport where the average career lasts 31/2 seasons, Woodson played 17, closing it out in Oakland after an injury in 2003 at age 38. At 37, in 2002 in Oakland's Super Bowl season, he led the NFL with eight interceptions.

"He had great anticipation, range, just the ability to be around the football and that creates that type of statistic," Donahoe said. "A lot of people say guys get put at corner because they can't catch, but that was not the case with Rod."

Today, Woodson, his wife and five children live in suburban Oakland. He moved there from Gibsonia after his retirement when he went to work for the NFL Network, based in Los Angeles.

The Pro Football Hall of Fame does not make a member declare which team he will represent upon induction, but Woodson's heart remains with the Steelers.

"Sometime we have to separate the business and the game," Woodson said, "and sometimes that's hard. Sweat equity. Sometimes, for players, it's more difficult than the team might think it is."

Ed Bouchette can be reached at
First published on June 28, 2009 at 12:00 am

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Rod Woodson and big plays synonymous in long career

Sunday, June 28, 2009
By Ed Bouchette, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Rod Woodson made Hall of Fame plays throughout his 17-year career, none more memorable than his rocket in the Astrodome that forged Chuck Noll's first playoff victory in five years.


Rod Woodson examines the 1987 draft board.

The Steelers squeaked into the NFL playoffs as a 9-7 wild card in 1989 and opened at the Houston Oilers, the AFC Central Division champs.

The underdog Steelers found themselves on the brink of elimination in overtime as Houston drove near midfield toward a possible winning field goal. Halfback Lorenzo White took a handoff and ran around left end, where Woodson smacked into him, forcing the ball loose. Woodson recovered the fumble at the Oilers' 46 and five plays later Gary Anderson kicked a 50-yard field goal to win it.

"It was a phenomenal play," said Tom Donahoe, the Steelers' former director of football operations. "In the space of one play, Rod changed the whole game. It just seemed with Rod, when a big play had to be made, he'd make it."

Woodson anticipated plays like few others. He made a habit of breaking on sideline patterns to intercept passes, like the one he made against Hall of Fame quarterback Jim Kelly of the Buffalo Bills in 1994.

"We were playing on Monday night in Pittsburgh," former teammate Carnell Lake recalled, "and Rod was talking in the huddle: 'Hey, you safeties, watch my back, they've been running this play a lot and I think they'll run it here and I'll pick it.' Sure enough, Kelly threw the ball his way, Rod picked it and ran for a touchdown."

It covered 37 yards, the Steelers' first touchdown on way to a 23-10 victory.

Woodson's influence, though, went beyond big plays. Former Baltimore coach Brian Billick remembers vividly a game in 2000 when his great Ravens defense faltered early against the Cleveland Browns.

"Cleveland was a team struggling at the time, and we figured, here's another shutout," Billick said. "But the game opens and they go the length of the field for a touchdown."

Billick was about to say something to his defenders as they came off the field when Woodson interrupted him.

Peter Diana /Post-Gazette

As a Steeler ... Rod Woodson

"As I was making my way to the defense, Rod approached me and he said, with respect, 'We're fine, leave them alone.' It was his calculation, his assessment, they don't need a butt-chewing right now.

"That's the type of leadership I'm talking about. At times you have to judge, 'Leave them alone.' He sized up a very prideful group and probably the best thing that could happen was what happened, it shocked them and brought them back into focus.

"Cleveland had 80 yards on that first drive and I think 120 for the whole game. The rest of the day was a total beatdown. Rod had that perspective, he could give you those insights."

Ed Bouchette can be reached at
First published on June 28, 2009 at 12:00 am

Forbes Field is long gone, but fans mark its 100th birthday

Sunday, June 28, 2009
By Robert Dvorchak, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Where else but Pittsburgh would the citizenry mark the 100th anniversary of something that's not there anymore -- and hasn't been there for four decades or so?

But when it comes to Forbes Field, the iconic ballpark set against the backdrop of Schenley Park in Oakland, the memories are as vivid as ever.


This was the view from Schenley Park on July 5, 1909, when Forbes Field was only a week old.

Nicknamed the House of Thrills in its later years, Forbes Field was the stage for some of the most dramatic moments and some of the biggest stars in baseball. But it was also the place where Pitt became the Panthers and chalked up national football titles, where Art Rooney's NFL franchise was born, where boxing champions stepped into the ring, where crowds enjoyed everything from the circus to soccer but never saw a pierogi race.

Franklin D. Roosevelt once campaigned there. Billy Graham brought his crusade. Mahalia Jackson sang gospel, and Benny Benack and the Iron City Six blazed a trail for all the sports ditties that grace today's airwaves.

The combination of sports, politics, religion and music made it the city's unofficial community center. It was more than a place. It was a state of mind.

Tuesday is the 100th anniversary of its opening day, when the defending champion Chicago Cubs -- yep, it was their last title -- defeated a Pirates team that would win its first World Series title four months later.

With the Cubs in town to play at PNC Park on Tuesday, the Pirates are celebrating history. Among the returning dignitaries is a certain Hall of Fame second baseman who set a major league record for double plays and who hit a home run of note at 3:36 p.m. on Oct. 13, 1960.

As part of Tuesday's festivities, the club will announce the top Forbes Field moment, as determined by fan voting on the Web.

In addition, the Sen. John Heinz History Center has opened a Forbes Field exhibit called A Century of Memories. It will be displayed until Nov. 8, the last possible date the baseball season can go this year.

"Forbes Field lives on," said Anne Madarasz, director of the Western Pennsylvania Sports Museum at the History Center. "There were so many great moments that people shared together and are still sharing."

It's appropriate that the anniversary falls on a day that the Cubs are in town to face the Pirates, and not because the Cubs have the longest title drought in North America and the Pirates are on a record-setting pace for most losing seasons in a row.

The first National League game played in Pittsburgh in 1887 was against the team that became the Cubs.

When the local club moved to Exposition Park in 1891, the opponent was Chicago. And when Exposition Park closed in 1909, the game matched the Cubs and Pirates.

The two teams christened Forbes Field, and they were involved in the finale on June 28, 1970, when the Pirates swept a doubleheader.

Baseball palace

The father of Forbes Field was Barney Dreyfuss, the Hall of Fame owner who wanted a fireproof structure of steel and concrete to replace Exposition Park, located in an industrial neighborhood on the North Side that was prone to flooding.

With $1 million of his own money ($24 million in today's currency), he built the park on land acquired with the help of Andrew Carnegie, acclaimed at the time as one of the richest men in the world.

