Sunday, June 27, 2010

Steelers players had close bond with 11-year-old fan

Sunday, June 27, 2010

A framed Steelers jersey hangs on a wall. Autographed footballs sit on shelves. A gold helmet rests on a bed stand, and the sliding closet doors are painted black to look like lockers.

There is a story behind every Steelers item in the bedroom of the late Heather Miller, who would have celebrated her 12th birthday this week. Together, they explain why sports matter beyond final scores -- and how some Steelers players are still helping a family in its greatest time of need.

The jersey is signed by safety Troy Polamalu, and it is the one he wore in the 2008 AFC title game.

The gift offers a glimpse into the bond between Polamalu and Heather, both of whom have been described as fearless.

Troy Polamalu visits Heather Miller at Children's Hospital.
Courtesy the Miller family

Casey Hampton wore the helmet during the Steelers' final home game in 2009. Shortly after the Steelers beat the Ravens last December, the mammoth nose tackle slid the helmet onto the head of the girl that he says changed his life.

Heather proudly wore that helmet for several hours. She probably would have kept it on all night had gravity not intervened.

Wendy Miller laughs as she talks about how the younger of her two daughters looked like a "bobblehead" that night as they wheeled her through the lobby of the Omni William Penn Hotel, Downtown.

That is one of many memories that Wendy embraces when the grief feels like it may suffocate her.

It has been a daily struggle for the Bedford County family since Heather died Jan. 29 after a 15-month battle with Ewing's sarcoma, a rare form of bone and tissue cancer that generally afflicts children.

Fridays, Wendy says, are a "land mine" because that is the day of the week that Heather died. Tears help Wendy and her husband, Don, get through the tough times.

Take the ones that rolled down Wendy's face recently when she went through some of the text messages on Heather's cell phone. She was standing in the kitchen of her Osterburg home when she came across the final text Hampton sent to Heather.

Hampton had been in Miami, preparing to play in the Pro Bowl, and he had called Heather to check on her. Her physical condition prevented Heather from talking on the phone.

So Hampton sent her a text message: "If you're feeling up to it, give me a call. If not, just know I love you."

Wendy gets just as emotional when she recalls the call from Polamalu on Jan. 29. It came less than a half hour after Heather's death.

"Wendy," Polamalu said, "she's the lucky one."

Heather Miller gets a lift from Casey Hampton at the Steelers' training facility on the South Side.
Courtesy the Miller family

Gone but not forgotten

All the softball teams in the Chestnut Ridge League wear shirts emblazoned with "In memory of Heather Miller", along with a small picture of a frog. Heather loved and collected all things frog, and Fully Rely On God became the mantra by which she lived.

Before every game, the players gather at a sign dedicated to Heather on the outfield wall. They hold hands as Heather's older sister, Hannah, 13, says a prayer.

"It's a tear-jerker for me," Wendy said, "but it thrills me that they still think of her the way they do."

The sentiment extends far beyond this rural community in the shadow of the Laurel Mountains. It runs all the way to Steelers headquarters on the South Side.

Hampton wears the green bracelet that Heather gave him - even during offseason practices. At his home, assistant head coach/defensive line coach John Mitchell keeps a picture of Heather and her sister.

As for why the Steelers players and coaches forged such a connection with Heather, the list runs longer than Polamalu's hair.

Start with the "Hershey-bar smile," as her mother calls it, one that could have been measured in wattage. If that drew people to Heather, so did her personality. She was an impish girl who loved to fish, hunt and play sports.

"She was a tomboy," Polamalu said with a smile, "and I think that's what attracted a lot of the football players to her."

The men who play one of the roughest sports also came to respect and admire Heather's courage.

"She was always smiling," Hampton said. "I know she was having bad days sometimes, but she was tough. You would always think she was happy no matter what was going on."

'You already have me'

Three weeks after Heather was diagnosed in October 2008, she got a bed in the oncology ward of Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh. That same day, Polamalu was there visiting kids.

He and Heather hit it off immediately.

When the Make-A-Wish Foundation got involved with Heather, she told Polamalu she was going to request a day with him.

"You already have me," he said.

When she then said she wanted to meet Hampton, Polamalu grinned, knowing she would turn the tough Texas native into a big teddy bear. Through the local Make-A-Wish chapter, Heather and her family were invited to Steelers headquarters last spring for her day with Hampton.

Mitchell had her direct a drill in which the defensive linemen fire off the line of scrimmage. She made them do it again after Mitchell temporarily ceded control to her.

At the end of practice as the team huddled, Hampton gingerly lifted Heather above his head, mindful to avoid her right side, where she had lost five ribs to cancer.

Troy Polamalu plays Guitar Hero with Heather Miller at Children's Hospital.
Courtesy the Miller family

A story that makes Wendy laugh and cry happened shortly before Heather's first major surgery on Jan. 26, 2009. Polamalu had left a present for her at Children's Hospital to help take her mind off the operation.

To heighten Heather's anticipation, nurses texted her about the gift but offered no clues.

When Heather arrived and saw the jersey Polamalu had worn when he scored the touchdown that clinched the Steelers' trip to Super Bowl XLIII, she beamed. She wore it until the nurses had to wheel her into the operating room.

"Her whole demeanor could have been so much worse that day," Wendy said. "But that day, you could tell: 'Yeah, I'm getting surgery, but I've got Troy's shirt on.' A day that you didn't feel like smiling, I think it put a smile on all of our faces."

For last season's final home game, Hampton hosted the Millers in his private box at Heinz Field. After the Steelers beat the Ravens on Dec. 27, Hampton pointed toward Heather, his green bracelet in full view.

"Just gave me the chills," said Don Miller. "Heather was in her glory."

But by late January, there was nothing more that could be done medically for Heather.

Heavily sedated from the morphine she was given to ease her pain, Heather woke up every morning in the days leading up to her death and asked: "Is today the Pro Bowl?"

Hampton and Steelers tight end Heath Miller, who had also befriended Heather, were playing in the game. Heather desperately wanted to watch them play one more time, but she died less than 48 hours before kickoff.

After the game, Hampton flew to Pittsburgh.

Hampton, Mitchell, Miller and his wife, Katie, and Steelers community relations manager Michele Rosenthal drove to Bedford for the funeral.

A truck carrying Hershey bars overturned in front of them on the turnpike, causing a slight delay. Wendy interpreted this as a sign sent by Heather.

When Wendy broke down at the service during the playing of "Awesome God" - it was the song she had been singing to Heather when she died - Hampton consoled her.

Earlier in the service, Wendy comforted a sobbing Hampton, who sat beside her.

"I just wanted to hug him and tell him Heather was at peace," Wendy said. "I know how much she loved him."

A life-long bond

This week, the Millers will celebrate Heather's 12th birthday in the Outer Banks, the North Carolina beach where they vacation every summer.

On Friday, the family will do "all things Heather," Wendy said.

That means a trip to Applebee's Restaurant, rounds of miniature golf and catching crabs in the Atlantic Ocean at night.

"Hopefully, we'll find a sense of closeness," Wendy said. "I've talked with a lot of parents that had their kids' first birthdays without them, and I know it's hard. But we're going to take five minutes at a time. That's how we've gotten four months later. We're still standing."

The Steelers are among those who keep them propped up.

Polamalu sent a prayer to Wendy on Mother's Day. Hampton periodically texts her: "Hey, I'm thinking about you. Love you guys."

The Steelers say Heather did as much for them as they did for her and her family.

Hampton said he stopped worrying about "small stuff" after becoming friends with Heather.

"It gives me a lot of strength," Hampton said, "just thinking about the things she went through and how she always had a smile on her face."

Wendy had been hesitant to talk about Heather's relationship with Polamalu because he eschews publicity about his off-field activities. But an offseason that has generated a wave of negative publicity for the Steelers, she said, compelled her to talk about the "men behind the pads."

"They always gave Heather something to look forward to, and I'm not just talking football," Wendy said. "It was about their friendship and the strength they gave her. They lifted her higher than she's ever been."


Gonchar deserves respect

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Good riddance, Gonch.

That's the sarcastic sentiment I hear too often, and, quite frankly, don't get.

It's not that I am in favor of the Penguins re-signing Sergei Gonchar, a potential unrestricted free agent as of Thursday, for any longer than two years. That would be too bold a risk for a 36-year-old defenseman who merits at least $5 million per season.

But if Gonchar goes, it won't be nearly as easy to replace him as some might think -- even if Dan Hamhuis signs -- and, more to the point, wouldn't he deserve more than a cascade of catcalls on his way out of town?

Before we dive deeper into that cesspool, let's chew on some numbers. Here are the Pengiuns' power-play percentages with and without Gonchar this past season, not including the playoffs, when they clicked at a rate of better 26 percent:

» With: 19.8 percent (48 for 243)

» Without: 9.6 percent (8 for 83)

Here are the Penguins' records with and without Gonchar the past two seasons, including a mark of 9-10-1 without him this past season, 38-18-6 with him:

» With: 55-22-10

» Without: 37-34-6

Happily, it seems to be a small segment of the fan base that wants to kick Gonchar out the door amid a barrage of insults. Probably the same people who mock-cheered their Stanley Cup-champion goaltender on the first shot of the second game of the playoffs.

For these folks, the enduring image of Gonchar undoubtedly is his Statue-of-Liberty play in Game 7 of the Montreal series, when he inexplicably froze and allowed Travis Moen to skate past him for a short-handed goal.

Gonchar was horrific in Game 7, which put him in the company of about 15 of his teammates, including the club's highly paid young superstars.

I would hope that for most fans, the images that stand out are of Gonchar's prolific play and steady leadership.

