Saturday, July 31, 2010

Steelers' Roethlisberger fears boos of fellow 'yinzers'

Saturday, July 31, 2010
By Ed Bouchette, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
http://www.post-gazette.com/sports/?m=1


Peter Diana/Post-Gazette

Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger arrives at training camp at St. Vincent College in Latrobe in a Mini Cooper yesterday.



As he drove toward Saint Vincent College Friday in a MINI Cooper, Ben Roethlisberger suddenly felt frightened. It wasn't the car, it wasn't the specter of the media horde awaiting him on campus, and it wasn't the impending arrival of NFL commissioner Roger Goodell next week.

The Steelers quarterback suddenly worried about the reaction fans would have toward him this afternoon when he takes the field for a public practice for the first time since a woman accused him of sexual assault in March.

"Driving up here today I was talking to my dad, and for the first time it hit me about what is about to happen and -- who knows? I got scared. I really did," Mr. Roethlisberger told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette during a 25-minute interview Friday afternoon in a campus dorm room.

Will it be cheers or jeers?

"I don't know what is going to happen. I am sure I will get a little bit of both. I hope it is mostly good. I guess that is what makes you human, if you are scared, and that is what my dad told me."

Mr. Roethlisberger, giving his first lengthy print interview since Mr. Goodell doled out a four- to six-game suspension for his antics in March, said he would try to follow the advice his father gave him on the cell phone Friday.

"He said it is OK to be scared and afraid of those things, and to just be yourself and be human; and that is what hit me coming up here. I don't know what is going to happen, and I am scared."

He said he would have the same anxious moments before his next game at Heinz Field Aug. 14.

"I am hoping and praying that I get a warm reception. I hope people want to give me another chance and that they will give me that chance to prove to them ... It would tear me apart if [booing] happened at home. On the road we are used to it anyway. I can block that out; but it touches my heart because I love Pittsburgh. I'm a 'yinzer.' I don't say it, but I am a yinzer. I feel like they are home to me, they are family. So I feel like I let my family down through all of this, so that is why I hope family forgives."

'Give me a chance'

Mr. Roethlisberger repeated many times during Friday's interview his hope that fans will give him a second chance, that they will judge him by his deeds from now on rather than what reportedly went on in Milledgeville, Ga., in the early hours of March 5.

"I have made a lot of mistakes. I know that, and I will be the first to admit it. I have asked for forgiveness. I know that I have probably hurt people, and I am so sorry to anyone I have ever hurt. But I am just hoping people can forgive me and give me another chance. I'm not asking for it to be an overnight miracle. I know no one is going to read this article or see an interview and say, 'I forgive him.' But give me a chance, that is all I ask for."

While he has promised to change, to become again the person he says he was years earlier, he bemoaned the fact he could not tell his side of the story from the incident in Georgia.

The 20-year-old college student and her friends claimed Mr. Roethlisberger sexually assaulted the woman in a nightclub bathroom. The woman, though, could not recall details and later asked prosecutors not to charge Mr. Roethlisberger. After a lengthy investigation, Georgia authorities said they would not pursue charges. However, Mr. Goodell, citing a "pattern of behavior and bad judgments" by Mr. Roethlisberger, suspended him for the first six games of the season, which could be reduced to four if the quarterback follows a path the commissioner set for him.

Mr. Roethlisberger said he felt lowest about two weeks after the incident when he read and heard the charges being made against him by the woman and her friends but could not respond because of advice from his lawyers.

"I want to tell the truth, I wanted to tell my side and let everyone know what really happened," Mr. Roethlisberger said. "Because all you ever heard was her side of the story, and it was so out there, I mean ridiculously out there. People who know the truth were like, just shaking their head. I mean it was so ridiculous."

He also labeled the sexual assault accusations in a civil suit filed by a Nevada woman the year before as "ridiculous."

A lot for the community

His lawyers advised him that if he "lashed out" at the accuser in Georgia, authorities might just take it to trial. But Mr. Roethlisberger realized he has lost a lot more.

He has lost money, endorsements, reputation and fans.

"To me, it's more about losing fans. That's what hurt the most."

What also hurts is reading what he says are exaggerated stories quoting people who accused him of walking out on restaurant and bar tabs, refusing to pay cover charges and tipping poorly, if at all.

"When some of those stories came out they were hurtful because some of them were blatantly made up, and that is just unfortunate," Mr. Roethlisberger said. "I would never want to rob the average Pittsburgh person and walk out on a bar tab or a food tab or not leave a tip. I think if you ask people [who] know, I am a pretty good tipper.

"I think people assume that just because I get up and leave a table without actually seeing me pay the bill, they think I just got up and walked out. I have great friends, though, [who] aren't afraid to pay the bill for me. But that is the unfortunate part, that a bystander over there could overlook something. But if they say that, I'm sorry. I've never been that way, and I hope they can forgive me."

Forgiveness is what Mr. Roethlisberger seeks, and he promised he'd give people reason to forgive. He said he'd followed Mr. Goodell's orders "to just stay out of trouble and do whatever you can to keep your name out of the paper, good or bad."

"I've always done a lot of things for the community, but I have just never been one to tell people about it because I don't think that is why you do it," Mr. Roethlisberger said. "So I kept doing things like that. Went to the Salvation Army, Ronald McDonald House to serve dinner and went to the Caring House to talk to families who have lost family members. ...

"I'm just trying to be smart with everything I am doing. I try not to even put myself in a situation that could be questionable. You still have to live your life. You can't stop living, so I still go to a restaurant but I don't go as often as I would. I haven't gone out. I have had the O-linemen up to my house and we have grilled out a few times. I have had other teammates and rookies up, so things like that. But I mostly just hang out with my family and friends."

'Under a microscope'

He made the news once since the end of spring practices June 10, when a woman who lived along an Ohio golf course accused him of urinating next to a tree. Others said it was not Mr. Roethlisberger, but someone else in his foursome. Police did not pursue it.

It was another instance, however, that showed Mr. Roethlisberger how much his behavior is under the spotlight.

"That wasn't even me; that's the unfortunate part. You think you do everything right, and even if you are with somebody and they do something wrong or whatever, regardless, they see your name, and they think it is you. It's tough. I have been under a microscope, and that is just the way I have been living the last few months."

Mr. Roethlisberger acknowledges he got full of himself as he experienced the successes through the years, and he has apologized to people for that, including to some members of the news media.

"People make you this idol or figure, and you start to believe it, and that is a shame because that is not who I am or who I was raised to be," he said. "I am embarrassed to even for a second think that that was who I really was. On the field, that is one thing. You have to be that way. On the field you want to be the best [who] has ever played the game. But off the field you have to be a different person."

He said he had no idea what it's going to be like going through training camp and the preseason and then sitting out at least the first month of the regular season.

"Never, ever, never in a million years did I think I would have to miss a game for anything, even injuries. But to do something that the commissioner feels like he needed to discipline me over, I never thought the day would happen, and it is very painful for me to not be out there with my guys. ... It is going to be so hard, and it is going to drive me to be the best that I have ever been. I have already been doing that this off-season. I am in the best shape that I have ever been in, and I know that I have four more weeks, five more weeks, who knows how long, but I am going to keep training and do whatever I can."

His apprehension over the reaction from fans today turned to a wish of what the next 10 years will be like for him. He said he would like the years to turn out the way they have for another athlete accused but not convicted of sexual assault.

"Like Kobe Bryant," Mr. Roethlisberger said. "He is now the most popular athlete in the world."

But there is more to the wish.

"Win championships, get married and start a family here in Pittsburgh. Hopefully, I will never leave here. So I am hoping, maybe in 10 years, I will be playing, God willing ... But just to be here, and [have] people forget all about [the old Ben] and say, 'He was one of the nicest guys, he was just a great guy.' "


Ed Bouchette can be reached at ebouchette@post-gazette.com.

Friday, July 30, 2010

Steelers sign former Cowboys tackle Adams

Friday, July 30, 2010
By Ed Bouchette, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
http://www.post-gazette.com/sports/?m=1



Matthew Ludtke/Associated Press

The Steelers signed former Cowboys offensive lineman Flozell Adams.

The Steelers report to training camp today, and this could truly be a case in which the last shall be first.

The two widest open jobs in this camp, their 45th at Saint Vincent College near Latrobe, are on the right side of their offensive line, guard and tackle.

Thursday, they signed a veteran player who might become their next starting tackle, Flozell Adams, to a two-year contract. And the last rookie left standing without a contract as of last night is first-round draft pick Maurkice Pouncey, who could become their starting right guard.

Adams, 35, is a five-time Pro Bowl left tackle with the Dallas Cowboys. The Steelers signed him in response to losing starting right tackle Willie Colon for the season with an Achilles tendon injury.

It's unsure whether the Steelers will use Adams on the left side or the right. Adams played his entire career with the Cowboys at left tackle and his agent, Jordan Woy, believes that likely is where the Steelers will put him.

Max Starks, their starting left tackle the past two seasons, started at right tackle in 2005 and '06. Under a new coaching staff, Starks lost his job at right tackle to Willie Colon in '07 but moved to left tackle when the starter there, Marvel Smith, had back problems that ultimately forced him into retirement.

Adams, nicknamed The Hotel because of his 6-7, 338-pound frame, last made the Pro Bowl for his play in the 2007 season. The Cowboys, who drafted him in the second round from Michigan State in 1998, released him in April.

The Steelers will have to release someone to make room on their 80-man roster for Adams.

No Steelers rookie has missed the opening of training camp since 2004, and the Steelers are hoping to have Pouncey there on time to start competing at right guard.

No Steelers first-round pick has become a regular starter as a rookie since Heath Miller in '05.

Although the Steelers drafted Pouncey, a center at Florida, to be their future center, they announced immediately that he would be used at right guard his rookie season. He practiced mostly at right guard in the spring but did see some time at center, where starter Justin Hartwig was limited after shoulder surgery.

