Sunday, September 30, 2012

Sept. 30 marks the anniversary of the 3,000th hit of Roberto Clemente's career

By Homer J.
Behind The Steel Curtain
September 30, 2012

Jared Wickerham - Getty Images
The biggest accomplishment of Pittsburgh sports legend Roberto Clemente wasn't his 3,000th hit, which came 40 years ago. But it's the one all Pittsburghers will remember.
As I sat in the press box that September afternoon, a 24-year-old kid working his first job for a local radio station and stringing for ABC Radio Sports, I remembered the exact moment when Roberto Clemente became my hero. It was one evening 16 years earlier, when Roberto performed a feat no one had ever accomplished before, and no one had matched it since. They still haven't.
I remembered the night of July 25, 1956. I was sitting next to the window of my bedroom of our house on Highview Street in Pittsburgh's East End. Across the street, Mr. and Mrs. McClements, an elderly couple, sat rocking on their glider, listening to Bob Prince doing play-by-play on KDKA. I could hear the broadcast over the chirping of the crickets. I was supposed to be asleep.
The Chicago Cubs led the Pirates 8-5 in the bottom of the 9th inning. The Bucs mounted a rally and loaded the bases.I remember Stan Hack was the Cubs manager and he went out to the mound. Turk Lown was the pitcher. Prince mentioned something about the exit gate in center field being opened, and then went into the shtick about the tying run on first and the winning run at the plate. Bases loaded, nobody out, and Clemente coming to the plate. Hack went back into the dugout, and Lown was about to become the answer to a trivia question.
Clemente hit a drive over the center fielder's head and Prince hollered that it was rolling "alll the waaay to the batting cage." Clemente tore around the bases with his magnificent fury. Manager Bobby Bragan was coaching third, if I remember correctly, and he signaled Clemente to stop at third. Clemente kept going.
"He went through the stop sign," Prince hollered. "Here's the throw! He slides! He's safe! He went through the stop sign for an inside-the-park grand slam home run, and the Pirates win 9-8."
"Oh, that Clemente," laughed Mr McClements. "He's really something!"
And eight year old was smitten. Clemente, who had just become the only player in the history of Major League Baseball to hit an inside-the-park walk-off grand slam homer, had also just become my hero.
If you were a kid growing up in Pittsburgh back then, Clemente was a constant in your life.
You went to Saturday afternoon "knothole club" games, and sat in the right field bleachers with your scout pack. Before the game, during fielding practice, the kids would yell at Roberto to uncork a throw to third base. He'd smile and shake his head no, and then hold up a finger and smile. Eventually, he would turn to his young fans and signal that a throw would be forthcoming. He'd fire a laser shot to Frank Thomas or Don Hoak and the kids would "oooh" and "aaah," and he'd turn around and smile. Roberto gave us kids his heart, and we gave him ours.
Every kid in town knew his batting stance, and we all tried it out, whether in Little League or speed ball or whiffle ball. We knew how to manicure the dirt in the batter's box, and we all did the omnipresent neck twitch.
One Friday night in May, 1958, the Pirates hosted the Phillies and I really, really wanted to go. My Dad was out of town on business and Mom said no, but I went anyway. I took the 71 streetcar to Oakland, Ron Kline was pitching for the Pirates. It was scoreless in the fourth or fifth inning when Harry the Horse Anderson tripled with one out and Wally Post followed with a fly ball deep to right center. From the left field bleachers, it seemed like Clemente was near the 375 mark when he made the catch and Anderson came trotting home. Clemente authored the greatest throw I had ever seen or even will see. The crowd began to roar as Anderson picked up the pace. The throw was a perfect strike that arrived in Hank Foiles' glove just as Anderson arrived at the plate. Out! The game remained scoreless.
Ted Kluzewski homered in the 12th inning to win the game 1-0, but the big story in the paper was about the greatest throw that anybody had ever seen. And there was another story about the 10-year-old kid from Highview Street who was the "runaway to Forbes Field," and how the police had been looking for him.
Clemente was well-known in Pittsburgh for his frequent visits to sick kids at Childrens' Hospital, and Bob Prince told us that he often visited sick kids in other cities during road trips. He was also known to stop by and watch the occasional sandlot or Little League game.
He learned his English from watching television, including the Lone Ranger, but eventually it was passable enough to do a radio commercial for Harmony Dairy ("It's quality checked") As much as we loved him, the kids in my neighborhood all did imitations of his thick Spanish accent.
The 1960s was the Clemente decade in Pittsburgh. He dominated the sports scene, and became as much a part of the city as our hills, our valleys, and our three mighty rivers. Those of us who grew up watching him cannot imagine those years without remembering "the Great One."
