Sunday, August 30, 2009

Pirates Alumni Association wants Murtaugh in Hall

Sunday, August 30, 2009
By Robert Dvorchak, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
http://www.post-gazette.com/sports/


Danny Murtaugh and Bill Mazeroski after 1960 Word Series Victory.


The Pirates Alumni Association wants to hear from everyone who thinks Danny Murtaugh deserves to be in the Hall of Fame.

The group is accepting letters of endorsement that it will forward to the veterans committee, which will vote in December on which managerial candidates get on the Hall of Fame ballot for 2010.

Murtaugh, named in 1999 as the top manager in franchise history, was previously considered in 2007. He received six of 16 possible votes; 12 votes, or 75 percent, are required for enshrinement.

In his 15 seasons and four separate stints at the helm of the Pirates, Murtaugh had a .540 winning percentage and won two World Series titles as a prohibitive underdog -- in 1960 against the New York Yankees and in 1971 against the Baltimore Orioles. He was twice named manager of the year by The Sporting News.

He retired for good following the 1976 season because of health reasons.

The primary backers of his candidacy include Colleen Hroncich, a granddaughter who is writing a book on him, and Steve Stake, a Pittsburgh native who has established the Web site www.murtaugh4hof.com.

"My grandfather worked in a smaller media market, and he always focused attention away from himself and onto his players," said Hroncich, whose working title for the book is "Danny Murtaugh Memories." "Without a grassroots effort to educate the Hall of Fame voters, it's unlikely he'll make it. This year may be his best chance."

Stake, who works with U.S. forces in Korea on an air base in Osan, points not only to the statistics but the way Murtaugh managed. He used Roy Face in the pioneering relief role of closer, and fielded the first all-minority team in 1971.

"Statistics are not what make him Hall of Fame material. It is his character and contributions to the game that make him so special," Stake said.

Anyone wishing to write a letter to the veterans committee on Murtaugh's behalf can address it to the Pirate Alumni Office at PNC Park, 115 Federal Street, Pittsburgh, Pa. 15212. The association will see that it gets into the proper hands.

Judging managers is subjective because consideration must be given to the material he had to work with, said former Pirates reliever Kent Tekulve.

"What I know about Murtaugh is there were two things you could count on. He would give you an honest evaluation or an honest answer, and you were rewarded for what you did on the field," Tekulve said. "It didn't matter who you were or what you looked like, he would stay with you as long as you performed. You always knew where you stood."

Robert Dvorchak can be reached at bdvorchak@post-gazette.com.
First published on August 30, 2009 at 12:00 am

The 'Terrible Towel' that changes lives

In 1975, Myron Cope introduced the towel that united the Steeler Nation and now supports care at Allegheny Valley School

Sunday, August 30, 2009
By Robert Dvorchak, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
http://www.post-gazette.com/sports/


Chris Hondros/Getty Images

A member of the Pennsylvania National Guard sits on a Humvee draped with a Terrible Towel in January 2005 in Camp Habbaniyah, Iraq.


When some Tennessee Titans gleefully trampled yellow terry cloth last season -- scenes of which are being hyped by NBC to promote the Sept. 10 rematch at Heinz Field -- their coach said they were unaware of the story behind the Terrible Towel.

"They don't understand the significance or meaning of the Towel itself to the organization, the Steelers history or the Steelers fans," coach Jeff Fisher said at the time, adding that the episode "isn't a big deal to me."

Yes, the Terrible Towel is the battle flag of a city and its football team, and every quadrant of the Steeler Universe is about to throttle up to a setting of Full Towel when the NFL season kicks off.

But since 1996, at the behest of the late Myron Cope, royalties from the sale of hundreds of thousands of Towels have raised $3 million for a school that serves some of society's most vulnerable individuals -- those with severe intellectual and developmental needs who are unable to care for themselves.

"Myron's generosity has been a godsend, and that's no exaggeration," said Regis Champ, president and CEO of Allegheny Valley School. "Every time we sell a Towel, his legacy grows as our special benefactor, and our residents benefit."

The charitable contributions are earmarked for high-end wheelchairs, computer technology that gives voice to those who cannot speak, a mechanized lift in the swimming pool or something as mundane as fixing a leaky roof.

Outsiders may not be the only ones unaware of the story, however, and the powerful threads that connect two of the most colorful figures in the city's sports history.

In a hallway at the school's corporate center in Coraopolis, two displays hang side by side. One has a portrait of Myron Cope -- who had a Hall of Fame career as the color announcer on Steelers broadcasts -- and The Towel. The other depicts the late Bob Prince and his own icon, the Green Weenie, which benefited the school from its earliest days. And it was The Gunner -- as he was known during his Hall of Fame career when he was the voice of the Pirates -- who helped enroll Myron's son Danny into the school.

"Bob Prince raised a lot of money for Allegheny Valley School. It was his favorite charity. Our gymnasium and pool complex is named after him," said Mr. Champ. "This is a story of how Pittsburgh takes care of its own, which makes it the place that it is."


Michael Henninger/Post-Gazette

St. Clair hospital in Mt. Lebanon gave Terrible Towel blankets to all newborn infants in January 2008.


A legacy of voices

Allegheny Valley School was born in 1960 because an orphanage closed. When adoptive families could not be found for 10 children from the Pittsburgh Home for Babies, philanthropist Patricia Hillman Miller established the school.

"Bob Prince was a close friend of hers, and he was a founding member of the board of directors. Whatever money he made from the Green Weenie, he donated to the school," Mr. Champ said in a recent tour.

Baseball fans of a certain age will recall that the Green Weenie, like the Terrible Towel, had special powers, or so its inventor claimed. At crucial moments in a game during 1966, The Gunner would exhort fans to help the Pirates by shaking a green plastic hot dog at opponents. Honest.

The Terrible Towel, meanwhile, became part of the local sports scene in a 1975 playoff game. The blend of color and motion had special powers to lift the Steelers at crucial moments, or so its creator maintained.

Then fate brought the two icons together. In 1982, Mr. Prince heard through the grapevine that Mr. Cope was looking for a new school for his son, who had been living in Philadelphia. Diagnosed with severe mental retardation when he was an infant, the boy required 24-hour care.

There was some friction between the two ego-driven announcers. But when The Gunner pitched Allegheny Valley School as the place for Danny Cope, a friendship blossomed.

"After the ice was broken between them, they became fast friends," Mr. Champ said. "Suddenly, they were supporting each other by raising funds for AVS."

Life works in astonishing ways. Danny Cope, now 41, has never spoken a word in his life. The two best known benefactors of his school were known for their distinctive voices.


Lake Fong/Post-Gazette

A Steelers terrible towel hangs on a T-Rex model at the Pittsburgh International Airport in January 2006.


Quality of life

Early on, the Cope family came to grips with the heartbreaking reality that the demands of taking care of Danny were too much for them. His father placed him in a home, and it was thought that he would never have a productive life.

"He's pretty much in a world of his own," said Elizabeth Cope, 38, Danny's younger sister who has served as his legal guardian since she was 15. "He has many limitations, but the love isn't limited.

"You can get to know him. He laughs. He cries. And even if he's never spoken a word, he makes his feelings be known," she added. "He definitely has his own personality. He's his own person -- as much as my dad was almost. I know he feels loved."

She's working to get her brother a computerized device that will allow him to speak. Meanwhile, in the years that he has been at Allegheny Valley School, Danny developed skills that enable him to hold down a job, earning a small paycheck for sorting things like parts for electrical switches. He and three roommates live in a supervised home. He goes to some social events, but it would be a stretch to say that he understands what football is.

"Things changed dramatically for Danny. He's leading a quality life," Mr. Champ said. "Myron could not get over Danny's growth. His mind was at ease when he died."

When Mr. Cope passed away in 2008, his daughter draped his coffin with a quilt made from Terrible Towels that were sewn together by a fan. She chose the quilt because it represents the many different people who touched their lives.

"There aren't many things in life that bring people together, but the Steelers are one of those things," Ms. Cope said.

But she wrestles with mixed feelings because twirling towels remind her of the father she lost. Her mother, Mildred, died in 1994.

"There's a mixture of pain and pride," she said. "I miss my dad more than anyone will ever know. I miss hearing his voice at games. He was way more than a towel. But I know [the towel] helps the school, and I'm grateful for everything they've done. I wouldn't be able to take care of my brother myself. He's the only family I have left."


Kristine Ferrone waves the Terrible Towel while living on Devon Island inside the Arctic Circle as part of a Mars Society program.

A super donation

The Terrible Towel had become so popular that it was trademarked, mass produced and sold as an officially licensed product for 20 years.

Then one day in 1996, its creator visited the school that cares for his son and casually tossed a packet of legal papers across the president's desk.

Mr. Champ remembers the conversation like it was yesterday.

"He said, 'I'm giving you The Towel.' I said, 'Thanks, Myron, but I already have a couple of them.' Then he said, 'No, no. I'm transferring the trademark.' It took me one second to understand what he was doing and what it would mean for us. It was incredibly generous and thoughtful," Mr. Champ said.