A snapshot that comes to mind is Gonchar doing his best Willis Reed impersonation in Game 7 of last year's Capitals series, unexpectedly returning from a knee injury. Remember the one-legged slap shot he took that led to Sidney Crosby's ice-breaker in the first period?

Or how about when Gonchar, besieged by an injured back and neck, made it from the dressing room to the bench in the third overtime of the legendary fifth game of the Stanley Cup Final two years ago, then assisted on Petr Sykora's game-winner?

The man has been nothing but class and production personified in a Penguins uniform, even when he walked into a dysfunctional mess in 2005 and was booed regularly in his home building. His production has not waned, either, though he did miss most of the 2008-09 season with a shoulder injury and 20 more games this past season.

Even through the injuries, Gonchar's output remains steady. Consider his points-per-game averages over the past four seasons, and keep in mind that he is the only player to rank in the top five in this category -- points per game among defensemen -- in each of those years:

» 2006-07 -- 0.82 points per game (4th among defensemen)

» 2007-08 -- 0.83 ppg (2nd)

» 2008-09 -- 0.76 ppg (3rd, though he only played 25 games)

» 2009-10 -- 0.81 ppg (3rd)

It's not like Gonchar is just a power-play specialist, either. When he is right, he controls the pace of a game and steers his team through trouble. As prospect Ben Lovejoy -- one of the guys who could benefit from Gonchar's departure -- put it, "He's almost always the most efficient player on the ice."

And if Gonchar was so horrible in the playoffs, how did he finish plus-4 with 12 points (second on the team) in 13 games, while playing a team-high 26:27 per game?

If the Penguins can retain him at, say, two years and $10 million, it's an easy choice: Do it.

If Gonchar wants three of more years, or significantly more money, it's time to cut ties, and that likely would leave Alex Goligoski as the power-play quarterback.

Maybe the talented Goligoski would thrive with the increased responsibility. Who knows? I'm not saying the Penguins couldn't overcome the loss the Gonchar. I'm just saying be careful what you wish for.

And, for goodness sakes, give the man the respect he deserves.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Huntington trading report card: F

By Bob Smizik
Friday, 12:15 a.m.

The Pirates jettisoning yesterday of Dana Eveland, whom they acquired for a prospect at the start of the month, once again brings into question the player evaluation skills of general manager Neal Huntington.

It’s entirely possible that Eveland, 26, will go on to have a decent career and a better one than the player the Pirates gave up to acquire him, Ronald Uviedo. But Huntington has whiffed on so many chances in the trading area that no one would be surprised if Eveland is never heard from again and Uviedo, 23, becomes a competent MLB pitcher for the Toronto Blue Jays.

Huntington took the job in late in the 2007 season and pretty much began shredding the roster.

He traded the entire eight-man lineup he inherited. That would be Ronny Paulino (C), Adam LaRoche (1B), Freddy Sanchez (2B), Jack Wilson (SS), Jose Bautista (3B), Jason Bay (OF), Nate McLouth (OF) and Xavier Nady (OF). He’s also traded two starting pitchers, Tom Gorzelanny and Ian Snell, and relievers John Grabow, Sean Burnett, Damaso Marte, Salomon Torres and Jesse Chavez. He’s also traded another starting outfielder, Nyjer Morgan, and a backup Eric Hinske.

All of them except Torres, who retired, and Chavez and Snell, who recently were sent to the minors, are still in the majors.

I’m not going to suggest that was Grade A talent because it wasn’t. But some of those players had good resumes and some continue to do very well.

* Paulino is starting for Florida and batting .309 (all statistics through Wed.).

* LaRoche has 10 homers and 50 RBIs, tied for fifth in the National League, for Arizona.

* Sanchez is batting .317 for San Francisco.

* Bautista leads MLB with 20 home runs with Toronto.

* Bay and Morgan are having disappointing years but starting for the Mets and Washington, respectively.

* Hinske is batting .314 in a part-time role with the Braves.

* Wilson and McLouth are having disappointing years with Seattle and Atlanta but were starting before going on the disabled list.

Here’s what the Pirates have on their roster in exchange for the players Huntington traded:

* Right fielder Lastings Milledge, who has no homers and a .270 average.

* Catcher Jason Jaramillo, a backup hitting .180 who is in danger of being sent to the minors.

* Third baseman Andy LaRoche, who had a extended chance to start and failed. He’s batting .232 with 12 RBIs in 181 at bats.

* Shortstop Ronny Cedeno, batting .232 and recently benched.

* Starter Ross Ohlendorf, who is 0-6 with a 5.43 ERA.

* Starter Jeff Karstens, who is 2-2 with a 4.72 ERA.

* Reliever Joel Hanrahan, who has been more effective than his 4.40 ERA would indicate.

That is not an even exchange, not even close to an even exchange. Huntington stripped the parent club bare and thus far has failed to bring in equal replacements. That‘s why the Pirates are on pace to lose 106 games, which would be their worst season in 58 years.

The only way Huntington’s record could be remotely be considered successful thus far is if he had a wealth of minor-league talent as the result of those deals. He does not.

He has one high-end prospect, pitcher Bryan Morris. The two Pirates named to the All-Star Futures Game are catcher Tony Sanchez, a draft choice playing at Class A, and outfielder Gorkys Hernandez, a Huntington acquisition, who is batting .245 with two homers in 261 at bats at Class AA.

There are a handful of players who might become major leaguers but none looms as a possible All-Star caliber player -- as Bay, McLouth, Sanchez and Wilson were.

Most significantly, some key acquisitions have failed miserably: They would be Aki Iwamura, Charley Morton, Jeff Clement, Brandon Moss and Kevin Hart. All were given extensive starting time and did not come close to measuring up.

Some extreme fans are heartened by the four new players on the roster -- third baseman Pedro Alvarez, second baseman Neil Walker, Tabata and pitcher Brad Lincoln. Only Alvarez has an extremely high ceiling. There is little or nothing in Class AAA and Class AA in terms of position players.

It’s too early to fully judge all the trades Huntington has made. It’s possible, for example, Morris will become a top-of-the-line starter and remove the ``F-'' from beside the trade of Bay, who was one of the top offensive outfielders in baseball when he was dealt and who should have fetched far more than Huntington received. Hart and Jose Ascanio, who came from the Cubs in exchange for Gorzelanny and Grabow, might recover from their major arm injuries and be productive players. Might not, too.

But that’s in the future. For the present, the recently extended Huntington have been a major failure in the trading area.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Crosby loses out on Hart Trophy, Lindsay Award

Staal finishes third in voting for Selke Trophy

Thursday, June 24, 2010
By Shelly Anderson, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Ethan Miller/Getty Images

Mark Messier and Sidney Crosby of the Pittsburgh Penguins pose with the Mark Messier NHL Leadership Award Wednesday at the Palms Casino Resort in Las Vegas. Crosby won the award.

LAS VEGAS -- No one wanted to predict who would win the major trophies before the NHL Awards gala, and it turns out there was good reason.

Things got spread around at the NHL awards show Wednesday at the Palms Casino Resort, and not only between the league's poster boys -- Penguins center Sidney Crosby and Washington left winger Alex Ovechkin. This time, Vancouver center Henrik Sedin joined the party.

Sedin won his first Hart Trophy as MVP of the NHL as voted by the Professional Hockey Writers Association, and Ovechkin won the Ted Lindsay Award for outstanding player as voted by the league players.

Crosby was not shut out. He won the Mark Messier Leadership Award overseen by the Hall of Famer, was recognized for sharing the Maurice Richard Trophy with Steven Stamkos as the top goal-scorers with 51 each and was named the second-team center behind Sedin on the postseason All-Star teams.

Penguins center Jordan Staal finished third as a first-time finalist for the Selke Trophy, which goes to the best defensive forward.

Sedin broke a stranglehold that saw Ovechkin or Crosby win the Hart and Lindsay (formerly called the Lester B. Pearson Award) the past three years.

"That says a lot," Crosby said of injecting a little diversity into the results. "Alex year after year is right there for individual awards. Henrik had a great season. I think everyone kind of saw that coming with the great seasons he's had year after year.

"I don't think there were any surprises. Those guys had terrific seasons."

Sedin, 31, has been a quiet star for the Canucks before winning the scoring title with 112 points this past season. In the Hart voting, he garnered 894 points, including 46 first-place votes.

Ovechkin -- who tied Crosby for second in scoring with 109 points but played nine fewer games -- was second in the voting with 834 points, including 40 first-place votes. He won the Hart and Pearson awards the past two seasons, beating out Penguins center Evgeni Malkin both times.

Crosby was third with 729 Hart points, 20 first-place votes. He won the Hart and Pearson in 2007

"When I won the second year [of my career], I was fortunate to that point to do really well at award shows, win things," Crosby said. "I think part of me probably didn't appreciate it quite as much. I think now I do. I realize how tough it is. I was just happy to be here.

"When you're looking at the three guys who were nominated, all the guys had great seasons."

Sedin said a day earlier he did not think he had a chance to win because he was up against Crosby and Ovechkin.

"They've been the faces of the sport since they joined the league," Sedin said. "I'm very proud. Those players are second to none. I thought the Hart was out of the question."

He was proven wrong.

Detroit's Pavel Datsyuk won the Selke for the third consecutive season with 688 points, including 37 first-place votes. Vancouver's Ryan Kesler, a finalist for the second year in a row, was second with 655 points, including 36 first-place votes.

Staal, 21, had 528 points, with 24 first-place votes. He tied a career high with 49 points, including 21 goals, in 2010-11.

He was a bit dazzled by the experience.

"Vegas itself is a pretty cool city," Staal said. "Being up for an award like that is something really special and exciting. It wasn't the way I wanted it to end, but there were some great players beside me.

"I was disappointed, but that comes in the same breath as being excited just to be here and be a part of it."

