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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. 

The Bucs are asking for it — will Santa deliver?

Turns out, baseball folk are NOT the men who have everything, so it isn’t at all hard to shop for them. Like everyone else, they have registered at Santa’s Workshop, and we got a peek at their Wish Lists.

  • Corey Hart: 2012.
  • Clint Hurdle: New right hip [it’s being delivered on Jan. 7].
  • Charlie Morton: 30 starts
  • Francisco Liriano: A full Spring Training
  • Mark Melancon: A new hook [Shark Tank is so 2013] … 
  • Tony Watson: … Line [great pitcher, dry quote] … 
  • Jared Hughes … Sinker [need a DP? Who you gonna call?]
  • Andrew McCutchen: The songs in his head on iTunes
  • Josh Harrison: Deja vu
  • Starling Marte: Name in No. 5 spot — in ink
  • Jung-ho Kang: Outlawing use of “King Kang.” Also “Bucs are so Gung-ho on Kang”
  • Travis Snider: T-Bone Burnett box set
  • Chris Stewart: A homer [it’s been 493 days and 192 at-bats]
  • Francisco Cervelli: Health
  • A..J. Burnett: Another Game 5
  • Gerrit Cole: Chill-pill prescription
  • John Holdzkom: Reunion with his spiritual father, Sidd Finch [Google it]
  • Gregory Polanco: New walk-up music, hopefully with some rhythm
  • Pedro Alvarez: BHD [Barmes Homing Device] for his arm
  • Neil Walker: Defensive metrics used as kindling for the Christmas bonfire
  • Jordy Mercer: More southpaws
  • Antonio Bastardo: Not to be inglorious
  • Jeff Locke: Two halves=Whole
  • Buccos Nation: More unforgettable nights at PNC Park, flaunting that Jolly Roger.

54-year flashback: PirateFest in the Twilight Zone

There was a moment at the recent PirateFest that Rod Serling would have loved.

In writing his classic TV series, The Twilight Zone, Serling had a thing for episodes in which people yearned to re-live special moments in their past.

And there, on the Main Stage of the David L. Lawrence Convention Center, sat, left-to-right, Dick Groat, Vernon Law, Bob Friend, Bill Virdon and ElRoy Face.

The last time I had seen those men together on a stage was a few months after they had won the 1960 World Series. They were on a “barnstorming” tour throughout the tri-state area, and made an appearance at the Manor Theatre, which still stands on Murray Avenue in Squirrel Hill.

Then, I was a 12-year-old kid listening slack-jawed as they talked about beating the fabled Yankees.

I listened this time awash in nostalgia as they treated fans to reflections on their careers.

Law had an interesting tale about how he came to be known as “The Deacon,” a story I’d never heard before. His devout reputation apparently preceded him to Pittsburgh so, when he arrived, teammates began calling him Preacher Law. Vernon, an elder in the Mormon Church, explained to them that title wasn’t proper for him — so they scaled it down to Deacon.

Friend talked about trying to retire Hank Aaron with his “slurve.” That’s a quite common pitch nowadays, but it stands for the hybrid pitch, slider-curve. To Friend, it meant a “slow curve.

As for Face’s legendary 18-1 record in 1959 … Law and Friend both took him to task for repeatedly blowing leads they left for him, then vulturing their victories when the Bucs rallied to win.

“That,” Face said, “showed you how good I was. I’d give up the runs to let the other team tie then said, ‘That’s it. No more.’ And there was no more.”

Good stuff.

One (A.J.), Two (Liriano) — Three (Volquez)?

SAN DIEGO — Neal Huntington got his man. Francisco Liriano.

Now NH can turn his attention to the sidecar: Edinson Volquez.

And A.J. Burnett is already back ‘home.’ One step closer to that veteran triumvirate that could be ice down the stretch and in October

The Pirates have reached agreement with Liriano on a three-year deal for $39 million. MLB sources confirmed only the agreement, terms of which were first reported via Twitter by Robert Murray, the Kid Wonder.

The deal will not become official until Liriano passes his physical.

Liriano had been Huntington’s lead quarry from the onset of the offseason market, and it took the richest free-agent deal in club history to bag him. The previous record had been the two-year, $17 million pact that brought Russell Martin to Pittsburgh two years ago.

Bringing Liriano back is expected to also enhance a return by Edinson Volquez, his good friend and fellow free agent.

Between them, Liriano and Volquez won 20 games last season.

