Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Still more pitches to chase

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

HOUSTON - AUGUST 30: First baseman Garrett Jones(notes) #46 of the Pittsburgh Pirates can't reach a ground ball during baseball game against the Houston Astros at Minute Maid Park on August 30, 2011 in Houston, Texas. (Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images)

The Pirates' 19th consecutive losing season is all but sealed, and September will see the Steelers and Penguins in action, burying baseball even deeper in our city's sporting consciousness.

Anyone still remember Michael McKenry's magical blast into the bleachers?

How about just Michael McKenry?

Well, the schedule shows a full month remaining, 27 games from the finale tonight in Houston to the season-ending series in — where else? — Milwaukee.

And yeah, somehow, I still can think of 11 reasonable goals for the rest of 2011:

11. Leave Harrison alone.

No, it won't alter the course of the franchise to give a 5-foot-8 backup infielder a few extra at-bats. But neither will it hurt.

Josh Harrison seldom walks, so he doesn't fit the modern mold of a hitting prospect, but he gets the barrel to the ball. It might be a gapper, might be just a poke, but there's actual contact. That's not a trait to ignore in a lineup that generates so much wind the National Weather Service soon will assign a name.

I propose "Chase."

10. Same with Presley.

These Pirates aren't about to become a Lumber Company, so they might as well try Lightning. The current outfield of Alex Presley, Andrew McCutchen and Jose Tabata just might make up in speed — offense and defense — for what the corner men lack in power.

No need, then, to see much of Ryan Ludwick, Xavier Paul or Matt Diaz.

9. Court Lee.

Yeah, Garrett Jones is hitting with pop, but that comes and goes monthly. The Pirates would welcome having Derrek Lee back as their starting first baseman in 2012, and getting him comfortable at pitcher-friendly PNC Park could help keep him from leaving through free agency.

Have a better idea at first?

8. Consider other keepers.

Paul Maholm and Ryan Doumit have costly 2012 club options that probably won't — and shouldn't — be exercised. But both are amenable to working out longer-term deals, and the Pirates' needs in the rotation and at catcher make discussions a must.

7. Find a shortstop.

The Pirates don't sound intent on bringing back Ronny Cedeno for a third head-scratching season, so there's no risk in trying Chase d'Arnaud or even Brandon Wood.

When the offseason comes, though, help will be needed from the outside. And, given this management's miserable track record with shortstops — they wouldn't recognize Ozzie Smith if he did a backflip on Federal Street — I strongly recommend outsourcing the task.

6. Let Meek inherit the eighth.

It's no coincidence that the Pirates have allowed more runs in the eighth inning than any other, with Evan Meek, their lone All-Star in 2010, shelved all year by shoulder pain. His imminent return to the mound will be a boon to the bullpen well beyond this month.

5. Prod McCutchen to sign.

It's understandable that the Pirates and McCutchen aren't close on an extension, especially if management is low-balling McCutchen as it did with the offer that Tabata stunningly accepted.

But be sure that McCutchen will notice if Neil Walker gets done, especially before season's end. Walker and Tabata then will be due millions in guaranteed money while McCutchen keeps playing for minimum wage in 2012.

4. Draw 2 million.

The Pirates have drawn 1,682,888 to PNC Park for an average crowd of 25,117. They would have to average 24,393 over the final 13 dates to hit 2 million for just the fourth time in the team's 125-year history.

Even coming close would be the statistical achievement of the year.

3. Save some face.

A reader tweeted me this the other day: Through July 25, the Pirates were the best team in the Central Division. Since then, they're the worst.

For all the accolades heaped on Clint Hurdle this year, a September swoon would pile on top of the second-half damage already done, and that should reflect just as badly on the manager.

Let's see if Hurdle can make a difference after his first real taste of managing the Pirates.

2. Get Pedro a visa.

I've maintained all along that nothing mattered more to the Pirates in 2011 than Pedro Alvarez's progression toward becoming a big-time power hitter. That obviously hasn't materialized, but I'll stand by his importance, as well as his character and other intangibles.

For now.

If he blows off the Pirates' reasonable request to play winter ball in the Dominican Republic, I reserve the right to change my mind. With all the time missed to injury and all those swings and misses, there is no viable reason Alvarez should say no.

1. Win in Milwaukee.

Seriously, just once.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Pirates' plunge of epic proportions

By John Perrotto
Beaver County Times
August 30, 3011

Pittsburgh Pirates manager Clint Hurdle, center, pulls starting pitcher Jeff Karstens(notes), left, out of the game as catcher Michael McKenry(notes) offers support during the fourth inning of a baseball game against the St. Louis Cardinals, Sunday, Aug. 28, 2011, in St. Louis. The Cardinals won 7-4. (AP)

The Pirates nearly put themselves in the unique position of being buyers and sellers in the same season.

Only one thing has messed it up and it's that nearly all the players the Pirates might trade between now and Wednesday night's deadline for acquiring players who can be eligible for a team's postseason roster are hurt.

Before we get into that, it's morbidly fascinating to look at the historical aspect of the Pirates' freefall from contenders to also-rans.

They were tied for first place in the National League Central on July 25.

Though the Pirates had dropped to 4 1/2 games out by the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline, they still had a chance, prompting general manager Neal Huntington to make low-risk trades for Baltimore first baseman Derrek Lee and San Diego outfielder Ryan Ludwick.

However, a 7-3 loss to San Diego on Aug. 7 that ended a 0-7 homestand dropped the Pirates 10 games behind Milwaukee. It took 13 days for the Pirates to drop from first place to a double-digit deficit, fastest in major-league history.

The hole grew to 15 1/2 games following a 5-4 loss to Cincinnati on Aug. 21. The Pirates joined the 1911 St. Louis Browns as the only team to go from first place to 15 games down within 30 days.

The Pirates entered Monday's play 18 games behind the Brewers.

While nothing could top (bottom?) the disappointment of plummeting in the standings at light speed, it just adds to the Pirates' misfortune that they have no one of any real interest to contenders looking to bolster their roster.

Catcher Ryan Doumit, a pending free agent, is the Pirates' best trade chip but it seems unlikely he will be moved as teams rightfully have concerns about his defense.

While some thought the Pirates might try to deal left-hander Paul Maholm, it won't be the case and not just because he is injured. The Pirates haven't officially announced anything yet because they want to make sure the shoulder injury that has Maholm on the disabled list is no more than a strain but they plan to exercise the $9.5 million club option in his contract for 2012.

Lee and Ludwick might have fetched a second-tier or third-tier prospect. However, Lee suffered a broken wrist Aug. 3 when hit by a pitch and Ludwick joined him on the DL last week with back spasms.

Thus, the L&L boys, who have combined to contribute three home runs and 10 RBIs to the pennant push that wasn't, will finish out the season with the Pirates and be spared the indignity of getting dumped twice by non-contenders in one season.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Brown's breakout a big bonus

Monday, August 29, 2011

PITTSBURGH, PA - AUGUST 27: Antonio Brown(notes) #84 of the Pittsburgh Steelers runs up field on a kick off against the Atlanta Falcons during a pre-season game on August 27, 2011 at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)

Every season for every team, it seems, there emerges that one individual performance that no one could have seen coming. Maurkice Pouncey makes the Pro Bowl as a rookie. Tyler Kennedy scores 21 goals. Jeff Karstens pitches with the National League's elite.

Well, don't ever admit that you couldn't see Antonio Brown coming.

He's been coming in leaps and bounds, quite literally, from the first day the Steelers donned pads in Latrobe. He's gone airborne to grab Ben Roethlisberger's playground heaves, he's sprinted past the secondary on deep routes, he's sliced through defenders on quick slants and he's even had a big kickoff return in a preseason when such things are being measured by taking-a-knee style points.

As tight end Heath Miller told me Saturday night at Heinz Field, "I don't think Antonio's surprising people anymore."

That was shortly after the Steelers' 34-16 exhibition victory over Atlanta, in which Brown had four catches for 137 yards, including touchdowns of 77 and 44 yards from Roethlisberger. Add in the 51-yard game-opening kickoff return, plus three others and a quick run, and it was 247 total yards. All in the first half!

For all three games, he has nine catches for 230 yards and three touchdowns, all tops on the team and the latter two leading the NFL. Doesn't take Mel Kiper Jr. to prognosticate off that kind of production.

Just imagine, in the broader view, what the Steelers' receiving corps could be: Mike Wallace led the AFC last season at 21 yards per catch. Emmanuel Sanders was the most dynamic option down the stretch. Hines Ward needs 46 catches for 1,000 on his way to Canton. Jerricho Cotchery was a dependable No. 3 for the New York Jets. And now, there's Brown on the clear cusp of a breakout.

Hey, can anyone explain why the Steelers' typically prudent evaluators were courting Plaxico Burress?

Some caution is advised regarding Brown, of course: He was the 195th player taken in the 2010 draft, he was inactive for seven games as a rookie and his next real touchdown catch will be his first. Let's remember, too, that he was considered behind draft peer Sanders on the developmental curve as recently as, oh, a month ago. For all we've seen this summer, we're still talking about practice.

Maybe that's what Mike Tomlin had in mind when he admonished Brown for that taunting penalty -- Brown pointed back at Atlanta safety Thomas DeCoud -- after the first touchdown Saturday.

"It's just not intelligent," the coach said, deftly avoiding calling it stupid, which it was.

"I've been getting a little carried away lately, and not just on that play," Brown said. ""It's just preseason. I'm doing some great things, but it's not the end of the world. I just need to calm down."

That's sound advice for all, actually. But it's still tough not to think of the many potentially positive spinoffs if Brown really is this good.

