Turning the page

Whenever John Russell is interviewed the day after a Pirates’ loss, he always invokes the phrase “you just have to turn the page.”  This is, admittedly, something I am not very good at in my life, and especially as it relates to my Buccos.  But anyone who’s read the last few entries of this here blog realizes that I am trying to make some changes in my life, especially in terms of the team and where they fit into it.

And so even though it hurt, the day after the trades of Freddy and Jack, to read Andy LaRoche’s quote in the paper, “It’s just part of the game…you can’t let it really affect you,” I know that he is right.  Because really, what good would it do to dwell on who has left?  How would that be productive, either for me as a fan or for me as a person?

So if you’re wondering what I’ve been up to these last eight days or so, the answer is, trying to turn the page.  It’s been a slow process.  I had tickets to last Friday night’s game, but I didn’t go.  I actually felt like I physically couldn’t.  I was too afraid that I would burst into tears upon seeing the Pirates take the field and not seeing either Jack or Freddy amongst them.  Staying at home to watch the game on TV, there was still a danger of waterworks, but just in front of my cats, who are used to me crying with some regularity.

But I did watch last Friday’s game on TV (and cried a little bit).  And last Saturday’s (when I got misty but did not shed actual tears).  By the time Sunday rolled around, I was ready to return to the park.  My friends Gary and Leslie and I had gotten tickets weeks ago to cheer Nyjer Morgan’s return, and I knew that the time had come.  I could sit at home and stew, or I could go to the park and cheer on these new-look Bucs.

Because here’s the thing about them — they’re actually kind of exciting.  On the whole, they’re very young, and Neal Huntington’s favorite word, “upside,” could be used to describe almost all of them.  Plus with virtually everyone using the last two months of this season as a tryout for next year, I’m thinking the performances are going to be strong.  How could they not be?  (I realize the irony of that statement now, in hindsight, as the Pirates have lost six in a row.  But there will be growing pains — we knew that going in.)

So I went to the park on Sunday with some trepidation, and I was fully intending to hold a grudge similar to the one I’d had upon Nate McLouth’s trade.  For the first few weeks that Andrew McCutchen was in the bigs and would miss a play that no centerfielder could make, I would sneer, “Nate would’ve had it.”  I had fully prepared my arsenal of such lines, and was fully ready to use them, only with the names “Jack” and “Freddy” inserted in “Nate”‘s place.  As I asserted to Gary and Leslie as we drove downtown, “I’ll clap for all of them, but I will NOT clap for Ronny Cedeno.”

Cedeno’s first at-bat was in the bottom of the second, and when he hit a home run to left, who was the first one on her feet?  Your dear Jolly Rog, guilty as charged.

The Pirates went on to lose the game, of course, in a disturbing fashion that’s become a trend this homestand — get involved in a back and forth battle, give up the lead in an avoidable way, then watch helplessly as the opposition slowly adds on.  But here’s the thing about Sunday’s loss — it didn’t really affect me.  There have been times in the past where a loss would sour my mood for the rest of the day, would make me all snarly, upset, and downright agitated.  But the new, turning-the-page-Jolly-Rog accepted the loss with a sigh, and a wish that they would have won, but a sense of gratitude for a fun afternoon with friends and a great time enjoying the beautiful weather.

This was, in part, because as we stayed afterwards to watch the kids run the bases (note to readers: if you live in Pittsburgh and go to a Sunday afternoon game, stay to watch this — it is absolutely hilarious), Paul Maholm came walking across the outfield.  He had started the game on Sunday, and things had gone well until the doors kind of fell off in the seventh inning.  Surely, I thought, he would be angry and upset with his performance and the game’s end result.  Instead, he was smiling — smiling! — to himself as he crossed the field.  Without being asked, he stopped to chat with some of the kids who were waiting on line, and patted them on the head before continuing towards the players’ parking lot under the Clemente Wall.  The whole time, a placid smile was on his face.  You could almost hear him whistling contentedly.