I graduated high school in 1966, and got a summer job at the Allegheny County Sanitary Authority. I was assigned to a truck driven by a gentleman named Henry Coolong. Henry's wife Elsa was from Carolina, Puerto Rico, and Elsa's family and the Clementes had been quite close in Carolina. As he would drive the Alcosan truck around from pumping station to pumping station, Henry told me about the Coolongs and the Clementes.
When Roberto first came to Pittsburgh as a 20 year old in 1955, he was a stranger in a strange world. He spoke no English and knew no one. Soon he was knocking on the Coolong's front door, wearing a white shirt and tie, with a piece of paper containing their address in his hand. Henry and Elsa became Roberto's first friends in Pittsburgh.
In 1962 or 63, Henry was working as a laborer in a steel mill when he developed a bad back. Roberto knew he needed to help his friend. Having just won the batting title, he said he wanted to meet the Mayor of Pittsburgh and have his picture taken. Mayor Joe Barr obliged, and at the photo op, Clemente asked if he could find a job for his friend Henry. Joe called John Laboon - Art Rooney's friend - who was head of the Sanitary Authority at the time, and they found a Henry a job.
Roberto Clemente became a batting champion and MVP and superstar, while Henry supported his family by working on a boat taking water samples and then driving a truck and working in the sewers, but Henry and Elsa remained among Roberto and Vera's closest friends. Roberto never forgot who he was and where he came from and never, ever turned his back on his old friends.
In 1971, we in Pittsburgh shared Clemente with the rest of the baseball world. He dominated the World Series with his bat, his glove, and his speed on the basepaths, while mesmerizing the world with his arm. The Pirates defeated the Orioles, and Clemente was MVP. As they interviewed him on live television in the locker room after game seven, he again did something no player had ever done. He said we wanted to say something in Spanish, and he then told the world in his native tongue that on this day, he wanted to give credit and blessing to his father and mother. He then repeated what he had said in English.
Flash forward to September 30, 1972. I was sitting in the press box, watching. Clemente's family and a delegation of dignitaries from Puerto Rico were there, as they had been the night before. Roberto had been stuck on 2,999 hits.
In the fourth inning, he took a pitch from Mets' rookie John Matlock and drove it to the gap in left center, all the way to the wall. The crowd cheered. Roberto doffed his cap. They stopped the game and had a ceremony. It would be his last regular season hit, number 3,000.
After the game, I went down to the locker room with my tape recorder to interview Clemente. When I got there, he was shirtless, and I couldn't help notice that there didn't seem to be an ounce of fat on him. At the age of 38, he had the body of a 25 year old. Henry always said Roberto didn't really eat, he picked at food like a bird. He didn't really sleep. He took catnaps. He took care of himself. (Years later, when David Maraniss told me he was going to write a book about Clemente, I suggested he find a picture of Roberto shirtless and suggested Les Banos might have one. Les did, and it's in the book.)
When I interviewed Clemente, he said he was happy, but mostly for the team, for the fans, and for the city of Pittsburgh. I thanked him, then thanked him in Spanish (gracias y la enhorabuena) and he smiled and reached out to shake my hand. It was the last time we spoke.
Three months and one day later, he was dead.
I'm not ashamed to say that I wept when my dad called me on New Years' morning to tell me that Clemente had died in a plane crash. He had been my personal hero since I was eight years old. Now I was 24, and I had grown up watching him and had gotten to meet him and interview him and shake his hand. And now he was gone.
I had a radio talk show to do that night on WJAS. It was a Sunday, and because of the New Year's Bowl Games, the show ran for only an hour. I spent the entire hour talking about Roberto. I read A. E. Housman's poem, "To An Athlete Dying Young." I played cuts from the locker room interview I had done after his 3,000th hit. And I played one song in his memory. I was a Latin American song, written in the 1940's as a protest against racial injustice. It was sung by Roberta Flack. It was the haunting "Angelitos Negros." The lyrics, translated from Spanish, include these...
In many older painters, Although the Virgin is white,
Painter born in my land, Paint black angels.....
Whenever you paint churches, why despise their color?
Painter, if you paint with love, Paint a black angel.
Tears ran down my cheeks as Roberta Flack sang in Spanish, "siempre que pintas iglesias, Pintas angelitos bellos, Pero nunca te acordaste, De pintar un angel negro." Somehow, when the song was over, I held it together and finished the show.
But I have to admit a few fresh tears have filled my eyes as I remember the fallen hero of my youth. He was both a hero and a teacher. He showed us how to play the game. But, more important, he showed us how to live and - tragically - he showed us how to die.
Nuestro angel negro.