Trai Essex, who became their starting right guard last season after Darnell Stapleton was lost for the season with knee surgery in training camp, will try to hold off Pouncey if the Steelers do not move Essex to compete at tackle, where he first played for them.

Other jobs up for grabs in this training camp are left cornerback and inside linebacker.

The Steelers re-acquired two of their former starters to compete at both spots, Larry Foote at linebacker with holdover starters Lawrence Timmons and James Farrior, and Bryant McFadden with William Gay at left cornerback. McFadden, though, ran first team all spring, and that competition might have ended the day they traded for him with Arizona.

That does not count quarterback, the most intriguing position of camp and maybe of any training camp this summer in the NFL. Starter Ben Roethlisberger will be suspended for at least the first four regular-season games but is permitted to practice and play in preseason games until the suspension starts. Byron Leftwich is the assumed starter because he held that job most of the spring and because coach Mike Tomlin said he will have his starter picked at the start of camp.



NOTE -- The Steelers have cut a marketing deal with XFinity by Comcast to wear the company's logo on their practice jerseys throughout the season, starting in training camp. It marks the first time the Steelers will wear advertising on a jersey other than a manufacturer's logo. Other teams have made such deals for their practice jerseys recently.


For more on the Steelers, read the blog, Ed Bouchette on the Steelers at www.post-gazette.com/plus. Ed Bouchette: ebouchette@post-gazette.com.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Fuqua remains mum about Reception

By John Grupp, PITTSBURGH TRIBUNE-REVIEW
http://www.pittsburghlive.com/x/pittsburghtrib/sports/
Thursday, July 29, 2010

The Assassin is gone, but Frenchy Fuqua isn't ready to end any controversy surrounding the Immaculate Reception.

One day after former Oakland Raiders Pro Bowl safety Jack Tatum died from a heart attack, Fuqua, once again, declined to publicly discuss one of the most famous plays in NFL history.

The former Steelers running back gave his standard cryptic response from his home in Detroit on Wednesday.

"I know exactly (what happened on the play)," he said. "What happened on that play was truly immaculate."

Fuqua and Tatum, who had become friends in recent years, will be forever linked to the Immaculate Reception in the 1972 playoffs at Three Rivers Stadium.

Tatum collided with Fuqua as Terry Bradshaw's fourth-down pass arrived with 22 seconds to play. The ball ricocheted in the air before Steelers running back Franco Harris made a shoe-string catch and raced 42 yards for the game-winning touchdown.

Tatum had claimed the pass touched Fuqua first, which would have made Harris' catch illegal, according to then-NFL rules. Officials ruled the pass first touched Tatum, giving the Steelers their first home playoff victory.

The debate still rages. About four years ago, Fuqua, Tatum and former Steeler running back Reggie Harrison were gathered at a memorabilia show in Virginia.

Harrison tried to get to the bottom of things.

Fuqua recalls: "Reggie said, 'I got you two together. What happened on that play?' Jack said, 'I don't know who touched the ball. I was trying to tear your head off.' I said, 'What happened on that play was truly immaculate.' "

While replays of the grainy footage were inconclusive, a Carnegie Mellon professor in 2004 analyzed film clips and determined the ball, based on the trajectory of its ricochet and the distance it traveled, must have bounced off Tatum, who was running upfield at the time.

Fuqua said he and Tatum rarely spoke about the Immaculate Reception as their friendship grew over the years. They frequently crossed paths at memorabilia shows and sports banquets. Tatum always denied the ball hit him, but Fuqua is skeptical.

"Jack was sincere. I don't think he knew what happened on that play," Fuqua said. "He went to tear my head off. He thought the play was over."

Fuqua was saddened to learn of Tatum's death. He said, to this day, the hard-hitting safety, whose 1978 hit left Patriots wide receiver Darryl Stingley paralyzed, is the only Raider he ever grew to respect.

"My feeling for the Oakland Raiders is as bitter today as they were in the 1970s," Fuqua said. "But I got a chance to know Jack pretty well. He wasn't a bad guy. He was the only decent Raider that I knew.

"I'm just glad I had the opportunity to know him, not from across the sidelines, but personally. I can honestly say there were two Jack Tatums: the assassin and the fun-loving guy."

Fuqua said Tatum would have fit in well with the great Super Bowl champions of the 1970s.

"He could have been a Steeler; he was just drafted by the wrong team," Fuqua said. "He would have fit in (with the Steelers). We would have given him that class."

For Winter Classic, Caps will sport a vintage look against Penguins

By Tarik El-Bashir
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 28, 2010; D06
http://www.washingtonpost.com/


PITTSBURGH - JULY 27: Sidney Crosby (L) of the Pittsburgh Penguins and Mike Knuble of the Washington Capitals pose for a photo at the 2011 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic press conference on July 27, 2010 at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)

PITTSBURGH -- Three seasons ago the Washington Capitals harkened back to their red, white and blue roots. In next year's Winter Classic, they're going all the way back.

Alex Ovechkin and Co. will wear jerseys adorned with the Capitals' original crest, complete with blue letters, a red hockey stick for the 'L' and six stars over the city and team name when they face off with the Pittsburgh Penguins on New Year's Day.

The complete uniform, which won't be revealed until the Capitals' fan convention in October, will strongly resemble those from the Rod Langway era based on the logo that was unveiled Tuesday at Heinz Field, home of the NFL's Steelers and site of the NHL's fourth annual outdoor showcase.

The league picked the Capitals and Penguins for two reasons: They boast the game's biggest stars in Alex Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby, and because even in the slowest time of the season, the teams' longtime rivalry never seems to cool off.

Max Talbot made sure there's no doubt about the latter. In an interview on Pittsburgh's 105.9 "The X" Tuesday morning, the Penguins winger said of Ovechkin: "I'm kind of happy he's not [in Pittsburgh for the news conference]. I didn't want to see him. I just hate the guy. . . . I can't lie, sorry."

Later in the same interview, Talbot, pressed about his disdain for the Capitals' captain, added: "[Evgeni] Malkin knew Ovechkin and introduced me to him [at the 2009 NHL Awards in Las Vegas] and the first impression wasn't great."

This Winter Classic didn't need any more fuel. But that didn't stop Talbot from pouring a can of gasoline on it.

Given the chance to explain himself at Tuesday's news conference, Talbot downplayed his comments.

"It's always a big rivalry and whatever you say the other team is not going to like," Talbot said. "He's a great player but he's not fun to play against. What can you say, stir up a little intensity?

"It was more about on-the-ice stuff than off the ice," Talbot added. "You hate to play against him. That's what I meant."

Mike Knuble and David Steckel, who represented the Capitals at Heinz Field, weren't convinced."It's bulletin-board material," Steckel said with a smirk, "and it's not quite August yet."

Knuble added: "It's the end of July and somebody's got to say something. It just adds to the rivalry. . . . I can't imagine any of our players saying something like that about Sidney Crosby."

After the trash talk and a quirky contest in which the players shot pucks from the field through the football goal posts (Steckel hit one from near the 50-yard line), NHL and NBC officials conducted a "site survey," hoping to figure out the best location for the rink inside the 65,000-seat stadium as well as ideal camera locations.

"It's the first time that our guys have got inside the building and are starting to formulate the plans," NHL chief operating officer John Collins said. "Most of the plans will get drawn off of this meeting."



Max Talbot calls Alex Ovechkin a bad word

By Dan Steinberg
The Washington Post: D.C. Sports Bog
http://voices.washingtonpost.com/dcsportsbog/
July 27, 2010; 3:20 PM ET


PITTSBURGH - JULY 27: (L-R) Pascal Dupuis, Sidney Crosby and Maxime Talbot of the Pittsburgh Penguins pose for a photo at the 2011 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic press conference on July 27, 2010 at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)

At 2:24 p.m. or thereabouts on Tuesday, the NHL sent out a press release about the league's "hottest rivalry." I think sports writers and the general public could normally be forgiven for casting a cynical eye at press-released claims of a hot hockey rivalry that are made in late July.

But in this case, a member of the Penguins -- one side of the rivalry -- had called the Capitals superstar "a real douche" on the radio four hours before the press release went out. Game on, press-release writers. Next time, though, please include slightly blue hygienic-product puns. I'd provide a few examples, but I'd rather not alarm the censors.

"I just hate the guy," Max Talbot told 105.9 The X on Tuesday as part of some Winter Classic press tours, when asked about Alex Ovechkin. "I can't lie. Sorry. Even moreso for a guy like Ovechkin. Like, seriously. Ok. Yeah. I don't like him."

There was lots of laughter through all of this, and the hosts were egging him on, saying "we agree completely" and "don't apologize" and the like. Then they asked Talbot when he realized that his dislike for Ovechkin extended beyond normal, competitive on-ice rivalry.

"The first time I met him, actually, when I met him off the ice," Talbot said. "You hear a lot of stories about a guy, but sometimes they're not true. You hear of guys who're not good guys, and you're like, 'Yeah, ok, I'll give the guy a shot.' The first time I met him, let's say he didn't give the best impression to me, so better reason to hate him even more."

It was the ripped jeans, wasn't it, Max? Or maybe the techno music? The cackling hosts asked Talbot what exactly happened at this first off-ice meeting.

"I was actually at the NHL Awards last summer with Malkin, and we brought the Stanley Cup over there after the season," Talbot said. "Malkin knew Ovechkin, and introduced me to him, and the first impression wasn't great. I'm not really gonna say what happened, but I'm like, 'Ok, this guy is a real douche.' "

(Note: Here is a short list of things guaranteed to make me break my vacation pledge to avoid the Internet: Confirmed jello wrestling between LaVar Arrington and Clinton Portis, the Dalai Lama making his first public remarks about Albert Haynesworth, and a Pittsburgh Penguin calling Alex Ovechkin a douche. That list may not be complete, but it's a start.)

