January 2011

Buccos hit the road

The Pirates took their show throughout the tri-state are of Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia this past week. The region that I like to call “my home.” The Youngstown-Pittsburgh-Morgantown area is where I’ve grown up and have many memories throughout. 

I created a new one in Uniontown, PA on Monday. 
Buddies of mine took the quick, 20 minute trip from Morgantown up and were spooked by the odd nature of the city. I’ve been to Uniontown before but am always taken aback by the unique, but odd set up of the city. Its almost like a big crater is splashed in the middle of town and a cross section of one way roads make it disturbing to drive around. 
The event was held at the Uniontown Mall and was to start at 6:30 p.m. 
We arrived precisely at 6:30 and found that nearly 300 people beat us to the punch. 
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Bet you didn’t think Roberto Clemente would show up. The wait was actually enjoyable as its not often you find hundreds of people decked out in Bucco gear together in one place. Not just in January, its sparse in the middle of summer at PNC Park, too. In the line we mingled with other patrons sharing stories of memories at the park. Pirate fans are such a close knit community. However, you find three distinguished groups. The first being the die-hards. I have a blog. I am a die-hard. These also include people at the Caravan who know the players, can understand what the front office is doing in an attempt to get the Pittsburgh baseball train back on its tracks and the people who cheer for wins and success at games they attend, watch on TV and wins in off season moves. The second are fans. They really are. The Penguins and Steelers come first but they are loyal because its a sporting event in the city they love. These people are uneducated, but need to be appreciated, nonetheless. Thirdly are the imbeciles who take any opportunity to trash the Bucs and everything that has to do with baseball. There is no hope or willingness to believe that one day the Pirates will be respectable. 
I despise that third group, almost as much as the Phillies and the University of Pittsburgh-it runs deep. 
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Now, back to our regularly scheduled program.
As we approached the line, we were there for a little more over an hour, we were greeted by Tim Neverett.  
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The Pirates broadcaster has a beaming personality to go along with his booming set of pipes. We had a nice chat regarding West Virginia sports. I had seen him during WVU football season at the Mountaineers game against UNLV. I was in the press box covering the game for the school newspaper while he was up there for FSN West representing the UNLV broadcast. He also covers basketball games for Versus. Neverett also praised Morgantown and the university for having top-notch facilities and a warm, homey atmosphere. Always good to hear that from an outsider, I know its true and its great to be recognized. In fact, when in Morgantown for the caravan stop around lunch time they stopped at the football weight room and got in an afternoon workout. 
We finally got to the table where team members were signing autographs. Pitching coach Ray Searage had some very interesting stories to tell.

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He, too, has West Virginia ties. He went to college at West Liberty, a small school in Wheeling, WV. He obviously played baseball for the Hilltoppers and went on to have a thriving Major League career, most notably for the Brewers. Searage went on, in a very intimidating tone, to address his party days at the small school even going as far as saying “there were keggers every damn night!” now I go to a top five party school in WVU. We have never gone to Wheeling for a kegger. 
He really denounced any form of education and really seemed to enjoy chatting it up with some college aged kids. Maybe we brought him back to his glory days, too bad he didn’t offer to buy us a beer after the event. 
Now we got to the players.
I had James McDonald sign a photo taken at the season ticket holder shopping spree held in the Pirates clubhouse just a few days before Christmas. His game used jersey was for sale, I pickedit up, my brother got a picture of me holding it. When I presented it to him to be signed he was flabbergasted.
“How the heck you get a hold of this,” McDonald exclaimed. “I don’t even have one.”
The fun didn’t stop there.
Wearing my “Wiz Khalifa” gray and yellow bill hat, McDonald wanted a piece of it. In fact, he called it “too, too fresh.”
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He wanted to wear it. I let him.
PC9.jpgMcDonald even went as far as to pull out his camera phone and snap a pic of himself with my stylish cap. It fit him better than it fit me. In all honesty, it looked better on him than me. I said, “When you get your hands on your own game used jersey, let me know. I’ll trade you.” He didn’t like that very much. 
He really wants his game worn jersey.
Next guy up was Jeff Karstens. 
The picture with him came up a little blurry, so its not worth putting up. This is him anyway, you be the judge if it was worth putting up in the first place.
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Last, but not least, was the “Pittsburgh Kid,”
Neil Walker. Perhaps, the most famed Bucco currently on the roster, Walker is a hot commodity. A majority of the people at the Uniontown Mall were prepared with cards and photos of Walker while wearing his jersey. A notorious stand up guy Walker was everything and more. Complimentary to everyone who came out and honored by my congratulations to him.
He was recently engaged. 
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An excellent night was capped off by a superb Italian meal at a local Uniontown eatery. The fun doesn’t stop here as Friday night begins Pirate Fest in Pittsburgh. As always, stay posted for a post recapping what is sure to be an unforgettable night and follow twitter (@pittpeaswv) for updates from the event. 

