Friday, July 29, 2011

Keep trying in tough trade market

Friday, July 29, 2011

Pirates pitching prospects (from left) Jameson Tallion, Luis Heredia and Stetson Allie work out earlier this year at Pirate City in Bradenton, Fla.
(Christopher Horner/Tribune-Review)

BRADENTON, Fla. — Luis Heredia was fairly steaming on the mound Wednesday at Pirate City, and not just because of the scorching high-noon sun. His belt-high fastballs were getting belted, and his breaking pitches had gone sadly straight.

That's when the Pirates' prodigious 16-year-old prospect turned up his own heat with the next batter, yet another opponent three years his elder.

A 91-mph fastball brought a called strike.

The next fastball, a notch faster, not only splintered the bat for a foul roller, but also backed the batter off the plate and prompted a timid look toward the mound.

Heredia loved it.

"When the hitter looks at me like that, he's scared," Heredia said. "He doesn't want to see my fastball."

So, naturally, Heredia came right back with ... a curveball. One that buckled his man's knees and froze him for strike three.

Which got me to thinking: Are these really the types of talents that some would have the Pirates casually discard at the trading deadline this weekend?

Heredia is a 6-foot-6 man-child with remarkable coordination for his early height, innate strength and a knack for pitching. Scouts around baseball are predicting stardom. And, if that day arrives, the team employing him gets to keep him in that major-league uniform for six full years.

I've said consistently that the Pirates would be remiss to trade elite pitching prospects such as Heredia, Jameson Taillon or Stetson Allie. The Tampa Bay Rays, baseball's model for sustainable success, this week recorded their 705th consecutive start by a pitcher in his 20s, breaking a nearly-century-old mark. In this game, it's not just about pitching. It's about young pitching.

Believe me, I get it.

I also get that it takes two to make a trade. The Pirates went hard after Carlos Beltran, offering the New York Mets to absorb all of his remaining $6.5 million salary, as well as a prospect. But Beltran wouldn't come. The Pirates asked Houston about Hunter Pence, but the Astros sought the keys to the franchise. The Pirates went after a veteran American League outfielder with good but hardly great numbers, and the other party sought Taillon or Pedro Alvarez.

I'll applaud Bob Nutting, Frank Coonelly and Neal Huntington for standing pat in this setting.

For now.

But, sorry, I'm not prepared to accept any excuse for doing nothing before 4 p.m. Sunday. There are 377 position players on other teams, plus many more in the upper levels of the minors, and a decent percentage of those guys can play first base and/or right field.

Not one is an upgrade over Lyle "0 for 8" Overbay?

Not one offers more pop than Matt Diaz and his zero home runs?

All told, the Pirates' first basemen and right fielders — the two ideal spots for big bats in a lineup based at PNC Park — had collectively accounted for a whopping five RBI this month going into Thursday. None came from Overbay. It might not be a stretch to suggest Huntington could find a couple of local Fed Leaguers to top that.

Let's give Huntington the benefit of the doubt. Let's assume he'd rather not block a potential impact acquisition by settling for someone who just happens to be better than the above. Let's surmise that's why, even as the offense has plunged to fresh depths in recent days, the only move to date has been the plucking of reliever Jason Grilli from the Phillies' farm system.

Carlos Pena, the Chicago Cubs' slugging first baseman, now might make the best match. He's batting only .219 but has 20 home runs, including 13 in the past two months, and a slick glove. It's not an attractive acquisition financially — Pena is due $3.5 million the rest of this season plus a $5 million deferred payment in January — but that's still a better price than top prospects.

I'm hearing the Cubs are being stubborn, even though they could use the financial relief. But, hey, that's why phones come with that redial button.

Look, I have no doubt the Pirates are trying hard, especially after learning of their Beltran bid. But, as Clint Hurdle said recently when asked to compliment his players' effort: "Try hard? That's like grits with breakfast in the South: It just comes with the deal. This isn't a try-hard league. This is a do-good league."

Hurdle and his players have delivered results. Let's see if the front office can go beyond the grits.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Pirates Treasure: How Pittsburgh Has Rediscovered The Once Woebegone Bucs

Written by: Les Carpenter
July 28, 2011

Tonight they are coming for baseball. It's been a long time since this happened in Pittsburgh. But tonight they will get into cars in places like Ross Township and Penn Hills and Morgantown and Donegal and Oak Hills and Beaver Falls and they will drive down mountain passes, through tunnels and along winding highways, converging upon downtown parking garages. There, they will join the seemingly endless crowd walking across the golden bridge named for Roberto Clemente and toward the most beautiful little ballpark so many here have never seen from the inside.

The Pirates are winning for the first time in 18 seasons. For two decades, Pittsburgh's baseball team has been a punchline, everybody else's easy victory on the way to something big. For nearly two decades there has been nothing but losing, a line of last place and next-to-last place finishes. And the fans have mostly stayed away, finding little worth in a team that would never win. Yet, it's July, more than 100 games into the season, and the team that was always long gone from the pennant race is in a nightly dance with the St. Louis Cardinals and the Milwaukee Brewers for first place in the National League's Central Division. Suddenly baseball matters here.

Maybe in a way it always did. Long before the Pittsburgh Steelers made this a football town, there was baseball. There was Honus Wagner and Ralph Kiner. There was the great Clemente and Bill Mazeroski's game-winning home run in the 1960 World Series. Then, sometime after Wilie Stargell and "We are Family," once Barry Bonds and Bobby Bonilla departed, baseball disappeared too. It was here but it might as well have been gone. For even when the Pirates moved from the dismal concrete circle of Three Rivers Stadium to this park with its stunning views of downtown buildings, the Pirates had long ceased to matter. The money got too big, players were too expensive and the Pirates never had enough fans to generate the cash to spend on players. In time, the franchise existed largely to harvest talent to trade away in the middle of another long and dreary year.

Still, there were pockets of hope. Steve Blass, once a star pitcher who helped the Pirates win the 1971 World Series, and for the last 27 years one of the team's radio and television announcers, could never get through the grocery store without someone cornering him with a list of what they thought was wrong with the Pirates. Vinnie Richichi, a radio show host newly-arrived from Seattle last year, was stunned by the rage some fans still had after all the years of losing. The air crackled with shouts of disgust.

"They knew the 25 guys on the team," Richichi says. "They knew who sucks.

"They CARED that they were bad."

So tonight, this weekend game with the Cardinals will be a sellout just as the night before was a sellout and the next afternoon will be a sellout too. The Pirates have sold out 13 times already this year. The only other time they had as many sellouts was in 2001, the year the park opened. Mostly, the team has played to vast sections of empty blue seats. Any hint of joy went away with the trade of Jason Bay or Nate McLouth or Jack Wilson, and all that was left was a hot summer of games the Pirates were sure to lose.

Tonight though, the streets are filled outside the park. Blass gazes out the back window of the press box, looking down at the throng heading for the entrance and he smiles, perhaps a little in disbelief.

"To see the people streaming across the bridge, that's a tremendous story," he says.

Then he chuckles.

"Before, there was no streaming," he continues. "It was more of a trickling ...

"Maybe an oozing."

But they're coming now, coming like few ever thought they would. Baseball has struggled with attendance this year, but here in the worst place of all, the one that hasn't seen two million fans in a season for 10 years, there are lines at the turnstiles. Winning -- even a little bit of winning -- has changed everything.

Nothing about the way this season began gave promise that something like these last two months would emerge. Then suddenly the lineup of young, mostly anonymous and homegrown players started hitting. The bullpen strengthened and the starting rotation grew into one of the stronger starting fives in the National League.

But it was June 8 when Pittsburgh really came to life. That was the night outfielder Andrew McCutcheon curled a 12th-inning home run around the left field foul pole to give the Pirates a 30-30 record, a mark of mediocrity in Boston or the Bronx, but unique enough here that it set off great rejoicing. Juanita Clark, selling T-shirts at the foot of the Clemente Bridge, was so moved she wrote ".500" and the date "06-08-11" on the bill of her white Pirates cap.

"You have to understand, playing .500 ball for us is like playing in the World Series," says Bernie Rozic, a car salesman from Evans City.

PITTSBURGH - JUNE 08: Andrew McCutchen(notes) #22 of the Pittsburgh Pirates hits a walk off solo home run in the 12th inning against the Arizona Diamondbacks during the game on June 8, 2011 at PNC Park in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)

A .500 record and first place have changed a culture here. Suddenly Rozic's friend, Dean Zinkhann, is no longer getting dirty looks and shouts of complaint when he turns on the Pirates games at his local VFW Hall.

Out of nowhere, crowds of people who have never been in the Pirates ballpark before are forming. Elevator operators grumble at the unfamiliarity, the questions of what floor the upper level is when the button on the wall clearly is marked "U."

Fans on the streets stare at tickets as if the section numbers will give them guidance as to which door to enter. Some pull the cardboard out of brand new Pirates hats. Others tug old caps and show off gray replica Clemente jerseys.

