Sunday, May 30, 2010

Interview: Evgeni Malkin

Evgeni Malkin chats about why Crosby is No. 1, why Ovechkin is the 'Russian Canadian' and criteria for best player in world

By Dmitry Chesnokov
Sat May 29, 2010 1:30 pm EDT

Pittsburgh Penguins star Evgeni Malkin(notes) recently spoke on Russian TV (NTV Plus channel) and was his usual candid self in Russian-language interviews.

I've translated a portion of the transcript posted online in which Geno speaks about his admiration of teammate Sidney Crosby(notes); his opinions on Alex Ovechkin(notes) as an NHL player; and why stats don't always determine who the best players are.

Here's Malkin's quotes from the interview:

"I got very lucky that I got on the same team with Sidney Crosby. I don't know why many underrate his talent, say that he is 'over-promoted,' that he has been talked about since he was 14. To me he is the No. 1 player in the world. I won't say why other players are not as good as he is; to me he is the best. I played with a lot of guys.

"I don't think that if a player gets 120 points -- for example, Alex Ovechkin or Henrik Sedin(notes) -- then he is the best. To me the main criteria are, in the first place, it is work in practice, work in the locker room, work during games. Crosby gives 200 percent every time, whether it is a practice or a game. To me it was a huge example when I came to Pittsburgh. I had never seen such a worker. Moreover, Sidney participates in every team meeting, films commercials, gives a lot of interviews. He does it for the team, in the first place.

"We have a good, friendly relationship with Crosby. In principle, I have good relationships with all the guys. Sidney is a quiet boy. [Laughs] Actually, not a boy, but a man. Certainly without a crown on his head, quite adequate, very demanding to himself, very forthcoming, fun. He can party just like everyone else.

"As far as who is better, Malkin or Ovechkin -- here everyone has their own opinion. What sort of a discussion could it be? If Ovechkin is the best to me, then for someone else it's Malkin, for another one it is Crosby. Of course, it is interesting for viewers to talk, but... How can you determine who is the best? I don't know to what extent Ovechkin and I may be viewed as representatives of the same school. When Ovechkin came to the NHL, he adjusted very quickly, adapted to the Canadian style. And it is a huge plus for him.

"In my first years [in the NHL] I felt a bit uncomfortable, unconfident. I felt bounded somewhat. Until I understood the essence of the rink, the essence of the game... Alex has such a talent that he quickly adapts to rink sizes, the style of play, plus he has this insolence, in a good way, helps him a lot. I think that right now he is already a 'Canadian,' you can say. This is what he is called in the NHL - the 'Russian Canadian,' because he completes so many hits in a game. In this setting he's like a knife in butter.
"I needed more time, but with time I got used to, and in my third/fourth year in the NHL, I feel quite confident already. And, to be honest, I am also becoming a Canadian. Because you start thinking more about a shot, you don't think about a pass anymore. It is difficult to keep your Russian style of play when you're at a different arena in a foreign country, on these small rinks.

"That's why in Germany it was interesting when we played with Pavel Datsyuk(notes): a lot of passes. We played, of course, a little different than in the NHL. It's just when you are required to shoot more during a game, you don't think about passes. If you start passing, you will be benched. And you start implementing coach's plan, and when you're implementing it then you switch to the different type of game."

Next week, I should have more offseason news involving the NHL, the KHL and free-agent decisions.

Related: Evgeni Malkin, Alex Ovechkin, Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Sedin, Sidney Crosby, Pittsburgh Penguins, Crosby vs. Ovechkin vs. Malkin

Blame Huntington, not Russell

Sunday, May 30, 2010
By Ron Cook, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

As May gets ready to turn into June and the Pirates continue their annual free fall to inconsequential oblivion, team president Frank Coonelly has yet to pick up manager John Russell's contract option for 2011 or give an extension to general manager Neal Huntington, whose contract is up after the season. I haven't heard many howls of protest from the fan base. Not one, actually. But if I'm guessing, I would think the majority wouldn't mind seeing Russell go. I get that. His comatose personality doesn't exactly generate much hope that he will inspire the team to greatness, this season or ever.

I look at it a little differently, though.

I don't think Russell is the big problem.

It's Huntington.

Matt Slocum/AP

At 1-9 with a 9.35 ERA, Charlie Morton has symbolized the Pirates' shortcomings in the first two months of the season.

Certainly, if Russell is fired, he will be able to put much of the blame on Huntington. What Huntington is doing to his manager is almost criminal by insisting that second baseman Aki Iwamura stays in the lineup and first baseman Jeff Clement stays in the big leagues. He also insisted that pitcher Charlie Morton stayed in the rotation until he was placed -- conveniently, a cynic might suggest -- on the disabled list Friday with what the team described as "right shoulder fatigue."

Huntington's team-crippling actions are understandable from his point of view, I suppose. Iwamura, Clement and Morton are his guys, key players he acquired in trades. His fanny is on the line and he wants them to look good. But that doesn't change the fact he is killing the team.

And the Pirates have the nerve to preach about accountability?

Forget about accountability with the players involved.

How about a little accountability with Huntington?

Wouldn't you love to hear Huntington trying to explain to Pirates owner Bob Nutting why he's paying $4.85 million this season for Iwamura, who has the highest salary on the team? Huntington traded relief pitcher Jesse Chavez to get him during the offseason when the Tampa Bay Rays were on the verge of releasing him. Iwamura was hitting .170 through Friday, went a month between RBIs and has no range in the field, yet he is expected to keep his job for who knows how long.

Neil Walker -- not one of Huntington's guys, but a player drafted No. 1 in 2004 by previous general manager Dave Littlefield -- would be an upgrade at second base, but Huntington has said he will be used as a utility player.

I mean, why?

Clement was hitting .202 through Friday despite five hits in his past 14 at-bats. He came to the Pirates from Seattle last summer in the Jack Wilson trade, a deal in which Huntington also sent the Mariners $3.3 million to make sure Clement was included. Clement was given the first base job in spring training despite having little experience at the position and kept it far too long -- based on his production -- before Russell sent him to the bench to overhaul his batting approach with hitting coach Don Long.

Is it just me or shouldn't that overhaul have been done in the minor leagues?

Then, there's Morton, the primary acquisition in Huntington's Nate McLouth trade last June. He gave up two long home runs and four runs in the first inning of an 8-2 loss to the Cincinnati Reds Thursday night, then three more runs in the second inning after a throwing error by third baseman Andy LaRoche, another Huntington trade pick-up who has been a disappointment at the plate and, this season, in the field. Morton's record is 1-9, his ERA 9.35. He should have been in the minors a month ago trying to figure out his game.

Sending a guy out doesn't mean the organization is giving up on him. Often, it helps save his career. Beyond that, why not give Brad Lincoln a chance and see what he can do? Oh, that's right. Lincoln was drafted No. 1 by Littlefield in '06.

At least Huntington agreed to put Morton on the disabled list and didn't force Russell to give him another start. Keeping Morton in the rotation isn't fair to Morton; the weight of the numbers he's lugging around could crush him. It also isn't fair to his teammates; they feel as if they're beaten before the game starts when he takes the mound.

Can you say demoralizing?

I imagine Russell can say it, but that's not his style. A lot of people think he has been a fool for playing Iwamura and Clement and starting Morton. I'm not among them. Russell is no fool. I believe he's doing what he has been told to do and trying to make the best of the poor-performing players he has been given. He's a good, loyal company man who appreciates being -- at least for now -- one of 30 big league managers, even if it's with a ghastly franchise.

That's why Russell will never speak the truth about this Pirates issue. So I'll say it for him here this morning. Huntington is sabotaging him, the team and the season.

Ron Cook: Ron Cook can be heard on the "Vinnie and Cook" show weekdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on 93.7 The Fan. More articles by this author

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Crosby deserves the Hart

by GoPens! on

I posted this fanpost over at From the Rink because I had some of these ideas bouncing around in my head the past couple of days. I'm re-posting it here because I'd love to get some feedback and see what you all think.
(For the record, DeltaOpp and DeltaSOT are metrics used at Puck Prospectus to evaluate player's performances. Here's where I found the data. This article is also inspired in part by Tom Awad's article on the same topic).