Well, this is new, I thought to myself.  If the starting pitcher…the losing pitcher…a guy actually involved in the game…doesn’t seem bothered by the loss, and isn’t letting it ruin the rest of his Sunday, then why the heck should I?

And so I didn’t.  Gary and Leslie and I had a leisurely stroll through downtown, and decided to stop for ice cream at Dave and Andy’s in Oakland.  (Another must-do for the Pittsburghers in the reading audience.)  I can honestly say it was one of the more fun Pirate games I’ve attended, and I know that I owe a lot of it to my new perspective.

This week was not one of those where the Pirates had a Monday off, so they’ve played five more games since then.  This non-stop action gave me the chance to really hone my page-turning skills.  Yes, I attended two of the games.  And yes, I watched two of the others on TV.  But I didn’t deliberately plan my evening around them.  When I went grocery shopping on Tuesday evening and got home a few minutes after seven, there wasn’t a breakneck effort to empty the car and get into the house by the first pitch.  When I did watch the games on TV, I consciously switched to another channel during the commercials, and sometimes flipped back to find I had missed several pitches of an at-bat, or the whole plate appearance itself.  When the game last night (which I attended) stretched into extra innings and the late hours (I’m sorry, but I can’t be out at 11 on a work night), I actually left.  Before the game was over.  And you know what?  The world did not spin off its axis.  No one accused me of being a lesser Pirate fan (something I’ve come to realize is that I always used to feel like I had to prove my loyalty, to an unknown and unnamed party or parties).  I didn’t feel disloyal, or guilty, or bad (at least not overly so).

I’m not saying all of this to toot my own horn.  But I have really enjoyed letting baseball be fun again.  I’ll still keep score every now and again, but not religiously.  (When I didn’t keep score on Sunday, I was amazed at how much time I had to really watch and enjoy not just the game, but the company.)  I’ll still do some analysis on the blog, but I must warn you that it might not be as in-depth as it has before. 

Because this is a new Bucco team.  This is a new Bucco blog.  The page is being turned.  And even though it sometimes gives me a paper cut (leaving the park tonight, I thought for a second of Jack and literally had to stop and catch my breath at the realization that he’s not on the DL or being given a night off; he’s really no longer a Pirate), these things tend to be surface wounds.  They might be painful for awhile, but then the skin grows in and everything is new again.

And then there were four…

Driving to work today, I heard a frightening stat on the radio — of the 25 guys who were on the Pirates’ Major League roster on Opening Day 2008, five of them remain on the Pirates’ Major League roster today: Matt Capps, John Grabow, Paul Maholm, Zach Duke, and Ryan Doumit.

When I got home from work today, I heard another frightening stat — John Grabow and Tom Gorzelanny have been traded to the Cubs.  So now there are four.

I have mixed emotions about this trade.  Honestly, I’m pretty happy for Grabow and Gorzo — I know that Grabow loves playing at Wrigley, and I know that Gorzo is from the Chicago area.  So I’m sure they’ll both enjoy their new digs.

But as for me, I need a tourniquet!  In some ways, I’m glad that Neal Huntington is pulling off all of these deals in rapid succession, because that’s what you do with a Band-Aid, is rip it right off.  But when the Band-Aid is covering a deep, gaping wound that is gushing blood, having it removed only leads to more pain.

Let me reiterate that I believe in Neal’s plan.  Much as I thought his “we’re not breaking up the ’27 Yankees” comment after yesterday’s trades was caustic, it was also true — that’s part of why it hurt so much.  Obviously, as an organization, the Pirates that he inherited were in need of some major help, in every facet of the game and every level of the system.

But did we have to go to this extreme?  I mean, I don’t even know who the face of the franchise is anymore.  I don’t even know if I relate to any of the current Pirates, much less feel like I have a personal connection to them.  (This is a bit of an exaggeration — I’ve met Maholm, Duke, and Doumit several times, and have always found them to be really nice guys.)  Honestly, I’m afraid to pick a new favorite Pirate because he might get traded away.

