Sunday, May 29, 2011

Cedeno suddenly stout on defense

By John Perrotto
Beaver County Times
May 28, 2011

Ronny Cedeno hits a three-run home run against the Chicago Cubs during the fourth inning of a baseball game, Saturday, May 28, 2011, in Chicago. (AP)

It seems almost laughable to write that Ronny Cedeno has been one of the best defensive shortstops in the National League this season.

Cedeno has seemingly been nothing but a constant source of frustration since being acquired from Seattle Mariners in a July, 2009 trade that sent incumbent shortstop Jack Wilson to the Mariners. It has seemed for every spectacular play Cedeno has made because of his outstanding range or strong arm, he has botched two routine plays because of a lack of concentration.

Yet, one-third of the way through the season, Cedeno ranks among the best fielding shortstops in terms of the advanced defensive metrics developed by Baseball Prospectus and Fangraphs.

Baseball Prospectus' Fielding Runs Above Average pegs Cedeno as the second-best shortstop in the NL behind Atlanta's Alex Gonzalez. FRAA also ranks Cedeno as the 10th-best defensive player, regardless of position, in the major leagues.

Cedeno scores just a little lower in Fangraph's Ultimate Zone Rating as he stands third among NL shortstops after Gonzalez and Colorado's Troy Tulowitzki. Cedeno is the 36th-best overall fielder in the majors, according to UZR.

Thus, it is more than lip service when Cedeno says that he is playing with more confidence than at any time in his seven-year career.


This week's Name to Remember is Class AA Altoona right-hander Tim Alderson, who has adapted quite well to the Pirates' decision to convert him into a reliever this season. Going into the weekend, the 22-year-old was 0-1 with an outstanding 0.94 ERA in 15 games along with 24 strikeouts and six walks in 28 2/3 innings.

Alderson was a highly touted starting prospect when the Pirates acquired him from San Francisco in a trade for Freddy Sanchez in July 2009. However, Alderson went a combined 14-10 with a 5.71 ERA in 34 games, 32 starts, in the Pirates' system in 2009-10, prompting them to try him in a new role in spring training.


Atlanta came to PNC Park this past week and the Braves brought rookie reliever Jairo Asencio with them.

Asencio spent eight seasons in the Pirates' farm system from 2001-08 but it's doubtful anyone remembers him. One reason is that he never got above Class A in all those years. The other is that he was then known as Luis Valdez.

The Dominican Republic native used another person's birth certificate when he signed with the Pirates so he would appear younger. He posed as Valdez for eight years before getting caught in the United States government's crackdown on false identities in 2010.

So Luis Valdez is now Jairo Asencio, truly making him the player to be named later.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Receiver Ward's dancing makes him stronger

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Kym Johnson and Hines Ward pose with their trophy's after scores from the judges were combined with the audience votes to name them champions of "Dancing With the Stars" and winners of the coveted mirror ball trophy. (ABC)

LOS ANGELES — Hines Ward returns to reality next week.

The Steelers wide receiver and freshly minted "Dancing With the Stars" champion will undergo surgery Tuesday to repair ligament damage in his left thumb.

The procedure will serve as a reminder that Ward still has a day job after going Hollywood in early March and beating 11 other celebrities in the 12th season of "DWTS."

The thumb injury is something Ward has dealt with since the end of the 2010 season. He had minor surgery on his left knee in February, not long after the Steelers' 31-25 loss to the Green Bay Packers in Super Bowl XLV, but it hardly slowed him down.

Indeed, his stint on "DWTS" — and all of the work that went into his performances — only seemed to make Ward's knee stronger.

He and partner Kym Johnson looked like had been dancing together for years, as they waltzed their way to the Mirror Ball Trophy. In the process, Ward made a believer out of at least one "DWTS" contestant that initially underestimated him.

"When I first saw Hines, I kind of sized him up, like a fighter. I said 'I got this guy' because he's big and sluggish," said former boxing champion Sugar Ray Leonard, who was eliminated from "DWTS" in mid-April. "What he's been able to do, I have been blown away. He moved. He had charisma. He had personality. He did all of the things that made him win."

Ward made it look easy at times even though he had no background in dancing. The four-time Pro Bowler credited the same discipline he applies to his football training as helping him become — or at least come across as — a quick study.

But even Ward didn't know what he was getting into when he signed on for the show.

"I disrespected the show when I first came on. I said, 'Oh, I can do that,' but a lot of hard work goes into it," said Ward, who turned 35 in March. "It's grueling."

It showed in how trim Ward, who's listed at 6-feet and 205 pounds, looked by the end of "DWTS."

"He told me he lost about 18 pounds because it's a different kind of workout than he did before," former Steelers great Lynn Swann said Monday night. "Ask him how much weight he's lost dancing."


"Fifteen pounds," Ward said.

Ward said he's probably ahead of where he normally is at this point in the offseason.

"I usually don't do anything until June," said Ward, who has two years left on his contract. "I'm ready."

Ward said he will look into getting his teammates together for informal practices next month, assuming the NFL lockout is in place. But for now, he's taking a couple of victory laps, so to speak, having appeared on "Good Morning America" yesterday and "Jimmy Kimmel Live!" on Tuesday.

He became the second NFL player to win "DWTS," and football appeared to be the furthest thing from his mind. But when asked if he might unveil a new touchdown dance given what he had just accomplished, Ward didn't hesitate to answer.

"I'm doing a tribute to Kym every time I score a touchdown," Ward said, "a 'Dancing With the Stars' routine somewhere in the end zone."

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Hockey seemed to change after the Penguins' 1991 Stanley Cup title run

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

When the Penguins raised the Stanley Cup in Minnesota 20 years ago tonight, they lowered the curtain on freewheeling hockey.

No one else, after all, could keep up. The high-octane Penguins were the game's last truly dominant offensive team.

"I guess we were one-of-a-kind," Phil Bourque said.

Or, they were, at least, the last of their kind.

Matching the Penguins' offensive skill that season simply wasn't possible for other NHL teams. Thus, the game went a different direction, never again promoting or producing a comparable goal machine. Low-scoring styles and the dreaded "trap" strategy became trendy largely in an attempt to slow the high-flying Penguins.

"I do think it was the genesis of the 'trap' era," Bourque said. "We were the dominant team. It was either you be like us, or you come up with a system to beat us. Teams couldn't be like us. They didn't have Mario (Lemieux). They didn't have (Jaromir) Jagr, (Kevin) Stevens or (Larry) Murphy."

Or Ron Francis, Joey Mullen, Paul Coffey, Bryan Trottier or Mark Recchi, to name more of that team's current and future Hall-of-Famers. Bob Johnson, the team's iconic coach, instinctively understood how to push defense. But he permitted his squad's incomparable offense to lead the way.

"I'll never forget playing against them," said Tom Fitzgerald, now an assistant to Penguins general manager Ray Shero but a member of the New York Islanders in 1991. "They were just much different than any other team. It wasn't that you might lose to them that scared you. You just didn't want to be embarrassed by them.

"They were that good. And it honestly got to the point where, especially with Mario, clutching and grabbing was literally the only way you could stop them."

The Penguins were as resilient as they were talented. They lost the first game in all four of their playoff series that spring, only to roar back each time. In their 16 victories, they scored at least four goals 14 times.

Offense alone wasn't supposed to win so many games in the NHL.

"It didn't seem like the NHL to me," said Scott Young, a right wing with the Penguins who later blossomed into a 40-goal scorer in St. Louis. "It was amazing to me. I couldn't believe it. I couldn't believe how many goals we would get."

It was the team's hard work, Jaromir Jagr said, that beautifully complemented its outrageous talent.

"When I think about those years," Jagr said recently, "I don't think you could see it on another team before. (The hard work) made the Pittsburgh Penguins so good. Plus, they had Mario."

Lemieux, in one of his many remarkable comebacks, overcame back surgery to score 16 goals and 44 points in 23 playoff games that spring. Stevens had 17 goals. The Penguins had eight goals in the Cup clincher at Minnesota, putting away the North Stars with their customary glitz.

"I don't know how much they worried about defense, but it didn't matter," Fitzgerald said. "They could all score and could all embarrass you. And Mario was driving the bus. They were the Harlem Globetrotters. The teams today are so evenly matched; the '91 Penguins were so talented, it wasn't fair."

Although the Penguins will always be remembered for their colorful offense, it isn't fair to suggest that defense and goaltending didn't play a role in their success.

Tom Barrasso was one of the great goaltenders of his time, and Ulf Samuelsson was perhaps the league's most feared defender.

"That team had everything," Samuelsson said. "There was just so much offense, we didn't really need to practice that. And our defense was better than people think."

What truly made the Penguins memorable was not just their ability to score in bunches but also their unique personalities. Their roster played out like a movie script.