Quality of Teammates: The first aspect I want to analyze is the quality of teammates these three skaters spent the majority of their time with. Crosby centered a line with Bill Guerin and Chris Kunitz, Henrik Sedin was between his brother Daniel and Alexander Burrows, and Ovechkin was flanked by Niklas Backstrom and Mike Knuble. I used Tom Awad's GVT ratings to analyze the quality of teammates that the Hart trophy candidates had on their line, and then took the average to get a single number for comparison's sake. For Pittsburgh, Kunitz finished the year with a 6.2 GVT and Guerin finished with a 2.8, for an average of 4.5. For Vancouver, Daniel Sedin finished with a 21.2 GVT, and Burrows finished with an 18.1 GVT, for an average of 19.7. For Washington, Backstrom finished with a 24.6 GVT and Knuble finished with a 12.7 GVT, for an average of 18.7. While Sedin and Ovechkin were playing with almost identical line mates, Crosby was toiling with only 1/5 the quality of the other two.

Advantage: Crosby

(For those interested, GVT numbers can be found here, and an explanation of what GVT is can be found here, here, and here).

Quality of Competition: Henrik Sedin almost never gets matched up against quality opponents, as that role is reserved for the defensive line of Mason Raymond and Ryan Kesler. Therefore, his -0.1 DeltaOpp indicates average opponents at best. Ovechkin has a higher DeltaOpp than Sedin at 1.3, while Crosby blows the other two out of the water with a DeltaOpp of 2.7. This indicates that Crosby is going up against the opponent's top lines, and consistently producing at a rate almost equivalent to that of Sedin and Ovechkin.

Advantage: Crosby

Offense: Now that we have some perspective on the teammates and competition that the Hart candidates are equipped with, we can look at the offensive statistics that each one put up. Sedin finished the season with 112 points in 82 games, while Crosby and Ovechkin tied for second at 109 points in 81 and 72 games respectively. That's 1.37 points per game for Henrik, 1.35 for Crosby, and 1.51 for Ovechkin. With regards to the powerplay, Crosby and Sedin produce almost the same goals per 60 minutes, with Crosby at 1.6 and Sedin at 1.5. Ovechkin takes the cake on this account with 2.0 goals per 60 minutes, but it's important to remember that he's playing on a much more talented powerplay than either Sedin or Crosby. Also, as a minor note, though Ovechkin finished with only one less goal than Crosby, only one of Crosby's goals was an empty netter, while five of Ovechkin's were.

Another offensive consideration that should be taken into account is the quality of divisional opponents. This is significant because almost 30% of a team's games are played within their division. To get a rough estimation of the quality of each division, I added up the goals against for each other team in a Hart candidate's division. Crosby's division (Atlantic) allowed the fewest collective goals of the three, with 898. Sedin (Northwest) was next with 973 collective goals against, and Ovechkin's division was last with 1,016 goals against. It seems like Ovechkin plays in a weaker division than both Crosby and Sedin.

In conclusion, Crosby and Sedin put up almost identical offensive numbers, but Crosby gets the advantage because of the lack of quality line mates and better competition he played against. In terms of Ovechkin versus Crosby, Ovechkin's numbers look better outright, but when weighed against the data on line mates, competition, and divisional quality, they take on a less flattering appeal for Ovechkin.

Advantage: Draw between Ovechkin and Crosby

Defense: Defense is always tougher to measure than offensive capabilities. +/- alone is typically misleading, but fortunately, Gabriel Desjardins has compiled a lot of advanced +/- statistics that can paint a better picture. What I'm looking at is the difference between a player's +/-ON/60 (which is the player's +/- per 60 minutes of ice time) and +/-OFF/60 (which is a player's +/- per 60 minutes of time off the ice). For Crosby, the difference is 1.08, Sedin is at 1.95, and Ovechkin is at 2.08.

Included in defense is also a forward's penalty killing work. On this front, Ovechkin gets no points because he doesn't kill any penalties. In terms of Crosby and Sedin, both kill penalties for roughly the same amount of time per game, and both scored two short-handed goals on the year. Using another Puck Prospectus metric, DeltaSOT, Crosby led the league in 4-on-5 play this year with a 2.7, and Henrik was at 1.1. Of course, if both players killed penalties at the rate of their teammates (like Jordan Staal and Ryan Kesler) then the bigger sample would probably depress their numbers. Yet looking at what penalty killing stats we have for the three, Crosby is the best.

In conclusion, Ovechkin has the best adjusted plus minus of any of the three players, but he did this in a weaker division with great line mates and slightly above average competition. Sedin was almost as good, though he did this against the worst competition of any of the three candidates. Crosby put up good numbers, and had the best pk stats of the three. I'll give the slight nod to Ovechkin on this one.

Advantage: Ovechkin

Miscellaneous: In this section, I'm going to look at a couple of other statistics that I think are relevant to this analysis.

First, faceoffs. As a winger, Ovechkin doesn't take any faceoffs, but since Crosby and Sedin are both centermen, they take plenty of them. Crosby has taken the most draws in the NHL, and has the most wins with 1,001. In terms of percentage, Crosby won 55.9% of his draws, good for 11th in the league, and Henrik won 49.5%, good for 59th in the league. Crosby was also more consistent, winning 56% of his draws at home and 55% on the road, while Sedin won 53% of his draws at home but was a below average 46% on the road.

Next, I'm going to look at shootout numbers. While some may think the shootout is an assault on the purity of the sport, you're completely entitled to that opinion, but nevertheless, the shootout is still a significant part of the game right now because it can be the difference between 1 or 2 points (and for Philadelphia, the difference between the playoffs or not). For those with at least four shootout attempts, Sidney Crosby led the league in success rate, potting 8-of-10 opportunities. Ovechkin was 2-for-9 on the year, and Sedin did not take any shootout attempts.

Finally, a quick look at penalties taken and drawn. Crosby drew 27 penalties and took 21 on the year, with a +6 differential. Henrik took 18 and drew 23, with a +5 differential, and Ovechkin drew 24 and took 17, with a +7 differential. Ovechkin also had three game misconducts assessed against him.

Advantage: Crosby

Conclusion: Looking at all of the statistics, Crosby is the most deserving of the three Hart candidates. Given the vast gap between his line mates and those of Ovechkin and Sedin, as well as the difference in competition, it's incredible that he was able to put up comparable offensive numbers. That he did is a testament to his talent. He also succeeded in everything that he was asked to do, whether it was faceoffs, killing penalties, or scoring goals. Perhaps most significant for the MVP award, Crosby was involved in 42.4% of his team's goals this season. For Sedin, it was 41.1%, while Ovechkin was involved in only 34% of his team's scores. Simply put, Crosby deserves the Hart.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Ruth had final hurrah at Forbes 75 years ago

Sultan of Swat's three home runs still resonate with so many

Tuesday, May 25, 2010
By Robert Dvorchak, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Post-Gazette Archives

Babe Ruth hit the final three home runs of his career at Forbes Field 75 years ago.

A.T. Marucci, a student at Brownsville High School, sensed something extraordinary in the air as he caught a ride to Forbes Field for a chance to see a legend three-quarters of a century ago.

The driver, teacher George Zoretic, was saying that dusk was fast descending on the career of Babe Ruth. Not only was the Sultan of Swat struggling at the plate, reports had surfaced that his retirement was imminent because he would never be installed, as promised, as manager of the Boston Braves.

"You may be seeing history," Marucci was told. "It may be his last game."

It wasn't the last game. That would come five days later. But it was the last hurrah of a slugger on his last legs who did something that can only be described as Ruthian.

Summoning up the sublime for the last time, Ruth hit the final three home runs of his career on May 25, 1935, with No. 714 clearing the 86-foot high stands in right field for the first time in a game.

Paul Warhola, brother of artist Andy Warhol, was selling newspapers in the stands that day. He said Ruth called the shot before he launched it.

"There were a bunch of guys where the gamblers sat on the first base side, and you could hear a voice from the stands saying, 'Hey Babe, hit one over the roof!' He heard it and pointed his bat out that way. Sure enough, it cleared everything," said Warhola, now 87. "I'll tell you, that is one of my special memories."

It was a day that time stood still.

Ruth, 40, was hitting about 100 points lower than his weight of 250 pounds and was a shell of his former self.

History notes that Ruth wanted to quit as early as May 12. Braves owner Emil Fuchs lured Ruth back to Boston with a promise of making him manager. But Bill McKechnie, the skipper who had led the Pirates to a championship in 1925, wasn't going anywhere. Ruth, who had parted ways with the Yankees, only agreed to hang on so he could play in every National League park.

He wasn't much of a draw that chilly Saturday, however, as the Braves concluded a three-game set with the Pirates. Only 10,000 were in attendance, including a 15-year-old from Brownsville who paid 35 cents for a bleacher seat.

"It was far from a sellout," said Marucci, now 90 and living in Oakland, Md. "For as many people who claimed they were at that game, it would have been the equivalent of three sellouts at Old Forbes."