After the interview, the cackling hosts wondered how "douche" would be translated in the inevitable Russian-language versions of this transcription. Funny, because I was wondering how you say "Brads, don't worry about it, let me take this one myself please," in Russian. Also, "Five-Minute Major." Also, "People kept throwing hats. I was just asking if he could make an announcement to ask them to stop."

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Talbot's talk makes for tough ticket

By Kevin Gorman, PITTSBURGH TRIBUNE-REVIEW
http://www.pittsburghlive.com/x/pittsburghtrib/sports/
Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Before Pittsburgh's political and sporting dignitaries could congratulate each other on bringing the Winter Classic to Heinz Field, Max Talbot pre-empted the party.

And all but assured a sellout.

If Talbot can't live off scoring two Game 7 goals to clinch the 2009 Stanley Cup championship, the Penguins forward might have a future in talk radio.

PITTSBURGH - JULY 27: Maxime Talbot of the Pittsburgh Penguins takes a shot through the goal post during a competition at the 2011 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic press conference on July 27, 2010 at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)

While expressing his "hate" for Alexander Ovechkin on Tuesday on the 105.9 The X Morning Show, Talbot used a word not fit for print to describe the Washington Capitals star and two-time NHL Most Valuable Player.

With that insult, Talbot intensified the league's most spirited rivalry and did more to sell Winter Classic tickets than anything NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, Steelers chairman Art Rooney II, Mayor Luke Ravenstahl and Allegheny County Executive Dan Onorato said combined.

Bettman did nothing to detract from it, calling the Penguins and Capitals teams who "genuinely don't like each other." Capitals president Dick Patrick added that he respects the Penguins and their accomplishments, but "that doesn't mean we don't really dislike them on the ice and want to beat them."

Especially, now, on New Year's Day.

No matter what anybody says, this is no longer about the novelty of playing an outdoor hockey game in a football stadium, nor about the Steelers and Penguins forming a partnership to bring a big-time event to the city. It's become, to borrow a Bettman phrase, a "must-see moment."

"I'm sure after (yesterday), that will be the first quote everyone sees before the outdoor game," Capitals center David Steckel said. "But I don't think you need to build up the rivalry any more than it already is. It's great for the NHL. It's great for the City of Pittsburgh. And it's great for the two teams playing in it. Any more hype we can get to make this a bigger event, a bigger success, we're all for it."

Maybe not at the expense of their captain, but you get the point.

The Capitals haven't been shy about criticizing the Penguins - and captain Sidney Crosby, in particular - but Ovechkin has always seemed to revel in playing the role of villain. Now he gets to play the victim.

That it was Talbot who fired the salvo and not Penguins superstars Crosby or Evgeni Malkin doesn't matter to the Capitals.

"It's going to mean as much as if either one of those guys said it, at least in our locker room," Steckel said. "It's bulletin-board material in July. I'm sure there will be other stuff said, too. It'll play out."


PITTSBURGH - JULY 27: NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman, Steelers co-Owner and President Art Rooney II, and Penguins Chairman Mario Lemieux pose alongside other NHL personal and local County Officials for a group photo at the 2011 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic press conference on July 27, 2010 at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)

While the Penguins can't be pleased with Talbot's timing, on behalf of the Pittsburgh media I'd like to suggest they give him a contract extension - if not for their sake, then ours. The guy is a peach.

Apparently, his distaste for Ovechkin dates back more than a year. Talbot accompanied Malkin, along with the Stanley Cup, to the 2009 NHL Awards Show, where he received a rude response when introduced to Ovechkin for the first time. So Talbot was only too happy that Ovechkin wasn't among the players to attend yesterday's news conference.

"Everyone's got their opinions of 'Ovie,'" Steckel said. "Even though he's Russian, he tries to adapt to North America. He plays with his heart on his sleeve, which most guys don't. Either you like it or you don't."

The Penguins obviously don't.

Nor do they care for the Capitals.

That makes for a great rivalry, and should make for a great Winter Classic.

"The spotlight is on these two teams every time they play," Crosby said. "This will add to it. This will be another storyline and another event with the two teams. I can't see it being more intense than it already is. If it is, then great. People are going to see a great hockey game."

One that, thanks to Talbot, is now the toughest ticket in town.

Pucks fly at Heinz Field

Wednesday, July 28, 2010
By Gene Collier, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
http://www.post-gazette.com/sports/?m=1


Peter Diana/Post-Gazette

Penguins captain Sidney Crosby takes a slap shot thru the uprights at Heinz Field during a press conference regarding the Winter Classic Tuesday.



Ever have that dream where you are in Heinz Field -- I mean right down on the field -- but the Steelers aren't there and the place is empty except for some guys in suits and Sidney Crosby, who's trying to shoot the puck between the uprights from, like, 70 yards away?

Me neither.

So that pretty much had to be reality Tuesday on the North Shore, and just to make certain that I actually was awake, I asked Crosby what might the practical application be of firing the old vulcanized hockey biscuit through the football uprights during baseball season.

"Just fun," quoth the Sid.

As he often does with frightening precision, Crosby pretty much nailed the whole reason for Tuesday, for Jan. 1, 2011, and for the previous three National Hockey League versions of New Year's Day, which is to take two hockey teams and bang them together on an outdoor rink.

It's fun that drives the Winter Classic, and no one is having more fun than the NHL brand developers, who last season fielded more than 307,000 ticket requests for the 38,112 splintery seats in Boston's Fenway Park. The coming Pittsburgh winter brings the event to Heinz Field, were ticket requests will be easier to fill in the celebrated backyard of the Pittsburgh Steelers.

"We're very excited," Art Rooney II told a midday news conference right there on his lawn, "about seeing an ice rink built out here in the middle of December."

Again, I am awake, right?

This is the same place where a descendant pig bladder once stuck in the mud like a lawn dart, right?

"Well," Rooney said, "we did have to think long and hard about it."

No real worries, though. The Steelers will have at least a week to get the surface back to standard before the NFL playoffs start.

Either that or at least a year.


Peter Diana/Post-Gazette

Penguins captain Sidney Crosby talks to the media during Tuesday's press conference in regards to the Winter Classic at Heinz Field.



But the skepticism that was overcome to land the Winter Classic in Pittsburgh came not just from the football team, but once had deeper roots in the hierarchy of the Washington Capitals, who'll be the Penguins' Jan. 1 opponent.

Dick Patrick, the Capitals' chief operating officer and the cousin of former Penguins general manager Craig Patrick, explained some of that sentiment.

"How you are going to feel," he said, pointing toward the farthest section of the Heinz Field heavens, "if you're sitting up there in 541 freezing your ass off? I was always thinking about worst-case scenarios. What are we subjecting our fans to and what about the players? What if it rains?

"But my skepticism was misplaced. It's turned into a great event that the players and the fans really enjoy."

Patrick's skepticism might be misplaced, but mine's still right there in my wallet next to my library card. Commissioner Gary Bettman, among the officials wearing dark suits and ties in the blazing sun, explained that this is the event that returns hockey to its roots.

I guess there's something to be said for that because I know a lot of North Americans, especially northern North Americans, grow up thinking hockey is meant to be played on outdoor rinks, in the cold, in the snow, in the wind, and, of course, should the opportunity arise, in a 65,000-seat football stadium.

"When I was playing," said Patrick, "I was always hoping to make a team that was good enough to play inside."

As it happens, Bettman was right to gamble on this idea in Buffalo three years ago, when the Penguins won the first Winter Classic on Crosby's shootout goal. Just as right were Penguins president David Morehouse and Mayor Luke Penguinstahl, who together recognized an urgency to bring it to Pittsburgh in the near term.

Now Forbes Magazine has called the NHL's Winter Classic the best new sporting event of the past decade, which sounds suspiciously like one of those marginal Grammy categories -- best new Norwegian salsa artist -- but let's not quibble.

The Winter Classic will be the culmination of a weeklong celebration of Pittsburgh and Penguins hockey, and I guess I'm grateful already just for the opportunity Tuesday. Likely never again will I get to see Crosby, Max Talbot, Pascal Dupuis, and Capitals Mike Knuble and David Steckel fire pucks at a goalpost.

When Crosby finally sent one over the crossbar for the waiting videographers, the others nearly cheered.

"Good," Talbot said. "Now we can go."

Gene Collier: gcollier@post-gazette.com.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

No one better than Tomlin to deal with Steelers' challenges

Tuesday, July 27, 2010
By Ron Cook, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
http://www.post-gazette.com/sports/?m=1


Peter Diana/Post-Gazette

Steelers coach Mike Tomlin.


Maybe Steelers coach Mike Tomlin won't make the same money as Arizona Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt. Maybe Tomlin doesn't have Whisenhunt's job security, although -- considering the Steelers' history with coaches -- that point is debatable. If Tomlin is happy with his new contract extension, I'm happy. I'm thrilled that he's going to be the Steelers' coach through at least the 2013 season.

You have a good one, you keep him.

Know what I mean?

Tomlin's new deal earlier this month came as no surprise. That's the way the Steelers do business. They routinely extend their coach when he has two years left on his contract.

Tomlin will work this season under the terms of his original contract. The Steelers tore up his option year for next season and gave him a new two-year extension with a team-controlled option year for the 2013 season. The new deal is believed to be worth around $5 million per year.

Contrast that with what the Cardinals did earlier this year for Whisenhunt, whose team lost to Tomlin's Steelers in Super Bowl XLIII after the '08 season. They eliminated the final two years of his original contract and gave him a five-year deal through the '14 season that's believed to be worth nearly $6 million per year.

Good for Whisenhunt, a former Steelers offensive coordinator. He deserves every cent for resurrecting the Cardinals from the dead. Still, I can't help but like Tomlin's security a bit more because of the Rooneys' belief in coaching stability. They stick with their guy even after hard times. They kept Bill Cowher for 15 seasons before Tomlin and kept Chuck Noll for 23 seasons before Cowher.

"There's no other place I want to be," Tomlin told the Steelers' website, his only public comments about his new contract. "I love working for Art Rooney. I love working for Steelers Nation. They're always going to get my best, contract or no. I don't clock in every day with the contract or money on my mind. I just don't. I love what I do. I love where I do it. I'm having big fun."