What if Bruce Arians' offensive scheme can send out four or even five receiving threats on one series, then two tight ends -- as we saw with a seamless opening drive Saturday -- on the next?

What if Brown motivates Sanders to leapfrog him anew on the depth chart?

What if Brown's presence frees up Wallace after a quiet playoffs and a two-catch preseason?

That last one piques my curiosity the most, if only because it will be fascinating to watch how opponents handle the Steelers' receivers, whether they keep double-teaming Wallace, switch over to Brown or toss up their nickels and dimes and another coins in their pockets. Moreover, it will be telling if Brown can break free of a double team better than Wallace has.

"Right now, Mike takes so much pressure off the rest of us," Brown said. "If they double me, watch out for him."

"They won't know who to cover," Wallace said with a devilish grin. "It'll be crazy, man."

Brown isn't the Steelers' biggest receiver at 5-foot-10, nor their fastest, but his ability to find the ball and bust loose isn't a skill set easily quantified at combines. It might have been best summed up Saturday by Roethlisberger: "It's just the little things. He's a really good football player. He's got good instincts."

"I feel like I'm getting more reps, getting more comfortable out there," Brown said. "It's really just confidence."

Without cockiness, he pledged: "That won't happen again. That's not Steelers football."

No, it isn't, per Chuck Noll's eternal guide to end-zone celebrations: "Act like you've been there before."

The rest of us would do well to act like we knew Brown would get there.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Stargell to appear on postage stamp

Pirates great could really carry the mail

Friday, August 26, 2011
By Diana Nelson Jones, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Margaret Stargell has known for a while that a likeness of her late husband, the Pirates' Hall of Fame slugger Willie Stargell, would be on a postage stamp; the rest of us found out Thursday.

Having once compared hitting Sandy Koufax to "drinking coffee with a fork," Mr. Stargell would probably greet the news with a humor.

"I'm sure he would make some comment about how the envelope might not get to its destination if he's on it," she said from her home in Wilmington, N.C. "He would have fun with it but would clearly be honored."

The U.S. Postal Service chose Mr. Stargell as one of four baseball greats to appear on an All-Star set of new stamps to be issued next summer. Yankees great Joe DiMaggio and Larry Doby, the second black player to play in the major leagues, for the Cleveland Indians, were chosen first; the fourth is a player to be named later.

Stephen Kearney, executive director of stamp services for the U.S. Postal Service, offered this hint to figuring out his identity: The four players are being announced in alphabetical order.

The Pirates' slugger, who died at age 61 on the day PNC Park opened in 2001, was the captain of the 1979 "Lumber Company" team that won Pittsburgh's most recent World Series. He played his entire 20-year career as a Pirate, the latter years with the nickname "Pops."

The likeness of Mr. Stargell, in a batting stance wearing the sun-gold jersey of the late '70s, will travel on mail as a "forever" stamp -- one you can use without adding to it if the cost of stamps goes up.

"I love it," said Ms. Stargell, from whom the postal service got permission. "I think it's Willie. It's vibrant. He comes to life on that.

"It is an extraordinary honor for an extraordinary human being. To know he will be on a forever stamp to be remembered for years to come is overwhelming, and it warms my heart."

Steve Blass, whose entire Pirates' pitching career was played with Mr. Stargell as a teammate, was elated.

"Willie Stargell getting a stamp," he said. "I love it. I'm so glad to hear it, and I wish Willie was here and we could have a glass of wine together. He goes beyond just being a great ball player."

Mr. Blass said that when his good control on the mound went so inexplicably south in 1973, "I don't know of anyone who stood any taller for me than Willie."

Mr. Kearney said Mr. Stargell's inclusion in the stamp group was recommended by the Citizens Stamp Advisory Committee, a group that reviews 40,000 suggestions a year for new stamps.

Fans reacted on the Post-Gazette's Facebook page Thursday when the news broke.

"Pops was one of a kind!" Heidi Miller commented. "His star will always shine brightly in Pittsburgh ... glad the entire country will soon honor him too!"

Chauncey Ross wrote, "Pops has done it!"

Mr. Kearney said the postal service plans a Hall of Fame weekend in Cooperstown, N.Y., when the stamps are issued and to hold individual promotions with each of the teams whose player is being honored.

Mr. Stargell is only the second Pirates star to appear on a postage stamp.

Roberto Clemente was honored on a stamp in 1984, when they cost 20 cents for the first ounce, and again in 2000 as part of the "Legends of Baseball" series. The rate is now 44 cents.

The Major League Baseball All Star stamp set will be issued in July 2012.

Artist/illustrator Kadir Nelson of Los Angeles based his artwork on historic photographs of the four players.

Mark Saunders, a spokesman for the postal service, said commemorative stamps such as these are issued "to engage more interest in stamp collecting."

The stamps are shown on Facebook at, through Twitter @USPSstamps or at Beyond the Perf is the Postal Service's site for philatelic news.

Diana Nelson Jones: or 412-263-1626. Read her blog City Walkabout at

Stargell honored on 2012 All-Star stamp set

By Pittsburgh Tribune-Review
Friday, August 26, 2011

Pirates legend Willie "Pops" Stargell, who intimidated opposing pitchers by swinging a sledgehammer, will be immortalized on a "Forever" postage stamp in 2012.

"It's an extraordinary honor for an extraordinary human being," said Stargell's widow, Margaret, 52, of New Bern, N.C. "I know Willie would be very humbled."

Stargell died in 2001 at age 61. The stamp will be part of the Postal Service's Major League Baseball All-Star Stamp set.

The slugger, who played 21 seasons from 1962 to 1982, led the 1979 "We Are Family" Pirates to a World Series championship and hit 475 career home runs. He pounded 2,232 career hits and twice led the National League in home runs -- 48 in 1971 and 44 in 1973. Baseball's Hall of Fame inducted him in 1988.

He joins Joe DiMaggio, one of the game's most graceful athletes, and Larry Doby, the American League's first black player, in the All-Star set. The postal service will announce a fourth stamp on Sept. 2. Los Angeles artist Kadir Nelson based their designs on historic photos.

The Citizen Stamp Advisory Committee recommended the players to Postmaster General Patrick R. Donahoe, a Pittsburgh native, said Stephen Kearney, executive director of stamp services. The committee gets 40,000 suggestions a year and "made a judgment call, just like an umpire," he said. "Willie earned it."

Pirates fan Joe Landolina, 53, of Squirrel Hill counts Stargell, with his windmill-style batter's windup, as his all-time favorite player.

"Some pitchers used to try to quick-pitch him in the middle of that swing and the next thing you know, they'd be turning their necks to watch (the ball) go over the wall," he said.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Ex-Steeler Butler nominee for Hall

One of two seniors committee picks

Thursday, August 25, 2011
By Ed Bouchette, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Jack Butler never had played football when he left Pittsburgh for a seminary in Canada, wanting to be a priest. That did not work out, so he moved on to St. Bonaventure College and wound up in a dorm room with three other freshman, all football players.

"They went out for football, so I went out with them," Butler said. "They gave me a uniform, but I never did anything. I got my butt kicked for two years and didn't play until I was a junior. I played receiver on offense and didn't start until my senior year."

No pro team drafted him, but his hometown Steelers signed him as a free-agent rookie and put him at defensive end. A cornerback was injured early that season, so they moved Butler there and he became one of the greatest cornerbacks in NFL history during the decade of the 1950s.

Wednesday, he became one of the seniors committee's two annual candidates for the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

"I really appreciate it, it's a great honor and I enjoy it and the whole bit," said Butler, who was born in Pittsburgh, grew up in Whitehall and lives in Munhall. "I didn't expect it. I'm getting to a point, I'm getting up there, you know? But I'm glad it happened."

Butler, 83, retired after nine seasons in 1959 with 52 career interceptions, second most in the NFL at the time. He made four Pro Bowls and three All-Pro teams and the NFL's All-Decade Team of the 1950s. He was forced into retirement by a leg injury so severe it nearly killed him when infection set in.

Butler became a coach briefly, then went into scouting with the Steelers and became director of the BLESTO scouting network that formed in the early 1960s, a job he held for 4 1/2 decades before retiring three years ago. Through the years, he trained hundreds of scouts who worked for him and went on to scouting, personnel and general manager jobs in the NFL. That group included Kevin Colbert, the Steelers director of football operations, and his predecessor, Tom Donahoe.

Butler joins former Detroit Lions and Washington Redskins guard Dick Stanfel, also an all-1950s team member, as the two seniors finalists for election in the Hall's Class of 2012. They will join 15 modern-era candidates on the ballot; the other candidates will not be chosen until December. The two seniors do not compete with the modern candidates for a spot in the Hall but are voted on separately, and often both seniors are elected.

Butler stood 6 feet 1 and weighed 200 pounds when he made the Steelers as a defensive end on the final cut of the 1951 season, the last of six coached by John Michelosen.

"I still thought I was a receiver. I always wanted to be a receiver. I was a defensive end. About the second game, a guy got hurt, and Michelosen put me in at defensive back, and that was it."

He would become a prolific pass receiver as a cornerback, turning them into all those interceptions.

"You never know how things turn out, you know?" Butler said. "That was the beginning of it. I really loved it. I had a lot of fun."

Big Ben's unique talent

Thursday, August 25, 2011

What's he do on his worst days? That's what I want to know about a quarterback.

Ben Roethlisberger often wins on his worst days. He also has the best definition of quarterback toughness I've heard, one sure to send stats geeks running to their hard drives to see if it fits into one of their unfathomable formulas.