And on the sidewalk, a young man and woman argue over whether he can slip the glass pipe in his pocket past security. "I've taken knives through metal detectors before," he says with a hiss.

On yet another night when first place has become a very real and wonderful surprise, three of the lost children of the Pittsburgh Pirates lean against a railing at PNC Park, unsure whether to believe this summer is a dream come true. They hold a sign they hope to get on television and they peer at the huge replay board in left field, watching each pitch in the first pennant race they've known.

"I was born after 1992," says the most outspoken of them, a 17-year-old named Ryan Bertonaschi. "So we haven't seen anything yet."

He has never known a winner. In all his time on earth, which apparently includes many innings of many forgotten baseball games, Bertonaschi from Penn Township, Penn., has watched the local baseball team finish with a losing record every season. Like other kids, he could have abandoned the Pirates for a different team like the Phillies across the state or forgotten baseball altogether -- as most do around Pittsburgh -- to devote his sports energy to the Steelers.

But there was always something that drew him to the Pirates.

"They are more the underdogs," he says.

Imagine never knowing a winning season for two decades. Even Los Angeles Clippers fans haven't suffered that. So as the Pirates have settled precariously into this fight for first place and Ryan's friend Joe Raco starts to say how he thinks this whole baseball renaissance "is great," Ryan cuts him off.

"Enjoy it while it’s here," he says.

They all nod knowingly.

If there is anything they have come to know, it's that any glimpse of hope with the Pirates has always been doused by disappointment.

Inside a second level suite at PNC Park, the man most responsible for the most recent despair sits at a table. Down on the field, Robert Nutting's Pirates are rallying against the Cardinals and every few moments the principal owner cranes his neck to look out the window or watch a replay on the television. He is a friendly man with an easy nature and giant glasses who has been the target of many fans' ire since he took over from Kevin McClatchy in 2007. It is Nutting, many feel, who upheld the Pirates' longtime policy of harvesting stars for other teams' benefit, selling them off for prospects. It is Nutting, they charge, who kept stripping the team of salary and pocketing the rest.

Still, as they shredded him in internet chat rooms and on talk shows, some screaming with rage when he reportedly deflected a potential bid from former Penguins superstar Mario Lemieux to buy the team last year, he had a plan. He devised this plan not long after taking over the team, spending four months to study what he considered to be successful franchises around baseball. The formula, he decided, was to build from the bottom.

So he built a new facility in the Dominican Republic to match the one in Bradenton, Fla., where the Pirates hold spring training and often do extra work with top prospects. He asked for an elite scouting staff and instructed his people to look hard for talent. Revenues will never be large enough in Pittsburgh to rely much on free agents, he says. The Pirates are "always going to be in a position where we take a stretch in the draft," taking gifted players others ignore because signing them would be considered too difficult.

"We need a great first round pick, we need a great second round pick and we need a great eighth round pick," Nutting says.

It seems to be paying off, and with McCutcheon and Neil Walker and a roster of pickups from other organizations, the Pirates are winning. At last, the plan is starting to work.

Nutting will say nothing about those who howled after Bay and McLouth and Wilson disappeared. His vindication has arrived, yet he chooses not to discuss it.

"Let's focus on the positive,” he says. Then he smiles at the thought of something his manager, Clint Hurdle, said about baseball people.

"There are two kinds of people," Hurdle told him, "those who are humble and those who are about to be humble."

He laughs. At this instant, with his team in first place, it seemed an appropriate thought. No celebrating in July.

"You have to have faith that you are doing the right thing," he says. "You decide that we are moving the franchise in the right direction. There is no room to be in sports if you aren't going to be competitive on the field."

Outside, the crowd roars. He peeks through the window, a run scores and people are looking inside the suite, staring at the owner of the team, the man they have scored for years. They wave. He waves back.

"There is a responsibility here," he says. "I have assumed stewardship of a team people care deeply about. I am accountable to every grandfather and granddaughter out there who are going to their first game together. I can't lose sight of that."

As wonderful a story as this is, it's hard to imagine the Pirates will keep winning. They can't hit. And even as folks clamor for a trade, begging for Hunter Pence or even Josh Willingham as a sign that management is committed to winning, there is also a sense that dealing some of the team's better prospects for a few extra home runs isn't the answer. They might call this the "dream season" on the radio but it isn't THE season. That is still somewhere in the future.

The thought around the league is that the Pirates are playing better than they really are, and they can't afford to lose too many games like the one Tuesday in Atlanta when plate umpire Jerry Meals appeared to blow a call in the bottom of the 19th to let the Braves win the game. August is coming, and there is no certainty that the Pirates pitchers can keep pulling out victories. The NFL lockout is over; the Steelers are opening training camp. Soon there will be games again in the great stadium a few blocks away.

With no Steelers, it was easy for people to find baseball. But one little losing streak and the crowds might well stop surging over the Clemente Bridge, the empty blue seats will reappear and this place will be silent again, just as it has been for the last decade.

That's for another night.

Tonight is different, just like this summer has been different. And long after the players have left the field and the sellout crowd has sifted down the ramps and into the streets, the lights remain on at PNC Park. The team has invited a group of fans to come onto the grass to play catch. And under the blazing glare, with a dark sky above them, fathers throw to their sons as grown men take turns catching high fly balls while crashing into the outfield fence. They are old and they are young. And there are even the grandfathers Bob Nutting spoke of, throwing to their granddaughters.

Strangely, there is little talking -- a moment held still by the steady smacking of balls into mitts. From here the downtown buildings across the Alleghany River look giant, their lights twinkling through a fine late night mist. A few of the fans have brought cameras and the flashbulbs pop.

Finally a team employee in charge looks at his watch. It is time for the big lights to dim and the people to go home.

"This is always the hardest part," he says as he walks into the crowd of flying baseballs to tell everyone they must leave. Slowly they inch toward the gate, not wanting to let go of this night.

A little boy shakes his head and clutches his glove. He gazes at his father and says: "Why are we going?"

"Hey," the father replies, "we can't stay all night."

In the summer when baseball came back to Pittsburgh, it's as if they all could.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Embrace the controversy, Pirates, and speak up!

Dejan Kovacevic's Blog

A place to talk Pittsburgh Sports
July 27, 2011

It’s not enough for Clint Hurdle to speak out after the grievously, glaringly missed call by home plate umpire Jerry Meals this morning in Atlanta, though he did well to say, “This game deserved way better than that.”

It’s not enough for the Pirates’ players to do it, either, though Jeff Karstens did well to say, “For some reason, somebody didn’t want us to play anymore. So the game was ended.”

Here, look for yourself if you didn’t stay up that late.

And if that’s not enough, try this still photo from the Associated Press …

Managers and players complain about calls all the time. This one demands much, much more.

No, a team can’t protest a judgment call. But the Pirates had better protest.

You had better do it even louder than broadcaster Greg Brown did in shouting, “You’ve got to be kidding me!” And you had better do it with the franchise’s most prominent voices.

Let them know the Pirates are through getting kicked around.

Let them know that the team, their players and their fans don’t deserve to have their stomachs turned inside out so unjustly, so unfairly.

Let’s hear it from Neal Huntington.

Let’s hear it from Frank Coonelly. He came from MLB’s office and, maybe because of that, has not been critical at all regarding the unfairness in travel, scheduling, being in the Central Division and the lack of an interleague rival. I know his allegiance is to the Pirates, and today is the day to display it.

Bob Nutting could speak up, too. When the Penguins felt an injustice had been done by the NHL this past February with that fiasco on Long Island, Mario Lemieux spoke up and rocked the hockey world. Nutting is no Lemieux, of course, and I’m not comparing. But nothing gets the sporting world’s attention like an owner.

Let some good come out of this. Let the baseball world know the Pirates have earned their way back to respectability and that they’ve earned respect from the people who administrate the game. Yeah, they were kicked around — rightly, fairly — as the worst team in baseball for nearly two decades. I did a lot of that kicking myself. But enough’s enough.

If that sounds like I’m oversimplifying Meals’ call as a matter of snubbing the Pirates, hey, so be it. Good luck in trying to come up with a better explanation: Maybe Meals simply tired out from the six hours-plus behind the plate. Meals really is that terrible of an umpire to miss a call like that so badly. This wasn’t bang-bang. It was bang-nothing. There was a tag, then Julio Lugo actually got up, and a full second or so elapsed before he tapped his foot on home plate. It was patently obvious he had been tagged, patently obvious he was out.

There are missed calls, and there is outright incompetence. If this doesn’t cross into the latter, I’m not sure when a call does.

And if there was any fiber of Meals being that was moved by which team was being slighted or even the late hour, then he deserves to be suspended, though that obviously would be impossible to prove.

