Thursday, June 30, 2011

Possible Jagr sequel already compelling

Thursday, June 30, 2011

What is Jaromir Jagr waiting for, a sit-down chat with Jim Gray on ESPN?

The Decision was supposed to go down Wednesday but never did. If Jagr says anything but "Penguins" today, Friday, or whenever he makes up his mind, he will be skewered for centuries to come.

In the meantime, the possible Jagr sequel — "From Russia With Gloves" — has promise. I'm thinking along the lines of "The Godfather Part II" or maybe "Escape From The Planet of the Apes." Quite enjoyable, even if they weren't as good as the originals.

But you have to admit, especially in the wake of The Indecision, that there's a chance this turns into "Caddyshack II," or, God forbid, "Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls."

Look, I'm on board with the Jagr idea. I called for it in early May, when all Jagr had from the Penguins was an invitation to their alumni golf tournament. But let's not pretend it's a two-foot gimme.

Bad memories are surfacing ...

I remember Jagr refusing to take the ice late in the third period during the Ivan Hlinka era ... Jagr demanding a trade ... Wait, what's this?
Jagr handing me a framed photo of himself and asking me to pray to it (actually happened). There are more. Many more.

Let's just say I'm still on board but with trepidation. I am of two minds. Which is fitting, as Jagr was not only of multiple minds but multiple personalities during much of his time here.

Let's put my warring sides in the faceoff circle and see who wins.

SKEPTICAL MIND: Jagr's a new man, eh? Is that what you're peddling?
With apologies to John McEnroe, you cannot be serious. Leopards don't change stripes, buddy. "Yags" was a brooding, finicky brat at 30. Think he's enlightened at 40? He won't be asking for different skates every five seconds, sulking when he goes 12 games without a goal or dragging himself to the bench after a bad shift? He's going to be a leader? Wow. You'll believe anything.

TRUSTING MIND: Oh, you negative media types. First of all, people do change. The same Mario Lemieux who was allergic to exercise when he arrived in Pittsburgh was a workout freak in his second incarnation. Randy Moss didn't make a peep for three years in New England.

Secondly, Jagr does best when he isn't the leader — and nobody wants him to be the Dalai Lama, anyway. The Penguins don't need a higher power. They need a better power play. Put Jagr on the right half-boards. And know that underneath the massive array of defense mechanisms, he always cared about his legacy here. He wants to make right with Mario. He will be supremely motivated. You watch.

SKEPTIC: Grab the Kleenex and cue the violins, you delusional moron. You speak of Jagr's New York years as if he were Mark Messier. Did you know that as recently as 2007 he begged out of shootouts? Would Messier have done that? You also failed to mention that he napalmed the Capitals' dressing room when he was there.

He couldn't even score 20 goals in the KHL, by the way, so what makes you think he'll score 30 in the NHL? You're buying into the fairy tale and ignoring reality. This would end badly, perhaps before Christmas. Repeat after me: The Penguins wouldn't be getting the Jagr of '98.

BELIEVER: Nor would they expect the Jagr of '98. His game never was dependent on speed. He uses that monster frame to control the puck down low. He can still fire it, too. The vision and hands remain.

Did you see that hat trick against the U.S. in the World Championships? Did you see what U.S. captain Mark Stuart said of Jagr? "He's still got it."

Of course he does. And for whatever issues he might have, Jagr is no dummy. I remember Kevin Constantine telling me that even when it looked as if Jagr were in la-la land during meetings, he'd have clearer recall than any of his teammates.

Jagr knows what would be at stake here — his Pittsburgh legacy. He wouldn't blow that.

If he ever makes up his mind, that is.

Read more: Starkey: Possible Jagr sequel already compelling - Pittsburgh Tribune-Review

Another Look: Gene Clines

By Bob Barrickman
Beaver County Times Sports Correspondent
June 29, 2011

Gene Clines never was a regular with the Pittsburgh Pirates but he got the starting nod in center field in the biggest game of his playing career.

Clines started in place of Al Oliver against Baltimore left-handed starter Mike Cuellar in Game 7 of the 1971 World Series. Pirate manager Danny Murtaugh platooned Clines, a right-handed hitter with the lefty swinging Oliver.

Clines wasn’t surprised to be Murtaugh’s choice.

“That’s the way it was all year,” said Clines, 64. “Why change once you get to the World Series?”

The Pirates beat the Orioles, 2-1, to win the Series. Clines recalled his thoughts after shortstop Jackie Hernandez fielded a ground ball and threw the ball to first baseman Bob Robertson to record the game’s final out.

“It’s finally over and I’m a member of a world championship team,” Clines said during his return to Pittsburgh last week to take part in the Pirates 40th anniversary celebration of the ‘71 world champs at PNC Park. Clines batted .308 in 273 at bats and had a career-high 15 stolen bases that season.

Clines has been a senior advisor with the Los Angeles Dodgers for the past five years.

“I work with the kids throughout (the Dodgers) minor-league system,” he said.

The Pirates train during the spring in Bradenton, Fla., where Clines makes his home. But Clines doesn’t get to see his old team since he is in Arizona with the Dodgers.

Though Clines batted .334 with the N.L. East champion Pirates in 1972, he couldn’t crack the lineup full time in a crowded Pittsburgh outfield. Two years later, he was traded to the New York Mets for catcher Duffy Dyer. Clines had a career-high 446 at bats with the Texas Rangers in 1976 and finished his 10-year career in 1979 following three seasons with the Chicago Cubs. His career average was .277.

Clines was the hitting coach for 11 years under manager Dusty Baker, the first four with the Cubs and then seven seasons with the San Francisco Giants. Thirty-one years after the Bucs won the ‘71 Series, Clines was in the dugout with San Francisco for Game 7 of the 2002 Fall Classic. The Giants came out in the short end to the then-Anaheim Angels.

When Clines played center for the Pirates in his first three of five seasons with the club, he was flanked by late Hall of Famers Willie Stargell in left and ‘71 Series MVP Roberto Clemente in right.

“Roberto and Willie were leaders by example,” Clines said. “You watch two superstars like they were go about their job, you say, if they can play that hard, I should play even harder.”

Clines recalled the “togetherness” of the ‘71 Bucs.

“The camaraderie we had and that we all played as one,” he said. “We were on the same page and were on the same mission to get to the World Series.”

Once the Pirates got down 2-0 to the Orioles, the intangibles took over.

“There was no sign of panic with our club all year,” Clines said. “We never doubted ourselves no matter what the media said about (the Orioles’) four 20-game winners (Cuellar, Jim Palmer, Dave McNally and Pat Dobson).”

Pirates starter Steve Blass outperformed them all by hurling complete-game victories in games three and seven.

“I was drafted in this system and it was tough to leave,” admitted Clines, who was the Pirates sixth-round pick in 1966. “Even though I was traded, I was drafted as a Bucco and I’ll be a Bucco ‘til the day I die.”

Friday, June 24, 2011

Winning on a dime is possible

By Gene Collier, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Saturday, June 25, 2011

PITTSBURGH - JUNE 24: Tony Watson(notes) #65 of the Pittsburgh Pirates pitches against the Boston Red Sox during the game on June 24, 2011 at PNC Park in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)

The Pirates have 48 homers; the Red Sox have 46 homers on the road. The Pirates on Clint Hurdle's lineup card Friday night had 28 homers; the Red Sox on Terry Francona's had mashed 49, and the head banger, David Ortiz with 17, wasn't even on it.

And none of that even begins to describe the offensive mismatch that provides the inescapable framework of the hotly anticipated weekend series now in progress.

At one point in a baseball season still not half over, Boston scored 14 runs or more six times in a 29-game stretch. The Pirates, one time, scored 10.

All right, two times.

It's got everything to do with talent, logically enough, which so often in Major League Baseball has everything to do with money, and Boston first baseman Adrian Gonzalez being this summer's Exhibit A.

Apparently no one informed Gonzalez that sluggers who sign obscene contracts in overheated baseball-centric markets often struggle to sustain anything resembling the casual excellence that crackled off his bat in laid-back San Diego.

Do tell.

When he came up in the seventh inning Friday night against Pirates rookie Tony Watson, Gonzalez was hitting .363, which meant he was leading the big leagues in hits, RBIs, doubles, extra-base hits, total bases, batting average, front office I-told-ya-so's and in the number of games in which he had a least three hits. He'd done it 14 times.

Adrian Gonzalez is astounding, and all it's costing the Red Sox is $154 million over this and the next half-dozen summers, which means, considering that Gonzalez averages about 595 at-bats in a full season, he's getting just a hair under $37,000 per at-bat.

He pops foul to the catcher? That'll be $36,974.79. Need a receipt? Have a nice day.

(It also means, with fellow free agent Carl Crawford and his seven-year $142 million contract on the disabled list, the Red Sox are paying as much for two players as the Pirates are paying for just about everybody).

Not to be bitter.