Tomlin proved he could coach in '07, his first season after taking over from Cowher. He led the Steelers to a division title despite, initially, being an unpopular choice for the job with his veteran players who wanted Whisenhunt or Cowher's assistant head coach, Russ Grimm. Along the way he adroitly dealt with an ugly contract mess involving unhappy All-Pro guard Alan Faneca, who refused to be the team's captain.

Tomlin proved he could coach in '08 when the Steelers won that Super Bowl. His best moment that season came in December after running back Willie Parker complained about the team getting away from "Steelers football" by not running the ball enough. Responded Tomlin, firmly, publicly and very much in control, "Every morning I come to work, I walk past five Lombardis, not five rushing titles. The issue is winning." Beautiful, just beautiful.

Tomlin proved he could coach even last season when the Steelers had a horrible five-game losing streak at midseason and failed to make the playoffs. He kept the team together when it appeared he had no chance and it won its final three games.

Now, Tomlin is looking at his biggest challenge as the Steelers prepare to report to training camp Friday.

The team won't have franchise quarterback Ben Roethlisberger for at least the first four games because of his NFL suspension. It has little depth at wide receiver after the trade of Super Bowl XLIII MVP Santonio Holmes and even less at running back after Rashard Mendenhall. Its offensive line, already considered weak by many, will be without its best player, tackle Willie Colon, who's out for the season with an Achilles injury. Its defense is aging. One of its star linebackers, LaMarr Woodley, is unhappy about his contract situation.

Good luck to Tomlin with all of that.

If he wins with these Steelers, he should be coach of the year.

Heck, if he gets the squad to the playoffs, the Rooneys should tear up his new contract before it kicks in and give him Whisenhunt money.

What's amusing is that a lot of people blame Tomlin for many of the Steelers' problems. They say he isn't as tough as Cowher was. They are convinced that's why Roethlisberger got himself in a jackpot in Milledgeville, Ga., in March and why Holmes had a nightclub incident in Orlando, Fla., in April, tweeted like a madman about it and was given a four-game suspension by the NFL for violating its substance-abuse policy before he was traded to the New York Jets for a fifth-round draft choice in April.

That's ridiculous.

If Tomlin is guilty of anything, it's that he treats his players like grown men even if it means overlooking their minor transgressions from time to time. Cowher, despite that reputation for being a tough coach, did the same thing. I remind you of something Steelers running back Jerome Bettis said after teammate Plaxico Burress left as a free agent in '05 to join the New York Giants and ultra-tough coach Tom Coughlin: "I know [Burress] is not a stickler for the rules and Coughlin is all about the rules ... Coach Cowher allowed us a lot of flexibility. He never fined us for anything. You came late, you never got fined. You never got reprimanded for anything."

That doesn't mean Cowher ever lost control of the team. Most of his grown men behaved like grown men. The same is true with Tomlin. You don't hear about Heath Miller and James Farrior causing problems, do you? You don't hear about the overwhelming majority of the Steelers, actually.

No NFL coach is responsible for what his players do in their free time or during the offseason. If Roethlisberger and Holmes act abhorrently, that's on them, not on their coach.

Unfortunately, Tomlin has to clean up the mess.

He's looking at a mighty big job once the Steelers get things going Friday.

I don't know that any coach is up to that task, but I'll take my chances with Tomlin.

Ron Cook: rcook@post-gazette.com.

Pens make inroads among top franchises

By Rob Rossi, PITTSBURGH TRIBUNE-REVIEW
http://www.pittsburghlive.com/x/pittsburghtrib/sports/
Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Five months from today — on the 10th anniversary of his first NHL game out of retirement — the Penguins plan to dedicate a statue of franchise icon Mario Lemieux outside Consol Energy Center. From that point on Dec. 27 and through New Year's Day the focus of local sports fans will be on an outdoor hockey game to be played at a football stadium.

Anticipated details — including ticket availability — about the New Year's Day Winter Classic between the Penguins and Washington Capitals will be revealed Tuesday at Heinz Field. Lemieux will be joined by the likes of center Sidney Crosby and several teammates, a few of the Penguins' Washington rivals, Steelers chairman Art Rooney and NHL commissioner Gary Bettman for the unveiling of the Pittsburgh Classic logo.

Pittsburgh's Classic will bring together some of the top franchises in pro sports. The Penguins (fifth), Capitals (11th) and Steelers (28th) are among the top major sports franchises in North America, according to ESPN's annual Ultimate Franchise Rankings.

One year later, the "City of Champions" has lost its luster with a suspended quarterback, early-exit hockey club and still-losing baseball team.

On the bright side ...

"Actually, I'd say the loyalty is as strong now as it has ever been," said Jim Kolovos, 35, of New Castle, who has frequented Heinz Field, PNC Park and Mellon Arena over the last decade.

Strong is one way to describe Pittsburgh's showing in ESPN's eighth annual Ultimate Franchise rankings.

At fifth overall, the Penguins are the top-rated NHL team. The Steelers fell to 28th from third in 2009, but rated high for ownership and on-field success. The Pirates were 82nd — continuing a steady climb from 103rd in 2008 based on improvements in six of eight categories and top-10 rankings for affordability and stadium experience.

"We always worry that some fans might be stuffing the ballot box," ESPN The Magazine senior writer Peter Keating said of online surveys that play a part in the formula used to determine the rankings. "Pittsburgh is a great market to show the rankings work."

The ratings are based on eight categorical rankings and derived from fan input, Keating said. He added that some teams such as the Steelers, NBA's San Antonio Spurs, MLB's Los Angeles Angels and NFL's Green Bay Packers always have fared well.

The Penguins, with consecutive top 10 overall placements despite a competitive market, appear close to joining that group. The franchise was top-ranked in fan relations and third for ownership, and team president David Morehouse is optimistic that a move into luxurious Consol Energy Center will push them higher in future rankings.

"Other than winning the Stanley Cup, being ranked No. 1 in fan relations is the best thing we can do as an organization," he said.

Kolovos lauded the Penguins for making fans feel special despite Mellon Arena's limitations.

"They cater to fans like no other," he said. "They're always sending 'thank you' gifts to us to loyal customers. I'm using the coasters I got last season right now."

The Steelers' 2010 ranking is their lowest, and team officials declined comment. However, Bethel Park's Justin Gremba, 32, said the six-time Super Bowl champions need not fret over their drop-off despite a 98 rating in fans relations.

Gremba's loyalty is to the Pirates, who also declined comment. He added the Penguins are "probably the top team in Pittsburgh right now" -- even though Morehouse has consistently identified the Steelers' brand as "the best in sports."

"I didn't grow up following hockey and I was a closet fan until Sidney Crosby came," Gremba said. "From that day I've probably only missed 10 games a year. He represents the fans here perfectly, and they've got the new arena coming and a lot of young fans that really like them.

"I'm not sure it's an overwhelming answer, but I'd say the Penguins are doing it the right way right now."

For 2010, at least, they're the ultimate team in town.


Measuring up

According to ESPN's eighth annual Ultimate Franchise Rankings, Pittsburgh is home to two of the top 30 professional sports franchises in North America for a second straight year. The Penguins jumped from eighth in 2009 to fifth for 2010, while the Steelers dropped from third to 28th. The biggest bump belonged to the Pirates, who rated 82nd — 12 spots better than in 2009. A three-year look at how the local clubs have fared by categories:


BANG FOR THE BUCK

"Wins during the past three years (regular season plus postseason) per revenues directly from fans, adjusted for league schedules."

TEAM: 2008/2009/2010 — AVG

Penguins: 3/28/22 — 21

Pirates: 58/45/31 — 45

Steelers: 4/39/24 — 25


FAN RELATIONS

"Openness and consideration toward fans by players, coaches and management."

TEAM: 2008/2009/2010 — AVG

Penguins: 3/3/1 — 2

Pirates: 110/102/94 — 102

Steelers: 23/14/98 — 45


OWNERSHIP

"Honesty and loyalty to core players and local community."

TEAM: 2008/2009/2010 — AVG

Penguins: 16/4/3 — 8

Pirates: 120/117/119 — 119

Steelers: 9/2/4 — 5


AFFORDABITLITY

"Price of tickets, parking and concessions."

TEAM: 2008/2009/2010 — AVG

Penguins: 36 /22/27 — 28

Pirates: 32/15/5 — 17

Steelers: 43/36/40 — 40


STADIUM EXPERIENCE

"Quality of arena and game-day promotions as well as friendliness of environment."

TEAM: 2008/2009/2010 — AVG

Penguins: 107/103/69 — 93

Pirates: 10/6/9 — 8

Steelers: 55/26/34 — 38


PLAYERS

"Effort on the field and likability off it."

TEAM: 2008/2009/2010 — AVG

Penguins: 6/9/5 — 7

Pirates: 113/106/89 — 103

Steelers: 15/2/38 — 18


COACHING

"Strength of on-field leadership."

TEAM: 2008/2009/2010 — AVG

Penguins: 54/42/24 — 40

Pirates: 117/112/107 — 112

Steelers: 4/24/36 — 27


TITLE TRACK

"Championships already won or expected in the lifetime of current fans."

TEAM: 2008/2009/2010 — AVG

Penguins: 24/21/3 — 16

Pirates: 117 /117/114 — 116

Steelers: 6/4/3 — 4

Source: ESPN.com

Link:

http://espn.go.com/sportsnation/teamrankings

Monday, July 26, 2010

Pirates save Lincoln from same misery as Morton

Monday, July 26, 2010
By Ron Cook, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
http://www.post-gazette.com/sports/?m=1

All was not lost on a day the Pirates dropped their 64th game of the season to fall a mind-blowing 30 games under .500.

Something might have been saved, actually.

Brad Lincoln.