There’s nothing the Pirates can do about that. Meals will be right back on the field tonight at third base — within convenient earshot of the visitors’ dugout! — and I’m sure he’ll stay in the umpiring fold forever. If an egregiously awful umpire such as Bill Hohn can keep his job, for example, you can take it to the bank that Meals will retire in blue.

But there is plenty the Pirates can do to capitalize.

Hurdle and his players can use this as part of their continuing us-against-the-world attitude. No one would begrudge them that.

And a loud, though not out-of-line statement about the franchise’s feeling on this missed call could serve the double-mission of letting Hurdle and the players know they have their backs (even if they haven’t brought in any help yet), and of letting baseball know that the Pirates are going to fight back, on and off the field, at an institutional level. Let the baseball world and umpires know that the days of John Russell playing turtle in the dugout are gone.

And hey, as long as the Pirates have that megaphone the next 24 hours or so, feel free to add to the pleas for additional replay. Tell Bud Selig how you really feel about preserving that precious “human element” in the game. Tell the commissioner to go ask Jason Grilli and Daniel McCutchen how offended they would be if there was a mechanism to get that call right.

Speak up, Pirates!

The podium is yours. Make it count.

A long night, an awful call, a Braves win led by Scott Proctor

4:44 am July 27, 2011, by Jeff Schultz

ATLANTA - JULY 26: Julio Lugo(notes) #28 of the Atlanta Braves scores the game-winning run in the 19th inning against Michael McKenry(notes) #55 of the Pittsburgh Pirates at Turner Field on July 26, 2011 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Scott Cunningham/Getty Images)
Jordan Schafer looked at the clock. It was 2:15 a.m. and he still wasn’t showered.

“I would’ve like to have been asleep a couple of hours ago,” the Braves center fielder said. “But it obviously makes it better that we won.”

Is that what just happened?

One of the longest and strangest games in baseball history ended at 1:50 a.m. Wednesday. The Braves defeated Pittsburgh 4-3 in 19 innings.

Time of game: 6 hours, 39 minutes. If seemed like if it had gone much longer, shadows from the sunrise would have started affecting the hitters.

There appeared to be less than 5,000 fans at Turner Field still left from the original crowd of 22,036. Maybe they were thinking the longer the game went, there was a decent chance they would receive a free continental breakfast.

Or maybe they just wanted a story to tell their grandchildren one day.

Or maybe they figured they might get a chance to pitch. I mean, if Scott Proctor got a chance to pitch, could it be that long before team scouts began roaming the aisles for relief help?

This game went so long that catcher Brian McCann left after nine innings with a strained oblique, the Braves announced he would go on the 15-day disabled list and by the end of the game you wondered if he was healed and eligible to be activated again.

Here are some things you missed while sleeping:

♦ The numbers: 41 players combined for 158 plate appearances and faced — ready for this? — 608 pitches from 15 pitchers. The understatement of the day came from manager Fredi Gonzalez (who actually had been ejected with Nate McLouth back in the ninth): “Both teams are going to have to push their starters a little tomorrow.” No. Really?

♦ The spectator: It was just before 1 a.m. when Proctor – possibly the most lampooned Braves player since Greg Norton – became a trending topic on Twitter. Why? Simply because he was the Braves’ last non-starting pitcher left. He sat in the bullpen watching Tommy Hanson, Eric O’Flaherty, Jonny Venters, Craig Kimbel — Hah! The closer entered in only the ninth inning! – Scott Linebrink, George Sherrill and Christian Martinez pitch. Wonder how many games of solitaire he played?

The thought occurred that the Braves were trying to avoid bringing Proctor in, given he started the night with a 7.36 ERA. (The fact Martinez threw an improbable six shutout innings of relief, a relative “quality start,” helped.) Any way, Proctor’s extending viewing became a running online gag. When told later he was trending on Twitter, Proctor said, “I was what?” You were a hot topic. “Oh, I’m sure. I’m not very well liked right now.”

♦ The absurdity: When Proctor finally got into the game, he walked his first batter. But he got the last laugh. He not only pitched two shutout innings and got the win, he had the game-winning RBI. Somehow. We were witness to the worst call by an official in the history of professional sports. (Hey, it’s late. I’m punchy. I’m entitled to make this declaration.) With Schafer on first and Julio Lugo on third, Proctor sent a ground ball to Pirates third baseman Pedro Alvarez. He stumbled as he took a step toward first. He joked later, “I forgot where first base was. I’m used to running to the dugout.” Alvarez fielded the ball and threw home to Michael McKenry. Lugo clearly was out by 10 feet — except on umpire Jerry Meals’ home planet. Meals called him safe. Then Clint Hurdle’s head exploded.

♦ Proctor was mobbed by teammates. It’s not the first time he has been in the middle of a mob scene. It’s just the first time people weren’t carrying torches and pitchforks.

♦ Some amusing commentary: This is from Braves general manager Frank Wren (following an eye roll and a smile): “I wasn’t close enough to make a call.”

This is from Lugo (between smiles): “He made an appreciation call.” A what? “He appreciated whether I was safe or out. I was safe.”

This is from Eric Hinske, as he walked past Proctor: “That guy can hit!”

This is from Schafer: “I started going back to second base. Then I saw Julio jumping up and down and I was like, ‘Wait, what happened? Oh. I guess we won.’ I thought he was out. But we’ll take it.”

This is from McKenry to the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review: “I was kind of baffled. I didn’t know what to do or what to say.”

This is from Meals, who possibly was suffering from dehydration, heat prostration or dementia, to pool reporter Mark Bowman of “I saw the tag, but he looked like he oléd him and I called him safe for that. I looked at the replays and it appeared he might have got him on the shin area. I’m guessing he might have got him, but when I was out there when it happened I didn’t see a tag.”

Excuse me, but: “He oléd him”?

♦ One more number: Martin Prado would like to forget this one. He went 0-for-9. The game ended with him in the on-deck circle. Fortunately.

♦ Even one more number: The Braves stranded 23 baserunners.

♦ OK, final numbers: Dan Uggla has a 17-game hitting streak. But after singling in his first two at-bats to reach and pass .200 for the first time since May 16, he went hitless with a walk in his next seven plate appearances. He finished at 2-for-8 and saw his season average drop from .202 in the third inning to .199. Millions of little children had gone to sleep thinking Uggla would finally end a day hitting over .200.

With that, I’m going home now. It’s 4:44 in the morning. Traffic should be clear.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Nutting will do nothing and profit

By Mark Madden
Beaver County Times
July 26, 2011

ATLANTA - JULY 25: James McDonald(notes) #53 of the Pittsburgh Pirates pitches against the Atlanta Braves at Turner Field on July 25, 2011 in Atlanta, Georgia. McDonald (7-4) scattered 8 hits in 5.1 innings while striking out 9 in the Pirates' 3-1 win over the Braves last night. (Photo by Scott Cunningham/Getty Images)

After 18 losing seasons, the Pirates are in a race.

You wonder if it's the race owner Bob Nutting prefers.

The race for .500 would be cheaper to run. It would keep the long-suffering fan base enthralled. It would increase attendance. It would grab headlines. Chasing .500 would do just about everything chasing a division championship does, but cost less.

The pursuit of the National League Central Division title brings expensive expectations.

The citizens want a big deal for a big bat by Sunday's MLB trade deadline. Houston outfielder Hunter Pence would earn at least $25 million in Pittsburgh by the time he's eligible for free agency in 2014. Chicago Cubs first baseman Carlos Pena would require about $4 million to rent until season's end.

But the race for .500 wouldn't require a dime. The Pirates could justify not making a deadline swap, because nothing tangible is at stake. They could proceed with their rebuilding plan. No one expects them to sacrifice even a small chunk of the future just to finish .500.

Stalking .500 might be more profitable than going after the division. But the players and manager Clint Hurdle screwed things up by wedging themselves into the hunt for first place.

If the Pirates don't materialize as buyers by Sunday's trade deadline, ownership has some explaining to do. But the inside word is that general manager Neal Huntington is under orders to add little payroll, if any.

Huntington is a strange study. He's never been GM of a contender at the deadline. Will inexperience hinder? Does he know what to do?

So, what will the Pirates do?

Probably nothing. Maybe the bare minimum, like acquiring a low-level power hitter. Kansas City outfielder Melky Cabrera comes to mind.

The Pirates organization has put profit over competing since before Nutting took over. Recent draft investments were made because the Pirates had no choice PR-wise. But it's not hard to think that money is still the franchise's primary motive.

The great unwashed have certainly embraced the Pirates' season. With their glee has come a certain amount of assumption and naiveté. Bigger and better down the road seems taken for granted.

If Pirates ownership really has turned over a new leaf, you'll know by the trade deadline. They have a legitimate chance at winning the division. Cincinnati, Milwaukee and St. Louis will almost certainly make moves. The Brewers already got reliever Francisco Rodriguez from the New York Mets.

