time to make some moves?

We’re still a ways a way from the July 31st trade deadline but I’m starting to think the time might be right for the Pirates to begin making moves now.

The Bucs were given a second chance to make amends with their fans when MLB named Pittsburgh the host city for the 2006 All Star Game. The Pirates blew it the first time when they opened up PNC Park and went on to lose 100 games. The five-year plan was a flop and the team has been trying to recover ever since.

The organization appears to be in a "must-win" mode. The string of consecutive losing seasons has reached an almost unthinkable 12 straight years. The club has to move forward with the idea that victories will outnumber losses by 2006. There can be no excuses.

In order for the Pirates to reach that goal, it seems to me, they must make some difficult decisions.

On his Sunday radio show on June 25th, Dave Littlefield presented us with "locks" at only a few positions for 2006.

Shortstop Jack Wilson and second baseman Jose Castillo are set as the double play combination. Littlefield said the club is happy with the job Humberto Cota has done behind the plate. Jason Bay is certainly the leftfielder for the foreseeable future. Firstbaseman Darlye Ward’s contract is up after this season; as is Matt Lawton’s.

Third baseman Ty Wigginton has not produced like the team had hoped and in center field the club has used both Tike Redman and Rob Mackowiak.

The rotation for 2006 will start with Oliver Perez and the remaining four will probably be chosen from among Kip Wells, Josh Fogg, Dave Williams, Ian Snell, Zach Duke, Sean Burnett and John Van Benschoten.

I have left out Mark Redman because there doesn’t seem to be a reasonable scenario which would bring him back for 2006.  The monkey wrench is the mutual option between Redman and the Pirates. Both parties would have to agree on the team picking up the some $4.5 million dollars for 2006. However, if Redman continues to pitch the way he did for most of his first 15 starts, his agent knows full well that a lefthander with great numbers could land twice as much on the open market than that which is called for in the option year of his contract.

On the flip-side, if Redman does not pitch well and has more games like his first two starts against the Cardinals, the Pirates aren’t going to be willing to pay that same sum for another season.  It appears as though the best option for the Pirates would be to deal the lefthander to a contending team before the deadline and receive some value in return for Redman.  If that were to occur, a spot in the rotation would open up for  lefthander Zach Duke who leads the AAA level in wins this season for the Pirates International League affiliate, the Indianapolis Indians.

Duke in the rotation for an entire half of a major league season would give him and the Pirates a jump-start on the ’06 campaign.  He’s certain to experience a few bumps in the road while pitching in the big leagues but wouldn’t it serve the club better in the long run to have their top lefthanded pitching prospect getting his feet wet THIS season?  It might cost Duke and the Pirates some wins this year but I would bet most fans would take the trade-off for the benefit of next year’s club.

In that regard, perhaps a couple of wholesale changes in the outfield would pay huge dividends for the 2006 Pirates.  It’s becoming more and more apparent that the team is not sold on Tike Redman as their "answer" in centerfield and that Rob Mackowiak’s best role might be as a "super-sub" for the time being.

Between now and the July 31st trade deadline, one must wonder if a club might like to have an experienced left-handed hitter in the person of Matt Lawton. If the Bucs were to move Lawton, they would then be able to get Ryan Doumit the at-bats they so desparately want him to get at the major league level. Who knows?  With a short porch in right field, Doumit might be able to adapt to the outfield while providing the Pirates with some offensive punch from both sides of the plate.

There seems to be little doubt that the only pure centerfielder in the offing for the Pirates is playing at AAA Indianapolis in the person of Chris Duffy.  He put on quite a show in spring training down in Bradenton but the Pirates made a mistake by bringing him to the big leagues earlier this year and not playing him.  The lack of playing time hurt his progress when he was returned to Indy and got off to a very slow start.  By all accounts, he’s playing some of the best centerfield in the minor leagues these days and his average has been around .300 for over the past several weeks.

Two months (August and September) isn’t much time to allow rookies to adjust to the major leagues but, in my opinion, it’s a whole lot better than asking them to perform at a high level when a club leaves their spring training site and begins the regular season.  The quicker these moves are made, the better off the Pirates will be in 2006.