And let me say, too, that I’m getting a little worn out from having all these extra box scores to check.  Now, when I read my sports section at lunch, I have to give an in-depth look to no less than six other teams: the Red Sox (How’s Jay-Bay doing?  Is LaRoche sinking or swimming?); the Braves (How’s Nate doing?), the Nattys (How’s Nyjer doing?  Did Burnett pitch?); the Mariners (How’s Jack doing?  Did Snell implode yet?); the Giants (How’s Freddy doing?); and the Cubs (Did Gorzo pitch?  What about Johnny Grabs?).  In some ways, I feel like I’m following two teams — the Pirates, and the ex-Pirates.

And you know who I feel the worst for in this whole situation?  Ryan Doumit.  Sure, Maholm, Duke, and Capps are also the lone wolves remaining from Opening Day 2008, but they have each other as fellow pitchers, and they can relate to one another on those grounds.  But what must Doumit, the only position player left from a year ago, think about all of this?  He was visibly upset by Jack’s trade yesterday, and offered a “no comment” to the media in regard to Freddy’s.  Is he feeling duped right now?  I mean, he, like Maholm, signed a long-term deal coming into this year.  He also busted his butt to come back from his wrist injury early, to the point of staying with the team during his rehab so that he could continue to work with the pitchers.  He’s got to be feeling sort of foolish, sort of angry, and sort of uncertain.  And he has every right to be.

Because you know what?  Whether you like the plan or not, whether you agree with the plan or not, whether you believe in Neal or not, the Pirates are, right now, a laughingstock in Major League Baseball.  I’ve heard several derisive remarks in the media, calling them the Pittsburgh Prospects.  The worst was last night, on FSN Final Score, when their snarky and annoying announcer stated, “Well, the Pirates’ fire sale continues…the Mariners and Giants were left to pick through what’s left of the Pirates.”  So if Ryan Doumit is feeling a little upset — or, heck, highly upset — by all this, I’m OK with that.  Because honestly, I am, too.

At my parents’ house, my dad has this mug on his desk that was given to him when he left one of his previous jobs.  Each of his co-workers had jotted a message on the mug in black marker, and while most of them wished him luck or stated that he’d be missed, one simply read, “Take me with you!”

Of the four remaining Pirate “veterans,” Doumit, Maholm, Duke, and Capps (can you call them veterans if their combined Major League service time — in terms of months of the season — is approximately 94 months and exactly 851 games, and their average age is, by my count, 26.86?), you’ve got to wonder who among them would write a similar sentiment on a mug given to Bay, Nady, Marte, Bautista, Paulino, McLouth, Hinske, Morgan, Burnett, LaRoche, Wilson, Snell, Sanchez, Grabow, or Gorzelanny (and who among us would fault him for it).  Have I forgotten anyone?  If so, I blame it on lightheadedness — you know, from a loss of blood.

Jack: An Appreciation

The first time I ever heard of Jack Wilson was during the 2004 All-Star Game.  Understand that I was not living in Pittsburgh at the time.  Rather, I was getting ready to move out here and begin my graduate study in writing, and I didn’t have a good attitude about my new, would-be home.  Pittsburgh was, in my mind, a gross and sooty steel town, definitely second-rate to eastern Pennsylvania, and before I had even gotten here, I was sure I would want to leave.

Well, that was almost five years ago, and I’m here to tell you that I’m still a Pittsburgher.  In fact, as of yesterday, I have now lived in the ‘Burgh for 59 glorious months.  And in that time, I have come to know quite a bit about Jack Wilson (admittedly, not all; I do not purport to really know him), and I love what I know.