Brad Lincoln throws in the second inning against the San Diego Padres during a baseball game in Pittsburgh, Sunday, July 25, 2010. Lincoln took the loss in a 6-3 Padres win.(AP)

The Pirates put him out of his misery Sunday by sending him back to Class AAA Indianapolis after yet another poor start led to a 6-3 loss to the San Diego Padres at PNC Park. The demotion is a brutal blow to the organization and its fan base because so many had expected so much from him after his call-up last month. But it's absolutely the right call.

Can you say Charlie Morton?

The Pirates kept starting Morton earlier this season. He kept getting his brains beat in. It wasn't until after his 10th start left him with a 1-9 record and a hideous 9.35 ERA that the team finally threw him a lifeline by getting him out of the rotation in late-May and back to the minor leagues.

The poor guy needed psychological help.

Really.

Morton still isn't close to being right at Indianapolis despite meeting with the organization's psychologist, standard procedure for all of its seriously scuffling players.

The Pirates weren't going to make that same mistake with Lincoln, who means too much to their future.

Lincoln, for one, is glad about it.

"For me, this is probably the best move. To keep going out there and struggling is not good for me and it's not good for the team. My head is not in the right place."

Before the game, Pirates general manager Neal Huntington blamed Lincoln's problems on too much respect for the opponents. "He's got good enough stuff to go after most hitters."

But after watching Lincoln collapse again after giving up a soft one-out single to Padres pitcher Wade LeBlanc and an even weaker bloop hit to second baseman Jerry Hairston Jr. in what turned into a 40-pitch, five-run third inning, Huntington sang a little different song. In what could be construed as a slap at pitching coach Joe Kerrigan, he said "some mechanical changes at the major-league level" have contributed to a significant drop in Lincoln's velocity. His fastball was tracked at 92-97 miles per hour at Indianapolis, the GM said, but just 88-93 mph with the big club.

"We think we can get him ... back where he was mechanically and back where he was mentality-wise [at Indianapolis]," Huntington said.

A big part of Lincoln's struggles was the timing of his promotion from the minors. Oh, he looked to be more than ready after dominating at Class AAA. But he made his big-league debut in Washington one night after the Nationals' young stud Stephen Strasburg made his by striking out 14 Pirates in seven scintillating innings. It was only natural to expect huge things from Lincoln -- the No. 4 overall pick in the 2006 draft -- after watching Strasburg, the No. 1 overall choice in the '09 draft.

"Very unfair," Huntington said. "There's only one Strasburg. There's no other prospect like him in the game. As much as we like Brad Lincoln, he's no Strasburg."

That doesn't mean Lincoln won't come back and be a quality major-league starter. His demotion certainly doesn't mean that. Not every young player races to stardom without hitting major bumps along the way. "Andrew [McCutchen] has spoiled us," Huntington said of the Pirates' center fielder, who had the look of a star from Day One last season and continues to shine brightly. Many more young players have hard times at first in the big leagues, go back down to find themselves and then see their careers take off. My favorite example is Mickey Mantle.

Now, that isn't to say Lincoln, 25, is guaranteed of becoming the Pirates' next Doug Drabek. It's just that he's not guaranteed of being their next Paul Wagner or Kip Wells, either.

"I don't deserve to be here right now," Lincoln said. "I need to go back down, work on some things and clear my head."

Said Pirates manager John Russell, "He'll be back here. He's got too good of stuff."

The organization is counting on it, counting on Lincoln being in its rotation for years. No one has written off Morton, either. Clearly, the Pirates need those guys to be successful to be successful. It doesn't matter how well rookie hitters Neil Walker, Jose Tabata and Pedro Alvarez are doing. The team won't be any good until it gets better pitching. Much better pitching. It's almost unfathomable that the Pirates' starters are 18-53 with a 5.46 ERA.

If there were any doubts about the importance of pitching, the Padres eliminated them during their weekend sweep here when they held the Pirates to eight runs in three games, lowering their staff's baseball-best ERA to 3.27. It doesn't take a genius to recognize that they have the National League's best record at 58-39 and the Pirates the worst at 34-64 for the very same three reasons.

Pitching, pitching and pitching.


Ron Cook: rcook@post-gazette.com. 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.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Kaye Cowher, wife of former Steelers coach, dies at age 54

Saturday, July 24, 2010
By Ed Bouchette, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
http://www.post-gazette.com/sports/?m=1



Matt Freed/Post-Gazette

Bill and Kaye Cowher celebrate the Steelers' Super Bowl XL victory against the Seattle Seahawks, Feb. 6, 2006.

Kaye Cowher, the wife of former Steelers football coach Bill Cowher, died Friday in her native North Carolina after losing a battle with skin cancer. She was 54.

The Cowhers moved to Raleigh, N.C., in 2006, Mr. Cowher's final season coaching the Steelers, and continued to make it their home.

The Cowhers met when they were classmates at North Carolina State University in 1976. Mr. Cowher was on the football team and Mrs. Cowher, the former Kaye Young, and her twin sister, Faye, played basketball.

Tall at 5-foot-11, Mrs. Cowher displayed an inside power game that made her one of the first young women in her home state to receive a college athletic scholarship.

Her teams at North Carolina State went 21-3 and 29-5, respectively, winning the inaugural Atlantic Coast Conference women's basketball title in 1978 with a 9-0 record and ranking No. 3 nationally.

Faye and Kaye later played for the Women's Professional Basketball League, where Mrs. Cowher was among the pioneers in the early days of Title IX. They played one season with the New York Stars and two with the New Jersey Gems, competing against notable stars Carol Blazejowski and Nancy Lieberman.

After the league folded in 1981, she married Mr. Cowher, who was then playing for the Cleveland Browns.

From Bunn, N.C., where her father initially refused to let his twin daughters play the rough sport of basketball, Mrs. Cowher's mother made it happen.

"The reason we played is because of my mother," Kaye Cowher told the Post-Gazette in 2002. "She said that absolutely, these girls are going to have the opportunity to play."

She also appeared in a Wrigley Doublemint gum commercial with her twin sister.

Mrs. Cowher spent two years at Peace College in Raleigh before transferring to North Carolina State, where she graduated with a bachelor's in sociology in 1978.

At the time of her death she was a member of the North Carolina State Board of Visitors, an honorary body that advises the chancellor and board of trustees.

The Cowhers have three daughters, Meagan, Lauren, and Lindsay, all of whom have been standout basketball players. The oldest two, Meagan and Lauren, played together at Princeton University, where Meagan was the fourth-highest scorer in the program's history and Lauren was a co-captain finishing the 2008-09 season as the team's leading scorer.

The parents often took in their daughters' Tigers games.

"The girls get all their skills from their Mom -- she started to teach them at an early age," Bill once told The Daily Princetonian. "I'm just a spectator who loves the game."

Mrs. Cowher was a constant presence in the press box on Steelers game days and was considered as resolute and steely as her more famous husband.

She was the driving force behind her husband's retirement in 2007, pressing him to move with her and their youngest daughter to North Carolina, help with the commute to basketball games, reunite the nuclear family before their final daughter left the nest. Lindsay last winter completed her freshman season at Wofford College in Spartanburg, S.C., where she played sparsely in 14 games.

For the last three years, Mr. Cowher, a Crafton native who attended Carlynton High School, has worked as a studio analyst for CBS Sports on its "NFL Today" show.

The family has requested privacy and has released no information on Mrs. Cowher's death. A private service will be held in North Carolina on Monday.


Ed Bouchette: ebouchette@post-gazette.com.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Alvarez brings bang for Bucs

By Kevin Gorman, PITTSBURGH TRIBUNE-REVIEW
http://www.pittsburghlive.com/x/pittsburghtrib/sports/
Friday, July 23, 2010

Finally, there is a reason to watch baseball at PNC Park that has nothing to do with bobblehead dolls or fireworks promotions.

Yet everything to do with bobbleheads and fireworks.

It's about watching Pedro at the plate.

Pedro Alvarez has provided pop the Pirates' lineup hasn't seen since Jason Bay was traded to the Boston Red Sox in a three-way deal. Alvarez provides the most promising power bat by a corner infielder since Aramis Ramirez was traded in 2003.

It's not just the eye-popping numbers the 23-year-old Alvarez has put up in the past week — batting .417 with four home runs and nine RBI in the six games entering Thursday night's matchup with Milwaukee — but that he is turning every at-bat into a must-see event for the Pirates.

Or, at least, a must-hear event.

After watching him whiff with alarming regularity in June, all you have to do is listen to the ball bounce off his bat the way it has this month to know Alvarez is something special. He credits his benching June 27 at Oakland for helping the game slow down for him. After striking out 22 times in his first 46 at-bats, he went 21 for 62 (.339) through the first 16 games of July.

"It's my nature a little bit," Alvarez said. "You've got to keep an even keel. When things are going well, it's easy to get carried away. When things aren't going well, you have to keep that levelheadedness.

"That's what I try to do."

But Alvarez has Pirates fans bobbing their heads in approval with the fireworks that follow his home runs, as he became the first rookie in Pirates history and second major leaguer this season to homer twice in back-to-back games Tuesday and Wednesday against the visiting Brewers.

"What he's done the last couple days, that's enormous," said Pirates second baseman Neil Walker, who played with Alvarez in Triple-A Indianapolis. "Four hits in an inning can be made up by one hit sometimes with a guy like Pedro, because he's capable of driving the ball out of any part of the yard.

"That's impressive. That's what he's capable of. I've seen him in the minor leagues hit some balls a long, long way. He's just strong. To have a presence like that in the lineup, to watch him get more comfortable over time, that's scary for opponents, really."

Alvarez hit a hanging curve for a grand slam over the 21-foot Clemente Wall and a hanging slider for a solo shot in Tuesday's 11-9 win over the Brewers, then drove one to dead center and added another solo shot that would have sailed out of the ballpark if not for the right-field foul pole in Wednesday's 15-3 win.