Pirates cure the winter doldrums

While December remains the “most wonderful time of the year,” this week in January isn’t far behind. 

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A pair of events in the Pittsburgh region help promote baseball in a time when below zero wind chills, winter weather advisories and 4-6 inch of snow projections are the norm. Heck, especially here in the surrounding areas of the Steel City there are other things to combat around this time of year. Pittsburgh is going to the Super Bowl!
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I’m not complaining one bit. I’ve posted facebook and twitter statuses saying “love ‘em or hate ‘em, you got to respect ‘em. People need to rationally realize that the Steelers are achieving amazing things. Come February 6th I will have witnessed my NFL team in four super bowls, an astounding feat. Some people, die hard fans of many teams may never get to see one.
I feel bad, but I guess its all trumped by the Pirates. I will have cheered for more Super Bowls than Pirates winning seasons. Unbelievable. The first three years of my life the Pirates went to the playoffs and obviously had an above .500 record. I don;t remember it, nor should I, but every year since then baseball has been regressing in Pittsburgh. 
It’s a story that unfolds with every blog post I have ever written and it is all too details to re- hash so I will save everybody the trouble of my personal depression with Pirates baseball.
Any who, I’m pumped. The Caravan was in Morgantown, WV this afternoon but I chose to be a good college student and attend class instead of seeing pitchers James McDonald, Jeff Karstens, second baseman Neil Walker, announcer Tim Neverett and pitching coach Ray Searage. I do get a second chance this evening 20 minutes up the road in Uniontown, PA. The guys are making a stop at 6:30 p.m. to sign autographs and chat with fans. 
For those interested, or those that find themselves board later this Monday night I will be tweeting live from the event. Follow me on twitter @pittpeaswv, for all kinds of updates and exciting thoughts, exciting in my mind, at least.
Also, this weekend, Friday, Saturday and Sunday Pirate Fest occurs. An indoor baseball carnival at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center in downtown Pittsburgh, Pirate Fest is a yearly tradition and a very popular event, despite the lethargic fan base of baseball in the area. 
Following that Steelers win Sunday I am riding high. The Caravan and Fest will further fuel my joy and happiness and tells me the Pirates baseball is right around the corner. 
Maybe it truly is the most wonderful time of the year. 
photo credits: pirates.com, postgazette.com

Middle infielders have always been heart of Pittsburgh

globetrotters.jpgIf you were anything like me growing up there was always a few days throughout the year that we looked forward to most. Christmas, Birthdays and Opening Day go without saying, but there was always a time, usually in mid-January, when Youngstown, OH would get a little nutty. The world famous Harlem Globetrotters would pay a visit to YSU’s Beeghly for their famous act. 


As a kid, it was pure magic. The whole team of characters had their own personality and skills that put butts in the seats, but there was always two players that had me coming back year after year. The “showmen,” as they were called would be mic’d up and come out before the game to kind of warm up the crowd. With many antics and tricks up their sleeves the showmen would have me laughing all night. The game itself was really nothing more than what my friends and I tired to do in our driveway every day after school, but the showmen somehow brought it all together.

Kind of like the recent middle infielders of the Pittsburgh Pirates. 

While everyone has their favorite players, it always seems like the shortstop and second basemen receive a bulk of the attention a majority of the time. The Pirates have tried out many pieces at these two positions. Just like the showmen for the Globetrotters there are some that stick out more than others.

Here is a list of some of the past middle infielders for the Pirates since 2001:

Pat Mears
Warren Morris
Abraham Nunez
Jack Wilson
Enrique Wilson
Pokey Reese
Mike Benjamin
Jeff Reboulet
Bobby Hill
Jose Castillo
Freddy Sanchez
Luis Rivas
Brian Bixler
Neil Walker
Ronny Cedeno
Pedro Ciriaco

Some notable, others not. But everyone on that list made some appearances in Pittsburgh at the two “showmen” positions. Maybe its the flare and flash that is needed to be a quality middle infielders. Quick feet and hands are not the only attribute needed to be a showman. It also takes a vocal persona, intriguing backstory and all around love of Pittsburgh (see its not an easy role). But from the aforementioned core of 16 players, from my judgement only five up the middle players have earned the rite.