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Questions linger on Hall of Fame's bat authenticity

By Bob Cohn
Pittsburgh Tribune-Review
September 29, 2012

Among the thousands of items displayed in the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, N.Y., is the bat Roberto Clemente used for his 3,000th hit.
Or is it?
“It’s definitely not the bat,” said Duane Rieder, founder and executive director of the Roberto Clemente Museum in Lawrenceville.
Rieder contends the Louisville Slugger on exhibit in the hall — given by Clemente to then-Pirates public relations director Bill Guilfoile to send to Cooperstown — looks much newer than the bat in a vivid 8-millimeter film of the historic hit.
“It’s almost brand new,” Rieder said of the bat in the hall, adding that the bat in the film shows the cleat marks Clemente dented bats with, plus lots of pine tar and signs of general use.
John Odell, the hall’s curator of history and research, cited a 1996 memo by Guilfoile attesting to the bat’s authenticity.
“But if something were to turn up that proved beyond reasonable doubt that this is not the bat, we would address it at that point,” he said.
Guilfoile eventually became vice president of the Hall of Fame. His son, Kevin, recently wrote a book, “A Drive into the Gap,” which, among other things, delves into the mystery of the bat.
Kevin Guilfoile grew up in Cooperstown and frequently viewed the Clemente bat. After seeing the movie, he said, he began to have doubts.
“It’s certainly possible the Hall of Fame has the right bat but it’s also possible they don’t,” he said.
Adding to the intrigue are claims by then-Pirates trainer Tony Bartirome and Les Banos, the former team photographer, that they each got the special bat. According to several accounts, Bartirome altered an Adirondack bat that he said Clemente used to get the hit. He later gave it to Pirates President Joe L. Brown, who in turn gave it to Bill Guilfoile, who gave it to Kevin.
The film shows without question that Clemente used a Louisville Slugger.
As for the bat in the Clemente Museum, Rieder said the wood grain “doesn’t match up” with the bat that got the hit.
Rieder said he believes the real bat ended up with a woman who was a close friend of the Clemente family.

Bob Cohn is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at or 412-320-7810.

40 years ago Sunday, Clemente notched 3000th and final hit

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Pirates right fielder Roberto Clemente swings at a pitch that became his 3,000th, making him one of 11 players in the major leagues to have hit that number or more. It came in the fourth inning off Mets pitcher Jon Matlack, in the game played in Pittsburgh Saturday afternoon, September 30, 1972. It was a double to center field.(AP Photo)
About Bob Cohn
Tribune-Review Sports reporter Bob Cohn can be reached via e-mail or at 412-320-7810.
The Great One
Statistics do not do justice to Roberto Clemente’s career. His fierce competitiveness, the all-out way he played and his dedication to causes outside the game were hallmarks of the man known as “The Great One.” He put up some pretty good numbers, too:
2,433 — Games played
3,000 — Career hits
.317 — Career batting average
12 — Times selected to National League All-Star team
12 — Gold Gloves
5 — Times led NL in outfield assists
4 — NL batting titles
1 — NL most valuable player award
1 — World Series MVP award
Source: Tribune-Review