That 320-foot right-field fence — already being dubbed Pedro's Porch — should be inviting for the left-handed hitter. But opposing pitchers, who don't have much of a scouting report to go on against Alvarez, are learning that he's not just a pull hitter who thrives on the short side of the diamond.

"With his power, he can be dangerous in any park," said Brewers southpaw Randy Wolf, who watched Alvarez take his fastball down the middle for a 406-foot ride. "I've seen him hit three balls to dead center, and it's a big yard to center here. If you can hit the ball to all fields with authority, you're going to be a good hitter no matter what park you're in."

It was his struggles against breaking balls and left-handed pitching that kept Alvarez in the minors until June 15. The transformation this month shows why he was the No. 2 overall draft pick in 2008, one who commanded a club-record $6 million signing bonus that's looking like a bargain.

"Once he gets comfortable and plays within his abilities, then the fun starts," Pirates general manager Neal Huntington said. "We're starting to see that here. He's laying off pitches that he chased early on. He's hitting mistakes, but he's also hitting some pretty good pitches. He's a work in progress. We're going to have some stretches where he struggles, but he's going to be a lot of fun to watch."

That's where we disagree.

Alvarez already is fun to watch.

And just as fun to listen to.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Alvarez blasts two more, Pirates bomb Brewers

Young adds five RBIs in 15-3 victory that extends five-game outburst

Thursday, July 22, 2010
By Dejan Kovacevic, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
http://www.post-gazette.com/sports/?m=1


Matt Freed/Post-Gazette

The Pirates' Pedro Alvarez is congratulated by third base coach Tony Beasley after his second home run Wednesday at PNC Park.



Is this for real?

It was one thing to trample the Houston Astros over the weekend.

Another to tee off Tuesday against Milwaukee's soft-tossing Dave Bush.

But this offensive outburst for the Pirates, something few could have foreseen from a lineup that had been batting .235 with barely any pop, is now bursting at the seams: Pedro Alvarez homered twice for a second consecutive game to become the franchise's first rookie to achieve that feat, and Delwyn Young homered and had five RBIs in an 18-hit assault that blew away the Brewers, 15-3, Wednesday night before 13,532 at PNC Park.

Yeah, just two more touchdowns.

And 48 runs over five games.

"It's amazing, man," shortstop Ronny Cedeno said after three more hits of his own. "And it's exciting. We have another game tomorrow, and I can't wait."

"These guys are having a lot of fun together and, when they start hitting, it gets contagious," manager John Russell said. "Especially with this young bunch, I can't emphasize enough: These are pretty talented players."

Therein might lie the most satisfying aspect for the Pirates over these five games: Alvarez is 9 for 20 with the four home runs, a double and nine RBIs. Walker is 14 for 24 with four doubles and six RBIs. And Jose Tabata, atop the order since Andrew McCutchen's injury, is 9 for 23 with eight runs.

From a team standpoint over the five games:

• The Pirates' 48 runs are as many as they had in the previous 18 games.

• Half their double-digit scoring outputs for 2010 have come in this span, with 12 Saturday and 11 Tuesday.

• They are batting .373 -- 71 for 190 -- which is tantamount to sending a breathing Ted Williams to the plate every time up.

• There even has been power, with 20 doubles, a triple and six home runs, half of the latter with men on base.

This was no pushover on the mound, either: It was the 300th game of Milwaukee starter Randy Wolf's solid career, and it was his worst in being rocked for 12 runs and 13 hits over six innings.

But that was less the focus of the Brewers' manager, Ken Macha, than the opposition.

"These are talented young guys," Macha said of the Pirates. "Once they get around the league and get some at-bats, people are going to be looking at it. They pretty much put a thumping on us."

One in particular.

"I think we're going to need a little advice on how to pitch Alvarez."

With a man aboard in the fifth, Alvarez made no mistake with Wolf's first-pitch 88-mph fastball, sending it 406 feet into the center-field landscaping for a 10-3 lead.

Opening the eighth, Alvarez's laser struck high off the foul pole in right, this off Kameron Loe's 2-2 curve.

Alvarez's seven home runs are just five off the team lead, barely a month into his major-league debut, but his demeanor -- always cool, calm -- was not visibly different than after those tough late losses a few days ago in Milwaukee.

Which might explain how he transformed that .156 June into this tear.

"Those first few weeks, everything was going at a million miles an hour," Alvarez said. "As time goes on, I'm getting used to it a little more. I'm a lot more relaxed. You kind of just play and not do too much."

Mention the team's transformation, though, and he breaks out a smile.

"It's a lot more fun. It's winning. It's what we want to do. It makes it that much better when, after you have a good day, you can share it with your teammates."

Tabata got this one going with the Pirates' first at-bat by working an 11-pitch walk off Wolf, then stealing second. Young singled him home, and Walker's double made it 2-1.

Starter Zach Duke looked shaky in allowing the Brewers to pull ahead, 3-2, but he recovered to last six innings.

"This was all about the offense," Duke said. "They dominated."

That began in force with the Pirates' six-run fourth inning: Garrett Jones and Alvarez opened with singles, and Lastings Milledge's RBI double to left-center brought a 3-3 tie. After an out, Cedeno put down a perfect bunt single for an RBI. After another out, Tabata singled, and Young drove Wolf's 0-1 curve into the base of the left-field rotunda for a three-run shot that made it 8-3.

Young had not started since June 26 until going 5 for 7 with six RBIs the past two nights.

"I'm just trying to do the best I can," he said.

Despite seldom playing, Young also has been a leader to some of the rookies and, perhaps in that role, advised the public to manage its expectations.

"We all have to gather ourselves," he said. "People are watching them grow up in the big leagues right now."

With Alvarez's five RBIs Tuesday and Young's five Wednesday, it marked the first time since 1973 that Pittsburgh teammates achieved that in consecutive games: Al Oliver and Rennie Stennett had six each May 3-4 of that year.

There was this, too: The Pirates improved to 23-22 at PNC Park, a violent contrast from their 11-38 road record.

It has all been a violent contrast of late.

Dejan Kovacevic: dkovacevic@post-gazette.com.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Baseball should retire Roberto Clemente's No. 21

By Ray Buck, FORT WORTH STAR-TELEGRAM
http://www.star-telegram.com/sports/
Wednesday, July 18, 2010


Roberto Clemente's body was never recovered, but his legacies as a ballplayer and a humanitarian live on.

I'm not sure which one looms larger, at times.

Baseball's first Latin American superstar died on a mission of mercy in a plane crash off the coast of Puerto Rico nearly 38 years ago.

He was proud, passionate, outspoken. He refused to ignore inequities and indignities around him. And not just those that pertained to baseball, either.

When relief aid to Nicaraguan earthquake victims fell into corrupt hands shortly after a Christmas Day disaster in 1972, Clemente boarded a piston-powered aircraft filled with food, water and supplies and a promise to deliver them personally.

The plane climbed, banked once to the left, then went down in choppy waters less than two miles offshore. The wreckage wasn't found until the next day.

The pilot had tried to radio for help, but too late.

What isn't too late is for Major League Baseball to do the right thing and retire Clemente's No. 21. Jackie Robinson's No. 42 was retired by baseball in 1997.

These two men faced similar struggles against racial prejudice in a sport that was slow to make amends, finally did, and now has, what I believe to be, an obligation to display Nos. 42 and 21 side-by-side at every major-league ballpark.

Rangers president Nolan Ryan, in the late '60s, as a young pitcher for the New York Mets, struck out Clemente twice -- first looking, then swinging -- during a Sept. 14, 1969 game at Forbes Field.'

"I never really thought about it," Ryan said when asked about retiring No. 21 league-wide. "But I do think the impact Clemente had on the game, and the way his life ended, it's an interesting idea."

Would retiring Clemente's uniform number diminish Robinson's iconic status in baseball?

"No, I don't think so," Ryan said. "Their contributions were different."

Different, yet similar. Both men exhibited a strong social conscious and an impenetrable set of ideals.

Both were human-rights advocates and trailblazers for racial equality.

Both endured death threats because of the color of their skin, as did Hank Aaron before breaking Babe Ruth's home run record in 1974.

Clemente was supposed to die on Sept. 29, 1972 -- one day before he collected hit No. 3,000. A letter sent anonymously to the Pirates, care of Clemente, read: "On September 29th, Friday at Three Rivers Stadium in the top of the second inning you will be shot while playing right field. P.S. Did you ever get shot with a shotgun before"

Clemente didn't flinch.

P.S. Clemente never flinched.

He was a .317 career hitter. Chiseled body. Regal mannerisms. A gazelle in right field. A cannon for an arm. All the cliches fit.

"If you have a chance to accomplish something that will make things better for people coming behind you," Clemente once said, "and you do don't do that, you are wasting your time on Earth."

He lived by those words.

Just as Jackie Robinson was the right man to break baseball's color barrier in 1947, Clemente was a pioneer for proud Latinos a decade later.

Today, MLB rosters are roughly 28 percent Hispanic players, with a heavy Dominican Republic dominance. Clemente opened doors for Puerto Ricans, Cubans, Venezuelans, Mexicans and Dominicans alike.

Latin American players of the 1950s and '60s frequently were mocked for how they spoke English, criticized for their frequent flamboyance on the field.

Clemente was the first Latin American player to (a) win a MVP award, (b) crack the 3,000-hit barrier and (c) be voted into the Baseball Hall of Fame. Only he and Lou Gehrig were exempted from Cooperstown's five-year wait rule.

Clemente won four batting titles, 12 Gold Gloves, two World Series rings and always looked as if he slept on a bad pillow when he stepped to the plate or took his position in right field.

MLB annually recognizes one player for his off-field contributions with what was renamed the Roberto Clemente Award in 1973.

Now it's time to take the next step. Baseball isn't lily white today because of major breakthroughs by Nos. 42 and 21, each in his own unyielding way.

Woodley wants a fair share

By Michael Silver, Yahoo! Sports
http://sports.yahoo.com/
Jul 20, 11:59 am EDT

LaMarr Woodley was speaking to the football team at Chicago’s Leo Catholic High School on Monday afternoon when one of the teenage players raised his hand and asked a particularly relevant question.