See, the night of the 2004 All-Star Game, my life was in flux.  I was mourning the fact that I had just left college, a year before most of my close friends.  I was concerned about moving to a new city, completely on my own.  And I was also disturbed to realize — as I had earlier that summer — that my lifelong love of baseball was fading rapidly.  See, I didn’t have a TV in college, so I missed out on a lot of baseball action.  My team back then was the Yankees (long story; basically, I picked them as a little kid because they, like me, had a “K” in their name), but I really hadn’t followed them with any regularity since I was in high school.  More concerning to me was the Padres-Phillies game my dad and I had attended earlier in the summer, during which I was disturbed to realize that I was extremely bored with what was transpiring on the field.  Baseball, which had always been such an important part of my life, seemed to be as up in the air as everything else.

I was watching the All-Star Game with Kev and Matt (whose names you will recognize as two of the blog’s most loyal readers), more so because it was a tradition than anything else.  For years, we had watched the Home Run Derby and bet on who we thought would win, and then watched the All-Star Game the next night.  On this night, when the starting lineups were announced, Kev and Matt pointed out Jack Wilson, because he was a Pirate and I was a soon-to-be Pittsburgher.  I sort of shrugged it off, not wanting anything to connect me to the city that I would soon, begrudgingly, be calling home.

Almost a year went by, and for the first ten months that I lived in Pittsburgh, I hated it.  This had very little to do with the city, and very much to do with my bad attitude.  What can I say — when you expect things to go poorly, that’s usually how they turn out.  But then came June 3, 2005.  Kev and Matt were out for a visit, and they talked me into going to PNC Park.  I did, fully expecting my experience in Philadelphia to be repeated, and me to be treated to a boring night at the ballpark.

It would be melodramatic to say that everything changed that night, but in some ways, it’s true.  Jack Wilson was in the starting lineup, as was a then little-known third baseman named Freddy Sanchez.  I was treated to those gorgeous skyline views to which I’ve now grown so accustomed.  And I felt, for the first time, a twinge of pride in my new city, and a twinge of interest in this scrappy little team, the Pirates.

Over the next few months, all of my friends were out of town for the summer, and my sole entertainment in the evenings came in the form of Pirate telecasts.  I started to learn more about the team, and Jack Wilson stood out to me the most.  At first, I loved the fact that his middle name was Eugene, which I have long wanted to name my son, if I ever have one.  At that time, the Eugene connection was enough to make Jack my favorite player.  As time went on and I learned more about him — both as a player and a person — my admiration grew.  Here was a man concerned with more than the bottom line.  Here was a man who loved his wife and children.  Here was a man who was dedicated to his team, and involved in the civic life of his adopted home.  Here was a man whose Christian faith was of utmost importance to him, to the point that he eventually started an organization aptly named Christ First Sports.  Here was a man who could pick it, in a big way, at short.  

Before long, I had found a new favorite player.

In the intervening years, I would use the words “love,” “adore,” “admire,” and “respect” when expressing my opinion of Jack.  When I got the chance to meet him for the first time, at Bowling with the Bucs in 2006, I was so nervous.  Because whenever you meet somebody whom you describe with the aforementioned words, there’s always that bit of fear that he’ll actually turn out to be a jerk, not worth your adulation.

Instead, much to my delight, Jack turned out to be even nicer than I would have imagined.  I would get the same impression the next few times I met him.  At Bowling with the Bucs 2007, he was just as engaging and friendly.  At PirateFest 2008, I brought along a picture of us from Bowling with the Bucs in 2007, hoping he would sign it.  He did, and then he went one step further, taking my Pirates calendar and pointing out when that year’s event would be.  As the line of autograph seekers continued to wait behind me, I still had something to say to Jack, something I’d promised myself I would say when the opportunity presented itself.