Published: Saturday, September 29, 2012, 12:01 a.m.
Updated 21 hours ago 

It wasn’t Jon Matlack’s best curve ball, said Duffy Dyer, the New York Mets catcher. It started too high, and the break could have been tighter. But the hitter still had to lunge slightly to reach the low and outside pitch, and rather than flick it to the opposite field or miss it entirely as a lesser player might have done, Roberto Clemente pulled it into the left-centerfield gap.
“I thought he was fooled a little bit, but his hands were back, and he just flipped the bat,” said Dyer, a future Pirate who was behind the plate at mostly empty Three Rivers Stadium on Sept. 30, 1972. “If it was someone like me, it would have been a weak ground ball to shortstop.”
But this was Clemente, “The Great One,” the Pirates’ legendary right fielder, hitting a double off Matlack, a 22-year-old rookie left-hander. Clemente became the 11th major leaguer — and first Latino — with 3,000 career hits.
In 40 years since, 17 players have done so. Yet, this occasion resonates because nearly three months later, on New Year’s Eve, Clemente, 38, died in a plane crash on a relief mission to earthquake-ravaged Nicaragua.
“In a sense, the context is everything,” historian Rob Ruck said. “It’s going to be the 40th anniversary of his death at the end of the year. But certainly in terms of the achievement, there’s a symmetry, an elegance to his life and death, to reach the milestone and to die three months later.”
The Pirates had clinched the National League East title (they lost to Cincinnati in the playoffs), and Bill Mazeroski pinch-hit for Clemente in the fifth inning. He did not bat again during the regular season.
Among baseball’s notable feats, probably only Lou Gehrig’s record streak of consecutive games, ended by an incurable disease, matches the poignancy of Clemente’s accomplishment and subsequent tragedy.
“There is a literary quality to it, a sadness,” said John Thorn, a Major League Baseball historian.
Only 13,117 people showed up to watch that game on a damp, chilly Saturday afternoon. A few miles away, the University of Pittsburgh Panthers lost to Northwestern in Pitt Stadium to fall to 0-3. That game drew more than 18,000.
Matlack, today the Houston Astros’ minor league pitching coordinator, struck out Clemente in the first inning. Leading off the fourth, Clemente asked teammate Willie Stargell to pick a bat for him. Stargell examined three before handing Clemente a Louisville Slugger. Stepping in, Clemente took a strike. The crowd shivered and waited anxiously.
“Everybody’s standing,” the late Bob Prince, voice of the Pirates, boomed into the KDKA-radio microphone. “They want Bobby to get that big three thousand.”
Clemente wanted it, too. Badly. He wanted the chase to be over. He had barely slept. Still, he spent time before the game talking to people, kids especially, and posing for pictures.
He was tired but no longer angry. In Friday night’s game, stuck at 2,999 hits, Clemente thought he had a hit but the call was changed to an error. He cursed and fumed in the clubhouse but then calmed down. “Deep down, I think I would rather have a clean hit,” he said.
Now he had another chance. “Matlack on the 0-and-1,” Prince said.
The young lefty wound up and delivered. “I’m disappointed because I’m thinking it’s gonna be a ball,” Matlack recalled. Clemente, a classic bad-ball hitter, took an awkward cut that would make most other hitters look foolish.
“I’m thinking, why is he swinging?” Matlack said.
Prince: “Bobby hits a drive to the gap in left-centerfield! There she is!”
Watching from the dugout was Chuck Goggin, a 27-year-old rookie utility man, a Marine who survived stepping on a land mine in Vietnam. He joined the Pirates from the minors three weeks earlier. This was his fourth game in the majors, and he started at second base. Leading off, Goggin singled for his first big league hit. He singled again in the third.
When the postgame fuss over Clemente subsided, Goggin remained seated alone by his locker, clutching the precious ball from his hit. A reporter told a photographer to shoot Goggin and Clemente posing together.
“A couple of months later, I got an envelope with the picture, which is one of the proudest pictures I have.”
Clemente “congratulated me on getting my first hit,” Goggin said. “I told him at this rate it was probably going to take me 1,500 years to catch him.”
Goggin ended his major league career with 29 hits.
He watched Clemente round first, arms flying as always, then ease up and glide into second with a stand-up double.
“There was nothing like watching him run the bases,” said Rusty Staub, who was playing right field for the Mets. “And that unique hitting stroke he had.” He chuckled, “We just prayed to God nobody taught it at his camp.”
On second base, Clemente waved his helmet, a gesture frozen in a famous photograph that would assume greater meaning in coming months.
Pirates pitching ace Steve Blass was among those who lobbied for Clemente’s moment at second base to be memorialized in a Clemente statue dedicated outside Three Rivers in 1994 and moved to PNC Park. Another pose was used instead.
“I thought it was very symbolic,” said Blass, now a Pirates broadcaster. “I thought it captured Clemente.”
Matlack finally caught on that something big had happened when he noticed commotion around second base.
“I’m sort of standing there wondering, ‘What the heck is going on? We have a 
ballgame to play. Why the fuss?’ ” he said.

Between innings, Clemente ran to his position and again tipped his cap. Among fans in the right field stands was 14-year-old Ann Ranalli, now Ann King, who rode a streetcar Downtown from her home in Dormont and walked across the Fort Duquesne Bridge for the game. King remembers thinking, “He’s tipping his cap to us.”
Outspoken, fiercely competitive and stubbornly dedicated to humanitarian causes, Clemente did not always enjoy a warm relationship with fans and media during his 18-year career.
Nevertheless, he said after the game: “I dedicate this hit to the fans of Pittsburgh. They have been wonderful. And to the people back home in Puerto Rico.”
Bob Cohn is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at or 412-320-7810