But all eyes were on Ruth as he took up his familiar batting stance with one out and a runner aboard in the first inning. Having broken his bat during batting practice, Ruth had fresh lumber for a game played five years before Forbes Field had light standards.

Against Red Lucas, who retired only one batter that day, Ruth lofted a towering fly to right that cleared the screen and landed in the seats.

The ball was retrieved by 20-year-old Emmett Cavanagh of McKeesport, whose family sold the ball for $172,500 at auction at the 2008 All-Star Game.

In the third inning, Ruth had the first of his three plate appearances against Guy Bush. A pitcher with the Chicago Cubs in the 1932 World Series, Bush had plunked Ruth with a pitch. He also was one of the bench jockeys who heckled Ruth before, as the legend goes, he pointed to the stands and hit a called-shot homer in the Series.

Facing Bush again must have energized The Babe. He homered to the second tier of the right-field stands, but no one knows what happened to the ball that became No. 713 on Ruth's home run list.

Then in the fifth, Ruth singled to drive in a run.

Writing for the Pittsburgh Press, baseball writer Volney Walsh contradicted the notion that Ruth had lost his ability to run.

"Just to show there's life in the old legs yet, he raced from first to third on a single with a great thundering sprint, slid into the bag and was ruled safe," Walsh wrote in his account.

And for good measure, he added, "Not only at bat did the Great Man shine, but he turned in three catches in right field, one of which was a beauty."

As Ruth came to bat in the seventh, the fans stirred and urged him to clear the roof that had been built in 1925. As Warhola described it, Ruth acknowledged the cheers and pointed his bat out to right field.

The count was three balls and a strike when Rush offered up a breaking ball. After the sharp crack of the bat, followed by a nanosecond of the crowd rising to its feet, bedlam erupted. Disbelieving fans followed the trajectory as the ball soared out of the park.

"The way he smacked it, you knew it was gone," said Warhola. "The crowd just roared."

From his seat behind his typewriter, Walsh noted that "Pirate players stood in their tracks to watch the flight of the ball."

In his book "Babe: The Legend Comes To Life," Robert W. Creamer quoted Bush as saying: "I never saw a ball hit so hard before or since. He was fat and old, but he still had that great swing. Even when he missed, you could hear the bat go swish."

At Forbes Field, the only way to the visiting clubhouse was through the Pirates dugout. Having finished his day's work, Ruth touched home while doffing his cap and headed to the showers. He paused to relish the moment, plopping down at one end of the bench next to Pirates rookie Mace Brown.

"He said, 'Boy, that last one felt good,' " Brown told Tom Foreman of The Associated Press in 1995.

Estimates put the distance that No. 714 traveled at 550 to 600 feet, but there is no way of knowing. Oakland resident Henry "Wiggy" DeOrio donated the ball he retrieved to the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, N.Y.

In that one last glorious afternoon, Ruth had belted three of the six home runs he collected that season, and six of the 12 runs he had driven in.

The next afternoon in Cincinnati, which was billed as Babe Ruth Day, the magic was gone. Ruth struck out three times and popped out.

His final game was against Philadelphia May 30. In his lone at-bat, he struck out for the 1,330th time in his career and hurt his knee. He officially retired June 1.

A year later, he was inducted with the inaugural class into the Hall of Fame.

Ruth's record of 714 home runs, one of the most hallowed individual numbers in sports, was surpassed by Henry Aaron in 1974. It was also eclipsed along with Aaron's career mark of 755 during the steroid era.

As for the Ruthian feat at Forbes Field 75 years ago, a lot of words have been written. No one has ever suggested placing an asterisk by it.

"It was probably a couple of years before I realized how important that day was and is," said Marucci. "The Babe was just an extraordinary fellow."

Robert Dvorchak can be reached at

Monday, May 24, 2010

McCutchen is a treat

Watching McCutchen play is a triple treat

Monday, May 24, 2010
By Ron Cook, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Compared to other Pirates fans who have paid their way into PNC Park this season, the 23,045 there Sunday on a spectacular spring afternoon were treated to that rarest of treats. A first, actually.

No, not a hit by Pirates second baseman Aki Iwamura. That's a good guess, though.

Not a home run by the home team. Catcher Ryan Doumit's shot in the 10th inning wasn't the Pirates' first of the season, merely their first in 62 innings.

Not even a win by the Pirates. The 3-2 victory against the Atlanta Braves -- constructed primarily by Doumit's home run and seven superb innings of pitching by starter Zach Duke -- ran their PNC Park record to 11-12.

PITTSBURGH - MAY 23: Andrew McCutchen(notes) #22 of the Pittsburgh Pirates evades a thrown ball while sliding into third base past Omar Infante(notes) #4 of the Atlanta Braves during the game on May 23, 2010 at PNC Park in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)

I'm talking about a triple by Pirates center fielder Andrew McCutchen.

It's hard to imagine a more exciting play at any ballyard.

It has been that way as long as there has been baseball.

If you're old enough to remember Roberto Clemente playing here, what struck you most about his game? His fabulous throwing arm, sure. His 3,000 hits, no question. But I can't stop thinking about the amazing sight of him digging around second base at Forbes Field, headed for third, his batting helmet flying off along his way to a triple.

Man, I can close my eyes and still see that.

What a joy it was to watch McCutchen do it Sunday.

For most of us, anyway.

"I was standing there just watching him and I thought, 'Man, that guy is super-fast,'" Braves starter Kris Medlen told the Atlanta media after serving up the sixth-inning pitch to McCutchen.

Everyone in the park knew it was going to be a triple as soon as it left the bat. The drive to right-center couldn't have come at a better time for the Pirates. They were trailing Medlen and the Braves, 1-0, and, with their punchless offense doing what it normally does, which is to say nothing, appeared headed to a fourth consecutive defeat. McCutchen's triple gave them life and led to their first run when first baseman Steve Pearce delivered a sacrifice fly.

"I'm always thinking extra base," McCutchen said. "If it's in the gap, I'm thinking triple. If it's a single up the middle, I'm thinking about trying to get to second base. I'm always thinking extra base."

Surprisingly, it took McCutchen until May 23 -- his 43rd game of the season -- to get that first triple. Last season after making it to the big leagues and playing lights-out ball, he had nine triples in 108 games.

"If you keep doing the right things, eventually they'll come -- just like doubles and home runs," McCutchen said.

So far, this is a kid who has done just about everything right. On most days and nights, he's the one good reason -- maybe the only reason -- to buy a ticket to watch the Pirates.

"If people are saying that, I guess that's cool," McCutchen said.

That's exactly what they are saying.

We're coming up on the one-year anniversary of McCutchen's promotion to the major leagues -- June 4. His numbers after what amounts to a full season -- 151 games and 600 at-bats -- are staggering: A .297 average with 36 doubles, 10 triples, 17 home runs, 67 RBIs, 102 runs scored and 34 stolen bases.

It's no wonder McCutchen has settled nicely into the third hole in a Pirates' lineup that otherwise has very little to offer. He is hitting .323 this season, the sixth-best average in the National League. There's no doubt the doubles, triples and home runs will come -- and keep coming.

McCutchen said he doesn't feel the pressure of having to carry the Pirates -- "I'm just playing baseball" -- but it's there. You had better believe it's there. McCutchen is very much the face of the franchise, just as Sidney Crosby is with the Penguins and Ben Roethlisberger is -- or, at least, was -- with the Steelers.

"I've never called myself that," McCutchen said. "If other people say that, so be it. I'm just Andrew McCutchen. I'm just trying to help us win games."

It's nice to think better players are on their way from the minors to provide more support for McCutchen. There's no reason Neil Walker shouldn't be playing second base tonight in Cincinnati instead of the weak-hitting Iwamura, who, somehow, delivered a single and a double Sunday to raise his average all the way to .161. Outfielder Jose Tabata and pitcher Brad Lincoln should be called up any day. Third baseman Pedro Alvarez shouldn't be far behind.

"Their time is coming," McCutchen said. "They just have to keep doing what they're doing. They'll be here soon enough. But, right now, all I'm focused on is what we have here. We're trying to win as many games as we can."

These Pirates will lose a lot more than they win. That's why the game Sunday on such a nice day was so enjoyable.

That and watching McCutchen.

That's a pleasure every game.