Had Mr. Dreyfuss had some other hobby than betting on horses, Forbes Field may not have been a one-of-a-kind destination. Architect Charles A. Leavitt Jr., who had designed the grandstands at Belmont and Saratoga racetracks, was brought in. Forbes Field was his only ballpark, and the day it opened, the newspapers called it the greatest baseball palace in the world.

Its revolutionary design featured lavatories specifically designated for women, public telephones, an underground parking garage and ramps instead of steps. (One could, however, sit in the left field bleachers and not be able to see home plate because of obstructed views.)

The place was named after John Forbes, the British general whose forces built a road through the Pennsylvania wilderness to evict the French from Fort Duquesne in 1758. In his after-action report, the general called it "Pittsbourgh," and the name stuck even if the spelling didn't.


Forbes Field, shown here in July 1960, had a revolutionary design that featured lavatories specifically designated for women, public telephones, an underground parking garage and ramps instead of steps.

An overflow crowd of 30,338 -- to that point the largest throng ever to witness a baseball game -- attended the opener as Mayor William Magee threw out the first pitch. Days later, during the Fourth of July weekend, Forbes Field was the altar upon which the marriage of baseball and fireworks was consummated. Pyrotechnics were set off in the evening there following an afternoon baseball game.

The Pirates gave the city its first World Series title and first championship parade the year Forbes Field opened as Honus Wagner outplayed Ty Cobb in a showdown of superstars.

When it closed 61 years later, the Pirates were within percentage points of first place and went on to win a division title in 1970 at Three Rivers Stadium.

World champions were also crowned in 1925 and 1960, with the 1927 Pirates losing the World Series to the Yankees and their Murderer's Row.

All-Star games were staged there in 1944 and 1959.

The last "tripleheader" in the major leagues was played at Forbes in 1920, with the Pirates losing two of three to the Reds.

The Pirates weren't the only baseball occupants, however. The Homestead Grays and the Pittsburgh Crawfords of the old Negro Leagues played at Forbes, but in those infamous days of segregation, the players were denied use of the clubhouses and showers.

Two of the greatest sluggers of all time left spike marks in the batter's box -- Josh Gibson, of the Grays, and Babe Ruth. While playing for the Boston Braves in the twilight of his career, The Babe smote the final three home runs of his career on May 25, 1935. No. 714 cleared the grandstand in right field.

The last of the 10 sluggers to clear that formidable barrier was Willie Stargell, who launched seven balls out of the park over the years.

"Opera Under The Stars" presentation of Aida at Forbes Field in 1943.

Gridiron greats

With an area so expansive that a gridiron could be fitted over the diamond, the ballpark has a rich football history.

At various times, Pitt, Duquesne and Carnegie Tech used it for home games.

Fans will recall baseball nicknames like the Tiger, Kitten, Dog, Quail, Duck and Possum. But the menagerie also includes the Four Horsemen and Seven Mules of Notre Dame, who tore up the place against Carnegie Tech in 1924.

Then on a Wednesday night in 1933, in the depths of the Great Depression, the NFL franchise that became the Steelers played its first game and later got its first victory at Forbes Field.

The last time the Steelers appeared there was a preseason game in 1969, Chuck Noll's first year as coach. It was a loss to the Bengals.

Jock Sutherland left his mark on the place. A native of Scotland, he was an All-American who played on two of Pitt's national championship teams, and he later coached the Panthers to a handful of national titles. What's more, he later coached the Steelers, who played their only postseason game at Forbes Field in 1947.

Heavyweight history

From fights to tights, boxing and wrestling found their way to Forbes.

Hometown boxers Harry Greb, Fritzie Zivic and Billy Conn -- champions all -- delighted local crowds. The heavyweight title changed hands at Forbes in 1951 when underdog Ezzard Charles knocked out Jersey Joe Walcott.

Jersey Joe returned 13 years later as a special referee for a wrestling match between Classy Freddy Blassie and Bruno Sammartino, who was unable to continue after a low blow.

Raise the window

Forbes Field witnessed its share of broadcast history in 1921.

Not only did KDKA put Pirates baseball on the radio for the first time, it also aired the first collegiate football game, the Backyard Brawl between Pitt and West Virginia.

Bob Donaldson / Post-Gazette

Memorabilia from Forbes Field at the exhibit commemorating the 100th anniversary of Forbes Field at the Western Pennsylvania Sports Museum at the Sen. H. John Heinz History Center.

As a baseball announcer, Rosey Rowswell endeared himself to his audience with a home run call that implored Aunt Minnie to raise her window. He passed the torch to Bob Prince, whose colorful phrases included the Green Weenie and a can of corn, neither of which was a foodstuff.

The Gunner's best-known sidekick was Jim "Possum" Woods, but he also worked with Nellie King. That means the final game at Forbes had a royal broadcasting tandem of a Prince and a King.

Greenberg Gardens

The dimensions of Forbes Field changed over time, but who can forget the batting cage parked in center field during games.

The walls were so distant that when the Pirates acquired slugger Hank Greenberg, left field was shortened in hopes of producing more home runs. Greenberg Gardens, as it was called, was just a temporary characteristic.

The only advertisement allowed on the outfield walls was a plea to buy war bonds during World War II. Part of that campaign was the 32-foot-tall figure of a Marine in dress blues.

The original version of the movie "Angels In the Outfield" was filmed in 1951 at Forbes. And the all-Alou outfield appeared for real in 1963.

Roberto Clemente, a promising rookie outfielder, got an infield hit in his first at bat in 1955.

Elroy Face won his 17th straight game, still a record for a reliever, at Forbes in 1959.

On what was considered the worst infield surface in the major leagues, Bill Mazeroski and Gene Alley set a record for double plays with 215 in 1966. Not only did Maz hit the home run that beat the Yankees in 1960, he stepped on second base to record the final out in the final game played at the ballpark.

Demolition began in 1971. The site is now part of the campus of the University of Pittsburgh, which bought the property in 1958 to allow for expansion. Plans to close Forbes Field were delayed until Three Rivers Stadium was built.

Only in Pittsburgh

Remnants of the ballpark can still be found, including portions of the brick wall where people gather every Oct. 13 to listen to a broadcast of Game 7 of the 1960 Series.

Those remnants, by the way, are not far from where Tom and Jerry's Custard Stand and the Big Isaly's used to be. If you don't understand, it's a 'Burgh thing.