The only instructions were to preserve the dignity of The Towel, and that the money from the royalties should be used to improve the quality of life of the school's residents.

"We take that responsibility very seriously. We owe it to Myron to do that," Mr. Champ said.

The school has grown into a statewide network, serving about 900 children and adults in nine counties. Its mission is to have them live with purpose and dignity and to function as independently as possible.

Allegheny Valley School operates as a Medicaid program with an annual budget of $130 million in federal dollars.

The Terrible Towel has provided $3 million extra in the past 13 years. When the Steelers won Super Bowl XL, it meant a windfall of $1 million in royalties from The Towel and related items. Spurred by the winning of a sixth Lombardi Trophy in February, this year's sales have approached that amount.

"Detroit was phenomenal. Tampa is close. We couldn't be more pleased," Mr. Champ said.

And the way Mr. Cope set up the legacy, all the marketing is done by the Steelers.

"We get a check from them every month," Mr. Champ said. "We could not have a better partner than the Steelers. They make us feel like part of their family. It's not a business deal. It's a family deal."


Lisa Kyle for The New York Times

Myron Cope, a longtime Pittsburgh broadcaster, was credited with creating the Terrible Towel in 1975.


Towel power

The last time the Steelers lost was Dec. 21 to the Titans. The lingering images involve Keith Bulluck and LenDale White doing the Tennessee two-step on the terry cloth, and Jevon Kearse blowing his nose in it.

Network analyst Bill Cowher said at the time that if he were still coach of the Steelers he'd keep the videotape handy for when the two teams meet again. "I know what I'm pulling out the night before the game," he said.

He's not the only one who sees a lesson in being careful about what you step in. Tackle Max Starks tucked the memory into the back of his mind.

"It's a matter of respect. I guess teams feel like they're getting back at us by beating up on a lifeless object," he said. "Their time will come. It's not exactly bulletin board material, but you don't forget."

Those associated with Allegheny Valley School and the Cope legacy are magnanimous about it.

For one thing, the desecration backfired, as did the act of Phoenix Mayor Phil Gordon wiping his nose in a Terrible Towel before the Super Bowl.

"No offense was taken," Mr. Champ said. "The stompers actually did us a big favor. That stomp got us a lot of national publicity. It did nothing but keep us in the public eye. I have to say thanks. It was one of the best things that ever happened to us."

Ill feelings aren't something that Elizabeth Cope wants to carry around either. "I am so not offended," she said. "This was something that happened in a football game. There was no evil intent. They didn't mean any harm to my brother or Allegheny Valley School or Bob Prince. They don't know the huge story behind the Towel."

Besides, look how things turned out.

"The Towel cannot be beaten. When you see all those people waving towels, it's like a wave of consciousness," Ms. Cope said. "There are some forces greater than ourselves. I think the Terrible Towel is one of those things."

Robert Dvorchak can be reached at bdvorchak@post-gazette.com.
First published on August 30, 2009 at 12:00 am


Related:

http://www.nytimes.com/2009/01/30/sports/football/30towel.html?_r=1

Roethlisberger already in comfort zone

Sunday, August 30, 2009
By Ron Cook
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
http://www.post-gazette.com/sports/

His right Achilles injury? No problem.

The constant posturing by the attorneys in his sexual assault case that has made for so much salacious front-page news the past month? No distraction.

The Buffalo Bills' defense against him last night? No match.

Was Ben Roethlisberger terrific or what?

A lot of things went right for the Steelers in their 17-0 exhibition win against the Bills at Heinz Field, including a monster game by linebacker James Farrior, five catches by always dependable wide receiver Hines Ward, a few nice runs by less dependable Rashard Mendenhall, a couple of acrobatic catches by enigmatic wide receiver Limas Sweed and a couple of more nice kick returns by one-time long-shot free agent Stefan Logan, who continued to make a strong case for a roster spot. But nothing should make you feel better about your favorite team's chances of making it two Super Bowls in a row and three in five years than Big Ben's lights-out performance. If I'm coach Mike Tomlin, I don't think I play him in the final exhibition game at Carolina Thursday night. He looked that ready for the season.

"When you got it, you got it," Steelers offensive tackle Willie Colon said. "He's got it."

Added backup quarterback Charlie Batch, "He saw everything out there tonight."

Roethlisberger showed Tomlin enough of what he wanted to see that he was excused for the evening at halftime. It's hard to top 15 of 19 for 168 yards and two long scoring drives that resulted in 10 points. Big Ben wasn't perfect. He fumbled a snap and took a questionable delay-of-game penalty that was disputed by Tomlin and others on the Steelers' sideline. But he couldn't have been much sharper throwing the football, especially considering he missed the exhibition game at Washington a week earlier with his foot injury, the result of big offensive tackle Max Starks' little tap-dance number on it in the final training-camp practice at Saint Vincent College in Latrobe.

Clearly, Roethlisberger's foot has healed.

And the verbal warfare from his attorneys and hers in his he-said, she-said civil lawsuit?

Just say concentration was no problem for No. 7 as he picked apart the Bills defense.

"What he does when he walks out of here and goes to his home or how much it bothers him there, I can't say," Ward said. "But when he's here on the field, it's all about football. It's about all of us together. I don't see it as any kind of distraction."

Roethlisberger was especially impressive on the Steelers' fifth and final series of the half. There was a 16-yard dart to Sweed, who earlier made a sweet grab of a ball that was a bit high and behind him for an 11-yard gain. There was a 19-yard rope to Ward that, though behind him, obviously was catchable for a player of his great skills. And there was a beauty of a touch pass to tight end Heath Miller that went for an 18-yard gain.

Roethlisberger was 5 of 7 for 74 yards on the drive, the two incompletions coming when Sweed juggled a perfect throw on the sideline -- he's an enigma, I tell you -- and Ward couldn't quite make a diving catch in the end zone.

It's no wonder Tomlin fairly beamed about the time Mendenhall was finishing the drive with a 4-yard touchdown run for a 17-0 halftime lead. If not for a Mendenhall fumble and a false-start penalty on guard Trai Essex, the coach would have little to quibble about with his first-string offense.

"I think so," Roethlisberger said when asked if he felt he and his fellas were ready for the season.

Colon agreed.

"Ben is extremely comfortable right now. It's our job to keep him comfortable. We know if we keep him upright, we have a great chance of winning."

Certainly, Big Ben and his health are major keys to the season.

The man is off to a nice start on the path to the Hall of Fame.

We see it here on a regular basis, but it's still somewhat of a secret nationally, hard as that is to believe. FoxSports.com was the latest to do one of those clever lists, naming the NFL's top 10 impact players under 30. Roethlisberger didn't make the cut.

What a disgrace.

Not that Big Ben cares much. He cares about just two things: What his guys think and winning.

Well, the teammates are just fine with him, thank you very much.

And that winning part?

Two Super Bowl titles in four years screams about that subject.

Three in five would be absolutely deafening.

"With him back there," Colon said of Roethlisberger, "it's always possible."

Ron Cook can be reached at rcook@post-gazette.com.
First published on August 30, 2009 at 12:02 am


Photo: Peter Diana/Post-Gazette

Steelers' worries are minor

Bills would love to just be concerned with backup RB, punt returner

Sunday, August 30, 2009
By Gene Collier
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
http://www.post-gazette.com/sports/

For a team with only marginally compelling questions regarding marginally compelling issues, the defending Super Bowl champions had to come away from last night's (caution: oxymoron dead ahead) biggest game of the preseason only marginally satisfied with the answers provided by Rashard Mendenhall and Stefan Logan.


Peter Diana/Post-Gazette

Rookie Mike Wallace picks up a first-half first down.


On a night when Dick LeBeau's championship defense crumpled the Buffalo Bills "attack" in a painful mismatch, when a Big Ben-orchestrated passing game fired at will in 30 minutes of total dominance, it just didn't seem to matter much that not a lot got resolved on the margins.

When you're as good as these Steelers, minor flaws turn into summer long story lines that will be filed mostly backstage when the real games begin Sept. 10.

Afforded another robust opportunity owing to the spectator status of starter Fast Willie Parker, Mendenhall came up with a performance that was -- what might be the term -- classically Mendenhallian?

He carried 16 times for 48 yards, 25 of them on two carries, meaning it took him 14 carries to achieve the other 23. He scored a second-quarter touchdown on a 4-yard run, but it escaped no one's attention that the hole provided by Willie Colon, Trai Essex and Justin Hartwig at the point of attack was big enough to drive a backhoe through.

He also fumbled to abort the Steelers' initial possession and engaged in a dizzying series of panicky spin moves with all the quick twitch aptitude of a piano mover.

Mendenhall might be emerging as an acceptable first responder to a Fast Willie emergency, but everyone wearing the same colors would feel a lot better about his worthiness if he'd break free and run for half the field or more. That's what Parker does, and it is pretty clear, at the beginning of the former No. 1 draft pick's second year, that that's what Mendenhall doesn't.