“I want you to know,” I stammered, “how much I respect you.  You just seem like such a nice guy, and it seems like you have a good sense of priorities, with your family coming first.  So in case there are nights when you wonder if there’s anybody up in the stands who really cares about what you guys are doing, and who respects you, just know that there is.”  I actually got kind of choked up as I finished my speech, and I hesitated to look at Jack.  I was sure he’d already be looking away, on to the next person, the next autograph, the next admiring word.  Instead, he was looking right back at me.  “Thank you,” he said, and it occured to me that maybe he doesn’t hear compliments like that all the time.  In fact, he seemed genuinely appreciative of my heartfelt words.

And I thought, at that moment, that I could not respect him more.

The next time I met Jack, it was Bowling with the Bucs 2008, and he showed a flash of recognition when I approached him.  The same was true at the end of the 2008 season, when the Pirates held an event in which the players greeted fans at the gates.  “Hey!”  Jack said when I went up to him.  “It’s good to see you again!”  His name was being bandied about in trade rumors then, of course, as it always was, and so I patted him on the shoulder as I left and told him, “if they’re stupid enough to get rid of you this offseason, I wish you nothing but the best.”  Again, he was as gracious as could be.

And I thought, at that moment, that I could not respect him more.

I ran into Jack twice this season.  At “Bowling with the Bucs,” he again recognized me, and expressed excitement at seeing me again.  And then, a mere two weeks later, the Pirates had another “greet at the gates” event.  Naturally, I waited to talk to Jack, and when I approached to shake his hand and say hello, he greeted me with a “long time, no see!”  His smile was genuine and infectious.

And I thought, at that moment, that I could not respect him more.

Because that’s what this comes down to.  I can’t say that I love Jack, because what I know of him barely scratches the surface.  (And indeed, it is best to say “know of,” rather than “know,” because I don’t really know him.)  I can, however, say that I respect him.  Every time I’ve had occasion to speak with him, he’s always been a gracious, stand-up guy.  He’s known to put his faith and his family first, before everything else.  He’s a loyal team player who doesn’t know how to give less than his all.  He has given the Pirates’ fanbase so much.

And so now here we are.  It’s been a little more than five years since I first heard of Jack Wilson, and a little less than five years since I first made Pittsburgh my home.  In reflecting on his trade, I’ve been forced to mull over a difficult truth — am I more of a Pirate fan or a Jack fan?  Already, driving home from work today, I could tell that my relationship with the team had changed a bit.  No longer did I feel the need to stay in the car until the inning break before going into the house.  No longer do I feel the need to turn down other social invitations because I have a Bucco game to watch on TV.  In some ways, I am sad to realize that maybe I’m not as big a Pirate fan as I would have thought.  In other ways, I am wondering if I now have a healthier relationship to the team than ever before — I will still watch them, and cheer for them, and go to their games, but I will no longer center my life around them.

As I see it, this can only be a good thing.  Because honestly, my life seems to be in a flux similar to that of 2004.  As most of my friends are getting married and/or having children, I remain single, with only my two cats keeping me warm at night and giving me a chance to practice my caregiving skills.  For years now, I’ve wanted to get back into my writing, which has completely stagnated since I finished my Master’s in 2006.  I’ve been dealing with a lot of fear and uncertainty about the future, and have struggled to see where my faith fits into all of that.  (Because if I truly had faith, I wouldn’t be that concerned about the future, right?  And if I truly had faith, then the Pirates wouldn’t be my number one priority all the time, in any situation, right?) 

But ironically, on today of all days — a day in which my head is spinning with all of the Pirates’ personnel moves, and my heart is hurting at the thought of going to PNC Park on Friday without Jack or Freddy being there — I feel that I’m thinking a little clearer than I have been recently.  You don’t need to look far on the blog to see that Jack’s trade has led to a deluge of writings, with even more ideas in the pipeline.  And I feel that I now have a healthier perspective on the team as a whole.  I’ve come to realize that there are bigger things than the Buccos, and that faith in that bigger picture can be both liberating and life-giving.  