Lemieux was the unquestioned leader, the game's greatest player, the distinguished king. Jagr was the prince, 19 and filled with potential and moments of greatness. Stevens and his bold predictions, Samuelsson and his cult following, and the determination of a guy who is still playing today (Recchi) made the Penguins a team that so many could identify with.

Even the role players, guys like Bourque, Bob Errey and Troy Loney, had a following.

"It takes everyone to win a Stanley Cup," Bourque said. "And every single player on that team contributed at some point."

Jagr recently called playing with the Penguins of the early 90s the best time of his life.

He isn't the only one who feels that way.

"Cell phones weren't really around back then but I had to find a phone after we won the Cup," Bourque said. "I had to call some loved ones. It was a special time, a special team."

And one that will never be duplicated.

Related Articles

Impact of Penguins' first Stanley Cup title still felt 20 years later

By Shelly Anderson, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Wednesday, May 25, 2011

The Penguins lifted the Stanley Cup for the first time 20 years ago today. Many on that 1991 championship team are still involved in hockey, including Mark Recchi, who is chasing another Cup as a 43-year-old winger for Boston in the Eastern Conference final.

The Penguins needed seven games to get past New Jersey in the first round of the 1991 playoffs, then won four in a row against Washington after dropping Game 1 in the second round. In the Wales Conference final, they lost the first two games against Boston before winning four in a row to reach the Stanley Cup final. Minnesota -- the North Stars, not the Wild -- took a 2-1 series lead before the Penguins won three in a row, punctuating their playoff ride with an 8-0 win in Game 6.

The Penguins have won two subsequent Cups, in 1992 and 2009, but 20 years of hindsight has allowed those on the '90-91 squad to fully appreciate the feat.

"It's like the average person who runs a marathon and puts in their time -- you just kind of put one foot ahead of the other. Later, you reflect on what it took to accomplish what you did," said Gordie Roberts, a defenseman on the '91 Cup club.

With that type of reflection in mind, several members of that team answered six questions about key aspects of the '90-91 season and postseason.

Question: What's the best thing about winning the Stanley Cup, and what's your reaction each year when teams raise it?

G Frank Pietrangelo: I think all of us grow up with the intention of one day winning the Stanley Cup. It's a dream, whether you're on the ice or in the street. Over time you see how difficult it is to win the thing.

D Gordie Roberts: It's probably just being in the right place, right time to capture the moment.

F Joe Mullen: It's what you play for. It's the ultimate goal every year. When you finally achieve that, there's no better feeling in the world than to be able to skate around the ice with that Cup with your teammates.

D Jim Paek: It seems like yesterday. ... Your heart is always where you won your Cups. To win it in Pittsburgh ... I can't believe it's 20 years.

Assistant coach Barry Smith: The first one was probably most shocking because we were fighting just to get into the playoffs. We just took off in the playoffs and just kept improving. Each series had a different personality, but the team just stuck together and got better. Before the third period [in the clinching game] we were up 6-1 or 6-0 you didn't know how to react. Oh my God, can they score seven goals and beat us? It's not over. But what do you say between period?. You can't start celebrating. You just had to play a period.

F Jay Caufield: The best thing about it was being part of a team where a number of the guys are still close friends, and realizing that you've been a part of something. Every year you see the people who win it and you know what a special time it is for the players and management. You flash back.

D Grant Jennings: We were playing road hockey at 5, 6, 7 years old, and we used to watch it in Canada on TV, raising the Cup, so most of us always dreamed about doing it. Reality sets in you're about 15, 16, and there's a way of weeding out. The best thing about it was fulfilling a childhood dream that most of us shared. Now it's almost a form of jealousy, but in a positive way. I know that 20-some young men are going to get to experience that feeling.

Question: "Badger" Bob Johnson led the team to the Cup in his only season coaching the Penguins. He died of brain cancer Nov. 26, 1991 at age 60 and left behind the uplifting catchphrase, "It's a great day for hockey.". What was the biggest influence Johnson had on you, or what was your favorite moment that involved him?

Pietrangelo: Just a legend, legend, legend. He was a positive person, somebody who had a great outlook on life. The biggest thing about Bob was his desire to get to know people personally. I played for a lot of different people in a lot of different leagues. Most of them were all about hockey. Bob was different. He knew all about your family life, your children. The last time I talked to Bob Johnson was when we went to see him in Colorado after he had brain surgery. He looked at me and asked me about my daughter. [Paige is a defenseman at Robert Morris now.]

F Bryan Trottier: I have many. My first stories go back to '84 and the U.S. team in the Canada Cup. He was positive about everything. If we got beat, 5-1, he would come in and say we scored the best goal of the game. You went home that night at you wouldn't dwell on things. That's the greatest thing for me. I never had that in my whole life. Every day he'd come by and say. 'What do you think, Bryan, what do you think?' I loved that.

Paek: I'm sad to say that I only knew him for a very short time. I was up for 13 games, then I was sent to the national team. So I missed a lot of that season with him. The impact he made on me through training camp then 13 games and playoff run, the impact as a hockey player and as a person, was tremendous. All the stories he told you, it's just ingrained in your mind. He's the one who gave me the opportunity to play in the NHL. I still remember the Washington series. People get hurt. He always told me that you never know when you might get your chance. All of a sudden I'm the sixth defenseman. [with three hurt] and I played the first game against Washington) He just threw me in the fire. He had the confidence in me to play, and that gave me the confidence in myself.

Smith: There wasn't one favorite moment. It was just fun being around him. But the things that rubs off is he was so positive. He used to talk in golf terms as well. You appreciate him for the love of the game. He had friends in all different dimensions in life and just a really good family and a wonderful person.

D Larry Murphy: He was such a sweet guy, and at the same time not playing to your ability was not acceptable. He was very demanding, but in such a pleasant way. And he was such an optimist.

Jennings: With Badger, when we came [in a trade] from Hartford, he would have our pregame meeting. He had these pucks with guys' faces on them as he was diagramming plays. He was always nice and positive. I wasn't the best practice player, but he would come up to me after a game or practice and say, 'Jenner, are you going to get on the bike today?' 'No.' He would come in the weight room with me and get on the bike with me just so I would get in shape. When he was ill in Colorado, we made a video for him. When I got on the mike, I said, 'I'm practicing as hard as ever.'

F Barry Pederson: The things I admired the most with him were his passion, his energy, love of the game and his teaching ability. He was more like a professor at school. He loved what he was doing.

Question: On March 4, general manager Craig Patrick swung perhaps the biggest trade in team history, acquiring center Ron Francis and defensemen Ulf Samuelsson and Grant Jennings from Hartford for center John Cullen, winger Jeff Parker and defenseman Zarley Zalapski. How did that deadline trade most change the team?

Paek: You added depth. You had over a 100-point man in Ron Francis and power play, penalty killing. He's the No. 1 guy on any other team. The leadership of all three guys. Ulffie was just a workhorse. Just unreal. You see that, you're going to follow suit. Grant could do it all. The addition of those three, you saw the outcome. Craig did a great job of acquiring those three guys.

Pietrangelo: That was a big part of our success. Obviously, Ronnie's a Hall of Famer -- his hockey skills speak for themselves -- but his leadership skills, too. We all know what Ulffie did, shut down teams and got under guys' skins. And Grant as well. He was, like myself, depth that we wouldn't have won the Stanley Cup without. I don't think we would have won the Cup without that trade.

Roberts: That was probably one of the greatest trades ever. I've been a pro scout a long time. Two trades made a big difference – that one and the one the next year when Rick Tocchet came in. Craig Patrick looked at what the team needed to win a Cup both years and then made the moves. It's an obvious given that Ron Francis supported Mario Lemieux, especially wen Mario had the back issues and Ronnie could step in as the top center. And Ulf had the warrior mentality, the Jack Lambert style that Pittsburgh loved.

Mullen: That was the most important impact move that year, to get players like that. We gave up a lot of good players, but it was what we got in return -- Ronnie, the leadership, Ulffie the same way, Grant Jennings a real good role player.

Murphy: I thought it was a real strong trade and made the team much better. Everybody felt that was the final piece. From that moment on, we felt we could beat anybody. I had only been there a few months, but we felt the trade gave us a good chance to win the Cup.

Caufield: Losing Johnny Cullen was a big thing. Initially, the reaction was that you're losing a great friend and a guy who was making so much happen, but then you realize what was coming into your locker room. I don't want to slight what John Cullen did, but you knew what value came back.

Pederson: They just brought in experience. These were guys who had been successful with other teams. They were warriors. They could play any type of game that you wanted to play. They were leaders on their team. That was the crowning jewel.