If the Pirates stand pat while the others add, it should be fairly evident what ownership's intent is. The Pirates need to get a bat. They're a small-market, low-budget team. They have a rare opportunity. They need to seize it.

It might just be pessimism spawned by 18 seasons of bad baseball, but I don't trust the Pirates one little bit. Andrew McCutchen is scheduled to be eligible for free agency in 2016. If McCutchen is still a Pirate then, I'll trust Nutting.

Until then, no way.

I have a sneaking suspicion that the Pirates don't want to trade prospects because those prospects will form a new young core when the current young core is scattered across the major leagues. The Penguins trade the occasional prospect because they intend to secure their young nucleus for the long term.

Will Starling Marte play alongside McCutchen, or replace him?

At least Pedro Alvarez is off the milk carton. He's young and flawed, but he's a better bet at third than Brandon Wood or Chase d'Arnaud, and the Pirates' best bet for power, period.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Harnessing emotions took years of practice for Blyleven

Bert Blyleven was driven to win, and that drive has led him to Cooperstown after all these years.

Minneapolis Star Tribune
July 24, 2011

Bert Blyleven looks at a Pittsburgh Pirates exhibit during his orientation visit to the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y. , on Tuesday, May 3, 2011. Blyleven, who helped pitch the 1987 Minnesota Twins to a World Series and had 287 victories in his Major League Baseball career, was elected to the Hall of Fame in January on his 14th try. (AP)

Bert Blyleven was a cross-country runner in high school. As a major league pitcher, he ran to build stamina and soothe his tormented soul.

"When I was going bad, I always ran a lot," Blyleven said. "I ran to get the frustration and all the bad crap out my body, whether it be Coors Light, or whatever it was."

Blyleven was frustrated a lot, especially early in his career. He won 287 games. He also lost 250. If his legendary curveball opened the door to Cooperstown, his inner drive pushed him through it. But his intensity got the best of him at times, too.

In 1972, Blyleven's third year in the majors, he started 7-3 for the Twins before anguishing through a five-game losing streak. It was a typical Blyleven skid, laced with good outings and poor run support, and he was at his wits' end by June 22.

The Twins held a voluntary off-day workout at Kansas City's old Municipal Stadium, and long after his teammates had returned to the hotel, the 21-year-old Blyleven remained, running sprints. Finally, Doc Lentz, the team's longtime trainer, intervened.

"He says, 'What are you doing? You're going to kill yourself out here,' " Blyleven said. "We sat there on the left field grass and talked, and I broke down and cried.

"I always looked at baseball as life. If you don't look at the positives, life can drag you down. It took me a long time to realize there's only so much I can do. Losing 2-1 or 3-2 -- I was going to work harder. That's what made me a stronger person, but I still hated losing.

"Doc Lentz kicked me in the butt. He said, 'You can cry all you want, but dang it, get your butt up and go do what you need to do.' "

It was an important lesson for Blyleven, who took as many hard-luck losses as any pitcher of his era. According to STATS, he made 104 quality starts -- at least six innings pitched with three or fewer earned runs allowed -- that didn't result in a win. That included 46 losses and 58 no-decisions.

No wonder Blyleven was often surly to the press. Still, former Twins manager Tom Kelly said Blyleven always brought out the best in his teammates.

"When he was on the mound, you seemed to play a little bit higher," Kelly said. "Listen, I wasn't a very good player, but when I did play behind Bert a couple times [in 1975], I found myself thinking, 'I'm not making any mistakes here today because it's going to be 2-1, 1-0, 3-2.' There was no room for misplays."

The 1970s were an angry time for baseball players anyway, as they fought for free agency. Even when they got it, it took a while before anybody became millionaires.

After a bitter contract dispute, the Twins traded Blyleven to Texas in 1976. Walking off the field at Met Stadium the night of the trade, Blyleven heard some Twins fans taunting him and gave them the middle finger.

The Rangers eventually traded Blyleven to Pittsburgh, where Blyleven was part of the "We are Family" Pirates that won the 1979 World Series. His stint with Pittsburgh from 1978 to 1980 was his only time in the National League. He always hated getting pulled from games, but this was, and is, a fact of life for an NL pitcher.

In 1980, Blyleven got so mad at the way Pirates manager Chuck Tanner was using him, he walked out on the team for 10 days. Tanner called him "Cry-leven," and the Pirates traded him to Cleveland that winter.

By the time Blyleven got traded back to the Twins in 1985, he had mellowed, becoming the staff's veteran leader.

"He'd be upset if he lost, and toward the end he gave up some home runs, which I'm sure didn't make him too happy," Kelly said. "But he handled that all very well."

Teammates saw the way Blyleven rubbed off on Frank Viola, making the eventual 1987 World Series MVP a better competitor.

"When [Blyleven] took the ball, he was going to go out there for nine innings," former Twins catcher Tim Laudner said. "It was his turn to pitch, so everyone else put your tennis shoes on. This is his ballgame."

The next day, Blyleven always had his running shoes on again. Win or lose. Had to get that stuff out of his system.

A bulldog on the mound, a hot dog on other stages

Bert Blyleven is known for his pursuit of clubhouse levity almost as much as his curveball.

Minneapolis Star Tribune
July 24, 2011

Pirates pitcher Jim Rooker was victimized by a Bert Blyleven prank involving a pig’s head before Game 6 of the 1979 World Series. Blyleven bought the pig head at a nearby meat market.(AP)

Bert Blyleven, one of baseball's merriest pranksters, will be inducted into the Hall of Fame on Sunday. For the Hall of Famers who gather for the annual induction ceremony in Cooperstown, N.Y., it means they will have to invest in fire-retardant dress shoes for the rest of their lives.

The master of the hot foot -- in which shoelaces are lit on fire -- is joining the fraternity.

"No hot foots the first year," Blyleven promised. "I'm a rookie to be seen and not heard. After the first year, though, watch out."

Blyleven is known for having one of the game's best curveballs. He's also known for his pursuit of clubhouse levity. Wherever he went in baseball -- Twins, Rangers, Pirates, Indians, Angels -- he was looking for a laugh and didn't care at whose expense it came. He once gave former Twins manager Tom Kelly a hot foot -- during a game.

"He was goofy," longtime Twins bullpen coach Rick Stelmaszek said.

It wasn't just lighting shoes on fire. Many of Blyleven's pranks can't be recounted in a family newspaper. As for the ones that can, he cut off the toe ends of dress socks. He stole dress shoes and froze them. He nailed teammates with shaving cream pies. And there were stink bombs.

"I did that on a plane once with Cleveland," Blyleven said. "I never did that again. The smell never left the plane. A lot of people were mad at me."

During the 1979 World Series, when Blyleven was with Pittsburgh, some Pirates players were walking around a market in Baltimore before Game 6. They were down 3-2 in the series, but Blyleven saw a chance to make his mark.

"I see this pig's head," Blyleven said. "I always called [teammate] Jim Rooker 'Pighead.' I asked how much it was, and it was like a couple hundred bucks.

"I bought the pig's head, brought it to the ballpark, put it in his locker, put his uniform underneath it, put a cigarette in its mouth. He was in uniform."

During the annual preseason freeway series between the Dodgers and Angels, Blyleven once smacked Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda in the face with a shaving cream pie while Lasorda was doing a pregame interview. Lasorda vowed revenge.

The next day, Lasorda stole a pair of jeans out of Blyleven's locker. In the middle of the fifth inning, Blyleven looked across the diamond and saw the jeans on fire in front of the Dodgers dugout. But Blyleven was a step ahead -- he had taken his clothes out of his locker and replaced them with those of a teammate.

Blyleven believes his zest for pranks came from his father, Joe, who raised a large family in Southern California.

"There was nine of us at the dinner table," Blyleven said. "He always had a joke. Always made us laugh."

There's no evidence Joe mooned his children -- an act that remains a part of Blyleven's repertoire.

To this day, the Twins don't inform Blyleven when the annual team photo will be taken because he shows up and moons everyone during the shoot.

"I have scouts who let me know," Blyleven said.

The element of surprise is not always a good thing.

"I love it," said Twins outfielder Michael Cuddyer, "but I feel bad when they raffle off a chance for a kid to be in the picture and he's probably scarred and the parents are scarred."

Blyleven's favorite such act was in 1991 with the Angels.

"I mooned the team picture," Blyleven said. "Two weeks later, a game is going on in Anaheim. [Manager] Doug Rader says, 'Bert, come here. Someone wants to see you.' It's Jackie Autry, [owner] Gene's wife.

"She pulls out this team picture. It's the moon shot. Gene is sitting there in front and, all of sudden, to the left of him is this big cheek.

"She goes, 'You gotta sign this for Gene.'"

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Pirates need Alvarez

Saturday, July 23, 2011
By Gene Collier, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

PITTSBURGH - JULY 22: Paul Maholm(notes) #28 of the Pittsburgh Pirates pitches against the St Louis Cardinals during the game on July 22, 2011 at PNC Park in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)

Just four times in most of four months did Paul Maholm allow four earned runs in one work night, so when he allowed four earned runs in about four minutes in Friday night's first inning, it was a huge surprise to ... well, just about no one.