We broach the topic because it's that time of year — time for everybody to rank the quarterbacks. I don't know if Roethlisberger deserves to be ranked first, but I know this: He belongs in the conversation.

He agrees, as he should.

"I think every quarterback should believe they're the best," Roethlisberger said. "Do I think there are better quarterbacks than me? Possibly. But would I take anyone else with the ball in their hands at the end of the game? I don't think so."

This is where somebody fires off an email reminding me that Roethlisberger didn't get it done late in last year's Super Bowl.

OK, so that makes him 1 for 2 in epic Super Bowl-winning drives.

Numbers freaks are flummoxed on how to measure a quarterback because the statistics lie like winos.

Super Bowl titles? If that's your primary measurement, you must believe Mark Rypien was better than Dan Marino.

Passer rating? Tony Romo tops Tom Brady and Joe Montana.

Accuracy? Chad Pennington is the most accurate passer of all-time.

Won-loss record? Getting warmer. Roethlisberger is 69-29 in his career. Which brings us to his definition of toughness. He was sitting at a quarterbacks' round table a few years ago, with Sport Illustrated's Peter King, when he delivered the following gem:

"Toughness is playing the worst game of your life but not backing down. Down 21 points and the defense is getting through, and you throw three interceptions. Staying in that game, keeping your head up, trying to drive your team when everything's going wrong — that's the kind of toughness I want in my quarterback."

I think of last year's game at Baltimore, when Roethlisberger — having a miserable night with a banged-up foot and broken nose — was presented with an opportunity to win and snatched it. His biggest play was fending off Terrell Suggs and shoveling the ball out of bounds to avoid a sack.

Is there a stat for that?

I think of last year's AFC title game, when Roethlisberger rolled away from pressure and drilled a dart on the run, into the arms of Antonio Brown, to keep a hot Jets offense off the field for good.

Yes, the stat junkie will say, but if he'd made more plays earlier, it wouldn't have come to that.

Yes, I respond, but there was another team on the field — one that had humiliated St. Thomas Brady a week earlier — and when it boiled down to Super Bowl or no Super Bowl, Roethlisberger beat that team with a brilliant individual play.

I also think of Super Bowl XL, a game the stat mongers look at and see only Roethlisberger's minuscule passer rating. He wasn't good. But even on his worst day, he made winning plays. He set up the first touchdown with an ad-lib bomb to Hines Ward, threw a key block on the gadget-play TD and turned a busted play into a scramble first down when the Steelers were attempting to kill the clock.

Is there a stat for that?

I'm beginning to loathe the statistical revolution that has engulfed the sports world. When did everybody become Billy Beane?

Beane is the Oakland A's general manager made famous in the book "Moneyball" for coldly analyzing players on raw numbers alone. He also is the all-time leader in at least one obscure statistical category: Best GM Who Never Got To A World Series But Still Had Brad Pitt Play Him In A Movie.

Don't get me wrong. I love the numbers game. You're talking to a man who, at age 9, invented his own ratings system for offensive linemen and kept track of assists in Nerf basketball games.

The problem is that statistical devotees have forgotten the human element. They disregard the notion that an athlete -- whether it's a quarterback, pitcher or point guard -- can separate himself from his peers by consistently summoning the right stuff at just the right time.

Winning time.

Sports still is about winning, right?


Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Why Sidney Crosby should retire now

By Cathal Kelly
The Toronto Star
August 23, 2011

The only question being asked about Sidney Crosby’s return from a serious brain injury is “When?”

The more pressing question is “Why?”

Why would Crosby risk an invalid’s life in order to return to a game he has already conquered?

His trophy case is full. He has a championship ring and an Olympic gold medal. He’s been league MVP, leading scorer and the consensus best player in the game. He’s only 24 and his hall-of-fame bonafides are beyond questioning. His material needs are settled for a dozen lifetimes.

It’s been nearly eight months of abortive attempts to return. CTV Halifax reported Monday that his latest comeback has been put on hold because of a recurrence of symptoms of post-concussion syndrome. If true — his agent, Pat Brisson, says it isn’t — it’s nearly certain that he will miss the start of the season in six weeks time.

Whenever Crosby returns and for however long, the rest of his career will be an extended breath-holding exercise. Every fan will be waiting for the next time Crosby is laid out and wondering, “Is this the one?”

We still don’t know how badly Crosby is hurt. He can’t fully know either. The mind is a tricky thing. It works perfectly right up until you abuse it just enough that it starts working imperfectly.

Every dead athlete whose brain is now being cut apart and shown to be riddled with trauma spent every day of his professional playing career within rock-throwing distance of a team doctor. They died anyway. Doctors can’t protect you from flying elbows. All the rule changes in the world can’t either.

We do know that brain injury is cumulative and exponential. Hurt it once, and the threshold for hurting it again drops. Damage in the first instance is far worse in the second.

Nevertheless, we continue to conflate brain injury with every other sort of injury. The crucial difference is that you can live with a limp. Your mind, however, is not designed to significantly deteriorate in your youth. When it does so, it usually signals the imminence of death.

The Star’s Randy Starkman has detailed the sad end of Dave Scatchard’s itinerant NHL career after repeated concussions. At age 35, his health is already in chilling decline. Add him to the growing list of men physically annihilated by this particular branch of the entertainment business.

Doctors forced Scatchard out in order to save his life. He went unwillingly. No one pressed Scatchard to continue pushing through his own moving target of exactly how badly he could injure himself and still put on pads.

By comparison, Crosby’s fate is debated in mythic terms. He is the man professional hockey cannot afford to lose. Hockey without him will be boring for Americans. He’s been on HBO, for God’s sake. No one else in today’s NHL is big enough for U.S. pay cable. That seems to be the sum of the argument, at least.

We take it as a given that as long as he is able to plant his skates on the ice, form a semi-coherent sentence and pass the legally defensible definition of “fit,” Crosby should not only put his health at risk, but he should want to do that.

Doubtless, he does. Though Scatchard and Crosby are at opposite ends of the elite spectrum, they share the same code: play through it. We can understand why. Hockey has rewarded previous relentlessness. It’s the only life they’ve known. In Crosby’s case, he is better at it than anyone else in the world.

If I was one of the people who knew and loved Sidney Crosby, those would not be good enough reasons.

There are no goals left for him in the game. At best, all he achieves from now on is more of the same. He still has an entire life to lead after hockey, whether it ends tomorrow or in a decade. What’s in the balance is how capable he will be of leading it fully.

Ending a career this glorious so soon would be a kind of tragedy, if we can risk using that word.

It would be a huge blow to the player, and a transient one for his admirers. There will always be another hockey hero. That’s a constant. Hockey may think it needs Sidney Crosby, but it surely doesn’t need him crippled.

Will he return? Probably.

Should he? Ask Dave Scatchard in a few years time.

Crosby's play will heal all wounds

By Mark Madden
Beaver County Times
August 23, 2011

Sidney Crosby looks to pass against the Washington Capitals during the 2011 NHL Bridgestone Winter Classic at Heinz Field on January 1, 2011 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Washington won 3-1. (December 31, 2010 - Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images North America)

The big question for Penguins fans is: When will Sidney Crosby play?

The answer: When he's medically cleared. Not before.

In the end, the rumors will amount to nothing. Crosby will play soon, or later, or never again. What's said via prelude will be quickly forgotten.

The Penguins are monitoring the situation. Uh, I think. General Manager Ray Shero said the right things without really saying anything. It makes you wonder if the Penguins know any more than we do.

Crosby's silence is deafening. His inner circle has grown smaller, tighter and more insular.

Crosby's silence spawns the rumors. Crosby has no obligation to address the stinking media every time he has (or doesn't have) a headache. A word from Crosby, though, might keep panic from spreading through the streets (and talk shows, and Internet forums). But Crosby is evidently unconcerned by that.

Tumors, a spinal fracture, all that nonsense: Impossible. The silliest of gossip. If big hits caused cancer, James Harrison would kill more people than big tobacco. (Give Harrison time. He still might.)

Setbacks, headaches: Believable, certainly. It's part and parcel of post-concussion syndrome. Some never beat it, so those who ponder the premature end of Crosby's career are not out of line. If problems are present seven months later, who can conclusively argue against their permanence?

Who decides when Crosby plays? Is it UPMC's Dr. Michael Collins, the lab coat in charge? Or is it Crosby himself? Don't you have to play before you know you can't? Take a hit before you know you shouldn't?

Crosby has a history of sinus headaches. When he had his reported setback in Tampa during the playoffs, some within the organization thought Crosby misdiagnosed a sinus headache. Who determines the difference?

Are different methods of treatment being pursued? What about protective options? Ex-NFL safety Mark Kelso, a North Hills High School graduate, beat concussions with an outer-padded helmet.

Eventually, Mario Lemieux tested his back. Eventually, Crosby will play again. He won't retire at 24.

There are lots more questions than answers. And the gossip persists.

Josh Rimer of Sirius Satellite Radio says Crosby won't be ready to start the new campaign. There's a report that some of Crosby's teammates thought he should have tried to play in last season's playoffs. That's typical of a hockey locker room. Jordan Staal played in the 2010 postseason after his right foot was almost sliced in half by a skate blade.

But your foot isn't your brain. Injure your foot permanently, you limp. Injure your brain permanently, you drool. Many concussion cases have sabotaged themselves by returning too early.

If there is any bad feeling toward Crosby among his teammates, it will dissipate quickly when he starts playing again. A lot of things will return to normal when Crosby starts playing again.