Question: Where do these rank among big plays you have witnessed – backup goaltender Frank Pietrangelo's lunging glove save on New Jersey's Peter Stastny in a 4-3 win in Game 6 with the Penguins trailing the opening-round series, 3-2, and facing elimination; and Mario Lemieux's spectacular goal in Game 2 of the final when he split Minnesota defensemen Neil Wilkinson and Shawn Chambers, leaving Chambers on the ice, and slipped the puck around goaltender Jon Casey's right leg for a 3-1 lead in what ended up a 4-1 win?

Trottier: When Frankie stole that puck from Peter Stastny, that's embedded in my brain forever. To be on the team and have it turn out to be such a deciding save. We were in a seventh game without Mario. That save transcended us to another level, like a springboard. It's such a defining moment for his career, too. The goal, I can't see that enough. He just looked like he found another gear at the right time. You could just see the panic on the defensemen's faces. I remember the play that [Phil Bourque] made [in his own end] and Mario just shot out of a cannon. And the move. He couldn't have gone the other way. It's another highlight. It's the greatest forum you could have.

Roberts: I would put those two in the top two, and the third one was the team coming down from 3-1 against Washington in the second round the next year, turning a negative into a positive and going on to repeat.

Smith: Don't forget about Mario's one-on-one move against Ray Bourque. If we had "SportsCenter" back then, they would have been the play of the night. Pietrangelo's save saved the game, and it took pressure off of Barrasso and got us to the next series.

Murphy: As special as Mario's goal was, Pietrangelo's save was a defining moment in the playoffs.

Mullen: I think Frankie's play was huge because if he doesn't make that save, we don't go on. That's got to be the biggest play for me that year in the playoffs. That's the first round If he doesn't make that save, we're going home. Mario's goal, that's a highlight reel goal, but it's the way he did things and the timing of things. That's Mario Lemieux.

Caufield: When you think of that year, you think of those two moments. Everybody will flash back to those two plays. If you don't have the save, you don't get to Mario's goal. They are two unbelievable plays. What a great thing for Frank Pietrangelo to go in and make a play like that. The timing of Mario doing that, he had a knack for doing things when needed

Question: After the Penguins lost the first two games against Boston, winger Kevin Stevens guaranteed his club would come back to win that second-round series. What do you think of Stevens' bold prediction?

Pietrangelo: Pretty ballsy, that's for sure. We lost both games. He made no bones about it. He's from Boston, and we had a lot of Boston guys on the team. For him to come straight out and say we're going to win this thing ... he felt it and believed it, and I think we all did. The inner belief has got to be there.

Trottier: Even at the time we thought it was really ballsy. Holy cow, here's a guy who's putting it out on the line. He believes. He was one of those guys that said it out loud. A lot of us thought it, but Kevin would say it. It wasn't just a declaration, but it was a defining declaration. That was really good for our team to hear at a really important time in the payoffs. He just did it because that's who he was and he believed it. You know what Kevin? We believe it, too. He was probably playing the best hockey of his career, and he just poured it on after that. He drove the net, he carried the mail, he scored some big goals. It was just so genius and so Kevin.

Roberts: I'd have to say that he was a hockey prophet. I've been studying Isaiah lately. He's the Isaiah of hockey in 1991.

Smith: I enjoyed him as a player and as a character.

Jennings: We all knew we were good enough. It was a reinforcement for him to say it. I ended up scoring a game-winning goal in one of the games. It wasn't like a jinx or anything. We took it as, 'Yeah, let's do this.'

Pederson: At that time, at that point in his career, Kevin was taking his game to the next level. He was one of the top guns becoming one of the big power forwards. He was able to create a lot of space for Mario and others up front. Boston was his hometown. It meant a lot to him. He was making a statement, on and off the ice. I thought that was a coming-out time for him. It could have backfired, but he was willing to put in on the line.

Question: What was Pittsburgh like as a hockey town?

Trottier: Pittsburgh, to me, has always been a really good hockey city. In the late '70s when I broke into the league, they had some really good, consistent players, but not a lot of playoff success. They went to the bottom of the league, then Mario comes in and revitalizes the city. When we got into the playoffs and went on a run, everywhere you drove there were hockey signs. Every restaurant. People's yards. Every round, it was just more the talk of the town. It was kind of a hot thing. There were a lot of fun things going on around it. I call it the tidal wave of Penguinmania. This town knows how to celebrate a championship. That was really a fun time for me at a time when I didn't think I would experience that again. It might have died a little bit before Sidney [Crosby] came, but now it's hit another level. You have names like [Jaromir] Jagr, Barrasso, Francis, and kids are like, 'Who's that?' It's another generation.

Mullen: I think it was growing as a hockey town. For us to go that far, that growth spurt took a big leap because we took a big leap. We barely got in the playoffs. To be able to go on to the finals and win it was huge step.

Paek: It was the best. I absolutely loved it there. It's a big city with a small-town mentality. I still go back after 20 years and they still say, 'Hey champ, congratulations.' They remember. That's just an honor to be a part of that. The fans just rallied behind that team. They won't change. Pittsburghers don't change. From now, from back then, they're great fans and really support their team. Now they have to cheer a little louder in that big new building. We would have been spoiled if we had that back then.

Murphy: It felt like a hockey city. I got there in December [in a trade from Minnesota]. There was excitement in the building. The city was behind the team. One event that stands out was when we came back from Minnesota after we won the Cup, all the fans came to the airport.

Caufield: I think it's an unbelievable place to play sports in general. It's, if not the best, one of the best. They didn't make the playoffs the year before. Going back to the '88-89 season, they got on a little bit of run and lost to Philly. To build only two years later to winning the Stanley Cup, it was great to be part of that.

Pederson: I think it's a great hockey town, especially during Mario's years there and now with [Sidney] Crosby it's continued. During the '90-91 year, my career was winding down. My wife and I had come in from Vancouver. I knew downtown a little bit. Not one of the great downtowns. What we didn't know about was the 'burbs. They were phenomenal. It combined the east coast passion for sports and the warmness of the midwest. I thought it made the experience so enjoyable. I was very, very impressed with the way they got behind their team.

Jennings: Coming from Hartford, it wasn't the biggest hockey town or hockey market., so when we came here and started winning, we would go to a restaurant after a game or anywhere and the people were just looking. I think they were kind of starved for something like that. The guys who were traded were staying in an apartment-style hotel. We would go shopping together for groceries at 'Giant Iggle.' People all knew who we were. When we came back from Minnesota [with the Cup] at the airport, it was unbelievable. I still come back there and if I walk down into the stands people will yell my name or tell me to get out on the ice. That was a great place to win.

F Randy Gilhen: I thought Pittsburgh had great fans. With Mario there, people flocked to games. I find Pittsburgh to be a very passionate sports city.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Pirates have 3 legitimate All-Stars

For the first time since the losing started, the Pirates could have as many as three All-Stars -- and they're all legitimate

Tuesday, May 24, 2011
CINCINNATI, OH - MAY 19: Joel Hanrahan throws a pitch during the game against the Cincinnati Reds at Great American Ball Park on May 19, 2011 in Cincinnati, Ohio. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

To hear Detroit Tigers manager Jim Leyland gush about the 22-24 Pirates over the weekend -- "They've got something special going here, they really do." -- you would think the team is loaded with All-Stars.

What a joke.

Or is it?

The Pirates will play the Atlanta Braves tonight at PNC Park. They have more All-Star candidates -- legitimate candidates -- than the Braves, if you can believe that. There are three -- starting pitcher Charlie Morton, closer Joel Hanrahan and second baseman Neil Walker -- and that doesn't include center fielder Andrew McCutchen of whom Leyland said, "I think he's going to be a superstar."

By Pirates standards, that's loaded with All-Stars. They haven't had three players make the All-Star Game since Barry Bonds, Bobby Bonilla and Neal Heaton did it in 1990. They've had two make it just four times since their record streak of losing seasons started 18 years ago.

Usually, the National League has a hard time picking a deserving Pirates representative. That's how bad they have been. Remember Carlos Garcia making the All-Star team in 1994? Tony Womack in '97? Ed Sprague in '99? Mike Williams in 2003? Williams might have been the worst; he went into the game with a 6.44 ERA and was traded soon after.

Even last season, Evan Meek represented the Pirates. No offense to Meek, he was a setup man. He did a fine job in his role, but he shouldn't have been on the All-Star team over McCutchen.

This season is different.

This season Morton, Hanrahan and Walker are legit.

So far.

It's early, of course. The All-Star Game isn't until July 12. Morton could start pitching the way he did last season. Hanrahan could blow a few saves. Walker could go into a long hitting slump.

But there is no indication any of that will happen.