This was the St. Louis Cardinals, after all, and this remains their favorite destination playpen, beauteous PNC Park.

"That packed house is good to see," said winning pitcher Chris Carpenter a couple of hours later. "I was talking to [Lyle] Overbay at first, and I was saying, 'To come here and see all these fans, it's great; it's a great place to play.' "

Isn't that nice?

There's no great mystery in the way the Cardinals have constructed a vulgarly opulent 55-30 record on the North Side lawn. It is traceable mostly to a decade of in-house wretchedness by the home club, but even given the historical realities, the noise St. Louis makes around here on offense is always bound to wake the neighbors.

The career batting average of the eight hitters in Tony LaRussa's lineup in front of Carpenter last night was a mind-bending .328. And that factored in John Jay's modest .233 and David Freese's incongruent .125.

So when you looked up from those hard-earned pregame nachos and saw four Cardinal runs on the board, it wasn't exactly shock and awe. Maybe awww ...

Here's a club that hasn't seen Pirates pitching since April 6 and still comes in here and bangs three first-pitch homers, which is either great scouting or great hitting or very likely both.

"Well, talk to me Sunday afternoon," LaRussa said in his office postgame. "I think Maholm just caught a little bit of the plate with them, and they didn't miss 'em. That team plays nine innings, and that's why they're having such a good year. Carpenter's been pitching great, and they still got four off of him."

Maholm fought back and hung around for six innings, during which the Cardinals were content to hit .385 against him (10 for 26) with three doubles, a triple and two homers.

Albert Pujols and Freese both slammed the first pitches they saw from him over the fence in that first inning, and Yadier Molina did the same thing to Chris Resop in the eighth, and it was probably that aspect of the Pirates' second consecutive loss that most rings with relevance in the week ahead.

The Pirates, it's become painfully obvious, do not hit the ball over the fence, which in any other summer wouldn't matter a whit except that this one somehow finds them clinging to first place in a looping dream sequence. The Cardinals, who pulled even with the Pirates by taking the first game of this feverishly anticipated series, 6-4, have gotten more homers from their third and fifth hitters (Pujols and Lance Berkman have 49) than Clint Hurdle has from his entire lineup, or at least from the one he wrote last night (43).

Thus, a person who can hit the ball over the fence should remain the primary objective of general manger Neal Huntington with the non-waiver trading period set to expire a week from Sunday.

Perhaps, in addition or in lieu of external options, there is a power-hitting third baseman who not that long ago received a $6 million signing bonus to provide exactly what the Pirates need at this critical stage.

Seriously, doesn't something have to be terribly wrong with Pedro Alvarez?

Hurdle's team needs a banger desperately with first place on the line, and Alvarez can't be trusted outside the city limits of Indianapolis?

The offense scratched its way back into this game with nine singles and doubles from Garrett Jones and Overbay but gave away two outs on the basepaths almost as if to re-emphasize its absolute zero margin of error.

Even a temporary lapse in their generally excellent starting pitching puts the Pirates in a bad spot, essentially unable to come from behind, particularly against teams with multiple bangers.

The Pirates have hit 22 homers in 49 home games, and just to put that in the starkest terms possible, the Cardinals have hit 58 homers in 53 road games.

That's just part of the recipe for a dreary weekend.

Don't think it would hurt to walk into the home clubhouse today and see No. 24 standing there, wearing a cap that's too big and carrying a bat that can do the kind of damage necessary to sustain this compelling summer narrative.

Gene Collier:

James Harrison is a Madman and We Wouldn't Have It Any Other Way

Why those vilifying the Steelers' unhinged linebacker are missing the point.

Pulling No Punches
July 20, 2011

Greased up like a truck-stop stripper and holding akimbo handguns across his chest, Steelers linebacker James Harrison made a visual and verbal nincompoop of himself in this month's Men's Journal. In his tirade against Commissar Goodell, the New England Patriots and even his own teammates, Harrison somehow made amateur conspiracy theorist Rashard Mendenhall seem comparatively sane.

The kerfuffle kicked off a week-long marathon of rosary-clutching and revisionist history from an understandably punch-drunk fanbase. First it was the Super Bowl hangover, then Mendenhall's goofball Truther philosophizing and Hines’ failings with the DUI-decimal system, and now Harrison is sabotaging his own team?

This has been a summer of unprecedented numb-nuttery, that much is certain. But those who say that the moral fabric of the Steelers is tearing need to grab a mirror. Or a history book. Harrison's verbal barrage is media kindling, and nothing more. Unlike any other sport, overall team chemistry doesn't exist in the NFL. The idea of it makes for stirring NFL Films montages, but in reality, football locker rooms are segmented into small clusters of friends—the offensive linemen, the tight ends, the defensive backs.

Ask any player who his best friend on the team is and 9 out of 10 will say a player of their same position. Several defensive players have told me that they don't even watch the game when the offense is on the field.

The guiding hand of the Steelers was never Harrison, or even Roethlisberger. The leadership and personality of the team starts at the top with head coach and Wikiquote generator Mike Tomlin, and it ends with guys like Farrior and Polamalu. Worrying that the moral fabric of the Steelers is disintegrating because of Harrison's dumb-out is like worrying that the intellectual integrity of an entire 3rd grade class is crumbling because one mouth-breathing turtle-enthusiast won't stop eating Elmer's glue like it's fro-yo.

If you’re still feeling queasy about an internal rift, remember that the Steelers won a Super Bowl in 2005 when their defensive leader, Joey Porter, and their offensive leader, Roethlisberger, wouldn’t have peed on the other guy if he was on fire.

If the Internet had existed in the 1970s, several members of the Steel Curtain would have Photoshop’ed pictures of Terry Bradshaw chewing straw and riding a donkey around Station Square and Tweeted them to the world. Folk hero Jack Lambert would routinely threaten rookie running backs with disembowelment at training camp.

What do you think you’re watching on Sundays, anyway?

Harrison should undoubtedly be ashamed of calling Goodell a homophobic slur, but just as reprehensible are the media opportunists who have jumped at the opportunity crucify him when they’re just as culpable for the deification of jock culture. Walk into any locker room in professional sports and you’ll hear the F-word tossed around freely. Yet the mainstream media is all too eager to engineer puff pieces and cooked-up redemption stories about the very same athletes they see the uncut side of every single day.

Writers play dumb and deaf, and sell the fans the stories they want to hear. It’s dishonest, but inevitable given the media’s co-opting in the Sports Industrial Complex. So when a player is an unabashed animal and says as much right to our faces, “I am mean, I am a beast,” we recoil. How can this be? This is not my beautiful house. This is not my beautiful linebacker.

The visual of an armed Harrison in the Men’s Journal article wasn’t too far from the truth. Harrison is a hired gun; a hitman. Sometimes hired guns also happen to be giant sons-a-bitches. Often the best ones are—like Greg Lloyd, Kevin Greene, Ernie Holmes, Joe Greene, Lawrence Taylor, and other cement heads.

And what of Jack Splat? We mythologize Lambert, a solid man off the field, no doubt. But why is he a legend? Because he wore a t-shirt under his pads that warned, "I am a F****** Maniac." Because he snarled like an animal and said despicable things about opponents' wives and mothers. We love him because he was so intoxicatingly terrifying, so primal and real. He, like Harrison, was honest about his brutality.

So much of what Harrison has said about the state of the NFL today is a carbon copy of what Lambert warned us of in the ‘70s:

"Yes, I get satisfaction out of hitting a guy and seeing him lie there a while."

"I believe the game is designed to reward the ones who hit the hardest. If you can't take it, you shouldn't play."

Those quotes are from Lambert, but are an echo of Harrison’s diatribes.

Only now we’re supposed to feign horror when Harrison admits to getting a cathartic rush from knocking an opponent senseless, because neurological science has finally caught up with the dirty little secret we knew all along. The house lights have come up on the peep show, and here we all are: the beasts and the voyeurs. So what now?

Harrison is everything we say we want in a football player when we’re on the bar stool or in the recliner: He didn’t merely play all of last season with a herniated disk in his back, a debilitating injury that required him to get a discectomy after the Super Bowl. He played every single series last season. The majority of NFL players would been laid up, but Harrison was laying out quarterbacks, fighting through spasms and seizures without saying a word about it.

And for what? Why, at age 32, would he risk the rest of his abbreviated career? For you? For your message board egoism? No. He played because he knows nothing else. He doesn’t know where else to put his seething anger.

If you can’t accept that moral ambiguity, ask yourself this: What kind of person does it take to do what Harrison does? What kind of mad multimillionaire launches head-first into a 200-pound man at top speed, knowing full well that the price is a hot knife tearing through the tendons of his back?