Ron Cook: Ron Cook can be heard on the "Vinnie and Cook" show weekdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on 93.7 The Fan. More articles by this author

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Franco, Mr. Rooney And Me: A True Tale Of The Immaculate Reception

by Michael Bean (Blitz) on May 17, 2010

A true treat to conclude our series of posts highlighting some of the contents of the preseason publication I did last year for MSP. We wrap things up with an amazing story from Mike Silverstein, a native Pittsburgher with all sorts of fascinating stories to share about his personal and professional life. Some of you may have read in the Post Gazette the tribute he wrote to his brother Lewis following his sad passing last summer. It was a touching piece that shes light on the type of caring person Mike is. You're probably also familiar with one of his cousin's, a Silverstein by the name of Shel who instilled life lessons in countless numbers of kids with his poetry. For us regulars at BTSC, you may simply know Silverstein as the quick witted and wise Homer J.

Silverstein is a life long veteran of the TV and radio industries - first in his native Pittsburgh, for a brief while in Cleveland, and for the past 30+ years, Washington D.C. Truly an honor to have him hanging out around the site and to have included him in the publication last year. I'm also pleased he'll be writing about Myron Cope in this year's edition. I hope this makes you look forward to reading what he has in store for us all next.

Thanks to all of you who purchased a copy last year. I hope this series of posts hasn't discouraged you from doing so again this year - I struggled with the decision to share these for those of you who were so kind as to check it out last summer. Though I'll probably share a thing or two again next year, I'm hoping that the decision to do so this year doesn't prompt you to hold off until this time in 2011, but instead convinces you to pick up a copy when it's available later this summer.

Enjoy and pass along to your friends in the Nation. This one's a gem.

-Michael Bean


'Franco, Mr. Rooney And Me: A True Tale Of The Immaculate Reception'

by Mike Silverstein

This story begins in the summer of 1972, in the green hills of Westmoreland County. Not at the Steelers training camp in Latrobe, but down the road in Ligonier, at the exclusive Laurel Valley Country Club.

I was a 24-year old kid working my first real radio job as summer relief fill-in at WJAS Radio, an NBC owned and operated station in Pittsburgh that featured a news and talk format. I was a 24-year old kid working my first real radio job as summer relief fill-in at WJAS Radio, an NBC owned and operated station in Pittsburgh that featured a news and talk format.

Laurel Valley was hosting a PGA event, and had bought time on our station. We were not only running commercials, we were also covering the devil out of the event and promoting it any way we could.

It was the long-forgotten PGA National Team Championship, an even t in which golfers competed in teams of two. Of course, the event was held in Arnold Palmer's backyard of western Pennsylvania, and Arnie was teamed with Jack Nicklaus. Skeptics - and there were many - called it The Arnie and Jack Open, and said it was simply a way to guarantee Arnie another victory in front of the hometown folks. After all, Arnie and Jack had won three of the last four years the event had been played.

Two things happened on the tournament's first day: one, Jack's aching back acted up and he had to cancel, leaving Palmer scrambling to find a partner. He ended up picking a young fellow from Wake Forest, his alma mater, who was a fine lad but not the caliber of partner The Golden Bear would have been. And two, there was a call in the press tent for someone to provide on-air updates for ABC Radio Sports.

One of my bosses, also hanging around the press tent, suggested I step up and offer to help. I was just a part-timer and WJAS was in the middle of being sold to new owners. Even though it meant helping out a competing network, I might as well take advantage of any opportunities that come my way, he advised.

I told the tournament's media relations director that I'd be willing to do updates for ABC, and he put me on the phone with John Chanin at ABC Radio Sports in New York. Chanin told me I'd be on the ‘World of Sports' show with Lou Boda, which ran six minutes past the hour. I'd simply have to do 25 second reports, consisting of a quick preview of the leader board, and I'd get paid $25 bucks a pop. And $25 bucks for any usable tape of the winner, the runner-up, or whatever. Easy money.

The tournament was less than a rousing success. Palmer and his partner Jack Lewis finished far back from the winners, the immortal team of Kermit Zarley and Babe Hiskey. Crowds were disappointing and the event was scrubbed from the PGA calendar, never to be played again. But the folks at ABC were apparently satisfied with my work and they asked me if I would be available to cover the Pirates and maybe even the Steelers on occasion. I eagerly accepted their offer.

The Steelers began the 1972 season with the smart money considering them the ‘same old Steelers.' They had gone 6-8 the year before, and 5-9 the year before that. This was a franchise with a solid tradition of losing.

The season began with a home opener at Three Rivers against the Oakland Raiders. My producer, John Chanin, was a big Raiders fan. He asked me to cover the game.

Chanin was a former high school offensive lineman who was slightly overweight, wore rumpled short sleeved white shirts, with the shirttails often hanging out from his pants. He had a crew cut when everyone else was sporting big hair and polyester clothes. He looked and acted like Lou Grant. He was a proud graduate of Passaic High School in New Jersey, where he had played alongside his lifelong friend, Raiders defensive coach Ray Malavsi. Both were big fans of another Passaic grad, Oakland defensive back Jack Tatum.

The Steelers got out to a big lead in the season opener, leading 27-7 after three quarters. But mad bomber Daryle Lamonica came off the Oakland bench to lead a furious fourth quarter comeback before the Steelers eventually held on for the victory, 34-28. I didn't do any live reports during the game, but I did manage to get some taped interviews afterwards. It was my first time in an NFL press box. There were free hot dogs, soda and beer in the press lounge at halftime. I could get used to this pretty easily, I thought to myself.

The next three games of the 1972 season were away from Three Rivers Stadium before the Steelers returned home for an October 15th contest against the Houston Oilers. Once again, Chanin asked me to get some post-game interviews. During the game, Pittsburgh's starting running back Preston Pearson was injured and replaced by a still untested, first round draft choice named Franco Harris. Franco rose to the occasion, carrying the ball 19 times for 115 yards. The Steelers steamrolled the Oilers, 24-7.

By this time, I was no longer working as a summer vacation replacement at WJAS. I had, in fact, been given a three hour evening talk show on the network to compliment my game day duties for ABC. It was a big promotion, though only temporary, while everyone nervously waited for the sale of the station to be completed. At the same time, I was also preparing to move out of my parents' home and into my own apartment. Franco Harris, remarkably, was living in a second floor walkup apartment on Graham Street, in Pittsburgh's Garfield or Friendship neighborhood. It was maybe two blocks out of my drive to work. I had heard he was taking the 71 Negley Bus to practice because he did not own a car. After the Oilers game, I asked him what time he usually left for practice. Turned out that on either Mondays or Tuesdays, we went in at the same time. He gave me his phone number and over the course of the next few months, I picked him up and gave him a ride into town on several occasions.

Two more wins against New England and Buffalo had set up a midseason showdown against Kenny Anderson and the Cincinnati Bengals. Both teams were 5-2, meaning this one was for the division lead. On Monday of that week, I got a call from Chanin:

"Mike," he said, "We're gonna have a phone installed in the press box for you, and you'll do live hourly updates - starting with a set-up at 12:06. We'll use you every hour, for our featured game of the day."

The Steelers crushed the Bengals, 40-17, in a game that confirmed to the world that these were not the same old Steelers.

For the remainder of the season, there was a phone in the press box for me, and ABC Radio ‘World of Sports' was covering the Steelers every week.

At about that point in the season, somebody in the Steelers ‘family' put Franco in contact with a Chrysler or Dodge dealer. They hooked the rookie up with a car. That meant I did not drive him into town any more, but since I had his phone number, I called him on occasion to be on my Sunday night show - which began at 11:05 PM. He would graciously talk on the air for a few minutes about each week's game. One Sunday, obviously aching, Franco said, "Mike, you know, I'm really tired."

It was at that moment that I realized that Franco Harris, the most recognized and celebrated young athlete in Pittsburgh, had better things to do than talk on the radio at 11:05 on a Sunday night. I never called again, realizing that what he needed and wanted most at that hour was sleep.

The Steelers finished the regular season 11-3 and were set for a rematch of their early season shootout against the Oakland Raiders. The game would be at Three Rivers Stadium, and Steelers media relations director Joe Gordon informed me that because of the overflow of national media descending on Pittsburgh, I would be working out of the baseball press box. I had no idea of it at the time, but Gordon had just done me an enormous favor.

December 23, 1972 was an unseasonably warm day in Pittsburgh. I arrived to the stadium early to find my seat in the press box. The football press box was on the 50-yard line, but the one for baseball where I would be working from was closer to the end zone. It was also right next to the elevator. (Hold that thought). In the second row was a seat with my name on the ledge in front of it. There was a game program, a few pages of statistics and other information for each team, as well as a large cardboard roster and depth chart. There was also a telephone installed at my seat.