Fans of a certain age can still recall the aroma of boiled hot dogs or the El Producto cigars that were sold for 15 cents at concession stands. They were as much a part of Forbes Field as the seat cushions rented for two bits and the orange drink that made you thirstier after you drank it.

Here's one perspective on Forbes Field: It opened six years after the Wright brothers introduced powered flight, and it closed a year after astronauts left boot prints on the moon.

And when the reminiscences reach critical mass, it's possible to hear a gravel-voiced announcer in a loud sports coat saying, "Good night, Mary Edgerly, wherever you are."

PG video: Forbes Field and a century of memories

Robert Dvorchak can be reached at
First published on June 28, 2009 at 12:00 am

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Penguins go for defense first

Stanley Cup champions take Despres, a big defenseman

Saturday, June 27, 2009
By Dave Molinari, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

MONTREAL -- Simon Despres widely was regarded as one of the best defensemen available in the 2009 NHL entry draft.

The Penguins obviously agreed, which is why they chose him last night when he was still available at the end of the opening round. Indeed, they had projected him as a middle-of-the-first-round selection.

Ryan Remiorz/Associated Press/Canadian Press

The Penguins selected defenseman Simon Despres of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League's St. John Sea Dogs with their first round pick.

What they do not necessarily go along with is the perception that he is strictly a defensive defenseman.

Not because they have any particular concerns about how Despres, who is 6 feet 3 1/2, 205 pounds, plays in his own zone, but because they feel he has untapped offensive abilities.

"I would hope that at some point he can chip in [offensively], and at least be a No. 3 or 4 defenseman at some point," said Jay Heinbuck, their director of amateur scouting.

Despres, who had two goals and 30 assists in 66 games with St. John in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League in 2008-09, said flatly that, "I think I have offensive potential."

When asked what area of his game needs the most work, he responded: "I have to shoot more."

The NHL's Central Scouting Bureau ranked him the No. 8 prospect among North American forwards and defensemen, and Chris Bordeleau of Central Scouting offered this assessment of Despres:

"He's got the size and mobility. I've seen him many games, and he never seems to make a bad play. He's never going to get 100 points, but, definitely, when you want a guy to play defense, he's your guy. He does it all, he'll block shots and he moves the puck at the right time."

The Penguins sufficiently were impressed that they rejected several offers to trade the No. 30 pick, which they used on Despres.

"Our scouts really liked him and wanted to stick with the pick and take him," general manager Ray Shero said. "I actually tried to talk them out of it, just to make sure [the scouts] wanted him."

Even though the Penguins had been impressed by him for quite a while, Despres wasn't aware of just how interested they were in him until Shero announced that he was their choice.

"I met with them a couple of times, but you never know," Despres said. "In the draft, it's so unpredictable."

What he did know was that he liked the idea of ending up with the Penguins. Turns out he was something of a fan long before he became part of the organization.

"I was wanting them to win the Stanley Cup this year," he said. "Mario Lemieux and [Sidney] Crosby and [Evgeni] Malkin and all those guys. It's a great honor, and I'm very excited."

Despres is the first defenseman the Penguins have taken in the first round since they claimed Ryan Whitney in 2002. Unlike Whitney, whose forte always was offense, Despres' game is built on his work in his own zone.

"He's not a big offensive numbers guy as of yet, but he's going to at least be a good first-pass defenseman who defends well," Heinbuck said. "He skates well for a 6 foot 4 kid and he's just [showing] the tip of the iceberg, physically.

"He's already a big boy, and he hasn't filled out yet. He has a chance to be a massive person."

Heinbuck said Despres was at less than 100 percent for most of the past season -- "He did play with a bit of a hip problem all year. A bruised hip, where every time you play, you bang it again" -- and suggested that might have been one of the factors that contributed to him still being available when it was the Penguins' turn to choose.

His modest offensive statistics might have been another.

"Maybe people thought he should have put up more offensive numbers, but he's been on Canada's national teams for his age all along," Heinbuck said.

He will not, however, be fast-tracked to the NHL. If he's able to contend for a job with the Penguins in three seasons, management will be delighted.

"He has another two years of junior eligibility," Heinbuck said. "If he takes some good strides in those years ... our philosophy is not to rush guys."

NOTES -- Rounds 2-7 of the draft will be held at the Bell Centre today beginning at 10 a.m. ... Penguins defenseman Kris Letang showed up at the Bell Centre early in the opening round. ... The list of players who will be invited to Team USA's Olympics orientation camp Aug. 17-19 in suburban Chicago will be released Tuesday, one day after the assistant coaches for the squad are announced. ... Andre Brin of Hockey Canada said 44 to 48 players are expected to be invited to that country's Olympics orientation camp in Calgary Aug. 24-28, with the list likely to be announced in early July.

Dave Molinari can be reached at
First published on June 27, 2009 at 12:00 am

Two big mistakes; not a third

Saturday, June 27, 2009
By Ron Cook, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Thursday was a day and night unlike any other in our little corner of the sports world in a long, long time. Mistakes and presumed mistakes -- past and present -- were everywhere you looked. Let's go right to the scorecard and sort it all out:

• Pirates pitcher Ian Snell's decision to talk his way to the minor leagues? That was a big mistake. There probably have been more immature and erratic athletes in this town, but none comes to mind. You hate to call anyone stupid, but it sure looks to fit in Snell's case.

Peter Diana/Post-Gazette

Pirates pitcher Ian Snell requested and was granted a demotion earlier this week.

• Pirates general manager Neal Huntington's decision before the 2008 season to sign Snell to a contract that guaranteed him $1.35 million last season, $3 million this season and $4.25 million next season? That was a colossal mistake. Huntington was relatively new on the job, working for a franchise that's so careful with multiyear contracts that it's frequently called cheap, and he gives a big deal to Snell, who was just as immature, erratic and -- sorry -- stupid at the time of the deal? That's no way to keep the position. Certainly, this is one blunder the Pirates' current regime can't blame on Huntington's predecessor, David Littlefield.

• DeJuan Blair's decision to leave Pitt two years early for an NBA career that got off to a tough start when his draft-day experience blew up in his face? That was no mistake, no mistake at all. Blair had no choice but to leave Pitt. You know how it goes in life. Doing the right thing doesn't always work out, at least not initially.

Blair didn't like school. Hey, it's not for everybody. He was Big East Conference Co-Player of the Year last season and was a national Player of the Year finalist, which means another season at Pitt wasn't likely to improve his draft status. He also has two bad knees that probably will end his career prematurely.