In the sea of decontextualized nonsense that is quoted in the Men’s Journal profile, Harrison said the most disturbingly honest thing I’ve heard out of the mouth of an NFL player in a long time. “When you hit a dude hard, you feel it, too, and the Steelers go at play-to-die speeds. But if, God forbid, I wind up having brain damage, so be it.”

That’s the NFL as Coca-Cola, Sprint and Roger Goodell never want you to see it, and the most heartbreakingly honest admission from a Steelers player since the late Dwight White told Time magazine, "There's no question that I'm schizoid. I might be three or four people. I know I can be evil."

As long as Harrison keeps his idiocy and his firearms confined to print and not aimed at a police helicopter, the Steelers will be happy he's the mean, mad asshole in black-and-gold and not any other color. And if you think the Rooneys should take the moral high ground and ship Harrison out of town because of some long-lost phantasm called “The Steeler Way,” Google "Ernie Holmes manhunt" for a history lesson.

Apparently, there’s only one mortal sin in today’s NFL. You can be a lout, a beast, a madman, even a remorseless executioner. You just can’t admit to it. Because once you break down that fourth wall—once you turn to the audience and wink, “I am not an actor; I am a bad man,” the whole grand spell is broken.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Another Look: Former Pirate Dave Cash

By Bob Barrickman
Beaver County Times
July 19, 2011

Dave Cash said one of his biggest baseball influences was Roberto Clemente. But his best teacher was another aging Hall of Famer from the Pirates of the early 1970s.

"He was a very big influence," said Cash, now 63, said of Bill Mazeroski. "He was the reason why I was able to make the transition from shortstop to second base. I had never played second before in my life."

A fifth-round choice of the Pirates in the 1966 amateur draft, Cash was groomed to take over for Mazeroski in the early 1970s. By 1971, Cash became the team's regular at second and batted .289 for the world champion Pirates that season. But the Pirates had a rare surplus of talented second basemen in their system -- including Rennie Stennett and Willie Randolph in the minors.

The Bucs thought Cash expendable and traded him to the Phillies for lefthander Ken Brett after the 1973 season. Stennett assumed the starting job for the Pirates.

"It was very difficult leaving the Pirates," admitted Cash. "But, I went to a larger market to try to help a team that finished in last place (in 1973)."

Cash flourished with the Phillies in 1974 and help made them contenders in the NL East. He hit with increasing regularity: 206 hits that years before leading the league with 213 hits in 1975 while batting .305. He helped the Phillies win the division in 1976 and made three All-Star teams as a Phillie.

"The things I learned in Pittsburgh, I took to Philadelphia with me," he said.

Randolph, incidentally, was traded in 1975 and became a perennial All-Star for the Yankees.

Cash signed with the Expos as a free agent following the 1976 season. He played three years there before finishing his 12-year playing career with the Padres in 1980. Cash batted a career .283 and drove in 426 runs.

Cash was a member of three NL East-winning teams in Pittsburgh (1970-72), his best moments coming when he had eight hits in 19 at bats in the 1971 NLCS win over the Giants.

Cash also remembered the fans during those glory days at Three Rivers Stadium.

"We couldn't have done it without the fans," he said. "In a 162-game schedule, there's no way you can come out every day and feel good. Sometimes, to hear that crowd makes you inspired to do your job."

A native of Utica, N.Y., Cash has made his home near Tampa, Fla. for 18 years. And this year, he's actually spending some time there. After a post-playing career spent as a coach in a number of organizations and with two independent teams, Cash retired from baseball after last season.

"When you get to my age, it's time to retire," said Cash.

Polamalu is a 'mane priority'

Friday, July 22, 2011

Even with the NFL's what-was-that-all-about labor drama Wednesday, the lockout still moved a vital step closer to resolution. Shouldn't be long before local eyes turn toward Latrobe and the usual conversation about the Steelers' conditioning and Casey Hampton's caloric intake.

The weightiest subjects right away, though, will involve contracts, primarily whether management can reel back Ike Taylor from the free-agent pool and whether LaMarr Woodley`s $10 million franchise-tag money can be reworked into a multiyear deal.

But here's another, a bit off the beaten path: Should the Steelers extend Troy Polamalu's contract, which is due to expire at the end of the coming season?

I tossed this one into the Twitter-verse a couple nights ago and promptly saw it tossed right back. "A no-brainer," several responders called it. Polamalu should be the team's "mane priority," one wiseacre wrote.

I'm there, too, believe me.

Polamalu is an exemplary citizen in a group that could use a few more of those. He is one of the great safeties in NFL history. He is a first-ballot Hall of Famer. He is the league's incumbent Defensive Player of the Year. He is a presence so untamed and unpredictable, he single-handedly forces opponents to alter game plans.

And if all that reality's not enough for you, well, just this week, those geeks at EA Sports announced that the virtual version of Polamalu will have the maximum 99 rating for the next Madden 12 video game. The only other players at 99: Tom Brady, Darrelle Revis and Antonio Gates.

No question, Troy Polamalu should be a Steeler for life.

But let's look at the broader picture, anyway, just for argument's sake:

» Polamalu turned 30 in April. Factor in his punishing style, and you might as well add a year or two.

» Of the Steelers' 35 games the past two seasons, he played in just 22. Last season, he was hobbled by an Achilles tendon injury from mid-December into the Super Bowl, essentially reduced to a center-field role and seldom seen at the line of scrimmage.

» All together now: The defense is getting older. James Farrior is 36, Aaron Smith 35, Hampton and James Harrison 33, Brett Keisel 32 and Ryan Clark 31.

» Polamalu will cost a mint. Baltimore's Ed Reed, Polamalu's only peer among safeties, is 32 and entering the final year of a six-year, $40 million contract. The highest-paid safety in NFL history is Kansas City's Eric Berry, drafted last year and signed to a six-year, $60 million contract, with $34 million guaranteed. If that's the bar, it's hard to fathom Polamalu getting less than $10 million annually.

Still, none of these items would change my mind. In fact, I'll go further and suggest the Steelers make signing Polamalu a high priority.

Polamalu's four-year, $30 million contract, which made him the Steelers' highest-paid player when signed in 2007, calls for $6.4 million this coming season. But the salary-cap hit is $8.6 million. With the Steelers projected to be about $10 million over the NFL's likely new cap of $120.4 million, an extension would help right away. And let's be real: This is the last year for this defense.

Moreover, future cost certainty comes with sealing up Polamalu, Woodley and Taylor, as that allows management to place the franchise tag next year on Lawrence Timmons. Let Timmons earn an extension with a first Pro Bowl appearance.

I brought a lot of this up Thursday with Marvin Demoff, Polamalu's California-based agent, and he sounded like a man ready to take a call.

"The Steelers always have done this sort of thing the year before a contract is up," Demoff said. "There's been no discussion yet, but I'd say it's highly likely that was because of the lockout. We'd be open to it, sure. Troy's played there eight years and wants to finish his career in Pittsburgh."

But finish when?

The main danger for the Steelers in a long Polamalu extension is that he hangs on too long. The team never could cut a player of his stature.

"That's not Troy," Demoff said. "He's not the type to keep playing when he's not at a high level. No offense, but he's not going to be Brett Favre."

He described Polamalu as healthy and ready for camp.

"Troy tends to be pretty hard on himself emotionally and physically," Demoff said, "and he feels really good about where he is."

The Steelers need to ensure Polamalu feels that way for years to come. Imagine all that hair flowing out the back of some other helmet.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

James Harrison doesn't know how lucky he is

By Ian Roderick
Cold, Hard Football Facts Doctor of Bigbenology
July 18, 2011
Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker James Harrison caused a firestorm in the football world with an interview for Men's Journal in which he criticized his team’s quarterback, Ben Roethlisberger.
“Stop trying to act like Peyton Manning,” Harrison said, “You ain’t that and you know it, man; you just get paid like he does.”

Beyond the question of whether Harrison was wise to publicly denounce a teammate, there is the question of whether Harrison was correct.
Is Peyton Manning a demonstrably better quarterback, and are the Pittsburgh Steelers overpaying for Ben Roethlisberger’s services?

The answer in both cases is no: Manning is not demonstrably better than Roethlisberger and the Steelers are not overpaying for Big Ben, at least if Manning's contract is the yardstick by which we measure "overpaying."
Let’s begin with salaries. Manning signed a seven year contract with the Indianapolis Colts in 2004 worth $99 million, meaning his average salary over the past seven years has been $14.17 million. Roethlisberger signed an eight year deal with the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2008 worth $102 million, with an annual value of $12.75 million.

The Manning contract is worth approximately 11 percent more per year than the Roethlisberger contract, not counting inflation. So Harrison is correct that Roethlisberger’s salary is in the same ballpark as Manning’s. Both are considered elite quarterbacks, and both are paid as such.