Morton gets the start tonight against Jair Jurrjens in a matchup that, on paper, looks to be terrific. Jurrjens has been, arguably, the NL's best pitcher with a 5-1 record and 1.80 ERA and is the one Braves player who looks to be a lock for the All-Star Game, although Atlanta people could make a case for starter Tommy Hanson (5-3, 2.72). Morton has been among the best with a 5-1 record and 2.62 ERA, which ranked eighth among league starters going into games Monday night. What an amazing story it would be if he made the All-Star team. At the time of last year's game, he was at Class AAA Indianapolis, trying to fight his way back to the big leagues after his 1-9, 9.35 ERA start with the Pirates in 2010. Amazing wouldn't even begin to describe that story.

Hanrahan is 13 for 13 in save chances. Of the eight National League closers with double-digit saves going into Monday night, he, Florida's Leo Nunez (17 for 17) and Arizona's J.J. Putz (12 for 12) were the only ones without a blown save. His 1.66 ERA ranked second to the New York Mets' Francisco Rodriguez (0.76) among those eight pitchers. He's a big reason the Pirates are 20-0 in games when they led after eight innings.

Walker has been the best, most consistent hitter for the Pirates. He also just might be the NL's top second baseman, what with five-time All-Star Chase Utley playing for the Philadelphia Phillies for the first time Monday night after missing the first 46 games with right knee tendinitis. Sure, Cincinnati fans will argue for Brandon Phillips and Milwaukee fans for Rickie Weeks. But going into Monday, Walker led all major league second basemen with 30 RBIs and ranked first among NL second basemen in doubles and walks, second in runs, third in home runs and OPS, fourth in hits and sixth in average. He also has gone 20 consecutive games without an error.

If all of this keeps up ...

The Pirates will get multiple representatives in the All-Star Game.

And if they only get one ...

The National League will have a hard time making that selection for all the right reasons.

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

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Monday, May 23, 2011

Is change in store for NHL?

Sunday, May 22, 2011
In this Nov. 4, 2010, file photo, Philadelphia Flyers' Jody Shelley, left, and New York Rangers' Derek Boogaard fight during an NHL hockey game in Philadelphia. Boogaard, at age 28, died on Friday. Boogaard signed with the Rangers as a free agent in July,2010 appearing in 22 games last season, registering one goal and one assist.(AP)

Penguins forward Mike Rupp was on vacation with his wife and three kids in Magic Kingdom at Disney World when he got the news. Suddenly, The Happiest Place On Earth seemed a lot less happy.

"It's awful," Rupp said of the death of New York Rangers enforcer Derek Boogaard. "Really scary."

Boogaard, 28, was found in his Minneapolis apartment May 13. Medical examiners ruled Friday that the cause of death was an accidental mixture of alcohol and the painkiller oxycodone, but the story doesn't end there. Boogaard didn't play this season after he took a punch Dec. 9 from Ottawa's Matt Carkner. It was at least his fourth concussion. His family members are suspicious enough that his death was tied to his head injuries that they donated his brain to Boston University's Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy. That's the outfit that is studying the long-term effects of sports concussions on athletes. In March, it determined that NHL enforcer Bob Probert had degenerative brain disease when he died in July at 45.

It's safe to say Penguins star Sidney Crosby is following the Boogaard story closely. He didn't play this season after Jan. 5 because of concussion symptoms.

Rupp also is watching intently. He led the Penguins the past two seasons with a total of 24 fights.
"If [Boogaard's death] is linked to fighting, it could change the face of hockey," Rupp said. "I would think the league would have to look to go down that road [to banning fighting]."

Rupp has mixed feelings. He knows the players take risks when they drop their gloves. "A lot of bad things can happen. Guys are so much bigger and stronger." But he also fears what the NHL would be like without fighting. "I think the violence in the sport would hit a new level. It would be worse."

Rupp is hardly a hockey goon -- he has good skills for a man 6-foot-5, 245 pounds -- but he became more of a fighter after he was released by the Columbus Blue Jackets in 2006. "I was a No. 1 draft choice and had scored some big goals, but I knew I had to do something to make myself different." He had 55 fights during the next five seasons. According to's scorecard, his record in those fights was 24-22-9.

"There have been times I've been dropped with one punch," Rupp said. "There have been times I've felt the aftereffects for a week. Is that a concussion? I don't know ...

"I guess I don't think about the risks. You can't think about it. If that's in the back of your mind, it's going to be difficult to do what you have to do. That's why it's probably best not to think about it."

Rupp admits that's getting harder to do. The news about Probert was sobering for many NHL players.
Now, there's Boogaard, a man Rupp never fought but one he said he greatly respected for his toughness on the ice and his kindness and charity work off it.

"He sure wasn't one of those guys you volunteered to fight," Rupp said of Boogaard, who was 6-foot-7, 257 pounds. "You'd never just say to him, 'Hey, Boogie, you wanta go?' You'd watch him to make sure he didn't do anything stupid, but you just hoped he would be sleeping the night you played against him."

Rupp mentioned former NHL enforcer Riley Cote, an opponent he did fight frequently. "I remember when I was younger telling teammates, 'If I'm a fan, I'm paying to watch Riley Cote fight.' He's not the biggest guy in the league, but he puts his head out there every night. Some of the older guys said to me, 'Yeah, it's good, but you can't do that very long.' Now, Riley Cote isn't playing anywhere. What is he? 28? 29?"
Rupp also talked about Toronto Maple Leafs tough guy Colton Orr -- another frequent foe -- who was dropped by Penguins defenseman Deryk Engelland with one punch in a fight in October. "I had never seen Colton Orr get one-punched before this year. Carkner did it to him once or twice. Engelland did it. Someone else did it ... Is it a recurring thing? Do you get to the point where you can take less and less? That's scary to me."

The sellout crowd at Consol Energy Center roared when Engelland knocked out Orr. The Penguins used the punch as a regular highlight on the arena scoreboard the rest of the season. It was a big hit -- literally and figuratively -- every night. Clearly, fighting still sells in the NHL.

But what if there's a connection between Boogaard's death and the hits he took to the head from fighting? That might be hard to prove, but let's assume the doctors can do it. Wouldn't the league have to look into banning fighting? From a legal standpoint if not a moral standpoint?

What would happen to the NHL then?

"I think the alternative [of no fighting] would be worse," Rupp said.

Rupp talked of "cowardly" players taking cheap shots at the league's star players. "A lot of guys will think they're tougher and meaner than they really are because they'll know there won't be any repercussions."

Rupp also said he would worry about an increase in other forms of violence on the ice. He mentioned Marty McSorley hitting Donald Brashear over the head with his stick in 2000 and Todd Bertuzzi sucker-punching Steve Moore from behind in 2004.

"We're grown men skating at who knows how many miles per hour," Rupp said. "We're allowed to hit each other into a wall. We have a weapon in our hands. We're shooting a weapon. We have weapons on our feet ... There are moments when you just get enraged. It happens. Unfortunately, you react sometimes. Fighting is probably the best way to let it out. If you can't fight ... "

Rupp said he's grateful to the Boogaard family for making the decision to donate Boogaard's brain to science. "It means a lot that they're doing something to try to make the game safer for the players." He said he will continue to read up on concussions and their long-term impact. He wants to know more.
Of course, Rupp already knows more than he ever imagined after watching Crosby's struggles this season after taking two hits to the head that weren't fight-related.

"I guarantee you Sid will be watching how this plays out," he said of the Boogaard tragedy.

Every NHL player should.

The future of their sport is at stake.

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

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Leyland did not expect this

By Gene Collier, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Sunday, May 22, 2011

Andrew McCutchen and Jose Veras celebrate after scoring on a bases-loaded hit by teammate Matt Diaz in the seventh inning of an interleague baseball game against the Detroit Tigers on Saturday, May 21, 2011, in Pittsburgh. The Pirates won 6-2.(AP)

There were a couple of places Jim Leyland didn't expect to find himself or his Detroit Tigers on the next to last weekend in May, seven games behind the Cleveland Indians being one of 'em.

Getting pushed around PNC Park by the Pirates was probably another, but when you've managed more big league games than anyone save for only 15 people (Saturday night brought game No. 3,058), you've no doubt begun to appreciate that, as the ancient philosopher Joaquin Andujar observed, it all comes down to one word: "yaneverknow."

One more thing the old Pirates skipper probably didn't expect, which was the peculiar narrative of Saturday night's proceedings, in which unbeaten Detroit starter Max Scherzer was chased in an elongated sixth inning that overturned a two-run Tigers lead.

"Came to us last year and seemed to have figured it all out," Leyland said long before having to pull his 6-0 righty at the start of a roaring Pirates comeback. "He's got a good change, good slider, and a live, live arm. He was one of the best pitchers in the league the second half of last year."