On a night when awards host and comedian Jay Mohr had the audience in stitches, the most touching moment came when Washington goaltender Jose Theodore won the Masterton Trophy for perseverance, sportsmanship and dedication to hockey.

"It brought back some tough memories," said a tearful Theodore, who lost his infant son, Chase, a few weeks before training camp last summer. Chase would have turned 1 Tuesday.

"I'm still struggling to get by every day," said Theodore, who established the "Saves the Kids" charity.

In the other major awards, Buffalo defenseman Tyler Myers won the Calder Trophy as Rookie of the Year; Phoenix's Dave Tippett won the Jack Adams Award for top coach; Buffalo's Ryan Miller won the Vezina Trophy as the top goaltender; Tampa Bay's Martin St. Louis won the Lady Byng Trophy for sportsmanship; and Chicago's Duncan Keith won the Norris Trophy as the top defenseman.

NOTES -- Crosby has another celebration around the corner. He will take part Monday in a large festival of Canadian Olympians and the military in Edmonton. Crosby scored the overtime goal against Miller and the United States in the gold-medal game in Vancouver in February.

Shelly Anderson:

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Cooke agrees to three-year deal with Penguins

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

"C" is for contract and the Cookie Monster is staying in Pittsburgh.

Left wing Matt Cooke has reached a verbal agreement on a three-year contract with the Penguins. Term was agreed upon Monday night and the contract has been sent to NHL central registry to be made official.

Financial terms were not immediately known, but Cooke is one of the rare plus-30 players to re-sign with the Penguins on a multi-year deal since Shero was named to his post in May 2006.

Cooke, 31, was one of eight Penguins eligible to become an unrestricted free agent on July 1. Finding a resolution with him and defenseman Sergei Gonchar, 36, were the top offseason priorities of Penguins general manager Ray Shero.

Cooke originally signed with the Penguins in July 2008. In two seasons he scored 28 goals and recorded 61 points, and he became a staple on 'The Nightmare Line' with center Jordan Staal and right wing Tyler Kennedy.

Controversial for his penchant to push the envelope with his gritty and abrasive style, Cooke turned in arguably his most impactful season last year with 15 goals, 30 points and a plus-17 rating. He added four playoff goals, three more than he produced on the Penguins' run to the Stanley Cup in 2009.

His role on the Penguins changed with the hiring of coach Dan Bylsma in February 2009. Bylsma inserted Cooke onto the penalty kill, and that added responsibility sparked a level of consistency to his performance. He has scored 20 goals and recorded 46 points to go with a plus-22 rating in 104 regular-season games he played under Bylsma.

Cooke gained notoriety March 7 with his open-ice hit on Boston Bruins center Marc Savard. Not penalized because the hit was legal, Cooke and the hit were criticized because of the result. Savard was carried from the Mellon Arena ice on a stretcher. He did not play until the second round of the Stanley Cup playoffs because of a concussion.

Cooke was not suspended for the hit, but league general managers drafted a new rule aimed at removing head shots from the game later in the month.

Cooke had stated his preference was to remain with the Penguins, with whom he had become a trusted dressing-room voice. His salary-cap hit was $1.2 million the last two seasons.

Unclear is how his re-singing will impact negotiations between Shero and Gonchar'As agent, JP Barry. The Gonchar camp was awaiting word from Shero on a submitted proposal, and Barry said Monday he hoped to speak with Shero midweek or at the NHL draft this weekend in Los Angeles.

Gonchar is seeking a multi-year contract and has not publicly expressed an eagerness to take less than market value to remain with the Penguins, who expect to be tight against the salary cap entering next season.

Pirates' Meek hit 'brick wall,' but broke through

Reliever's baseball-best ERA comes after career nearly derailed

Tuesday, June 22, 2010
By Dejan Kovacevic, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Jared Wickerham/Getty Images

Pirates reliever Evan Meek's 0.68 ERA is the lowest in Major League Baseball.

By the time Evan Meek was 9, the local Little League officials of Bothell, Wash., had requested that he not be used as a starting pitcher.

"They asked us to please just save him for the later innings," his father, David Meek, recalled. "Give the hitters a chance."

By the time Meek was 13, he had registered 80-mph on the radar gun.

"Best arm I'd ever seen," a former San Diego scout, Mal Fichman, recalled. "Kid could throw the ball through a brick wall."

Looks like that now, too: Meek is the best of the Pirates' bullpen and, by some measures, the best reliever in all of Major League Baseball with a 0.68 ERA and .170 opponents' batting average.

But to understand how he achieved that, it is necessary to rewind to the real brick wall in his life.

It was June 22, 2005, and Meek had just been released by Minnesota after an epic bout of wildness with the Twins' rookie-level team. Almost twice as many walks as innings. Hitters cringing to step into the box. One start for Class A Beloit in which his first pitch "went 20 feet over the catcher's head," Meek said. Another with Kane County in which his fastball had an absurd range of 81-98 mph.

"I was all alone out there, and I felt like no one could help me," Meek said. "Going into every pitch, I was scared to fail, scared to embarrass myself. I couldn't feel the baseball in my hand."

Feel the baseball?

"It's hard to explain. It's like I wasn't even touching it."

Meek went back to his apartment in Virginia, still without answers and now without a team. Day after day passed with no call. And, by his thinking, that might have been OK.

"I wanted nothing to do with the game," he said. "You grow up as a young player all excited about baseball because people are always saying good things about you. But this ... no one else knows. I didn't want to watch baseball, I didn't want to check on how my old teammates were doing, nothing."

That included contact with an actual baseball.

"Wouldn't touch one at all."

Another week passed before Meek concocted a gut-wrenching compromise: He needed to keep his arm in shape, in the odd event anyone might call. But, since he still sensed he was missing that "feel," he wrapped one baseball thickly in duct tape and took to throwing it against -- rather than through -- a brick wall outside the apartment.

"Painted a white square," he said. "Started out 10 minutes a day, worked my way up."

He then worked up the zeal to fly back to Washington state to be with his family, though not for condolences: Evan asked David Meek for help, in the way that only a father-son game of catch could offer.

The two went to a nearby football field, and the duct tape came off.

"Best feeling of my life," Evan said. "We talked about everything except what we were doing, anything other than baseball, but it just felt so good, just tossing the ball back and forth with my dad."

"Evan came to me depressed," David said. "But I also knew that he had a dream since he was a little boy and, right then, I saw that he still wanted that dream."

Soon after, Fichman, the scout for the Padres who had seen Meek pitch through childhood -- now an independent consultant --gave him a call from Boise, Idaho.

"I told him I'd be passing through Seattle the next day but only for a few hours, that he'd have to round up some friends -- right-handed batter, left-handed batter, catcher -- and throw for me," Fichman said.

Meek did all that, then drove to Seattle's airport to escort Fichman to Bellevue Community College, where had hastily arranged to use the field.

With the first pitch ...

"Looked to me like Evan just kind of tossed it," Fichman said. "I turned to his buddy holding the gun and said, 'He's just getting loose, I guess. What was it?' He tells me 94. That tells you how easily this kid throws that hard."

The session overall did not go well -- Meek plunked one of those buddies in the ribs -- but Fichman recommended the signing based on the arm, and Bill Bryk, San Diego's special assistant to general manager Kevin Towers, executed it.

Next, as Fichman put it, "It was time to deconstruct."

Meek had no history of emotional issues. Hailing from a big family with two brothers and two sisters, by his early teens, he had turned his side passion for the guitar into playing in a garage band, as many Seattle youngsters did in the post-Nirvana grunge days. His hair had been grown down to his back.

"We stunk, but we rocked," Meek said.

"Evan was the most fun-loving kid around, always clean but always having a blast," David Meek said.

More relevant, he had no control issues at the amateur level, nor in his first season in the Minnesota system, 2003, in which he was 7-1 as a starter with a 2.47 ERA.

The following spring, though, instructors with the Twins -- Meek declined to identify anyone -- altered his pitching mechanics. David Meek was furious and warned Evan against heeding. But Meek, the newcomer, listened. And, whether it was the instruction or not, he fell apart.

"Even when I tried to go back to how I was, no one could help me," Meek said. "And I'm not blaming anyone for that. I couldn't get it back, either."

San Diego's people started over, essentially, and he soon gained enough value that he was one of two prospects traded to Tampa Bay in 2006 for slugger Russell Branyan. The Rays converted Meek to relief and liked what they saw, but their famously deep system forced Meek to get exposed in the Rule 5 draft in December of 2007.

Dejan Kovacevic/Post-Gazette

Pirates reliever Evan Meek works out alone before a May 25 game in Cincinnati, throwing a phantom pitch, then sprinting 30 yards, then repeating twice.

The Pirates, in Neal Huntington's first major-league acquisition as general manager, took him with the No. 2 pick.

"Oh, I am so excited!" Meek shouted during a phone interview right afterward.

Not for long.

Meek made the roster out of spring training, entirely because of his Rule 5 status, but the "dream" his father described immediately became a nightmare, as he averaged a walk an inning and, because the Pirates were so pitching-poor, they had nowhere to hide him.

"I had no idea what I was about to face," Meek said. "I wanted to do so well. When I was a kid, I didn't just dream of pitching in the majors. I dreamed of being Nolan Ryan pitching a no-hitter. But this was all just ... cloudy."

"Evan always wanted to please, to make everybody happy," David Meek said.

Huntington kept faith in Meek and arranged for a trade with Tampa Bay to be able to send him to the minors, as a Rule 5 player otherwise must stay in the majors all year.

"We saw a young man with the potential for two plus pitches and the determination to improve," Huntington said. "Despite his struggles, he still wanted to compete and believed he could compete at the highest level."

First step in this recovery process was Class AA Altoona, where Brad Holman, the pitching coach at the time, changed nothing.