The real question worth answering, though, is whether Harrison’s implication that Manning is significantly more valuable than Roethlisberger lives up to statistical scrutiny.
Manning vs. Roethlisberger: Passer Rating

The most popular statistic that measures quarterback performance in the NFL is passer rating. A lot of fans and analysis dis passer rating because of the complex formula used to create it and because of the seemingly arbitrary numbers it spits out. We understand the complaints.
But the Cold, Hard Football Facts love passer rating because it is a "Quality Stat," that is, it's a stat that has a direct correlation to winning football games.
Let’s compare Manning's and Roethlisberger's passer ratings since 2004, Big Ben's first year in the NFL.
Manning vs. Roethlisberger (passer rating)

As a volume passer, Peyton Manning is superior to Ben Roethlisberger. Over the past seven years, Manning has thrown more times for more completions, yards, and touchdowns, with a better rating.
Manning had a historically great season in 2004, when he threw 49 TDs to break Dan Marino’s 20-year-old record (48) and set the mark for best passer rating in a season (121.1). Since 2004, Manning has been exceptionally good. But his performances, as measured by passer rating, have also been on a fairly obvious downward trajectory since that record peak in 2004.
As Manning’s performance has slipped in recent years, Roethlisberger’s passer rating has surpassed Manning’s. Most fans and analysts, not to mention teammates such as James Harrison himself, seem ignorant of the fact that Big Ben has posted higher ratings than Manning in three of the past four seasons, including each of the past two.
The numbers are even more remarkable when you consider that Manning enjoys the benefit of playing his home games in a stat-inflating dome, where the conditions are always conducive to big passing days; Roethlisberger plays in one of the NFL's worst-weather outdoor arenas.
Manning vs. Roethlisberger: Passing YPA
The Cold, Hard Football Facts also like Passing YPA as a way to measure the effectiveness of each quarterback. It's easier to understand than passer rating, it provides for better comparisons across eras (YPA has remained relatively constant over the past 70 years, while passer ratings have soared) and, most importantly, YPA is also a Quality Stat. In other words, like passer rating, it has a direct correlation to winning football games.

Manning vs. Roethlisberger (YPA)

By this measure, Roethlisberger has often outperformed Manning, particularly over the past two years. As we wrote earlier this week, Yards Per Attempt is extremely predictive of success in the NFL. Teams that pass the ball most effectively are often the teams that make deep runs into the playoffs and end up bringing home Super Bowl trophies.
In this respect, Roethlisberger is one of the most prolific and underappreciated quarterbacks not just today, but in all of NFL history. Big Ben is No. 5 all time with a career average of 8.04 YPA. Three of the players ahead of him are in the Hall of Fame: Otto Graham (8.63), who parlayed his record average into a record six straight NFL championship games; Sid Luckman (8.42 YPA) and Norm Van Brocklin (8.16 YPA).
(The one oddball in the Top 5 is No. 4 Tony Romo of Dallas, who has yet to parlay his statistical proficiency and slight advantage over Roethlisberger in YPA (8.043 vs. 8.036) into championship-caliber playoff performances.)
The Steelers went undefeated with Roethlisberger starting at QB during his rookie year, before finally falling to the dynastic Patriots in the AFC title game; they won the Super Bowl the following year, with Big Ben the youngest QB in history to lead his team to achievement. He was far more than a caretaker: his incredible 8.9 YPA in 2004 and 2005 represents the most prolific first two years by a quarterback in NFL history, even if everybody but the Cold, Hard Football Facts failed to take notice.
Manning vs. Roethlisberger: running with the ball

A third statistical category that can be used to compare the quarterbacks is rushing. Since 2004:
  • Ben Roethlisberger has rushed for 874 yards and 14 touchdowns.
  • Peyton Manning has rushed for 140 yards and 8 touchdowns.
While rushing statistics are secondary to passing when measuring a quarterback’s performance, the superior rushing ability of Roethlisberger, who stands 6-5 and weighs 241 pounds, presents a real challenge to opposing defenses.

As noted above, Peyton Manning is a more statistically prolific quarterback than Ben Roethlisberger, at least in terms of meaningless volume indicators (i.e., he passes the ball a lot more).
In terms of the more important Quality Stats that relate to efficiency (passer rating) and effectiveness (YPA), Roethlisberger has been the better passer in recent years. And he remains a better rusher.
Most importantly, Roethlisberger outperforms Manning in the most crucial statistic of all: Super Bowl wins. By that measure, there is no question that Roethlisberger is worth every penny, even if his on-field performance resembles a fuel efficient Honda Accord more than Peyton Manning’s high performance Ford Mustang.
The Steelers have won three AFC titles and two Super Bowls in seven seasons with Roethlisberger at the helm; the Colts have won two AFC titles and one Super Bowl in Manning's 13 years at the helm.
Bearing that in mind, Harrison might want to rethink his opinion of his team's quarterback. Then again, thinking before speaking has never been a strong suit for James Harrison.

Pirates have a 'big hit' with McKenry

Thursday, July 21, 2011

PITTSBURGH - JULY 08: Michael McKenry(notes) #55 of the Pittsburgh Pirates hits a three run home run against the Chicago Cubs in the eighth inning during the game on July 8, 2011 at PNC Park in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)

The Pirates will almost certainly transport to any pennant race critical additions to the inadequate offensive components currently at their disposal, a necessity that bloomed into full clarity when the batsmen managed only four runs in three games against pitching-challenged Cincinnati.

Andrew McCutchen, Clint Hurdle's All-Star cleanup hitter, drove in three of those four, and even that was in the middle of a 1-for-21 nosedive.

Minutes after watching the offense waste another seven strong innings from Jeff Karstens in a 3-1 daylight loss Wednesday to the Reds, Hurdle said the organization is looking at every way possible to spike its run production.

"We have missed the big hit," the manager said, "and it's something we've been aware of. We've given people a chance to find their comfort level, [but] we've got some guys who haven't provided what we thought they would offensively."

Too true, which is why no one is going to squawk much if the looming trade deadline and the resulting offensive reconfiguration means they've seen the last of Lyle Overbay (.236) or Garrett Jones (.234) or Chase d'Arnaud (.225) or Brandon Wood (.209) or Matt (no homers) Diaz, just to name a few, but look, here's what not to do:

Uproot Michael McKenry from behind the plate.

I don't care if he's hitting .227, nor do I care that his big league resume is still thinner than a Vogue model. I don't care that he's 26 years old and has already been traded twice since St. Patrick's Day, nor do I care that Neil Huntington was able to pry him off the roster of the Pawtucket Red Sox for one chorus of the player-to-be-named-later blues.

"I truly believe it's the same game," said McKenry, who has worked 520 minor league games and 32 major league games. "For some people I think it takes awhile to realize that. It's a little faster, and you see some plays get made that don't get made someplace else. But if you watch most players, they go through valleys offensively, and it's the ones who are All-Stars, or the ones who hit .280, who are able to minimize those stretches.

"So I think it's just about staying mentally strong, and that's what makes you able to help in some way. If I can just help in some way."

There's nothing that passes for logic on the baseball earth that would persuade anyone that McKenry hasn't helped make the Pirates perhaps the best story in the major leagues. When Huntington brought him here June 12, the Pirates were 31-33, idling in fourth place, six games out.

You want metrics?

Look at the Pirates' WPBM (winning percentage before McKenry); it's .484.

The Pirates' WPSM (you're way ahead of me) is .625. In the games since June 12 that Hurdle wrote "McKenry" onto his lineup card, the Pirates are 18-8. When he hasn't, they're 2-4. The manager has used seven catchers, six of whom haven't sniffed that kind of success.

His pitchers, Hurdle pointed out, have to get a lot of credit for that, but McKenry's solid defense isn't the only way he's helping. He had three hits the other night in Houston. He came within two inches of being on base three times again Wednesday. What's more, it's going to be hard for any current or soon-to-arrive Pirates hitter to top McKenry's at-bat July 8 against Carlos Marmol for raw inexplicable brilliance.

"I'm at my best at the plate when I'm not thinking," McKenry said in all candor. "When my mind is free, I can visualize the pitch better, see the ball better. You don't want to be a catcher at the plate, thinking of everything else that's going on."

You might remember McKenry's three-run homer that won that game, 7-4, that lifted them near first place in the seconds it was airborne, because that was momentous, but don't lose the at-bat, which was astounding.

He fouled the first pitch, then fouled the second, burying himself 0-2 against a guy with more big league saves than McKenry had at-bats.

Third pitch -- foul.

Fourth pitch -- foul.

Still 0-2, with McKenry at the mercy of a veteran closer's full repertoire.

Fifth pitch -- loud foul.

Sixth pitch ----very loud foul.

And still 0-2

Seventh pitch -- 420 feet to the left-field bleachers.

If that wasn't the best at-bat I've seen in this yard in 11 years, it's only because I'm having a hard time remembering things like, for example, Monday.