The Pirates were ahead 3-1 in that seventh inning, and Watson had just taken over for Chris Resop, who had gotten starter Paul Maholm out of the sixth with a double-play ball. Pinch hitter Josh Reddick swatted Walker's 2-2 pitch to right for a leadoff single, and, with one out, Dustin Pedroia walked in front of Gonzalez.

Pitching coach Ray Searage visited Watson and apparently told him to throw strikes, as hair-raising as that sounds. Gonzalez was a .317 hitter lifetime against the Pirates, including eight homers. But that's what Watson did: strike one called, strike two called, a foul ball and then another foul ball, straight up. Michael McKenry caught it, and on Hurdle went into every corner of the bullpen trying to preserve a lead like a man unsure of where his next two-run lead will come from this weekend.

He called in Daniel McCutchen to contend with cleanup hitter Kevin Youkilis, and McCutchen whiffed him on a 1-2 pitch to end the seventh.

He went to Jose Veras for the Boston eighth, when Darnell McDonald and J.D. Drew stroked back-to-back singles and moved to second and third on Jason Varitek's sacrifice. But Veras composed himself. He froze Marco Scutaro with a 1-2 breaking ball, then stared down pinch hitter Ortiz with the game on the line.

Hurdle went to the mound in a rare visit that didn't result in a pitching change.

"They can be pitched to," Hurdle had insisted as this series started, "but if you're going to leave pitches out over the plate, they'll crush you."

Veras left nothing that Ortiz could handle, and the menacing DH turned PH bounced harmlessly to short as the third-largest PNC crowd ever (39,330) erupted in anticipation of a Joel Hanrahan ninth.

With his 20 saves and 20 tries and his preposterous earned run average of 0.67 over the past 27 appearances, Hanrahan represented the best of a superb bullpen that joined Maholm in constructing the one kind of game the Pirates can win against Boston's strike force.

Two outs into the ninth, Gonzalez appeared again, this time getting his first crack at a right-handed pitcher.

Let's not minimize it by pointing out that Hanrahan did not appear to be intimidated. The first-pitch fastball came in at 98 mph for strike one. The second-pitch fastball was a 99 mph freight train. Gonzalez did everything he could just to meet it, and it nearly knocked the bat out of his hands before rolling softly to Neil Walker at second.

Game 1 to Pittsburgh, where a payroll 28 percent of Boston's is going a long way for the moment.

Gene Collier: More articles by this author

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Pittsburgh in midst of coaching golden era

By Ron Cook, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Friday, June 24, 2011

Meeting of the champs: Mike Tomlin greets Dan Bylsma in August 2009.(Peter Diana/Post-Gazette)

Penguins coach Dan Bylsma won the Jack Adams Award as the NHL coach of the year Wednesday night, but the big winners are the fans. They have a terrific young coach. Bylsma is well on his way to becoming the longest-tenured and most successful coach in franchise history. More Stanley Cups are in his future.

If you think about it, all Pittsburgh sports fans are pretty lucky when it comes to their coaches. Bylsma has won a Cup in his first 2 1/2 seasons. Steelers coach Mike Tomlin has won a Super Bowl and taken the team to another in his first four seasons. Pirates manager Clint Hurdle, in his first season, has done a marvelous job getting his team to .500 in late June against all odds after 18 consecutive losing seasons.

We've had great coaches here -- Hall of Fame coaches -- but I'm not sure the city's three professional sports teams have had better coaches at the same time. That's mostly because the Penguins were largely irrelevant before Hall of Famer Bob Johnson took over behind the bench in 1990.

Steelers Hall of Fame coach Chuck Noll and the Pirates' Danny Murtaugh, who many believe should be in the Hall of Fame, overlapped briefly, primarily from 1971-73. Murtaugh led the Pirates to a second world championship in 1971 -- he also was manager in 1960 -- at a time when Noll was just building the Steelers dynasty of the 1970s.

The legendary Noll won the franchise's fourth Super Bowl after the 1979 season, just months after Chuck Tanner led the Pirates to the '79 world championship. But, again, the Penguins were mostly unsuccessful at that time with Johnny Wilson as coach. Their long list of coaches from the franchise's inception in 1967 until '90 hardly produced greatness: Red Sullivan, Red Kelly, Ken Schinkel, Marc Boileau, Wilson, Eddie Johnston, Lou Angotti, Bob Berry, Pierre Creamer, Gene Ubriaco and Craig Patrick. None lasted more than four seasons.

The Penguins' fortunes changed dramatically when Johnson took over as coach and Mario Lemieux's career as a player took off. The team won the Cup in '91 only months before Johnson died from complications of brain cancer. It won again in '92 with Scotty Bowman as coach. Bowman was, arguably, the greatest coach of any sport at any time, winning a record nine Cups with the Montreal Canadiens, the Penguins and the Detroit Red Wings.

Pirates manager Jim Leyland led his team to three consecutive division titles in 1990-92 but couldn't get to the World Series. Noll wasn't nearly as successful during that time and retired after the 1991 season. Bill Cowher was just getting started in what surely would be a Hall of Fame career if he had not resigned after the 2006 season after 149 regular-season wins and a Super Bowl title after the '05 season.

Tomlin has much work to do before he's Hall of Fame-worthy, but he's off to a great start. He could have been NFL coach of the year last season. The work he did without suspended quarterback Ben Roethlisberger for the first four games and injured starters Troy Polamalu, Aaron Smith, Willie Colon and Max Starks for all or a large part of the season was nothing short of remarkable. He also did a deft job handling the James Harrison helmet-to-helmet hits controversy. You just won't find better coaching.

Well, unless maybe you look at Bylsma's work last season.

It's nice to know the NHL got the Adams Award right. Bylsma led the Penguins to fourth place in the Eastern Conference despite being without injured Jordan Staal for the first half of the season and injured Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin for the second half. That the team was bounced from the playoffs in seven games in the first round by the Tampa Bay Lightning without the great Crosby and Malkin didn't detract from a strong year.

Then, there's Hurdle. He has made the Pirates matter again with his energy and enthusiasm. Who saw that coming? He refused to allow the team to fold when it lost six games in a row in mid-May to fall to 18-23, then again this week when it lost four in a row to drop to 35-37. Now, he faces perhaps his biggest challenge in keeping the Pirates at or near .500. The powerful Boston Red Sox come to PNC Park for three games this weekend before the Pirates head to Toronto to play the Blue Jays next week. The Pirates have lost 13 consecutive interleague road games.

So who's the best of the three -- Tomlin, Bylsma or Hurdle?

You have to eliminate Hurdle at this point because his body of work needs to be bigger. He's also the one coach/manager of the three without a championship.

That leaves Tomlin or Bylsma.

I'll take Tomlin.

Ask me next week and I might say Bylsma. They are that close. They are that good.

You really are lucky.

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

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Thursday, June 23, 2011

Walker turns 50 (RBIs)

By Gene Collier, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Thursday, June 23, 2011

Maybe it's not exactly making the hair on the necks of Terry Francona's Boston Red Sox stand on end, but you know that little groundball Neil Walker rapped to short in the fourth inning Wednesday?

That produced Walker RBI No. 50.

Don't tweak your frontal lobe extrapolating. Fifty RBIs in 74 games works out to about 109, which is part of the reason these Pirates will open a three-game series against Boston here Friday night right smack at .500.

But go ahead, check your calendars. Holy last week of June.

Advised that no one has driven in 100 runs around here in five years (Jason Bay), Walker said he really doesn't want to think about that.

You're welcome.

"I'm hitting in the middle of the order behind guys like Andrew McCutchen and Jose Tabata, Garrett Jones, whoever. If I have guys hitting in front of me who are putting up on-base percentages of .350 to .400, I'm going to get a lot of opportunities," Walker said after the Pirates used three infield hoppers to score four times in a 5-4 toppling of the Baltimore Orioles Wednesday afternoon.

"As far as numbers go, I'd just like to improve on the numbers I had last year, but, even though my average (.256 going into the weekend) hasn't been as good, I think I've improved in my situational hitting."

Walker was 0 for 4 officially, but the ground balls he shot into Baltimore's infield defense in his first two at-bats were anything but accidental. In the first inning, runners were at the corners after McCutchen's RBI single when Walker lashed a 1-1 pitch toward second. You don't get an RBI for double-play balls, but you do get the run home if you use the big part of the field. In the fourth, having run the count full, Walker chased McCutchen home with a grounder to short.

Without that run, the two that scored when Josh Harrison rolled one between second baseman Blake Davis' legs for a two-run error an inning later would not have handed a 5-4 lead to the Pirates' exemplary bullpen.

You won't win often with a total of two RBIs, but it makes a huge difference when the cleanup hitter has an RBI aptitude that obliterates the fact that he has only been in the big leagues full-time since last May.

"Yeah, he can hunt some RBIs," manager Clint Hurdle said. "I started feeling that way after first sliding him into the fourth spot in the order. For a while, that just wasn't a club I wanted to put in his golf bag.

"I mean it was like, he's from Pittsburgh, he lives in Pittsburgh, yeah, let's make him the cleanup hitter for the Pittsburgh Pirates. But he's really embraced it in a mature way. He's got a slow heartbeat."