And I think, at this moment, that I cannot respect Jack more.  Because for everything he gave me while he was here — whether it was the thrill of hearing “Jumping Jack Flash” as he strode to the plate, the sense of pride at seeing his most recent gem on a top plays countdown, or the sense of genuine appreciation whenever we had occasion to interact — interestingly, it has been, in his leaving, that Jack has given me the greatest gift of all — a renewed interest in my writing, a renewed committment to my faith, and a renewed approach to my team.  In some ways, Jack has given me, well, me back. 

A day that will live in infamy

I’ve cried three times today — once when I got home from work and could allow the emotions of Jack being traded be fully expressed, once when Rocco opened the postgame show with an audio highlight reel of Jack’s best plays, set, of course, to “Jumpin’ Jack Flash,” and once when reading about Freddy’s reaction to Jack’s trade.

Somewhere in the midst of that, of course, Freddy was traded (to the Giants), and when Rocco broke that news over the air, I didn’t have any tears left.  I didn’t even have enough shock with which to adequately react.

I know that the Pirates are not a competitive team.  And I know that even when they get competitive, there’s still a long way to go to get over that hump of being championship-caliber.  So I know that trades like that of Jack and that of Freddy are necessary.  But I also know that, for Jack and Freddy’s sakes, I wanted them to be here when things turn around.  Jack’s committment to Pittsburgh was well-known.  (File this under heartbreaking tidbit of, well, my life — yesterday afternoon, apparently within moments of the trade’s framework being put in place [admittedly, unbeknownst to Jack and his camp], Jack’s agent made a counteroffer for an extension to the Pirates.  They never returned his calls.)  And everyone who’s listened to a Pirate game on the radio this year knows that Freddy has (well, had) one of the quotes they use in the intro: “There’s gonna be nothing more satisfying than turning this thing around, not only for us but for the fans.  It’s no secret that I love the city of Pittsburgh; I’d love to play my whole career here.  What more do you want as a player than to have a beautiful stadium to go play in, in front of true sports fans?  There’s gonna be nothing more satisfying than selling that place out, every night.”

So now what?  Yes, we’ve stocked up on prospects, but who will provide that veteran leadership, and, at once, that childlike enthusiasm?  Who will turn those sweet double plays to which we’ve all grown so accustomed?  In all honesty, who will I go to the ballpark to see?

Because you need to understand — these trades have completely boggled my mind.  I’m so confused, because I’m starting to wonder if I was/am a Jack and Freddy fan more than I was/am a Pirate fan.  Could that be true?  And if it is, what are the larger implications of that on my life?  I mean, I still love this team and hope they win each time out, and I still feel a connection to the announcers and the work that they do (I’m watching the replay of this afternoon’s game as I type this), and of course I love going to the ballpark.  But there was something special for me about watching Jack and Freddy play together.  In some ways, I’m glad that they were both traded, because I get the impression that it would have been too difficult for whoever was left as a Pirate without the other.  In other ways, I have a knot in my stomach and more tears in my eyes, and I’m hoping against hope that I will wake up tomorrow and find this was all a dream. 

So I need you to understand this as well — Neal Huntington may be building the Pirates’ system, but today, he also succeeded in breaking my heart.