From the outset, the Pirates were intent on corralling Liriano prior to his market possibly becoming broader when such top-tier free agent pitchers such as Jon Lester, James Shields and Max Scherzer reached deals.

To make that happen, Huntington may have raised the Ervin Santana precedent with Liriano and his representatives: A year ago, Santana had likewise rejected his qualifying offer (from the Royals) and entered the market seeking a four-year deal. Santana wound up signing a one-year contract  with the Braves for $14.1 million on March 12.

In Liz, Pirates find a classic reclamation project

The Pirates hope this doesn’t turn out to be Daniel Cabrera 2.0.

Their eternal search for — and admirable success with — reclamation pitching projects has led them to the ultimate challenge: Right-hander Radhames Liz, with whom on Friday they reportedly agreed to a two-year Major League contract for $3 million.

Liz is a former Top 100 prospect credited with being a hard thrower with an arresting breaking pitch. But here’s the rub: That was nearly a decade ago, and he last appeared in the Majors in 2009.

Now 31, the Dominican right-hander hadn’t since fallen off the baseball map. In fact, his 2011-13 performance for Seoul in the Korean Baseball Organization featured enough progress to invite the Pirates’ interest in making him their latest makeover subject.

As of Noon, the Bucs hadn’t yet announced the deal. They were scrambling to make room for Liz on their 40-man roster, filled up by Thursday’s moves to protect Minor League prospects in the Rule 5 Draft.

Liz was 6-8 with a 7.50 ERA in limited showings with the 2007-09 Orioles, then went 26-38 in Korea. However, in a league with the reputation of being very offense-oriented, he stood out with an ERA of 3.51 in 85 starts.

He first attracted the interest of the Blue Jays, who brought him back to organized baseball last season. Liz went 3-2 with a 2.95 ERA in 12 starts between Double-A and Triple-A, then became a free agent.

He now will have an opportunity to take his place in the Pirates’ apocryphal Hall of Reclaimed Fame. Charter members are A.J. Burnett, Francisco Liriano, Vance Worley, Edinson Volquez, even Mark Melancon — all of whom had come to Pittsburgh at career low points and been “fixed” by pitching coach Ray Searage and pitching guru Jim Benedict, the special assistant to GM Neal Huntington.

The second coming of Cabrera?

Cabrera was another Baltimore pitching prospect from the Dominican who had considerably more success with the Orioles, breaking through with a 12-8 record in 2004. Then he developed issues, mostly due to control problems, and hit the baseball treadmill. The Pirates took a shot at him in 2012, but he was dealt to Arizona after going 6-6 in a half-season at Triple-A Indianapolis.

Royals’ postseason return? Perfect

One of the most remarkable aspects of the Royals’ return to the postseason stage after a 29-year absence is that they have done it flawlessly.

No, it doesn’t always happen that way. In fact, it never happens that way. Teams resurface in the playoffs taking baby steps: A tumble here, a fall there. There’s a reason they’re called “baby steps.”

Here is a list you’ve probably never seen before: The postseason records of all teams since their last World Series appearance (of at least 10 years ago, to make the numbers meaningful), ranked by winning percentage:

Team    Last World Series     W-L    Since Pct.

Royals      1985                     8-0      1.000

Mets         2000                    6-4         .600

Orioles      1983                   14-17      .452

Indians      1997                    13-17    .433

Pirates      1979                    11-16    .407

Brewers    1982                    6-9        .400

A’s            1990                    17-27    .386

Dodgers    1988                   15-28     .349

Braves      1999                    13-26     .333

D-backs     2001                   5-10      .333

Reds          1990                   5-11      .312

Angels        2002                  10-22     .312

Cubs           1945                   9-22     .290

Twins           1991                  6-21     .222

Padres        1998                   1-6       .143

The Rangers pulled a “Maddon” with Banister

As a Major Leaguer, Jeff Banister batted 1.000 [you can look this up, pinch-hit single in his only at-bat, July 23, 1991].

As a general manager tasked with hiring his first manager in nine years, Jon Daniels is also batting 1.000. He is going with Banister.

To me, this has “Joe Maddon” written all over it.

Maddon spent 31 years filling a garden variety of roles as an overlooked, enthusiastic member of the Angels organization, the last six as Mike Scioscia’s bench coach. In 2005, he was finally drawn out of the shadows by Tampa Bay, which gave him a shot to manage. The Rays hadn’t had a winning season in their history. We’ve seen how their gamble worked out.