"I thought it was solid," coach Mike Tomlin said of the running game. "We were eliminating negative runs, which is good."

Mendenhall eliminated three of them himself with runs of zero, zero and zero yards.

"We wanted to emphasize the run tonight," Roethlisberger said. "Even when I got in the no-huddle I called out a run. It was good Rashard did a good job."

Tomlin appeared pleased with Mendenhall's effort against Washington last week, crediting him with running downhill when it appeared to some observers he enjoyed no topographical advantage. If Big Ben thought Rashard did a good job, I guess he did, at least for Mendenhall.

"I think I did pretty good," Mendenhall said after the Steelers had left a 17-0 footprint on Buffalo's forehead. "I felt like it was a pretty good night. Those kinds of things [the fumble] are going to happen."

Yeah, don't say that too loud.

If Tomlin got a slightly more definitive answer to anything last night it was probably from Logan, the refugee from the Canadian Football League with the commanding return instincts. A week after running up 205 return yards in the nation's capital, Logan flashed some promise again, zipping 17 yards with a punt in the first half, then 27 in the second.

"Coaches are going to evaluate the film and see what's what here in the next two days," said Logan, who at 180 pounds is actually less than half the size of Bills' tackle Langston Walker (366). "I don't know what they're thinking but we'll find out soon which way they want to go with it."

Logan's an issue at the moment mostly because he knows where he wants to go with the football the second he catches it, and that's something that's been missing from the Steelers' roster since the departure of Antwaan Randle-El.

Rosters have to be cut to 75 players by Tuesday, and it should be noted that Tomlin steered most of this roster to a sixth Lombardi Trophy with virtually no return game at all; the league might shudder at what he'd be able to do with an extra home run threat.

But if the potential contributions of Mendenhall and Logan remained unclear, the immediate future of the Bills seemed plainly evident.

"There wasn't a whole lot good to say about that," Bills coach Dick Jauron said. "I guess I can say we punted it well and recovered it well. It was not a good night. We've got a lot of issues that we've got to solve. We've got to solve them very quickly."

The Bills open at New England in prime time Sept. 14. How they wish all they had to worry about was the backup running back and the potential punt returner.

Oh yes. It's good to be the kings.


Gene Collier can be reached at gcollier@post-gazette.com.
First published on August 30, 2009 at 12:04 am

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Holmes hardly noticeable this preseason

By John Harris, TRIBUNE-REVIEW
http://www.pittsburghlive.com/x/pittsburghtrib/sports/
Thursday, August 27, 2009

So far this preseason, Super Bowl XLIII MVP Santonio Holmes may as well be invisible.

The Steelers wide receiver has one reception for 16 yards, and he's been targeted only twice in the first two exhibition games.

Holmes hasn't gone diva on the coaching staff, as many of the elite pass catchers in the NFL are prone to do. Not once has Holmes delivered a "do you know who I am?" proclamation to the team via the media.

The difference between Holmes and many of his peers is that Holmes mostly keeps his thoughts private.

Holmes loves catching the ball, but he appears to love winning even more.

Steelers receiver Santonio Holmes works with rookie Mike Wallace during organized team activities on the South Side.

Christopher Horner/Tribune-Review


"We're not bickering and (complaining) about anything in the preseason. I don't have any focus on if I catch a pass or I don't in the preseason," Holmes said. "It's not going in the stat book. It's not going to count toward us winning the Super Bowl."

The Steelers know what Holmes can do. They're not so sure about Limas Sweed and rookie Mike Wallace. They know what Shaun McDonald can do, but McDonald can't stretch the secondary the way that Wallace can.

McDonald has been thrown to a team-high 11 times, Sweed has been targeted nine times and Wallace eight times. Hines Ward has been thrown to five times.

"It's more so just been the play-calling. We really don't have much (offense) in," Holmes said. "I catch maybe six to eight balls every day in practice. Me going up against the No. 1 defense in the world, it doesn't hurt to not catch a ball in the preseason."

Holmes missed a second day of practice Wednesday after taking a helmet to his back against the Redskins in the Steelers' second preseason game.

He made his only catch of the preseason last Saturday -- for 16 yards on third-and-9 in the first quarter. Earlier, during the Steelers' opening drive, Holmes and backup quarterback Charlie Batch hooked up for a 47-yard reception, but it was challenged and overruled.

Entering his fourth season, Holmes has come to grips with what he may want to accomplish individually and what the Steelers offense allows him to do. He understands and accepts his limitations.

Like all receivers, Holmes is supremely confident in his ability to get open against any type of coverage.

There's no way that Holmes should have caught quarterback Ben Roethlisberger's thread-the-needle dart for the winning touchdown pass in Super Bowl XLIII.

In one of the great late-game performances in Super Bowl history, Holmes caught four passes for 73 yards in the final possession. He caught a 13-yarder on third-and-6 and a 40-yarder down to the Arizona 6.

And he did it against a secondary that was intent on stopping him with Ward slowed by a knee injury.

Roethlisberger threw to Holmes five times in that final drive -- three more times than he's been targeted this preseason.

"We have a smart enough quarterback to know where the ball should go when the coverage comes," Holmes said. "You're not going to dictate how you're going to play in the preseason, as opposed to what you're going to do when it really counts.

"I don't think any team is going to really show what they want to do as far as playing me right now."

The Steelers certainly aren't revealing their hand about how they plan to play Holmes.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Steelers' LeBeau gets Hall of Fame bid

Defensive coordinator is nominated for seniors' spot in Class of 2010

Wednesday, August 26, 2009
By Chuck Finder, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
http://www.post-gazette.com/sports/

The last time Dick LeBeau was in Canton, Ohio, a handful of his defensive players put on his No. 44 Detroit Lions throwback jerseys and posed with him on the Fawcett Stadium field before the 2007 Pro Football Hall of Fame game.

AP Photo
In this Sept. 29, 2008, file photo, Pittsburgh Steelers defensive coodinator Dick LeBeau coaches on the sidelines against the Baltimore Ravens during an NFL football game in Pittsburgh.

Nothing is definite yet, but the next time LeBeau is in Canton, a roster full of present and past Steelers -- let alone the usual horde of fans -- might line that same field next summer to watch him, after a 37-year wait, humbly enter that Hall as a member of the Class of 2010.

"It's my favorite picture of all time," LeBeau said yesterday about the 2-year-old freeze frame of James Farrior, James Harrison, Deshea Townsend, Ike Taylor, Casey Hampton and others gathering around their defensive coordinator, father figure and group conscience. "I got them hanging on a couple of walls."

LeBeau's bust being erected inside the Hall's walls seems a strong possibility, what with him and longtime Denver halfback Floyd Little being nominated yesterday as the two senior candidates for consideration -- along with 15 undetermined modern-day finalists -- for voting at Super Bowl XLIV near Miami. Each finalist must receive an 80-percent minimum of the selection committee's votes for enshrinement. Often, one senior nominee makes it, and, by late yesterday afternoon several national-correspondent voters already were offering rousing support for LeBeau.

His reaction when coach Mike Tomlin huddled the team on the South Side fields before practice yesterday and broke the news? The usual modesty. And emotion.

"Old Faithful Dick LeBeau," Farrior teased of the 71-year-old defensive coordinator, who counsels players about life and family, recites "The Night Before Christmas" regularly every holiday and holds deep feelings for what he calls his men. "I didn't even see his face, but I'm sure he was pretty moved. I think [a nomination] has been a long time overdue."

"Deep down, it'll be even more moving when he makes it," Townsend said. "He's deserving."

"Well, 'senior' is certainly the category I belong in," said LeBeau, honored by the Steelers last season for his half-century of NFL service as a player and a coach -- each areas where his resume merited Hall consideration previously.

"It's very humbling. I'm not sure it's hit me completely. Coach Mike just announced it on the field. I must confess, it was the last thing I expected to hear. It's a great honor to get this far, no matter what the outcome will be. It's a great day. It really is. I'm not going to turn it back in."

LeBeau's senior candidacy has been an open secret around the NFL for a couple of years, and one of his former pupils brought it to the forefront last month: Rod Woodson stumped for LeBeau in his induction speech 17 days ago. "Seriously, I hope the voters get it right," Woodson said from the Fawcett Stadium stage. "First of all, he belongs in as a player. Secondly, if you don't want to put him as a player, you put him in as a contributor, because he did so much for the National Football League. ..."

For one, LeBeau's boss agrees.

And Tomlin does not routinely sit in on meetings where the defensive coordinator half-kiddingly drops into conversations his 171 consecutive starts at cornerback, believed to be an NFL record for that island of a position, and his 62 interceptions, the seventh-most all time. LeBeau's reputation precedes him.