All of those were good reasons to go to the NBA, but Blair had another, better reason. "This was a decision to take care of his family," his agent, Happy Walters, said yesterday.

That's not just honorable, it's admirable.

The Blair story still can have a happy ending, even though he wasn't drafted in the first round as he and everyone else thought he would be. Going to the San Antonio Spurs in the second round doesn't have to be the end of the world or his basketball career. Blair still can make a nice living. He's a good kid -- a Pittsburgh kid from The Hill -- who has worked hard to get where he is. He deserves it. He's worth rooting for.

Matt Freed/Post-Gazette

Former Pitt forward DeJuan Blair left school early to pursue an NBA career.

Unlike Snell.

It's bad enough that Snell approached Huntington and Pirates manager John Russell to suggest he be sent to the minors after yet another horrible start Tuesday night. The reason he gave was priceless: "Too much negativity" directed at him, presumably from the fans and media, but also maybe from the team's management, Russell and pitching coach Joe Kerrigan.

This is a guy you want pitching for you in a big game? Someone who is so mentally weak that he can't block out the "negativity" and rise above it?


Don't you wish just once that a guy would look in the mirror and realize that he's a big part of the negativity?

Snell was 2-8 with a 5.36 earned run average before his demotion to Class AAA Indianapolis.

How do you spin that into a positive?

Huntington, sounding very disgusted, all but said Snell was uncoachable. "All he wants to do is throw it as hard as he can every pitch."

We've seen the results.

Hideous, just hideous.

It's really hard to imagine Snell pitching for the Pirates again. The bad stats are a big part of that, sure. But a bigger reason is that he quit on the team, which is just about the worst thing any player can do in any sport.

Pittsburgh will grumble, but it can take 2-8 with a 5.36 ERA as long as it believes a guy is trying. What it can't take is a quitter.

If you played on the Pirates, would you want Snell as a teammate?

I don't think they do, either.

All of this puts Huntington in a real tough spot. He has invested almost $9 million in Snell and received nine wins in return -- seven last year and the two this season. It's hard to imagine more wins here coming from Snell anytime soon.

Somewhere, the much-maligned Littlefield must be smiling about how Huntington's investment in Snell is playing out.

Ron Cook can be reached at More articles by this author

First published on June 27, 2009 at 12:00 am

Friday, June 26, 2009

Was Snell's demotion final farewell to Pirates?

Pitcher seeks, receives option to Class AAA because of public 'negativity'

Friday, June 26, 2009
By Dejan Kovacevic, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

So long, Ian Snell?

In a bizarre 24 hours for the Pirates' enigmatic starting pitcher, Snell approached management late Wednesday to request a demotion to Class AAA Indianapolis because of "too much negativity" in Pittsburgh about his performance, specifically from the fans, media and even independent bloggers. The team obliged yesterday by optioning him to the minors.

And just about all that is clear in the aftermath is this: Snell will not be back in Pittsburgh anytime soon.

If at all.

Matt Freed/Post-Gazette

Pirates pitcher Ian Snell requested a demotion.

Although Snell initiated the move, management was supportive of the concept to the extent that, even if Snell fares exceptionally well in his first few starts for Indianapolis, he will not be recalled by the Pirates until they are full convinced he has matured on and off the mound.

And that, from the way yesterday played out, could take quite some doing.

"We will need to see real strides, no question," Pirates general manager Neal Huntington said.

"I have no idea what's next," Snell said. "All I know is I'm smiling right now. I'm happy. And I'm going to stay happy."

Flash back to Wednesday ...

Snell was fresh off a 2 2/3-inning loss to the Cleveland Indians the previous night -- one that left his record at 2-8, his ERA at 5.36 -- and was visibly disturbed by some of what he had read and heard about it, notably an unspecified comment made during the Pirates' television broadcast. Repeatedly, Snell mentioned the "negativity."

Later that night, he waited outside manager John Russell's office, knowing Huntington was inside, too. Russell and Huntington had met in the same office the previous night after Snell's loss, and he was the primary topic both times.

Perhaps wanting to initiate a move he knew was coming anyway, perhaps genuinely wanting out of Pittsburgh, Snell got his audience and made his case.

Huntington informed Snell yesterday, after he was at the ballpark and in uniform, that he was optioned to Indianapolis.

"It's one of those situations of who came to the conclusion first," Huntington said. "It's really not important. What is important is that we're going to try to help Ian Snell reach his potential because it is still in there. We still see glimpses. It's why he had remained in the big leagues. How we reach it, we're not quite sure just yet."

Snell's interview session with about a dozen media members was tense at times, loose at others...

Why seek a demotion?

"Too much negativity. I want to be a positive person if I'm going to be here. I felt like I was going to be negative if I was going to be here, and I didn't want to ruin this team. I wasn't going to allow them to say what they want. I told them I wanted to go down."

Why do this now, when three of his past four appearances had been quality starts?

"There's a lot. I don't want to point fingers and make excuses. I just made a better decision for myself, my career and my life."

What does he need to improve at Indianapolis?

"Nothing. You guys don't understand it unless you played baseball. You don't understand it, and the people at home don't understand it. I'm just going down there to get my thoughts together and do well."

The answers were pure Snell, with the perpetual chip on the shoulder accompanied, somewhat uncomfortably, by a warm child-like smile.

Little has come simply for Snell...

His parents split while he was young, and he claims to have spoken with his natural father once, by phone. His mother raised him, and it was in her honor that, while a prospect in the Pirates' system, he changed his name from Ian Oquendo -- the father's last name -- to Ian Snell.

He fell in love with Angelica Davila, now his wife, and accepted her father, Juan Davila, a Puerto Rican national, as his own father, always calling him "Dad." He played for Puerto Rico in the World Baseball Classic this spring, applying because he made the case to tournament officials that Davila had raised him.

Davila's influence on Snell includes passing along to him many of the articles, from newspapers and blogs, with negative references about him. For a time, they seemed to help fuel Snell's success, especially 2007, his best season with a 3.76 ERA. Jeff Andrews, the Pirates' previous pitching coach, often would exchange playful insults with Snell as a way of motivating him.

In the past year, though, it appeared to swing the other direction.

"I can't let that stuff go," he said yesterday, away from the assembled media. "You don't know what it's like."

Snell, 27, has continued to show good stuff even as he put up poor numbers, from a 95-mph fastball to his favored slider. But his rate of first-pitch strikes had dropped to a low 53 percent, his 17.5 pitches per inning were highest of all starters in Major League Baseball and, most tangible, he walked 44 in 80 2/3 innings.