Also deafening is the NHL's silence regarding its meal ticket. I've watched David Steckel's Winter Classic hit on Crosby hundreds of times. It had zilch to do with the play. The puck was nowhere near. Malicious? Perhaps not. But it was absolutely unnecessary.

Yet the NHL has done nothing but throw a lot of talk at the problem. Sure, Vancouver's Aaron Rome got suspended four games for headhunting Boston's Nathan Horton during the Stanley Cup finals. He should have got 20. The only person the NHL wants to punish significantly is Matt Cooke.

Mark Madden hosts a radio show 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WXDX-FM (105.9).

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Film to chronicle Gilliam's rise, fall

By Mike Bires
Beaver County Times
August 23, 2011

Around the time Super Bowl XLVI is played, Dexter Rogers hopes to finish a movie that will remind pro football fans everywhere that Joe Gilliam could have been just as famous as Terry Bradshaw.

A freelance writer from Fort Wayne, Ind., Rogers believes Gilliam was denied his chance for greatness because of racial issues in 1974.

Why else, Rogers claims, would coach Chuck Noll replace Gilliam as starting quarterback after leading the Steelers to a 6-0 preseason record and a 4-1-1 record to start the regular season.

"I'm not trying to portray Mr. Noll as being racist," Rogers said. "What I am trying to say is that the societal conditions with the respect to race were definitely a clear factor. Racial situations existed, having an African-American quarterback playing in a vastly white community, a segment of the Pittsburgh fan base did not accept that.

"So there was reason why he was getting tons of hate mail and having racial epitaphs being hurled his way. There was a reason why his car was vandalized. It wasn't because he was a bad person and it wasn't because he was losing games."

Rogers will try to prove his point in a documentary he's been working on for the last several months. It's titled "Joe Gilliam: What Could Have Been But Never Was."

Gilliam, who died at age 49 after suffering a fatal heart attack in December of 2000, came to the Steelers as an 11th-round pick in the 1972 NFL Draft. The other quarterbacks on the team at the time were Terry Bradshaw, the No. 1 overall pick of the 1970 draft, and Terry Hanratty, a second-round pick in 1969.

In 1972, Bradshaw started every game as the Steelers went 11-3. Bradshaw, though, was still a work in progress, completing only 47.7 percent of his passes with 12 touchdown throws and 12 interceptions.

In 1973, the Steelers went 8-1 in games Bradshaw started even though Bradshaw wasn't making significant progress as a passer. He completed 49.5 percent of his throws with 10 TDs and 15 interceptions.

Then in 1974, the preseason was marred by a players' strike. The strike didn't end until after the fourth preseason game. At that point, with Bradshaw and Hanratty refusing to cross the picket line, Gilliam gained an advantage.

Gilliam didn't care if anyone labeled him a "scab." He wanted to play, so he crossed the picket line and played well in the preseason. Even Noll admitted Gilliam was the best choice to open the regular season.

On a movie trailer Rogers has already produced, there's a clip of Noll saying "He's done very well in the preseason. He's been the most productive and that's what we look at."

So on Sept. 15, 1974, Gilliam became the first African American in NFL history to start a season as a team's starting quarterback.

That became a huge national story as evidenced by other clips on Rogers' movie trailer. One clip shows sportscaster Howard Cosell asking Gilliam about the pressure he was under. Another clip shows Dan Rather, as anchor of the "CBS Evening News," saying, "Well, the Pittsburgh Steelers have just completed the exhibition season as the only undefeated team in professional football. There's also a sociological aspect, a sociological undertone with what the Steelers have been doing."

After the Steelers opened with a 30-0 rout of Baltimore, Gilliam's picture appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated. The headline read, "Pittsburgh's Black Quarterback: Joe Gilliam bombs the Colts."

Yet after the sixth game of the season, with the Steelers leading the AFC Central, Gilliam was demoted.

Gilliam wasn't playing spectacular football. He had completed only 45.3 percent of his passes with four TDs, eight interceptions and a 55.4 passer rating. But Bradshaw didn't fare much better, completing just 45.3 percent of his passes with seven TDs, eight picks and a 55.2 passer rating.

The Steelers, though, did go on to win the Super Bowl.

Demoralized by his demotion, Gilliam began abusing cocaine and heroin and was cut by the Steelers after the '75 season.

Bradshaw went on to lead the Steelers to four Super Bowls championships in the 1970s. In 1989, he was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Gilliam went on to years of drug addiction and, at one point, even wound up homeless for two years in Nashville, Tenn.

"In college, I took some courses on the history of the African-American athlete, and that's where Joe Gilliam's name kept coming up," Rogers said. "So it's always been in the back of my mind to write a story or do something to signify his contributions to the NFL.

"When you typically look at the historical legacy of the Pittsburgh Steelers, while it's great, it also overlooks the pioneer efforts of Joe Gilliam. He was the first African American quarterback to open a season, and his efforts led to a Super Bowl."

Rogers said that when his documentary is finished, it may run on ESPN's compelling "30 for 30" series.

When it's finished, the movie figures to stir up plenty of conversation and perhaps even controversy. Even Bradshaw admits Gilliam was slighted.

In another clip on the movie trailer, Bradshaw said when Gilliam was starting ahead of him, he asked the Steelers to trade him.

"It easily could have been him instead of me," Bradshaw said. "He absolutely had what it took to lead the Steelers to the Super Bowl. He gave me my job back. I didn't earn it back. I didn't beat him out."


An Ode to Joe -

Monday, August 22, 2011

Steelers: Countdown to Cutdown

By Mike Bires
Beaver County Times
August 22, 2011

PITTSBURGH - AUGUST 18: Ben Roethlisberger(notes) #7 of the Pittsburgh Steelers hands the ball off to teammate Rashard Mendenhall(notes) #34 during the preseason game against the Philadelphia Eagles on August 18, 2011 at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)

With the season opener just 20 days away, the Steelers continue the process of putting together a team they expect will contend for the Super Bowl.

As of now, there are still 90 players on their roster. Fifteen must go by Aug. 30. Then on Sept. 3, coach Mike Tomlin and director of football operations Kevin Colbert must decide which 53 they'll start the year with.

As the Steelers begin preparations for Saturday's third preseason game -- they host the Falcons on Saturday -- here's a look at some of their issues position-by-position:


No team has a collection of QBs as talented as the Steelers. Ben Roethlisberger is a legitimate star with three Super Bowl appearances, and he's only 29. Backup Byron Leftwich has had an excellent preseason and has 47 career starts in the league.

Charlie Batch and Dennis Dixon are jockeying for the No. 3 job, and either way that competition turns out, it won't really matter as both are more than adequate to fill that role. Batch, 36, has 52 career starts. Dixon, a fourth-year pro, is 2-0 in games he started and finished, including a win in Baltimore two years ago.


With Rashard Mendenhall, Isaac Redman and Mewelde Moore set as the top three backs, the Steelers are set as well at running back. Jonathan Dwyer will no doubt make the team now that rookie seventh-round pick Baron Batch is done for the year with a knee injury.

Forget about John Clay. He may have rushed for over 1,000 yards in each of his last two seasons at Wisconsin and he may have been the Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year in 2009, but there are reasons he didn't get drafted. Namely, he's slow and he can't block. Maybe he makes the practice squad.


There is growing concern about second-year pro Emmanuel Sanders, who broke his right foot in the Super Bowl and then developed a stress fracture in his left foot during the off-season. Early in camp, he aggravated the injury in his left foot and hasn't practiced since.

Though the organization is excited about Sanders' potential -- he caught 28 passes last year during the regular season and five more in the playoffs -- the Steelers can only hope his foot problems aren't chronic.

The good news at wide receiver is that recent free-agent acquisition Jerricho Cotchery is a proven veteran play-maker.


Offensive coordinator Bruce Arians, who likes to use three-tight end packages, is trying to figure out who that third man will be behind starter Heath Miller and backup David Johnson.

The Steelers did sign 10th-year pro John Gilmore early in training camp. They're intrigued by the pass-catching potential of free agent Wesyle Saunders, who was ineligible to play his senior season at South Carolina. But the Steelers must not be impressed with their blocking ability. That's probably why they switched rookie free agent Miguel Chavis from defensive line to tight end. There are now seven tight ends on the roster.


Even before tackles Jonathan Scott and Marcus Gilbert suffered hyper-extended knee injuries in Thursday's preseason game against the Eagles, there's been speculation that Flozell Adams may be re-signed. The injuries to Scott and Gilbert aren't thought to be serious. But don't be surprised if Adams, a salary cap cut on July 30, or another tackle is signed as insurance.

At right guard, it's starting to look like the Tony Hills experiment is working. He seems to be making a smooth transition from tackle and could be the opening-day starter.


It appears that the only roster battle is at backup nose tackle where Chris Hoke, the No. 2 man for several seasons, is trying to fight off the challenge of Steve McLendon.

Anthony Gray, an undrafted free agent out of Southern Mississippi, is an interesting study. He's only 5-foot-11 but he's 330 pounds and strong as a bull. He bench pressed 225 pounds 39 times during his pro day. Look for him to make the practice squad and challenge for a roster spot next year.

Also, don't be surprised if Ziggy Hood keeps the starting job at left defensive end, a job he inherited last year when Aaron Smith got hurt.


Will the Steelers keep eight or nine?

If it's eight, inside 'backer Monty Ivy will likely land on the practice squad. If it's nine, Ivy will probably make the team.

Rookie Chris Carter, a fifth-round draft pick, won't be cut. He has to put on some weight, but the Steelers like his explosiveness on the edges.


Due to injuries, cornerback is the position with the most question marks. No less than four corners missed the Eagles game (starters Ike Taylor and Bryant McFadden, second-year pro Crezdon Butler and rookie Cortez Allen).