I unscrewed the mouthpiece and attached a small device with two alligator clips to the prongs inside the phone. Then I took the mini-plug from the device and plugged it into my Sony tape recorder. I pushed play and was pleased to hear clearly through the receiver a recent interview I had conducted. The phone not only worked, but I could even play the tape through the phone.. No problem. I was good to go.

As the stadium filled, you could see the beginnings of what would become Steeler Nation. Gerala's Gorillas were in the end zone. Jack Ham's ‘Dobre Shunka' banner was hanging from the second deck. And the red, green, and white banners of Franco's Italian Army were everywhere.

Franco Harris, the rookie who had gained just 28 yards coming off the bench in the season opener against Oakland, was the talk of the football world. Al Vento, who owned a pizza shop in East Liberty next to Peabody High School, and Tony Stagno, who ran a bakery out past Larimer Avenue, had started the Army with a sign, a helmet, and a flag. The idea caught fire. Myron Cope even flew Al and Tony out to Palm Springs to meet with Frank Sinatra to formally induct The Chairman of the Board as Commanding General of the Army.

At about 11:45 a.m. I called New York to check in. John Chanin told me had had talked to his friend Ray Malavsi. Malavsi told him this would be no repeat of the early season shootout, and the Raiders were more than capable of stopping the Steelers this time. I didn't want to debate my boss, so I simply said I was ready to go and awaiting orders. He said I would be live at six minutes past each hour, beginning at 12:06 p.m. and continuing until the end of the game.

At about 11:45 a.m. I called New York to check in. John Chanin told me had had talked to his friend Ray Malavsi. Malavsi told him this would be no repeat of the early season shootout, and the Raiders were more than capable of stopping the Steelers this time. I didn't want to debate my boss, so I simply said I was ready to go and awaiting orders. He said I would be live at six minutes past each hour, beginning at 12:06 p.m. and continuing until the end of the game.

Malavsi was correct about the game not being a shootout. Both defenses dominated, and the first half was scoreless. The Steelers finally mounted a serious drive on offense in the third quarter, taking it down to the Oakland 2-yard line. Unfortunately, they had to settle for a Gerela field goal. Pittsburgh took the lead on the game's first score, 3-0.

The Steelers defense continued to stifle the Raiders after intermission. Pittsburgh was not exactly marching up and down the field on offense, but in the middle of the fourth quarter, the Steelers once again moved the ball into Gerela field goal range. His kick was true, making it 6-0 Pittsburgh.

The Raiders offense, quiet all game, finally came alive with time running out in the fourth quarter. Kenny Stabler, who had replaced Daryle Lamonica at quarterback, led Oakland on a desperation drive into Pittsburgh territory with less than two minutes remaining. With Oakland on the Pittsburgh 30, Steelers defensive coordinator Bud Carson dialed up a blitz, but Stabler slithered his way around the inside rush and circled left for a touchdown. George Blanda's extra point made it 7-6 with 1:13 left in the game.

The ensuing kickoff was a touchback, forcing Terry Bradshaw and the Steelers offense to begin at its own 20 yard line with only 73 ticks of the clock remaining. Bradshaw got things started with a nine yard completion to Harris, followed by an 11-yard completion to Frenchy Fuqua. There were now just 53 seconds left and the Steelers were on their own 40, still about 25 to 30 yards away from reasonable field goal range.

All of my live reports had gone well, but it was now close to 3:30 p.m. and I was beginning to worry about getting tape for the next hour's segment. Maybe I should head down to the field soon and interview somebody as soon as the game was over.

On first down, Bradshaw's pass to John McMakin was broken up by Jack Tatum. 37 seconds left. On second down, Bradshaw's pass for Ron Shanklin fell incomplete. 31 seconds remained. Then on third down, Bradshaw looked for McMakin again, and once more, it was Passaic High School's Jack Tatum who broke up the attempt. Fourth down now and just 22 seconds left to play.

It was just after 3:30 p.m. now and I was torn between watching the final play and grabbing the elevator to get a piece of tape for the next show. I made the wrong choice.

I ran the ten or twenty steps to the elevator, but when it came, the green ‘Up' arrow was flashing, indicating it was going up to the fifth level - away from the field level where I wanted to go. So I ran back to the baseball press box and watched the last play. I was standing at the back of the box, next to my colleague John Cigna, who was covering the game for my radio station, WJAS.

As Bradshaw was flushed from the pocket, I clenched my right first. And when his deflected pass was scooped out of the air by Franco Harris just inches above the ground, I raised that fist and hollered, "Run, you Paisan!"

Cigna and I both cheered and laughed, as Franco sprinted the last 42 yards into history. Then, it was my turn to run. I sprinted for the world's slowest elevator as it was then finally descended back to level four where I awaited.

Mr. Rooney was on board, along with Bob Prince and Phil, the elevator operator. The Chief had an unlit cigar in his mouth, and was unaware of the reason for the thunderous roar that had just shaken the stadium. He was simply on his way down to the locker room to thank his team for their effort and to congratulate them on the successful season. He didn't want to get in the way of the sportswriters and broadcasters, so he was willing to miss the game's final play. Didn't want to get in the way! That's the kind of man Art Rooney was.

Excitedly, I told him that Bradshaw had thrown a pass to Fuqua, that there was a collision and the ball was deflected to Franco - who took it into the end zone!

Even though I was holding my Sony TC-100 tape recorder in my hands, I didn't have the presence of mind to turn it on to record his reaction for history. I just wanted to tell Mr. Rooney what had happened.

His response was a broad smile, and something like, ‘Well, I'll be. How about that?"

Bob Prince, whose reason for being on that elevator remains lost to history, was speechless. It was also a matter of history repeating itself for The Gunner. Prince was in Forbes Field for Mazeroski's World Series home run, but was in the Pirates locker room, with no television set, waiting to do post-game interviews. He never saw that ‘Shot Heard ‘Round The World.' Bob Prince was ‘in the house' for the two greatest moments in Pittsburgh sports history, and ironically, never saw either.

When the elevator reached the ground floor, I quickly exited and headed for the field. Six seconds remained in the game, but there was a long delay while John Madden argued and fumed while the refs consulted with NFL Officiating Head Art McNally about the legality of the Harris touchdown.

Since I had a field pass hanging from my neck, I slipped out of the tunnel and took a quick left turn onto the field and down to the end zone...then crossed over to the Steelers side of the field where I made a beeline for Franco Harris. Nobody stopped me.

"Frank! Frank!" I hollered, turning on the tape recorder. "Tell me what happened."

Franco was still panting, short of breath. It wasn't so much from the play, as much as from being on the bottom of the celebratory pile. He turned to face me, and walked a step or two in my direction.

Speaking into my microphone, Franco recounted how he was back to block on the play, but when the pocket collapsed and Bradshaw started to scramble, he headed into the flat. He kept trying to catch his breath while reliving the play, giving his account an amazing feel of excitement. He said he headed in that direction when the pass was thrown to Fuqua because maybe he could block somebody. When the ball came caroming to him, he just caught it and kept running.

I had my golden piece of tape - the ‘Money Cut' we call it - and, once again, I let the excitement of the moment overcome my newsgathering opportunity. I asked no follow-up questions, such as how he felt, or what his thoughts were, or whether anything like this had ever happened to him before. Instead, I just turned off the tape recorder, watched Roy Gerela's squib kick - the last play of the game - and then ran back to the tunnel and the press elevator.

When the elevator came down - with the first mob of sportswriters getting off - I waited to get on with my precious single cut of tape.

Phil took me up to four. I walked the few steps to my seat in the baseball press box, and I called ABC's (800) number and said I had a cut of Franco Harris.

"Holy shit," said John Chanin, "NBC is still on the air and they haven't even had him! How did you do that?"

"I told you he was a friend of mine," was my reply, slightly embellishing my working relationship with the man of the hour.

"Hey Lou," Chanin hollered to anchor Lou Boda, "Mike's got tape of Franco Harris for the Four-Oh-Six!"

I unscrewed the mouthpiece and put the alligator clips on the two prongs, then inserted the mini-plug into my tape recorder. I fed the tape into the phone. It was 3:51 p.m. It not only led the 4:06 p.m. sportscast, it was the lede on the 4 p.m. ABC Radio network newscasts.

After I fed my 17 seconds of paradise, Chanin asked "Did you get any more Franco? Did you ask him what his thoughts were or anything else we can use?"

"No," I said, thinking fast and covering my butt. "I'll get him in the locker room. I wanted you to get the lede in time to get it on the air this hour. Lemme go now!"

"Great!! Good work! Go!" said Channing with a sense of urgency.

"Wow," said Lou Boda. "Great work Mike!"