Since the All-Star break last year, only two players in the National League -- Colorado's Troy Tulowitzki and Milwaukee's Prince Fielder -- have more RBIs than Walker's 104. He drove in three runs in the 9-3 victory Tuesday night, has 17 in June, and sitting at 50, he has more than any second baseman in baseball.

"It's understanding the situation more than anything else," Walker said. "I'm not trying to get too big, not trying to get a ball I can hit for a home run every time. I'll use the big part of the field to get a guy in from third."

With two outs and runners in scoring position, Walker is hitting .344, and that too, is no accident. Hitting .300 in any situation is great; hitting it 450 feet is nifty as well, but neither of those talents necessarily means you know how to drive in runs. You might drive in more accidently than most will on purpose, but knowing how to do it is a specialized knowledge many players never acquire.

The late Chuck Tanner used to relate a story about a critical late-inning situation, in which the Pirates had the bases loaded, and the opponent was changing pitchers. While that was going on, Tanner left the dugout for the on-deck circle and put both hands on the shoulders of John Milner.

"What we need here is a single up the middle," Tanner said.

Milner said, "Skip, we're down by four runs."

"That's right," Tanner said. "I need a single up the middle."

Tanner exits.

Milner homers.

It's not as simple as that, of course, but there's something to be said for any psychological device that keeps a player from jumping at the pitch, that slows the bat down just a bit in just the right situation.

"I never had a conversation like that," Walker said.

That is probably because he never needed one.

The Pirates might not extend this nearly three-month stretch of demonstrable competence much beyond this weekend, but they have a far better chance with RBI aptitude like Walker's at their disposal.

It's likely premature to talk about a winning season in Pittsburgh, but someone who can drive in 100 is pretty much a requirement. The Pirates haven't had a winning season without one since 1983, the summer before the summer before Neil Walker was born.

Photo: Pittsburgh Pirates' Neil Walker connects for an RBI triple in the first inning of a baseball game against the Houston Astros, Wednesday, June 15, 2011, in Houston. (AP)

Penguins' Bylsma claims Jack Adams Award

By Shelly Anderson, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Thursday, June 23, 2011

Dan Bylsma became the first coach in Penguins history to claim the Jack Adams Award. (Jeff Gross/Getty Images)

LAS VEGAS -- A lot of things named raced through Dan Bylsma's mind Wednesday night as he headed for the stage at the Pearl Theater inside the Palms Casino and Resort.

The Penguins coach thought about the people he needed to thank upon winning the Jack Adams Award as the NHL's best coach. He thought about the coaches who had won the award previously. He thought about his wife, Mary Beth, and 12-year-old son, Bryan. And he thought about Donny Osmond.

Donny Osmond?

"I didn't picture Donny Osmond being the guy who announces it," Bylsma said of his presenter at the annual NHL awards show. "Once I found it out was Donny, I had a couple jokes I thought about saying, but 45 seconds wasn't even enough to thank the media -- and that would have been hard enough for a coach to do, to thank the media."

Bylsma, 40, beat out fellow finalists Alain Vigneault, who led Vancouver to the best record in the regular season, and Barry Trotz, who guided Nashville to its sixth playoff berth in the past seven seasons.

The Jack Adams is determined in voting by NHL broadcasters, and there is little doubt that they were swayed by the performance of the Penguins -- 49 wins, 106 points, both second most in club history -- despite the extended absences of centers Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Jordan Staal. Each missed about half the season, with Crosby and Malkin out the second half.

The stars were not the only ones hurt. The team lost 350 man-games to injuries in 2010-11, and, at one point, the top seven scorers from minor league affiliate Wilkes-Barre/Scranton were on the NHL roster.

"I was very happy for him and his family," said Penguins general manager Ray Shero, whose father, Fred, was the first recipient of the Jack Adams in 1974. "With Crosby and Malkin injured, people see what kind of coach Dan is. We're proud to have Dan as our coach. He's very deserving."

Bylsma deflected credit for his coaching job and the award to his players and their adherence to the system Bylsma has preached -- with a tweak on defense devised last summer -- since he was promoted from Wilkes-Barre in February 2009.

The Penguins won the Stanley Cup with that system, so Bylsma staunchly stuck with it rather than make changes to compensate for his injured stars.

"I'd like to tell you I did something marvelous to keep it going, but that's not the case," Bylsma said. "In looking back, I really think the best thing we've done and continue to do is, our players have a clear understanding of how we're going to have success as a team and how we're going to play.

"I felt sheepish, thinking, 'I'm really not doing that much.' I think all that was done long before the injuries. The players did an amazing job to keep going through the injuries and some of the down times. They kept expecting to win, and they did."

Bylsma also gave credit to the HBO special series, "24/7," which aired in midseason and showed behind-the-scenes footage of the Penguins and Washington Capitals.

"Even within the Pittsburgh community, people thought they had a picture of Dan Bylsma in their brain," he said. "They see about 5 percent of who you are. I've often had to tell people that's not really me if you think I'm that serious guy behind the bench who doesn't show a lot of emotion. I'm a terribly emotional person.

"I think with 24/7, to see a little bit of behind the scenes, to see a little bit more of the coach that I am, I think that opened some eyes to maybe a different style than they thought I was and the rapport that we have with our players. I think it was advantageous for me."

The other winners:

• Boston's Tim Thomas pulled off an impressive trifecta. He won the Vezina Trophy as the top goaltender after winning the Stanley Cup and the Conn Smythe as playoff MVP.

• Anaheim's Corey Perry, who led the NHL with 50 goals, won the Hart Trophy as MVP. The other MVP award, the Ted Lindsay, voted on by NHL players, went to Vancouver's Daniel Sedin, the league's scoring champion.

• Detroit's Nicklas Lidstrom won his seventh Norris Trophy as top defenseman.

• Boston's Zdeno Chara missed out on the Norris but received the Mark Messier Leadership Award.

• Vancouver's Ryan Kesler won the Selke Trophy for top defensive forward, breaking the streak of three in a row by Detroit's Pavel Datsyuk.

• At 18, Jeff Skinner was the youngest player in the league, and the Carolina center won the Calder Trophy as rookie of the year.

• Also from Vancouver, Mike Gillis was named general manager of the year.

• Tampa Bay's Martin St. Louis won the Lady Byng Trophy for sportsmanship for the second year in a row.

• Philadelphia's Ian Laperriere, who has struggled through persistent concussion symptoms, won the Masterton Trophy for sportsmanship and perseverance.

• Doug Weight, recently retired from the New York Islanders, won the King Clancy Trophy for Leadership.

• Los Angeles' Dustin Brown won the NHL Foundation award for charity and community work.

For much more on the Penguins, read the Pens Plus blog with Dave Molinari and Shelly Anderson at Shelly Anderson: or 412-263-1721

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Bring back Jaromir Jagr

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

If Jaromir Jagr gets his wish and returns to the Penguins, it could represent one of the more remarkable comeback stories in Pittsburgh sports history: A first-ballot Hall of Famer gives the NHL one last try with his original team, fits right in with a revitalized Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, then raises the Stanley Cup just as he did here as a teenager.

Am I dreaming?

Well, yeah, of course.

For one, even though Jagr's agent, Petr Svoboda, has made known his client's approach to the Penguins — as reported by the Tribune-Review's Rob Rossi for Tuesday's editions — the Detroit Red Wings and a mystery team are in the mix, too.

For another, it takes two to strike a deal. Tuesday night in Las Vegas, Penguins coach Dan Bylsma called Jagr's current level of play "outstanding" and described his possible addition as an "intriguing thing." That sounds like thick interest. But until general manager Ray Shero puts money behind that, it's hard to fully gauge how strongly they feel.

I know how I feel right now: Bring back 68.

And not for sentimentality. Not because it will rebuild bridges that never should have been burned. Not because cheers would replace the irrational booing of the man whose amazing 1999 playoff performance essentially kept the bankrupt Penguins' business afloat. Not even because it would bring similarly scintillating sequels for the franchise's two greatest players, Mario Lemieux and Jagr. (Sorry, Sid. Not yet.)

No, I'd like to see Jagr back primarily for what he could do for the 2011-12 Penguins.

Sure, he'll turn 40 next February, and he is a far different player from that one-on-one demon we recall as an MVP and five-time scoring champion. He adapted his style several years ago in New York to that of a stationary gunner and power-play quarterback. But he adapted brilliantly: In 2005-08 with the Rangers, his last three NHL seasons, he never missed a game and had 290 points, including 122 on the power play. In Russia's Kontinental Hockey League the past three years, Jagr remained a point-a-game producer.

Remember power-play goals?

Jagr still can work the half-wall as well as anyone in hockey, both from a shooting and passing standpoint. And if you don't think that's the Penguins' greatest need going into next season, then we weren't watching the same team these past few months.

I understand skepticism. Fans were excited about Alexei Kovalev returning at age 38 in February, only to see Zbynek Michalek outscore him and just about everyone outwork him. But this is different.