Friday, September 28, 2012

Andrew McCutchen is living the American dream

By Lisa Olson
The Sporting News
September 26, 2012

NEW YORK—On the corner of 71st and York, parked next to a puddle of undetermined sludge, stands one of the city’s finest eateries. It’s a food truck serving up Jamaican cuisine, and with one deep inhale Andrew McCutchen knows what he’ll be having for lunch.
He orders jerk chicken with sides of creamy mac and cheese and greens, takes the feast over to a nearby bench and digs in. Nobody gives him a second look. He’s wearing a $40,000 ring, with enough diamonds orbiting the edges to cause temporary blindness, but on this afternoon he’s just another hungry tourist who has ventured uptown to eat from a Styrofoam plate next to sewer drains oozing steam.
Andrew McCutchen is the centerpiece of the Pittsburgh Pirates, a franchise desperate for all things positive. (AP Photo)
“Totally worth it,” he says.
In a couple hours, McCutchen, a 25-year-old center fielder for the Pittsburgh Pirates, will head out to Queens for another night of working at the greatest job in the world. He still has an outside shot at winning the National League MVP Award, trailing only the incomparable Buster Posey of the San Francisco Giants and Milwaukee’s Ryan Braun in the race. Though the Pirates have slipped from playoff contention, he still has plenty of reasons to approach every at-bat with a smile more dazzling than that ring.
Before every game, McCutchen thumbs through his phone until he comes across the picture that makes his throat clutch. In the photo, McCutchen is shaking the hand of a very sick young boy, maybe 6 or 7. The boy is so weak, the father must prop him up by holding onto his shirt. The boy’s brother is in a wheelchair, barely able to move.
It’s a picture that will stay with McCutchen for as long as forever.
“If I go 0-for-4 or have a bad day, I think of it. If I have a great day, I think of it,” he says. “There are kids who are going through such awful things. They didn’t ask for the hand they’ve been dealt. I don’t know how anybody can be in the position we are, as professional athletes, and not want to make a kid’s day a little brighter by laughing with him just for a second.”
There might be other players having more fun than McCutchen, but maybe not. He does drop-dead impressions of Cleveland Brown from Family Guy, easily mimics Eddie Murphy’s classic guffaw and sometimes rocks the keyboard in the clubhouse before games (he taught himself).
When times are rough—when, for instance, a late-summer slump puts a dent in his tremendous first half and parallels the disintegration of the Pirates’ dream season—he flips through his own bank of images and draws strength.
From them: the memory of living as a young child in a house cramped with love and bodies, his mother and his aunt and grandmother and a bunch of cousins, and then moving to a trailer park in Bartow, Fla., with his parents—they were still in high school when McCutchen was born—and his father working in the phosphate mines and coming home late at night just drenched in mud from exploding pipes, and sharing a room in the trailer with his baby sister but that was cool because he liked the idea of protecting her.
In the ways that count, it really was the American dream.
“I had everything I needed or wanted,” he says. “I didn’t know anything different. I learned to be a hard worker. I learned that things aren’t going to be given to you on a silver platter.”
He had a natural talent and a sprinter’s build, and by the age of 11 found himself playing on teams and in baseball camps with boys who were teens. Drafted by Pittsburgh in 2005, he’s now the free-spirited face of the Pirates, a team that for decades has craved a bit of joy.
Ask McCutchen to envision his future—surely he’ll mention an elusive trip to the postseason, more All-Star games, a heap of batting titles, maybe even someday a Triple Crown—and his answer knocks you back.
In the place of personal goals he instead talks of a desire to be the sort of player who never tosses his bat or helmet in anger, who can’t pass up the chance to speak to a wide-eyed child, a player who laughs often and remains positive even through struggles.
“I always want to remember where I came from and the good things in life. I’d rather have that than be someone who hits .370 or whatever and is just miserable,” he says. “I’ve learned that the more relaxed I am and the more fun I’m having, the easier it is to play the game.”
July must have been a blissful month. He hit a jaw-dropping .446 then, played nearly flawless defense and sent the city of Pittsburgh into frenzied visions of baseball in October. The hallucinations have tapered, as McCutchen has settled into a rhythm that still has him leading the NL in hits and runs scored while the Pirates strain for their first winning season since 1992.
The club’s grim, star-crossed history has hardened and even crushed the souls of plenty of players who have gone through the Pirates' clubhouse, but not McCutchen. In the spring he signed a six-year, $51.5 million contract extension, and to celebrate he bought the watch that shimmers as he eats with a plastic fork food made from a truck on the curb of a New York street.
While others might kvetch over another typical Pittsburgh swoon, he sees only grand things on the horizon. The MVP trophy and a wild-card berth might be out of reach, but McCutchen isn’t inclined to lament what might have been.
He describes the delight he witnesses in the eyes of the kids who line up early to watch batting practice, and who could complain after seeing that? He speaks of his dad, Lorenzo, now a youth pastor, and his mother, Petrina, still a case manager at a juvenile center, and how they could retire in luxury now that their son has made it, but they still believe that a hard day’s work is the essence of living, and how could he not honor that?
“I’m not going to forget what got me here,” he says. No matter how the final days of the regular season spin, here’s an athlete who’s always going to treasure the blessed hand he has been dealt.