Scherzer had turned that up to flat out unbeatable through the first seven weeks of 2011, so it didn't exactly figure that the first club to solve him would be your .237-hitting Pirates, keepers of one of only three offenses in the majors with more strikeouts than hits. (Nats and Padres).

But the Pirates, who scored 10 runs in the Friday night opener of this series -- generally enough to hold them for a week -- have now scored five or more in five of the past six. They started the sixth inning scoreless and seemingly clueless, and without any indication from Scherzer that he was headed for anything but 7-0.

But the Pirates ... suddenly a lot of sentences are starting "But the Pirates."

Probably a good thing.

Andrew McCutchen, down in the count 0-2, swatted the third pitch to left field for a leadoff single, and Jose Tabata mashed a 1-2 pitch to center so hard McCutchen could only move up one base. Garrett Jones murdered the next pitch, but with so much topspin that it nosedived in the dirt parallel to the foul line and hopped over the fence for a double, keeping the tying run at third temporarily.

All of which cued the best at-bat of the night, and as is so often the case this spring, the best at-bat most nights comes from Neil Walker, who was in no mood for an 0-fer on his own bobblehead night.

Pitching coach Rick Knapp visited Scherzer at this point, but whatever approach to Walker got discussed will have to be entered into the data as ineffective. Walker fouled the first pitch, took ball one and ball two, fouled the fourth pitch, fouled the fifth pitch, took ball three, and then put a sweet, controlled, RBI-man's stroke on a 94 mph fastball, lifting it to the broadest part of the lawn for a score-tying sacrifice fly.

Lyle Overbay then lifted another to put the Pirates ahead, and the resurgent offense scored thrice again in the seventh against Detroit's bullpen. But it was the previous inning's work against Scherzer that was so significant, because it's difficult enough to hit in this game without being thrown into the interleague soup against a total stranger with a 2.81 earned run average.

"It's like a pop quiz," Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said. "We prepared the same as we have since the start of the year. We tried to focus on his last three starts, point out that he's capable of this, capable of that. If you overload them with preparation, sometimes it can lock them up."

This is not a problem with Walker who seems to get better the more complicated any particular at-bat gets. He's as dangerous at 2-2 and 3-2 as he is in the traditional hitter's counts.

"I think the biggest thing for me [in his sixth-inning at-bat] was not to go all-out on any certain pitch," said the second-baseman who, by the way, started the game-ending double play. "He was throwing a good fastball and a good changeup and I didn't want to sell out on either one. I just tried to use the middle of the field, and if I had to foul off a bunch of fastballs until I could do that, so be it."

One last thing you can be all but certain Jim Leyland didn't expect -- to wake up May 22 and have the same record as the Pirates.

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Friday, May 20, 2011

Goodell offers propaganda instead of honest answers

Friday, May 20, 2011
The NFL owners are doing it for you. The lockout of their players? The fight over more than $9 billion in annual revenues? The threat of no professional football in the fall? It's all for you.
So says NFL commissioner Roger Goodell.

"We can't continue to have the rising costs of operating the league and shifting it to our fans."

Like the owners will order an immediate 10 percent decrease in ticket prices once they get a new, favorable (for them) collective bargaining agreement with the players and promise not to raise those ticket prices for five years.

Sure, they will.

Does Goodell really think the fans are idiots?

Listen, I have nothing against greed. I don't think anyone does. It's the American way, right? We'd all take more if we could get it. I mean, are we stupid?

But couldn't Goodell at least be honest about it?

Couldn't he have said the owners are tired of the cost of the players' salaries and benefits eating away at their enormous profits?

Now that would have made Goodell's interactive teleconference with Steelers season ticket holders Thursday interesting.

Goodell took 16 questions in 30 minutes during what was billed as an "NFL Fan Forum," the 17th such Q-and-A he has done since the lockout began. Sure, it was self-serving for the commissioner and the owners, strictly propaganda, if you will. But everybody knew that going in. And I shouldn't say it wasn't interesting. Mixed in among the predictable questions about the possibility of an 18-game regular season, Super Bowl ticket allocation and the inconsistent way the league dealt with on-field disciplinary issues last season and seemed to target Steelers linebacker James Harrison were a couple of gems.

No, nobody asked Goodell how he could suspend Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger for four games when he wasn't charged with a crime.

I wish somebody had.

But the two questions still were good.

Goodell danced around one.

He completely ignored the other.

Somebody from Oakmont asked why fans had to have all of their season-ticket money to the Steelers by May 2 when the lockout is ongoing and there is no guarantee of football in 2011. "We want to be prepared for a full season, and we want our fans to be prepared for a full season," Goodell said.

Are you thinking what I'm thinking?

What the heck?

I'm not sure why the fans can't get prepared for the season after the lockout is over and a new deal between the owners and players is in place. I do know what the owners really want -- the interest off the fans' hard-earned dollars.

I'm sure they need it to prepare for a full season.

Let me repeat: Please.

Goodell did add that there would be a league-wide reimbursement policy for fans in the event any games aren't played because of the lockout.

That's mighty generous of 'em, if you ask me.

Another man asked a follow-up question about the owners' goal to go from a four-game exhibition season and 16-game regular season to a two-game exhibition schedule and 18 regular-season games. To paraphrase: If the owners believe most fans don't want to see four exhibition games at regular-season prices because they're not getting value for their money and if the players don't want an increase from 16 to 18 regular-season games because of their fear of more injuries, why not just keep the schedule the way it is and lower the prices for the exhibition games?

Goodell must have misunderstood the question, although it seemed fairly straightforward to me.

The commish never answered it.

"Clearly, we don't need four preseason games to do [player] evaluations," he said.

Again, are you with me?

What the heck?

Now tell me the truth.

Please, I need to hear the whole truth and nothing but the truth after spending 30 minutes of my life listening to Goodell.

Aren't you glad the owners have your back?

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

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Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Pirates are being steered in a familiar direction

Wednesday, May 18, 2011
The baseball season has reached the quarter-pole, the perfect time to take a hard look at the Pirates. They have taken their usual bad turn -- Destination: Dreadful -- but what the heck? Let's start by accentuating the positive.

Neil Walker.

So much for that.

It really is a lot harder to pick the Pirates' biggest negative. Is it Pedro Alvarez? How about Lyle Overbay? Or maybe Neal Huntington?

I say Huntington.

The GM signed Overbay as a free agent in the offseason. He has been a bust so far.

The GM signed Matt Diaz. Bust.

The GM traded for Chris Snyder last season. Bust.

The GM really didn't want to bring Walker to the big leagues last season and did so only because Aki Iwamura was such a failure after the GM traded for him and his $4.85 million contract. Walker looks like the Pirates' All-Star, which is proof that it's sometimes better for the GM to be lucky than good.

The GM spent the winter unsuccessfully trying to trade for a shortstop because he knew Ronny Cedeno is maddeningly inconsistent. Cedeno has been maddeningly inconsistent.

The GM spent the winter unsuccessfully trying to trade Ryan Doumit because he didn't want to pay him $5.1 million to back up Snyder. Other than Walker, Doumit has been maybe the team's best hitter, which strengthens the case for lucky in that lucky-vs.-good argument.

But, hey, the Pirates' minor league system looks better!

Unless the big club shows dramatic improvement -- it lugs an 18-23 record and a six-game losing streak into Cincinnati tonight -- the next GM will get to reap the potential benefits because there's no way this GM will be back next season.

But Huntington's blunderings don't excuse Alvarez's poor performance. A slow start -- he's known for 'em -- is one thing. Hitting .210 on May 18 with one home run, seven RBIs and 41 strikeouts in 119 at-bats is hard to fathom or accept. If he keeps up at that pace for another few weeks, Huntington will have to consider letting him find his stroke in Class AAA Indianapolis. The team can't allow him to bury himself in the big leagues all season.

Nor is Overbay without blame. Huntington gave him a $5 million deal for this? Three home runs, 14 RBIs and, despite his reputation for being a top-notch fielder, four errors at first base?

For that matter, Andrew McCutchen and Jose Tabata -- two of Huntington's bigger building blocks along with Alvarez -- have been disappointing.
McCutchen looked terrific on that triple against the Washington Nationals Monday night -- there is no more exciting play in baseball -- but those special moments with him have been rare this season. It's not so much that he has just five stolen bases after he promised to run more or even that he's hitting .242, a pretty lame number for the man considered by many to be the team's best player. He had to be benched by manager Clint Hurdler for not hustling. That's inexcusable.

As for Tabata, he's playing hurt with a sore hamstring or he has regressed badly. He was hitting .354 after 13 games. He's hitting .160 since with just one home run and five RBIs. No, the team can't allow him to bury himself, either.

In fairness, there have been other positives besides Walker, who has been a joy to watch because he looks like he's actually having fun.
Kevin Correia -- a Huntington free-agent signing during the winter -- started fast, although he lost his past two starts.

