February 2011

Reflections of 22

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This past week I turned 22 years old. 

Year in and year out, my birthday is intertwined with the start of Spring Training. Really, is there a better present I could possibly receive.
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As stories of baseball begin to enter the mainstream sports media it is perfect time to be thinking spring. It was surely easy for me, and many citizens of the midwest and east coast, as temperatures climbed to the mid-60s. Friends and I were able to hit the ball field and toss around the baseball and get some cracks in at the plate.
Another perfect present.
With all the gifts bestowed to me this week it is only necessary to give back the homage to the national past time. As is customary every year, I like to pay tribute to people who have associations with the age I am turning. Now, the first player that is easily recognized for adorning 22 is Pirates center fielder Andrew McCutchen.
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Cutch really needs no introduction.
Named MLB Network’s top center fielder in the game right now, he is still blossoming into a dominating 5-tool player. He is a fan favorite and will soon be recognized as not just the center fielder, but the center piece of the team that helped turn Pittsburgh around. 
After searching for players that have worn 22 recently and in the past, I found that the number is pretty scarce. Here is a list of the players that wore 22 last season:
Eric Byrnes
Adam LaRoche
Nick Green
Tom Gorzelanny
Scott Podsednik
Matt Lindstrom
LaTroy Hawkins
Scott Kazmir
Clayton Kershaw
Jody Gerut
Carlos Gomez
J.J. Putz
Xavier Nady
David Eckstein
Eli Whiteside
Joe Thurston
Matt Garza
Marlon Byrd
Brandon League
Willie Harris
I guess not so scarce when 20 of 30 teams have the number represented.
One team, however, will never see another No. 22. The Baltimore Orioles
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The Hall of fame pitcher had his number retired by the club in 1985, just one year removed from his retirement.
His election into Cooperstown occurred in 1990. His entire 20 year career took place in Baltimore. 
Palmer’s connection to the team is even stronger, today. He is a color commentator for MASN’s broadcast of Orioles games. 
While we’re at it, lets not just stop at 22. Let’s look at February 15th as a whole. 
Joining me on birth that day includes the likes of activist Susan B. Anthony, SImpsons creator Matt Groening, actor Chris Farley and Pittsburgh radio host Rocco DeMaro. 
Two unique athletes share it with me, too.
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Former Pittsburgh Penguins hockey player Jaromir Jagr.
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And…..
Former relief pitcher Ugeth Urbina. 
He is currently serving a prison sentence of 14 years for two charges of attempted murder.
As another birthday has come and gone I’m glad I took the time to reflect on the year and numbers that are so special, not just to me, but numerous others. It’s important to take in the small things in life and no matter how old we get, birthdays will always be there for us to get a sense of importance and respect from our families and friends.
We all have earned these 365 days and we deserve to have a little fun.

Remembering Chuck

tanner.jpgI’ve never been one to blame the manager for a team’s short comings.

It’s the job of the team with its skills and talents to live up to the true potential.

However, behind every great team is an even greater coach. Chuck Tanner was the epitome of that kind of great coach.

He was heralded as the ultimate “player’s manager” with not only his knowledge of the game but interpersonal relationships with the members of his team.

Those “Beyond Baseball” commercials seen on TV truly define what Tanner saw through the national past time.

In a statement, Pirates President Frank Coonelly said  “Chuck was a class act who always carried himself with grace, humility and integrity. While no one had a sharper baseball mind, Chuck was loved by his players and the city of Pittsburgh because he was always positive, enthusiastic and optimistic about his Bucs and life in general.”

Even though the city of Pittsburgh is far removed from having a heartbeat for baseball the outpouring of support has been overwhelming. People who haven’t seen, or cared about, a baseball game for ages cared about Tanner and remembered a time long ago when baseball was the living and dying point of the Steel City. Tanner brought attention to the game and even though it took his death to garner the necessary support, there has been a wonderful display of emotion to Tanner, himself, his family and the Pirates.

A nationwide audience has bestowed best wishes to the club and Tanner. Being a feature on Sports Center, ESPN’s bottom line, MLB Netowork and even the nightly national news, Tanner was a perfect ambassador to baseball and was adored for generations. For a time on Twitter, his name was even trending along the likes of Justin Bieber and Egypt.

 

family.jpgMoving forward, the centerpiece of teh “We-Are- Fam-a-lee” Bucs of 1979, Tanner’s legacy will never be duplicated. He wasn’t the winningest manager of his time or in Pittsburgh, but he still has the distinction of being the last skipper to lead the Pirates to the World Series.

He will surely be missed. His spirit has never wilted from the organization as even up to his dying days he was an advisor to the General Manager in the Pirates front office. Tanner will always be a part of the Pittsburgh Pirates, his attitude forever etched inside of all ballplayers that set foot in PNC Park. He did his job, now it would be nice for the Pirates to give back. As I’m sure will be the case, Tanner needs to be honored in the 2011 season. A patch on the jersey would be great but a memorial within the walls of PNC Park would be a great tip-of-the cap to a Western Pennsylvania native and true believer in the black and gold.

photo credits: baynews9.com, postgazette.com

Building to the model

baseball-salary-cap.jpgI remember seeing a sign at PNC Park in 2002 that read “Small Market Domination.”
The Pirates started out 5-2 that year so obviously that sentiment was a bit premature. It got people excited, though. A winner was in Pittsburgh and to get off on the right foot like that fueled some excitement that has long lacked in the Western Pennsylvania baseball community.
It is still not there today.

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Other small market areas, however, have found their their happy place with baseball. Minnesota, Tampa Bay and this past year, Cincinnati were successful despite the economic restraints placed upon them. Minnesota has one of the best run organizations in the game with their knack for competing year in and year out. It remains to be seen if Tampa Bay will remain with its head above water as key

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 departures this past season such as Carl Crawford and Carlos Pena have left to bigger areas. Cincinnati has a nice core in place with Joey Votto and Jay Bruce bolstering the line up. It should see the same post season strides like the Twins and Rays before it. 
These three teams have something in common. Their use of the draft.

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With lineups predominately filled with players homegrown through the farm system, the Twins, Rays and Reds have all took their rime with a unique path towards the top. All three teams made the playoffs last year thanks to these young players that have risen through the system, but it wasn’t just those players that got the respective teams to prominence. They had to go out and spend some money.
The Twins added Carl Pavano to their pitching staff. He not only got the job done on the mound, he won over the fan base with his phenomenal mustache. Jim Thome also helped in garnering attention. For the Rays it was Pat Burrell and Cliff Floyd that helped anchor a potent offensive threat. Cincinnati, on the other hand remained fairly quiet. Alrodis Chapman was their big money investment, though. It was his stellar pitching that ultimately positioned the Reds for a spot in the 2010 playoffs. 
For the past three years Neil Huntington has been the general manager of the Pirates. During these three tumultuous seasons he has cited the aforementioned teams as being a model for Pittsburgh to build off. 
They have.
With aggressive spending in the draft the Pirates have acquired top talent and could be seen as having some of the youngest players with the most potential compared to any low farm system across the majors. 
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Keeping with the plan that once the upper level prospects reach the major league level and show signs of success, then the free agent market will be attacked with the few missing pieces the team needs to contend. The Reds, Twins and Rays have all utilized their money properly with sufficient going to free agents, but still remaining loyal to their own homegrown players. The Pirates are taking this route, too with Andrew McCutchen, Neil Walker and Pedro Alvarez all taking great strides at the major league level last year.
One team this off-season has taken a different approach.
The Orioles have one of the best young pitching staffs in the BO.jpg
game, today. As of late, they now have a lineup that mirrors a classic Yankees roster. With its aggressive stance in the Free Agent pool the Orioles have added Vladimir Guerrero, J.J. hardy and Derek Lee to accompany their own Nick Markakis, Adam Jones and Matt Wieters. While this hungry spending spree may pay off, it will be tough to compete, as always in the American League East. While some may argue that they are at least a year from reaching its competitive potential, the Orioles set out to silence the critics by going against the grain and landing some of the hottest free agents this off-season. 
They spent money. 
It is not exactly the plan the Pirates are heading on. As they finished with near identical records last year, the Orioles feel now is their time. It’s different strokes for different folks because Pittsburgh is still premature in its development. 
I applaud the Orioles for their plan, but Huntington will still laud to the Twins, Rays and Reds as the Pirates blueprint towards success.
I don’t blame him. 
photo credits: yublog.com, nodaktwinsfan.com, sportsblog.projo.com, cobf.mlblogs.com, piratesprospects.com, sportslogos.com

Miss baseball?

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Apparently the groundhog does, too.

Punxsutawney Phil predicted an early spring yesterday, but here in Morgantown, WV it still feels like a winter in the frozen tundra. 
In an attempt to escape the winter doldrums I wrote this column for The Daily Athenaeum, the school newspaper for West Virginia University. Also known as the third best student newspaper in the country, thanks Society of Professional Journalists!
The article entitled, “The ‘Boys of Summer’ are on their way” strokes the ego of baseball fans making certain they remember that baseball remains the national pastime. It also defends the institution from those who seek to diminish the sport’s importance. 
Enjoy.

Former Chicago White Sox owner Bill Veeck once said, “There are two seasons, winter and baseball.”

Snowballs, skis and trays from the dining halls have all been some of the most popular items to play with throughout this and every winter season.

Isn’t it time for some new toys?

Although it is still January, I am ready to put a glove on my hand and toss around a white leather ball with red stitching.

I’m ready for baseball.

The feeling of the ball smacking into your Rawlings mitt, the ding of an aluminum bat colliding with the ball, and the dirt accumulating in your shoes as you round the bases create memories that last a lifetime.

Sadly, my time in organized baseball has been over for nearly five years. I find it hard-pressed to get pickup games going, as many of my friends have given up their childhood recollection of their first Little League games. Some even go as far as saying baseball is a dying sport.

I’m here to defend our national pastime.

The first thing I hear from anti-baseball narcissists is that it’s a boring game. “It takes so long in between pitches, and it’s never exciting,” they moan.

OK, so there’s no hard-hitting action like in hockey or football. But it’s far from dreary.

There are nine guys out in the field ready to move on any pitch. Each player has specific game plans for each hitter and has to adjust to every pitch. There can’t be any flaw in their concentration at any time.

Furthermore, the precise skill of hitting is far from simple.

Ted Williams, a 19-time All Star and two-time MVP, said hitting a baseball was the hardest thing to do in the sport.

Based on the national television ratings, baseball has indeed taken a backseat to the National Football League. In all honesty, that makes sense.

After all, it’s kind of hard to plan a life around 162 Major League Baseball games.

Th
ose against the sport have plenty of ammunition to put down the nearly 200-year-old sport, as no instant replay and the lack of a salary cap seems to have hindered interest in the sport.

But, unlike any other sport on earth, baseball is built on tradition. The dirt fields and humble beginnings have translated to the modern game with a blue collar ethic and desire for personal achievement. Baseball is embedded in the soil of the founding of America.

Can any sport hold a candle to that distinction?

While basketball and football may be easier to play with simple equipment, baseball has been here from the get-go.

Even today, the mentality of the sport is carried out by the die-hard players, coaches and fans.

Last Friday, West Virginia head baseball Greg Van Zant tweeted that his squad opened practice with “great effort” and a well-prepared attitude. Although, he has drawn harsh criticisms in his 15 years at WVU, Van Zant appreciates the central ethics of being a baseball player.

While we are all suffering through the harsh conditions of the winter doldrums there is something to look forward to that will rid ourselves of the freezing torment: Baseball.

“Where were these fans during the year?”