Snell is making $3.2 million this year and is guaranteed $4.25 million in 2010.

Trading him does not appear to be a possibility, even if such a scenario might best suit the team and player, as his market value --- especially considering the contract -- probably is low enough that he could clear waivers.

He will pitch out of Indianapolis' rotation, and the Pirates plan to provide him not only with a targeted coaching plan but also the counseling that is made available to all players. The team has a sports psychologist, Geoff Miller, on staff.

"Sometimes,a player can be his own worst enemy," Huntington said. "In this case, we have to find the right buttons to push to help Ian reach his potential."

That included, Huntington added, learning to block out the "negativity" when he does not perform well.

"The most successful players block it out. The ones that aren't able to, it wears on them. In Ian's case, for the better part of a year and a half now, he hasn't felt like he's been supported by the fans because he has struggled, and he has not been able to block that out. I think it will be a big step for Ian to make that jump."

Snell's first start for Indianapolis is expected to come Sunday at home against Toledo. If he stays with the Indians 20 days -- which he surely will -- it will use up his final option.

Dejan Kovacevic can be reached at Catch more on the Pirates at the PG's PBC Blog.

First published on June 26, 2009 at 12:00 am

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Rooney a hit at confirmation hearing

Thursday, June 25, 2009
By Daniel Malloy, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

WASHINGTON -- It's a rare day when NFL Films is on the news media list at a meeting of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. And the handful of senators attending yesterday took full advantage of the chance to talk football as they lobbed queries and praise to Steelers owner Dan Rooney, appearing as the nominee to become ambassador to Ireland.

Charles Dharapak/Associated Press

Steelers owner Dan Rooney holds his wife Pat's hand as they arrive on Capitol Hill in Washington yesterday for his confirmation hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Sen. Edward Kaufman, D-Del., acting as chair, opened by acknowledging that he was not a Steelers loyalist, but that wouldn't stop him from heaping accolades upon Mr. Rooney and his team.

"While I grew up in Philadelphia and am a lifelong Eagles fan, the committee will not hold your Steelers ownership against you, though I would appreciate you sharing some of your six Super Bowl trophies with us one day," Mr. Kaufman said.

Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., began her questioning of Mr. Rooney with a statement:

"Mr. Rooney, you're having quite a year," she said. "I'm not going to ask you whether it's better to win the Super Bowl or be nominated to be an ambassador."

"I'm not sure I can answer that," Mr. Rooney replied with a chuckle.

That was about as tough as the grilling got yesterday for Mr. Rooney, who appeared at the hour-long meeting with Capricia Marshall, nominated to be the White House chief of protocol.

The committee will vote in the coming days on whether to send Mr. Rooney's nomination to the Senate floor, where his confirmation is considered a mere formality.

"Anybody who would vote against Dan Rooney for ambassador will do so at their peril," said Sen. Arlen Specter, D-Pa., before heading into the meeting.

Mr. Specter, perhaps unrealistically, said he hoped Mr. Rooney would be confirmed before the Senate takes its Fourth of July recess.

"The Senate is known as the saucer that cools the tea, but the Senate is known to move with dispatch when circumstances warrant," Mr. Specter said. "The sooner there's an Ambassador Rooney in Dublin, the better off we'll be."

Though Mr. Specter is a noted Eagles fan as well, he claimed his stake of Steeler fandom by recalling how he and Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa. -- who is a member of the committee -- attended a Super Bowl party at the White House this year.

Mr. Specter said President Barack Obama told him how he fell in love with the Steelers championship teams of the 1970s and '80s growing up in Hawaii.

Mr. Specter noted that it was "the era of [Terry] Bradshaw and Mean Joe Greene and," he paused as he turned to the expert next to him. "Who would you supplement with, Dan?"

"I'd say they're all great, but Franco Harris deserves a little attention," Mr. Rooney said.

Pittsburgh Steelers owner Dan Rooney, President Barack Obama's nominee to be U.S. Ambassador to Ireland, testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, June 24, 2009, before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on his nomination.
(AP Photo/Charles Dharapak

A lifelong Republican, Mr. Rooney became a supporter of Mr. Obama at a time when most of the Pittsburgh political establishment lined up behind Hillary Rodham Clinton during a contentious primary season. Mr. Specter yesterday dismissed the idea that there was any quid pro quo between Mr. Rooney and the president that kicked in with the St. Patrick's Day ambassador nomination.

"He's not a political appointee," Mr. Specter said.

Mr. Rooney, whose family hails from the Northern Ireland border town of Newry, has long been an advocate of Irish causes and in 1976 was co-founder of The American Ireland Fund, which he said has raised more than $300 million to further peace efforts and other charitable Irish causes.

"American diplomacy is the best chance for peace in the world, and Ireland is its shining example," Mr. Rooney said.

He spoke about getting out of Dublin to get the pulse of the countryside, the need for continued American investment to help fend off the island's economic crisis and hopes for further cultural connections made between the 44 million Irish Americans and their ancestral home.

The day marked another step toward a diplomatic career and away from football -- at least in the day-to-day sense.

Mr. Rooney's son, Steelers president Art Rooney II, said he expects plenty of visits and phone calls from Dublin about the fate of the franchise, as a half-century habit is a hard thing to break.

Art Rooney II said he doesn't plan any major changes as he takes over. He said the realignment of the team ownership structure -- with Art and Dan Rooney as the primary owners -- should be finalized next month and they had to raise some more money, but not tens of millions.

In brief remarks to reporters after the hearing, Mr. Rooney said it would be difficult to step away from an active role with the team, but "I wanted to do something for my country."

There appears to be almost no opposition to him doing so.

Only three committee members stayed the whole time -- the rest were presumably attending to more pressing matters like health care reform -- and they didn't present any ideological differences outside of the gridiron.

Sen. Sherrod Brown, who appeared to introduce Ms. Marshall and is not on the committee, gave Mr. Rooney the closest thing he got to a put-down by expressing gratitude that they weren't seated next to each other.

"It would not look real good as a picture in the newspaper to have me next to Dan Rooney without an explanation," he said. The Ohio Democrat had one surly constituency in mind: Browns fans.

Daniel Malloy can be reached at or 412-263-1731.
First published on June 25, 2009 at 12:00 am

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

McCutchen is worth watching

Tuesday, June 23, 2009
By Ron Cook, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Only 38 days until training camp in Latrobe!