Now you can place your bets on Banister, who for 29 years has filled a garden variety of roles as an overlooked, enthusiastic member of the Pirates organization, the last four as Clint Hurdle’s bench coach.

Don’t you just love symmetry?

Banister was deflated to lose out on the first job for which he was up this offseason, when the Astros instead went with A.J. Hinch. A Houston native and resident, Jeff thought it would have been pretty cool for him and his family to work 20 minutes from his home.

This will be cool enough: Pulling into Minute Maid Park, and into his driveway, three times a season to manage against the Astros. The 2015 dates are May 4-6, July 17-19 and Sept. 25-27.

In many ways, Banister symbolized the Pirates’ buried lost generation. He was the only guy in uniform for all of the 20 down years. When he celebrated the end of the gloom, champagne and tears both flowed.

So it is entirely apt for him to be the first to reflect the upside of the team’s breakthrough, deserving people getting a chance to fly on their own.

Banister never went around applying for other jobs.

“If you’ve done well and people recognize it, they will find you,” he said.

The Rangers found Banister. They found a good man.

Back to Black: ’14 World Series is a sure thing

Andrew McCutchen had many reasons to want the Pirates’ postseason run to take them all the way to the World Series, but the most personal one was this:

He hoped to take his desire to positively influence Black American athletes to the most visible of stages.

Cutch won’t be there — but the Black-American presence will be back in the Fall Classic.

Lest you have a so-what’s-new-about-that? reaction to this, remember that the 2013 World Series between the Cardinals and the Red Sox was the first to not have a Black American player swing a bat or throw a pitch since 1950. Think about that — since three years following Jackie Robinson’s erasure of the color line.

The Cards still don’t have a Black player. Neither do the Giants.

But both teams clashing in the ALCS do.

The Royals include outfielders Lorenzo Cain, Jarrod Dyson and Terrance Gore. [And, at the risk of stating the obvious, how wonderfully apt is this on a team that plays its games a few Giancarlo Stanton homers away from the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum?]

The Orioles include center fielder Adam Jones and deluxe pinch-hitter Delmon Young.

We are repeatedly reminded that MLB demographics reflect the steady decline of Black representation in the game. But nothing drove that point home better a year ago than the first World Series in 63 years without a Black player.

That will be a very good page to turn.

In a word: Unforgettable

Let’s play a little word association game, as a means of signing off on another fabulous, rewarding, memorable eight months in Buccos Nation.

You throw out the name of a member of the Pirates, and I’ll tell you the first word that comes to mind. Ready?

  • Hurdle … Tough
  • Harrison … Confident
  • Mercer … Resilient
  • McCutchen … Genuine
  • Melancon … Collected
  • Watson … Unshakeable
  • Walker … Responsible
  • Alvarez … Enigmatic
  • Martin … Fiery
  • Liriano … Quiet
  • Volquez … Amusing
  • Morton … Introspective
  • Locke … Toughened
  • G. Sanchez … Garrulous
  • Davis … Cosmopolitan
  • Barmes … Selfless
  • Hughes … Emotional
  • Holdzkom … Refreshing
  • Stewart … Prepared
  • Marte … Laid-back
  • Polanco … Patient
  • Snider … Witty
  • Wilson … Erratic
  • Cole … Combative
  • Worley … Anchored
  • Lambo … Ready
And a bonus, which requires more than just one word … 

    Pittsburgh: Gritty, special, welcoming, passionate, loud and proud.

    There is always “next year” to look forward to. But there will also always be “this year” to remember.

    Peace … out.

    Yes, it’s a whole new ballgame

    To recap …

    • The Angels, with best home record in the Majors, open up 0-2 in Angel Stadium.
    • The Royals, a poor last in the Majors in home runs, win consecutive extra-inning games on home runs.
    • A Clayton Kershaw-Adam Wainwright “duel” winds up 10-9.
    • Jon Lester can’t hold a 7-3 eighth-inning lead.
    • Clayton Kershaw can’t hold a 6-2 seventh-inning lead.
    • Mike Trout, after the hype machine stops whirring, is 0-for-8.
    • Oh, and the Pirates get an early dismissal with an 8-0 loss in the NL Wild Card, their most lopsided shutout defeat since Aug. 1 … of 2013.
    So … next time someone mentions that October is a whole different animal — don’t argue.

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