While we’re making big (and exciting) changes to the 2005 Bucs, let’s start grooming a closer for next year!  Jose Mesa has been nothing short of spectacular in his two seasons as the Pirates stopper.  However, at some point, a successor needs to be thrown into the fire.   Contending clubs will be looking for an inexpensive closer soon.  It’s possible they’ll be calling Pittsburgh to inquire of Mesa’s availability.

It’s becoming more and more apparant in baseball that there are plenty of closers out there…. you just have to find them.  The Brewers discoverd Dan Kolb a couple of years ago.  This season, Derrek Turnbow has come out of nowhere. The Cubs tried a handful before settling on Ryan Dempster.  The Nationals have the top closer in the league right now in Chad Cordero. How about B.J.Ryan? You can name a dozen closers who have only recently come on the scene and have enjoyed much success.

The Pirates have that new closer somewhere. Is it Mike Gonzalez? Perhaps. Perhaps not. He didn’t look nearly as unhittable when put in pressure set-up roles this season but that might be due to his sore knee. What about Rick White? He’s done it before  on a handful of occasions with other clubs and, though he doesn’t seem to be your protype closer, he just might be your guy. Perhaps he’s somewhere else. Sometimes clubs have to get creative in these situations. Maybe a guy like Ryan Vogelsong (who has struggled mightily in the starters role and surely doesn’t seem to have the command necessary to pull of the role as stopper) would rise to the challenge and turn into one of the league’s best closers if given that chance. How about Ian Snell?  They say his stuff is electric and he certainly has the demeanor for the job with an air of cockiness and confidence that would fit the mold.

All this is to say that the Pirates look to be at a crossroads.  They don’t seem to have what it takes to challenge for a playoff spot this year and, in order to be ready to contend for something next year (which the fans are practically demanding), some bold moves just might need to be made in the coming weeks or even days.

That’s my two cents on the state-of-the-Bucs. What say you???????

Remembering Dad

I wouldn’t be writing this blog if it weren’t for Dad. It was he who introduced me to major league baseball. I think about him every day wishing he had gotten a chance to see his son broadcasting for the Pittsburgh Pirates.

Dad was a Pirates fan growing up in Connellsville, PA just an hours drive east of Pittsburgh. His mother and father and all four siblings grew up big Buccos fans, attending games at Forbes Field and listening to Rosey Roswell and Bob Prince on KDKA radio during the days of Pie Traynor and Max Carey and Paul and LLoyd Waner.

Dad married a girl from nearby Greensburg, PA and, after spending time as a writer for a national sports publication in Chicago, he and Mom  eventually moved to Washington D.C. where she could be closer to her family(Mom’s dad was a congressman).

Dad would go on to become a top lobbyist for the coal industry and though he enjoyed the opportunity to meet often with the country’s top politicians on capitol hill, he became weary of the disturbances around the D.C. area and decided our nations’ capital was no place to raise seven children.

I was eight years old when the family moved to the Harrisburg, PA area. I loved playing sports with my five older brothers and neighborhood buddies but hadn’t found an allegiance toward any professional sports team until one weekend, Dad brought me along on a business trip to Pittsburgh. We stayed at the Hilton hotel and the Golden Triangle in downtown Pittsburgh and we attended a game at the brand new Three Rivers Stadium in the summer of 1970. I was hooked!

For the next seven years, I’d make one trip to Pittsburgh spending time chasing down visiting major leaguers for autographs at the Hilton or the William Penn Hotel and attending a Pirates game at night at Three Rivers Stadium.

Dad loved asking me about the players from whom I had received autographs; and about what I liked best about the game.  He would ask me about my favorite Pirates players (Parker, Moreno, Stargell) and I would recite their statistics and accomplishments.

Dad was pretty excited when, out of high school, I received an internship to work in the Pirates front office. Though he never admitted it to me, I think it surprised him and the rest of my family that this kid from Mechanicsburg, PA would wind up working for a major league baseball team.