Doumit shrugged off the trade talk and has hit a couple of big home runs to win games.

Charlie Morton -- a Huntington trade pickup, tonight's starter and, hopefully for the Pirates' sake, their stopper -- has done a great job resurrecting his career from the dead after going 2-12 with a 7.57 earned-run average last season.

Paul Maholm has been sabotaged by little run support and has pitched better than his 1-6 record.

The bullpen -- rebuilt by Huntington -- has been mostly good even without injured 2010 All-Star Evan Meek, although it has tailed off lately, especially Chris Resop. Jose Veras looks like a heck of a minor league free agent pickup by Huntington. Closer Joel Hanrahan -- he came from Washington in a 2009 trade, perhaps Huntington's finest -- has been perfect with 11 saves in 11 chances.

But, obviously, the negatives outnumber the positives.

That 18-23 record, remember?

That's the same record, by the way, the 2010 Pirates had on their way to 105 losses.

No, I'm not suggesting these Pirates will lose 105. There's a different feel about this team if only because of Hurdle. It would be nice if he stressed the fundamentals a little more, as he promised to do when he took the job after last season. The team's base-running has been frightful. But his willingness to bench McCutchen showed me something. He's not going to go quietly on that road to Dreadful. There will be hell to pay along the way.

There is that to look forward to in the final 121 Pirates games.

There is at least that.

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

First published on May 18, 2011 at 12:00 am

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Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Adding Jagr would be error

Monday, May 16, 2011
Whew! What a relief. For a minute there, I was starting to believe the speculation that had Jaromir Jagr possibly coming back to the Penguins. It turns out that isn't likely. Good. Jagr is the last player they should want to add to a team that's only a healthy Sidney Crosby and a healthy Evgeni Malkin from being a Stanley Cup contender.

The Post-Gazette's Shelly Anderson reported Sunday that Jagr probably will stay in the Kontinental Hockey League, where he has played the past three seasons. I don't know if he has matured as a person -- he was the most immature player I've covered in Pittsburgh -- but he seems to be smarter. He has to know he has a good thing going in Europe. He's making a fortune, much more than he could make with the Penguins. He also has to know it's difficult for any athlete to go home again and be successful.

It would be especially difficult for Jagr if he were to come home to Pittsburgh, where he started his hockey career after being the Penguins' first-round draft choice in 1990, No. 5 overall.

Many people seem to have forgotten what a royal pain Jagr was here. He was great in the beginning, a kid with talent that almost was beyond description. He was a key contributor to the Penguins' first two Cup teams in 1991 and '92. He should always be remembered for that -- first and foremost -- more than the five NHL scoring titles and league MVP award that he later won with them.

But as Jagr got older, he became difficult in the Penguins' room. He wasn't a good teammate, unless you value selfishness and moodiness as important team traits. He frustrated all his coaches with his many mood swings and his frequent sulking. I still can hear the late, great Herb Brooks preaching that the name on the front of a player's sweater is so much more important than the name on the back.

Man, he hated coaching Jagr.

The Penguins were so desperate to keep Jagr happy that they hired fellow Czech Ivan Hlinka to be their coach in 2000. Hlinka couldn't speak English, which didn't work out too well for the team. He was fired after just four games of his second season.

But the language wasn't Hlinka's only problem. Jagr sabotaged him with his moodiness. It was during Hlinka's one full season that Jagr made his infamous observation that he was "dying alive," presumably because he wasn't happy with how he was playing. Later that season, after not scoring a goal for the eighth time in nine games, he said, "I feel all this pressure on me, like people are waiting for me to screw up. Well, here it is. It's happening. Get used to it. This is me. I'm not a good player."
Jagr was the Penguins' captain at the time.
Some leader.

It was during this period that Jagr asked Penguins owner Mario Lemieux -- a man he professed to worship -- and general manager Craig Patrick to trade him. He did so many times. Finally, in the summer of 2001, Patrick sent him to the Washington Capitals with Frantisek Kucera for prospects Kris Beech, Ross Lupaschuk, Michael Sivek and future considerations. It was one of the worst trades in franchise history and devastated the team.

That's why Jagr was booed -- rightfully so -- each time he returned to Mellon Arena with the Capitals and then with the New York Rangers.

That's also why the Penguins shouldn't retire his No. 68 jersey.

It doesn't belong in the Consol Energy Center rafters next to Lemieux's magical No. 66.

Jagr is 39 but still has game, as he proved in the world championships last week by scoring a hat trick against the United States. If he somehow were to take a lot less money to join the Penguins again, maybe he would help their power play, although I'm willing to take my chances with it if Crosby and Malkin are healthy. Maybe he would be a better teammate.


It seems more likely that Jagr would have a hard time as a role player behind Crosby and Malkin. How long would it take him to be "dying alive" again? Crosby, as the team captain, doesn't need that. Certainly, Malkin, who has had his moments of sulking here, doesn't need it.

The Penguins don't need Jagr.

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.

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Sunday, May 15, 2011

Faneca was a rare breed

Sunday, May 15, 2011
Ed Bouchette, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

The retirement of Alan Faneca from pro football brought a Tweet from colleague Dale Lolley, who covers the Steelers for the Observer-Reporter of Washington, Pa.

"Big Red calling it quits makes me feel old," Lolley wrote.

Dear Dale, Lynn Swann calling it quits made me feel old, and he retired after the 1982 season. Swann is half a year younger than I am.

But Lolley has a point, and Faneca's retirement prompted a quick look into the history books.

He was one of only six current or former Steelers still active to have played in Three Rivers Stadium. The others are Hines Ward, Aaron Smith, Joey Porter and Clark Haggans (both now with the Cardinals) and kicker Kris Brown (now with the Cowboys). Until Faneca retired, the Cardinals had more left who played in Three Rivers (3) than the Steelers (2).

Flozell Adams' then-Cowboys did not play in Three Rivers during his time in Dallas, but he's also part of a dwindling number of players to have pulled on pro uniforms in the 20th century.

Five players are the only draftees left from when Tom Donahoe served as the Steelers director of football operations. Faneca and Ward were drafted in 1998, and Porter, Smith and Brown in 1999. Deshea Townsend, also drafted in '98, played eight games for the Colts last season and this year took a job coaching the secondary with the Cardinals.

Faneca made nine Pro Bowls and six All-Pro teams (not eight, as has been listed in some places because second team defeats the purpose of the All-Pro team and he made two of those). The seven Pro Bowls he made with the Steelers are five more than all their other guards combined over the past 49 seasons. Only two other Steelers guards made a Pro Bowl during that time, Carlton Haselrig and Duval Love, one each.

Those seven Pro Bowls also amount to three more than all the Steelers tackles combined over the past 46 seasons. Larry Brown (one), Tunch Ilkin (two) and Marvel Smith (one) were the only Steelers tackles selected to the NFL all-star team during the past 41/2 decades.

Joe Greene stands tall among all the Steelers with 10 Pro Bowls while playing for them. Tied for second are Ernie Stautner, Franco Harris, Jack Lambert and Mike Webster with nine apiece. All are in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, as is Rod Woodson, who earned 11 Pro Bowls but four came after he left the Steelers.

An added amazement to Faneca's success was he did it all while an epileptic, although he had the condition under control after he was diagnosed at age 15. It's also a condition Chuck Noll had that few knew about. For a time there, of the Steelers starting two guards, one had epilepsy and the other, Kendall Simmons, severe diabetes. It makes Faneca's record of starting every game but three after he took over at left guard as a rookie in October 1998 even more remarkable.

Faneca's strengths were in all areas: He was excellent blocking on both the run and the pass, he was big and strong and could trap block, or pull out and block to the other side of the line. He was smart and, not to be underplayed, durable. He had not missed a start since 2001 and then only because Bill Cowher rested him for the final meaningless regular-season game against Cleveland. He started his rookie season and missed only two other starts in his entire career after that, both in 1999 because of ankle injuries.

Faneca was the NFLPA player rep for three years with the Steelers, and he always was available to the media and interesting to interview. He offered one quote that has lived in infamy and rarely is put into perspective.

One day after quarterback Tommy Maddox's elbow was injured in the second game of the 2004 season, someone innocently asked Faneca if he was excited to see rookie quarterback Ben Roethlisberger play. That got a quick rise out of Big Red.

"Exciting? No, it's not exciting," Faneca quickly responded. "Do you want to go work with some little young kid who's just out of college?"

Faneca was thinking more about his injured friend, Maddox, than he was of seeing some little young kid just out of college. It was not anti-Ben, yet it was spun that way in some circles. Faneca was held up to some mild ridicule as the Steelers proceeded to go 13-0 with Ben as their starting quarterback the rest of the 2004 regular season.