I watched Jagr up close just last year at the Olympics in Vancouver, and he was nothing less than the tournament's best forward in the early going. Still had those tree-trunk legs churning. Still had the devastating finish. Still saw the whole ice. He faded some, then was crushed on an open-ice check by Alex Ovechkin, punishment for skating through the middle with his head down. Even so, on a Czech team loaded up front, the "old man," as Jagr jokingly called himself, stood tallest.

At the World Championships in Slovakia last month, Jagr registered a hat trick against the United States, including a breathtaking rink-length rush.

I asked Chris Johnston, the Canadian Press reporter on the scene in Bratislava, to share his view.

"He remains a strong man and, while far from speedy, still has a knack for being in the right place on the ice," Johnston said. "I'm confident he'd still be of use on a NHL power play, at the very least. And my impression after speaking with him there is that he's still very driven to play. His off-ice work ethic borders on legendary."

No surprise, considering Jagr used to say here that he'd play until he was 50.

And that's the other difference: He has grown up. Gone is that mullet-haired teen who collected speeding tickets, the 25-year-old with the giant gambling debt, and the man-child who bought his ticket out of town by declaring he was "dying alive" during a scoring slump. In recent years, he has shaken the hands of presidents, called news conferences in Prague to announce political endorsements and served as the Czechs' flag-bearer at Vancouver's opening ceremonies.

Does that sound like an immature brat?

Some might wonder if he could handle playing second or third fiddle in Pittsburgh. The way I see it, if he finds extra motivation in wanting to perform in the Crosby/Malkin stratosphere, hey, great. If he finds extra motivation in wanting to add to his legacy in Pittsburgh and in the NHL, that's fine, too.

Few things in hockey history have been more entertaining than a motivated Jagr.

Read more: Kovacevic: Bring back Jaromir Jagr - Pittsburgh Tribune-Review

Burst of hits appropriate, but bunts?

Wednesday, June 22, 2011
By Gene Collier, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

PITTSBURGH - JUNE 21: Garrett Jones(notes) #46 of the Pittsburgh Pirates hits a two run double against the Baltimore Orioles during the game on June 21, 2011 at PNC Park in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)

Very gracious of Pirates hitters to try to make the 1971 alumni feel at home, posing as an offensively proficient ballclub in the early and late stages of the game Tuesday night against Baltimore, the one with the elaborate pregame ceremony honoring Pittsburgh's next-to-last world champions.

The present-day Pirates chased in three runs in the first, one in the second, one in the third, vintage Lumber Company stuff. Don't remember Danny Murtaugh's brain trust bunting the cleanup hitter too much (like ever), but that's what Andrew McCutchen found himself doing with nobody out and Garrett Jones standing on second with a two-run double.

'Cutch bunted Jones to third, and Neil Walker sacrificed him home on a flyball to the track in right, and you had to wonder if honored slashers such as Richie Hebner and Al Oliver, looking on from suite level, were at all intrigued by these swashbuckling sacrificers.

McCutchen, it turned out, bunted on his own.

"I give Andrew credit," manager Clint Hurdle said in the minutes after a four-game losing streak evaporated in the North Side humidity. "He's been hitting the ball good, but he thought in that situation he wanted to put a bunt down and move another runner up, and that's the way this team has been, unselfish. You've got to give him a pat on the back for that approach."

Teams that are becoming desperate offensively often resort to the unorthodox, but the current Pirates predicament straddles the very blade of a double-edge sword. You pretty much can't find a five-run early lead with a treasure map (only three of baseball's 30 teams, Washington, San Diego and Seattle have weaker hitting teams than Hurdle's), and, if you do, it isn't terribly safe.

Pirates starter James McDonald (J-Mac if you must, but if he's J-Mac, isn't McCutchen A-Mac, and Daniel McCutchen D-Mac, and who started all this anyway, J-Lo, or A-Rod? Perhaps I should ask the Pirates owner, B-Nutt) couldn't drag that five-run lead through five innings in which his WHIP took a terrible whipping.

Walks and hits per inning huh?

McDonald's night went like this after a 1-2-3 first: walk and a hit in the second, walk and a hit in the third, walk and a hit in the fourth, walk and four hits in the fifth, when Baltimore scored three times to cleave off 60 percent of the lead.

Oh yeah, whip it good.

Two of the four Orioles hits in the inning from which McDonald could not escape were home runs, meaning that of the 44 runs he has allowed in 2011, 23 jogged home on long balls. That's pretty frightening, but it is no more debilitating ultimately than the factors in his strikeout-to-walk ratio (44 walks against 62 strikeouts), which is miserable.

In fairness though, one of those homers came when left fielder Jose Tabata, closing in on J.J. Hardy's towering drive near the left-field fence, failed to call off the guy in the yellow shirt in the first row, who gloved it just above Tabata's mitt and acted like it was just the most natural thing in the world to alter the course of a baseball game.

Right. No problem. Where's that beer guy?

When Adam Jones launched a two-run homer six pitches later, Hurdle's bullpen went on full alert and responded with a clinical stabilization, eventually inviting the .230-something Pirates offense back to the table.

Xavier Paul's RBI single made it 6-3, but the last hitter in Hurdle's order who was not hitting .150 or below, bunted with the bases loaded and one out, and with McCutchen -- A-Mac, on third.

Ronny Cedeno's bunt died in the batter's box he was standing in, and, curious as it was, the double-play ball that followed to end the inning appeared to give the idea credibility.

Not that it should have.

"I didn't call either one; I've never seen a bunt with the bases loaded," said Hurdle, who has been watching this game since before he had his own baseball cards of those 1971 Pirates. "I'll have a conversation with Ronny, and we'll get that locked down a little bit."

Walker's two-run double in the ninth made all those little-ball tactics look needlessly desperate, and, when the eighth and ninth Pirates runs came home, the mostly Slumbering Company had scored two more runs in eight innings than they had in their previous four games.

Consistency remains elusive for the version 40 years out from '71, but somehow it remains consistently interesting.

Gene Collier: More articles by this author

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PITTSBURGH - JUNE 21: Manny Sanguillen #35 and Steve Blass #28 of the World Series Champion 1971 Pittsburgh Pirates hug after throwing out the first pitch before the game against the Baltimore Orioles on June 21, 2011 at PNC Park in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)

PITTSBURGH - JUNE 21: Manny Sanguillen #35 of the World Series Champion 1971 Pittsburgh Pirates salutes the crowd after being introduced before the game against the Baltimore Orioles on June 21, 2011 at PNC Park in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)

PITTSBURGH - JUNE 21: Bill Mazeroski #9 of the World Series Champion 1971 Pittsburgh Pirates salutes the crowd after being introduced before the game against the Baltimore Orioles on June 21, 2011 at PNC Park in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Sources: Jagr wants to play for Penguins

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Czech republic's Jaromir Jagr takes down Sweden's Carl Gunnarsson during their IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship semi-final match between in Bratislava city on May 13, 2011. Sweden dethroned defending champions Czech Republic with a 5-2 win to clinch a place in the final of the world ice hockey championship. (Getty Images)

One of Pittsburgh's greatest athletes wants to return.

Jaromir Jagr has approached the Penguins about resuming his hockey career with his original NHL franchise, multiple sources confirmed to the Tribune-Review on Monday.

Jagr's new agent, former player Petr Svoboda, contacted Penguins general manager Ray Shero over the weekend to express his client's intent to play again in the NHL after a three-year stint in the Kontinental Hockey League.

Shero didn't return messages seeking comment about Jagr, who can sign before the July 1 free-agent period opens because his previous contract was not with an NHL club.

Jagr, 39, met with Svoboda yesterday in the Czech Republic to consider preferred NHL suitors, including the Detroit Red Wings -- the Penguins' Stanley Cup Final rival in 2008 and '09.

Jagr has cited Detroit, the New York Rangers, Washington Capitals, Montreal Canadiens and Penguins as NHL teams that piqued his interest.

An NHL source said neither the Canadiens and Capitals is a "mystery" third team that has joined the Red Wings and Penguins as a potential Jagr suitor.

Shero and his staff were open to the idea of signing Jagr, two sources said, but the Penguins were waiting to hear from Jagr before seriously exploring the option.

The Penguins have decided not to publicly comment about any interest in Jagr, who is ninth all-time in NHL scoring with 1,599 points and nearly a point-per-game player in three KHL seasons.

At the world championships in May, Shero extended Jagr an invitation to the Penguins' annual summer golf tournament that will serve as a reunion for alumni of the 1991 Stanley Cup champions. Shero said that invitation was passed along to Jagr by his Czech Republic teammate Zbynek Michalek, a Penguins defenseman.

Jagr has not informed the Penguins if he will attend the tournament, a date for which has not been announced.

Also at the world championships, Jagr reflected fondly on his 11 seasons with the Penguins -- a tenure that began with back-to-back Stanley Cup titles in 1991 and '92, and also included five NHL scoring championships and an MVP award.