I spent ten years in the Pirates front office working in various capacities. Mom and Dad would visit a couple of times each summer. I’d show them around the offices, take them down on the field, and introduce them to various members of the organization.  Dad wasn’t one for showing his emotions but I think he got a kick out of it all!

Later, I’d land a job broadcasting play-by-play for the minor league team in Buffalo, NY.  Over a five year span, I’d eventually broadcast Buffalo Bills football, college hockey and basketball, and host a sports talk show; all the while giving Dad almost daily updates and sending along tapes that would allow him to listen to his son and provide critiques when neccesarry (Dad was a stickler for proper grammar.)

In the summer of 1992, Dad fell ill. It was most difficult on my mother. She knew he wasn’t well but he had always refused to see doctors. He never wanted to be a burden.  She was worried.  I was never aware of the seriousness of his poor health because Dad would always put up a strong front during our phone conversations.

I’ll never forget election night in November of 1992.  We would often discuss politics.  Dad had an amazing knowledge of world events and history and national issues. He was a long-time speechwriter for a handful of congressional leaders in the ’60’s and ’70’s and I was so proud of his association with some of the top politicians of our time.

It was with great interest that I called on election night to get his thoughts on Bill Clinton’s victory over George Bush 41.  I was so anxious to talk to him about where the country was now headed under a new leader.

But our conversation on this night was unusually brief. Dad was having some trouble talking and would try to suppress a cough before handing the phone back over to Mom.  It was our last conversation together. I was in the room with Mom when Dad passed away on December 9, 1992.

During the last couple of hours at his bedside, Mom told me how proud Dad was of my accomplishments.  Dad had never been one to express his emotions to his kids. He didn’t have to say anything…we knew it. And I hope he knew how proud I was of him.

Just a year after his death, I was hired to broadcast major league baseball games for the Pittsburgh Pirates. Dad wasn’t around when I made the call to Mom to give her the news.  She was so excited….. she said Dad was too!

MLB.com’s complete Father’s Day special

To Bunt or Not to Bunt!

Over the last several days, the bunt debate has arisen in Pittsburgh as the Pirates continue to hover near the bottom of the National League in sacrifice hits.

Veteran baseball fans harken back to the "old days" when every player in the lineup knew how to drop down a bunt to move a runner. "Why can’t these guys bunt anymore?" is the question that pops up time and again on the talk shows and in the stands.

I’m a firm believer in bunting a runner over when the opportunity presents itself but only when the opportunity is there for a player who CAN bunt! Power hitters and RBI men are NOT bunters despite what some would have you believe.

I did some research on some former Pirates to find out how often they bunted to prove my point.

Roberto Clemente played 18 seasons with the Pittsburgh Pirates. He amasssed 3,000 hits and was inducted into Baseball’s Hall Of Fame in 1973. He successfully dropped down a sac bunt 36 times over his brilliant career but 12 of those bunts came in his first two years in the major leagues, before he had established himself as real RBI threat. In fact, Clemente was credited with only two sacrifice hits over his last six seasons in the big leagues!

I was also curious to see what Willie Stargell did over his Hall of Fame career. Captain Willie is the Pirates all-time leader in home runs with 475. He actually was asked to bunt nine times over his 21 seasons in the majors but not once did he advance a runner via the bunt over his last 14 years with the Bucs!

Dave Parker’s career numbers stunned me.  I figured, before the Cobra became one of the most feared hitters in baseball, that he would have bunted a few runners over in his early Pirates days but, incredibly, Dave Parker was credited with exactly one sacrifice bunt over his entire 19-year major league career…and that bunt came in his very first season in the big leagues, 1973.

It seems apparent that over the last several decades not a whole lot has changed when it comes to the bunt.  Players who could handle the bat and COULD bunt, were asked to perform that task. Those who were considered the run producers and RBI guys were not.

Former Pirates shortstop, Tim Foli, who helped lead the Pirates to the 1979 World Series Championship, sacrifice bunted 169 times over his 16-year major league career. Jay Bell, who followed Foli as one the Pirates most dependable shortstops, dropped down 159 sac bunts over his 18 seasons in the big leagues.