Put into context, though, it might have been similar to any Steelers reaction at that time.

The only other moment of conflict with Faneca came in 2007, when he played his final season after he and his agent turned down a Steelers multi-year contract. They did not believe it was enough and certainly there were some great Steelers players before him who followed the same path, most notably Harris and Woodson. He said some things out of anger during that summer minicamp but said they were more out of realizing he would no longer remain a Steeler.

"I was more upset about leaving," Faneca said from his home near New Orleans the past week. "I didn't want to go. That was my whole thing. I never wanted to leave. Any feelings I had or things I said was based on not wanting to leave, not wanting to go. I said 'I won't be here next year,' not threatening but I really felt I'm not going to be here.

"None of it ever made me happy. I didn't want to leave. Definitely, I look back on my time in Pittsburgh very fondly and enjoyed my time and wanted to finish there."

Dan Rooney has mentioned two players he wishes had spent their entire careers with the Steelers and not finished up elsewhere, Harris and Woodson. He likely will add a third, Alan Faneca.

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Saturday, May 14, 2011

Bring back Jagr

Thursday, May 12, 2011

VANCOUVER, BC – FEBRUARY 21: Jaromir Jagr of Czech Republic is seen during the ice hockey men’s preliminary game between against Russia on day 10 of the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics at Canada Hockey Place on February 21, 2010 in Vancouver, Canada. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

The Penguins should do more than invite Jaromir Jagr to their alumni golf tournament this summer.

They should offer him a one-year contract.

Go ahead, laugh at the prospect of procuring a 39-year-old winger who couldn`t even score 20 goals in Russia this season. Bombard me with snide comments …

Is he going to borrow Kovalev`s walker?

Didn`t he quit on this franchise once already?

How long before he loses interest, dying alive on the second power play with Matt Niskanen?

Which of his 11 personalities would he bring?

Question back atcha: Have you perused the Penguins depth chart lately? Not exactly rife with top two-line wingers. James Neal is the closest thing to a prototypical fit, and his first stint in a Penguins sweater made Nils Ekman`s look productive (Ekman had six goals in 34 games; Neal two in 27).

Call him James Nils.

Chris Kunitz is fine on the left side, even if he has only 10 goals in 78 career playoff games. Tyler Kennedy`s the top option at right wing and maybe not a bad one, followed by Nick Johnson, I guess. Arron Asham was the Penguins` leading playoff goal scorer among wingers.

Still laughing?

Wait, now you`re crying.

The Penguins` game of winger roulette isn`t likely to end anytime soon. General manager Ray Shero plays it all the time, because he has allocated his big money to center, goaltending and defense. You can`t have everything in a salary-cap world, so Shero spins the wheel each year.

You`re telling me Jagr would be a stretch when Shero already has taken fliers on Bill Guerin, Alex Kovalev, Alexei Ponikarovsky, Petr Sykora, Ekman, Gary Roberts, Ruslan Fedotenko and Miroslav Satan? They`ve signed everybody but Gordie Howe. Some of those guys worked out. Others flamed out. None carried huge risk. Jagr wouldn`t, either.

Besides, the Penguins don't exactly have millions to throw around. Who's a better option?

The Penguins grew so desperate last summer that they devised a grand plan to take one of the best centers in the world — Evgeni Malkin, a natural playmaker who led the NHL in assists two years earlier — and make him a winger on a line centered by Jordan Staal.

The plan never materialized because of Staal`s injury. Here`s hoping it never does. I`d rather see Malkin play center with Jagr on his right. Offer Jagr something like $1.5 million (less than what Fedotenko got last season) and see what he has left.

Last time we saw Jagr in the NHL — in the playoffs three years ago — he was easily the Rangers` top threat. He was a point-per-game player in the Kontinental Hockey League this season (19 goals, 51 points in 49 games), looked good at the Olympics last year and is having a terrific world championships in Slovakia. Through seven games, he has five goals and eight points, including a hat trick against the U.S. on Wednesday, as Shero looked on.

"He's still got it," U.S. captain Mark Stuart said.

Jagr would love the way the Penguins play these days. He`s still a monster protecting the puck on the walls down low. His game never was built on speed. He`s still in great shape, too. He's a much better option than Kovalev. Not even comparable.

Unlike Kovalev, Jagr has avoided major injury, though age is an obvious concern. Jagr turns 40 next season. It takes a special kind of player to stay productive at the age, but it`s hardly unheard of. Teemu Selanne, 40, had 31 goals for Anaheim this season. Nicklas Lidstrom, 41, remains an elite defenseman. Mark Recchi, 43, and Dwayne Roloson, 41, are facing each other in the Eastern Conference final.

Ron Francis turned 39 the year he helped Carolina reach the Cup Final.

Guerin, at 38, helped the Penguins win one.

Here`s something else: I believe Jagr, deep down, would love to achieve closure with the Penguins. Yes, he was chronically immature and pouty for much of his final few years here. He asked out. That`s ancient history. I`m betting he`d crave one more shot to make things right, particularly with Mario Lemieux.

Ask people who were around Jagr during his Rangers tenure, and they`ll tell you he`d finally grown up. He then made some nice money in Russia, reportedly around $5 million per year. Now it`s time to salvage his legacy.

Can`t hurt to ask.

Read more: Starkey: Bring back Jagr - Pittsburgh Tribune-Review

Jagr’s Return to Form Fuels Speculation of N.H.L. Return

The New York Times
May 13, 2011

Jaromir Jagr scored three goals in the Czech Republic's 4-0 victory against the United States on Wednesday.(Peter Hudec/European Pressphoto Agency)

BRATISLAVA, Slovakia — Showcasing the skills, strength and quick hands that made him a five-time N.H.L. scoring champion and a two-time Stanley Cup winner, Jaromir Jagr, 39, has seemingly turned back the clock at the hockey world championships.

Jagr, who scored three goals Wednesday to lead the Czech Republic to a 4-0 victory against the United States in the quarterfinals, had been his team’s catalyst throughout the tournament. The Czechs, the defending champion, lost their semifinal against Sweden, 5-2, on Friday.

Jagr, a powerful 6-foot-3 wing who is ranked No. 9 in the N.H.L. in career points and No. 12 in goals, is looking a lot like the star he was 15 years ago with the Pittsburgh Penguins and later with the Rangers. And if his play at the world championships is an indication of his skills, it seems plausible that he could yet return to the league where he gained stardom.

“Unless I stop liking the game, I want to play,” Jagr said. “I love the game. I want to play better and better every day. I think I enjoy the practices and games more than I ever did.”

Ray Shero, the general manager of the Pittsburgh Penguins and a member of the United States team’s advisory group, watched Jagr on Wednesday and came away impressed.

“It’s almost impossible to fathom,” he said, referring to Jagr’s hat trick, in which he demonstrated a different skill with each goal. “Playing here must be special for him. The Czechs have a good team. He’s one of their leaders and the reason they’re undefeated.”

Jagr, wearing his familiar No. 68, is tied for sixth in scoring at the worlds, with five goals and three assists.

“The game has changed; it’s so much about practicing,” said Jagr, who began his N.H.L. career with the Penguins in 1990. “I don’t think age matters much if you’re willing to practice, plus you have more experience. My advantage is that I don’t think my game was about speed. When you’re older, you’re losing the speed, but my game was never about the speed.”

Ilya Kovalchuk, a Russian player who twice scored 50 goals in the N.H.L., said this week that he thought Jagr could play until age 50. The Czech goaltender Ondrej Pavelec, 23, who hails from Kladno, where Jagr grew up, called him a “great teammate, great guy in the locker room.”

Jagr scored 646 goals and totaled 1,599 points in the N.H.L. Playing alongside Mario Lemieux, now a Penguins co-owner, he helped give Pittsburgh the league’s most formidable 1-2 scoring threat and led the franchise to consecutive Stanley Cup titles in 1991 and 1992.

Jagr was traded to the Washington Capitals in 2001 and then joined the Rangers in 2004. His N.H.L. career came to an end after the 2008 season, when he felt he was no longer the centerpiece around which Rangers General Manager Glen Sather would build.

Jagr moved to the Kontinental Hockey League in Russia, where he has played with Avangard Omsk the last three winters, averaging 22 goals and 48 points a season.

He is currently without a professional contract, and it remains to be seen whether he will return to Russia, go home to play in the Czech Republic, or perhaps attempt an N.H.L. comeback. Speculation has swirled at the world championships about a possible return to North America.

Asked whether he believed he could still compete in the N.H.L., Jagr responded with a laugh and answered, “I think so,” then added, “When people say you cannot play anymore, it’s extra motivation to prove them wrong.”

Jagr said he had a good offer on the table from Avangard Omsk, yet he still waffles about where to play next.