It's too early to give up on third-year pro Keenan Lewis and Butler, who's in his second year. The Steelers drafted two corners this year: Curtis Brown in the third round and Allen in the fourth. While Brown is a keeper, Allen has been bothered by a hamstring pull for most of the preseason. He might be a candidate for the injured reserve list or practice squad.

The newcomer who should land a roster spot is Donovan Warren, a former Michigan star who went un-drafted in 2010. Warren, who signed with the Jets last year only to be cut and sitting out the entire season, has played very well so far for the Steelers this preseason.


The Steelers are set with Shaun Suisham as kicker and Greg Warren as long snapper. After re-signing unrestricted free agent Dan Sepulveda, it would appear that matters are settled at punter, too. But Jeremy Kapinos, who was signed last year when Sepulveda was hurt, is still on the roster.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Signing Bell another homer for Huntington

Sunday, August 21, 2011

This was Friday, in the hour before an almost biblical rainfall soaked the North Side, and Pirates general manager Neal Huntington had moved to the shadows of a PNC Park conference room to take in a scene that should and likely will cement his future in Pittsburgh.

Uber agent Scott Boras was perched at a microphone, sweet-swingin' stud schoolboy Josh Bell sat next to him in a Pirates cap, and the air was thick with the smell of a $5 million gamble that a lot of smart people will tell you is no gamble at all.

"You know me," Huntington said of a job status that still doesn't officially extend into 2012. "I control what I can control."

Among all Huntington's hotly debated moves as the top baseball mind in a mostly listless franchise, none has packed the potential electrical wallop of the chain of events that led to this day.

It started with Mike Leuzinger, a Pirates area scout working North Texas and Oklahoma. Leuzinger joined the Pirates in 2004 after 12 years scouting for the Los Angeles Dodgers, for whom he signed a Mr. Matt Kemp.

Kemp, you may have noticed, was hitting .319 before the weekend in a summer that still is projecting to 37 homers and 117 RBIs.

"It would be easy for me to say that I knew Matt Kemp was going to be hitting .320 today with 20-plus homers," Leuzinger was telling me on the phone from Wisconsin. "I had visions of how high he could go, but to see what he's done, I'd be lying [if I said] I knew that would be the case.

"With Josh, I have expectations of him being a very elite player, but I'm not gonna compare him to anyone but Josh Bell, a tremendous young man from a wonderful family. I've been in and out of the homes of many, many players and I can tell you this one is different. He's very intelligent. Very respectful."

They were part of this scene, too, the elegant family, father Earnest, mother Myrtle, sister Joy. One look at them, a couple of sentences exchanged, and you knew the whole don't-draft-me-I'm-going-to-the-University-of-Texas thing was no ruse.

"We're academics," Myrtle was saying about her side of the family. "I'm a professor of management [University of Texas-Arlington] in the school of business. My mother was a professor at Southern University. My sister just got her PhD from UMass, and I've got multiple cousins at the University of North Texas and Johns Hopkins, so, yes, it was important to me that Josh get the best education, but the bottom line for me was what was best for my son."

So it was about the nature of commitment, because commitments come in all sizes. You can commit to eating a healthy lunch for a change, you can commit to a future at the University of Texas, and then you can back up a commitment with $5 million, and that's maybe a whole other kind of commitment.

"I can't tell you how many times I was back and forth," Josh Bell said on his first day in Pittsburgh. "But, when someone has that much faith in a player, you can't turn them down."

When the Pirates started building their draft board this spring, they wound up positioning Bell as the sixth-best player in the entire pool. The whole Texas scold-'em scenario left him available when they were on the clock to start the second round, and Leuzinger's words were still ringing in their ears.

"Mike did what a great area scout does," Huntington said. "He allowed us to believe in the Bells."

Leuzinger surely was gratified that the Pirates would walk out on this limb, and he wasn't surprised by the price, either.

"I didn't know it was going to be $5 million," Leuzinger said. "I didn't even know if he'd take $5 million. But he's a guy who's never been shy about what kind of player he expects to be and wants to do it sooner rather than later."

It's not just Huntington and his staff who think that with Josh Bell and No. 1 pick Gerrit Cole they have two of this draft's top-six talents. This Pirates draft has been described as a landmark haul on seam-head sites web wide.

It's the kind of bold stroke financially and strategically the organization tried to convince Clint Hurdle it was capable of in November.

"Absolutely," the manager said. "And I've been seeing it before this, too, from the acquisitions of Derrek Lee and Ryan Ludwick; I was copied on every conversation Neal had throughout the whole process, the ones who were hangin' and the ones that fell off. His commitment has been consistent. He's told me who we were and where we're going and how we're gonna get there, and he's stuck to it.

"He's showed me models of how we're doing things against how it was done in the past, and I've just been so impressed with the last three years."

It's time to give Huntington a shot at the next three. Maybe players like Josh Bell can take him from there.

Gene Collier's "Two-Minute Warning" videos are featured exclusively on PG+, a members-only web site from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Our introduction to PG+ gives you all the details.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Highlights: Steelers 24, Eagles 14 (Preseason Game 2)

Harrison, Troy back as anchors

Friday, August 19, 2011

PITTSBURGH - AUGUST 18: Troy Polamalu(notes) #43 of the Pittsburgh Steelers runs with an intercepted pass against the Philadelphia Eagles during the preseason game on August 18, 2011 at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)

There was a whole lot to like about the Steelers' first-teamers in the 24-14 domination of Philadelphia's self-proclaimed Dream Team Thursday night, not least of which was Ben Roethlisberger in peak playground form, the Rashard & Redman rushing express, an offensive line patching up for two lost left tackles, and a defense that rendered Michael Vick as mobile as Kent Graham.

Really, it was about as exhilarating as an exhibition gets, especially after the egg laid last week in Washington.

"This was our chance to show what this defense was all about," linebacker LaMarr Woodley said.

Me, I would have settled for the NFL's Defensive Players of the Year for 2008 and 2010 simply walking onto, then walking off the Heinz Field grass without the help of a cart, stretcher or trainer.

Instead, I got much more.

No, James Harrison and Troy Polamalu weren't wholly themselves in their first real action since Super Bowl XLV. Neither recorded a tackle for the better part of the first half in which the first-teamers played. Neither even spent much time near the ball, with Polamalu so deep in center field he could have been confused with Andrew McCutchen.

Still, true to the history of these exceptional athletes, they delivered the back-to-back knockout blows late in the half.

With 1:12 left, Harrison and cornerback Donovan Warren swarmed Vick from behind for a shared sack, Harrison's left arm crashing down on Vick's shoulder like an anvil.

"The whole game felt good, felt strong," Harrison said. "We were able to do a lot of good things."

With the next snap on third-and-10, Vick's pass downfield was tipped by Woodley and descended into the arms of Polamalu, who winded his way back 36 yards, that mane flapping left and right with each dodge, before Vick brought him down with a dangerously low tackle.

"It's reckless, immature, Pop Warner," teased fellow safety Ryan Clark of the return. "But it's fun."

Yeah, just like the old No. 43.

When Polamalu returned to the sideline, coach Mike Tomlin greeted him by saying, "I'm over it."

"I want to take it back if I can," Polamalu said. "In the middle of a play, you're not thinking too much. Really, I just wanted to go out there and play ball. It felt good to be out there."

Sweeter still for this symmetry, Harrison had made such a bold initial rush that he would have drawn a holding penalty if not for the interception.

By halftime, the Eagles' offense had wasted 6:57 of everyone's time, and the Steelers' defense had its dynamic anchors back.

"Those guys are who they are," Tomlin said. "They're both former defensive-player-of-the-year type dudes, so we come to expect that play from them."

Hey, if you can name something that matters more to the Steelers' fortunes for 2011 than a healthy Harrison and Polamalu, I'm all ears. For all the other terrific pieces and all Dick LeBeau's schemes, the great separator with this defense is that it's next to impossible for opponents to scheme against Harrison, Polamalu and Woodley.

Harrison is 33 now, and he's coming off two surgeries in February and March to address a herniated disk in his lower back. There have been no complications so far, but any doctor will attest that there's no such thing as minor back surgery. All come with risk, all are prone to relapse, and uncertainty mounts with age. For sure, it was plenty sobering to see that back wrapped in ice after his exit last night.

Polamalu crossed into 30 since we last saw him and the rest of the secondary gobbled up by Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers, and he still isn't fully recovered from the Achilles' tendon he injured last December. Sure, he toughed it out after that and was helped by a coaching staff that allowed him to play well off the line of scrimmage. But that's Clark Kent to Polamalu's Superman.

It's going to take time.

Or, as Harrison put it, "It's coming."

Give both credit for being blunt about their health. Harrison said again last night that he "won't be 100 percent" until the Sept. 11 opener, and Polamalu reiterated, "I'm not 100 percent yet." Those figures were confirmed on the field last night, but at least the trend is headed upward.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Pirates' Tabata yearns to honor Clemente

Thursday, August 18, 2011

If only for one game, Jose Tabata would like to play right field at PNC Park wearing No. 21 on the back of his Pirates jersey. (Chaz Palla/Tribune-Review)

If only for one game, Jose Tabata would like to play right field at PNC Park wearing No. 21 on the back of his Pirates jersey.

"That's my dream," Tabata said Wednesday.

No Pirates player has worn 21 since Hall of Fame right fielder Roberto Clemente. The team retired the number at the start of the 1973 season, four months after Clemente was killed in a plane crash while attempting to deliver supplies to earthquake victims in Nicaragua.