Bill Mazeroski, best remembered for the game-winning home run in 1960 to beat the Yankees and for his unparalleled defense at second base, had 87 sacrifice hits over 17 years.  Al Oliver, a doubles machine over his years as an outfielder/first baseman covering 18 years in the majors bunted 17 times but only twice over his last five years!

How about one of the great power-hitters in Pirates history, Ralph Kiner? Kiner spent ten seasons in the major leagues, eight with the Buccos, and was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1975. He ranks second on the Pirates all-time home run list. Kiner sacrifice bunted nine times (interestingly enough, five of those nine bunts came in one season: 1954 with the Chicago Cubs, his second-to-last season in the majors.)

Since the current Pirates manager, Lloyd McClendon has what appears to be a more "American League" philosophy about the sacrifice bunt (don’t give up an out unless it is absolutley necessary) I thought it might be interesting to see how often Mac bunted over his eight seasons in the big leagues…how about FOUR!  Once each in 1988, 1989, 1992 and 1993.

So, what do you think about the sacrifice bunt?  Is it used enough "these days?"  Do the players who should know how to bunt, succeed? 

To bunt or not to bunt… THAT is the question!!

Team Effort for the Kids!

What a fabulous turnout on Thursday night, May 19th for our Gloves for Kids fundraiser!   Thanks to an amazing show of cooperation from over half the Pirates roster, the ceaseless efforts of some underappreciated Pirates front office "all-stars", the great support from our partners at ****’s Sporting Goods and the remarkably enthusiastic fans who turned out in record numbers to the Mall in Robinson, we raised over $17,000 in a three-hour span!!

The Boys and Girls Club of Western PA will take that money and purchase baseball gloves for young kids who otherwise would never be able to afford such a "luxury."  On Sunday, prior to our game with the Colorado Rockies at PNC Park, some of those kids were on hand to receive those gloves as Jason Bay and Tike Redman participated in the pre-game ceremony.  It was a just another example of how much the Pittsburgh Pirates mean to so many people in the region of Western Pennsylvania.

I have been around thousands of professional athletes during my years as a front-office employee and a sports broadcaster but I cannot recall a bunch than this current edition of the Pittsburgh Pirates.  I believe that each one of the 2005 Pirates is a "winner" off the field as solid, dependable, classy and caring human beings. One cannot help but root for them as they continue to win more games ON the field in the weeks and months ahead.  They deserve our support and I’m proud to be associated with such an outstanding group of people.

Thanks to everyone for total team effort!

Gloves For Kids

"Gloves for Kids" is the brainchild of Kansas City Royals broadcaster, Ryan Lefebvre.  Ryan approached me before a spring training game in 2002 and explained that, thanks to the help of the Royals players and ****’s Sporting Goods, he had raised several thousand dollars the previous summer to help provide underprivelaged children with baseball gloves.  Kids who otherwise might pass up the chance to play the greatest game on earth are now given an essential piece of equipment (and the most expensive) that will enable them to take part in America’s Pastime.

The great people at ****’s Sporting Goods (headquartered in Pittsburgh) met with us during the summer of 2002 and we decided to have our own "Gloves for Kids" fundraiser during the 2003 Pirates season.  The event turned out to be a huge success. Thanks to the tremendous cooperation and support of the Pirates players and front office staff, we raised over $12,000 over a three-hour period. Baseball fans jammed the ****’s Sporting Goods at the Northway Mall on McNight Road to get autographs from players like Mike Williams, Brian Giles, Kris Benson, Kip Wells, Josh Fogg, Jack Wilson, Reggie Sanders, Kevin Young and Jeff Suppan.

Hundreds of gloves were then purchased and handed out several days later to help kids in the Pittsburgh area R.B.I. program.  If only every person who donated money that evening could have seen the faces of those young children as they were handed their very own  (and very first)  baseball gloves!

That brings us to 2005, and once again the fine folks at ****’s Sporting Goods are "going to bat" for the kids. This year, we’ll be raising money to purchase gloves for the Boys and Girls Club of Western Pennsyvlania.  On Thursday night, May 19th from 6 pm to 9 pm baseball fans will be asked to donate $20 for each hour of the event.