"Brad just told me I needed to be out of the spotlight, and he was right," Meek said. "I'd already dominated Double-A guys, so I knew that. I went up to Triple-A and had a little rough stretch, but I kept going back to my first strikeout in Pittsburgh, Alfonso Soriano. If I could get him, I could get these guys."

And so it is that Meek, 27, has arrived.

In the clubhouse, his voice is one of the loudest, his laugh the most common. The guitar is there, too, only now he is accomplished on the acoustical model.

As for the mound ...

His fastball regularly sits at 95 mph, his slider has an unfair bite even against left-handers, and his curve and change give him twice the repertoire of the standard reliever. He has pounded the zone with all four, having 36 strikeouts against nine walks. And hitters very seldom have achieved even decent contact, with only five of his 24 allowed over 40 innings going for extra bases.

Most striking, perhaps, is how manager John Russell has used him: Rather than in the closer role that many see in Meek's near future -- veteran Octavio Dotel has that now -- Meek has been the true fireman, called mostly when there is trouble.

Witness the sixth inning Saturday, when Jeff Karstens and two relievers had made a mess and allowed Cleveland to score three times and pull within 5-4. Meek inherited two of those runners and walked his first to load the bases.

It was his staff-high 34th appearance.

"We're watching at home on the computer, and we saw Evan's fastball at 91 mph," David Meek said. "Uh-oh."

The Indians sent up their biggest bat, Travis Hafner, to pinch-hit, and Meek ramped up to 93 for a called strike.

"Not enough," David muttered from afar.

Meek ramped up to 97 mph, got a comebacker to end the inning, went back out for a 1-2-3 seventh, and the Pirates held on to win.

Speculation soon will grow regarding the team's All-Star representative, and that likely will focus on center fielder Andrew McCutchen. But Meek also will get consideration, just as he might soon become the team's closer if Dotel gets traded, just as he might ...

"Honestly, I'm not thinking ahead anymore," Meek said on this free Monday for the Pirates. "I'm thinking about the bus to the airport to go to Dallas. When I get to the ballpark, I'll think about the Rangers. A lot went into getting me where I am now, and I'm going to enjoy the now."

Dejan Kovacevic:

New look gives Pirates a new feel

Tuesday, June 22, 2010
By Ron Cook, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Only 38 days until the start of Steelers training camp.

No need to thank me.

I do it every year, you know? I perform a valuable public service by providing that information. The start of camp is the next big thing we have to anticipate on our sporting calendar. Pirates season is over early again, at least from a competitive standpoint. It was over before Father's Day, Memorial Day, Mother's Day. Do I hear May Day?

Peter Diana/Post-Gazette

Pirates third baseman Pedro Alvarez and second baseman Neil Walker.

Despite winning home games against the Cleveland Indians Saturday night and Sunday, the Pirates drag a 25-44 record -- second worst in all of baseball -- into Texas tonight for the start of what figures to be a brutal nine-game trip against the Texas Rangers, the Oakland Athletics and the Chicago Cubs. Would you really be surprised if they came home 28-50? Or worse? I wouldn't.

In addition to all of the losses -- there was an historic 12-game losing streak right before the wins against the Indians -- the Pirates just endured what might have been their worst week in a quarter-century, going back to the Baseball Drug Trials here in 1985. There was the silly secrecy surrounding the Pedro Alvarez call-up from the minors. There was the shameful deceit surrounding the announcement that general manager Neal Huntington and manager John Russell had their contracts secured for next season in October, truth-bending if not flat-out lying that will make it difficult for anybody to believe anything that team president Frank Coonelly and owner Bob Nutting have to say moving forward. Then, there was the firing of a part-time employee who played one of the racing pierogies during the in-game entertainment at PNC Park for posting critical remarks about Coonelly on his Facebook page.

That last one made all of the national news shows.

Pirates deal with 12-game losing streak by firing Cheese Chester! Details at 11!

Even though the organization was right to terminate a publicly critical employee, the story blew up in its face and made it look awfully cheesy.

Sorry, I couldn't help myself.

These next 38 days can't go by quickly enough.

Or maybe not ...

Despite all the negatives, this Pirates season has a little different feel than the 17 seasons of losing that came before it. Ordinarily, I'm tuned out by now. But I'll tune in tonight to watch the game against the Rangers and keep tuning in past Independence Day, past even July 30 when we all celebrate the goings-on with the Steelers in Latrobe, a day that certainly qualifies as an unofficial holiday around here.

I won't watch to see the Pirates win; certainly, that seems unlikely tonight against a Texas team that has won eight games in a row and 11 of 12. I'll watch to see Alvarez, Andrew McCutchen, Jose Tabata and Neil Walker, to feel their energy and enthusiasm, to perhaps see them grow into terrific big-league ballplayers.

McCutchen is well on his way. His numbers for his first 176 games -- a .297 average, 119 runs, 205 hits, 19 home runs, 76 RBIs and 40 stolen bases -- are astounding. The other three are much newer to all of this but have shown good signs. Not even Alvarez, who is off to a 1-for-16 start, has looked overmatched.

Tabata, Walker and Alvarez all showed me something good in the 5-3 win Sunday against the Indians.

Tabata's speed led to an infield single and a throwing error to set up a two-run first inning. Walker, who still is learning to play second base, looked like a 10-year veteran when he fielded a ball with the go-ahead runner on third base in the eighth inning, calmly jumped over diving first baseman Garrett Jones, who had tried to make the play, and raced to first base to get the out. Then, in the bottom of the eighth, Alvarez, who had looked foolish on an 0-1 pitch from left-handed reliever Tony Sipp with the go-ahead runner on third base, ripped the 0-2 pitch for a sacrifice fly to right field.

"Piece by piece," is how Russell described the career-building of Tabata, Walker and Alvarez.

"They're starting to figure out how to win [games] a little bit."

I'm not quite ready to go that far, but I've seen enough to be intrigued.

I'll count down the days until July 30 -- absolutely -- but I'll keep watching baseball, too.

Pirates baseball.

I know, I can't believe it, either.

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.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Pirates '60 Series champs celebrate again

Clemente's widow, Mazeroski greeted warmly by capacity crowd

Sunday, June 20, 2010
By Robert Dvorchak, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Peter Diana/Post-Gazette

Members of the Pirates' 1960 World Series championship team stand for the national anthem before the start of the Pirates game against the Cleveland Indians Saturday evening at PNC Park. At the right is Hall of Famer Bill Mazeroski, whose ninth-inning home run won the series over the New York Yankees.

Some of them have bridges or streets named after them. Statues have been erected or are on the way. Some have retired numbers.

These boys of summer from 50 years ago may be lions in winter, but they can still generate a buzz in a crowd by stepping onto a baseball diamond.

Eleven members of the Pirates' 1960 championship team, plus the widow and son of Roberto Clemente, returned for a curtain call in pregame ceremonies Saturday night commemorating the golden anniversary of a magic season.

The 1979 Pirates were known by the disco song "We Are Family," but the 1960 team forged an unbreakable bond with each other and the city they represented.

"We were together a couple of weeks ago at a memorabilia show, and it was almost like we had just walked out of the ballpark 50 years ago," said Dick Groat, the team captain who won the National League batting title as well as the MVP award in 1960. "Those are friendships and relationships that will never ever, ever go away. That team had so much character. You don't win a pennant unless all 25 guys contribute.

"It didn't make any difference if it was a pitching performance, base-running or a big hit -- everybody on that club came into their own somewhere along the line to help us win a game."

After rain pushed back the timetable, the former players took up positions on the third-base line for introductions and tributes to the entire team on the scoreboard video screen. They wore their old numbers on new jerseys as did Vera Clemente and her son, Luis.

Theirs is a story that never gets old.

Neither does a curtain call that comes in the form of a standing ovation a half-century after they inspired a city that was in the process of remaking itself.

"It's quite a thrill," said pitcher Bob Friend. "Usually, you play baseball and your career's over, and that's it. You're done. But this team, we're part of history here. It's nice to feel that."

The ceremonial first pitch was thrown by Vernon Law, who won 20 games and the Cy Young Award in 1960, not to mention two World Series games.

"It's an honor to be back on the mound again," Law said.

"Maybe they picked me because I'm the only one who can reach home plate," he continued, with a chuckle.

His delivery skipped just short of Paul Maholm's glove. In the old days, announcer Bob Prince would have said The Deacon was trying to get a hitter to chase.

And in all seriousness, Law added, "We had a good group of guys that liked each other. We still like each other. It was a special group."

Their faces were more wrinkled, and the hair was whiter or thinner as they doffed their caps during introductions. But their smiles were as genuine as they were Oct. 13, 1960, when they beat the New York Yankees in the seventh game of the World Series.

In addition to Groat, Friend, Law and the Clemente family, those taking part in the festivities were Joe Christopher, ElRoy Face, Joe Gibbon, Bill Mazeroski, Bob Oldis, Dick Schofield, Bob Skinner and Bill Virdon. Joining them was general manager Joe L. Brown, who at 92 required a wheelchair.

"I've always enjoyed coming back, and, when you come back, you're always reminded of the good days," Virdon said. "When you had a season like we had, when we came back 30 or 40 times to win games that we probably should have lost, there's something special about the club."

In 1960, the average annual income was $5,315, a gallon of gas cost 25 cents, reigning Masters champion Arnold Palmer won the U.S. Open, Chubby Checker released "The Twist," Cassius Clay won an Olympic gold medal as a light heavyweight and "Camelot" opened on Broadway after the inauguration of President John F. Kennedy.

And everyone of a certain age who grew up in and around Pittsburgh can say exactly where they were and what they were doing when Mazeroski's winning home run cleared the brick wall at the 406-mark in Forbes Field, bringing home a World Series title for the first time in 35 years.