Previously one of the most popular athletes in Pittsburgh history, Jagr was booed mercilessly by Penguins fans after the team granted his request for a trade in July 2001. His last NHL contest was at Mellon Arena in May 2008 in Game 5 of a second-round playoff series between his Rangers and the Penguins.

Before the start of that series, Jagr spoke reverently of Mario Lemieux, calling the Penguins majority co-owner "my idol ... and probably the greatest player ever."

Jagr expressed similar thoughts at the world championships and hinted strongly that he wouldn't mind playing with "two great centers" in Pittsburgh - referring to Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.

The Penguins can afford Jagr, who sources said is not seeking an outrageous salary. The salary cap for next season will increase to $64 million from $59.4 million, Canada's TSN reported Sunday.

The Penguins are committed to $55.5 million against the cap for 17 players on guaranteed NHL contracts -- eight forwards, seven defensemen and two goalies.

They do not have a top-six natural right winger under contract, and Tyler Kennedy is an impending restricted free agent with whom Shero said the team is exploring all options - including a possible trade, perhaps at the NHL Entry Draft this weekend.

Shero said last week his intention is "to keep" Kennedy, coming off a career-best 21 goals and 45 points. The Penguins expect Kennedy to command at least double his $725,000 cap hit on a new contract or in an arbitration ruling if they elect to extend a qualifying offer.

There is debate within the organization if Kennedy is a capable of handling top power-play minutes. Jagr would -- potentially becoming the ideal fit along the half-wall where the Penguins believe neither Crosby nor Malkin are an ideal fit on the man-advantage.

Read more: Sources: Jagr wants to play for Penguins - Pittsburgh Tribune-Review

The 1971 World Series was played in a different world

Pirates and Orioles were powerhouses in an era of firsts

By Gene Collier, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Sunday, June 19, 2011

Roberto Clemente and Danny Murtaugh

Charles Manson got the death penalty that spring, though it was later deemed unconstitutional.

The Pirates and the Baltimore Orioles played six World Series games in broad daylight that fall, though daylight in the World Series was later deemed unconstitutional, at least effectively.

Seven thousand people were arrested in one day in one city protesting the Vietnam War that summer, just as the Constitution's 26th amendment was ready to give 18-year-olds the vote.

Forty years may have cobwebbed all of it amid drifts of mental dust, but a lot went down in 1971.

"It did; oh, it did," Al Oliver was saying the other day. "I didn't think much about it at the time, but I do now. I feel fortunate to have been part of history."

The Pirates first baseman/centerfielder, who was delivering line drives the whole summer, was talking specifically about the first day of September 1971, when manager Danny Murtaugh wrote the first all-minority lineup in Major League Baseball history. But he could have been appreciating the entirety of a season when cultural turbulence was little else but America's day-to-day backlighting, and when America's baseball was little short of divine.

The three-game series that starts here Monday night not only brings the Baltimore Orioles back to Pittsburgh for the dubious modern curiosity known as interleague play, it provides a homecoming for some 20 staff and players from that championship Pirates season.

Looking back through the prism of 40 years, the boys of lumber only grow fonder of its memories.

"When I think about it now, it's like I didn't realize how good we were," said Richie Hebner, the third baseman, now 63. "We had good pitching, but people looking back at the Lumber Company don't think about pitchers. Without pitching, it's a long, hot summer. You have to win a lot of games 2-1 and 3-2 to get to October, and we did, even if people came out to see us score 10 runs."

That was probably because Willie Stargell hit 48 home runs, because Roberto Clemente hit .341, and because those Bucs were offensively dangerous from one end of the dugout to the other. But Hebner is right. The pitchers were nearly as frightening. Dock Ellis was 14-3 at the All-Star break, and he started for the National League that July in Detroit. Steve Blass was on his way to 15 wins with a luminous 2.85 earned run average. Dave Giusti would be Fireman of the Year, with 30 saves.

And still with lumber and lightning and enviable depth, those Pirates were considerably overshadowed in that era by those Orioles, who were not only the defending world champions, who had not only followed that up with 105 wins in 1971, who not only had Boog Powell, Brooks Robinson, Frank Robinson and Paul Blair, but had four 20-game winners.

"Now you can look around some years and there aren't four 20-game winners on the 30 teams in the big leagues," Hebner said.

As recently as 2009, you could look around and not find even one anywhere.

"The Orioles were a machine," Blass said. "Sixteen in a row!"

That's a stat rarely unearthed in the 40 years since. When Blass pitched a complete game to beat Baltimore in Game 3 of the 1971 World Series, dragging Pittsburgh back to life, the Orioles had just run off 16 consecutive victories -- the last 11 games of the regular season, three in a row against the Oakland A's in the American League Championship Series, and the first two games of the Series by a combined 16-6.

"We were not in any danger of being overconfident," said Orioles ace Jim Palmer on the phone the other day. "I don't think you ever go into the World Series overconfident, but sure, we thought we could win. We had a formula for success on those teams and it had been long established."

That illustrates a particularly delicious aspect of baseball's 1971 climax. It matched two teams with a kind of confidence that could only have been equaled by the other.

"I don't know if we were cocky, but we knew we were good," Hebner said. "A lot of teams go to spring training and they know their last game is right there on the schedule. OK, we're here until, what is it, Oct. 2, yeah. But I remember when I went to spring training that yeah, I told my father, 'I won't be back here helping you dig graves that first week in October.' I used to tell a lot of people, you put that TV on in October and watch the Pirates. They're going to play a lot of games in October. I guess maybe that does sound a little cocky."

The Orioles assumed as much, as they'd been an October television staple in 1966, 1969 and 1970, all of which introduces the almost unimaginable counterpoint to this week's circumstance: Pittsburgh and Baltimore arrive at this series having combined for 31 consecutive summers of losing baseball. The Pirates, maybe you've heard, haven't had a winning season since 1992. The Orioles, even with a consistently robust payroll, haven't won since 1997. Not since 1983 has either team been to the World Series.

But baseball history, just like real history, comes with all manner of potential pratfalls, most without warning. In 1971, the Pirates and Orioles avoided all of them while the country continued the traumatic transition out of '60s culture and its attendant political upheaval. In March, 1st Lt. William Calley was found guilty at court martial of the murder of 22 Vietnamese civilians. In late June, officiating at the end of one of the most notorious intersections of sports and society, the Supreme Court cleared the one and only Muhammad Ali of all charges related to draft dodging. In another landmark ruling that year, the Court upheld the legality of busing and redistricting as tools for integrating schools. Integration might have been an issue best left to the top legal minds of the day, but it was no big deal in the office of the manager of the Pittsburgh Pirates.

So here it is again for the record, Pittsburgh's starting lineup vs. Philadelphia, Sept. 1, 1971, or 24 years, 4 1/2 months after Jackie Robinson cracked the game's color barrier:

Stennett 2b

Clines cf

Clemente rf

Stargell lf

Sanguillen c

Cash 3b

Oliver 1b

Hernandez ss

Ellis p

The first big league lineup ever without a single white face. Cash said to Oliver, "Look, it's all brothers out here."

"We always started five minority players," Oliver remembered. "If Dock [Ellis] pitched, then it was six, so just three being added, it seemed normal. The Pirates were long known as an organization that went after black and Latin players. But I'll tell you, I didn't even know it at game time. What was tricky about it that night is that, when I look at it it's ironic, but Murtaugh did not start Bob Robertson [a white first baseman] against [Philadelphia's] Woody Fryman, which he normally would have been against a left-handed pitcher."

Danny Murtaugh shrugged everything off. They were the nine who gave him the best chance to win when he sat down to fill out the lineup card. The historians would have to take it from there.

The '71 Pirates were loud progressives in that area as a team could be in that era. The whites accepted the blacks, who accepted the Latins, who accepted the whites, all of which you knew because they all teased the snot out of each other. Ellis called Robertson Archie Bunker.

No one grew terribly serious until that postseason, when Robertson's three-homer performance in San Francisco in the National League Championship Series catapulted those Pirates to the World Series, and the ultimate measurement of their worthiness against a team that moved one press box wag to predict -- "Baltimore in three."

So after three games, the first two won by the Orioles in Baltimore, history came knocking again, or at least baseball history. On Oct. 13, 1971, the Pirates and Orioles played the first night game ever in the World Series.

Blass remembers it as pretty much the end of civilization.

"Do you believe the Pirates had a hand in starting that crap?" he said. "The World Series in the day was part of our autumn as kids. Part of October. It was running home from school to watch it. They're always trying to market the game to kids, but that night, they started stealing the game from kids."

NBC was the real culprit, but the promise of a larger TV audience was real. Sixty-one million people watched Game 4, which the Pirates won 4-3 to even the series two games apiece. No World Series game has been played in the day time since 1987.

"I can't stay up and watch a World Series game," said Hebner. "There are six freaking commercials between every half inning. I mean I'm no different than anybody else. It's too late. I think the playoffs are much more interesting. At least in the playoffs, you still get a couple of afternoon games. That to me is the best of baseball."