"In my humble opinion, Dick LeBeau is a Hall of Famer," Tomlin told media after practice yesterday. "This guy has had really two distinguished careers. It's well documented what he's done as a player. Few people realize the number of consecutive games this guy played at corner in the NFL and how far out that record itself is. The interceptions ... He has legitimate numbers that speak to a Hall of Fame career as a player. He's quite a defensive innovator as a coach[, too]. You couple all of that into one human being -- not only the fact that he's an awesome person -- and he's a Hall of Fame guy, in my opinion."

Humble perhaps does not aptly describe an Ohio farmboy raised 150 miles southwest of Canton. He was a standout at Ohio State and, for 14 seasons, with Detroit. He was a stand-in for actor Michael Caine in a movie. Then, in coaching, he invented the most popular defense of modern football.

When an out-of-town reporter inquired before the Steelers' playoff game in January against San Diego about LeBeau inventing the zone blitz, this 36-year coaching veteran became noticeably uncomfortable, almost embarrassed upon taking such credit. "Call Jerry Glanville," he advised the reporter. "Or..."

AP Photo
FILE - In this Nov. 15, 1970, file photo,
Detroit Lions defensive back Dick LeBeau (44) reaches for Minnesota Vikings' Bob Grim (27) who missed pass at the goal line from Vikings quarterback Gary Cuozzo during a football game Minneapolis. LeBeau and former Broncos running back Floyd Little are finalists for the Pro Football Hall of Fame, it was announced on Tuesday, Aug. 25, 2009.

Asked to cite his accomplishments yesterday, LeBeau talked proudly of never missing a workday with the Lions as a player or with the Philadelphia Eagles, Green Bay Packers, Cincinnati Bengals, Buffalo Bills or Steelers as a coach. The same as his father, an auditor who retired at 73. "Gotten in a harness and tried to pull my share of the load," the old farmboy said.

LeBeau will turn 72 the day before the Steelers' Sept. 10 opener. Though he has considered retirement, he enjoys the work, revels in his men. And vice versa.

Mike Logan, a defensive back who retired after the 2006 season, echoed many fellow alumni, when he said: "I still confide in him."

"We have an usual group of guys here. Both sides of the ball. They just play," LeBeau said. "Proud of them. There's no question [this Steelers defense] kept my name current, with what they've done. They've gotten all of us, myself included, two championship rings. This is just one more honor.

"It makes you think you did something right somewhere along the line."

Chuck Finder can be reached at cfinder@post-gazette.com.
First published on August 26, 2009 at 12:00 am



The LeBeau file

50 years in the NFL, 36 as a coach and 14 as a player.

171 consecutive games played for a cornerback, still an NFL record.

62 career interceptions is currently tied for seventh all time in the NFL.

3 Pro Bowl appearances as a player.

10 coaching jobs with four NFL teams, including three seasons (2000-02) as the Cincinnati Bengals head coach.

6 times the Steelers' defense has finished the season ranked in the top five in the NFL in LeBeau's seven years as coordinator.

2 Super Bowl championships as Steelers defensive coordinator.

Dave Parker argues his case for HOF

By Alan Robinson
The Associated Press
August 25, 2009

Nearly a quarter-century after being a prime figure in baseball’s first major drug scandal, Dave Parker hopes baseball is ready to forgive his sins and enshrine him in the Hall of Fame.

Parker was arguably baseball’s best player in the late 1970s, winning two NL batting titles and an NL Most Valuable Player Award while helping lead the Pittsburgh Pirates to a World Series title in 1979.

AP Photo
FILE - In this July 17, 1979, file photo,
National League's Dave Parker of the Pittsburgh Pirates holds the trophy after winning the MVP award in baseball's All Star Game in Seattle.

A skilled player blessed with power, a line-drive batting stroke that allowed him to hit for average and the game’s best throwing arm, Parker appeared to be on the fast track to Cooperstown until his acknowledged cocaine use derailed him in his prime.

Parker revived his career in his mid to late 30s, but the taint of the drug scandal has clearly influenced Hall of Fame voters to shun him for 13 consecutive years. During a time when baseball is fixated on performance-enhancing drugs, Parker finds himself being penalized for performance-deflating drug use.

Now that former Red Sox star Jim Rice was inducted this year, with career numbers similar to his own, Parker is hopeful voters finally will overlook his failings.

“You can go into the Hall of Fame and pull out half of them and I think their numbers aren’t as good as mine,” said Parker, who attended a reunion of the 1979 Pirates championship team last weekend. “There are very few who went in recently who were as important to the team as I was. I was always The Guy or one of The Guys – I became one of The Guys at the latter part of my career, at 39 or 40. I was probably one of the most instrumental guys as far as my team having success.”

Parker hit .290 during a 19-season career that began at age 22 in 1973. He hit 339 home runs and drove in 1,493 runs in 2,466 games, mostly with the Pirates and Reds. He hit .300 or better six times, with a career high of .338 in 1977. He ranks 55th all-time with 2,712 hits.

Even after his cocaine use, weight issues and injury problems caused his production to decline steeply from 1981-83, Parker bounced back to drive in 125 runs for the Reds in 1985 – the year he testified in federal court about cocaine use in major league baseball. A year later, at age 35, he drove in 116 runs.

Rice, elected by baseball writers during his 15th and final season on the ballot earlier this year, batted .298 with 382 homers and 1,451 RBIs in 2,089 games. He hit .300 or better seven times and had eight seasons with 100 or more RBIs, and 2,452 career hits.

Rice won one MVP award, Parker won one. Rice finished in the top five in MVP voting six times, Parker five. Each started in four All-Star games. Parker was the NL slugging leader twice; Rice never led the AL. Rice also never won a batting title. Parker had 526 doubles, Rice had 373.

AP Photo
FILE - In this Oct. 16, 1979, file photo,
Pittsburgh Pirates Dave Parker smashes ball that took a bad hop in front of Baltimore Orioles' Rich Dauer and sailed into right field scoring Omar Moreno and the Bucs first run in the seventh inning of Game 6 in baseball's World Series in Baltimore.

But Rice could not compare to Parker in the field. Parker won three Gold Gloves from 1977-79, and Roberto Clemente was the only right fielder in Pirates history to boast a better arm.

Parker also played despite numerous injuries, including a thumb problem that barely allowed him to swing the bat in 1983.

“Dave played through injuries that people don’t even understand: Legs, hands, knees, thumbs,” former teammate Mike Easler said. “Dave was one tough customer.”

The Pirates can only wonder how good Parker would have been if he hadn’t succumbed to using recreational drugs.

A year after the Pittsburgh baseball drug trials, the Pirates in 1986 filed a civil suit seeking relief from paying Parker $5.3 million in deferred compensation. The Pirates claimed Parker’s eroded skills as a player and his failure to stay in shape were caused “by his improper, illegal and heavy use of cocaine.” The case was settled out of court.

Since retiring after the 1991 season, Parker hasn’t come close to Hall of Fame election, gaining no more than 24.5 percent support from the writers in any year. This year, Parker attracted 81 votes for 15 percent, or 60 percent less than the required 75 percent.

Time’s running out: Parker will be on the writers’ ballot only two more times before he could be elected only by the veterans’ committee.

“There was a trial (in 1985). I took responsibility for my participation in that,” Parker said. “That happened, what, 25 years ago? And along with that, you’ve got the steroid issue now. Baseball and the United States are supposed to be forgiving entities – why haven’t they forgiven me? Deal with me for what I’ve done and for my numbers. … I was identified as the best player. If the media can do that (forgive), they should be able to look at me and look at my numbers and say, ‘This guy is a Hall of Famer.’”

As for Tomlin ... enough never enough

By Gene Collier
Wednesday, August 26, 2009
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
http://www.post-gazette.com/sports/

Two weeks from tomorrow night, in front of a nation's insatiable pro football audience, Mike Tomlin will begin his third season as the head coach of the Steelers with nothing to accomplish that he hasn't already.

At 37.

AP Photo
Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin, left, talks with offensive coordinator Bruce Arians as the team warms up for football practice at the team's training facility in Pittsburgh, Thursday, June 11, 2009.

What it took Bill Cowher 14 years to do in Pittsburgh, what it took Chuck Noll six, it has taken Mike Tomlin two. And though no one has to be persuaded that it has been an incredible year in sports in this city, Tomlin's sprint to the top of the profession seems like a marathon compared to that of Dan Bylsma, who got there in less than four months.

"I know they talked about it when coach Bylsma visited training camp," Kevin Colbert was saying after lunch yesterday. "About what they have to do now."

What they have to do now is merely the impossible, namely satisfying two roiling fan bases with merely impossible standards, but no one would be surprised if they did exactly that.

No, Mike and Dan don't have to bring home their sports' most opulent trophies every year, they just have to have a cripplingly good reason when they don't.

The Penguins open training camp inside of three weeks, and I suspect it will be as evident in the locker room of the defending Stanley Cup champions as it has been with the Steelers that neither professor is in danger of carrying himself any differently with a league title at the top of his curriculum vitae.

In the case of the NFL's Coach of the Year for 2008, the respect he has earned among the Steelers has only begun to approach its full dimensions.