Here they are, each with their own personal and specialized title to describe their time in Pittsburgh.
Showman Emeritus: Jack Wilson

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Still nearly two full years removed from his departure from Pittsburgh, Jack Wilson is regarded as the favorite player of many fair-weather fans. He epitomized what it means to be a major league player. When he rose through the ranks in 2001 to be the opening day starter to open PNC Park nobody could have thought some seven years later he would define Pirates baseball in the decade of the 00′s. It was not only his jaw-dropping skills at shortstop that made him appealing it was his never say die attitude. Though he played in the heart of the Pirates 18-year losing streak, you never would of guessed it. No ball was off limits and he wanted to win night in and night out.
Creative Showman: Pokey Reese
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He didn’t wear the black and gold long but his time was marked with great happiness. Reese was a unique type of ball player. A hard nosed fielder, who like Wilson, was a human vacuum cleaner. He had one of the highest fielding percentages in the league while he played for the Pirates and was an improbable complement to Wilson. He was his own player, and although quiet, still was able to draw attention. Just look at the guy, he had the flare in his simple appearance with the cornrows and style. The bobble head pictured to the left was, and remains my personal favorite of the many promotional items given out at PNC Park over the years.







International Showman: Jose Castillo
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He was never quite understood in Pittsburgh, but was always consistent. He got lazy, especially at the plate, toward the end of his three year tenure, which overshadowed his solid glove work. Castillo spoke very little, if any English. I remember getting autographs from him throughout his time as a Pirate trying to converse with him, even in his native Spanish. Mind you, I was in my mid teens at the time and probably pretty juvenile with my adaptation of the language, nonetheless, Castillo was mute. He doesn’t exactly feel the love of Pittsburgh notion, but got the job done at second base to get him registered on this list. As his double play partner, Wilson kind of assisted Castillo’s well-being and development. It reminded me of a Michael Jordan-Scottie Pippen tandem. Both made each other better.

Stunning Showman: Freddy Sanchez
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When I hear the mere mention of Freddy Sanchez, I get a smile on my face. He wanted to be a Pirate, Jerry Seinfeld, and countless big league ballplayers would never dream of it, but Sanchez yearned to be here. He gave it all. His blood, sweat and tears are still embedded in the PNC Park dirt. He was worth the price of admission and was the centerpiece for many memories for many fans. He was not only a ballplayer, but a quality family man, his kids and wife were as much a part of the club as he was. Always worth respect.
All-American Showman: Neil Walker
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The current showman for this team in ruins is Neil Walker. Known as the “Pittsburgh Kid,” he has something that not even Wilson and Sanchez had, he actually is from Pittsburgh! That fact alone makes him one of the most marketable players on the team, a needed fresh face. In just 127 games he has proven his many doubters that he will be the 2nd baseman for the Pirates for many years. His determination is his driving factor and that will soon give him fans from across the country. He now has a great reputation to carry forth leading a new generation.
It may not be the most notable group you could think of but its what defined Pittsburgh baseball throughout a dark time. Each guy had special attributes and a solid knack for the game of baseball. The past is in the past, but Walker has the chance to be a Wilson or a Sanchez. In fact, he has the opportunity to do what no showman has done before him, lead the Bucs to a winning season.
photo credits: energeticcity.ca, cantstopthebleeding.com, chicago.sbnation.com, postgazette.com, babeslovebaseball.com

Former No. 1 pick decides he overstays his welcome

 

krisbenson.jpgKris Benson announced his retirement Tuesday, quite frankly I thought he left the game of baseball years ago.

After being picked up by the Pirates with the No. 1 pick in 1996 he ended his career nearly 14 years later with a record of 70-75 and an ERA of 4.42. He had just one 10 win season in his injury laden career.

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He left Pittsburgh in 2004 when he was traded to the Mets in exchange for Jose Bautista. Benson faltered even more with another elbow injury in New York and from 2006 on he spent time in Baltimore and Texas but never amounted to even the miniscule success he found in Pittsburgh. It was reported that Benson was toying with the idea of signing with the Arizona Diamondbacks at the end of 2010 but the 36 year old felt it was in his best interest to offcially retire from baseball.

I don’t blame him.

The dissapointing career might not totally be his fault, though. Perhaps the only mistake he made was the fact that he agreed to sign with the Pirates back in ’96. He was just another pawn in the losing chess game otherwise known as the Pirates in the MLB draft.

Let’s start back in 1992, the last winning season for Pittsburgh and look year by year at the first round picks for the Bucs.