As Tabata begins the process of becoming at least a part-time right fielder — playing in front of the 21-foot-high Clemente Wall at PNC Park — he wants to honor the man who was his childhood idol.

"My wish is to one day ask (the Clemente) family if I can wear that number for at least one day," Tabata said through interpreter Luis Silverio. "I am so proud to play the same position as my hero."

Tabata was born in Venezuela 15 years after Clemente's death. Like thousands of other Latin American children before and since, Tabata grew up eagerly listening to stories about Clemente.

"My father told me about Clemente when I was 7 years old," Tabata said. "I heard about the type of person he was on and off the field, the way he played the game, the way he respected the game, and how he died trying to help others. That's what made him my hero."

Clemente remains among the most revered players in Pittsburgh sports history. Tabata said his hope to wear No. 21 is not intended as a slight at Clemente's legacy.

"There is only one Roberto. I realize that," Tabata said. "He's my inspiration to keep working hard. At the end of my career, my numbers won't be the same as Clemente's, but at least I was able to do something for the Pittsburgh Pirates."

Tabata made his first major league start in right field Wednesday. He has played 158 games in left field and 15 in center in his career.

"I want to play (in right)," Tabata said. "It's where the team wants me to play, and I will honor that."

Tabata figures to get a lot more time in right, especially when Alex Presley comes off the disabled list.

"Presley is better suited to the gap (in left-center)," manager Clint Hurdle said. "Jose still has the range to go get the ball (in left), but his throwing arm is strong enough for right field."

Hurdle also is impressed that Tabata wants to patrol right field because of Clemente.

"It's very refreshing to see a kid like Jose, who's tied to it — the heritage, the history, the position, all of it," Hurdle said. "It's old school. He wants to play in front of the Clemente Wall."

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Ward wants to hit 1,000 in catches

By Ed Bouchette, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Walk into some clubs and discover the cream of the crop. The Duquesne Club, the 600 Home Run Club, the Playboy Club and the club with the half-Korean, half-African American knocking on its door to get in.

They usually don't open doors and barriers for Hines Ward, he knocks them down. He has accomplished just about everything there is in football, with one personal goal left, to join a club that is among the most exclusive in sports. Only seven players in the history of the NFL have had 1,000 pass receptions in their careers. Hines Ward is poised to become the eighth.

"That's like 3,000 hits, 600 home runs," said Ward.

Not really because the NFL's 1,000 Catch Club is more exclusive than those two in baseball. There have been 28 baseball players with 3,000 career hits. Jim Thome this week became the eighth player to hit 600 home runs.

Ward has 954 receptions. He needs 46, and he has caught more passes than that in every season except 1998, when he caught 15 as a rookie. He said he wants to win a third Super Bowl in his 14th NFL season, but hitting 1,000 remains a personal goal.

"That would be awesome to get 1,000 catches and do it all for one organization," Ward said. "It wasn't like I'm in a prolific passing offense, it's not like I'm playing in a dome. I think it's just a milestone of consistency I've had my whole career and just being there. That would be huge."

It would add to his considerable resume that includes four Pro Bowls, two Super Bowl rings, one Super Bowl MVP award and virtually every team receiving record, including his 11,702 yards. And, remember, a few Hall of Famers also played the position in Pittsburgh, Lynn Swann and John Stallworth.

Hitting 1,000, "I think that puts him in the Hall of Fame, first ballot," said Steelers offensive coordinator Bruce Arians. "I think he already is without it, but I think that legitimizes it.

"Hines always needs something, he always has to have either a chip on his shoulder or a goal just to keep him rolling. I love when he's frosty and he has a chip on his shoulder."

Arians also noticed something different about Ward in this training camp.

"He looks spryer than he did last year. I think getting the knee cleaned out [is the reason]. It swelled on him a lot last year. I think that has helped, losing a little weight through the dancing and I'm sure that dancing stuff tightened up his core. He looks good."

Ward rejoined his teammates in practice last week after June 1 thumb surgery to repair a ligament. The knee surgery, to remove some lose cartilage, occurred a week after the Steelers lost the Super Bowl. He is 35 and wants to play at least through the 2012 season and maybe beyond. But he does not want to overextend his stay and points to how Franco Harris finished his career in Seattle for a few weeks in 1984 as an example.

"I don't want to play for any other team. I don't want to be like Franco, in his last year he goes for Seattle. I have two years left on my deal, this year and next year. We'll see how it goes, when I want to retire. I do want to finish my contract out and go from there. I do want to win another Super Bowl."

And wants those 46 receptions. He caught 59 last season, the fewest since his rookie year. There are younger, faster receivers all around him -- Mike Wallace, Emmanuel Sanders, Antonio Brown. Their talents demand more and more attention from the quarterback. Getting 46 won't be as easy as it was maybe even last season. The season before that, however, he more than doubled that total with 95.

"The opportunities you get, you have to capitalize," Ward said. "I think I've done that my whole career."

He counted up the number of quarterbacks from whom he caught passes and came to eight, including catching his first touchdown from Mike Tomczak against the expansion Cleveland Browns in 1999. The others include Kordell Stewart, Kent Graham, Tommy Maddox, Ben Roethlisberger, Charlie Batch, Byron Leftwich and Dennis Dixon. He also caught touchdown passes from Jerome Bettis and Antwaan Randle El, including the one from Randle El that helped the Steelers win Super Bowl XL and Ward that game's MVP.

"Ten different guys, that's crazy," Ward said.

One thousand receptions might be even crazier. He would become the only receiver to do so playing his entire career on the grass outdoors in the northern climate.

"I know I'm getting older," Ward said, "but I'm in great condition, I look crisp out there, I feel good. It's a matter of staying healthy for 16 games and, hopefully, make the playoffs and being that guy the team can hang their hat on. In the Super Bowl, I pride myself on making plays."

For more on the Steelers, read the blog, Ed Bouchette on the Steelers at Ed Bouchette: and Twitter @EdBouchette.

Pirates cheap? Not anymore

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Gerrit Cole, the overall number one draft pick, signed a minor league deal with an $8 million bonus.

OK, can we now finally, formally move past the stale narrative that the Pirates are cheap?

Never mind that they spent $17 million on the full draft class, the most expensive in the sport's history.

Never mind, even, that they added $5 million to the payroll at the July 31 trade deadline by taking on Derrek Lee and Ryan Ludwick, making for a grand total of $22 million committed in a 16-day span.

Forget it all for a moment, if only because most of the above was expected.

Not Josh Bell.

I could break down dollars and decimal points all day to illustrate that the Pirates really are putting their cash back into baseball rather their pockets, their Seven Springs ski-lift upgrades or wherever else the conspiracy theories go. But it's so much simpler to point just to Bell, their second-round pick who stunned the baseball community by signing for $5 million.

"We're excited about the whole draft," owner Bob Nutting said Tuesday at PNC Park, "but we're especially happy about that one."

Bell, a 6-foot-3 outfielder out of Dallas Jesuit High School with breathtaking natural power, was ranked No. 6 on the Pirates' board and top-10 on most independent rankings. But Bell made clear he intended to honor his commitment to the University of Texas, and his family penned a letter to all 30 teams asking them not to pick him. His adviser, super-agent Scott Boras, floated through the media that not even $10 million could change Bell's mind.

If you're the Pirates, even if you think Boras is bluffing — and, trust me, there's ample precedent — why take on that headache?

No one would have complained if the Pirates bypassed Bell, just like the 29 teams that were scared off by his letter. In Cole, the Pirates already had a 6-foot-4 flame-throwing stud out of UCLA to add to an arsenal of elite pitching prospects.

And hey, the Pirates could have kept that $5 million for themselves, if only to cover the exact amount wasted on Lyle Overbay this summer.

But they didn't. They spent it.

And, maybe just as telling, they seemed as giddy as schoolchildren yesterday that they did.

Nutting: "Obviously, it's a tremendous day. I couldn't be more pleased."

Team president Frank Coonelly: "It's a great day for all of us."

General manager Neal Huntington: "We're just delighted."

Even manager Clint Hurdle, who has little to do with the draft, caught up with Nutting behind the batting cage and boomed out: "Great job!"

The Nutting ownership has done some dumb things since taking over in 2007, and I've taken pains to point those out: Nutting never should have paid that $20 million in 2008 to cover taxes for the minority owners and converted equity, a move made primarily to protect his stake. He should have been better informed and more aggressive in preventing the Matt Wieters and Miguel Sano fiascos.

But all the seven-figure checks being sent out of 115 Federal St. provide overwhelming evidence that it's well past time to cast aside the caricature of Nutting the Miser and the penny-pinching Pirates.

"Well, I would hope so," Coonelly said. "Bob has demonstrated a great commitment to this franchise."

Still cynical?

Let's look at the broader issue of major-league payroll.

The Milwaukee Brewers, based in a market two-thirds the size of Pittsburgh, have a $90 million payroll that dwarfs the Pirates' $50 million. But what if it could be shown that each team is spending to its means?

The Brewers will outdraw the Pirates by a 3-2 ratio at the gate, and their prices are 44 percent higher, which brings them $25 million more in ticket revenues. From there, estimate that the Brewers are making $5 million more in suites and sponsorships, even if that's probably low.

We're down to a $10 million difference in the teams' ability to spend.

Well, the Pirates just outspent the Brewers by $9 million on the draft — extra money that could have gone into major-league payroll — and our difference is now $1 million.

Finally, Rick Schlesinger, Milwaukee's chief operating officer, told me over the weekend that his team will lose money. That means the Brewers are spending beyond their means.

Are we at zero yet?