"The thing that's always impressed me most about him is that he always has a plan," offensive right tackle Willie Colon said yesterday. "He always knows where we need to go and how to get there; there's never a stagnant point. He just knows how to push certain buttons to motivate this team. He's an extremely fair-minded business person. If you have the ability to get the job done, that's what matters to him. There's none of the politics or bull that you sometimes find in this business.

"He knows how to handle people and he knows when he has veterans on this ballclub and how to go about that, too."

Tomlin has come under some whispering scrutiny over what has been getting called "Camp Cupcake," in which he has given veterans plenty of days off, but the general result has been that those players are halfway through the preseason schedule in fairly good health, health being the only true barometer of preseason success. The second-guessing of the Steelers' coach is considered an unalienable right by some, but somebody ought to point out that we are suddenly talking about the NFL coach with the best winning percentage in the active 32-man fraternity.

Tomlin is 25-11 counting the postseason, and that .694 is the best on the board.

"If you look at coaches who've won the Super Bowl, a lot of them were hired in their 30s," Colbert said. "There's Shula, Noll, Shanahan, Belichick, Holmgren and more [Landry, Madden and Cowher]. But I haven't even thought of what impact [early success] might have on Mike. He's really done the same things he always did. His approach seems to be exactly the same. He doesn't seem to have gone out of his way to make anything seem like it's not business as usual.

"He's really gone about it as if last year was the same as the previous year."

But unlike his inaugural 10-6 and first available exit from the playoffs, last year was the year Tomlin delivered Pittsburgh its unprecedented sixth Lombardi Trophy as the youngest coach to win the Super Bowl. Last year, he went 15-4, meaning that he has won more games in two years than 12 of the 15 men who coached this franchise did in their entire tenures.

"He's really done a great job and, if you think of it, he did come into a situation that was similar to Bylsma's," said veteran defensive lineman Chris Hoke. "The last year with coach Cowher, there was a lot of talent here but we were just not playing that well. When Bylsma took over, same thing, a lot of talent, but talent that was really struggling."

Cowher's farewell 8-8 might not have delivered as desperate a situation as the one Bylsma flew into in February, but the conversion of the franchise to Tomlin's way of doing things has been every bit as complete.

"The best thing is that he knows that for us to get where we want to go, he's got to be at the top of his game," Colon said. "That's the kind of person you need steering the ship. We're all proud of him."

Gene Collier can be reached at gcollier@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1283.
First published on August 26, 2009 at 12:00 am

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Big Ben one of a kind

By Joe Starkey, TRIBUNE-REVIEW
http://www.pittsburghlive.com/x/pittsburghtrib/sports/
Sunday, August 23, 2009

Philip Rivers?

I'm still reeling from my recent radio interview with Aaron Schatz of profootballoutsiders.com. The topic was NFL quarterbacks. Schatz said the top four are Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, Drew Brees and Rivers, and that Ben Roethlisberger doesn't belong in the conversation.

Wow.

If someone as knowledgeable and respected as Schatz — his Football Outsiders Almanac is a must-read — doesn't include Roethlisberger in that conversation, you have to wonder how many others fail to comprehend Roethlisberger's greatness.

LANDOVER, MD - AUGUST 22: Ben Roethlisberger(notes) #7 of the Pittsburgh Steelers watches the teams warm up before the game against the Washington Redskins at Fed Ex Field on August 22, 2009 in Landover, Maryland. (Photo by Greg Fiume/Getty Images)

How is this possible, five years into such a decorated career?

I like Philip Rivers. He's very good. He had 34 touchdowns and only 11 interceptions last season. But if you polled all 32 NFL general managers and more than one said he would choose Rivers over Roethlisberger, I'd be stunned (and I'd want Chargers GM A.J. Smith injected with truth serum).

If you polled the 32 defensive coordinators and asked who would cause them more sleepless hours — Rivers or Roethlisberger — I'd be doubly stunned if two said Rivers.

Roethlisberger isn't merely great. He has "changed the position," as teammate Charlie Batch puts it. We're talking about a 6-foot-5, 241-pound mammoth with a cannon arm, an uncanny ability to extend plays with his feet and a flair for the biggest moments.

There has never been anyone quite like him.

I'm not saying Roethlisberger already is an all-time great. It's too early for that. I am saying that his first five years were historically successful and that he is a unique player for his position.

A look at the 23 quarterbacks in the Pro Football Hall of Fame reveals that none is as tall or as heavy as Roethlisberger. The closest in height are Troy Aikman and Dan Marino at 6-4. The closest in weight is Marino at 228 pounds — and neither of those guys could move like Roethlisberger.

Just for kicks, I looked at the 19 linebackers in the Hall of Fame and found that only three outweighed Roethlisberger and only one (6-7 Ted Hendricks) was taller.

Now you know why Steelers coach Mike Tomlin calls Roethlisberger a "freak."

Now everybody wants one — and the likes of Rivers, Matt Ryan and Joe Flacco appear to be built of similar material. Time will tell.

Those who undervalue Roethlisberger invariably point to his alleged lack of gaudy statistics. Here's the thing: He has gaudy statistics, even after an injury-plagued season in which he threw for 17 TDs and 15 interceptions.

It depends on which stats you emphasize, and as Steelers receiver Hines Ward says: "This ain't fantasy football."

Roethlisberger owns the seventh-best passer rating in NFL history (89.43), the most wins (51) through five seasons since 1950 and the second-best winning percentage (.728), including playoffs, among active quarterbacks. Brady is first at .789.

Roethlisberger's postseason record is 8-2, third in NFL history (10 or more games) behind Brady (14-3) and Bart Starr (9-1).

Manning is 7-8, Rivers 3-3.

Roethlisberger has engineered 17 fourth-quarter wins, including Super Bowl XLIII and the 92-yard TD drive in Baltimore last season. How many other quarterbacks, behind that offensive line, beat that defense in that situation?

And yes, he has two Super Bowl rings.

Finally, a stat for the geeks: yards-per-attempt. An excellent Web site called coldhardfootballfacts.com says yards-per-attempt is "the single most important indicator of success in football. ... Guys with a high yards-per-attempt win games."

Guys with a high YPA also aren't dinking the ball downfield, so for anyone who thinks Roethlisberger's flashy passer rating is built on safe throws within a rigid system, think again.


The three modern-era leaders in YPA, according to the site (minimum: 1,500 attempts):

1. Kurt Warner - 8.04

2. Steve Young - 7.98

3. Roethlisberger - 7.86


The six all-time leaders (who have accounted for 17 pro titles):

1. Otto Graham - 8.63

2. Sid Luckman - 8.42

3. Norm Van Brocklin - 8.16

4. Warner - 8.04

5. Young - 7.98

6. Roethlisberger - 7.86


Roethlisberger's vital stats took a hit in 2008 because he was injured and couldn't throw an effective deep ball for several weeks. Offensive coordinator Bruce Arians said Roethlisberger was hurt worse than most knew.

"The Jacksonville game, we were in the ballroom at the hotel, at about 2 p.m., throwing to see if he could play," Arians said. "He was throwing at (multiple angles, including side-arm) to see how he could release the ball. I didn't think there was any chance. Well, he threw for 300 yards and took us down in the last seconds to win.

"He never ceases to amaze me."

The issue really boils down to this: If I had to put what's left of my 401(k) on one active quarterback coming through in the final minutes of a big game, I'd have to think long and hard between Brady and Roethlisberger.

Philip Rivers wouldn't cross my mind.

Rooker's Game 5 World Series gem lives on

By Joe Starkey, TRIBUNE-REVIEW
http://www.pittsburghlive.com/x/pittsburghtrib/sports/
Sunday, August 23, 2009

When Jim Rooker's teammates heard he was chosen to pitch Game 5 of the 1979 World Series, they did what came naturally: They razzed Rooker like crazy.

"We said, 'Well, we might as well start packing our hunting gear," remembers then-rookie catcher Steve Nicosia.

Pirates pitcher Jim Rooker threw the game of his life, holding the Baltimore Orioles to three hits and a run over five innings in Game 5 of the 1979 World Series. (Photo courtesy of the Pittsburgh Pirates)

Little did Nicosia know that Rooker, of all people, was the first one packed. Hey, the Pirates were down, 3-1, so why not get a head start on hunting season if they lost Game 5?

The game was played Oct. 14 at Three Rivers Stadium. The series has been commemorated all weekend with a team reunion at PNC Park.

"If we lost, (teammate Bruce) Kison and I were headed out to Colorado to go elk hunting with (ex-teammate) Rich Gossage," Rooker says. "Everybody, of course, was expecting me to lose."

Rooker was 37, nearing the end of his career. He hadn't started since Sept. 25, and his only appearance since then was a one-inning cameo in Game 1.

Manager Chuck Tanner chose the left-handed Rooker over Kison, a right-hander who had been battered in Game 1. The Orioles had scored 17 runs in the previous two games, including a 9-6 victory in Game 4, when they scored six eighth-inning runs to erase a 6-3 deficit.