Through the years, Mazeroski has been asked every possible question about the details of that moment, and he generated the most interest during a media availability Saturday night.

But, as he noted, "It never gets old."

And, in the hearts of the city, Maz and his teammates never get old, either.

Robert Dvorchak:

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Sidney Crosby adds to his resume

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Comparisons follow Penguins center Sidney Crosby off the ice like the puck seems to on it, and his general manager offered a new one Friday.

"He's mentally very strong when it comes to critical situations in a game, in a series. He recognizes it and takes advantage of it," Ray Shero said. "(Hall of Famer Bryan) Trottier was the same way -- a great two-way player that was a winner. He made other players better. I loved watching him play."

Shero, who still owns a stick autographed by Trottier, has loved watching Crosby in four seasons guiding the Penguins. In that span, Crosby has won the Stanley Cup, an MVP and scoring title, produced a 50-goal season, scored a gold-medal-winning goal for Canada at the Olympics and helped revitalize hockey in Pittsburgh, where the Penguins will carry a sellout streak of three-plus seasons into the new Consol Energy Center.

"He's a game-changer," Penguins center Jordan Staal said of Crosby, whom he will join Wednesday at the NHL awards show in Las Vegas.

Staal, 21, is up for the Selke Trophy as the NHL's top two-way forward. Crosby, 22, can win the Hart Trophy (MVP) and Ted Lindsay Award (top player) for a second time, and he also is up for the Mark Messier Leadership Award.

That's just one reason why Sporting News deemed Crosby the top athlete under 25. The outlet considered major statistics, championships to which an athlete made a contribution, "buzz" factor and age. The top five: Crosby; Orlando Magic center Dwight Howard, 24; Oklahoma City Thunder forward Kevin Durant, 21; Tennessee Titans running back Chris Johnson, 24; and Washington Capitals left wing Alex Ovechkin, 24.

One of Crosby's favorite words is consistency. He strives for that in every game. That drive, Staal said, sets a standard of intensity and commitment for Penguins players.

"Sid is one of those guys who changes the way a game is going when he wants to, and he seems to want to every night," Staal said. "Obviously he contributes so many things offensively, but the thing is we count on him for so many things -- the goals, the passes, winning faceoffs, making plays in his own zone and leading us."

Staal, admittedly a biased observer, believes Crosby should win big next week in Vegas.

"I wouldn't say I've ever seen him better than he was last season," Staal said. "Every night he was battling, scoring goals, doing the right things. He never got tired. He just kept moving forward."

Crosby is still moving forward. He spent last offseason working on his shot. He's spending this one working on his jump.

"The last couple of offseasons were so short," he said. "I felt like I was just trying to get back to where I was. This year, I'm working to get strong and faster, so next season maybe I can be a little quicker."

Note: Shero said "nothing is imminent" regarding new contracts for the Penguins' impending unrestricted free agents. He said he has not set deadlines for any player, although that "is a possibility." Defenseman Sergei Gonchar, the Penguins' free-agent priority, has a no-trade clause that gives him final say on a destination if the club opts to move his rights before July 1, when free agency opens.

The Crosby file

A look at Penguins center Sidney Crosby's notable achievements through five NHL seasons:

» He has topped 100 points four times, including every season in which he appeared in at least 55 games.

» At 19, he was named the youngest captain in NHL history in 2007. At 21, he became the youngest captain of a Stanley Cup champion in 2009.

» He won the Hart Trophy (MVP), Lester B. Pearson Award (top player) and Art Ross Trophy (scoring title) in 2007. He is a finalist for the Hart, Ted Lindsay Award (top player) and Mark Messier Leadership Award this year.

» His 51 goals tied for the NHL lead last season.

» He scored the overtime goal to give Canada a victory over the United States in the gold-medal game at the Vancouver Olympics.

» His 506 regular-season points are seventh, and his 82 playoff points are fifth in franchise history.

Sources:, Pittsburgh Penguins

Mazeroski's homer still echoes in Pittsburgh

Bucs championship an ever-lasting memory for players, fans

By Matt Fortuna /
06/18/10 10:00 AM ET

PITTSBURGH -- As the Pirates get set to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the franchise's third World Series championship this weekend, is revisiting the 1960 Pittsburgh ballclub through a series of stories.

Vern Law often has a message for Bill Mazeroski: You got lucky.

"I've told Mazeroski on more than one occasion, 'You wouldn't be in the Hall of Fame if [manager Danny] Murtaugh let me stay in,'" Law joked.

Instead of leaving Law in with the 4-3 lead in Game 7 of the 1960 World Series, Murtaugh pulled him in the sixth inning. Elroy Face gave up two runs in that frame, and the Pirates and Yankees then engaged in an epic back-and-forth in the eighth and ninth innings, culminating in Mazeroski's lead-off home run over the left-field wall at Forbes Field that gave Pittsburgh a 10-9 win and its first championship since 1925.

"I wouldn't have given up all those runs, and we wouldn't even have hit in the ninth," Law said. "I joke with Maz, but he deserves to be in the Hall of Fame, without question. He probably saved as many runs with his glove. He's the best second baseman I've ever seen. No one can turn the double play like him."

Such banter is what Law has taken away from those days 50 years ago, when the Pirates were stunning the baseball world and winning over a city that came out in droves to Forbes Field.

"You remember those things just like it was yesterday," said Law, who won the National League Cy Young Award that season. "I can remember practically every pitch that I threw. Every ballplayer dreams of playing in the World Series, and I was no different. That was the pinnacle of success for any Major League ballplayer, to not only play in a World Series but to win a World Series and to have a World Series ring."

For a fan, the pinnacle may have been watching it.

But George Coury, despite holding tickets to all four games of the series at Forbes Field, was not able to attend any of the contests beyond Game 1 because of his job as a factory cost accountant. So, after giving his tickets to friends and family members, he and his co-workers gathered around a radio inside their office on the afternoon of October 13, right before the workday's end.

"I think we heard it at like 5:08 or 5:10," Coury recalled. "We just stayed in the office and listened to the end of the game."

Coury, four years removed from college, remembered the city going "berserk," with traffic jams all over town. He quit his job a month later, his only regret being that he didn't do it sooner so he could have used his tickets and been one of the 36,683 screaming fans who witnessed Mazeroski's home run live.

Of course, those are the only ones who can say they saw it in person.

"A lot of people I've talked to remember the series, but not too many were at the game," said Face, who had three saves in the series. "They just remember the series."

Coury estimated that the crowds back then to be about 95 percent pro-Pittsburgh, with a small gathering of Yankees supporters sitting among themselves with little to no contact with the home fans.

It made for a far different atmosphere from today's, which Coury, now 75, has been able to experience as a 41-year Pirates season-ticket holder. He's missed just 18 games during that time.

"It was a lot different," Coury said. "The park was more quiet. There was crowd noise, but no created electronic music. Fans talked baseball, talked about the game more so than everything else.

"Today they'll talk about the game and 16 other subjects. At that time it was a national pastime. Everybody was interested. Crowds were more enthusiastic than I believe a Super Bowl or Stanley Cup or Final Four crowd are today. The fans were more oriented toward the game."

In 2000, Coury attended a Pirates fantasy camp, where he got to meet his favorite player, Dick Groat, along with what he estimated to be 12 or 13 members of that 1960 team, then celebrating the 40th anniversary of their title.

His first encounter was his most memorable.

"The first night I got there, Sunday at 10:30 at night, I'm going to my room at my hotel, and a man's in the elevator with me," Coury said. "I said, 'You're one of the 1960 Pirates. I recognize your face but not who you are.' He said, 'I'm Hal Smith,' and I said, 'You hit the real home run.' He started to cry."

"The next day somebody bumped into me in the cafeteria and knocked my tray over and he helped me pick it up. He appreciated me saying that, I guess."

Be it through their recognition of Smith -- whose three-run homer in the eighth inning of Game 7 turned a 7-6 deficit into a 9-7 Pirates -- or their recollection of the club's first title in 35 years, all who were around for the 1960 championship team remember the city in the aftermath.

"For me, personally, to win a World Series in my hometown was the greatest thrill in the whole world," said Groat, the 1960 NL MVP. "I was so proud of the city itself because we hadn't won anything in 33 years [the Pirates won the pennant in 1927 but were swept by the Yankees in the World Series]. They actually closed the tunnels because the city was so crazy."

Law remembers the team's champagne-filled celebration at a hotel near Schenley Park while he went on the air at KDKA.

"The celebration afterward got a little bit out of hand," Law said. "I don't know if you've ever had champagne squirted in your face, but it sure burns your eyes, so I decided I'd get out of there as quick as I could."

He immediately raced home after the radio show to join his neighbors less than 15 miles away in Monroeville and celebrate with cake and punch.

On Thursday, he and 13 family members will have arrived in Pittsburgh. They will celebrate Law and his wife's 60th wedding anniversary on Friday before the 50th anniversary celebration of the 1960 team.

And they all know just how special it will be.

"The Yankees could have very easily won the championship that year, but we also had 25 guys that had great years," Law said. "We went into the Series thinking we could win if we played our game, and it turned out we had a lot of blowouts. They hammered us pretty good after they got by our starting pitching, but we won all the close games."

"That was a thrill for me, and of course we won all three games that I pitched in," he added jokingly. "I didn't get credit for the last one because nobody could get anybody out."

Matt Fortuna is an associate reporter for This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

1960 Bucs symbolized Pittsburgh's revival

Club's rise to World Series title capped city's renaissance

By Jenifer Langosch /
06/18/10 10:00 AM ET

PITTSBURGH -- As the Pirates celebrate the 50th anniversary of the franchise's third World Series championship this weekend, is revisiting the 1960 Pittsburgh ballclub.