AFC North's changing identity

By Jamison Hensley
September 26, 2012

Ray Lewis, Troy PolamaluGetty ImagesThe defenses in Baltimore and Pittsburgh, led by Ray Lewis (left) and Troy Polamalu, respectively, haven't gotten off to their usual start this season.
The Pittsburgh Steelers got 384 yards and four touchdowns from Ben Roethlisberger and lost at Oakland. The Baltimore Ravens needed 382 yards from Joe Flacco and every single one of their 31 points to beat New England.

Is this the AFC North or the Arena Football League?

Defense no longer reigns supreme in this division. Two of the NFL's best defenses over the past decade, the Steelers and the Ravens, are performing as well as replacement referees this season. These defenses statistically are having their worst seasons in recent memory. They're uncharacteristically giving up yards, points and game-winning drives.

If we've learned anything in the first three weeks of the 2012 season, it's the AFC North is going through an identity change. Ray Lewis and James Harrison are no longer running the division. This is the time for Roethlisberger and Flacco.

This hasn't been a gradual shift. The Ravens' defense has gone from being No. 3 at the end of last season to No. 27 right now. Baltimore, which has never given up more than 369 yards per game over a 16-game season, is currently allowing 401.3 yards. The Steelers' defense has gone from being the stingiest defense in the league last season to 18th in points allowed. Pittsburgh is on pace to give up 400 points in a season for the first time in 24 years.

It's a football culture shock to see one of these defenses struggling. It's mind-boggling that both can't get to the quarterback and can't keep offenses out of the end zone in the same year. Since 2000, the Steelers and Ravens are the top two defenses in the NFL in yards and points allowed.

But the gold standard of defense in this league is being tarnished the first few weeks of the season, and it goes beyond the statistics. It was 10 days ago when the Ravens watched Eagles quarterback Michael Vick go 80 yards to score the winning touchdown in the final two minutes. It was just last Sunday when the Steelers couldn't hold a 10-point fourth-quarter lead in Oakland and couldn't stop the Raiders from driving 49 yards on the final drive to set up the winning field goal as time expired. The lack of confidence has gotten so bad that Steelers coach Mike Tomlin acknowledged he went for it on fourth down in the fourth quarter because his defense couldn't stop the Raiders.

Offenses no longer fear Pittsburgh and Baltimore. At the same time, these veteran defenses aren't overly worried about their early-season troubles.

"I think at the end of the year is when you pay attention to stats," Lewis said recently. "When people talk about our defense, whatever they want to say at the beginning of the year, we always say find us at the end of the year because you know where we're going to be."

It doesn't take Dick LeBeau to provide an explanation for the dramatic falls. These defenses are playing without three NFL defensive players of the year. Ravens linebacker Terrell Suggs, who was voted the best defensive player last season, is out indefinitely with an Achilles injury. Harrison (knee) and safety Troy Polamalu (calf) have combined to miss five games and are looking to return against the Eagles after this week's bye.

The loss of Suggs has been significant in terms of the pass rush. On Sunday night, Tom Bradyhad enough time to call Gisele before throwing to Brandon Lloyd on a sideline route. Although the Ravens did sack Brady in a critical fourth-quarter stop Sunday, they're not getting any consistent pressure and giving too much time to quarterbacks to pick apart the secondary. According to ESPN Stats & Information, the Ravens' defense held quarterbacks to a 36.7 QBR last season, which was first in the NFL. This year, quarterbacks have produced a 71.9 QBR, which ranks 23rd in the league.

The same impact is being felt without Harrison and Polamalu, two of the best playmakers in the league. The Steelers have sacked the quarterback five times this season. Only six teams have done this fewer times. Pittsburgh also has forced three turnovers, which is tied for 24th in the NFL.

"I think what you lose, you lose chemistry sometimes when guys go out," Steelers safety Ryan Clark told The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. "We have to work together and fit together properly, that more than anything. It's not that guys aren't talented enough, we're not fitting the defense like Coach LeBeau wants us to do."

What if their problems aren't simply injuries? What if the Ravens aren't as good after making three changes to their starting front seven? What if Baltimore isn't clicking with Dean Pees, the Ravens' third defensive coordinator in three years? What if the Steelers have become too predictable under the 75-year-old LeBeau? What if players like Brett KeiselCasey Hamptonand Larry Foote are getting too old?

"We can't point fingers at anybody," Clark said. "We have to use our thumbs and point them at ourselves and be better."