Yes, the Pirates need to keep adding to payroll, so they can keep the core of their roster together, so they can have a product that maximizes revenues at PNC Park.

For now, let's turn the page.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Patience with Alvarez will pay off

Monday, August 15, 2011

MILWAUKEE — If anything torments a follower of the Pirates more than watching them fall apart at Miller Park for five years now, than watching the Brewers' 275-pound first baseman and a relief pitcher beat out infield singles, than watching the tying run stranded after a leadoff triple in the ninth, than watching an unassisted forceout at home plate in the 10th ... OK, well, maybe it doesn't get much worse.

In the summer-long category, though, I'll put watching Pedro Alvarez atop my torment list.

The Pirates' best power-hitting prospect in a decade has become utterly cringe-worthy, whether a pitch or a grounder is headed his way. His average is down to .197 after again going hitless in the Pirates' 2-1 loss Sunday, and his three home runs and 15 RBI seem frozen in time next to those 66-and-counting strikeouts.

Since returning to the Pirates on July 25, he is batting .176 and astoundingly has hit the ball out of the infield only 16 times in 72 plate appearances.

The kid looks terrible.

He is terrible right now.

But those pronouncing Alvarez a bust are ridiculously premature. He's played 150 games in the majors. Seriously, how about at least waiting until he has played a full season before burying him?

One look at that 275-pound first baseman for the Brewers illustrates the potential payoff: Prince Fielder is the heart-of-the-order force found in most contending lineups, owner of 27 home runs, 89 RBI and, just for kicks, a .305 average. He's the kind of thumper many still expect Alvarez to be.

Fielder's advice: Leave Pedro alone.

"What's probably the problem for him is that people are trying to classify him as a power hitter instead of him just being a hitter," Fielder told me this weekend. "You've got to learn how to hit first. Anytime you hear people telling that you're one thing, it puts a little pressure on you because you're trying to be that. Just think about hitting the ball hard. You can't put a GPS on the ball and make it go over the fence. Once he gets that down, he'll be fine."

He had better be. The painful fact for the Pirates is that Alvarez is just too important to the franchise, the only hitter with real power potential at any level of the organization.

Management made a mistake in recalling Alvarez from Triple-A Indianapolis last month, just as some of the latest instruction -- drive outside pitches the opposite way, be more aggressive early in counts -- was resonating. He was batting .365 in 18 games. But he also had dug himself into 0-2 counts in a third of his at-bats, and that should have been a glaring red flag.

This isn't hindsight on my part. I backed management when they kept him down despite fans' howls, and I panned management when, in a move highly unlike general manager Neal Huntington, he promoted a critical piece of the future because of a need with the parent club.

Huntington, to his credit, acknowledges the mistake.

"Some of this is on us," he said.

The Pirates' next move isn't easy. Hearing the brass assess him over the weekend -- "He looks a little like he's lost his way," Huntington said -- it sounds like Alvarez could be headed back to Indianapolis, maybe as early as today. Only 21 games remain on Indianapolis' schedule, but there's a risk he can beat himself down further by staying.

"Obviously, I'm not doing as well as I want," Alvarez said yesterday in an interview he clearly wanted to have about as much as a tooth extraction. "I'm just going to keep trying."

Trying at what?

"Just have good at-bats, whatever that takes."

And his confidence?

"You know, I have every bit of confidence that I'm going to get out of this. I've just to keep with my routine, learn from my coaches and teammates. I know for a fact that it'll turn around."

Call me nuts, but I believe him.

Alvarez hit well enough at Vanderbilt that he richly earned being the No. 2 pick in the 2008 draft. He started slowly at every level of the minors, then dominated every one of those levels. In the majors, too, let's not forget that in 2010 he had 16 home runs and 64 RBI in 95 games, had back-to-back two-homer games and was the National League's Rookie of the Month for September.

Baseball people will swear, no matter the contrary examples, that power hitters arrive late.

"There's some patience involved, some challenges," manager Clint Hurdle said. "If you believe in the player, if you believe in the person, you have to give him the opportunity to work through those."

"He's too good a hitter, and he cares too much," Huntington said. "We believe very strongly in Pedro Alvarez. He'll be fine."

Let's find out.

Cotchery finds Steelers the perfect place to catch on and build a future

Former Jets wide receiver felt he was passed over in New York

Monday, August 15, 2011
By Gerry Dulac, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Jerricho Cotchery was tired of being passed over when the New York Jets kept bringing in former Steelers receivers such as Santonio Holmes and Plaxico Burress. At 29, he felt he had no future with the team that had its Super Bowl hopes dashed seven months ago in the AFC championship at Heinz Field.

So, even though he was scheduled to earn nearly $2 million this season with the Jets, Cotchery asked for his release and jumped to the team he always has quietly admired.

And the Steelers are glad to have him. Cotchery brings experience and depth to a position loaded with young talent and gives the Steelers a fifth receiver who is proven and productive in the NFL.

"I'm just here to help the team get to the Super Bowl -- and winning it," Cotchery said. "That's exactly why I came here -- to play for a Super Bowl contender. And the atmosphere. The way they handle their guys over here, it's something I need at this time. It's the best atmosphere for me to thrive in as a player and as a person."

The Steelers have not specified a role for Cotchery, 29, who averaged 51 catches and 645 yards in seven seasons with the Jets. Instead, they told him they would find a spot for him once they see how he fits in their offense.

Even though he played with a herniated disc in his back in 2010 and finished with just 41 catches and 443 yards -- his lowest totals in five years -- the Steelers are glad to have him.

"He knows how to play in those grimy areas of the field -- inside the numbers where you're going to have some hands on you all the time," offensive coordinator Bruce Arians said. "We'll find a role for him as soon as we find out what he does best."

Cotchery visited the Steelers a week ago and stayed for two days, but left without signing a contract. At the time, the Steelers felt as though Cotchery was looking for a better situation where he might be a third receiver. But, after visiting with the Baltimore Ravens, Cotchery changed his mind and signed a one-year contract with the Steelers.

"After my visit here, I felt like this is the place for me, this is the type of atmosphere I need to be in," Cotchery said. "Business-wise, you still have to take the visit; that was the best thing to do. But, all along, I felt like this was the place for me.

"I was talking to Ryan [Clark] earlier and I was talking how I used to watch interviews and hear their guys say, 'We do things a certain way here,' and I always wondered what they were talking about. When I came here on my visit, I got it. It's a great atmosphere. Everyone is tight, everyone is close here. It's a great atmosphere to be in, a great atmosphere to work in."

The Steelers were looking for a veteran receiver who could play the slot -- a role filled last season by Antwaan Randle El, who was released. Cotchery, who has played all seven NFL seasons with the Jets, was a perfect fit because he is bigger (6 feet, 203 pounds) and scrappier than Randle El.

Cotchery had 358 catches, 4,514 yards and 18 touchdowns in his career with the Jets. His best season was 2007 when he started 15 games and had 82 catches for 1,130 yards and two touchdowns.

"Now we have depth at the wide receiver position," said injured wideout Emmanuel Sanders (foot), who hasn't practiced in nearly two weeks. "And coach [Scottie] Montgomery said it keeps the wide-receiver room hot. That's great. You always want that competition in the room."

"He's a great wideout," veteran Hines Ward said. "He's been making plays since he's been in the league.

"We really don't have a lot of experience other than me and Mike [Wallace]. We're just adding that extra veteran guy to be there in case something happens. If he gets an opportunity in the three- or four-wide sets, he definitely adds strength to the wide receiver corps."

Cotchery, a fourth-round draft choice in 2004, still had two years remaining on a contract with the Jets that was to pay him $1.8 million in 2011. But he asked for -- and was granted -- his release because he said he didn't feel as though he was a big part of their future plans.

When the Jets re-signed Santonio Holmes and added former Steelers wide receiver Plaxico Burress and veteran Derrick Mason after the lockout, he said he thought it was time to move on.

"It was time for a change, time for a change of scenery for myself and the organization, as well," Cotchery said. "It was time to move on. Future-wise, I didn't really see myself fitting in. People on the outside looking in might say, 'Well, you've been there that long, you're part of the future,' but I didn't really see it that way. I think it was beneficial for both sides to move on."

Cotchery's numbers declined last season because of his back injury -- he also led the Jets with eight dropped passes, according to Stats Inc. -- but he had surgery in February to correct the problem.

Nonetheless, in the AFC championship at Heinz Field in January, Cotchery had five catches for 33 yards and a 4-yard touchdown against the Steelers.

"They need a veteran guy to come in and make some plays, that's about it," Cotchery said. "Nothing is given to you here. You have to come in and work your tail off and earn your stripes."

Photo: Matt Freed/Post-Gazette

Gerry Dulac:; Twitter@gerrydulac

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Pirates manager Hurdle is guided by history

Sunday, August 14, 2011

While the Pirates were finding different ways to lose, and lose often, manager Clint Hurdle rocked steady to the beat of the same message. His message.

"How you get through (adversity) as an organization and a team is what can define you actually and make you better in the long run," he said last Sunday after a 10th consecutive loss.

This has been a prevailing theme of Hurdle's. And who better to spread it than a brush-cut, slogan-spouting testament to the long run? "There's not much that's been thrown at me that's gonna catch me off guard," he said.

Certainly not a 10-game losing streak, distasteful as it was. Hurdle has dealt with larger issues.

"It's a game," he often says, win or lose.

As the Rockies' manager in 2007, Hurdle guided his club to the World Series a year after it finished 10 games under .500. In his first season with the Pirates, he has overseen a big improvement from last year's 105-loss disaster and kept the team competitive longer than what seemed reasonable.