Quite frankly, Pittsburgh needed the 1960 Pirates.

Mayor-turned-governor David L. Lawrence had been actively facilitating a rebirth of the city since the nation had come out of World War II. There were serious smog problems to battle, crumbling infrastructure to address, frequent river flooding issues to combat.

On the sports side, Pittsburgh's two predominant professional sports franchises -- the Pirates and the NFL's Steelers -- had enjoyed only minimal success since the end of the war a decade and a half earlier. By 1960, the Steelers had only made one playoff appearance. As for the Pirates, they were a dismal 616-923 in the previous decade.

But as the 1950s progressed, so, too, did the city. The Pittsburgh renaissance featured myriad urban renewal projects, and the city began to thrive.

And -- with a swing at 3:37 p.m. on October 13, 1960 -- the Pirates capped that renaissance.

"That 1960 Series was that symbolic civic cement," said Robert Ruck, a University of Pittsburgh lecturer and local sports historian. "Pittsburgh had shown its ability to rebuild, but it still needed something psychologically that announced to the world that we were back. I think the 1960 Series and playing the Yankees did that."

While Bill Mazeroski's home run off Ralph Terry's pitch squared the nation's attention on the growing Steel City, Pittsburgh had forged its special bond with this particular Pirates club six months earlier.

It began, at least as shortstop Dick Groat tells it, on April 17. It was a Sunday, the final game of a four-game series against the Reds. With 16,196 in their Forbes Field seats to watch, the Pirates scored six times in the bottom of the ninth to stun Cincinnati with a 6-5 win.

"That kind of stirred up the confidence right from the go," recalled Groat. "That was the way that team won games all year. It just grows and grows and grows and grows to where you think you're not supposed to lose."

The Pirates would go on to win 41 games in come-from-behind fashion that year. They won 11 games in which they trailed at the start of the seventh inning. The city, captivated by the comebacks, was drawn in.

"It was the way they were winning," said Ruck, who moved to Pittsburgh during the summer of 1960. "There was the sense maybe this team could be something special."

Once Pittsburgh fell in love with its baseball team, the excitement only grew as the club finished out the season with 42 wins in its last 64 games to run away with the National League pennant.

Still, standing between the Pirates and their first World Series title since 1925 were Casey Stengel's vaunted Yankees. New York was the obvious favorite, though human nature has an affinity for the underdog, and the matchup evoked such rooting interests.

Quickly, though, the nation's hope that underdog could hold its own shifted into the reality that it might win. After the Pirates won Game 5 to move within one of a championship, Pittsburgh sat poised to celebrate.

"You could walk down the street and hear people's radios going," said Elroy Face, who saved the team's first three Series wins. "I came home from New York when we were leading 3-2 and 1,500 people were in my yard waiting. I was surprised. I had to get to the upstairs window to thank them for coming."

And this was before they won. This was before Mazeroski's Game 7 game-winning homer sent Pittsburgh into a frenzy. This was before officials had to shut the tunnels entering the city because of the volume of traffic, before bars ran out of liquor, before street cars were stuck because of all the confetti.

It was before Pittsburgh had a victory in a baseball game to announce that the city was back.

"It gave the city a tremendous boost," Groat said. "I think it pleased the whole country to see an underdog come out of nowhere. It was uplifting certainly to the city, but I think people in general starting respecting Pittsburgh."

"As a blue-collar industrial city, there was that sense that you're not quite up to the level of style or cultivation of New York City," added Ruck. "When you win something, you want to beat the best. There was no question that the Yankees were the team in baseball. There was an extra sense of accomplishment."

The World Series championship stands as the third of five the Pirates have captured in the franchise's 123 seasons. Some will argue that it was the biggest and most rewarding because of how it was won, who had to be defeated and what type of boost it provided to a rebuilding effort.

Mazeroski's home run lives with Franco Harris' "Immaculate Reception" in a 1972 NFL playoff game as the two most enduring sports moments in Pittsburgh's history. Fans still live Mazeroski's homer every year, too, gathering at what remains of Forbes Field to replay the broadcast and relive the joy each October 13.

"The Pirates had won a couple World Series after, but the people, they just gravitated to the 1960 team," recalled Vern Law, the winning pitcher in Games 1 and 4. "Even today, a bunch will go down in October where the old wall was and point to where the ball went over the wall. I don't know of any other championship team that has that experience, or has people do those kinds of things."

That's likely because it was a championship for the city and its people as much as it was for a team.

"I can't even describe what it meant to the entire city," said Groat, who grew up in a Pittsburgh-area suburb. "The '60 Series gave this city as much pride as any championship that has ever come to this city."

Jenifer Langosch is a reporter for This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Bucs return to glory days — if only for weekend

Friday, June 18, 2010

The slogan that captured a city began as a song whose title resonated more as a demand than a request: "Beat 'em, Bucs."

In fact, they did.

A half-century ago, the Pirates beat 'em all. They swamped their National League competition to win the pennant by seven games and took down the mighty New York Yankees in a World Series that ended with the most famous postseason home run in history.

"It was a team of destiny," said Bob Friend, 79, a right-hander who won 18 games for the 1960 championship team that will be honored this weekend during a three-game series at PNC Park between the last-place Pirates and the Cleveland Indians.

"So many things went our way," said Bill Virdon, 79, who roamed center field with skill and grace and caught just about everything. "It seems like the big reason you win is to take advantage of the breaks. Our club seemed to have that knack. Whenever something materialized, we took advantage of it."

Double Play Combo: Bill Mazeroski and Dick Groat

Friend and Virdon are scheduled to participate in the festivities. Others include pitchers Vern Law, 80, the 1960 Cy Young Award winner, and relief ace Elroy Face, 82; captain and shortstop Dick Groat, 79, who won the NL batting title and league MVP honors; and, of course, "Maz" -- Bill Mazeroski, 73, the second baseman whose World Series homer in the ninth inning of Game 7 brought the city and the Pirates their first championship in 35 years.

Also expected is 92-year-old Joe Brown, the former general manager who mixed most of the ingredients and tinkered with the recipe to produce a masterpiece.

The Pirates finished second in 1958 and were supposed to contend the next season, but little went right, and the team finished fourth. Groat and Friend experienced down seasons. Right fielder Roberto Clemente, one of two future Hall of Famers on the club (along with Mazeroski), got hurt and missed considerable action.

"It just didn't work out in '59," said Groat, who helped build Champion Lakes golf course in Ligonier and has been the Pitt basketball radio analyst for 21 years. "But it all came together in 1960."

Several players had their best seasons for the Pirates.

Law won 20 games. Groat switched to a heavier bat, and his average soared 50 points to a league best .325. The flashy, supremely-talented Clemente stayed healthy and was outstanding. Fiery third baseman Don Hoak and outfielder Bob Skinner also were better.

Friend turned an 8-19 record into 18-12 and the league's fifth-best earned run average. Face, the prototype of the modern relief pitcher, won 10 games and saved another 24 (this when a pitcher had to do more than show up to get a save). Just before Memorial Day, Brown traded for right-hander Wilmer "Vinegar Bend" Mizell, who proceeded to win 13 games.

From the dugout, manager Danny Murtaugh skillfully platooned at several positions and used the entire 25-man roster. Everyone contributed. When Groat broke his wrist in September, Dick "Ducky" Schofield filled in at shortstop and hit close to .400.

"Every person on the club had a big hit somewhere down the line," Groat said.

"Murtaugh was a great manager," said Law, who will throw out the first pitch Saturday. "He was fair with everybody, and everybody knew their role. They knew what was going on, and why."

Starting in late April, the Pirates lived in first place most of the year. They fell into a tie July 24, and then pulled away. Absent a prodigious slugger, Pittsburgh led the league in batting average, on-base percentage and runs. The pitching staff was third in earned run average.

But what set the team apart was its penchant for winning the close ones. The Pirates were 19-2 in extra-inning games and 36-19 in games decided by one run. They repeatedly came from behind, notably in an Easter Sunday game against Cincinnati. Trailing 5-0 in the second game of a doubleheader, the Pirates scored six runs in the bottom of the ninth.

After that, "We felt like we had a club that could win this thing," Friend said.

Groat said Murtaugh often complained: "You guys are killing me. I could stay home and not come out here until the seventh inning."

By all accounts, the team was close on and off the field. Players lingered in the clubhouse after the game, talking baseball. Occasionally, Face and pitcher Harvey Haddix would break out their guitars.

Fueled by talent and confidence, a relaxed Pirates club headed into the World Series convinced they could beat the powerful Yankees, even though the rest of the world gave them little chance.

"We knew we were the big underdog," Groat said. "It didn't make any difference to us."

Why should it? The Pirates won 96 games in what was considered the superior league. "We beat some very good ballclubs," said Friend. "That Milwaukee club was sensational. We knew if we could handle Milwaukee, we could handle any team."

The Yankees and their glittering cast of stars led by Mickey Mantle, Roger Maris and Whitey Ford won three games by scores of 10-0, 12-0 and 16-3. The Pirates won their three by considerably closer margins. But a win's a win. With the Series knotted at three games apiece, the teams found themselves tied at 9 in the bottom of the ninth when Mazeroski hit Ralph Terry's second pitch over the 406-foot sign on the left field wall at Forbes Field.

The blast remains the only home run to end a Game 7, and it touched off a raucous, citywide celebration that lasted into the night, and beyond. The moment is observed annually at a remnant of the wall that remains standing in Oakland.

"There's something of a David and Goliath scenario to the story that makes beating New York, in what was then a baseball town, huge," said Anne Madarasz, director of the Western Pennsylvania Sports Museum at the Senator John Heinz History Center.