This style of play isn't what the AFC North was founded upon. Teams used to rely on defense and hand the ball off to Jerome Bettis and Jamal Lewis. Now, the ball is in the hands of Roethlisberger and Flacco.

The division is just changing with the landscape of the NFL. Look at the past three Super Bowl champions and where they ranked in passing offense: Saints (fourth in 2009), Packers (fifth in 2010) and Giants (fifth in 2011). Perhaps it's a good sign that the Ravens are third in passing and the Steelers are sixth.

This is little consolation to two defenses who pride themselves on being the bullies of the division and the entire NFL.

"We've got to work on every aspect of our game," Ravens cornerback Cary Williams said. "We're far from perfect. We know what is expected from us. We just need to come together as a unit and get the job done."

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Nutting but endorsements from Pirates

Published: Thursday, September 27, 2012, 12:01 a.m.
Updated 8 hours ago 

How can this be?
How can Pirates president Frank Coonelly release a statement guaranteeing that general manager Neal Huntington, assistant GMs Greg Smith and Kyle Stark and manager Clint Hurdle all will be retained next season and in the very same statement say the team has not yet turned its “full and total attention to evaluating why we were unable to finish the job”?
Shouldn’t the evaluation come first?
Coonelly, unfortunately, did not make himself available for further comment.
How can that be?
How can the team president drop a bombshell — and it is a bombshell when you announce that nobody will be held responsible for a second consecutive historic collapse – and not answer questions?
Could it be that team owner Bob Nutting simply doesn’t want to pay people for not working?
Nutting, after all, hasn’t exactly forged a reputation as wild spender. If he fired Huntington, it’s entirely possible a new GM would want a new manager, not to mention many new assistants. That means Nutting would be on the hook for the remainders of the deals with Huntington (two years), Hurdle (one year), plus whatever Smith, Stark and a lot of other people are owed, plus all the incoming salaries.
That’s not his style.
Of course, Nutting didn’t talk either. Two questions I would have asked him:
1. Did you give this statement your full blessing?
2. Would you consider bringing in a “senior adviser” of sorts to help with talent evaluation?
I would have asked the first question because, curiously, nobody at the Pirates would confirm that Nutting endorsed Coonelly’s statement. I was told only that I should assume he did.
OK, I’ll assume that. But it also got me to wondering: If Huntington could go on his radio show, as he did Sunday, and say he had no intention of parting ways with Stark or Smith, then why couldn’t Coonelly unilaterally express his support for Huntington, Hurdle & Co.? Maybe Nutting only gave a half-hearted blessing. Maybe he is sitting in the weeds waiting to take action after the season — though I doubt it.
Either way, there is yet time for the owner to come to his senses. Something isn’t working here. The Pirates did not just play poorly to finish the season. They imploded in biblical fashion for the second straight year. Their record over past two Augusts and Septembers — going into Wednesday’s game — was a combined 35-72, good for a .327 winning percentage.
Last year, the Pirates went from first place in a division to double-digit games out faster than any team in baseball history. This year, as’s Jayson Stark reported, they might become the first team to be as many as 16 games over .500 after 108 games and finish with a losing record. In a related story, the organization hardly is flooded with major league-ready talent. Just the opposite. And millions have been wasted in free agency.
It should go without saying that all of this is unacceptable. Yet everywhere you turn in this organization, you find acceptance rather than outrage, despite Coonelly finishing his lawyerly statement like this: “Confidence in and support of Neal, Kyle and Greg should not be misunderstood with acceptance of another poor finish at the Major League level. We must understand why the quality of our execution and play deteriorated so markedly in August. Finishing was the focus from spring training, but it certainly was not achieved.”
I asked Huntington yesterday — he was available to speak, albeit well before the statement was released — if 82 wins might be a way of salvaging the season.
“I know our fans hate when I say this, but 82 has never been significant to me,” he said. “Once we fall short of winning the World Series, we’ve not truly had a successful year. From our standpoint, 82 doesn’t represent anything but a win total better than 72. It’s not something we’re going to celebrate.”
I still think 82 is critical in terms of perception, and I wonder if Nutting feels the same way. I wonder if he’s still waiting on some big decisions, or whether he’s content to save the money and shut his ears to the outrage.
How can this be?
Joe Starkey co-hosts a show 2 to 6 p.m. weekdays on 93.7 “The Fan.” His columns appear Thursdays and Sundays. He can be reached at

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Crosby is healthy, happy, hungry

By Dejan Kovacevic
Pittsburgh Tribune-Review
September 26, 2012

The Penguins' Sidney Crosby works out at Southpointe Sept. 2012. Chaz Palla | Tribune Review
About Dejan Kovacevic
Tribune-Review Sports Columnist Dejan Kovacevic can be reached via e-mail or at412-380-5677.
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Published: Wednesday, September 26, 2012, 12:01 a.m.
Updated 11 hours ago 