Time for a confession at the very top: It's absolutely horrible to feel so compelled to deliver that valuable public-service announcement every June. I hate it. It's officially been summer for all of three days, and we already have to look to Steelers camp to get our next big sports fix.

David Zalubowski/Associated Press
Andrew McCutchen follows through with his swing after connecting for a triple to drive in three runs recently against the Rockies.

Obviously, the Pirates aren't going to provide it by competing for a division title or even having a winning season. They're awful again. The proof is in the baseball standings on these pages. They have a 31-38 record and are in last place in the weak National League Central Division.

Awful, just awful.

Thank goodness the Penguins played until June 12 before they lifted the Stanley Cup. To say they eased the annual agony of our dog days of late spring and early summer would be a bit of an understatement.

I'm thinking we can make it.

Only 38 days until Latrobe ...

In some ways, it seems worse than ever with the Pirates with their record 17th consecutive losing season all but inevitable. They open a three-game series tonight at PNC Park against the Cleveland Indians. Plenty of good seats still are available.

How sad is that?

It's true, the Indians stink worse than the Pirates, hard as that is to believe. They are 29-42 in the even weaker American League Central. Their fans no longer have to drive to Pittsburgh to watch them play because they can't get a ticket at the Cleveland ballpark. Plenty of good seats are available there these days, too. There has been speculation manager Eric Wedge soon will be fired.

But it's still Cleveland-Pittsburgh, right? It's still a natural, heated rivalry even if the Steelers have been kicking the Browns' fannies for years, isn't it?

Apparently, that's not enough to ease the paying public's anger and frustration with the Pittsburgh Baseball Club.

Certainly, that anger and frustration is justified.

But it's still sad. As bad as the Pirates are again, they are a little different than their losing teams of the past. At least this club has one player worth the price of a ticket.

Andrew McCutchen.

It's likely fair to assume he won't hit safely in 15 of every 17 games, as he has done since his call-up from the minors June 4. He likely won't continue to hit .333. Advance scouts of opposing teams are working hard as we speak to find the holes in his swing.

"The challenges are definitely coming for him," Pirates general manager Neal Huntington said yesterday. "But we think he has the athleticism and intelligence to make the adjustments he's going to have to make."

Huntington cited McCutchen's hard work in the Instructional League last fall, his time with the Pirates in spring training this season, the maturity he showed when they sent him down when he probably deserved to stay with the big club and the effort he put in with the Class AAA Indianapolis Indians. "He's grown up a ton and put himself in a position to succeed," Huntington said.

McCutchen needed every bit of that maturity because he stepped into a tough spot, into a Pirates clubhouse where the players weren't exactly thrilled to see him. It was nothing personal. The players knew McCutchen from the past three spring trainings, liked him and respected his game. It's just that their good friend and teammate, Nate McLouth, was traded to make room for him.

McCutchen, 22, never blinked.

Huntington argued there still are plenty of reasons besides McCutchen to buy a ticket to see the Pirates despite their lousy record. He mentioned Andy LaRoche, Ryan Doumit, Zach Duke, Paul Maholm, Matt Capps and John Grabow. "I would hope fans would still want to come out to watch those guys grow," he said. "They're still going to fight and battle and do everything they can to win that night's game ... we're hoping to end this cycle [of losing] sooner rather than later."

Until that happens -- and who among us doesn't have doubts that it ever will? -- McCutchen figures to be the star attraction. Speed is a beautiful thing, and he has plenty. Five triples in 17 big-league games is a remarkable statistic.

It takes me back to the days of watching Roberto Clemente. There was nothing more exciting to a kid growing up in Beaver Falls than watching The Great One dig for third on a triple, his batting helmet flying off as he rounded second base. That was, what, 45 years ago? It still seems like yesterday.

Please understand: I'm not suggesting McCutchen will be the next Clemente. All I'm saying is it looks like he has a chance to create some lasting memories for the young kids of today.

Surely that beats the memories attached to 17 consecutive years -- and counting -- of losing.

Ron Cook can be reached at More articles by this author
First published on June 23, 2009 at 12:00 am

Monday, June 22, 2009

Eaton's ultimate dream a reality

Penguins' win allows Delawarean to hoist Stanley Cup

The Wilmington (DE) News Journal
June 21, 2009

Mark Eaton has had his share of ups and downs throughout his somewhat nomadic eight years as a player in the National Hockey League.

So Eaton, a Wilmington native and Dickinson High graduate, wasn't taking anything for granted as the clock slowly ticked down on the Pittsburgh Penguins' 2-1 victory over the Detroit Red Wings in Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Finals on June 12.

Eaton made sure that he took a couple of deep breaths and just tried to hang on to the end.

And when that clock finally ran out and the horn blared, Eaton's lifelong dream of hoisting the Stanley Cup -- perhaps the most famous trophy in all of sports -- was fulfilled.

Eaton is the first player from Delaware to have his name inscribed on the Cup.

"It has just been a dream week," Eaton said Friday. "Playing in and winning a Game 7 is something you dream about as a kid, and to finally be able to accomplish it and hold the Stanley Cup above my head ... it really was an unbelievable feeling.

"Actually the full extent of it all hasn't really sunken in. It's kind of a blur right now. Just thinking that I grabbed the Stanley Cup and I skated with it. It's all almost surreal."

Eaton didn't know if he would get this chance, especially after missing most of the past two seasons due to wrist and knee injuries.

So he made sure to savor the moments in Game 7.

"We definitely stressed it out at the end, that's for sure," he said. "It was just more holding your breath and watching the clock."

Eaton's father, Bill, and mother, Sandi, traveled from their home in Deep Creek, Md., to Pittsburgh before Game 7.

They went to Eaton's house, where they picked up their daughter, Amy, who was staying at her brother's house after watching Game 6. Together, they drove to Detroit in hopes of watching Mark Eaton take part in history.

They were not disappointed.

"It was a dream come true, there's no question about it," Bill Eaton said. "We were fortunate enough to make it to Detroit. It was pretty much a last-minute decision because Mark came into a couple of extra tickets.

"This was a dream come true more than any of us had a right to expect. We're just so happy for him because he reached the pinnacle of his sport and profession."

Finally, all of those long days of taking Eaton to and from hockey practices had paid off in a spectacular way.

"We never really minded," Bill Eaton said, about helping his son chase his hockey dream. "He went from local teams in Wilmington to Philadelphia when he played with the Little Flyers.

"During his last two years in high school, he played in New York. My wife would make the three-hour trip on a Friday afternoon and he would play on the weekend.

"You could say it was a labor of love."