Three of the Pirates' veteran leaders — first baseman Willie Stargell, right fielder Dave Parker and reliever Kent Tekulve — sat together in the clubhouse late into the night, discussing the team's predicament.

Stargell's take was that if they were going to lose, they were at least going to show everybody how the Pirates played the game.

When they got to the ballpark the next morning — it was a Sunday afternoon game — players were stunned to learn that Tanner's mother, Anna, had died. Nobody knew whether to approach their beloved manager, who decided he would stay with the club.

Tekulve chokes up when he remembers Tanner addressing the team.

Tanner's recollection: "I said, 'Well, we're in a little bit of trouble, because my mother said she'd see every game. But she just went upstairs to help us, so don't worry about a thing. We got 'em.' "

Bill Mazeroski, the Pirates' 1960 World Series hero, threw out the ceremonial first pitch in front of 50,920 fans. Rooker threw the game of his life, holding the Orioles to three hits and a run over five innings.

"He hadn't pitched much, so his arm was fresh," Nicosia says. "He pitched the best five innings of anyone for us that year. He stuck the bats right up Baltimore's rear end."

Rooker had determined he would set up Baltimore hitters with off-speed pitches, then surprise them with inside fastballs.

"I figured they thought I had a bad arm," he says.

That thought was confirmed years later by Ray Miller, who was the Orioles' pitching coach at the time but later worked for the Pirates when Rooker was a team broadcaster.

"Their scouting report said, 'Don't worry about him; he has a bad arm and will try to get you out with sinkers,' " Rooker says. "Well, one time I busted Eddie Murray's (butt) inside — I was throwing 91-92 mph — and he says, 'Sore arm, my (butt)!' "

Still, the Pirates trailed, 1-0, when Rooker left after 74 pitches. That's when their bats finally came alive in a 7-1 victory. Bert Blyleven pitched four shutout innings for the win, one that sent the Series back to Baltimore, where the Pirates made history.

Thirty years later, Rooker, 67, revels in the memory. He lives in Jacksonville, Fla., but still owns "Rook's East Side Saloon" in Ambridge and has authored three children's baseball books - "Matt the Bat," "Paul the Baseball," and "Kitt the Mitt."

His seven grandchildren inspired the books.

"My next one will be called 'Fletcher the Catcher,' " Rooker says. "They're all basically rhymes, 13 or 14 verses."

1979 players moved by ceremony

Sunday, August 23, 2009
By Dejan Kovacevic, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
http://www.post-gazette.com/sports/

The Family had quite the reunion.

Chuck Tanner, the 80-year-old patriarch of those famed 1979 Pirates, arrived at PNC Park in a wheelchair, the result of heart surgery in March, but he insisted on walking to the field for the 30th anniversary ceremony before the game last night at PNC Park.


Keith Srakocic/Associated Press

Members of the 1979 world championship Pirates together with the World Series trophy before Saturday night's game. From left to right, top row, Omar Moreno, Bruce Kison, partially blocked by Chuck Tanner, Kent Tekulve, Bill Madlock, wife of the late slugger Willie Stargell, Margaret Stargell, Don Robinson, and Rennie Stennett,, Bottom row right to left are Dale Berra , Mike Easler, Grant Jackson, Steve Nicosia and Phil Garner.


"Wouldn't miss this for the world," Tanner said, customarily smiling wide. "Look at this turnout, too, how many are here. Doesn't surprise me a bit. No, sir."

All but three of the team's living former players were on the field: Dave Parker, Omar Moreno, Phil Garner, Bill Madlock, Manny Sanguillen, Rennie Stennett, Mike Easler, Lee Lacy, Matt Alexander, Dale Berra, Steve Nicosia, Ed Ott, Bert Blyleven, Grant Jackson, Bruce Kison, John Candelaria, Kent Tekulve, Jim Rooker and Don Robinson, The lone living players not on hand were Tim Foli, Jim Bibby and Enrique Romo.

Also here were coach Al Monchak, trainer Tony Bartirome and Margaret Stargell, wife of Willie Stargell.

"I'm so happy to see everybody," Sanguillen said. "Some of them, I don't see in a long time."

Tanner's introduction was saved for last and drew the loudest ovation, as well as warm embraces from the players surrounding him and a gathering around the World Series trophy.

The current state

Moreno, who squeezed the final out of Game 7 in Baltimore, was one of several on hand to express disappointment with the current state of the franchise.

"It's sad," Moreno said. "I remember playing in Pittsburgh those years, and everything was different. We were winners. The children here had players they knew, they loved. Money has changed the game a lot, you know."

Ott spoke of money, too, specifically as it relates to the Pirates' commitment to keeping players.

"You'd like to say there's a light at the end of the tunnel here, especially those of us who have been part of this. But you don't know, and it hurts a little bit," Ott said. "I know the price to keep players is high these days. Minimum wage was $16,000 when I was a rookie, and I don't know what it is now."

He was told it is $400,000.

"Wow. Well, there still comes a point where you have to take pride in the ball club, especially with all the revenue sharing in baseball now. You can't just keep moving Jason Bay, Aramis Ramirez and players like that. You have to hold onto them. There's no Willie here. There's no Parker. Until they bring it back to getting those kinds of talents -- and keeping them -- nothing's going to change here."

On the Pirates: Open letter from Jack Wilson

'No matter how bad it was, the people in Pittsburgh cared for me'

Sunday, August 23, 2009
By Dejan Kovacevic, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
http://www.post-gazette.com/sports/



Post-Gazette

Rookie shortstop Jack Wilson, then 23, posed for a Post-Gazette photographer on top of the Pirates' dugout at PNC Park in April 2001 -- his first month in the major leagues.

Jack Wilson, spending the weekend in Cleveland with the Seattle Mariners, submitted this open letter to the baseball fans of Pittsburgh through the Post-Gazette ...


In January 2001, my wife Julie and I boarded a plane from Los Angeles to Pittsburgh to attend our first PirateFest. We landed in the afternoon, and it was then that I knew our lives never would be the same: It was 5 degrees and snowing, and Julie and I were wearing shorts. Classic Californians on their first winter trip to the East Coast.

Being the new guy in town, I was unrecognizable and able to really enjoy observing the fans and how much they loved their Pirates, from the jerseys, hats, T-shirts, banners ... everyone had something. I became really excited to be joining the Pirates' family. This city with the storied history of champions like Maz, Roberto and Willie was going to be my new home.

Nine seasons, three kids and 26 double-play partners later, my time in Pittsburgh has come to an end. I think back over the years and feel extremely proud of my time there. Regardless of the team's record or statistics, I put on the Pirates jersey every day with pride, alongside players I was honored to call teammates. Players who never gave up on any game, from 1 to 162, no matter where we were in the standings. As a veteran, there is no greater thrill than watching young teammates become major leaguers, guys like Freddy Sanchez, Nate McLouth, Ryan Doumit, Paul Maholm, Zach Duke, Matt Capps, Andrew McCutchen and so many more. I am so very proud of them and wish them the absolute best.

There are no words for me to describe how much you, the fans of Pittsburgh, have meant to me and my family. I went through many ups and downs in my career there, and you were always there for me. At the stadium, in the restaurants, gas stations, you name it. I don't think there ever will be a moment like the last game of the 2008 season at PNC Park. The standing O I received that day will be the most cherished memory of my career. No matter how bad it was, the people in Pittsburgh cared for me and my family, and that is extremely special. On behalf of Julie, Jacob, Jaidyn and Jersi, thank you. From the bottom of our hearts, thank you!

No matter where God leads me next, I will always be a Pittsburgher. Go Bucs!

God bless.

Jack Wilson

Steelers lucky to have Batch

Sunday, August 23, 2009
By Ron Cook, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
http://www.post-gazette.com/steelers/

LANDOVER, Md. -- It's still hard to say Ben Roethlisberger is the best quarterback in the NFL, that miracle drive to beat the Arizona Cardinals in Super Bowl XLIII and the Steelers' two world championships in the past four years notwithstanding. It's always going to be hard as long as the New England Patriots' Tom Brady is in his prime.

PITTSBURGH - AUGUST 13: Charlie Batch(notes) #16 of the Pittsburgh Steelers readies to throw during a preseason NFL game against the Arizona Cardinals on August 13, 2009 at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Rick Stewart/Getty Images)

But this isn't the least bit difficult to opine: The Steelers have the best set of quarterbacks in the league.

Try naming a better pair than Roethlisberger and Charlie Batch.

I'm saying you can't do it.

I'll take Big Ben over any quarterback not named Brady. That's why it was so nice to see him laughing on the FedEx Field sideline last night, seemingly carefree, watching in sweats as the old Batch -- sorry, Charlie -- and young third-stringer Dennis Dixon led the Steelers to a 10-3 halftime lead in what turned into a 17-13 exhibition loss to the Washington Redskins. The city of Pittsburgh was briefly in a panic Thursday afternoon when Roethlisberger went down late in the final training-camp practice with some sort of right foot injury. But it's a minor problem. Teammates said he definitely would have played last night if it were the second regular-season game instead of the second exhibition game.