The best of baseball in 1971 came down to a best-of-three, with the Pirates winning Game 5 in Pittsburgh behind the late Nellie Briles, then the Orioles winning Game 6 in Baltimore in extra innings, the second time they won when Palmer started.

For Game 7, the tension in both cities bordered on the unbearable, and the players weren't holding up all that well either. Blass got out of bed a good nine hours before his starting assignment against the O's Mike Cuellar and started walking the streets of Baltimore. He wanted to win, but failing that, he wanted it to be over. He wanted to be on the other side of it.

In the fourth inning, Clemente homered to make it 1-0, and no matter how many times the story of that World Series is retold, his performance remains its most indelible.

Decorated baseball author Roger Angell would eventually write this of Roberto Clemente's play in his book, "The Summer Game":

"[It was] a kind of baseball that none of us had ever seen before -- throwing and running and hitting at something close to the level of absolute perfection, play to win but also playing the game almost as if it were a form of punishment for everyone else on the field."

Clemente's punishing numbers, when it was over, were a .414 batting average, or 12 for 29 including two doubles, a triple, two home runs, four runs batted in and two throws from the distant edges of right field that left eyewitnesses speechless.

"The first thing that comes to mind today is just how Roberto refused to let us lose," said Oliver. "He didn't do a whole lot of talking unless someone pushed his buttons, and some guys know what buttons to push and then he was just hilarious. But to see him put on that kind of show, I was just elated for him. We knew how great he was, and every day when I put on this World Series ring, I can't help but think of him."

Willie Stargell singled to start the eighth, only his fifth hit of the postseason, and scored on a double by Jose Pagan, who missed this week's reunion by less than two weeks. He died of Alzheimer's complications June 7. Baltimore finally nicked the indomitable Blass in the eighth on a pair of singles and an RBI groundout by Don Buford.

"There was never one visit to the mound in Game 7," Blass said. "It's still vivid when I choose to think about it, but the farther away it gets, the more I don't believe I did that stuff. I mean all those people, the enormity of that situation. Couldn't have been me."

As it ended, no one seems to remember anything other than Steve Blass.

"That's what I remember, just how good Steve Blass was," said Palmer. "You always think you have a chance, but sometimes you don't."

"Steve was pitching so well and I just remember thinking, 'Keep it up, big guy, because I'm not sure I want to get into a game like this,' " Giusti said. "He was so focused. He just had one great Series."

Hebner remembers thinking there would be a long bottom of the ninth.

"I just watching Steve Blass and thinking how tough it was going to be to get through an inning like that," he said. "Boog Powell was up there, then another stud on deck [Frank Robinson], and all of a sudden, Blass throws like 10 pitches and it's all over."

Merv Rettunmund slashed the last pitch of a 1-2-3 ninth into the dirt to Blass' right, but as Palmer said, "every ball we hit up the middle seemed to go right to where [shortstop] Jackie Hernandez was playing."

And so did that one, right into Hernandez's glove, and on to Robertson to end the Series, the season, and maybe even the last time baseball was absolutely everything it is supposed to be.

Except for that night game.

Gene Collier:

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Monday, June 20, 2011

1971 Pirates: A Scrapbook

By John Mehno
Beaver County Times
June 20, 2011

Back Row: Jim Nelson, Milt May, Bob Moose, Nelson Briles, Jim "Mudcat" Grant, Bob Veale, Bob Johnston, Dock Ellis, Bob Robertson, Richie Hebner, Roberto Clemente
Middle Row: Team Physician Dr Joseph Finegold, Trainer Tony Bartirome, Bill Mazeroski, Jackie Hernandez, Dave Cash, Gene Alley, Gene Clines, Willie Stargell, Dave Giusti, Al Oliver, Luke Walker, Charlie Sands, Traveling Secretary John Fitzpatrick, Equipment Manager John Hallahan
Front Row: Vic Davalillo, Jose Pagan, Coach Bill Virdon, Coach Don Leppert, Coach Frank Oceak, Manager Danny Murtaugh, Coach Don Osborn, Coach Dave Ricketts, Steve Blass, Manny Sanguillen

PITTSBURGH--The 1971 Pittsburgh Pirates were defending National League East champions.

They picked up where they left off, winning their first three games en route to a 97-65 season in which they were never at or below .500.

The Pirates spent 131 days in first place, taking over the top spot on June 10 and holding it.

Their lead shrunk to 3½ games on Aug. 15 when they lost to St. Louis the day after Bob Gibson's no-hitter against them at Three Rivers Stadium.

August was the lone bad month (14-17), but the Pirates rebounded with a 16-9 September to take the Eastern Division again.

It was tough for some people to compile a scrapbook on the season; the Pittsburgh newspapers were on strike for much of the summer.


The 1971 ticket prices: $4.15 for box seats, $3.15 for reserved, $1.90 for general admission. Youth general admission tickets were $1.


Dock Ellis always seemed to be in the news, and not just because he led the staff with a 19-9 record.

Ellis loved controversy and knew how to manipulate the media.

When he was a candidate to start the All-Star game, he loudly predicted that he wouldn't be chosen because Vida Blue was the presumptive starter for the American League.

"They'll never start two brothers," Ellis said.

By saying that, he practically forced National League manager Sparky Anderson to start him.

Perhaps he wished the plan hadn't worked so well. Ellis was the losing pitcher, giving up two-run homers to Frank Robinson and Reggie Jackson, the latter a majestic shot onto the roof of Tiger Stadium.

In the postseason, Ellis complained his hotel bed in San Francisco wasn't long enough.

Equally short was his only appearance of the World Series. Ellis started the first game and was charged with four runs in 2 and 1/3 innings.


The Pirates carried a third string catcher for the entire season, even though he was used sparingly.

Charlie Sands was a Yankees farmhand who had struck out in his only major league at-bat as a 19-year-old in 1967.

He made just two starts all year for the Pirates, and wound up with 32 plate appearances. He did pinch hit a home run on May 25 when the Pirates were losing 7-0, and his batting average stood at .500 (4-for-8) on June 23.

But his last hit was a pinch double on July 19, and he was 0-for-12 the rest of the season. He struck out as a pinch hitter in the second game of the World Series.

When Sands is remembered, it's probably for his unusual nickname.

Why did teammates call him "Muncle?"

"Because m'uncle has a Cadillac dealership in Newport News," the Virginia-born Sands drawled.


Nellie Briles wasn't the biggest star on the 1971 Pirates, but few players cashed in on the World Series victory more effectively than he did.

Briles parlayed the fame into a weekend sportscasting job at KDKA-TV.

He also worked up an act of songs and jokes and played nightclubs in the Pittsburgh area that winter.

The centerpiece of his comedy material was an imitation of Paul Lynde, who was big on "Hollywood Squares" in those days.


The 1960 Pirates had "Beat ‘Em Bucs" by Benny Benack and the band. The 1979 team danced to Sister Sledge's "We Are Family."

The ‘71 Pirates had a song, too.

When it became apparent either the San Francisco Giants or Los Angeles Dodgers would represent the National League West in the playoffs, Iron City beer commissioned special lyrics for "California, Here I Come," a song that had debuted in a Broadway musical in 1921.

Sample: "California, here we come/We'll show you where the runs come from/The pennant, the Series, we'll never stop."

The song was featured in Iron City's commercials throughout the second half of the season.


Baltimore manager Earl Weaver's gamesmanship backfired in the seventh game of the World Series.

Weaver protested that starter Steve Blass' foot wasn't in contact with the pitching rubber when he delivered the ball.

Weaver charged out of the dugout, citing Rule 801 to the umpires.

That caused a delay, and angered Blass.

"I was kind of all over the place and not locked in before that," Blass said. "When he came out and started yelling about Rule 801, I got so mad at him trying that nickel and dime stuff that I forgot about everything else and got focused."

Blass pitched his second complete game of the Series and leaped into the arms of first baseman Bob Robertson after the last out.

Pirates pitcher Steve Blass leaps into the arms of first baseman Bob Robertson after they defeated Baltimore 2-1 to win the World Series on Oct. 17, 1971. Blass was the starting and winning pitcher.(AP)


The usual starting lineup included seven players who were signed and developed by the Pirates:

Manny Sanguillen (catcher), Robertson (first base), Dave Cash (second base), Gene Alley (shortstop), Richie Hebner (third base), Willie Stargell (left field) and Al Oliver (center field) were all signed and developed by the Pirates.

The lone import was right fielder Roberto Clemente, who was drafted from the Brooklyn Dodgers' Class AAA team after just one season of professional baseball.

Starting pitchers Blass, Ellis and Bob Moose were also products of the Pirates' system.


There was no free agency in 1971, so there were no multi-year contracts.

If there had been, Robertson would have been a good candidate for a long-term investment.

Robertson was a power hitter who batted a combined .278 with 53 home runs and 154 RBIs in 1970 and ‘71. He was also surprisingly nimble around first base for a big man.