From 6 pm to 7 pm Jack Wilson, Spin Williams, Tike Redman, Mike Gonzalez and Mark Redman will be signing autographs.  From 7 pm to 8 pm Lloyd McClendon, Oliver Perez, Jose Mesa, Daryle Ward, Dave Williams and Humberto Cota will be on hand. From 8 pm to 9 pm Jason Bay, Rob Mackowiak, Kip Wells, Josh Fogg, Bobby Hill and Craig Wilson will be signing autographs.

In addition to the autographs, some top-of-the line merchandise will available as part of a silent auction. Fans will also have a chance to win cash and other memorablia as part of our raffle.

Silent auction items include the following AUTHENTIC game jerseys autographed by the player:  Jim Thome, Sean Casey, Ken Griffey Jr., Curt Schilling, Johnny Damon, Hideki Matsui, Derek Jeter, Oliver Perez, Jason Bay, Jack Wilson and Roger Clemens.

In addition, two authentic personalized and autographed bats are available in the silent auction: Jason Bay’s and Jack Wilson’s.

Memorablia ranging from color autographed photos of several Pirates players, plus an actual autographed base and home plate to autographed baseballs from Greg Maddux, Aramis Ramirez, Craig Biggio and others will be raffled off throughout the evening.

If you’re a baseball buff… You’ve Got To Be There!!!!!!!

The Bucs are playing great ball and there’s a bunch of excitement in the Pittsburgh area. We’re expecting quite a crowd to come out and meet the players plus contribute to a worthy cause.

Hope you’ll plan to join us at the ****’s Sporting Goods at The Mall at Robinson from 6-9 pm on Thursday night, May 19th.

If you can’t be there, tune in to KDKA radio AM 1020 throughout the evening for updates and place your bid on the Derek Jeter jersey which will be auctioned off on the air that night!!!

Major League Debut

Ray Sadler was called up to make his major league debut yesterday in Arizona. The 25 year-old from Clifton, Texas was 0-3 at the plate but contributed Sadler_3 to a Pirates win by making a fine running grab in left field in the first inning on a slicing fly ball toward the line on a ball hit by Luis Gonzalez. Now, even though the final score in the ballgame was 16-2, that play was significant because, at the time, the Pirates led 1-0 and the Diamondbacks had a runner at first base with one out. If Sadler (pictured) doesn’t get an outstanding jump on the ball and is unable to make the catch, it likely scores the tying run and Gonzalez is standing at second.

Kip Wells has had first-inning troubles throughout his career. Going into the game on Sunday, the opposition was hitting .321 against him and had scored seven runs in the first frame over his first six starts.  We’ll never know, of course, what might have happened to Wells and the Pirates if the Gonzalez fly ball had not been caught, but there is not question that the catch by the rookie left-fielder kept the Diamondbacks from scoring a first inning run.

I don’t know a  lot about Ray Sadler, other than what his bio tells us and from what his former batting coach at Altoona, John Wehner says about him. Wehner is now one of our broadcast partners and "Rock" raves about Ray’s work ethic and determination.  You could see that side of him in his debut against Arizona as he busted it down the line on his three ground balls. 

Sadler’s name might be familiar. His cousin, Donnie was a big league infielder for a few years with the Red Sox, Rangers, Reds and Royals. In a bit of irony, his final major league at bat came last year as a member of the Arizona Diamondbacks. Cousin Ray will never forget his FIRST at-bat in the big leagues came against those same D-Backs.

offense IS contageous

It’s amazing how quickly a team can turn it around offensively.

When the Pirates started their most recent road trip, they were last in the league in nearly every offensive category with no sign of breaking out of their season-long slump.

Suddenly, it’s as if someone turned on the long-ball switch. In their last six games, the Pirates have smacked a dozen homers. This is not to suggest the 2005 Pirates will challenge some of the power-laden lineups in St. Louis or Cincinnati but at least they seem to be moving out of the dead-ball era.

It’s enjoyable to watch a team start to play well together.  I don’t believe the Pirates are going to win the Central Division but I do think they have a legitimate chance of ending their 12-year run of sub-.500 seasons.

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