But before trying to reinvent the Pirates, Hurdle had to reinvent himself.

"I've gone through an obstacle course and come out the other side bigger, stronger and better," he said. "I've learned and lived, on and off the field.

"Usually behind leadership you hope to have good judgment," Hurdle said, sitting at his desk inside PNC Park. "And good judgment's needed in times of adversity. How do you get good judgment? Through experience. And how do you get the experience? Through bad judgment."

Hurdle would know. A recovering alcoholic, he helped sabotage his promising career on the field and lived less than responsibly off it. In many ways, life began at 40.

"There were challenges that were presented to me," said Hurdle, 54, "and some I manufactured on my own."

The journey

Terry Bross, who pitched for Hurdle on three minor league clubs and in the Florida Instructional League, said, "The thing about Clint is because of the journey he's taken, he keeps everything in perspective. I never saw him get too high or too low. He's shouldered a lot in his life. And he does a very good job of sharing it."

While managing the Mets' Jackson (Miss.) affiliate in 1990, Hurdle noticed that Bross pitched better when he was angry. So Hurdle told Bross to rile himself up by stalking around the mound and trying to look intimidating. It wasn't hard. A former St. John's basketball player, Bross stood 6-foot-9.

Hurdle also suggested Bross grow a droopy Fu Manchu mustache, creating a taller version of Al Hrabosky, the colorful reliever and psyche-out artist known as "The Mad Hungarian" and Hurdle's ex-teammate. This would violate the Mets' minor league facial hair policy, but Hurdle got a pass.

Performing the full Hrabosky, Bross set a club saves record and was called up the next year. Although his major league career lasted just 10 games (he also pitched in Japan), he credits Hurdle with helping him get a taste of the big time.

"He's one of the most influential people I've ever been around and one of the best motivators," Bross said. "No matter what you thought you were going through, he always made you think you're better than you are."

Things can change

Twice divorced, Hurdle met Karla Yearick, an accountant from Muncy, Pa., while managing Williamsport for the Mets in 1991. They were married eight years later. Today they have two children: Christian, who is 6, and Madison, who celebrated her ninth birthday at a party last Sunday at PNC Park. Hurdle also has a daughter, Ashley, 26, from a previous marriage.

Maddie, as the family calls Madison, was born with a genetic disorder, Prader-Willi syndrome. Symptoms can vary, but PWS generally causes a chronic feeling of hunger, learning issues, and social and motor deficits. It affects 1 in 12,000-15,000 people.

The family's struggles with the disease have been well-chronicled, and the Hurdles are deeply involved with the national Prader-Willi Association. Clint is a spokesperson. In 2005, he missed several games while managing the Rockies after complications put Maddie in the hospital and things looked scary. He calls Maddie "my angel."

He is supposed to brood about his playing career or bust up the furniture over a losing streak?

"Right now is the time I think I can handle some adversity," he said.

An outfielder and first baseman, Hurdle rose and fell almost at once. He joined the Royals fulltime in 1978 pictured on the cover of Sports Illustrated with the words, "This Year's Phenom." He ended his career as the Mets' bullpen catcher in 1987, a bust to many, even though he played well at times and helped the Royals reach the 1980 World Series.

Reflecting on one particularly rocky time that included rumors he was gay, Hurdle several years ago wryly noted to reporters, "I saw with the snap of finger, things can change. In a period of four weeks I was hurt, separated, divorced and then supposedly a homosexual. It was amazing."

Defining moments

The reinvention of Clint Hurdle has occurred in stages, a telling moment here, some bad judgment there, the occasional epiphany, advice both heeded and ignored. About when he was 30, he said, coming off his second divorce, he took a walk with his dad, Big Clint.

"One of the all-time best walks," Hurdle said, as if ranking them. "He said, 'Life's not fair, boy. You need to get this. You need to listen to me. You don't need to talk. This isn't the time for your questions. Life's not fair. What you do in situations you're handed is gonna dictate how you're gonna live your life and how you're gonna respect your life and what you make of your life."

Hurdle took the message to heart, but the real transformation happened a few years later when he met Karla. "I have reference points for growth," he said. "But she is one of the defining moments of my life."

She made him wait a few years after he proposed.

"I think he had a lot more things to figure out about himself," Karla Hurdle said. "I told him he would never be able to make me happy until he made himself happy."

Hurdle said he told Karla not long ago, "I know how much God loves me by the fact that he brought you into my life."

If Karla is one "defining moment," the other is Maddie. Hurdle's sister, Bobbi Jo, once told a reporter that Maddie took Clint "to a place where he'd never been." He was asked where that place was.

"It's given me the understanding of what unconditional love is all about," he said while in his PNC Park office. "It was a term I thought I had a grasp on. I thought I had a pretty good feeling about it. I didn't."

Karla Hurdle said, "You don't raise your hand to be picked for this; you kind of get elected by God. I don't think we would have gotten to this place in our relationship had we not been given Maddie as this gift.

"When you have someone with special needs, you have to remove yourself from the picture sometimes. They come first. We've accepted this. We know we've been given this awesome platform in baseball, and we can help bring awareness to the syndrome. When you do that you kind of give up a selfish piece of yourself."

Reaching out

Hurdle volunteers that he is still involved with Alcoholics Anonymous, preaches the benefits of therapy and, yes, expresses how much he loves his wife. Such subjects usually go unbroached in baseball. Hurdle doesn't care.

"You've got a broken bone, you go see a bone doctor," he said. "You've got a broken head, you go see a head doctor. You've got a broken heart, you might want to find somebody you can share that with.

"Most people go through things that don't work out, and they only look at how it affected them. I was able to take another step through counseling. All the damage I caused to other people. I never had that side of my life. It was all about me. The sun rose and set on the crack of my (rear) every day."

A large, robust man, Hurdle uses his voice like a musical instrument, changing keys and chords, punching some words hard, drawing out others. He resonates. He can intimidate and enlighten in the same sentence. "He's a very dominant person when he walks into a room," said his former teammate, Jamie Quirk. Hurdle also is fond of slogans that proffer wisdom and advice, like "Multitasking makes me multimediocre," and "Delay is not denial."

Whatever helps.

"I went through dealing with addiction," he said. "I went through two failed marriages and another marriage that has substance and roots, and understanding the collateral damage that I could have caused to others through my drinking and bad relationships.

"I've reached out and gotten some help and gotten some things right. Because I want to. I wanted to be better. I felt my family deserved better, my mom and dad, my sisters, my teammates. Even late in my career. And especially as a coach and a manager."

Just craziness

With the Royals, Hurdle shared a house with veterans George Brett and Quirk. That is, until Brett, who owned the house, kicked out Hurdle. The place came to be known as Animal House.

Hurdle drank heavily, ignoring his family's pleas to stop. During the 1981 strike, he got a job tending bar.

"It was just craziness," said Quirk, now a Houston Astros coach. "Clint was starting to get platooned and knew a lefty was going the next day, so his hours became a little longer at night and George had to go out and play. Not that he went to bed early, either."

Quirk and Hurdle went their separate ways after Hurdle was traded from Kansas City to Cincinnati in late 1981. When Hurdle became Rockies manager in 2002, Quirk called to congratulate his former teammate. The next thing Quirk knew, Hurdle hired him as a coach.

"If you had asked me when we were 25 years old, do you think Clint Hurdle would ever manage in the big leagues, I would absolutely say no," Quirk said. "It would have never entered my mind.

"He was just happy-go-lucky."

Drinking, injuries and attitude helped derail Hurdle's playing career. "He just didn't take care of himself," Quirk said. "And there was a lot of pressure on him."

When Quirk interviewed for the job, "Right away, I could see he was a different guy," he said. "The more I worked with him, the more I could see how intelligent he is."

A life experience

Hurdle said he became a Christian when he was 17, "but I used Jesus as an ATM card for 23 years. I'd go get some Jesus when I needed some Jesus. And there were plenty of times I didn't need it."

Nowadays, Hurdle said he asks God every day to be the best husband, father, friend and manager he can be.

People still send Hurdle the Sports Illustrated and ask him to autograph the cover. He complies.

"It does not bother me," he said. "It's a great reference, or should I say a North Star. Who I used to be. It's a life experience."

More life experiences: The Mets organization fired Hurdle after a shakeup in 1993, even though he was considered a promising young manager. The Rockies fired Hurdle in 2009 less than two years after he led them to their first and only World Series.

It's just a game, Hurdle often says. But don't tell him how important it is to other people, not to mention himself. He is a baseball lifer who plunges headfirst into the job.

Still, at some point you have to get out and towel off. Hurdle likes to read. About 20 books rest on his office desk. In one pile, a Vince Lombardi inspirational tome sits atop Keith Richards' autobiography. Not a surprise; his real passion is music, all types. "I'm all over the joint," he said. He is converting his 10,000 CDs to digital, an ongoing project. He has four iPods.

But family comes first. The Hurdles are moving into their new house in Hampton, where Karla's five-minute rule still applies. Hurdle gets to vent about the game for no longer than that. "Maddie doesn't want to hear about missed cutoff men or three-run homers," he said.

"Kid time," Hurdle said, is always first thing in the morning. Maddie gets up first, and they have breakfast. Then Christian stumbles down "like a college kid."

After a lopsided loss during the streak, Hurdle and Maddie talked about the pierogi race at the stadium and swimming. It wasn't until the next day that he got up, gave Karla a hug and said, "We got slaughtered last night."

Karla laughed. "Yes you did," she said.

There was another game that night.

Photo: Justin Merriman | Tribune-Review