He hit three home runs in one NLCS game, and famously hit a three-run Series homer after missing a bunt sign.

But an early-season back injury in 1972 ruined Robertson's career.

He played five more seasons for the Pirates, compiling a .227 average with 50 home runs in 1,192 at-bats over the five years.


Until Oct. 13, 1971, all 397 World Series games had been played during the day.

The World Series had started in 1903, and night baseball was introduced in 1935. The two didn't converge until Game Four at Three Rivers Stadium.

Baseball officials figured to draw a larger television audience by playing in prime time.

Within a few years, daylight Series games would become a rarity.


Left-hander Bob Veale had been the leader of the Pirates' starting rotation for much of the 1960s.

By 1971, though, he was in the bullpen, hanging on at age 35.

Veale was 6-0 with a 6.99 ERA. Maybe that was his reward for the 1968 season, when he had a sparkling 2.05 ERA and a 13-14 record. In that season, Veale was the first pitcher since 1914 to have an ERA that low with a losing record.

Veale lost his 1971 World Series ring in a fire.

Several years later, the participants in a Pirates Fantasy Camp found out about that and pitched in to have a replica ring made for him.


The Pirates had the local sports spotlight all to themselves when they played Game Seven of the 1971 World Series on Sunday, Oct. 17.

The Steelers were in Kansas City, awaiting the second Monday Night Football appearance in franchise history.

The Pittsburgh Condors had played the night before, going double overtime to beat the Denver Rockets 140-136 in their ABA home opener at the Civic Arena.

The Penguins wrapped up a western trip that night, defeating the California Golden Seals 4-2 in Oakland.


There was never a no-hitter in the Pirates' 60 years at Forbes Field.

It took only 102 games to get one at Three Rivers Stadium.

Bob Gibson was at his best on Saturday night, Aug. 14 and beat the Pirates 11-0. Gibson walked three and struck out 10 for the only no-hitter of his career.

The closest call was Milt May's seventh inning fly ball to left center that Jose Cruz chased down.

In the ninth, Vic Davalillo and Al Oliver grounded out before Willie Stargell looked at a third strike.

The Pirates had a close call with a no-hitter on July 18 when Luke Walker pitched the second game of a Sunday doubleheader against the Dodgers.

Joe Ferguson led off the ninth with a home run, and Walker settled for a one-hitter and 7-1 complete game victory.


The 1971 Pirates didn't produce any future major league managers, but nine members of the team went on to coach in the major leagues:

Cash, Hebner, Stargell, Gene Clines, Bill Mazeroski, Jose Pagan, May, Bruce Kison and Bob Miller.


Mazeroski, hero of the 1960 World Series, was limited to one pinch hitting appearance in the ‘71 Series.

By ‘71, Mazeroski was Cash's back-up at second base and had 213 plate appearances during the season.

He also made seven appearances at third base, his first major league work at a position other than second base.


The oldest surviving 1971 Pirates player is Veale, who is 75. Davalillo is 74.

The youngest is Rennie Stennett, who turned 60 on April 5. He was not on the World Series roster, though.

The youngest player from the 25-man Series roster is May, who turns 61 in August.


Manager Danny Murtaugh wrote baseball's first all-minority lineup for a home game against the Phillies on Sept. 1.

The lineup: Stennett 2B; Clines CF; Clemente RF; Stargell LF; Sanguillen C; Cash 3B; Oliver 1B; Jackie Hernandez SS; Ellis P.

The Pirates won, 10-7.


The most obscure member of the ‘71 Pirates was Lorenzo "Rimp" Lanier, a left-handed hitting infielder called up in September.

Lanier, 22, was a 5-foot-8, 150-pound Cleveland native whose entire major league career consisted of six games between Sept. 11-26.

He was 0-for-5 as a pinch hitter and pinch ran once. He was the Pirates' 37th round pick in the 1967 draft.

Of the five pitchers he faced, two were Hall of Famers -- Ferguson Jenkins and Tom Seaver.

Lanier played two more seasons of pro baseball, most of it at the Class AA level.


A full winners share was worth $18,164.58.

For rookies like May and Sands, who spent the entire season on the major-league roster, it was a windfall.

The minimum major league salary in 1971 was $12,000.


Stargell appeared to be on his way to a monster season when he hit 11 home runs in April.

He had 36 home runs by the end of July. But knee injuries slowed Stargell in the second half, and he had just 12 home runs over the last two months of the season, finishing with 48.

He still led the National League and had the biggest total by a Pirates player since Ralph Kiner hit 54 in 1949.

His 48 homers still represent the third best single season total in Pirates' history.


The Pirates made a late-season change of veteran right-hander relievers.

They sold Jim "Mudcat" Grant to Oakland on Aug. 10, and immediately acquired Bob Miller from San Diego for John Jeter and Ed Acosta.

Miller made 16 appearances and was 1-2 with three saves and a 1.29 ERA.

The Pirates were the ninth of Miller's 10 major league clubs. The ‘71 team was his third as a World Series champion.

Miller legally changed his name before he got into baseball, much to the relief of announcers. Miller was born Robert L. Gemeinweiser.


There were strange voices in the Pirates radio booth in 1971.

KDKA cut back to two announcers, dropping Gene Osborn after one season.

Prince and Nellie King were left to call the games. When they did both radio and TV, they picked up a freelance announcer in each city to help out.

Prince missed part of the season because of illness.

His replacement was Jack Fleming, the Steelers' radio voice.


Clemente had a typically solid season at age 37: .341 average, 13 home runs, 86 RBI. He finished fifth in Most Valuable Player voting and won the 11th of his 12 Gold Glove awards.

Clemente finished the season 118 hits short of 3,000.

He got the last stolen base of his career on July 17, 1971, two days after he played 17 innings in a win over San Diego.

While everyone remembers his World Series performance against Baltimore, Clemente also batted .333 (6-for-18) in the NLCS against the Giants.


Pitcher Luke Walker didn't do much to help himself at the plate.

Walker was 1-for-46 (.022) with 30 strikeouts. And shame on the pitchers who walked him six times. Jerry Reuss, then with the Cardinals, walked Walker twice in the same Sept. 16 game.


The Pirates remained pretty much intact in 1972.

Veale was demoted to the minor leagues early in the 1972 season, then sold to Boston in September.

The dismantling of the ‘71 club began after the disappointing 1973 season.


The next time you see the video of the last out, note how Merv Rettenmund's ground ball appears to be headed up the middle.

But shortstop Jackie Hernandez was able to grab it and throw out Rettenmund to start the Pirates' celebration.

Hernandez was shading Rettenmund up the middle, the result of an extensive report filed by legendary super scout Howie Haak and Harding "Pete" Peterson, who was then the Pirates' minor league director.

They spent weeks shadowing the Orioles and preparing the scouting report.


How deep was the Pirates farm system?

As Clemente and Mazeroski neared the ends of their careers, the Pirates had prospects stacked behind them.

Richie Zisk and Dave Parker were on the way up to play right field. The second basemen behind Mazeroski were Cash, Stennett and Willie Randolph.


Kison will always remember his wedding anniversary.

He was married in Pittsburgh hours after the Pirates won the Series in Baltimore on Oct. 17.

Prince enlisted the help of some corporate friends and got Kison back to town with a helicopter and a private plane.

Bruce and Anna Marie Kison are still married, by the way.


Pittsburgh's top five songs on KQV's Hit Parade on Oct. 17, 1971:

1. Yo Yo (Osmonds), 2. Maggie May (Rod Stewart), 3. The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down (Joan Baez), 4. Do You Know What I Mean (Lee Michaels) and 5. Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey (Paul McCartney).


The San Francisco Giants were the team that gave the Pirates the most trouble in the regular season.

The Pirates were 3-9 against the Giants.

They beat them in four games in the NLCS.


Murtaugh's classic line when baby-faced rookie Kison was promoted from the minor leagues:

"I looked older than he does the day I was born."

Saturday, June 18, 2011

A tale of hurdles and Hurdle

By Ron Cook, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Sunday, June 19, 2011

CLEVELAND -- At 20, Clint Hurdle was on the cover of Sports Illustrated. "This Year's Phenom," the magazine anointed him. That was 33 years ago. Hurdle hadn't played a month in the big leagues for the Kansas City Royals. Talk about a crushing burden.

You think Hurdle is going to be intimidated by the adulation he's receiving in Pittsburgh as Pirates manager? You think he's going to lose sleep because of the expectations that go with it?

You are wrong.

"There were days in Colorado when I could have run for mayor and won there, too," a grinning Hurdle said Saturday afternoon. "Then, they threw a parade when I left. Things can change quickly ...

"We've still got a lot of work to do."

Everyone knows that. The All-Star break is more than three weeks away. But that hasn't stopped Pirates fans -- desperate for a winner -- from embracing Hurdle. Hell, they've turned it into a lovefest.

Going into the game here Saturday night against the Indians, the Pirates were 35-34. This after losing 105 games last season, their 18th consecutive losing season.

Mayor Hurdle?