I took the next elevator down to the ground level and headed to the locker room, where Terry Bradshaw was in standing by his stall in the corner, sporting a huge grin and shaking his head in disbelief. "I've played football since the second grade and nothing like that ever happened before. It'll never happen again."

Franco relieved the play over and over again for various reporters and camera crews, and center Ray Mansfield spoke for Steelers fans everywhere when he told us, "I went from the depths of despair to the apex of ecstasy."

Chuck Noll kept telling everyone who would listen that there was an important lesson to be learned here about effort. Some players just shook their heads and smiled.

A quick run over to the Oakland locker room yielded an interview with Tackle Gene Upshaw, who spoke for his team when he said, "It's a helluva way to lose. He just threw the ball up for grabs, a desperation pass, and it bounced into a guy's hands. One fluke play. I guess that's football, but I can't accept it."

Thirty-seven years later, John Madden still can't.

Madden was being interviewed by a pack of reporters, but I figured I already had enough good stuff, so I took the mother lode of tape back up to the press box and fed it to New York.

As I finished feeding the material, John Chanin said that Franco seemed to be a very nice guy and that if Franco ever wanted to get away for a week or so, John had a place in Mexico where he could go fishing. Franco was more than welcome to join him, Lou and some of the other folks from ABC, Chanin said. I told him that Franco was, indeed, a good guy, and that I would relay the information. Chanin then asked me when I was coming to New York to take a look at the radio sports and news operation. I said I'd like that.

A week later, the Steelers lost to the unbeaten Miami Dolphins, but forces had been set in motion that brought about the Steelers dynasty and four Lombardi Trophies later that decade.

Other forces, too. I went up to New York and got to meet the crew. I spent a couple more years in local radio and TV brushing up my skills and gaining some badly needed maturity. I also continued working as a stringer for ABC, covering events upon request. In 1978, I began a thirty year career at ABC Radio News. Shortly after that, John Chanin left ABC. He went on to start America's first all sports radio format, WFAN in New York, which became the highest billing radio station in the country.

The sounds and excitement of that afternoon have never left me, but the one I can still hear most clearly is that of Coach Noll, lecturing us in the locker room. His trademark thin smile was much wider than usual, and there was even the hint of joy in his voice and a twinkle in his steely eyes.

"When you are on the ground or just standing around, you cease to be a football player," he said speaking softly, carefully crafting and caressing each word.

The Emperor, The Professor, then explained it all in three short sentences, and gave us a lesson for life.

"Franco made that play because he never quit on the play. He kept running, he kept hustling. Good things happen to people who hustle."

Words to live by.

In Triple-A, Pedro Alvarez prepares for the Pirates' call

Sunday, May 23, 2010

TOLEDO, Ohio -- Several hours before the Pirates' Indianapolis farm club played a Triple-A game here last weekend, a visitor entered the clubhouse and looked around. He said nothing, but the notebook and wardrobe screamed "reporter" -- and his intent was just as obvious.

"Pedro!" boomed a voice from one of the locker stalls.

Pedro Alvarez, seated on a couch in the next room with teammate Jose Tabata, failed to hear the page, but he was quickly identified. When the media show up, everyone knows the target.

Right now for Alvarez, it's places like Toledo and Scranton and Pawtucket. Bright lights and big cities await.

He is a 6-foot-3, 225-pound, power-hitting third baseman, a former No. 2 pick overall with a swing and contract equally as sweet.

But Alvarez represents something more. A generation of Pirates fans has come of age with no recollection of winning, 17 straight losing seasons and counting. Alvarez, the Dominican-born son of a New York cab driver, stands for hope and promise, the dawn of a new era, an end to the futility.

That's the idea, anyway.

The Pirates' top prospect Pedro Alvarez.
Christopher Horner, Tribune-Review file

Alvarez is the whole package, brightly wrapped in potential, a dirty word in sports with too many unpleasant usages: untapped potential, unfulfilled potential, etc. But so far, potential is all we have. A hot prospect is still but a prospect.

The ex-Vanderbilt star is 23, not yet halfway through his second season of professional baseball. He never has worn a Pirates uniform except in spring training. He has stepped inside PNC Park once, a quick tour when he signed his $6.3 million contract in 2008 after a long delay orchestrated by his agent.

The fans were upset, but that was then. Now they can't wait for his arrival. The buzz had early June as the target date, and it's almost June. But general manager Neal Huntington and others are giving the word "patience" a workout. Alvarez might have to take a number behind pitcher Brad Lincoln and outfielder Tabata, who are more experienced and currently more consistent. Second baseman Neil Walker might join the big club sooner, pending Aki Iwamura's sore hamstring.

And when Alvarez does come up, where will he play? Do the Pirates immediately plug him in at third base, currently occupied by veteran Andy LaRoche? Does LaRoche go to second, where he has played all of three big-league games, or the bench? Does Alvarez move to first, where he has never played?

He seems to have the answers to all those questions.

"(Third base is) the position I play, and I plan on playing that position for the rest of my career," Alvarez said. "I've done many things this organization has wanted me to do, and I'm willing to do whatever I need to play at the next level. All I can say is, I put in a 100 percent effort to better myself at third base, and all I ask for is that opportunity."

Indianapolis manager Frank Kremblas said: "He has not done anything except play third base. And I have not been told anything other than that. My job is to get him ready to play third base."

That, apparently, is that.

Wherever he plays, Alvarez still has work to do. Defensively, that means "learning how to play every day and focus on every pitch," Kremblas said. At the plate, despite impressive home run and RBI numbers, Alvarez strikes out a lot and has trouble with left-handers.

"He's going through a learning curve," Indy hitting coach Jeff Branson said. "Can he go up there and survive in the big leagues right now offensively? Absolutely, without a doubt. Is he gonna go up there and tear it up? No. If you could take him up there right now, then he would survive. That's not what we're trying to get him to do. We're trying to get him to be an impact player for us, in Pittsburgh. We still have a ways to go for him to be an impact player. That's the learning curve."

Added Kremblas: "Pedro's making progress. He's learning how he's gonna get pitched in certain situations. It's gaining experience more than anything. He's figuring out what his approach should be, against who. He's learning and doing a good job of making adjustments."

Against the Mud Hens and one of those pesky left-handers, Alvarez struck out looking and hit a weak fly ball in his first two at-bats. His third time up, he fell behind, 0-2. Then he rocketed a fastball off the wall in center, a 402-foot triple that just missed going out.

"You want to (adjust) pitch to pitch as opposed to at-bat to at-bat," he said afterward. "But you've got to start somewhere, and I think I'm making progress."

He has been streaky. Named the Pirates' top minor leaguer in 2009, Alvarez dealt with tendinitis and weight issues before starting in Triple-A with three homers and seven RBI in his first three games. Then he tailed off, got hot and tailed off again. The Pirates are watching closely but say they are not concerned.

"You can get caught up in short-term performance, and we try not to do that," said Kyle Stark, the team's director of player development.

Among the many things the club likes is Alvarez's run-producing efficiency. Through Friday's game, he had a high number of RBI (37) on relatively few hits (38 in 155 at-bats for a .245 average). Seven of his nine homers had come with men on base.

"There are some guys that drive runs in, and you can't teach that," Kremblas said.

It also helps that his teammates, especially Tabata, are running more and annoying opposing pitchers.

"I think teams have paid a lot of attention to us with runners on," Alvarez said. "There might be a split-second lack of concentration by the pitcher. It works to my advantage."

But learning to hit consistently is an "endless cycle," he said. "You start hitting fastballs, and here comes the off-speed. You struggle with that, then you start hitting the off-speed, then here comes the fastball again. It's a matter of how quickly you can make the adjustments."

Some come more quickly than others.

"It's a matter of comfort as he goes along," Stark said. "As he sees left-handers more, as a good hitter, he makes adjustments."

Added Branson: "We're only talking about a second full year of pro ball. So he still has a ways to go. But he learns every night. We put a plan together for him every night. And, for the most part, he goes out and executes his plan. Now, is he gonna execute it every night? No. I mean, nobody does.

"If we were that consistent, then we wouldn't be here."

More Pirates headlines
Pirates fall to Braves
No clear winner in McLouth deal
Harper's more than hype
Braves make quick work of Ohlendorf, Bucs
Andy LaRoche moves to leadoff slot
Brewers edge past Pirates
Pirates send reliever Taschner to 15-day DL

No more Ben stories!

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Enough with the Ben Roethlisberger stories.

Every time I turn around, somebody's telling me about the day Ben supposedly did this or the night Ben supposedly did that. It has become as irritating as the redhead's never-ending tales in "American Pie."