A message to all you M’s fans out there…

I would like to express to you my most heartfelt congratulations after the events that transpired today.  As of approximately 1 PM Eastern time (10 AM Pacific), you are now the proud owners of a brand new shortstop, Jack Wilson.  He’s been a Pirate his entire Major League career, which began back in 2001.  And as a Pittsburgher, I feel it’s my duty to share with you all exactly what you’re acquiring in Wilson, whom I have never referred to by last name only.  You see, we Pirates fans feel close enough to him to simply call him Jack.
First off, you are acquiring one heck of a shortstop.  Jack is 31, that’s true, but he still covers more ground and makes more ridiculous, double take-inducing, highlight reel plays than players five and ten years his junior.  You know how Derek Jeter is known for that trademark play, going deep in the hole after a grounder and then hurling the ball across his body (and the diamond)?  Well, Jack does that play, too — only better.  I’m telling you, you are in for a treat.  Anything hit anywhere from second to third is fair game when Jack’s out there.  He’s even been known to chase down an errant ball in left field.  And another thing — no matter the point in the season, the team’s success (or lack thereof), or his personal feelings (emotional or physical), he will never give less than 200%.  You know how some guys will slack off in the late innings of a blowout, letting that grounder trickle past them or watching their throw to first sail wide?  You don’t get that with Jack.  From first pitch to last, whether it’s 10-0 or 1-1, whether it’s Opening Day with all its promise of anything being possible and any team being a contender, or early September with the team having been mathematically eliminated since July, he gives everything he has.  You will never see him lollygag to first when he hits a routine grounder.  You will never see him get caught unaware of any of the myriad game situations that can arise at any time, whether he’s on the bases or in the field.  You will never see him behave in a way that would make you embarrassed in front of your children; Jack understands that he is a role model, and he does not take that job lightly.  In theory, everyone who’s making a living in Major League Baseball loves the game.  In reality, of course, it doesn’t always play out that way.  With Jack, it does.  One of my favorite memories of his time with the Pirates came last season.  It was May 27, his first game back from a calf injury on April 3, which had caused him to miss nearly two months and to spend his first stint in his career on the disabled list.  In his first at-bat of the game, perhaps testing the calf (or the Reds’ defense), Jack laid down a bunt.  He sprinted to first, dove headfirst into the bag, and was safe.  Even better, when the throw careened past Reds’ first baseman Joey Votto, Jack hurried to pick himself up and dash to second, where he slid in safely.  Standing on the base and dusting himself off, Jack’s forearms were raw and bleeding.  His uniform was covered in infield dirt.  But what I remember most about that moment is his grin, which stretched wide across his face.  “I’m back!” it seemed to exult.  “I’ve missed this!”  We Pirate fans missed him, too, those two months.  And now, it’s going to be a long time before we stop missing him, and what he brought to the game.    
Secondly, you are acquiring one heck of a teammate.  Jack is a leader both on and off the field, and I think you’ll notice that almost immediately.  When he is in the game, he bolsters the defense, and elevates the performance of everyone around him.  (Trust me — when he’s given a day off, you’ll notice a difference in the infield.)  And more than that, he is great at motivating his fellow players, supporting them during slumps and reeling them in when they get out of line.  He’s widely known around Pittsburgh as a great clubhouse guy and an easy, willing interview subject who’s good with the media; you will find that in Seattle as well.
Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, you are acquiring one heck of a person.  And this is the part that is the hardest for me to write, the part where I get choked up and my vision gets a little blurry.  Jack may never have played on a winning team here in Pittsburgh, but he is a champion human being.  I beg of you, please read on, despite what may seem a ridiculous cliche, because I mean every word of it.  You see, Jack is a husband and father first, and a ballplayer second.  You know those between-innings videos that they show in some stadiums, where the players answer all sorts of questions?  We have those at PNC Park, and the questions range from “Describe your best birthday ever” to “Would you rather be eaten by ants or lions?”  I don’t think I’ve ever seen Jack answer one of those questions without mentioning his family.  Last year, when asked, “What is your favorite scent?”  Jack answered in some detail about the vanilla lotion his wife, Julie, uses, and as he described it, you could see in his face how much he is in love with her.  Two years ago, as Jack and Julie were awaiting the birth of their third child, Jack’s handmade painting (which was put on the videoboard whenever he came to bat) was of four stick figures, two adults and two children.  The adult woman had a big question mark drawn in her stomach, and you could tell that Jack was so proud of his family, and so excited that it was growing.  Several years ago, he announced that he would be retiring in 2011, when he gets his ten years’ service time, because he misses getting to share in his children’s childhoods, and he wants to be a good father.  And so Jack will give you his all on the field, but he will also always remember that certain things (family and marriage among them) are more important than baseball.  In addition, he is a strong Christian.  With some other men in his church, he co-founded a nonprofit organization, Christ First Sports, last year, in which he helps provide children with baseball instruction in a supportive, Christ-centered environment.  And watch him whenever he steps into the batter’s circle around home plate, or whenever the half-inning is about to start and he’s in the field.  Very quietly, without showmanship, but very consistently, every time out, he will trace a cross in the dirt.  I defy you, Mariner’s fans (and fans of baseball in general), find me another player whose head is on straighter or whose priorities are more in line than Jack. 
So I hope there is a lot of joy and excitement amongst the Mariners’ fan base today, just as there will be angst and grief amongst the Pirates’.  You must know that this trade is going to be enormously unpopular with anyone who bleeds black and gold.  Because we know the type of player and person you are getting in Jack Wilson.  We were lucky enough to call him ours for almost nine years.  And now, we send him west to you, with nothing but good wishes and fond memories.  You’ll really, really like him, Seattle.  I know that we did.