Much more of this, they'll want to build a statue of the man outside PNC Park.

It's not just that Hurdle looks like Casey Stengel compared to the Pirates previous manager, John Russell. He's energetic. He's passionate. He motivates. Many believe Russell slept through most of his three seasons.

But there are other reasons Hurdle is the right man at the right time for the Pirates. "I truly believe we're all prepared for our future by our past -- if we paid attention to it," he said.

Hurdle did.

Go back to that Sports Illustrated cover. It didn't play well in the Royals' clubhouse where the vets wondered what the kid had done to get such treatment. It didn't play well with opposing pitchers, either. "Phenom? We'll see about that."

"It was a lot bigger deal than I even realized at the time," Hurdle said. "I was always outgoing, but I think I was outgoing half the time back then to fend off my insecurities and anxieties. I was trying to act like nothing was bothering me. You talk about having butterflies? I had dragons in my belly. It got to the point I had to do everything I could just to keep my head above water."

When you start at the top, there's only one way to go. Hurdle's descent was swift. "I went from phenom to goat to erstwhile phenom to has-been to never-was." He quit as a player in 1987 with a .259 career average and 32 home runs to take a Class A managing job in the New York Mets organization. Along the way, there were valuable lessons. "By trying to please everybody, you end up pleasing nobody," Hurdle said. As for that unwieldy adulation? "It means nothing."

The lessons Hurdle learned as a big league manager in Colorado were just as important. He took over the Rockies in 2002 and virtually built the team from scratch. He showed amazing patience, never taking short cuts that might have meant a few more wins at the cost of long-term development. Management showed amazing patience with him, keeping him through five consecutive losing seasons. All the patience paid off when the team won 21 of 22 games on its way to the '07 World Series, where it was swept by the Boston Red Sox.

"I'm very aware here of how much hard work it takes," Hurdle said. "I don't think I was fully aware of that in Colorado. I just know it was hard, the daily scrutiny that goes with the job. For a long time, we were the dumbest group of men in the world. But we just took our beating, stayed focused and kept going."

Hurdle was fired by the Rockies after another losing season in '08 and an 18-28 start in '09. He made it one of the easiest dismissals in baseball history. "I knew I had become a distraction," he said. He was in the final year of his contract. "It enabled the players to get a clean chalkboard ... In my final meeting with them, I told them, 'I'll take the walk of shame, but, if anybody in here doesn't believe this team can win the division, shame on you.' "

The '09 Rockies went on to win the National League wild card under manager Jim Tracy.

There were no guarantees Hurdle would manage again. "Of course, I thought about that. But I had my one shot. We raised a flag in Colorado. If I had a dollar for every time someone told me we couldn't win there, I'd be a rich man ...

"Me getting fired wasn't something to cry about. I had spent seven years there preaching accountability, responsibility, integrity and selflessness. If I had gone out kicking and screaming, all of that would have been flushed down the toilet. It just was time. It was a seamless transition."

Hurdle went to the Texas Rangers as hitting coach last season and ended up in the World Series, losing to the San Francisco Giants. There were job interviews after the season with the Mets and the Pirates. The Mets weren't sure they wanted Hurdle. The Pirates had no doubts.

"The sense I got from [management] was, 'We would really like you to help us,' " he said. So Hurdle jumped at the Pirates' offer. "I truly believe I was brought here to make a difference."

So far, so good.

It's been fun to watch Hurdle's motivational tricks. When the Pirates lost six games in a row in mid-May to fall to 18-23, he gathered the players and told them, "Focus on the day at hand. There's no looking back. Take a shower, wash that day away, make your adjustments and get ready for the next day."

Two weeks ago, Hurdle asked the players what it would take to move the team forward. "I could see them thinking about this thing or that thing," he said. "I told them, 'It's not going to take one thing. It's going to take everything we've got.' "

Friday, Hurdle had the players take a piece of paper and grade their pregame preparation. "After they each wrote down a number [from 1 to 10] and folded their paper in half, I told them to look at the number again," he said. " 'Any man who doesn't have a 10 written down is cheating every other man in here.' "

Hey, whatever works.

"I've got to keep pushing them forward," Hurdle said.

Since that six-game losing streak, the Pirates were 17-11 going into Saturday night. They won two games in Cincinnati to make it five out of six against the Reds. They took two of three from the Detroit Tigers. They took two of three from the Philadelphia Phillies, the National League's best team.

"You've got to have faith. You've got to believe in what you can't see," Hurdle said not just of his players, but of the fans.

"It's going to happen here. We've got a lot of work in front of us, but we're in the right lane."

It's too soon to build that statue of Hurdle, but maybe it's not too soon to hang the label on him again.

Why not? He's not 20 anymore. He'll be 54 on July 30. He can handle it.

In terms of big league managers, Hurdle is ...

Everybody with me now.

This Year's Phenom.

Read more:

Pirates' anger nice to see

Saturday, June 18, 2011

PITTSBURGH, PA - JUNE 11: Andrew McCutchen(notes) #22 of the Pittsburgh Pirates hits a two RBI double in the third inning against the New York Mets during the game on June 11, 2011 at PNC Park in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)

CLEVELAND — The Pirates' clubhouse was still abuzz Friday about Major League Baseball changing Andrew McCutchen's two-run double from six days earlier into an error and, in the process, erasing his 15-game hitting streak.

I'll be candid here: That doesn't move me much. As McCutchen told me, "It's not like I was chasing Joe DiMaggio."

No, he wasn't. Even if the streak had stretched through the 5-1 loss to the Cleveland Indians on Friday night at Progressive Field — McCutchen went 0 for 4 — he would have been, oh, just 40 shy of Joltin' Joe's famed 56.

But here's what did move me: McCutchen's teammates were angry about it. And I mean vein-popping angry.

What a refreshing change from the malaise of recent years.

Even second baseman Neil Walker, maybe the most affable guy on the planet, raised his voice when raising the topic unsolicited.

"It's just wrong," Walker said. "Look, Cutch is a team-first guy, and we all know the most important thing is that he hit the ball hard, and those two runs helped us win the game. But you feel for him because we all know what was going on. To change that in a 15-game hitting streak ... that's tough, man."

"It's hard to explain," pitcher Paul Maholm said. "Cutch didn't deserve that."

You could tell McCutchen appreciated it all.

"It makes me feel good that my teammates are behind me, that they saw what I had going," he said. "They were just as mad as I was when they found out."

A difference from the past?

"Oh, yeah, by far," he said. "Everybody's behind you now. I mean, this is kind of an individual thing, but my teammates know I'm not a selfish player. And they know a long hitting streak is hard to get."

The decision by MLB's five-member panel was ridiculous, by the way, so let's rewind to the third inning last Saturday at PNC Park, where the Pirates beat the Mets, 3-2.

With two out and two aboard, McCutchen solidly bounced an R.A. Dickey knuckleball to Murphy's right. Murphy, usually a first baseman, took one long stride toward the line, dipped down, then had the ball carom off his knee and into foul territory. Tony Krizmanich, one of four official scorers who work at PNC Park, correctly ruled it a double and two RBIs.

The Mets appealed, hoping to spare Dickey the damage to his ERA. The panel, which must agree unanimously on overturning a scorer's decision, did so Thursday during the Pirates' game in Houston. McCutchen and the team found out afterward from manager Clint Hurdle, and the anger immediately followed.

Who could blame them?

» A ball hit solidly that goes more than a step to a third baseman's backhand side almost always requires the "above-ordinary effort" official scorers use to delineate whether a play should have been made.

» Even with a clean pick, Murphy had no realistic force plays at third or second, with Jose Tabata and Josh Harrison, respectively, sprinting in plenty of time to be safe. That meant a throw across the diamond was Murphy's only option, and McCutchen is one of the fastest men in baseball. "It's at least a bang-bang play," Walker said. "If it's not a double, it has to be a single and an error."

» As a couple players explained, the PNC Park infield grass is so tall that it can put a violent bend on grounders that get pulled to either side. "That thing moved," pitcher Jeff Karstens said.

» None of the panel's members was at the game, so none had the irreplaceable live feel of the play. Only Krizmanich had that, and the panel's criteria for overturning a scorer's decision is that it must be "clearly erroneous." It's laughable to suggest this met that criteria.

That bugged Hurdle the most.

"I was very surprised that it was unanimous," he said. "I don't see it as unanimous. I don't see it as a homer call. I don't see any of that. I saw a guy give an above-ordinary effort at third base, lay out, and the ball took a little bounce at the end. Where does he go with the ball if he catches it? The play's over."

What Hurdle liked, just as I did, was hearing his players back McCutchen.

"It speaks volumes that they care about one another," Hurdle said. "And it's not a selfish care. It's a collective care. They care about Andrew, and they feel like that decision violated him."

Although no one would share, a few players had their own theory about why McCutchen was hosed.

I'm guessing the theory is related to those seven letters stitched across the front of their jerseys.

Read more: Kovacevic: Pirates' anger nice to see - Pittsburgh Tribune-Review