The timing was significant, she said. The city, the nation and the world were on the cusp of great political, social and economic changes. Pittsburgh had an unaccustomed winner. It would take another decade, but more success was ahead -- for the Pirates, the Steelers and eventually the newest team, the Penguins.

"It was a pinnacle moment," Madarasz said. "Coming out of (World War II) we were the arsenal of democracy. We were still expanding our capacity to make steel. A decade later, we were starting to see the decline. This in many ways was a plateau, but almost a beginning of the City of Champions ideology."

Blundering endemic with Pirates

Friday, June 18, 2010
By Ron Cook, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Peter Diana/Post-Gazette

Pittsburgh Pirates manager John Russell and general manager Neil Huntington.

Pirates manager John Russell said the funniest thing Thursday after the team announced it had picked up his contract option for the 2011 season and given general manager Neal Huntington an extension for next season:

"This doesn't change anything. We're not going to change the way we do things."

Who said the comatose skipper doesn't have a sense of humor?

Why would you want to even consider changing something that has been so successful? Why would you bother looking at the way you manage and generally manage a team that has lost 11 games in a row, is 20 games under .500 and has the second-worst record in baseball after losing to the Chicago White Sox, 5-4, Thursday night? I mean, really?

This isn't so much a rip of Russell, even though he has done nothing to deserve another season. It's not so much his 152-237 record the past 2 1/2 seasons. He has had a lot of bad players. It's that he doesn't exactly inspire confidence that he'll be able to lead the Pirates' young players to greatness. He can't even be bothered to leave the dugout on most nights to have his guys' back when they are arguing with an umpire, though he did trot out Thursday night after Andrew McCutchen was called out at first base on a close play. I know, it was shocking.

Nor is this an attack of Huntington, who is most responsible -- penny-pinching owner Bob Nutting aside, of course -- for the joke of a product the Pirates are trying to pass off as a big-league club. He has done a nice job rebuilding the farm system through the draft, but his trades and player evaluations have been mostly rotten so far.

No, this is about the Pirates as an organization. If ever a franchise can find a way to do the wrong thing -- against all odds, at times -- they are it. Their professional sports record of 17-going-on-18 consecutive years of losing hasn't happened by accident.

Some of the blunders have been downright sad. Moving into publicly financed PNC Park in 2001, promising to field a winner, losing 100 games that first year and then raising ticket prices comes to mind. Other moments have been comedic. In 2006, the team brought in Pittsburgh-born actor Michael Keaton to throw out the opening-day first pitch only to have him lash out at ownership for not spending money for a winning team. Then, there was the bizarre handling of the Russell and Huntington announcement.

It turns out the deals were done during the off-season. Pirates president Frank Coonelly tried to explain why they were kept a secret until Thursday, but he didn't make a lot of sense. What was clear, though, was his admission that "in retrospect, I made a mistake."

Huntington and Russell were asked repeatedly about their contracts during the season, as was Coonelly. They were put in the awkward position by Coonelly of, if not outright lying, bending the truth. The dishonesty was most disrespectful to the fans. Insulting, actually.

After someone squealed the news to earlier Thursday, Coonelly was forced to make the announcement at the worst possible time. He and the organization look like fools.

Not surprisingly, Coonelly defended the extensions. He praised Huntington for the Xavier Nady-Damaso Marte trade, which brought Jose Tabata, Ross Ohlendorf, Jeff Karstens and Daniel McCutchen, and for finding gems Garrett Jones and Evan Meek from other clubs. "Neal had the tough assignment of turning over our roster and building the organization the right way at a time when he had very little to work with. He's had great success in terms of scouting and drafting young players."

As for Russell, Coonelly said, "John has a tremendous, intense passion for winning baseball and developing young players. He is an outstanding teacher. The players respect him, trust him and believe in his leadership."

It might have been fine if that's all Coonelly had said. But in the team's announcement and a later interview, he said, "Contracts are irrelevant. If we believe someone isn't getting the job done, a contract won't prevent us from doing what needs to be done. We'll make a change."

Amazing, isn't it?

The Pirates make what should be an exciting announcement about two key employees and their future. At the same time, they publicly bring up the possibility that one or both guys will be fired, maybe before their extensions even kick in.

What a franchise!

Russell talked a good game after the announcement. "It's a big challenge, but we're [both] very much up to it. We're excited about finishing the process. ... I expect to be in Pittsburgh for a lot of years. So does Neal."

If I'm Huntington or Russell, I'm not sitting too comfortably in my office after hearing what Coonelly had to say.

For their sake, if they do get fired soon, I just hope Coonelly actually, you know, tells them.

Ron Cook:

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Apathy for Alvarez debut

Thursday, June 17, 2010

The Pirates' Pedro Alvarez signs autographs for fans before his first game Wednesday at PNC Park against the White Sox.
Christopher Horner/Tribune-Review

How odd.

My intent Wednesday night was to capture a sure-to-be rollicking atmosphere for the debut of third baseman Pedro Alvarez, the Pirates' best power-hitting prospect since Barry Bonds in 1986. But the first person I encountered was a PNC Park vendor who, as it turned out, was walking home 45 minutes before the first pitch.

"What's the crowd like?" I asked, as we stood near the CCAC Campus on Ridge Ave.

"Not much of one," he said. "They just sent 30 of us home 'cause there aren't enough (fans) in there."

Signs grew more ominous as the ballpark came into view. Traffic around the ticket booths, described by a team official as an all-day trickle, was still just that: a trickle. I approached a 24-year-old fan named Alex Harrington and asked, "Are you buying tickets to see Alvarez?"

"Who?" he said.

Oh, boy. I said the name again, and while it seemed to ring a bell, Harrington wasn't here for Alvarez. He was here to take a buddy from Chicago to see the White Sox and "to kill some time."

Let's Go Bucs!

Surely, the next person I approached would be pumped for Pedro-palooza, even if the Buccos had lost nine straight. But I swear this is what Mike Biosko, a middle-aged man from Cranberry, told me when I asked if he and his buddy had come for the Alvarez unveiling.

"No, we're here to see if they lose 10 in a row," he said.

Seriously? You drove in from Cranberry just for that?

"Yes," he insisted.

At that point, I wanted to call up Pirates owner Bob Nutting and MLB commissioner Bud Selig and scream into the phone, "Do you see what you people have done to this fan base?"

Seconds later, a man named Ernest Hindman, 31, of South Park, turned the momentum ever so slightly. Hindman hadn't been to PNC Park since Opening Day and might not have come again if not for Alvarez, whom he was excited to see.

About two hours earlier, 37-year-old Troy Karlik of Coraopolis heard a voice in his head while cutting his lawn. He hadn't been to the ballpark in two years.

"Maybe the Pirates are making an effort," said the voice, Karlik's own. "Maybe it'll make a difference."

He paid $9 for a ticket.

Pedro Alvarez walks during the fifth inning Wednesday against the White Sox at PNC Park.
Christopher Horner/Tribune-Review

Mike Quarantillo, a junior at Pitt and a big basketball fan, had texted four of his friends earlier in the day. The text read, "Alvarez is coming up and (former Pitt basketball star) DeJuan Blair is throwing out the first pitch. We're there."

And so they were, but I got the feeling a lot of these folks felt like Hindman, in that they grudgingly opened their wallets and weren't exactly brimming with unbridled hope.

"I was happy to find out about Alvarez," Hindman said. "But he's potentially the last Pirate I'll ever care about if this plan fails."

Do you see what's at stake here? Do you see why it's imperative that the Pirates put some pieces around Alvarez and Andrew McCutchen? Do you understand why it's so critical that Nutting follows through on the promise to spend more money when the time is right?

That time is growing near.

I just wonder if the Pirates get the message. You wouldn't think so, judging from the fact they announced the Alvarez promotion in much the way Robert Irsay announced the Colts' departure from Baltimore a quarter-century ago (Irsay secretly moved his team in the middle of the night).

The Pirates put out a news release after their loss Tuesday night, saying, essentially, that they were pretty darned sure Alvarez would be here the next day.

Not exactly a PR blitz. Then again, I'm not sure a PR blitz would have added much to the paltry crowd of 15,218, which was much better than projected as of Monday but still 23,278 under capacity.

Some stood and clapped when Alvarez walked to the plate in the second inning. Some chanted his name. Some gave him a polite ovation after he struck out on a massive swing.

Quite frankly, though, it seemed like any other dead weeknight game at PNC Park.

How sad.

Pirates should let Alvarez have a blast

Thursday, June 17, 2010
By Gene Collier, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Peter Diana/Post-Gazette

Pirates third baseman Pedro Alvarez makes his way to the field Wednesday at PNC Park.

The first visual evidence that PNC Park cannot hold Pedro Alvarez arrived Wednesday via air mail, having soared into the humid summery sky between the farthest Pepsi discs on its right-center field towers.

About 450 feet.

Over everything.

Of course, it was just after 5 o'clock in batting practice, and the sad little ballpark on the North Side would not begin its business day for another two hours, but this was why it took former Pirates catcher Manny Sanguillen about two minutes of spring training last year to invoke the name of Willie Stargell at the sight of Alvarez's crackling whip of a left-handed stroke.

"I can't wait to show the city what I can bring to the table," Alvarez told a Wednesday afternoon news conference. "And to show them how much I love the game and how hard I can play."

It took 40 minor-league homers to get this eloquent son of a New York jitney driver to the major leagues, and it might take 40 more to convince the club's failure-besotted fan base that Alvarez is the real thing. But Wednesday night was surely the start of something.

Yes, he got his first error before his first hit, and his first big-league shift was part of a jarringly amateurish six-error Pirates nightmare, the club's 10th consecutive loss, 7-2 to the Chicago White Sox.