"This one time, at Ben camp ..."

It's a classic example of "heard" behavior -- as in, "I heard Ben yelled at a Giant Eagle checkout clerk five years ago." Piggybacking on legitimate accounts of Roethlisberger's boorish behavior, people are liable to tell you anything.

Ben triggered the stock-market meltdown.

Ben caused the Gulf of Mexico oil spill.

Ben played goal for the Penguins in Game 7.


How about we let the recent Sports Illustrated cover piece serve as the last Big Ben expose we see for a while? It contained enough anecdotes to last at least through the bye week. (I'm guessing the cover shot -- a scruffy Roethlisberger pictured under the headline "The Hangover" -- won't be framed for Big Ben's man cave anytime soon.)

The story filled in the rest of the country on what a lot of us already knew: Roethlisberger often has behaved like an arrogant jerk during his six years as Steelers quarterback. That doesn't mean he committed any crimes. It just means he turned off a significant portion of the locker room and fan base, despite his mostly brilliant play.

Imagine if he were coming off a poor season.

I think it's a good thing Roethlisberger was exposed (resist punch line) over the past few months. If he isn't jarred into some form of humility by such a massive backlash -- on the heels of a second sexual assault allegation within a year -- then nothing will work.

What's amazing is that it took so long for stories of his ill-mannered ways to reach print. I never broached the matter, because I did not have on-the-record sources. A few weeks ago, I looked to see whether anything had been written on the topic from Roethlisberger's early years. I finally came across a piece in the Pittsburgh City Paper, for which local radio host Mark Madden deserves immense credit.

Madden, it seems, was the first media person to suggest Roethlisberger might not be the humble guy he seemed to be.

In a column titled "Is Ben getting too big for his britches?" that was published late in Roethlisberger's rookie year, Madden wrote of how "tales flow freely about Roethlisberger's ego growing proportionately to his accomplishments."

What sorts of tales?

Wrote Madden: "Roethlisberger snubbed the Pirates' Jason Bay, pointedly ignoring (Bay) when he came to Steelers headquarters for a Pirates-requested photo op. Chukky Okobi openly accused Roethlisberger, once a close friend, of 'big-timing' him since becoming a star. Roethlisberger berated a Steelers PR type for allowing a TV interview to run over the agreed-upon five minutes. Jerome Bettis told a reporter that the Steelers 'have some young guys who don't know what it means to be a Pittsburgh Steeler.' His eyes were fixed on Roethlisberger. All of these incidents were witnessed. None are mere rumor."

Then came a warning:

"Maybe you can't blame the kid for having a swelled cranium," Madden wrote. "He's just 22, and he's having perhaps the best season of any rookie in any sport ever. But it's the sort of thing the Steelers need to keep in check while it can still be controlled."

Whoops. That check bounced.

Five years later, credible sources are going on the record to speak of Roethlisberger's chronically appalling behavior. Mark Baranowski, owner of The Cabana Bar in Wexford, spoke to SI, then appeared on my radio show on 93.7 "The Fan."

"I know a lot of people in Pittsburgh, and (Roethlisberger) just treats everybody like crap," Baranowski said. "He doesn't respect anybody. Ben just feels like the city of Pittsburgh owes him, whether he goes to a golf course, a bar, a restaurant, a charity basketball game. I mean, it's story after story after story."

Fair enough, Mark -- and kudos for having the courage to say as much in a town where folks take their football very seriously.

But enough with the stories for now.

Let's see if Roethlisberger can write a new one.

More Columnist Joe Starkey headlines
Starkey: Steelers' corners on the spot
Starkey: Sit-down chat with Pens
Starkey: Penguins disintegrate in Game 7
Fleury, Malkin steal show
Starkey: NBC ruining Penguins' party
Starkey: Pens' run won't be Staal-ed
Starkey: Extend Bucs' GM, manager

Friday, May 21, 2010

It's crunch time for Steelers RB Mendenhall

Friday, May 21, 2010

Steelers running back Rashard Mendenhall began his NFL career by absorbing a crunching tackle that derailed his rookie season.

A fractured shoulder, the result of a crunching hit from Baltimore linebacker Ray Lewis, suffered in his first start led to concerns about Mendenhall's toughness and ability to run inside. Mendenhall answered those worries with an impressive second season featuring 1,108 rushing yards at 4.6 per carry.

More impressively, Mendenhall gained more than half of those yards after contact. According to, Mendenhall ranked 14th in the NFL, fifth in the AFC and second among AFC North running backs with 64.1 percent of his yards coming after contact.

"As a running back, you want to get all the yards you can," said Mendenhall, who accumulated 686 of his rushing yards after contact in 2009. "When the journey's over, it's over, but you don't want to go down easily — whether it's making guys miss, running through guys or being able to take it the distance."

Steelers starting running back Rashard Mendenhall picked up a good bulk of his yards on the ground last season after contact.

Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Mendenhall's numbers compare favorably with his peers. Baltimore's Ray Rice accumulated 33 more yards after contact on 12 more carries. Mendenhall averaged 3.0 yards on his carries after contact, compared with Rice's 2.8-yard average.

Noted for his quick bursts into the secondary, including a 60-yard sprint last season, Mendenhall, by the numbers, also displayed toughness between the tackles. Running backs coach Kirby Wilson said Mendenhall's nickname is "RAC" for his ability to "run after contact."

"He's got tremendous lower-body strength. There's a lot of times when people don't recognize his ability to run through arm tackles and first contact. Very seldom does the first tackler or first hitter ever get him down," Wilson said Thursday. "Those are the hidden runs that add up over the course of the year."

Since he is entrenched as the team's featured back after the departure of Willie Parker, look for Mendenhall to handle a greater workload.

"He has the unique ability to play every down, every situation. You can probably count that many guys on one hand who can do that in this league," Wilson said. "He's an outstanding pass protector. He's got unbelievable hands. He can run inside. He can run outside. He can run off-tackle, misdirection runs. He does a lot of things for this offense that are kind of in the background right now.

"He's got great power and will only get better over the next four to five years."

Mendenhall said his first two seasons provided some insight into how to prepare for 2010. Sturdy at 5-foot-10 and 225 pounds, he's lifting weights to increase strength (the better to shed tacklers), and he's learning how to think during the game and make split-second awareness.

"I'm a lot more comfortable. Last year was almost like my first year," he said. "Just having that experience, things happen a lot quicker, a lot more natural — being more myself. After going through it, you kind of know what to expect, you know how to train, what works for your body. I tried to prepare myself as well as I could going into this year."

Said Wilson: "History says young guys always have to develop who they are when they get into this league. They have a style that was successful in college. When they get to this league, they have to adjust — they develop and find out who they are. It's fun to see him develop into that now."

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Penguins not interested in trading Malkin

Friday, May 21, 2010

Evgeni Malkin will play for the Penguins next season.

Two sources told the Tribune-Review that Malkin, the Penguins' No. 2 center and co-highest paid player, will not be traded during the offseason.

MONTREAL- MAY 6: Evgeni Malkin(notes) #71 of the Pittsburgh Penguins stick handles the puck while being defended by Roman Hamrlik(notes) #44 of the Montreal Canadiens in Game Four of the Eastern Conference Semifinals during the 2010 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at the Bell Centre on May 6, 2010 in Montreal, Quebec, Canada. (Photo by Richard Wolowicz/Getty Images)

The topic of trading Malkin has become a hot-button issue on the local talk-show circuit in the days after the Penguins were eliminated from the Stanley Cup playoffs in the second round by the Montreal Canadiens.

Malkin and top center Sidney Crosby combined to score two goals in that series. Each player will count $8.7 million against the NHL's salary cap next season, and the Penguins are committed to $21.4 million among Crosby, Malkin and No. 3 center Jordan Staal for the next three seasons.

No other team has that much cap-space tied into three centers, but Penguins management believes this blueprint is the franchise's best bet to win the Stanley Cup in the first season at Consol Energy Center.

Malkin and Crosby finished 1-2 in playoff scoring during the Penguins' 2009 run to the Stanley Cup.

There has been debate among fans - though not internally within the Penguins - that moving one of the so-called "Big Three" centers could help address franchise needs for a scoring-line wing and high-end prospects.

The Penguins have entered the last two seasons within about $1 million of the cap, and ownership has signed off on again spending to the upper limit next season. The crop of NHL players expected to test free agency is considered strong at defense and weak at wing.

Malkin, 23, produced career lows in goals (28), points (77) and games (67) during the regular season. The previous year he paced the NHL with 113 points and won the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP for the Stanley Cup champion Penguins.