“It’s too early for me,” he said. “I really don’t know where I want to play next year. Right now, I just want to concentrate on this tournament, and then I have to make a decision.”

But could Jagr, who lost favor with the Penguins and their fans when he asked to be traded in 2001, return to Pittsburgh for a chance to play with the team’s latest superstar, Sidney Crosby?

“Jagr is a guy who is part of the Penguins family and always will be forever,” Shero said. “He was drafted by the Penguins, grew up as a Penguin and won Stanley Cups with the Penguins. The relations that he had with guys like Mario and Craig Patrick is really special. We don’t want him to forget that because we certainly haven’t forgotten him.”

Shero also said that Jagr had been invited to a summer golf outing with Lemieux and his former teammates to commemorate the 20th anniversary of their 1991 Stanley Cup championship.

“The fans in Pittsburgh, they all wanted to help me and they all liked me when I was younger,” Jagr said. “Plus, the biggest thing is I had a chance to watch and play with the best player ever, and that’s probably the best thing that’s happened to me in my life.”

Friday, May 13, 2011

'Baseball's Last Hero: The Roberto Clemente Story'

Graphic novel '21' tells story of Roberto Clemente

Thursday, May 12, 2011

The story of Roberto Clemente is a little harder to tell than the average legendary ballplayer. Between his astounding abilities on the field, his quiet, dignified humanity off it, and the shocking tragedy of his death, it's difficult to find the line where the man ends and the myth begins.

Especially in Pittsburgh.

Here, he's literally a larger-than-life character: There's a massive metal statue of him towering over an entrance to PNC Park.

Chicago-based, Puerto Rico-born writer and comics artist Wilfred Santiago has managed to capture both aspects of Clemente -- the legend and the human being -- in his new graphic novel "21: The Story of Roberto Clemente" (Fantagraphics Books, $22.99). Santiago will sign copies of his book on May 21 at Phantom of the Attic Comics in Oakland.

"He's like Clark Kent who turns into Superman," Santiago says. "There's a transformation from Roberto Clemente the family man, to Roberto Clemente the baseball superstar. As soon as he gets into the stadium, he turns into something else, right?"

Santiago's sinuous drawing style subtly shifts to address the many sides of Clemente. At some points, it's sharp, detailed, almost photo-realistic. In others, it's distorted into the exaggerated shapes and movements of a superhero comic. The sugar cane fields of Clemente's boyhood, and his days growing up in a large, loving family -- although one often touched by tragedy -- are given an extra helping of lyrical detail. The panels of Pittsburgh in the '60s are also especially vivid.

"Some of the Pittsburgh pages were really fun to draw," Santiago says. "It attracted me -- that whole iron city, gritty city that Pittsburgh used to be back in those days. It was a blast. Also, Forbes Field -- though it was difficult to grasp the dimensions of it. I had to rely mostly on still pictures. It was a great expereince, trying to capture the moment and seeing myself sitting on those benches."

There's a lot of vintage Pittsburgh in the book, from Benny Benack's band performing "Beat 'em Bucs," to Bob Prince calling out "Arriba, arriba!" when Clemente does something significant.

Curiously, the only colors used in the book are the ones found in a Pirates uniform -- all shades of black and gold.

"It worked great -- better, I think, than if I had all the colors in the world," Santiago says.

Between some chapters in Clemente's life, there are short essays on various aspects of Puerto Rican culture. One explains the three major cultures that combined in Puerto Rico -- the native Tainos, the Spanish colonial occupiers and the African slaves they imported to work the fields. Others address the musical style of "bomba" and the first impressions of American military officers, who took posession of the island in the Spanish-American War (1898).

"Clemente is a very complex figure," Santiago says. "Puerto Ricans are. We are Latinos, Latin Americans, but we're also American. So there's always that balance between those two. In trying to define Clemente, I had to find out what it means to be a Puerto Rican. When he was in the States, a lot of the time he was seen as an African-American, but he wasn't. He was a victim of laws and treatment that was targeted to another group of people."

The strong religious faith of Clemente's family is sensitively illustrated, particularly in a chapter where his mother tells a young Clemente the story of the Three Kings.

"It's not so much a religious background as a cultural background," Santiago says. "When you grow up in Puerto Rican culture, there is a deep religious element. If you believe that people are shaped in their young years, it naturally was important to let people know what kind of place he came from. That's where he began to incorporate those values that made Clemente Clemente."

One episode from Clemente's life that is treated in a less vivid, more abstract way is his death, in a plane crash while delivering aid to earthquake-ravaged Nicaragua. It's illustrated simply by a blip disappearing off a radar screen.

"It was a conscious decision -- I wanted to keep the book kind of optimistic," Santiago says. "Not to pander to the audience or anything like that, but I feel like any time people talk about him, (his death) is the big highlight. Although it was kind of remarkable, in a way, he did a lot of things in his life. You could argue that when he died, he had already made his mark. He not only met the targets he set for himself, he surpassed them. So I felt like I wanted to leave on that optimistic note."

Read more: Graphic novel '21' tells story of Roberto Clemente - Pittsburgh Tribune-Review

Wilfred Santiago

What: Book signing by author of "21: The Story of Roberto Clemente"

When: 1-4 p.m. May 21

Admission: Free

Where: Phantom of the Attic Comics, 411 S. Craig St., Oakland

Details: 412-621-1210

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Former Steelers all-pro guard Faneca retires

Wednesday, May 11, 2011
By Ed Bouchette, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Alan Faneca, the greatest guard in Steelers history, left the game for good Tuesday without shedding a tear, quite different from how he left Pittsburgh.

His final game with the Steelers came 10 seasons after they drafted him in the first round from LSU -- a playoff loss to Jacksonville at Heinz Field after the 2007 season.

"I went to my locker and bawled for 10 minutes," Faneca said from his home just outside New Orleans Tuesday. "I knew it was over, and didn't want it to be over and it hurt."

Three seasons later, Faneca announced it was over for good, a 13-year playing career that included nine Pro Bowls, six All-Pro teams and may ultimately land him in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He signed with the New York Jets as a free agent in 2008 and played two seasons with them and one with the Arizona Cardinals.

He earned a spot on the Steelers' 75th Anniversary all-time team in 2007, an iron man who missed only three career starts after he broke into the starting lineup on Oct. 11, 1998 as a rookie at Cincinnati. He missed one game and two starts because of ankle injuries in 1999 and coach Bill Cowher rested him for a final, meaningless game at Cleveland in 2001. Faneca started every game after that -- 144 consecutive, 201 total.

He did all that while suffering from epilepsy, a condition he had under control after his diagnosis at age 15.

His most memorable football moment came in a Steelers uniform at Ford Field in Detroit after the team's Super Bowl XL victory against Seattle.

"I have a picture of me on the field afterward with the confetti falling, I have the trophy and I'm screaming," Faneca recalled Tuesday. "I can look at that picture at any moment and just get chills, like I'm right back there. Without doubt that tops the list.

"Among other ones would have to be the first championship game we had at Heinz Field, coming out and the fans -- we always had a lot of Terrible Towels, but that day everyone had at least one and maybe two. That first initial rush of the big game, that's stuff you don't forget."

Faneca is known as a guard, but he also played left tackle half the 2003 season after Marvel Smith was injured. He started eight times at left tackle, but still was rewarded with another Pro Bowl as a guard.

"It was really fun. It was new, it was challenging, completely different from playing inside. I ripped left tackles the rest of my career. Those guys are stealing; they have everyone fooled that it's hard. I never felt better after playing left tackle that year. Half the plays they run away from you and guys are trying to run around you and not through you. There's a whole lot of less stress on you."

Faneca leaves the game at age 34 and in good health. He said he purposely began to lose weight after last season and has dropped from 315 pounds to 255.

He was the Steelers' player representative to the NFLPA for three years, a time of labor peace he wishes would soon reign again.

"The whole thing, it's a standoff, who's going to blink first?" Faneca said. "The fans lose no matter what unless we play football. It's a sad thing to say it's in the court's hands, but it is; we'll see what they say and take it from there."

No matter that outcome, there will be no more football for Faneca. He and his family plan to move out of the 'burbs and back into New Orleans, the city of his birth. Spending time with his family, golfing and fishing are his immediate goals. He will continue to work with his pet charity in Pittsburgh, A Glimmer of Hope Foundation, which benefits breast cancer research.

"It was a hard decision. I really thought about it for a while," Faneca said of retirement. "I felt it was time to move on, enjoy some other things that I put off through my career. I started thinking about it. I always put my head down and went to work, skipped a lot of things and not see a lot of family. It's time to kick back, smell the roses, enjoy life and become a spectator."

For more on the Steelers, read the blog, Ed Bouchette on the Steelers at He can be reached at and followed on Twitter @EdBouchette.
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