"We don't think it's a long-term thing," coach Mike Tomlin said.

Go ahead, breathe.

But even if Roethlisberger has to miss a game somewhere along the way this season, the world won't necessarily end. Batch is capable. He showed just a bit of that in his quarter-and-change work as the starter against the Redskins.

That is an incredible luxury for the Steelers.

Really, quarterbacks are so precious.

Did you happen to watch Redskins starter Jason Campbell? It's pretty obvious the Washington club isn't thrilled with him. It tried hard to trade for Denver's Jay Cutler in the offseason, then tried hard to trade up in the NFL draft to get Southern California's Mark Sanchez. The only surprise is it didn't try to beat the Minnesota Vikings to Brett Favre, speaking of another team really desperate for a quarterback.

Campbell was 1 for 7 for 10 yards last night.

No matter how much you appreciate Roethlisberger, I'm thinking it's not enough.

And Batch might be even more underappreciated in his important role.

Batch's numbers last night -- 5 of 14 for 63 yards -- weren't all that impressive, but that was because of a predictable slow start. He played just five plays in the exhibition opener against the Cardinals Aug. 13 -- long enough to throw a 45-yard pass to wide receiver Limas Sweed -- which meant his playing time against the Redskins was his first serious action since late in the 2007 season. His collarbone was broken in the first exhibition game last season.

Batch was errant on five of his first six passes but looked better on the Steelers' nine-play, 50-yard touchdown drive late in the first quarter. Wide receiver Santonio Holmes helped him out big time with a nice catch for a 16-yard gain, then wide receiver Hines Ward did the same by leaping to pull in a 24-yard reception. There also was a 10-yard pass to tight end Heath Miller.

Wouldn't the Redskins love to get that kind of production from Campbell?

Batch played one more series, which was aborted by what appeared to be a third-down drop by Sweed. All in all, it was a good night of work for a quarterback who is, as they say, just one play away from being the man.

"It just felt good to be out there, to be one of the guys again," Batch said. "It had been a long time coming ...

"It was a little slow early, but I felt like I started to get into a little bit of a rhythm. We were able to put a little something together."

Dixon took over and played into the fourth quarter -- with so-so results -- before leaving with a possible right (throwing) shoulder dislocation. There has been some speculation this summer that he might beat out Batch for the backup spot, but that is hard to imagine, injury or not. The Steelers are a veteran team, one that appears to be more than qualified to take a big run at repeating as Super Bowl champs. In the unfortunate event of a Big Ben injury, Tomlin isn't likely to turn over that type of club to a second-year player who still is trying to get his arms around the mental challenges of the pro game.

Batch has to be the guy.

"No question I can do it," he said.

The Steelers are very lucky to have him in their prized stable of quarterbacks.

Ron Cook can be reached at rcook@post-gazette.com.
First published on August 23, 2009 at 12:00 am

Friday, August 21, 2009

Tomlin plays mind game to end camp

Camp Cupcake? A 'surprise' end

Friday, August 21, 2009
By Ed Bouchette, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
http://www.post-gazette.com/sports/

Five yellow buses pulled into the Saint Vincent College campus yesterday morning on the final day of training camp for the Steelers.

They could mean only one thing: School's out early! At least that is what some players thought because in the past the sight of school buses at a scheduled practice meant that the coach planned to take them to a movie or bowling instead.

As that awestruck '60s TV sitcom character Gomer Pyle might have said, "Surprise, surprise, surprise!" The buses remained parked and their drivers watched practice. Coach Mike Tomlin, conspiring with place-kicker Jeff Reed, had pulled a fast one on his players. Tomlin put them through the scheduled morning practice, then held a final one in the afternoon before signing off on his third training camp with the Steelers.

What some called Camp Cupcake ended with some gamesmanship.

"Just a little mental warfare," Tomlin explained. "Sometimes, people have to be horribly disappointed, then asked to perform."

Reed made the suggestion to Tomlin, who put it into play. Perhaps Tomlin, too, had heard the Camp Cupcake talk and wanted to send a message.

"That was a very cruel joke," said tackle Max Starks.

One concocted by their kicker, who does not do much at practice anyway.

"It was actually a joke, my idea," Reed said of his suggestion to Tomlin. "He wanted to roll with it because he wants to see where your mentality is all the time. If it's your last day of camp, are you going to show up with two good practices or get ready to get in your car and get out of here?"

The team will do that today, breaking camp after a morning walk-through, then heading to Washington for its second preseason game tomorrow night, against the Redskins. After that, it's back to the Steelers' South Side training facility and the end of two-a-days.

The three-week training camp in Latrobe for the reigning Super Bowl champs has been anything but easy. But with the rosters now limited to 80 players in camp, the Steelers do have their share of over-30 veterans, as well as 20 of 22 starters back. Tomlin pulled back somewhat on the veterans, especially compared to his first training camp in 2007.

"He's taking care of us," cornerback Ike Taylor said. "He had to put the hammer down his first year. If he had to do it backwards, it kind of would not have made any sense toward like what he wanted to do.

"So he established himself the first year. Even though a lot of guys didn't like it, we didn't have any choice."

The Steelers responded to Tomlin's first camp by winning the AFC North Division in 2007 and then the Super Bowl last season.

"Practice hard, play hard, play smart, coach takes care of us," Taylor said.

Yet other players noted that all real practices this summer were in real pads, not the lighter shells or the shorts-and-helmets practices that have been held in the past.

"I think he has a better feel for his players on the team," tight end Heath Miller said. "I think his first year he was maybe testing us, if you will, to see what guys he had and what buttons he needed to push. As in any relationship, it grows and develops and you learn more about each other. He kind of knows when to push us and when he can back off of us."

The diverse weather during the three-week camp also contributed to a sense that things were easier. It was mostly cool and cloudy early in camp before two or three days of heat in or near the 90s. Camp ended in rain the past two days.

"Everything seems easier when it's a cloudy or rainy day," Starks said. "You can almost push through it better."

The work, for the most part, was accomplished, most agreed.

"We're really getting after it," veteran nose tackle Chris Hoke said. "It's an older team and you have to take care of the older guys.

"He knows when we get in the game, the lights go on and the whistle's blown we're going to play physical, tough football. He knows that, he's learned that over the last two years."

Ed Bouchette can be reached at ebouchette@post-gazette.com.
First published on August 21, 2009 at 12:00 am

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Linebacker Farrior remains heartbeat of Steelers

By John Harris, TRIBUNE-REVIEW
http://www.pittsburghlive.com/x/pittsburghtrib/sports/
Thursday, August 20, 2009

Friday officially concludes the 13th NFL training camp for Steelers defensive captain James Farrior.

Thirteen sweltering summers featuring uncomfortable dorm-room beds, two-a-day practices, goal-line drills and vague remembrances of countless players whose names he can't quite place.

This is Farrior's eighth training camp with the Steelers. He's been coming to St. Vincent College in Latrobe for so long, he can't tell one camp from the other.

"It's pretty much the same,'' said Farrior, who was the New York Jets' first-round pick in 1997 before joining the Steelers as a free agent five years later. "These are the dog days of the season that you have to go through to evaluate your team and evaluate the type of personality you're going to have.

"The main thing for me is being around these young guys. Being around that young energy keeps you going.''

How long has Farrior, 34, been around football? He's the only current Steelers player old enough to have faced coach Mike Tomlin as a player when the two were in college -- Farrior at Virginia, Tomlin at William & Mary.

Farrior has seen it all and done it all. He's the go-to guy on the Steelers if you want to get an accurate reading of his team's pulse. He doesn't avoid the truth, even when it hurts.

Farrior speaks excitedly about the young players attempting to earn a roster spot for the first time. He said Tomlin told the team this week that those young players don't want to make the mistake of falling behind and losing their focus and perhaps a chance to stick around.

"Learning the playbook and being where they're supposed to be is going to be the main key for the young boys,'' Farrior said.

Those young players are the future of the Steelers. But veterans such as Farrior remain the glue of the team.

"We've got a lot of older guys that know what it takes,'' Farrior said. "The older guys showing their confidence is going to spill down to the young guys. We've always been a prideful group. We're always going out there, trying to be the best. That's our attitude every year.''

Farrior will not only go down as one of the finest linebackers in Steelers history -- which is saying a lot -- he'll also conclude his career as one of the best linebackers of his generation.

Farrior is Ray Lewis without the hype. Baltimore's Lewis never met an accolade he didn't embellish to describe his play. Nice guys such as Farrior finish last in terms of the publicity they receive.

Not only has Farrior won two Super Bowls, which is one more than Lewis, he's started three AFC Championship Games, played in two Pro Bowls and has led the Steelers in tackles five times.

Not to mention being the proud survivor of 13 training camps.