Yet for better or worse, Alvarez's arrival means that for the first time here in Development Stage 99, the core of the Pittsburgh Pirates -- Alvarez, Jose Tabata (whose first big league homer came Wednesday night), Andrew McCutchen, Neil Walker, Brad Lincoln -- has been developed by the franchise's current management. Alvarez is far from the final component of management's often-questionable vision, but he is critical to the long-lost launch code for winning baseball.

"We're trying to simplify it for him," said general manager Neal Huntington. "We've been telling him he's Pedro Alvarez and all he has to do is to be Pedro Alvarez. The weight of the world is not on his shoulders."

Huntington and field manager John Russell spent part of Wednesday insisting that any pressure on Alvarez will come from external stimuli, that they wouldn't give him too much to think about, but when his initial news conference lasted only 10 minutes at 3:27 p.m., I thought cynically that they were either anxious for him to start over-preparing or they wanted to take him to wherever they keep The Sword In The Stone.

It's going to take some personage of youthful baseball royalty to yank that thing out of there, to extract what is magically embedded in failure and begin the return to some semblance of Pirates sovereignty.

So Alvarez climbed from the dugout for his first at-bat wearing a black-on-home-white 17, a number that flashes swiftly through Pirates lore from the nearly forgotten Johnny Dickshot (1938) to Donn Clendenon to Dock Ellis to Phil Garner and Lee Lacy and even to current Pirates broadcaster Bob Walk (who, in his major-league debut 30 years ago this summer, surrendered a homer to that same Willie Stargell). The new No. 17 started his career with a second-inning strikeout, but what a rip Alvarez had at that 92-mph fastball from White Sox lefty John Danks. Had he connected, splashdown would have come precisely at 7:26 p.m.

Calmed considerably for his second plate appearance in the fifth, Alvarez accepted a six-pitch walk and scored the first Pirates run after Lastings Milledge doubled and Bobby Crosby rapped an RBI grounder to short. Then in the seventh, the first ball Alvarez put in play was a trolley-wire to the opposite field, but Chicago's Juan Pierre caught up with it as he neared the warning track to make Alvarez 0 for 2 officially.

Despite management's stated precautions, the immediate danger for a player such as Alvarez is that its operatives will evaluate these first baby steps and swamp him with specialized video encryption and some litany of corrective suggestions that can send young hitters into a kind of enormity paralysis.

You wonder sometimes if the explosion of specialized data in the game today can ever make it possible for a Pedro Alvarez to just come up and play and enjoy his education.

"It's possible," Russell said. "That's where his teammates and his staff become his support system. We've got some guys who have been through this. Guys like Bobby Crosby and Ronny Cedeno have dealt with these kinds of external expectations. He's going to know what to expect. He's got some pretty solid guys who can help him and he's going to help them as well.

"I think this is going to be a big boost for everybody."

That might well be, but in the near term, everybody's going to have to calm down a little -- internally and externally -- so that this young core isn't turned every which way but loose. There is zero at stake at this stage for Alvarez or his crew mates. They wouldn't be the first core not to turn the ship around. It shouldn't really matter so much if these Pirates lose the remaining 97 games. They have to be free to play and to let the game's little mysteries reveal themselves.

It's really simple right now.

Just play.

It's exactly as Stargell said. The ump yells play ball, not work ball.

Gene Coller:

Alvarez's first day brings 'butterflies,' big swings

Goes 0 for 2 with in debut with Pirates, gets warm welcome from crowd

Thursday, June 17, 2010
By Chuck Finder, Colin Dunlap and Bill Brink, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Peter Diana/Post-Gazette

Pirates third baseman Pedro Alvarez makes a play on ball hit by the White Sox's Jayson Nix Wednesday at PNC Park.

The too-long-awaited moment lasted two minutes.

Let history show, at 7:25 p.m. Wednesday, with patrons cheering the moment Ryan Doumit got called out at first base on a groundout, Pedro Alvarez walked along the bottom edge of the circle surrounding the batter's box. He stopped near the visitor's on-deck path and took a mighty swing toward the stands. He stepped into the left side of the batter's box, pawing places in the dirt. He drew around the far edge of the plate with the tip of his black bat, then tapped the near side. He extended his right hand toward the pitcher, then swung the bat downward and into place by his left shoulder.

And it all ended, six pitches later, in ... a swinging strikeout.

The crowd cheered anew.

Yes, it has been that long a wait.

"I said something to the batting coach [Don Long]," outfielder Ryan Church offered. " 'I wish they'd cheer when I got out.' "

Alvarez will do a considerable amount of striking out in his major-league career.

There also will follow rain barrels of doubles, home runs, moments.

Little was seared into memories from a first night that turned into a 10th consecutive Pirates loss, a 7-2 defeat against the Chicago White Sox. For the power-hitting third baseman, it all began with that big swing and miss on a full count, a walk and a run, a lineout to deep left field. Thus were inscribed the first words of his narrative, in front of a sparse PNC Park assemblage of 15,218 on a perfect baseball night with the heralded arrival of the 23-year-old Moses expected to helped lead the franchise from this sub-.500 wilderness.

"At first, the game was going 100 miles an hour," Alvarez said. "After the first grounder, the first at-bat, things slowed down a little bit. I definitely had a lot of fun out there. The way I thought it would [be]."

Church cautioned, "Don't judge on the first day." Others around the ballpark were impressed, though.

"Good at-bats. Very good at-bats," outspoken Chicago manager Ozzie Guillen said afterward. "Takes a lot of pitches. Hit a line drive to left field. Good at-bats."

"He's a tough out," added winning pitcher John Danks. "You can definitely see why there's a hype around him. He's a good player, he's a big boy, and I think he'll have a pretty good career."

"Even though I didn't get a hit, I thought I had some pretty good at-bats. Some good looks," Alvarez said.

Peter Diana/Post-Gazette

The Pirates' Pedro Alvarez and Neil Walker engage in a secret handshake.

He recorded his first merchandise sales -- black and gray No. 17 jerseys and T-shirts -- seconds after the park stores opened. He started his first 5-4-3 double play on the first grounder he fielded at 7:22,. He recorded his first run at 8:10, thanks to his first walk, a Lastings Milledge double and a Bobby Crosby groundout. He recorded his first error -- one of the Pirates' six -- on a Doumit throw on a stolen base at 9:25 p.m. He went 0 for 2 and saw pal Jose Tabata hit his first homer and the game end in booing, with a final Doumit out depriving patrons of a fourth Alvarez plate appearance. If nothing else, he is the second coming of Ralph Kiner already, a swinging reason to watch baseball in Pittsburgh.

Of all his prodigious power, Alvarez on his first night and in his first at-bat was unable to club a 17-year-erasing homer.

A new decision?

"What changed?" Pirates general manager Neal Huntington said, answering a question with a question, sitting in the same seat seconds after Alvarez held a 12-minute news conference there.

"About six hours, and a [Class AAA Indianapolis vs. Scranton/Wilkes-Barre] game for Pedro to get through. There's a lot of discussion held with a lot of people. I was asked a question [Tuesday] at 4 p.m., and I answered it as best I could," he said, referring to his belief that Alvarez had work yet to do in the minors ... though sources told the Post-Gazette's Dejan Kovacevic that a Saturday call-up and debut was most likely.

"And the reality is he does still have some development left. If I'd been asked the question at 11 p.m., I'd have answered it very differently," Huntington continued.

Did the Pirates' ninth consecutive loss Tuesday have an impact on that final decision, announced at 10:59?

"Nothing to do with it whatsoever."

Reporting for work

"A little surreal," Alvarez called the scene. This, mind you, was only the second time he set foot in PNC Park -- the first being the unceremonious, quiet, private ceremony to sign his contract in September 2008 after weeks of negotiations, hearings, rancor.

"Honored and privileged to be in this situation right now. I just hope I can contribute any way possible to this ballclub."

He was inserted at No. 6 in the order, one spot below where most expected, because manager John Russell wants to make him feel comfortable before moving him up the order. Skeptics might wonder if the protection at No. 5 with Garrett Jones in front might prove more cozy than a Doumit-Milledge sandwich.

"He's special," Russell said of Alvarez. "But, on the other hand, the league's not going to let him hit home runs. He's going to have some rough goes occasionally. ... There are going to be some days where he's going to learn the hard way. There are going to be tough days he'll have to fight through."

During batting practice, his father sat on the home bench, under cover, as a light rain fell and had dugout-tunnel vision on his son.

It couldn't rain on Pedro's parade, could it? Ballpark gates were closed until 5:30, so the son's audience was mostly media, family and ushers, one of whom exclaimed upon his entrance into the batting cage: "Woo-hoo." Show time.

Seven minutes later, at 5 p.m. Alvarez clunked a BP homer directly over the 325-foot sign in left. His second one hit off Section 142, Row M, Seat 8, about 6 feet from clearing the entire stands.

About a minute later, he hit one into the Allegheny.

End of Day One

"I think he did great," said Neil Walker. "I'm sure he had a lot of things going through his mind." And midsection. "Some butterflies in my stomach," Alvarez admitted.

And that first ovation in the second inning, followed two minutes later by a second one?

"Definitely got some goosebumps," Alvarez added.

Walker echoed the thoughts of Danks, Guillen and more about the laudable at-bats. "It didn't seem like he was too far out of his element," said Walker, who knows something about debuts and expectations.

"I'm excited for him," continued Tabata, who walked onto the field for batting practice alongside his friend and teammate of the past two summers in Class AA Altoona and Indianapolis, from where Tabata and starter Brad Lincoln were promoted one week ahead of him. "He looked good in the at-bats. I trust him. He can do it."

He can be the one to provide home runs. And goose bumps. Just not this first night.

Chuck Finder: Colin Dunlap: Bill Brink: