December 2012

New Year’s Eve, 1972: Happiness and tears, forever

Let me tell you a little story about how my life has been shaped by my love of, and devotion to, the Pirates.

In 1972, fresh off graduation from UCLA, I worked as sports editor for the Ridgecrest Daily Independent, a newspaper in a small town in the Mojave Desert, about 120 miles from Los Angeles. We didn’t cover much national news but, knowing my background, our publisher, Cliff Urseth, signed off on letting me cover the World Series if the defending champion Bucs were in it.

Then Johnny Bench hit a game-tying homer in the bottom of the ninth of NLCS Game 5, and Bob Moose threw that wild pitch — and there was no World Series for the Pirates or for me.

So, with plans screwed, I instead went to L.A. to hang out for a week in my old haunts. While there, I met a cute girl, Malvina.

I was always good under a deadline. Forget speed dating. This was speed love. I proposed, she said “Yes.”

We had our formal engagement party, dozens of friends and relatives, a couple months later. I was on top of the world. After the party, she and I retreated to my apartment for a little “alone time,” with the radio serenading us in the background.

It was Dec. 31. At some point, a news bulletin interrupted the music. “A plane has crashed off the coast of Puerto Rico. Authorities don’t believe there were any survivors. Those on board included baseball star Roberto Clemente.”

Shock. Welled tears. I had to excuse myself from my fiance, went into another room, lowered myself to the floor, leaned against the wall. Just sat like that until the sun came up.

If not for Bob Moose, we would have never met. In a few months, we will be observing our 40th anniversary. It’s been a Great Forty. And a big piece of it will always be The Great One.

Cutch: Pirates’ first ‘Dapper Dan’ in 12 years

Andrew McCutchen is going out of 2012 the same way he spent the year: Collecting awards, public confirmations of a breakout season.

The Pirates’ center fielder just added a big one to his cache: The 2012 Dapper Dan Sportsman of the Year.

It does not get bigger than that, when it comes to the local and regional stages. Presented since 1935, the Dapper Dan is a conspicuous declaration of the Pittsburgh area’s outstanding sports personality.

McCutchen can now add it to his Silver Slugger, Gold Glove and Players Choice National League Outstanding Player Award.

“It’s an honor to be named the Dapper Dan Sportsman of the Year,” McCutchen said through Dapper Dan Charities. “So many incredible athletes have won this award, to be mentioned alongside these greats is humbling for me, and I am truly thankful of the support that I have received so far in my career in Pittsburgh.”

The first 76 Dapper Dan Sportsmen of the Year included the likes of Stan Musial (born in Donora, PA), Arnold Palmer, Franco Harris, Mario Lemieux and Roberto Clemente. A total of 18 Pirates players have received the honor — but McCutchen is only the second in 20 years, and the first since Jason Kendall in 2000..

McCutchen will be presented with his award at the 77th Dapper Dan Dinner and Sports Auction, on Feb. 6 at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center.

Baseball: Must See (Live!) TV

The rest of the nation may be dealing with a fiscal cliff, but Major League Baseball climbs a fiscal mountain. Teams have already dropped a billion-and-a-half on free agents this offseason. The two Los Angeles clubs have anted up one-third billion of that.

The pipeline is being fed by TV money. National and regional TV deals are going through the roof. The Dodgers anticipate their next deal to be worth more than $6 billion, the Angels compete in the same market, the Indians just made a sale to FOX that’ll net them $400 mil over the next 10 years, all clubs will get a raise next year in their cuts of MLB’s national deal.

And so on. What’s behind this explosion?

Call it the DVR Effect. Or, the Hulu Syndrome.

Think about it: Sports is virtually the last remaining programming telecast coast-to-coast live. Everything else is time-shifted for prime-time viewing in each time zone. Network news, series, “live” specials. I’m not sure, but the Oscars may be the lone remaining exception.

Given the canned quality of fare anyway, people take advantage of technologies that enable them to record shows, then skip commercials on playback.

So if you are an advertiser needing to get your pitch to the public, sports offer the only reliable option — because people will not sacrifice that immediacy for the convenience of ad-blocking. They’ve gotta know NOW.

Knowing your message will get to the audience=$$$$$.

We have seen that economic law at work in Super Bowls for decades, and the rest of the sports universe now is being caught up in the drag.

Alas, another unassailable fact of these economics is market size. Greater the potential viewership, the bigger the bucks. So the gap will widen between baseball franchises. Every team will see a growth in its TV revenue, but that will remain relative to its audience.

 

Hey, Big Spender? Bucs No. 13 in FA market

Free agency 2012-13 is still a work in progress, with dozens of players remaining on the board. However, the in-game box score provides some intriguing insights:

  • Thus far, 99 free agents have signed for an aggregate of 1,442,125,000. That leading figure is a billion. Works out to $14,566,919.19 per contract, most of which are long-term. Includes players who had 2013 options picked up by their clubs.
  • Each of the 30 Major League teams has participated in the process. Least active with one signing each have been the Mets, A’s, Brewers, Royals, Nationals and Padres. Most active: The Cubs, with nine (many of the low-profile variety; Edwin Jackson’s $52-million deal accounts for more than half of the total outlay of $90.05 million).
  • The Bucs have been the 13th-biggest spenders, at $36.5 million for Russell Martin, Francisco Liriano, Jason Grilli. Among the teams they have out-spent: Phillies, Cardinals, Rangers and Nationals.

To be continued, obviously. Still, an interesting snapshot.

“You say you want a Resolution …” (Cue Beatles)

New Year’s Resolutions, like records, are made to be broken. No kidding. For 20 New Years now, the Pirates have whiffed on this one:

“We resolve to have a winning record.”

As the Buccos polish off that one for a 21st time, they’ve got plenty of others to pin on the bulletin board, collectively and individually. They resolve:

  • Pedro Alvarez: “To get mad once in a while. Blowing off steam is good.”
  • Neal Huntington: “To sound more like a baseball guy and less like a rocket scientist. ‘Metrics’ and ‘logarithms’ are out.”
  • Andrew McCutchen: “To line one right between Aroldis Chapman’s legs.”
  • Travis Snider: “To try at least one veggie-burger.”
  • Pirates: “To no longer play 19-inning games. Ever.”
  • James McDonald: “To come back from the All-Star break.”
  • Pittsburgh batterymen: “To exclude basepaths from Pirate Charities. No more ‘free 90s.'”
  • Fans: “To not jump off the Roberto Clemente Bridge at the first ‘oh-oh.'”
  • “Fans:” “To not jump to conclusions.”
  • A.J. Burnett: “To bunt runners into scoring position, not myself onto the disabled list.”
  • Pirates: “To raise the Jolly Roger more often than fans’ blood pressure.”
  • Russell Martin: “To look like Ray Liotta, just not in the batter’s box.”
  • Vin Mazzaro: “To bring back 2009, when I set an A’s record for a starter by not allowing a run in my first 17 2/3 career innings.”
  • Neil Walker: “To imagine the bases are loaded every time I come up to bat.”
  • Clint Hurdle: “To give the rest of the National League something to chew on.”

Tripping through sports history with Von Benko

At the end of every calendar year, a media staple is a reflective look back at the top stories of the past 12 months, the events and personalities that captivated and amused us.

But why stop at one year?

Let George Von Benko take you on a time-machine trip through the last 45 years.

Western Pennsylvania talk-show legend Von Benko’s latest book is a fascinating retrospective of the people who have paused in front of his microphone. A rare insight into the top sports newsmakers, both local and national, of the last half-centiury.

Simply titled “Sports Talk,”  it is a 152-page eavesdrop into history.

Von Benko’s approach is as simple as it is compelling: Transcriptions of his interviews with 32 sports legends. preceded with straightforward introductions that summarize his subjects’ careers and updates their current whereabouts.

You know all the names — Harvey Haddix to Jerry West to Terry Bradshaw to Mario Lemieux and Bobby Orr — but you will learn new insights into their iconic moments and what made them tick.

One teaser, as an example: Did you know that when Haddix authored the “Greatest Game Ever Pitched,” his 12 perfect innings on May 26, 1959 in Milwaukee, not only did he do it against a Braves lineup including seven .300 hitters. but they all knew every pitch he threw?

Yep, in an interview conducted on the 30th anniversary of that singular gem, Haddix admitted that many years later a member of those Braves confessed that they were stealing the catcher’s signs in the bullpen. And they still couldn’t hit The Kitten.

Anyway, you get the idea. If you want to take a trip through sports history, pack your nostalgia and Von Benko’s book, available in shops throughout the Tri-State area. And happy travels.

 

Did Hanrahan decline? Not at his job

As Joel Hanrahan spins on the market, we’re hearing a lot about clubs’ concerns about his diminished control in 2012, compared to his 2011 command. The raw numbers do bear that out; manager Clint Hurdle himself noted that early last season, hanging the nickname “Hanrattack” on his closer.

But you know what? Hanrahan was nearly as effective in doing his job, which is to save games.

In 2011, he was perfect — meaning, three-up and three-down, in 20 of his 44 save situations (converting 40 of them).

In 2012, he was perfect in 16 of 40 save situations (with 36 conversions). The difference there is almost negligeable.

Hanrahan did “lose it” in closer’s wilderness, pitching without a save on the line. In 2011, he was spotless in 12 of 26 such low-intensity outings. In 2012, he managed to stay clean in only four of 23 non-save appearances.

So perhaps Hanrahan didn’t lose his control, only his focus. In September, as he admitted to me, he also lost his fire — after the Pirates again free-fell out of the race, it simply became harder to pitch with any incentive. 

Baby, It’s Chili (Davis) Outside

Things I learned at PirateFest:

  • Got a kick out of learning Michael McKenry and I have something — rather, someone — in common: Chili Davis. I covered the A’s current hitting coach as a player with the Angels, a great guy I consider a good friend. Davis was McKenry’s batting coach at Pawtucket in 2011, and still regularly calls him with tips, encouragement. 
  • All you need to know about A.J. Burnett: For all the highs he enjoyed last season, he considers his highlight the July 3 night the Astros knocked him around for 12 hits and six runs in five-plus innings. Why? Because as he walked off the mound, the 21,516 in PNC Park still gave him a standing ovation. “That meant a lot,” A.J. said.
  • Jeff Locke’s favorite player? “Clayton Kershaw. He’s a beast.”
  • Pedro Alvarez’s? “Scott Rolen. I grew up watching him.”
  • Give him an audience, and Clint Hurdle turns into Tony Robbins.
  • The Pirates, as all teams, can look forward to an additional $25 million of annual revenue in 2014 as a slice of MLB’s national TV pie. Club president Frank Coonelly: “We intend to invest all of that back into the team, much of it in the Major League payroll.”
  • A.J. Burnett may be able to toss his fastball over a dime 60 feet, 6 inches away, but he can’t toss a bean-bag into a 6-inch hole 10 feet away.
  • Jared Hughes makes a pretty good Howie Mandel.
  • Spring Training can’t get here fast enough.

SEAL this deal: Let’s Go (AlI-In) Bucs

By now, if you follow me here, on Pirates.com, on Twitter — if you follow me anywhere except down a dark alley — you’re well aware that I haven’t paid much attention to that Navy SEALS-Hoka Hey stuff.

Why not? It has nothing to do with reporting on the team’s official Internet “getaway.” Puh-leeze. But because I believe it all to be a load of fertilizer.

No, not the facts of the matter. But the notion that it has had anything to do with the Bucs going 17-37 the last two Septembers, or with their inability to bunt, or with their failure to get the right colored roses on Valentine’s Day — or with Mark Appel not signing with them, or anything else.

Pure and simple, my thoughts. I can have them, right? Whether or not they conform with club thinking.

Speaking of which, here’s one that struck while listening to three days of give-and-take between fans and team reps during PirateFest:

GM Neal Huntington characteristically defended his refusal to pool prospects in the type of deal swung by the Royals for a pair of veteran right-handed starting pitchers: “We don’t want a team to win just once, but want to develop one that can sustain winning for many, many years.”

In other words, don’t go all-in for one big shot, but build a consistent organization that is a yearly threat.

You know what? I don’t buy that.

If you have a fandom that has suffered through 20 consecutive losing seasons, you DO go all-in for that dump-buster. Just for the emotional lift, the renewed faith. You do everything possible to rid that albatross.

THEN you worry about the long-term. Otherwise, everyone may leap off your badwagon in the short-term, long before it can turn that corner.

L.A. gets Zack? Bucs can fight back

Even this morning, I’d rather be an exec — or a fan — of the Pirates than of the Dodgers.

The Dodgers have Zack Greinke, which means recent Boston ace Josh Beckett now is their No. FOUR. They have Carl Crawford in the hole. They will have a payroll near $220 million They also have enormous pressure to turn it all into a World Series title. Everything to lose.

The Pirates? Russell Martin, maybe Jason Grilli, plus all the upside pieces from 2012. They are also armed with the bark of the underdog, and the lure of upsetting the order. The Bucs are one of MLB’s Les Miserables. Everything to gain.

I much prefer the chance to play and root for the thrill of victory than to do so for the relief of survival. Even if Neil Huntington’s observation on the first day of the recent Winter Meetings had not been right on.

“Look at the clubs that won the offseason a year ago … where were they in September and  October?” the Pirates GM had asked, rhetorically.

Huntington doubtless was referring to the two teams that made the biggest splashes last winter: the Marlins and the Angels, both belly-up at the wire, one of them catastrophically so.

So don’t be dismayed to see what a team like the Dodgers can get away with, while the Bucs can only hope a guy like Grilli does not jilt them. Success in baseball depends on many things, and it still has nothing to do with Magic.

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