Pied Piper of Pirate City … & Let’s Go Hae jeok!

Snapshots and quick shots from Pirate City … 

Clint Hurdle watched the battalion of Korean reporters and camera crews trailing their countryman, and immediately bestowed a nickname of Jung Ho Kang: “Pied Piper.”

The Korean media is not only fawning over Kang, but falling in love with the Bucs. Regard the regalia of MBC’s Sun-shin Kim as she does an on-camera bit with Josh Harrison:

I don’t know how you say “Pied Piper” in Korean. But I do know Pirates is “Hae jeok.”

        Pedro Florimon has the smoothest hands I’ve seen in infield practice. Easy to see how he was able to hold down the Twins’ shortstop job all 2013 while hitting only .221.

        Pedro Alvarez manned first base while infielders took turns firing one-hoppers at his feet. Were they trying to let him know how it felt to be on the receiving end of his throws last season, when he had all those throwing errors from third base? Of course not — it was part of the regular “dig it” drill for first basemen, Alvarez now being one of them.

        I found out Pedro and I do have one thing in common: We’re both Game Show Network junkies.

        Although he will have one of the Majors’ most versatile benches, which would afford him the luxury of at least thinking about it, Hurdle says he has “no” interest in having an eight-man bullpen, as some teams are considering. 

        Gerrit Cole must be one of the few ballplayers not on Twitter. “Just not very interested in that stuff,” he says.

        He can carry a team – but can A.J. carry a tune?

        I have seen A.J. Burnett.

        I have seen Brian Kelly.

        I just have never seen them both at the same time in the same place. 

        The Buccos pitcher says he isn’t particularly a fan of country music, so that could be one explanation why he hasn’t hung out with Kelly, one half of the duo Florida Georgia Line.

        Here is another: They are the same person.

        Truth be told, if A.J. has a doppelgänger, he would prefer it to be Batman. 

        Has A.J. ever been told he looks like Kelly?

        “Nonsense,” A.J. says. “I have been told he looks like me.”

        Thinking Kang after Walker? Not for a second

        Sometimes we read too much into what is said or not said or how it is said, drawing conclusions about what is left unsaid. So it might have been totally coincidental the other day when Clint Hurdle gave an early report of Jung Ho Kang’s spring to-do list.

        Or not. But ever since the four-year agreement with Kang, a shortstop on a team that already has a shortstop under its control for two more years, there has been speculation he would be groomed to replace Neil Walker at second base.

        Thus my ears perked up when Hurdle said Kang “will get reps at short and third, positions he has played, then maybe second.”

        Was that Hurdle’s way of squashing the perception the Bucs are looking for a way to move beyond Walker, who will earn $8 million this season and is likely to jump to eight figures at his next and last go at arbitration?

        I hope so. Walker’s future is a polarizing subject. As the Pittsburgh Kid, he’s loved. As a recurring victim of injuries, some freak, he can be scorned.

        Above all, though, he is a gamer and a winner whose contributions can’t be assessed on a stat line. Although a club-record 23 homers for all the second basemen in the Bucs’ history isn’t a bad start. For three seasons, two of which have extended into a postseason, I’ve seen these Buccos be a different team with and without Walker.

        The numbers might surprise you: In 2012-14, the Pirates went 209-173 when Walker was in the starting lineup — and 52-52 when he wasn’t.

        I’m as anxious as anyone to see what Kang can do. I’m just not very anxious to see him do it at second base. 

        ‘Take me to your leader.” OK, where’s the mirror?

        Clint Hurdle’s Leadership Council is catching on. This will be the third season the Pirates manager will remain attuned to clubhouse doings through bi-monthly meetings with representatives — chosen by the players themselves — of every team niche (starting pitchers, relievers, infielders, etc.)

        The Leadership Council is going college. Thanks to the connection with Larry Broadway, the Bucs’ director of Minor League operations and a former Blue Devil, Duke baseball coach Chris Pollard has instituted his own Council, telling the Pittsburgh Trib, “We discussed how the Pirates are handling leadership. The concept allows us to take advantage of the diverse group of leaders we have on this team.”

        It’s an excuse to give Hurdle a hat-tip, and to point out Pollard is no Bobby Knight.

        In covering Tony La Russa’s ARF [Animal Rescue Foundation] Benefit in Vegas back in November, I had the privilege of being allowed a bit inside the head of the legendary Indiana basketball coach.

        Knight was asked during a panel discussion including others sports legends (Joe Namath, Willis Reed, etc.) how he chose Hoosiers captains.

        “My objective was ‘What could they do for me?’ Because they weren’t the team’s captain. They were my captain,” Knight responded. “I needed guys who could steer the other players to my way of thinking.”

        Did Knight give the players freedom to make any decisions?

        “Oh, sure. Like if we got into a town for a road game, I let them decide whether we practice at 2 o’clock or 5 o’clock the day before,” Knight said. “I let them decided things I didn’t give a damn about.”

        For Openers, a rare return engagement for Bucs

        Opening Day in Cincinnati isn’t as big a deal as it was before ESPN’s Sunday Night Baseball got in on the act. Now the Sunday night boys — it’s the Cardinals and the Cubs this year — get the jump on everyone else.

        That used to be the Reds — in recognition of Cincinnati being the cradle of professional baseball. The parade, the pomp & circumstances, the bunting and confetti … it was all theirs.

        So while it no longer comes with all the perks and attention, it is still noteworthy that the Bucs will open a season in Cincinnati — Monday, April 6 — for only the third time since 1959.

        The last time the Bucs raised the curtain in Queen City was 2003, for the Great American Ball Park’s unveiling — and they did it with a three-game series sweep. That had marked a quick return engagement from the 2001 opener in Cinergy Field.

        But prior to that, you had to go all the way back to 1963. Crosley Field. Danny Murtaugh and Fred Hutchinson in the dugouts. Roberto Clemente and Frank Robinson in the outfield.

        And Pete Rose.

        That is what I most remember about the ’63 opener. I watched Rose’s first big league game on KDKA Channel 2. In the bottom of the first, Rose drew a walk off Earl Francis, flung away his bat, and raced down to first base.

        Bob Prince, The Gunner, went nuts behind the microphone at this first Charley Hustle sighting. I don’t believe that’s where the nickname originated; I think Rose showed up owning that. But in those blacked-out pre-Internet days, seeing it for yourself for the first time made an impression.

        Obviously, still does.

        Coming, current attractions: Bucs have swagger

        No. 1 in future prospects. No. 1 Right Now! How’s that for a drumroll to get you pumped for Spring Training, Pittsburgh?

        When MLB.com’s Pipeline rolled out its scroll of Top 100 prospects last week, you might recall that the Pirates topped the class with a total of seven, from overall No. 12 Tyler Glasnow to No. 92 Alen Hansen. Coming attractions.

        Meanwhile, the MLB Network has been going through its Right Now! rankings of the top 10 players in the Majors at each position. There are still two to go — third base and catcher — but thus far the Bucs lead here, too.

        The Pirates are tops both in terms of players cited — six among the eight positions already disclosed, with relief pitching given its own category — and player points. Is the Network anointing them the very best team in all the Majors? No — we’re forever arguing that this is a team game, and the sum of individual talent doesn’t always add up.

        But the Bucs have definitely been the best at collecting props. As the French might say, “Parlay vous franchise?”

        MLB Network rankings reflect a multitude of statistical factors with no human bias. Our player points follow the traditional scale of 10 for first place, nine for second … down to one for 10th.

        Per that, the standings turning the corner:

        NATIONAL LEAGUE

        Central

        • Pirates (34 points; 6 players)
        • Cardinals (27;4)
        • Reds (17; 3)
        • Brewers (8; 2)
        • Cubs (4; 1)

        East

        • Nationals (33; 6)
        • Braves (15; 3)
        • Marlins (11; 2)
        • Mets (6; 1)
        • Phillies (3; 1)

        West

        • Dodgers (26; 5)
        • Rockies (18: 3)
        • D-backs (12; 2)
        • Padres (10: 3)
        • Giants (6; 2)

        AMERICAN LEAGUE

        Central

        • Royals (27; 4)
        • White Sox (23; 4)
        • Tigers (20; 4)
        • Indians (16; 4)
        • Twins (2; 1)

        East

        • Red Sox (25; 4)
        • Blue Jays (21; 3)
        • Orioles (14; 3)
        • Yankees (12; 2)
        • Rays —

        West

        • Mariners (24; 3)
        • Angels (15; 2)
        • A’s (8; 1)
        • Astros (7; 2)
        • Rangers ——

        Do you believe in good reads? Yes!

        I’ve cuddled up the last couple of nights with You Can’t Make This Up (William Morrow), Al Michaels’ biography, co-written with L. Jon Wertheim.

        Well, it isn’t really a biography as much as a through career retrospective by the broadcasting icon, the eyes and  ears of generations of sports fans. Michaels provides behind-the-scenes glimpses of the historic events he has covered, and reveals that in many instances he not only called developments but influenced them.

        In a few days, Michaels will be calling his ninth Super Bowl. In honor of that, here are nine things I did not know about him until this read:

        1. He and brother David had 50-yard line seats for the first Super Bowl before it was the Super Bowl, Kansas City v Green Bay, AFL-NFL Championship, January 1967, Memorial Coliseum.

        2. While serving as play-by-play man for the Pacific Coast League’s Hawaiian Islanders, he guest-starred in an episode of Hawaii 5-0.

        3. Michaels called the last of tens of thousands of pitches delivered by Pirates relief icon Elroy Face, who was 42 when he wound up his 22-year career with a stint with the ’70 Islanders.

        4. Upon taking the job of the Reds’ play-by-play guy, he was introduced to Cincinnati with an appearance on a CBS morning talk show hosted by Nick Clooney, father of George; yeah, that George Clooney. 

        5. Michaels called Roberto Clemente’s last play, a “hellacious one-hop laser” in the ninth inning of Game 5 of the 1972 NLCS which pinch-runner George Foster beat to third base, before scoring on Bob Moose’s wild pitch to give the Reds a comeback 4-3 win and the NL pennant.

        6. Michaels agrees with me that Game 5 of the 1986 ALCS between the Red Sox and the Angels was “the most dramatic baseball game I have ever witnessed.”

        7. Michaels was a neighbor and frequent tennis foe of both Al Cowlings and OJ Simpson — whom he visited a few times in jail.

        8. Michaels once threatened to walk out on Howard Cosell from ABC’s baseball booth — because of Cosell’s drinking.

        9. Since a kid, Michaels’ favorite sport has been hockey; he is a longtime Kings season-ticket holder.

        Unlike Pirates, I couldn’t corral Kang. Not yet.

        My plans to get a first in-person look at Jung Ho Kang today turned into a frustrating adventure.
        I spent an hour circling the sprawling Surprise Baseball Complex, by car and foot, trying to attend the Nexen Heroes’ workout, and found all access roads closed. Since I didn’t have my MacGyver kit with me … no go. All I got to see was a bunch of white uniforms through an outfield fence.
        Better luck tomorrow (the Surprise facility staff was off on Sunday, presumably contributing to the lockdown feel).
        Meanwhile, here are some Kang bits from the Heroes’ first preseason workout, as relayed by Jeeho Yoo, the impressively thorough reporter for Yonhap News:
        • In addition to the four-year $11 million contract, Kang got a challenge from Buccos GM Neal Huntington: “Huntington told me I have to win the battle (for shortstop), and with the top players around, I am obviously going to try to win it. It’s going to be fun. I think the key is how well I can adjust (to the new surroundings).”
        • Kang is aware of the important cultural role he is about to play for the future of Korean baseball: “As the first position player to make it here from the KBO, I think I am a pioneer of sorts. I would like to do well here and open up big league opportunities for younger players at home.”
        • Not only have the Pirates given Kang permission to train with his old KBO club until he reports to Pirate City next month, but he is also doing so in his old Heroes uniform.
        • In their joint KBO careers, Kang was only 6-for-34 against Hyun-jin Ryu of the Dodgers,  but did homer in Ryu’s Korean swan start. If you want to circle your calendars: Dodgers at Pirates, Aug. 7 in PNC Park, is their first potential MLB meeting.

        Avoid arbitration? Autry’s horse left barn long ago

        The flurry of contract signings on Friday all included the same, misleading advisory: So-and-so reached agreement “to avoid arbitration.”

        No. What the players and teams settling avoided was an arbitration hearing. As for “avoiding arbitration,” club owners only wish. Arbitration is a hammer that has been pounding owners since it was negotiated in good faith into the Collective Basic Agreement in 1973 — as a “tradeoff” for the fresh phenomenon of free agency.

        As Pirates GM Neal Huntington has noted, “The Players Association fought hard for [salary arbitration] as the best way to avoid salary conflict.”

        Many, many years ago, Gene Autry, the original owner of the Angels, warned fellow owners that arbitration is a hazardous tool.

        The Singing Cowboy had seen how arbitration had undermined Hollywood’s studio-contract system. He couldn’t strike the right notes for his fellow owners, who overwhelmingly approved the process (only the Cardinals’ Gus Busch and Oakland’s Charlie Finley wound up voting against it).

        The 135 players who had filed for arbitration and have settled did so for an average 2015 salary of $3,279,200.

        Numbers exchanged for the remaining 54 arbitration-eligible players average $3,421,389 on the low end — that is, the clubs’ offers, not the players’ requests.

        Very few of them might get to a hearing. As for avoiding arbitration … too late.

        A New Year, an old memory; it’s all about the ball

        As a kid growing up in Squirrel Hill, this was the weekend I always looked forward to.

        The anticipation had nothing to do with NFL Playoffs. This was the mid-‘60s. The Steelers then were the Raiders now. John Henry Johnson and a bunch of future construction workers.
        No, even in the bone-chilling cold and on the icy cobblestone streets, it became all about baseball. New Year’s Day was the hump. On one side, it was still hindsight to last season. On the other side, it was foresight, the official end to “Wait till next year.” It was all downhill to the Pirates and Opening Day in Forbes Field.
        But there was more to the calendar flip than just a feeling. Like clockwork, the first wave of baseball annuals previewing the coming season would land on the first Tuesday of January. Street & Smith, SPORT, McMillan … they would glow like beacons on the sidewalk in front of the Murray Avenue News stand.
        On my way to school that morning, I’d wait patiently as the wire around bales of magazines was snapped, grab my favorites and continue on with my prize to Taylor Allderdice, where I’d sit in homeroom sneaking peeks at the Table of Contents.
        The cyber age changed the playing field a long time ago. Baseball is never out of season, regardless of the temperature. Information on and connection with your ball idols is always available.
        But I still remember the thrill of walking down Beacon Street, crossing Murray, turning left — and seeing those stacks of magazines on the sidewalk in the distance.
        Now it’s flying down to Bradenton, driving across US 301, turning left on 27th — and seeing Pirate City on the right in the distance. The thrill is NOT gone.
        Good tradeoff. 
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