Woodley was the Steelers' second-round pick in '07.

If it’s all about the love of the game, why do so many players complain about their contracts?

Woodley, the Pittsburgh Steelers’ Pro Bowl outside linebacker, knew this business-related query was quite personal.

“Sometimes,” he said, “you’ve gotta be treated fair.”

Later Monday, in his first interview since being told by the Steelers that the team has no intention of negotiating an extension before the final season of his rookie contract, Woodley elaborated upon his frustration. The fourth-year standout, who has 29 sacks despite just 31 career regular-season starts, will make $550,000 in 2010, a figure that is much less than market value.

“It’s kind of jacked up,” Woodley said. “Everything I’ve ever done for the Steelers, on and off the field, has been positive. Sometimes you don’t get the same thing back in return.”

In May I wrote about Woodley’s quest for a restructured contract and how the “30 percent rule,” a restriction which came into play after the owners opted out of the current collective bargaining agreement, complicated matters for him and other NFL players who had outperformed their rookie deals. I suggested the kind of “Band-Aid” raise the Philadelphia Eagles had given new starting quarterback Kevin Kolb. On a lesser scale Monday, the Titans placated All-Pro halfback Chris Johnson with a one-year upgrade that, by accelerating built-in contract escalators, reportedly will boost his 2010 earnings from $550,000 to somewhere in the neighborhood of $2.5 million.

Earlier this month the Steelers told Woodley’s agent, Doug Hendrickson, that no adjustment would immediately be made to his deal. Given the team’s policy of not discussing contracts once the season begins, that almost certainly means he won’t be able to cash in until after the owners and NFL Players Association reach a deal for a new CBA.

Steelers director of football operations Kevin Colbert wasn’t made available for an interview on Monday; communications coordinator Dave Lockett cited the team’s policy of not commenting on contract negotiations. Woodley, however, said the franchise’s message has been loud and clear.

“I’m not going to lie – I was a little disappointed that they didn’t offer anything at all,” Woodley said. “I felt that was a little weird. I guess they decided they’re going to sit back and wait for the CBA and all that to play out.

“You look around the league and you see different teams getting stuff done with their players in similar situations, and you think, ‘What, the Steelers don’t care about me?’ Stuff like that goes through your mind.”

Woodley insisted he’ll channel his anger toward having another stellar season and that his dissatisfaction won’t affect him on the field. “That’s what I love to do, go out and hit somebody,” he said. “I don’t see anything happening this year but all my numbers increasing.”

As for what happens after 2010, Woodley doesn’t sound especially committed to Pittsburgh, which may be a moot point. In theory, the Steelers can apply the franchise tag to keep Woodley from becoming an unrestricted free agent. As a hybrid outside linebacker/defensive end, Woodley likely would command a one-year salary in the $12 million range under the current system.

Then again, with the CBA set to expire next March, there’s no guarantee that the device still will exist once a new deal is negotiated.

“They’re kind of looking at a franchise tag, but it’s a pretty risky gamble,” Woodley said. “If there is no franchise tag … I guess I can play for 31 [other] teams now. That’s what it boils down to. If they’d wanted to keep other teams from getting a crack, they could’ve tried to do so.”

Woodley said he has heard from several players on opposing teams “who say I deserve [a new deal]. They say, ‘How come they didn’t pay you? You know what? Some other team will pay you. We could use an outside linebacker.’ ”

He also has stayed in touch with New York Jets inside linebacker and former Michigan teammate David Harris, who has been similarly rebuffed in an attempt to land a new deal with his team. “That defense that Harris is on now, he doesn’t need to go anywhere,” Woodley said, laughing. “All they need is a rusher to come over, and they’re set.”

Woodley’s frustrations with the Steelers stem from the belief that his contributions to the team’s success aren’t fully appreciated by management. Last year he tied for the NFL lead with 19 tackles for loss, and he was particularly productive during Pittsburgh’s Super Bowl title drive the previous season, recording six postseason sacks.

“You hear a lot of people saying, ‘Woodley’s asking for too much,’ ” he said. “You can compare my numbers to outside linebackers around the league, and I think mine stack up with anyone’s.

“I wouldn’t be making this argument if I didn’t produce on the field. But what I do is no joke. I get better every year. I’m not trying to say one man makes a team. But ever since I’ve been in that [starting role], our defensive stats have improved.”


Woodley had a team-high 13½ sacks last season.

Noting that the Steelers recently signed fourth-year coach Mike Tomlin to a contract extension, Woodley said, “On Twitter somebody wrote, ‘Are you serious? Who’s more important, LaMarr Woodley or a coach?’ I didn’t say that. But I thought it was funny.”

Woodley is less amused by the juxtaposition between the Steelers and Pennsylvania’s other NFL team, the Eagles, who after trading franchise quarterback Donovan McNabb boosted Kolb’s 2010 salary from $550,000 to $12.26 million.

“Kolb’s a second-round pick, so that’s the best comparison to me,” Woodley said. “When you see guys like that get taken care of, it makes you wonder. This guy has barely started a game in the NFL, and he becomes the starting quarterback of the Eagles, and they take care of their guy.

“With me, no conversations even happened. That’s the crazy thing – we don’t have any communication going on.”

It’s the kind of situation that can put a man’s love of the game to the test. Undoubtedly, the Steelers believe Woodley’s is sufficient to override any feelings of frustration.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

NCAA investigating Steelers' Pouncey

Tuesday, July 20, 2010
By Chuck Finder, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
http://www.post-gazette.com/sports/?m=1


Steelers first-round draftee Maurkice Pouncey is being investigated by the NCAA and, by all appearances, Florida authorities over an allegation that he accepted $100,000 from an undisclosed agent's representative before playing in the Florida Gators' Sugar Bowl victory.

Any finding wouldn't imperil the professional career of Pouncey, a center and guard who has yet to sign with the Steelers.


Matt Freed/Post-Gazette

Steelers offensive lineman Maurkice Pouncey is being investigated by the NCAA.


If the NCAA finds that Pouncey took money from an agent, the Gators might have to vacate the Sugar Bowl triumph because Pouncey would be found ineligible. Should its investigators conclude that Gators coaches and officials knew or should have known about the payment -- a critical issue in Southern California's recently imposed sanctions involving Reggie Bush -- the school could come under additional and stiffer penalties.

Gators athletic director Jeremy Foley said school officials have been looking into the matter since it came up last month and have yet to discover wrongdoing on their part.

"We were made aware of some information in early June that we reported to law enforcement, and we then shared with the NCAA and the [Southeastern Conference]," Foley said in a news release Monday. "At this time, we have no information that has indicated that there are any compliance issues for the University of Florida."

The Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation, which oversees the certification of 225 sports agents among one million others under its purview holding active licenses to do business in the state, likely is the state authority investigating the matter as well.

Spokeswoman Alexis Lambert declined to confirm or deny that her department investigators are conducting a full probe, adding that such complaints against agents aren't made public until 10 days after investigators find "probable cause" in such cases. The department can revoke an agent's license in the event of impropriety of its agent rules and turn over the case to the state attorney if it believes a criminal violation occurred.

Lambert couldn't estimate the investigation's potential timetable, saying its length "depends on the nature of the complaint."

The complaint, first reported by ESPN.com as alleging that Pouncey accepted $100,000 sometime between the Gators' loss in the SEC championship game Dec. 5 and the Sugar Bowl Jan. 1, came in the form of an unsigned letter -- according to USA Today -- sent anonymously to the school.

"The NCAA is working cooperatively with the university," spokeswoman Stacey Osburn said. "However, it is NCAA policy to not comment on current, pending or potential investigations."

The governing body also is looking into South Carolina, where NCAA investigators last week interviewed tight end Weslye Saunders over potentially improper dealings with an agent. North Carolina's athletic director also admitted that investigators were on his campus last week regarding potential rules violations, later identified in media reports as involving agent relations with current Tar Heels football players.

Pouncey is represented by agent Joel Segal, who isn't necessarily implicated. Neither Gators officials nor Segal returned messages Monday, and Pouncey and the Steelers declined comment.


Chuck Finder: cfinder@post-gazette.com.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Pirates' Kratz: From masonry to the majors

Journeyman catcher, family live a dream with first day at PNC

Saturday, July 17, 2010
By Colin Dunlap, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
http://www.post-gazette.com/sports/?m=1


Could Erik Kratz have lost hope, even if no one would have blamed him?

Certainly.

Could he have been a career minor-league catcher at age 30, and his two sons -- Brayden, 3, and Ethan, 18 months -- would have loved him just the same?

Absolutely.

Could Kratz's college sweetheart, Sarah, their nine-year anniversary on its way in December, never had seen him in the Pirates' dugout Friday night and felt the same way about that big guy with the eternal smile?

No question.

But this isn't a tale of a near-miss.

This is a study in perseverance and resolve, of determination and grit.

"There are only a few things we can control," Kratz said. "And that's how we treat other people and how hard we work at what we are trying to accomplish."


Peter Diana/Post-Gazette

Pirates catcher Erik Kratz works out prior to Friday's game against the Astros at PNC Park.


Kratz did not play Friday, but his arrival in Pittsburgh brought the culimination of his career after bouncing around the minor leagues for nine seasons.

Every player who started for the Pirates against the Houston Astros was younger than Kratz. Center fielder Andrew McCutchen, more than six years younger than Kratz, was wearing the Pirates' jersey for the 196th time while Kratz pulled it over his head for the very first time.

"It's a good story," manager John Russell said. "He's worked really hard to get here, a lot of years to get here. ... It doesn't matter if you are 21 or 30, the opportunity to play in the major leagues is what you play for."

It all came to be for Kratz after catcher Jason Jaramillo was optioned to Class AAA Indianapolis in what amounted to a flip-flopping of catchers, forcing Kratz, who was hitting .296 (56 for 189) with nine home runs and 37 RBIs, up to the big club.