He has served as an alternate captain the last two seasons and will enter the second season of a five-year extension. He was the second overall pick in the 2003 entry draft. The Penguins selected Crosby at first overall in 2005 and Staal at second overall in 2006.

Crosby, 22, is a finalist for the Hart Trophy (MVP) and Ted Lindsay Award (best player) after finishing the regular season tied for the NHL lead with 51 goals. Staal, 21, is a first-time finalist for the Selke Trophy (best defensive forward).

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Penguins face tough decision with free agency

Friday, May 21, 2010
By Ron Cook, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Sometimes, things just don't make any sense ...

After the 2007-08 NHL season, the Penguins lost good friend Marian Hossa, Jarkko Ruutu and Adam Hall to free agency and would have lost Ryan Malone if they hadn't traded him to the Tampa Bay Lightning first. The losses hurt the team so much that it won the Stanley Cup the next season.


Peter Diana/Post-Gazette

Penguins defenseman Sergei Gonchar is scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent July 1.

After that Cup year, the Penguins lost Rob Scuderi and Hal Gill. This time, the losses stung more than hardly anyone could have imagined; the team was eliminated in seven games by the Montreal Canadiens in the second round of the playoffs.

Who saw that coming?

Which leads to another pertinent question:

What impact will the Penguins' free-agent losses this summer have on the team next season?

Not much, I'm thinking.

That isn't to say it wouldn't be wonderful to keep winger Matt Cooke and defenseman Mark Eaton. But the rest? No Sergei Gonchar? No Bill Guerin? No Alexei Ponikarovsky? No Ruslan Fedotenko? No Jordan Leopold? No Jay McKee?

No problem.

I hear you screaming, Gonchar fans. Sorry. It's time to part ways. Gonchar is 36. It's hard to say he's indispensable on the power play when it ranked 19th in the league this season and 20th last season, when it struggled so badly against the Canadiens, going 4 for 25 in the final six games, including 0 for 6 in Game 7. It might be different if Gonchar would take a one-year deal. But he wants more. The Penguins should thank him for five fine, fun years here and move on.

Guerin also deserves a big thank you for his role in winning the Cup. Another contract is another matter. He will hit 40 in November. You know what they say, right? Time stops for no one. Guerin is terrific in the dressing room -- captain Sidney Crosby adores him -- but he shouldn't have a place on the Penguins' 2010-11 roster.

Nor should Ponikarovsky and Fedotenko.

When the Penguins traded high-end prospect Luca Caputi to Toronto to get Ponikarovsky in March, they did so with every expectation of trying to do a new contract with him. That thinking had to change when Ponikarovsky showed them little in 16 regular-season games (two goals) and less in 11 playoff games (one goal). He was so bad that he was scratched for Games 5 and 6 against the Canadiens.

Fedotenko was worse. He was a healthy scratch for seven of the 13 postseason games. You want him back? I didn't think so.

Nothing against Leopold and McKee, it's just time for the Penguins to look for a tougher, better defenseman on the free-agent market. Do you realize they don't have even one defenseman who can fight? It's also time to go with one or two of the young guys in the system. Ben Lovejoy, for sure. Perhaps Deryk Engelland. Maybe Robert Bortuzzo down the road ...

Don't get me wrong. I'd still try to find a spot for Eaton. I like that guy. So smart. So steady. So serviceable. You hardly ever see him out of position or make a mistake. If his price isn't outrageous, he definitely should be brought back.

The same is true of Cooke. He's much more than just an "agitator," a description that he despises. "An agitator, to me, is someone who gets 10 points a year and does his job. I like to think I contribute more to the team than that," he said a few weeks ago. Cooke had 15 goals during the regular season -- playing mostly on a formidable third line with Jordan Staal and Tyler Kennedy -- and was one of the Penguins' best players in the playoffs with four goals. He's also a superb penalty-killer.

There's no question Cooke wants to stay. "I love it here. It's an amazing place," he has said. But that price thing frightens me with him. He might have played so well that the Penguins can't afford him, if not because of the dollars, then because of the years. That's what happened with Ruutu. The Ottawa Senators trumped the Penguins' two-year offer to him by giving him a three-year, $3.9 million contract. Cooke is a much better player than Ruutu. There's a good chance another team will make him an offer he can't refuse.

Good for Cooke, if that happens.

Not so good for the Penguins.

Not the end of the world, though.

Ron Cook: Ron Cook can be heard on the "Vinnie and Cook" show weekdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on 93.7 The Fan. More articles by this author

Pirates' Russell deserves contract extension

Thursday, May 20, 2010
By Gene Collier, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Does John Russell have the teeth to do what Florida Marlins manager Fredi Gonzalez did this week, upbraid his loafing superstar in public and then bench him pending an apology?

I know, what superstar?

Russell ain't got no superstar and might never encounter such a scenario. Further, I couldn't say for mandibular certainty that Russell has teeth. He never smiles. He rarely opens his mouth wide enough to accommodate multiple decibels. The Pirates' manager remains as flat and dry as the Great Southern Plains that produced him, a classically stoic Oklahoman with no known boiling point.

Peter Diana/Post-Gazette

Pirates manager John Russell talks with umpires before Wednesday's game at PNC Park.

My favorite Russell moment in his first 363 games at the helm came against St. Louis less than two weeks ago. The Cardinals' Joe Mather had just stolen second despite a strong throw from catcher Ryan Doumit because second baseman Aki Iwamura missed the tag. Russell was up the dugout steps in record time, which is to say faster than molasses, strode to the second-base area, which is to say he came very close to hurrying, and arrived just in time to have umpire Gary Cederstrom explain his call.

The explanation took a good 15 seconds. Russell did not interrupt. Cederstrom finished. Russell turned around and went back to the bench. He never said a word.

Not to criticize, but that's not the way Earl Weaver would have done it.

Convention holds that most umpires will let the manager have his say in such a situation, so that's the way I'll remember J.R., as the only manager who could have his say without actually saying anything.

Perhaps, you've noticed that Russell has turned up on some national watch lists among managers thought likely to be former managers in the near term. Firing Russell, whose contract expires at the end of this season, would not be the worst thing the Pirates have done, but it certainly cannot be done in good conscience.

Unless they spin it as a mercy firing in the hasn't-he-suffered-enough vein.

Otherwise, when the Frank Coonelly administration discovers the accountability imperative, it would be downright cruel to start with the manager. Why should Russell be accountable when they're running Charlie Morton and Iwamura and Lastings Milledge and Jeff Clement out there without compunction and pretending it's Major League Baseball?

Russell takes a pie in the face just about every night for Coonelly and general manager Neal Huntington, even to the extent that he wanders in and out of their fantasy world, where substandard talent is discussed in promising terms. Russell ventured in spring training that Iwamura might actually be his No. 3 hitter. Aki's hitting a hard .156 as we approached the quarter pole.

He might not inspire the fellas with his, uh, passion for the game, but once the first pitch is thrown, Russell is among the least of this organization's problem. J.R. manages in the modern, essentially soul-less style, enslaved by percentages and dubious defensive designs such as those recently described by Huntington as "based on the pitcher pitching, and our subjective analysis of the extensive customized objective data available." (Seriously). He makes a tactical mistake no more or less frequently than most, and he can thread a bullpen through a jungle of tough outs in the late innings on those occasions when the alleged talent gives him any reason to.

That's not enough to keep him, but, in fewer than three summers, consider what the executives have done to the man already.

Two years ago at this time, his third baseman was Jose Bautista, who appears on his way to hitting 30 homers with the Toronto Blue Jays. Today, he has Andy LaRoche. Two years ago, he had All-Star defensemen at second and short in Freddy Sanchez and Jack Wilson. Today, he has Iwamura in a knee brace and Ronny Cedeno. Two years ago, he had Jason Bay in left field on his way to 22 homers. Today, he has Milledge, who was on pace to hit zero homers as of game time Wednesday. I could go on, but for what? Is there any wonder Russell never smiles?

But big smiles, we're expected to believe, are right there on the horizon in glorious relief: Pedro Alvarez, Jose Tabata, Brad Lincoln, and more young talent where they came from. It would be shameful, it says here, not to give Russell a chance to manage beyond this year, which, as I recall from spring training, is "the beginning of the next dynasty of the Pirates" to Coonelly.

It's a slow beginning, clearly, perhaps best visualized by Russell emerging from the dugout to fail to argue a call. No imminent dynasty requires Russell's presence, but, if Coonelly even suspects this club is on the verge of competence, he owes the manger an extension through 2011.

Gene Collier: