June 2011

This is a Pirates town

Forget what you thought you know about the Pittsburgh Pirates.

The small crowds, cellar dwellers, AAAA farm team, 18 straight losing seasons.

Forget about it. The city of Pittsburgh has, why shouldn’t you?

There is a new sense of belonging in the Steel City, or shall I say Buc Town. It’s cool to be a Pirates fan and the 2011 Buccos have provided a city with hope that this time around really matters. Summer has always been a void for sports fans in athletic crazed Pittsburgh, PA. Fall belongs to the Steelers, the Penguins own winter and spring and with top-flight college programs (WVU, Pitt, Penn State) in the region all-school year long, summer was never really welcoming to what it was meant for.

Baseball.

Yes, people would wind up in beautiful PNC Park, but simply as a courtesy. The Pirates have always been a sideshow for people just looking for something to do on a warm, summer night. Think about it. Everybody watches the SuperBowl, everybody goes to the annual church festival, everybody goes to a Pirate game-for the heck of it, really with no rhyme or reason.

That’s different this year and there is reason to prove it.

Joe Starkey of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review provided factual evidence that a competitive Pirates team in June is a true revolution.

Pirate games television ratings are up 34% from last year and are at their highest since 2005.

Apparel sales have boomed up to 50% in the Pittsburgh metro area.

Views of the Pirates homepage are up 41%.

Attendance at PNC Park is up 12%.

This is far from the same old, same old. Usually, Pittsburgh is a far cry away from contention, let alone .500, by this time of the year. June is about to wrap up and the Pirates currently stand at 39-37, a mere 2.5 games out of first place in the National League Central.

To quote Lou Brown from Major League, “we’re contenders now.”

Baseball is indeed a funny sport, as no one could have predicted this dramatic turnaround from last year’s Bucs and last years Bucs “fans.”

Twice in 2011, PNC Park attendance records have been set and then broken. An average of over 22,000 people have rushed the gates so far, this year. It’s a new feeling at the park, too. People can relate to this team unlike any year before. It’s a new feeling that these guys are our guys. Complaints of years before that read something like, “they just trade away everyone, anyway.” Well, they did that to get to this point.

Most notably pitchers Jeff Karstens and Joel Hanrahan, whose performances on the mound propelled the Pirates to a 6-4 win over the Red Sox on Saturday, have been the centerpiece to bewildering revolution.

With plenty of season left to play, there is more than enough time for the Bucs to pick up steam, but lose it as well. For now, it’s time to enjoy competitive baseball in Pittsburgh. For many, it’s something new. But, it’s fun to be a fan.

 

 

Vote Hanny!…well, you can’t, but still

Every pitcher has their “iffy” innings. For a starter, it could be the 1st inning jitters that give them trouble. A reliever searching for a hold in the 7th may struggle to gain control. A closer, however, can leave no doubts in any of his pitches.

When Joel Hanrahan enters the game in the 9th, nobody in the black in gold doubts him, either.

Hanrahann’s dominance as of late can be attributed to his fastball. After Tuesday’s game, he had struck out 12 batters in the past 9 innings. His 18th save came in a 1-0 win over the Astros, third best in the league. Mind you, he is a perfect 18-for-18, as well.

These are solid numbers which beg two questions, can he be an All-Star and will he be moved at the trade deadline?

Like the title suggests, a closer cannot be voted into the Midsummer Classic by the fans. But while the Pirates lack a true offensive All Star caliber player, all signs point to a Hanrahan nod.

Also, Hanrahan is lucrative to many teams. His on field performance has already turned heads, but its his contract that opens eyes. He is making just $1.4 million this year and next. With arbitration forthcoming, his cash flow could skyrocket. With all the intangibles, its clear that a large basket of goods would surely come Pittsburgh’s way in exchange for Hanrahan. If the Bucs are serious about contending, though, they hold on to him. Furthermore, if they’re in the thick of things later on, they open up the checkbooks and pay a potentially legendary closer.

It may be manager Clint Hurdle that has other plans, though.

Hurdle has shuffled the bullpen many times this year. And its paid off. A mix of fresh faces from the minors has created a solid force of relievers. With his tendencies, it could be easy to find a replacement for Hanrahan.

Right now, the Pirates best move is to keep on keeping on with Hanrahan. With the way things are going, he will be tipping his cap in Chase Field on national TV.

Pirates nab Cole at No. 1

The chants of fans approval and criticisms were not heard at MLB Network’s Studio 42 in Secaucus, New Jersey.

Save that for the NFL draft.

Ping pong balls did not determine the draft order.

Save that for the NBA draft.

Nor were there green rooms, specialized draft hats or tricked out Armani suits. Rather, this draft, the MLB draft, was headlined by some of the game’s greatest legends and a new class of potential major league ballplayers.

The Pirates have faith that Gerrit Cole will lead that new generation.

Cole, a right handed pitcher from UCLA, went first overall to Pittsburgh. Cole is said to have the best “natural stuff” in this draft class. It took more than that generic term to take Cole, though.

He stands at 6-4 and weighs in at 220 pounds. That large and powerful frame may have been the biggest drawing factor in the selection. It surely wasn’t his 6-8 record and 3.31 ERA from his last year as a Bruin. But, his 376 strikeouts in 322.1 innings through a 3-year career opened eyes. Add a mid 90s fastball and strong breaking pitches and Cole could be a unique pitcher in a few years.

Obviously Cole doesn’t have the flair of name recognition of the two No. 1 picks that preceded him (Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper). He will, however, be forever grouped with three other pitchers chosen directly after him. Danny Hultzen (Mariners), Trevor Bauer (Diamondbacks) and Dylan Bundy (Orioles) all are unique pitchers in their own way and have the distinction of being the only four pitcher chosen in a row to start the MLB Draft.

A decade from now, one of these pitchers will have at least one Cy Young trophy sitting on a shelf of their five story mansion.

I sure hope Gerrit Cole gets a space cleared off soon.

photo credits: pirateprospects.com

Phillies go home begrudingly

Thank you, Phillies.

Because of your help a grand total of 108, 807 fans came through the PNC Park gates, this weekend. In fact, you jump-started  a record breaking crowd of 39, 441 on Saturday night to set the highest number of people ever at a baseball game at the 10 year old stadium.

You also helped pumped some large numbers of cash into the economy of Western Pennsylvania through merchandise purchases, food and drinks, hotel rooms and ticket sales.

More importantly, thank you for some great memories from two of the best wins in the history of PNC Park.

Friday and Saturday were big momentum gainers for the Bucs earning a pair of hard fought wins. The play of both teams ignited the crowd, which was indeed more Philly oriented, but showed Pittsburgh that baseball could indeed be fun to watch.

The atmosphere prior to Sunday was “better than any baseball game I have ever been too, playoffs included,” one person on twitter said.

People were pumped.

Brooms were out in full force and the Pirates were just one win away from being four out in the NL Central. Oh, and a game from standing at 29-29, the immaculate .500.

While the door wasn’t slammed, this weekend proved to many people that the Pirates mean business and have the potential to play any team toe-to-toe on any given night.

For that, we have the Phillies to thank.

photo credit: getty images

Detroit Rock City

I’ve been to 26 of the 30 Major League ballparks. Actually, its 30, but I stick with 26 because the number of newer parks have skewed the total. For example, I count Qualcomm Stadium for San Diego, when I was out there Petco was not yet built. Same goes for Target Field in Minnesota as I went to a game in the Metrodome.

Until Sunday, only Three Rivers Stadium/PNC Park, RFK Stadium/Nationals Park and Cleveland Municipal Stadium/Progressive Field were the only places I have doubled up.

I have just added Comerica Park to that list.

My family and I visited old Tiger Stadium in the summer of 1999 to see it before the Tigers played their final game at “the corner.” My buddy Andrew and I spent our long weekend trekking up to Detroit to catch Tigers-Red Sox. Just less than four hours away from Youngstown, OH, we acted on our tingling baseball impulses to make Memorial Day a true American holiday celebrating the nation’s pastime.

We did so with the entire Tigers organization.

We stopped in Toledo to check out Fifth-Third Field, home of the Mudhens. The Triple A affiliate of the Tigers were indeed playing Saturday night, but had the misfortune of being rained out. Lucky for us, that meant we could still check out the ballpark free of charge.

Their team shop is major league-esque with thousands of items and many varieties of hats, t-shirts, jackets, jerseys and plenty of other novelties. We each bought pennants to commemorate our stop.

More commemoration came the next day. We spent the night in Dearborn, refreshed to wake up early for the Tigers-Red Sox doubleheader because they too were rained out the night before.

Our first destination was at Trumbull and Michigan Ave, the spot of old Tiger Stadium. Through the hard scrabble streets of uptown Detroit lies a baseball mecca field with history of a proud past. While the walls, seats and infrastructure of the stadium are torn down, the field of Ty Cobb, Al Kaline, Jack Morris and Alan Trammell still remain.

In straightaway Centerfield, the historic flagpole still stands as well as Plaza Gate Four, right down the first base side. The grass and field is in horrible shape and looks like a swamp from the Florida Everglades, but the spirit is still palpable. Now called Ernie Harwell Park, let’s hope it can be restored to some form of decency. It’s what the legends would have wanted.

We had some time to kill before the 1:00 clock start, actually make that 11:30 gate opening because we’re big fans of making it to any game as soon as humanly possible. In the meantime, we meandered around the dead city. It was a Sunday morning, after all. We stopped in a souvineer store to pick up some Tigers gear for the day and had breakfast at Cheli’s Chili, pictured above. Best Chili I think I’ve ever had. The bar has a hockey atmosphere with former red Wing great Chris Chelios as the owner. Detroit is known as HOCKEYTOWN, but I think it’s sports are centered around the Tigers. Some locals agreed with me, other argued for the sport on ice.

The outside of Tiger Stadium is like a wildlife reserve. Humongous tigers line the outside of the stadium hanging from the walls and cemented in the ground.

The energy surrounding the stadium was great. There were long lines at every gate to get in once 11 o’clock rolled around. It was a great day for baseball as a doubleheader was forthcoming, the Tigers are right in the thick of things in the AL Central if the surprising Indians tail off and the Red Sox always bring a crowd. 36,000 plus were on hand to see the first ballgame. An announced corwd of over 39,000 were said to be at the second game, but it was a far cry from that. The night before, the rain out, had a big, dissapointed crowd, but their tickets were obviously good for the makeup game.

The palpable atmosphere of outside spills through the gates along with the throng of people.

It’s a carnival scene and the ferris wheel and carousel prove that. On top of that, there are many speed pitch, batting cage and tee ball stations set up around the ballpark to appease children of all ages. The monument park in left-center field is also a drawing point with statues honoring all of the retired numbers of great Tiger players. Harwell also has a rightfully deserved statue greeting fans at one of the gates.

Concessions stand lines are never a problem as there are plenty to serve at every corner. The concourses are indeed alive with so much to see and do.

On the field is a different story, though.

The scoreboard was messed up throughout Game 1, it was fixed for Game 2, but it diverted attention and provided no stats, facts or numbers for any batter. Between innings, its lack of information hurt as well. Also, it is the most dead between innings compared to any baseball game I’ve been to. No on the field contests, games, t-shirt or hot dog tosses, either. There is no in-game host to rally fans or create a fun time when the game is not being played. Now, I know the Pirates are notorious minor-league type gimmicks, many other teams do it as well, but they are done professionally and are quite entertaining. The Tigers did nothing of the sort to get fans involved.

However, the game was entertaining enough. Knotted up at 3-3 in the top of the 9th, David Ortiz come out of the dugout, pinch hitting, and blasts a solo home run off closer Jose Valverde to give Boston the 4-3 lead.

Jonathon Papelbon came in for the save.

As it was a day-night double header we had to clear the park in preparation for the second tilt. The Tigers staff were very efficient in doing so, the weather wasn’t.

A 50 minute rain delay stalled the 7:05 start, but here it was worth the wait, too.

Justin Verlander and Josh Beckett squared off in the night cap. Hundreds of fans clamored toward the left field bullpens to catch a glimpse of their pre-game throwing sessions. It was a playoff feel as two of the leagues best righties went toe-to-toe. Beckett struggled, but Verlander pitched a gem of 7.2 scoreless innings.

All in all, it was great, somewhat spur of the moment weekend that Andrew and I won’t soon forget. Thanks for the memories, Detroit!

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