"My body feels good, probably the best shape I've been in for a while,'' he said. "The rest that Mike has been giving the older guys (in camp), it's really helping me out and keeping my legs fresh. Being an older guy, you've to take it one stride at a time. I'm right where I want to be.''

Knocking out Pirates' Maholm? Not on this night

Struck by two line drives, he delivers 3-1 victory, sweep of Brewers
Thursday, August 20, 2009
By Dejan Kovacevic, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
http://www.post-gazette.com/sports/

Now, here is irony ...

In a see-saw season in which Paul Maholm has heard whispers all summer long that he must be injured, the one game in which he legitimately pitched hurt -- struck twice by line drives -- resulted in one of the most durable, dynamic performances of his career as the Pirates beat Milwaukee, 3-1, last night at PNC Park to cap a three-game sweep of the Brewers.

"That guy, Maholm, I didn't know he's a warrior," recently acquired shortstop Ronny Cedeno said. "I knew he had good stuff, but I didn't know that. I thought for sure one of those was going to knock him out of the game."

That, evidently, would take some doing.


Keith Srakocic/Associated Press

Paul Maholm, is greeted by teammates in the dugout. Maholm was the winning pitcher in the Pirates' 3-1 victory.


In the fourth inning, Mike Cameron's liner caromed off Maholm's left -- and pitching -- triceps to second baseman Delwyn Young for a groundout. Manager John Russell visited the mound with athletic trainer Brad Henderson, but Maholm soon shooed them away.

In the eighth, Alcides Escobar's comebacker struck Maholm's left shin loud enough to be heard through the stadium, but he corralled it, one knee in the grass, and fired to first for the out. Another visit from Russell and Henderson, another shooing.

By the time Maholm was done, his tally included two bruises, one fine line -- a run on eight hits over 7 2/3 innings -- and the audible appreciation of the 12,630 who rose and roared when Russell finally took the ball with the pitch count at 110.

"Paul had a little bull's-eye on him, didn't he?" Russell said, grinning. "He did a great job, all around. He pitched well, put his defense to work and stayed very efficient."

Maholm shrugged off questions about the bruises as easily as he had shooed away help.

"Just a rough day," he said with a laugh. "Nothing major. It'll be fine. I'll be back Friday to get my running and throwing in."

Earlier, there was one other opportunity to knock out Maholm, and that failed, too: The pitch count was at 103 through seven innings, and his spot in the order was due up second in the bottom half. But Russell unflinchingly stuck by him and, as fate would have it, Maholm stroked a double.

"I love that move, and not just because Paul made JR look like a genius," closer Matt Capps said. "When a guy gives you that much, you let him go."

"I might have turned that into a single if I'd gotten hit in the calf before that," Maholm said with another laugh.

All the joking probably felt as refreshing as the victory, Maholm's first since July 7.

He had been visibly frustrated after allowing seven runs last week in Denver and, really, with most of his past six starts, during which he was 0-3 and saw his ERA rise to a season-high 4.93. He spent extra time on and off the field in Chicago after that, his determination glaringly evident with an unwavering drop-dead-serious demeanor.

"It's been a while," Maholm said of the victory. "Every game, it's seemed like it's been one or two pitches where, if I execute, I go deeper into the game and we win. Tonight, it was kind of my determination to get back to how I threw last year, to do whatever I had to do to get to the eighth inning, get to the guys in the bullpen and let them put it away."

The bullpen seemed to take to that no less seriously, handed a 3-1 lead.

"When someone giving it all he's got like that, you're pumped," Capps said.

Joel Hanrahan stranded Maholm's runner in the eighth by retiring his lone batter, then smacked his glove demonstratively coming off the mound. And Capps blazed through the heart of the Brewers' order 1-2-3 in the ninth -- throwing mostly fastballs at 94-95 mph -- for his 22nd save but the first all month.

Highlighted was a strikeout of Prince Fielder with a cut fastball that Capps began throwing on the side all of three days ago.

"Thought I'd give it a try," Capps said.


Keith Srakocic/Associated Press

Second baseman Delwyn Young avoids Milwaukee's McGehee to turn a double play in the second inning last night at PNC Park.

Cedeno's ninth home run, fourth in 18 games since joining the Pirates, was a two-run shot driven hard into the base of the left-field rotunda, off Yovani Gallardo's two-ball hanging slider.

"I got my pitch," Cedeno said.

Andrew McCutchen manufactured a 3-0 lead in the next inning, leading off with a single, stealing second and coming around on the first of Delwyn Young's two doubles.

The Pirates had looked like the worst team in Major League Baseball in losing 13 of 14 until this sweep, just their third all season and the first since taking three from the New York Mets June 1-4. But they got quality starts from Kevin Hart, Ross Ohlendorf and Maholm, a sudden spate of home runs -- five in the series after none in the five games in Denver and Chicago -- and error-free defense.

All that, and they pretty much knocked nemesis Milwaukee from wild-card contention, the Brewers now nine games back in that race. That is quite the turnaround for the Pirates, who had lost 17 in a row to Milwaukee, but have taken five of six meetings since breaking that streak July 20.

Russell acknowledged some satisfaction in that.

"It's great," he said. "They had our number, and we've started playing better against them ever since we beat them the one time. It's a great feeling for all of us."


Dejan Kovacevic can be reached at dkovacevic@post-gazette.com.
First published on August 20, 2009 at 12:00 am

Tomlin, Bylsma part of mutual admiration society

Thursday, August 20, 2009
By Robert Dvorchak, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
http://www.post-gazette.com/sports/

Just before afternoon practice, hockey fan Ben Roethlisberger stopped briefly on the sideline to shake hands with Penguins coach Dan Bylsma.

"When can I come over for the skate-around?" the quarterback asked kiddingly.

"Any time you want," Bylsma replied.


Peter Diana/Post-Gazette

Meeting of the champs: Mike Tomlin greets Dan Bylsma.


The exchange was one of several "shake-your-head-moments," as Bylsma described them, during a visit by Penguins officials to Steelers training camp at Saint Vincent College in Latrobe. Or more aptly, they were sterling silver moments because the two franchises have brought the Stanley Cup and the Lombardi Trophy to the same city.

Other moments included defensive player of the year James Harrison volunteering to become an on-ice enforcer; Benedictine monks seeking out Penguins on a sultry August afternoon; and Mike Tomlin and Bylsma, whose combined major league coaching experience is less than three years, exchanging a quick handshake in the rain after practice. It was believed to be the first time the coach of an NHL champion appeared on the same practice field with the coach of the NFL champs.

"I think it's mutual respect and mutual admiration," said director of football operations Kevin Colbert, who greeted the

visitors on their arrival and squired them around campus in his personal golf cart.

Bylsma wore appropriate garb -- a Steel City Champions T-shirt noting the six Super Bowl titles and three Stanley Cups won by both franchises. He and other members of the hockey entourage also sported Steelers caps.

"It's been surreal at times," said Bylsma, who didn't become coach of the Penguins until after the Steelers won their sixth NFL title.

It's not everyday when the Steelers, who usually are on the receiving end of unfettered adulation, extend the VIP treatment to a sports organization. But the Penguins were shown fan-like exuberance during their visit. Talk about big men on campus. For the first time, the coach of a Stanley Cup champion shook the hand of a Super Bowl winner on a football practice field.

From a practical standpoint, the trip was arranged so that the Penguins could get some insights into how the Steelers run things. Bylsma and members of his staff watched some film and took in the afternoon session.

But the biggest thing the Penguins wanted to emphasize was the expectation of excellence the Steelers set every year.

"They are one of the premier organizations in all of sports," said Bylsma.


Peter Diana/Post-Gazette

What's a visit to Saint Vincent College without meeting Big Ben? Dan Bylsma shakes hands with Ben Roethlisberger before the start of afternoon workouts.


The two teams already have a rooting interest in the other. During the football playoffs, messages of support from Sidney Crosby and other Penguins were shown on the scoreboard at Heinz Field. The Steelers returned the favor with video clips that were shown at Mellon Arena during the hockey playoffs.

"I'm a fan just like everybody else," James Farrior said yesterday after sharing a moment with the Penguins. "I wasn't a huge hockey fan growing up, but I got a chance to see how exciting it was. I admire how hard those guys work and what it took for them to win. It's awesome for the city of Pittsburgh."

Casey Hampton didn't watch a lot of hockey growing up in Texas, but he has been a vocal and visible fan at Mellon Arena.

"You realize how hard it is to get to that level, and [when you do] you need all the support you can get," the big nose tackle said.

"It's crazy. You see how crazy Pittsburgh fans are. Sitting up there, being spectators, you feel like a fan yourself," he added. "I go to quite a few games, and I like because it's really fast. You don't realize how fast it is and how exciting it is until you go."

After the Penguins won the Cup, Tomlin sent a congratulatory note to Bylsma that said, among other things, "Let's do it again."

Penguins training camp opens Sept. 12, two days after the Steelers open their season at home.


Robert Dvorchak can be reached at bdvorchak@post-gazette.com.
First published on August 20, 2009 at 12:00 am