Eaton, 32, served as a valuable catalyst during the Penguins' run to a title.

The defenseman scored four goals and recorded three assists in Pittsburgh's 24-game playoff run. He matched the total number of goals he scored during the regular season.

None of that came as a surprise to Jerry Truitt, who coached Eaton with the New Castle County Hawks in a youth league.

"Our coaches were forced to make him play defense because other teams wouldn't play us with him on offense," said Truitt, of Elkton, Md. "The other players were like cones on the ice to him."

Truitt has watched from afar as Eaton has crafted his game in the NHL.

Eaton broke in with the Flyers in 1999-2000, and also played for Nashville before coming to Pittsburgh for the 2006-07 season.

"Mark is a steady blueliner who doesn't make mistakes with the puck. Plus, he can carry it out and is a good passer," Truitt said. "He isn't the most physical defenseman, but because he is such a good skater he's very hard for a forward to get around.

"If you watch when he blocks shots he pops right back up. A lot of guys are like throwing a dead duck on the ice when they go down to block."

Eaton was on pace for a memorable season in Pittsburgh two years ago. But he was sidelined with a knee injury and underwent surgery before missing the final 46 games.

Still, he will gladly take the pain in exchange for this season's unforgettable ending.

In keeping with tradition, every player and coach on the Penguins will get the Stanley Cup for a day during the offseason. Eaton isn't sure what he is going to do with the Cup, but said he likely won't bring it to Delaware. He said he will probably have a low-key family affair at his home in Pittsburgh.

"I'll probably just spend the day with my family and friends when I get the Cup," said Eaton, who attended former teammate Colby Armstrong's wedding in Atlanta this weekend. "Nothing too big."

Eaton visits Wilmington periodically to visit his sister, Amy, and two nephews. He plans to attend a wedding in Delaware this summer.

Many people assume Eaton's lifelong goal was to play for the Flyers, since he grew up in Wilmington, but that was not the case.

His father was a longtime Pittsburgh fan, and that Steel City mentality rubbed off on his son.

"I was the only one from my family not from the Pittsburgh area," Eaton said. "When I was growing up I followed the Steelers and the Penguins.

"I grew up a Penguins fan, and it made it more special when I won the Stanley Cup as a member of their team. I guess you can say to all of those Philadelphia fans that I got the last laugh."

Eaton also knows that few things compare to winning the Stanley Cup.

"It's going to be a tough event to top," he said. "Now you have a taste for it. You know it's something you're going to want to try to experience again.

"I'll just try to enjoy it until we go back to training camp, and then we'll try to do it all over again. That's really all you can do."

Additional Facts


Position: Defenseman

Height: 6-2 Weight: 204

Shoots: Left

Born: May 6, 1977, in Wilmington

High school: Dickinson

NHL career:

'06-'07-present: Pittsburgh

'00-'01 to '05-'06: Nashville

1999-2000: Flyers

Goals: 20 Assists: 42

Saluting Sidney Crosby, Balsillie's next battle, more notes

June 18, 2009

The NHL -- for reasons inexplicable to anyone who doesn't understand that it is always sniffing for potential expansion cities -- convened in Las Vegas to hand out its rotating collection of silver not named Stanley. All and all, a slick affair worthy of a watch.

DETROIT - JUNE 12: Sidney Crosby(notes) #87 of the Pittsburgh Penguins attacks the goal against goaltender Chris Osgood(notes) #30 of the Detroit Red Wings during Game Seven of the 2009 NHL Stanley Cup Finals at Joe Louis Arena on June 12, 2009 in Detroit, Michigan. (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)

One player you didn't get to see: Pittsburgh Penguins captain Sidney Crosby, who didn't place in the top three in balloting for the Hart Trophy (MVP). I have no problem with that, given the season-long numbers the finalists -- Alexander Ovechkin (56 goals, 110 points, +8), Evgeni Malkin (35 goals, 113 points, +17) and Pavel Datsyuk (32 goals, 97 points, +34) -- put up. All are deserving.

Crosby, past Hart winner and one of the game's most dynamic players, also didn't win the Conn Smythe Trophy (playoff MVP), though you can make a strong argument that he should have, considering his body of work through the entire two-month run. It's something of a shame, though, that he won't be there on the stage in Vegas. Over the course of the now completed season, he (along with Malkin) led what had become a dysfunctional and, given the ravages of free agency, somewhat lesser team back into the playoffs after the dismissal of head coach Michel Therrien.

Crosby played the more complete game. He didn't always score like Malkin, but he never took a night off like his superbly talented teammate sometimes did. Crosby also led with an effort and wisdom far beyond his 21 years. Simply put, he's the reason the Penguins found themselves and why they prevailed over Ovechkin and the Capitals in a dramatic seventh game in Washington during the second round. He's also the reason they never lost hope against Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg, Nicklas Lidstrom, Chris Osgood and the rest of that superb Red Wings team in a great seven-game Cup final that was also decided on the home ice of Pittsburgh's opponent.

Too bad there isn't an overall award for a player who does that.

Give The Kid a break

The complaint has been made loud and long by the Red Wings: Crosby snubbed them, especially their captain who stood at the head of the handshake line for too long after the Penguins won the Stanley Cup.

The gripe won't go away, but it should. It's reached the point of absurdity in that some writers and other media types have timed how long it took the Penguins to line up and shake the Red Wings' hands after Detroit won the 2008 Cup in Pittsburgh, and compared it to the amount of time before the line formed last Friday in Detroit.

The conclusion: two minutes in Pittsburgh; two minutes 30 seconds in Detroit.

Now, 30 seconds is a professional lifetime for Usain Bolt, but it's nothing in the postgame chaos of a championship victory, especially a hard-fought series in which few people believed the Penguins would prevail. In addition, the NHL puts more media people than players on the ice immediately after the Cup is decided. The demand for interviews coupled with the raw celebration and the players' quests to locate family and friends in the stands for at least a brief connective shared moment, is intense.
So Crosby got there a little late -- literally seconds after some of the Red Wings, several of whom clearly didn't want to be in that line anyway -- had left for their locker room. This is a serious offense?

Memo to offended Red Wings: Stuff happens. If you feel the need to complain, complain to each other about how, in the most important game many of you will ever play, your vaunted shutdown defense failed, your offense didn't ignite, your imported gun (Marian Hossa) was a no-show to the point of embarrassment, and your slow start allowed the Penguins to stay in the game long enough to get a pair of goals from role player Max Talbot. Maybe you thought it was going to be a slamdunk, given your 11-1 record (the one loss coming to Anaheim in overtime) at Joe Lewis Arena, but the game proved otherwise.