1992: Jason Kendall

1993: Charles Peterson

1994: Mark Farris

1995: Chad Hermansen

1996: Kris Benson

1997: J.J. Davis

1998: Clint Johnson

1999: Bobby Bradley

2000: Sean Burnett

2001: John Van Benschoten

2002: Bryan Bullington

2003: Paul Maholm

2004: Neil Walker

2005: Andrew McCutchen

2006: Brad Lincoln

2007: Daniel Moskos

2008: Pedro Alvarez

2009: Tony Sanchez

2010: Jameson Tailon

Four of those players are on the current Pirates roster, four spent ever-so bried stints in Pittsburgh, three look to be major pieces in building the next wave of successful baseball in the Steel City, one had a fruitful major league career, one currently is sweeping the bullpens in Washington and the rest probably haven’t been heard from since draft day.

Even though the Pirates, as well as Benson, have been losers for nearly two decades there is something Kris has that very few others do.

A lingerie model.

 

anna-benson.jpgPerhaps it was Anna Benson that made Kris famous in the end.

photo credits: foxsports.com, si.com

The Hall calls to the deserving and snubbed

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Last spring the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown welcomed me with open arms for a glorious day.

On Tuesday the Hall opened its doors to Bert Blyleven and Roberto Alomar to forever be immortalized in its hallowed shrine.
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One of the most colorful characters in Major League history sits atop his rightful place among pitching legends. Blyleven’s career spanned six teams and two World Series appearances, including one with the Pittsburgh Pirates.
This was his 14th year on the ballot with just a year remaining for his eligibility it was nearly a make or break campaign. He earned the needed percentage of votes by a fair margin and becomes the 60th player enshrined. 
Notoriously seen as a “Happy Gilmore” type player, Blyleven has made a name for himself in the pop culture realm. His famed “I Heart to Fart” shirt and off the cuff tangents in the broadcast booth never really hurt his image, but presented him as a hard nosed party boy. His mound presence was seen with the same intimidating sense. 
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Seeing Roberto Alomar get the Cooperstown call makes me feel old. He made his way onto the big league diamonds right around the time i was born. I do remember his Padres and Orioles days and although he will be adorning a Blue Jays cap on his plaque I think he will most be remembered by his time in Cleveland. With him at second and Omar Vizquel at shortstop they formed a double play combo that will forever be looked at as a benchmark for infielders. He brought fire and energy to the Indians during their glory days of the late ’90s and fans of the franchise still bask in those special years. 
Alomar is one of the first players that introduced me to baseball. Of course, there are a host of others, most notably irrelevant Pirates, but he was a centerpiece in developing my love for the game. It is exciting to see him be rewarded for an astounding career.
This years ballot consisted of many other players, much like Alomar. Jeff Bagwell, Barry Larkin, Edgar Martinez and Fred McGriff. It is hard to believe that these stars of my childhood are being recognized with the ultimate baseball blessing. I knew at the time they were all the best of the era, but far from Hall of Fame performers. Maybe its just that my mindset of the Hall consisted of the legends. The Roberto Clementes, Hank Aarons and Sandy Koufaxes of the world, not players such as Bagwell, Larkin and McGriff.
While this is a feast day for the baseball world it is also a time of despair for some. Dave Parker missed his chance to be forever seen as baseball’s elite.
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The Cobra was snubbed for the 15th and final time and will see his name removed from the ballot and will never again be considered for Cooperstown. 
This is a shame. 
Now I never saw Parker play a game in my life, aside from the 2006 All Star Game Legends and Celebrity Softball Challenge held at PNC Park, but from what I hear he was superstar. Not only does being part of the famed “We-Are-Family” troop bring instant notoriety, but being an integral part of it gets you rewards. Parker was a two-time batting champion, all-star and league MVP, yet future generations will never know it. JIm Rice, inducted last year, but up less stellar numbers than Parker and got in. Parker had no such luck. In fact, he received a slap in the face as he was presented with just one measly vote. The same number as former Baltimore Orioles outfielder B.J. Surhoff.
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B.J. Surhoff? Honestly. 
It had to be depressing for Parker and it surely is for me. I want to be able to go to Cooperstown in the first weekend of August and see a player I fell in love with as a fan get inducted. While today it is an eye sore to even see a Pirate eek his way onto an All-Star roster, I don’t believe I will ever be granted a special moment to see one of my guys get enshrined. 
I still offer my congratulations to Blyleven and Alomar and will forever be grateful that we are fortunate enough to witness a great sport like baseball and see its stars properly honored. I cherish it, I really do. 
But I don’t think I will ever experience it with the proper boyhood joy.
photo credits: minnpost.com, apacktobenamedlater.com, corbisimage.com, baltimoresun.com
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