Well, the fun kept coming last week as Pirates baseball remained fresh on everyone’s mind.

The annual Pirate Fest occurred Friday through Sunday at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center. In fitting fashion I was there for the weekend’s grand opening and grand closing. It was an event filled with non-stop action lifelong memories.
Honestly.
At least enough to hold me over until Spring Training, that is.
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Friday night there was line to get in as the doors were not opened until 4 p.m. In Black Friday style the crowd ransacked their way into the Center as if they were in search of a Doorbuster Deal on ipads. 
While a few friends and I were some of the first ones in, we didn’t rush over to the autograph lines like a majority of the die-hards. Instead, I signed up for a subscription to the Tribune-Review. I was told they could deliver the paper to me on Sundays, so I said why not? 
Just doing my part to sustain my dying industry. 
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We would eventually find our way to the autograph lines. They seem to stretch for hours, because they do. Sometimes, though, I just don’t see the point. I mean, it’s just a signature. Nonetheless, I still got some pretty cool things signed by players and coaches. 
In my opinion, nothing is cooler than a picture, much like this one on the right. New manager Clint Hurdle and I shared a quick discussion and handshake. 
Let me tell you, he means business. 
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While Hurdle has been a hot topic in Pittsburgh recently, the 1960 World Series team is, too. 
Pictured left is pitcher Bob Friend who was a hurler on that classic team. As I’m sure most of you are aware footage from that historic game 7 was recently discovered. Found in Bing Crosby’s wine cellar of all places, it has since been copied into DVD and widely distributed throughout the city and baseball circles.
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Current players were signing, too. 
Here is my brother, Zach, getting right fielder Jose Tabata’s autograph. 
Tabata bulked up over the winter and was visibly larger. He is quiet as he is shy, and not so fluent in English, either. 
Hearing him say Jersey might be the funniest thing in the world.
“Hersee”
Jeff Karstens, remember him?
He was signing Friday, as well. But unlike the rest of the players he kept his interactions with fans to a minimum.
As you can see, he already zoomed through his stack of cards just merely handing them out to passers by.
He was like that mean old lady at the end of your street that just left a big box of candy on the porch on Halloween.
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Of course, they don’t call it Pirate Fest for nothing. There are a plethora of other events go on in this winter baseball epicenter. 
Zach and I took our skills to the broadcast booth as we love to share off our speaking talents. I’m not one to toot my own horn, but we have great banter and chemistry on the mic. 
We called the highlights of this year’s Pedro Alvarez walk off home run to down the Rockies in extras on August 7th. We were very Greg Brown and Steve Blass-esque.
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Speaking of family, it was great to run in Zach, as well as my dad on Friday. If it wasn’t for my old man I wouldn’t be writing this blog in the first place, simply because I wouldn’t be a Pirates fan.
I recall one game when I was no older than 10, we witnessed a beat down of our Bucs and Three Rivers Stadium. Upon walking out, he just turns to me and says ‘I’m sorry.”
There’s no doubt a majority of my 21 years have been a disappointment, but thats what will make the impending turn around so much better.
Sharing the victories with my dad.