Sidney Crosby caught some flak from Henrik Zetterberg (right) for being 30 seconds late to the handshake line after Game 7.
Dave Reginek/Getty Images

From here, the carping smells like the kind of whine best served with sour grapes -- a mere attempt to deflect attention from a team-wide failure to get the job done. Sure, your side had some hurts, but so did the Penguins. And it's hard to argue that you didn't get the officiating break of the playoffs when Crosby was put out of the game with a knee injury by a hit along the boards late in the second period -- when he wasn't even in possession of the puck.

The truth is that the game was there to be won and the Red Wings couldn't make it happen. Grousing about Crosby demeans Detroit's otherwise shining legacy, one built on accomplishment and class. Win or lose, the Red Wings of past seasons were bigger than that.

Devil of a decision

I still can't figure out what New Jersey Devils coach Brent Sutter did exactly when he quit the team some 10 days ago. No doubt, he takes exception to the Q word and said as much in one of several departing press conferences: "I don't feel like a quitter."

Fair enough, we'll accept that. Feel whatever way you like. We also understand the pull of family and home. Among hockey people, and this includes writers who regularly travel with teams, NHL stands for No Home Life. It seems glamorous and certainly has its upside, but it takes a toll on family, personal relationships, and the like. There are moments missed that can never be replaced, so when Sutter said his family "gave up a lot" and were "happy and excited about the decision" he made, he will get no argument here.

But if Sutter didn't quit, exactly what did he do?

He made it clear he wasn't retiring. He said he "still loved coaching" and that any team interested in obtaining his services would "have to go through (Devils general manager) Lou Lamoriello." And he didn't directly address any interest he may have in coaching the Calgary Flames, which are managed by his brother, Darryl, but he didn't rule it out, either.

All of that would be understandable if Sutter had honored the last year of his contract with the Devils. If he does return to coaching at any level, it will be hard to side with his claim that he didn't quit on them. He wasn't in danger of being fired even though did the team no favors by stating at various points in the season that he maybe didn't want to come back.

This was to be a Cup-contending year for the Devils. Any player, coach or manager who has been in that position knows it takes a total commitment to team and organization to be successful. Sutter didn't give that. His players know it and so does Lamoriello. If Sutter doesn't stay home, he'll be known not for what he says but what he does, and coaching another team after he walked away from a contract will surely fit him for a big red "Q" to wear on his chest.

Calling out the refs

Earlier, we mentioned a favorable call the Red Wings got, and we can't let the season go without stating once again that NHL rules truly are different in the playoffs -- and not just in the area of wide discretion regarding supplemental discipline or missing the occasional too-many-men-on-the-ice.

Pittsburgh Penguins Sidney Crosby(notes) reacts as he is checked by Detroit Red Wings' Johan Franzen(notes), from Sweden, during the second period of Game 7 of the NHL hockey Stanley Cup finals in Detroit, Friday, June 12, 2009. (AP)

The late hit on Crosby in the second period of Game 7 of the Cup final is only the latest in a long string of calls that were routinely made during the regular season but not in the playoffs. Most opened the door to more physical play, and many fans -- and seemingly most TV personalities -- embraced it with their usual open arms and clenched fists. But did the game really benefit from the obvious change?

I'd argue no. I see no value in players being free to run goaltenders in the crease, as happened so often in these playoffs. I'd also argue that it's an embarrassment to the two-referee system to have missed so many obvious infractions, like closing a hand over a puck in the crease. But it's a much bigger failure to again have a set of rules that are honored first-to-third period in the regular season and then largely overlooked in the playoffs.

Interference didn't just happen with goaltenders, it happened all over the ice. Late hits were constantly ignored, supposedly because players were allowed to finish their checks, but the amount of time they have to finish checks has been fairly well established by rulings from the director of hockey operations office the past two seasons.

The move back to "letting them play" won't just be an isolated event, either. GMs build their teams around the way they see the game, and if more physical play trumps skating and speed, then more physical players will be making their way back into lineups instead of the occasionally smaller but more talented variety. The league needs to be aware of that and must try to keep a balance.

The NHL came back strong from the lockout by giving fans what they said they wanted. Fans responded by pouring through the turnstiles and liking what they saw. It's a wise league that listens to what its paying public wants, even if it draws the criticism of a stuck-in-the-'70s corps of commentators who want the knuckle-dragging elements of the game back in a starring role.

Balsillie's in the other court

There's a perception, especially in the U.S., that the NHL won its battle with mavreick Jim Balsillie over the rights to the Phoenix Coyotes and his attempt to move them to Southern Ontario. Not so, according to several legal scholars and Balsillie's lead attorney, Richard Rodier.

Rodier claims that Judge Redfield T. Baum made the narrowest of rulings in stating that he couldn't meet Balsillie's June 29 deadline for being awarded the team because there were too many complicated matters that can't be resolved in time. Rodier also said that bankruptcy court is a somewhat strange animal and a great many things can still happen between now and the time the judge does have to rule.

A lawyer we spoke to, who is not associated with any of the parties, said a second filing made shortly after the bankruptcy has the Coyotes' owner of record, Jerry Moyes, asking the court to also deal with anti-trust issues. That one is of great concern to the NHL and the commissioners of the three other major leagues. In that filing, Moyes (likely with the support of Balsillie) claimed the NHL is a cartel operating as a monopoly that's keeping him from doing what is best for his business.

That's a case built largely on U.S. anti-trust law, and it has some deeply-held precedents that do not favor the NHL. In that kind of proceeding, rulings that led to free agency in baseball and football, and to franchises like the Oakland Raiders moving to Los Angeles (and later back to Oakland) as well as the Colts going from Baltimore to Indianapolis, are likely to come into play.

Moyes and his lawyers will have a formidable adversary in NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman, who cut his sporting teeth as an anti-trust expert when he was with the NBA. But there are formidable obstacles for Bettman if anti-trust comes to the forefront in this case, and the majority of legal rulings are presumed to go against what all the commissioners will be attempting to defeat here.

Many thought that Rodier was just trying to put a positive spin on a setback when he said he fully expects the Coyotes to be playing in Hamilton by the start of next season, but he may well have a case. Anti-trust or the threat of same has been known to make for some "creative" settlements regarding issues that leagues would rather not see in a courtroom.

It remains to be seen if that's the case regarding Phoenix, but it is definitely on the judge's agenda.