Kratz, who is from eastern Pennsylvania and played the first seven seasons of his career in the Toronto Blue Jays organization, was notified of his call-up Wednesday at the Class AAA All-Star Game in which he was playing.

In a live television interview soon thereafter, the soft-spoken, 6-foot-4, 255-pound Kratz who went to a Mennonite high school and college, began to choke up a bit.

Standing in the Pirates dugout Friday during batting practice, Kratz still seemed a bit confounded by all that had happened to him the past 48 hours.

So did his wife, as she stood in the concourse of PNC Park behind section 114 during the game last night, after driving across Pennsylvania in the morning -- with the two kids in the car -- to get here in time for the game. The family had been in Allentown for that Class AAA All-Star game.

"It has all been such a blur, it really has," Sarah Kratz said. "We are taking this one day at a time, it is God's plan for us. I just can't tell you how much I admire and respect my husband for never getting negative about things and for always staying so positive."

She isn't the only one.

Kratz -- who many of the younger Pirates played with in Indianapolis either this season or last -- commanded an immediate respect in the clubhouse.

"Kratzy is very deserving of the opportunity, he's a guy you have to feel good for, you just have to," said Pirates third baseman Pedro Alvarez, who played with Kratz in Indianapolis and is almost seven years younger than him. "He's a hard worker, a resilient guy. He's a great human being and a family person, and people like that truly deserve an opportunity like this. I can't find a better person who is more deserving of an opportunity like this."

Especially because of all Kratz did -- and not just on the field. In every winter offseason but this past one, Kratz worked construction where he and his family have settled, in Harrisonburg, Va.

"Home construction, framing, remodeling a little bit, masonry," he said of his seasonal labor. "Anything 40 hours a week that was putting food on our plates."

Such a job helped supplement Kratz's minor league income, in a sport where most minor leaguers never see their pay leap above five figures for a season.

Now though, with the Pirates, Kratz will make substantially more -- a prorated salary of the major league minimum of $400,000.

That, though, wasn't what was on Sarah Kratz's mind.

"To see my husband in that major league uniform right now, I just can't explain it," she said softly, her voice trailing off as emotions rose. "Even if this is the only game, even if it is just one game, Erik can say he was a major-leaguer."

She then paused for a moment before finishing: "He did it."


Colin Dunlap: cdunlap@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1459.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Ten possible positives for Pirates' second half

Duke vs. Astros tonight restarts season that, so far, has been awful

Friday, July 16, 2010
By Dejan Kovacevic, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
http://www.post-gazette.com/sports/?m=1

The Pirates will carry a six-game losing streak into their return from the All-Star break tonight against the visiting Houston Astros, an opponent that has beaten them all six times this season. They will do so with the lowest team batting average, the highest ERA of any rotation, a mindboggling stretch of 1,004 at-bats since the most recent home run with a man on base, the ...

Well, been there, done that.


Peter Diana/Post-Gazette

Zach Duke will try to stop the Pirates' six-game losing streak.


Here, in the spirit of Major League Baseball's refreshing annual pause, are 10 good things that could happen to the team in the second half of 2010 ...

10. Keep losing?

For all the losing the Pirates have done all these past 18 years, they have secured the No. 1 overall draft pick only twice, and those produced Kris Benson and Bryan Bullington.

Baltimore currently has Major League Baseball's worst record, but only by one game. The Pirates are 30-58, the Orioles 29-59, and the Orioles are fresh off a four-game sweep of first-place Texas.

Nothing could be more reprehensible in sports than losing willfully, but hey, if it happens to play out that way, consider that the Washington franchise has been thoroughly energized by landing No. 1 two years in a row, with pitching phenom Stephen Strasburg and power-hitting catcher Bryce Harper.

Early candidate for No. 1 next year is Rice University third baseman Anthony Rendon. Jim Callis, Baseball America's respected draft analyst wrote last month, "I'd take him over Harper."

9. Someone is caught stealing.

Perhaps no facet of the Pirates' first-half failure has reflected more poorly on management and the coaching staff than the all-encompassing inability to control opponents' baserunning: Of 75 steal attempts, 65 have succeeded.

The obvious culprit is catcher Ryan Doumit, whose 9 percent success rate in throwing out runners is the sport's worst, but he is far from alone: Pitching coach Joe Kerrigan has not made it a priority, the pitchers have done little to keep runners close, and the infielders have failed to catch throws.

General manager Neal Huntington and manager John Russell have not made this area a priority, either, in part because of their belief that a pitcher focusing too much on a runner fails to make "a quality pitch," as Huntington reiterated last week.

A team like the Pirates must have elite instruction to be successful. Demonstrating that they can keep teams from taking extra bases at will would be a stride in that direction.

8. Better trades are made.

Doumit, starter Zach Duke, closer Octavio Dotel and reliever Brendan Donnelly are the most likely trade targets for other teams in advance of the July 31 deadline, though none would be expected to fetch much. But should any moves be made?

When owner Bob Nutting hired team president Frank Coonelly, one of his mandates was that Coonelly function as a "check and balance" for baseball operations, citing the cataclysmic example of the Matt Morris trade under Dave Littlefield. There has been no error of that scope under Huntington and his staff, but there have been many misevaluations at the major-league level.

Coonelly and Huntington both have reiterated recently that the Pirates always are examining past moves, to better learn from their successes and failures. But those examinations have yet to result in a single personnel change in baseball operations, despite the costly trade for Aki Iwamura. Nor is it known that there has been any procedural change.

7. Spots get solidified.

Half the diamond is now filled with young everyday players in Andrew McCutchen, Pedro Alvarez, Neil Walker and Jose Tabata, and Doumit remains behind the plate.

That leaves Lastings Milledge, Ronny Cedeno and Garrett Jones facing a key second half in which they can either establish themselves as fixtures, or give the Pirates reason to look elsewhere.

All three have shown encouraging signs: Milledge is on a .345 tear over his past 18 games, including a couple of no-doubt home runs last weekend in Milwaukee. Cedeno is 5 for 12 in the past week and has looked like a different player offensively and defensively, especially in driving the ball for four doubles. Jones has hovered at a steady .298 over the past 55 games, but he went nearly a month between home runs before the one Saturday.

6. The four Ms move up.

The drag of the Pirates' many recent promotions is that the upper levels of the minors were left mostly empty, especially regarding position players.

Thus, perhaps the biggest hope for a second-half appearance would appear to be a second coming of Brandon Moss. He still is batting only .249, but with 11 home runs and a modest surge of late.

The pitching looks better, with Charlie Morton always a possibility to find himself and reliever Daniel Moskos now up to Class AAA Indianapolis. But the other top starters, Bryan Morris and Rudy Owens, remain two levels away with Class AA Altoona.

5. The starters will pitch better.

They almost have to, don't they?

Paul Maholm and Jeff Karstens should do as they are, Ross Ohlendorf is looking much better of late and finally has a W, Zach Duke rebounded two years ago almost immediately from elbow pain, and Brad Lincoln was a slow starter at each new level through the system.

4. A payroll hike is promised.

It already is plenty clear that the Pirates' major-league payroll will go up in 2011, partly because it really cannot go much lower than the current $36 million, partly because they already have assured the MLB Players Association that it will, but mostly because Nutting has said it would in years to come.

There has been no indication from Nutting or Coonelly that they would announce their payroll for next year, but maybe this is the summer that will change and, perhaps, restore some trust with the fan base.

Management's longtime reasoning against announcing payroll in advance has been that it gives agents leverage in the offseason. But agents have direct links with the union, and agents tend to find these things out, anyway.

3. The young players improve.

This might be as close to a lock as any as Alvarez, Tabata and Lincoln have shown encouraging glimpses, and Walker has shown consistently since his arrival.

To date, none has visibly let all the losing have a draining effect, but it might be time -- before long, anyway -- for all four to take direct control of that.

2. Sign the elite pitchers.

Imagine the impact it would have on all civic grumbling about payroll if the Pirates were to sign their top two draft picks, Jameson Taillon and Stetson Allie, as well as top Mexican prospect Luis Heredia, at a total cost in the range of $10 million.

Far more important, imagine the impact it would have on the Pirates' system to add three elite right-handed arms.

1. Losing turns to winning.

Forget the draft pick.

After all the losing, the laughingstock elements, the lost generation of local fans, nothing could mean more for the Pirates for the rest of 2010 and beyond than simply winning.

Listen to Donnelly, the old man of the bullpen who spent most of his career on contenders, including the 2002 World Series champion Anaheim Angels ...

"We haven't had the season anyone was expecting us to have," he said. "We show up one day and play good baseball, then don't show up the next time around. Why? Why are we having so many more downs than ups? It's frustrating for guys who have been ..."

Winners?

"I guess winners. And I'm not saying we're losers. It's frustrating for everybody. It's frustrating for guys who haven't won. Losing stinks. Winning is way cooler than losing."

He laughed.

"It's a constant battle. You have to show up every day, be prepared to put the work in. And at the end of the day, look at that scoreboard. Doesn't matter what you did that day, if you went 4 for 4 or struck out the side ... if you lose the game, you should be ticked off. That's the attitude that needs to be spread throughout this organization. And, until that happens, we're going to struggle."

Dejan Kovacevic: dkovacevic@post-gazette.com.


Today

Game: Pirates vs. Houston Astros, 7:05 p.m., PNC Park.

TV, radio: FSN Pittsburgh, WPGB-FM (104.7).

Pitching: LHP Zach Duke (3-8, 5.49) vs. RHP Brett Myers (6-6, 3.41).

Season series: Astros, 6-0.

Key matchup: Duke will be pitching for the first time since June 16, after a strained elbow put him on the disabled list. He made two rehabilitation starts but threw only 29 and 54 pitches, so he will be limited.

Of note: The Pirates have given up 18 home runs in the past eight games, and half of the 46 total runs allowed in that span have come by home run.