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I haven’t been the only one suffering from baseball withdrawal. Driving up from Morgantown with my friend Marc was a great time, even if he truly is a Cubs fan. But meeting up with two of my best friends, Erin and Craig, who are indeed die-hard Pirate fans was refreshing. 
We shared a nice night in the ‘Burgh.
Friday night wasn’t over, though.
The fun was just beginning. 
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I ran into Joe Klimchak, in game host for games at PNC Park. He does a great job keeping a lively atmosphere at games and I try to compliment him any time I can. having been to many parks across the country, I am proud to say, hands down, Pittsburgh has the best host in all of baseball. His attitude and knowledge are inspiring and you just can’t help but feed off his energy. This was evident Friday as we chatted for a good 10 minutes. he had recognized me and called me “West Virginia.”
Heck, I don’t go by anything else!
Then things got a little somber. 
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The most hurtful thing that has happened to myself and the Pirates this off season was letting go of Lastings Milledge. Now, he didn’t necessarily live up to his lofty expectations.
In fact, he underachieved greatly.
But, he had promise and was a fun player to watch at the plate and in the field. He was my favorite player and I just feel the Bucs could fall victim to releasing a strong talent. 
I don’t want the non-retention to hurt Pittsburgh, but I also wish Milledge the best wherever he ends up.
We will never forget.
Later on, my West Virginia act would bite me in the butt.
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At the Q and A session players and coaches sat on stage fielding questions from fans. 
Some questions were cute, others were stupid. 
I had the honor of closing off the event. I asked who attended the recent wedding of Pedro Alvarez, just Neil Walker did.
It got a little dicey, though. 
Introducing myself as “Matt from Morgantown, Let’s Goooo Mountaineers” may have been a bad move. I was serenaded by a throng of boos. There were some cheers, however, laughs, too. I was glad to showcase my two loyalties, though. 
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We ended on that note and came back Sunday. We were greeted by a huge line of people filling in right as the gates opened at noon. 
Many jokes were passed by attendees saying “Where are all these people during the season?” Valid question, but in all honesty, they’ve been at PNC Park.
For the three day span an announced crowd of nearly 17,000 people came, the largest crowd for Fest since 2003. 
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 Erin joined our crowd again Saturday, she’s great. Never thought I could meet a bigger fan of Bucco baseball before, I still have her beat, but sure sure is close. Then, two buddies from Youngstown met us. My longest friend, Andrew and Ed, Yankees and Cubs fan, respectively, donned their black and gold to escape the winter doldrums and get in the baseball spirit. 
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A new addition to the Pirates’ wardrobe was showcased Sunday.
A yellow batting practice jersey will be inducted into the normal locker room attire for this year.
I like it, I always like yellow anything and that includes my music.
Pittsburgh rapper Wiz Khalifa’s “Black and Yellow” has been sweeping the country and the Pirates are jumping on board. Be prepared to hear it a lot this week, too, as its Super Bowl Time.
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The best part about an event like this definitely the people. A colorful crowd attends Pirate Fest every years and it is a great opportunity to discuss baseball with other passionate fans. We mingled and met many cool people including a fellow Pirate blogger, Zac Weiss.
He is an inspiring journalist, too and you and see his work here on mlblogs. His blog is called “Breaking Down the Bucs.”
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In what Erin calls, “The Cutest Thing Ever,” this picture on the left was a long time coming. It is pitcher Paul Maholm’s twitter picture.
Having asked him if I could print it out to have him sign on twitter a few days before, he obliged.
We shared a nice chat about his tweets and family. His so, Wyatt, is indeed the cutest thing ever. Come one, one look at the pic and all you can say is “aww.”
By the way, be sure to follow him on twitter, @Maholm28. He and his family are going to Disney World the week before Spring Training and will be tweeting and twitpic’ing up a storm.
For more Wyatt action, check it out. 
If you think that’s cool wait until you get a load of this.
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Jim Rooker, pitcher on the 1979 World Series team was signing autographs on a limited basis. He just wrote a series of baseball related children’s books. “Matt the Batt, Kitt the Mit and Paul the Ball,” are entertaining books and perfect for the youngest of baseball fans. He would only sign if you bought the book. Of course, I had to splurge on Matt the Bat. Being my namesake and all it will be a great heirloom to pass onto my kids.
Judging from those pictures, wouldn’t you say it was $14 dollars well spent?
Although Rooker would not give me his ring, he did have to say “Give it back, give it back,” I still did not come away from the day empty handed. 
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That my friends is a Delwyn Young banner than hung from outside PNC Park during the 2009 season. For just $25 bucks I one of two people that own one, me and Young himself. 
Unfortunately, shortly after that it was time to call it a day. A wonderful baseball weekend was the perfect dose to cure the winter blues.
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Is it Spring Training, yet?
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