"I've always believed in myself," said McKenry, who spent almost all of his minor league career in the Rockies organization, where Hurdle spent almost all of his managerial career. "It's a matter of getting someone else to believe in you, and in keeping your confidence up."

It's not exactly impossible to find a better offensive catcher than McKenry in the trade market, but I sure wouldn't be leaning that way.

"Michael has brought a great dynamic to this club," Hurdle said. "With the ground we've covered with him behind the plate, he's put himself in a very stable situation."

The Pirates, you might have noticed, are more than stable. They're actually good. I'm not sure they would be without Fort McKenry.

Gene Collier: More articles by this author

Over .500, Pirates Get Back in the Mix

The New York Times
July 21, 2011

PITTSBURGH - JULY 19: Joel Hanrahan(notes) #52 of the Pittsburgh Pirates points to his teammate Andrew McCutchen(notes) #22 after making a catch on a warning track in the ninth inning against the Cincinnati Reds during the game on July 19, 2011 at PNC Park in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)

PITTSBURGH — For 18 years, baseball teams have known where to shop for help in the pennant race. The Pittsburgh Pirates have finished each of those seasons with a losing record, and by July, things are usually so hopeless that they trade veterans to contenders. The last two World Series winners have each included two players acquired from Pittsburgh for prospects.

“You’re happy for them individually, because that’s why every one of us does this,” said Neal Huntington, the Pirates’ general manager. “You love to win.”

But now it is the Pirates (51-45), of all teams, who are winning again, tied for the lead in the National League Central after Wednesday afternoon’s 3-1 loss to Cincinnati. It is the latest they have led their division since winning it in 1992.

The subsequent streak of losing seasons is a record for the four major professional sports in the United States. It has bruised a proud city that has claimed two Super Bowls and a Stanley Cup since the Pirates’ last winning season.

“Times before that I’ve been here, it’s been hard to go out to dinner,” said Joel Hanrahan, the Pirates’ closer, who joined the team during the 2009 season. “You didn’t really want to go out because you didn’t want to have somebody come up and go, ‘Why don’t you ever win?’ Now, you can go out in town and not feel embarrassed. They’ll clear off the table for you real quick.”

The Pirates’ opening day payroll, around $45 million, was the lowest in the National League. The owner, Bob Nutting, has authorized Huntington to add salary before the July 31 trading deadline, and the team needs offensive help, ranking 13th among 16 N.L. teams in runs scored.

But the Pirates must act carefully, Nutting said, to avoid the mistakes of the recent past. Spending lavishly for a short-term solution might not be the best use of money.

“You can’t let an emotional decision turn into a bad decision,” Nutting said. “The Matt Morris trade is a good example.”

Nutting, who is also the chief executive of Ogden Newspapers Inc., was in his first season running the Pirates when the team acquired Morris from the San Francisco Giants in July 2007. The Pirates were in last place, and Morris was owed $13.5 million. But he had a decent track record as a starting pitcher, and the Pirates hoped he would give them a dependable, if decidedly average, arm through 2008.

Nutting called it a good-hearted move, but it proved to be a colossal waste of money. Morris made just 16 starts the rest of his career, winning three, with a 7.04 earned run average. The deal reinforced the image that the Pirates could not build efficiently, forever desperate for a quick fix.

Within two months of the Morris debacle, Nutting fired General Manager Dave Littlefield and replaced him with Huntington, an assistant with the Cleveland Indians. He also hired a team president, Frank Coonelly, the general counsel of labor in the commissioner’s office. They cut payroll from the major league roster, hired more scouts and plowed money into player development.

“We understand that you’re frustrated, and we understand you have no patience any longer,” Coonelly said, explaining the team’s message to fans. “But we have to ask for more patience, because we can’t give you what you really want. What you really want is not a team that wins 81 or 82 games. What you really want is a team that is fitting of the city of champions. And that’s going to take some time.”

The Pirates have spent more than $30 million in the draft the last three seasons, more than any other team, and the trend will likely continue as they negotiate with this year’s top picks, Gerrit Cole and Josh Bell. Last summer, the team spent $11.3 million on three teenage pitchers: Jameson Taillon and Stetson Allie from the draft, and Luis Heredia from Mexico. The Pirates ranked fifth in the majors last season in bonuses for international players, at $5 million.

HOUSTON - JULY 17: Center fielder Andrew McCutchen(notes) #22 of the Pittsburgh Pirates makes a sliding catch on a fly ball off the bat of Clint Barmes(notes) #12 of the Houston Astros in the eighth inning at Minute Maid Park on July 17, 2011 in Houston, Texas. (Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images)

The curious part of this season’s renaissance is that the Pirates have done it without some of the players most central to the rebuilding plan. Center fielder Andrew McCutchen was an All-Star, but third baseman Pedro Alvarez, the No. 2 overall pick in 2008, is toiling in the minors.

“We really haven’t had a lot of guys you look at and go, ‘He’s playing out of his mind,’ ” Huntington said. “We have a lot of guys who are playing well, but we’ve also had a lot of adversity.”

Injuries have forced the Pirates to use seven catchers. Reliever Evan Meek, the team’s only All-Star in 2010, and the No. 3 starter Ross Ohlendorf are out with shoulder injuries. Shortstop Ronny Cedeno (concussion) and left fielder Jose Tabata (quadriceps) are also hurt.

Yet the team’s defense has improved markedly, despite two errors on Wednesday, and a pitching staff that ranks last in the league in strikeouts can confidently challenge hitters to put the ball in play. Like the Minnesota Twins in the American League, the Pirates’ rotation has no ace, but rarely beats itself with walks. The staff earned run average, 3.34, ranks fifth in the league.

“We’ve got to be aggressive in the zone — the bottom of the zone, preferably,” said the pitching coach, Ray Searage. “We know what we have. I’m not trying to make a Maddux, a Smoltz or those guys. They know who they are, and they’re happy in their skin.”

Searage replaced Joe Kerrigan as pitching coach last August, with the Pirates on their way to 105 losses, their most since 1952. The team fired Manager John Russell after the season, and focused on Clint Hurdle, a strong communicator who had guided Colorado to the 2007 World Series. For Hurdle, the Texas Rangers’ hitting coach last season, it was a two-way interview. He asked the top executives about the direction of the organization. He spent hours with the scouting director and the farm director. And then he bought in.

“To me, the greatest coaching opportunity in all of sport is here,” Hurdle said. “Show me an N.B.A. team with the history that this one’s had the last 18 seasons. Show me an N.F.L. team, show me an N.H.L. team. The skepticism, it’s all been earned. The angst of the fans, it’s real. If this was a marriage, there wouldn’t have been a separation. There would have been a divorce a long time ago.”

The team and the town are stuck with each other, thanks largely to the charming PNC Park, the jewel along the Allegheny River that has never hosted a national Sunday night telecast in its 11 seasons. Yet the Pirates have a rich history, with five championships between 1909 and 1979, and Hurdle has studied it.

Hurdle requested framed photographs of all the managers who have led the Pirates to a championship on the wall above the couch in his office. That is Hurdle’s goal, as he told the players in spring training.

“When he addressed the team for the first time,” second baseman Neil Walker said, “guys were looking around like, ‘Uh, this is kind of the same team we had last year — let’s be honest, hopefully we’ll continue to improve, but. ...’ And he squashed that right off the bat. He said, ‘We’re not looking back.’ ”

Few know the background as acutely as Walker, a Pittsburgh native who was 7 when the Pirates lost Game 7 of the 1992 National League Championship Series after leading until the final pitch. Walker said all of his old friends like the Steelers and the Penguins, but many gave up the Pirates to root for contenders.

The vision of playoff baseball in Pittsburgh has seemed absurd for so long, but now there is hope. Walker laughed when asked how his city would respond.

“I just keep thinking about what it’s like on Sundays here in the fall, when the Cleveland Browns come to town,” he said. “In this general area of the North Shore, downtown, we have 60,000 fans going to Heinz Field. Minus that by 20,000 and put them in this ballpark — I can’t even imagine. Pittsburgh fans are so passionate, and I’m one of them. It’s addicting.”

PITTSBURGH - JULY 08: Neil Walker(notes) #18 of the Pittsburgh Pirates hits a two run single against the Chicago Cubs in the third inning during the game on July 8, 2011 at PNC Park in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)

Sales of T-shirts and jerseys are up about 40 percent, Coonelly said, and television ratings are rising. Attendance, which sagged to under 20,000 per game the last three seasons, is averaging 23,631, its highest point since the first year at PNC Park.

Nutting, who grew up a Pirates fan in nearby Wheeling, W.Va., said the losing streak did not alienate a generation. Pittsburgh sports fans are never apathetic.

“I have nothing but respect for the fans who stuck with us, but also for the fans who said, ‘I love the Pirates, and I’m too angry to come to root,’ ” Nutting said. “I think every one of those people did it out of passion for baseball. I don’t think people ever lost interest. They cared, and you’re seeing that today.”