The world’s greatest hockey player was standing at center ice with a puck on his head.
In the Bizarro world of local sports of late, with the Pirates collapsing like stoned hippies and the Steelers defending Dick LeBeau better than they defended Carson Palmer, this felt just about right.
There was Sidney Crosby, along with 11 other Penguins and a few extras engaging in one of their impromptu scrimmages Tuesday morning at Southpointe. Other than the team-licensed gear, it bore no resemblance to the training camp that should have been taking place. There were no coaches, referees, linesmen or anyone else at ice level. Seven bundled-up fans watched from the bleachers.
The captain, improving as cleverly as ever, had that puck balanced on his helmet as he lined up for a faceoff against, uh, Deryk Engelland. They squared up, Crosby’s head tilted forward, gravity played the role of linesman, and off he went.
Before long, he burst down the left wing, curled in on the poor rent-a-goalie and sweetly tucked a shot inside the far post.
That an upbeat enough image to take your mind off “Hoka Hey!” or all three of Lawrence Timmons’ tackles?
“It’s nice to get on the ice,” the captain told me right after stepping off. “It’s been a lot of fun. I’ve been feeling good all summer … but now you kind of crave something else.”
Oh, yeah. That.
I could invest this page in a John Tortorella-sized rant on the NHL’s stupidity in shutting down a sport that a) can ill afford it during a growth period and b) has openly boasted of record revenues since the last lockout, way back in 2004 and c) is letting the usual clique of cheapskate owners pull Gary Bettman’s strings.
But I won’t. I’d rather talk actual hockey, as I’m sure is true of all who love the game.
Let’s talk about how good it is to see Crosby happy again.
Not happy. Beaming.
I’m not sure any of us will ever fully process what he went through these past couple years. It wasn’t just about the concussion and the neck. It was about the doubts, about picturing life without what he loves most.
And now?
“Symptom-free. No problems.”
Another huge grin.
Not easy to stay down after that, is it?
But wait until you see him, however long that takes. He has a stronger build than he’s ever shown, and he’s positively flying about the rink. Looks like he’s right where you’d want him to be at 25, ready for the prime of an already brilliant career.
In other offseasons, he’s focused on a specific area to master, such as faceoffs.
This time?
“Missing as much time as I did, I just want to get back to the speed and skill of the game. Obviously, that takes games to get back, but I’ve done a lot more game-type scenarios, quickness work, things to make the transition a little easier.”
That’s a very Sid way of saying he’s in exemplary shape.
Questions do remain, but that only offers an excuse for more actual hockey talk.
Here’s a topic: Who will be Crosby’s linemates?
Pascal Dupuis will be one, but the Penguins’ vain pursuit of Zach Parise left the same vacancy on the other wing.
“I think we have a lot of good wingers here,” Crosby said. “I’m comfortable with all our guys.”
I’m guessing it will be Chris Kunitz. Dan Bylsma can mix and match next to Evgeni Malkin and James Neal, who play mostly off each other, anyway.
And what of Crosby’s usage on the power play, which was so confounding in the playoffs that Bylsma took the wacky step of taking him off the top unit?
A fixed role is way overdue.
“You try to find different places to work to everyone’s strengths,” Crosby said. “I feel really confident out there wherever it is, but I’d say my comfort zone’s always been on the half-wall. The point is new to me, so goal line or half-wall, I’d prefer.”
Half-wall it should be, then.
Like I said, fun to talk a little pucks, isn’t it?
If only the NHL would collect its senses, we’d do it all the time.
Of course, some do, anyway. That’s the nature of the hockey fan. Even if they watched football the night before, they’ll claim to their buddies they were dissecting some Predators-Ducks rerun on NHL Network.
I asked Crosby if the sport — owners or players — should ever take advantage of that.
“I hope not. I hope that nobody who’s making any decision or taking any stance will take our fans for granted. But there is a business side, and we all know that. We just want something that’s fair, and hopefully people can understand that.”
He shook his head. It’s pretty clear he’s still one of those grasping to understand.
“I can’t really compare it to anything. Not at all. You know, I’d rather just be playing.”
And when might that happen?
I mentioned I’ve heard for a while it won’t go past October.
“I have no clue. I couldn’t give you a date. I don’t see it going that long, but there hasn’t been a lot of progress the past couple weeks. We’ve kind of been at a standstill. Hopefully, it’s one or two meetings away, and everything starts rolling.”
And someone’s hand — rather than his head — can drop the puck.