I hate those moments

There have been a few moments throughout this season (thankfully, far fewer than last year) when things will transpire in a Pirate game in such a way that I am forced to admit — we are a bad team.  The entirety of the 10-1 loss that I witnessed at Citi Field in May was once such moment, and I had another pop up yesterday night, while watching the bottom of the second inning against the Giants, in which the defense was at once quirky and awful, which, in turn, dug a hole, out of which the Pirates were helpless to rescue themselves.

First there was a high chopper to short that ate Jack up.  (You know things have to be uber-frustrating for me to utter a discouraging word against him.  And, so that the trend does not continue, let me also utter a word of commendation for his tremendous, classic Jack stop-in-the-hole-followed-by-a-strike-to-first, which took place in bottom of the first.)  Then there was the bizarre routine fly that Garrett Jones backed away from at the last minute, apparently thinking Andrew McCutchen would take it.  (He didn’t, and it was scored a two-run triple.)  Then, on the very next batter (Randy Winn), a short pop to right bounced off of Jones’ glove, was quasi-booted by his shin and foot, and landed in the outstretched hand of second baseman Delwyn Young.  It was a fantastic (albeit strange) play, one that would have been even more so if it had been correctly scored an out, rather than another run-scoring hit.  (Young did manage to throw out Winn as he danced too far off of first.)  But the damage was done by that point, and the four-run lead to which the Giants had staked themselves would prove insurmountable. 

The annoying thing is, it didn’t have to be that way.  I’m not making excuses here (certainly not for my man “Money” Maholm, who continues to look, well, anything but).  But if you take away the three runs the Pirates essentially gave the Giants in that second inning, it’s a completely different ballgame.  Of course, if you take away Edgar Renteria’s error that led to the Pirates scoring in the sixth, it’s another totally different ballgame.  So I suppose it’s better to not get involved with the “what if”s.

Besides, this game was not really as close as its 4-2 score would indicate.  Maholm struggled mightily (the Giants could have easily scored more, if not for some defensive plays that were as impressive as the others were putrid).  On the flip side, the Giants’ Tim Lincecum was absolutely dealing, from the very first batter of the game onwards.  The fact that the Pirates scored one run off of him, much less two, is still kind of hard to believe.  After all, this came against the man who also set down fifteen of their brethren via the strikeout, including six on three pitches each.  (Yikes.)  There’s no doubt that Lincecum is just filthy, and one has to wonder if the Pirates need an ace of that caliber, too, before they can even think about a winning season, much less contention.

One also has to wonder about Freddy’s mysterious knee injury.  The timing of this injury (which I am avoiding putting in quotation marks for the time being), the week of the trade deadline, means that conspiracy theories are running rampant, and I’d like to throw my own into the mix.  I think that the Pirates’ management really does want to hold on to Freddy past the trade deadline.  It’s known that the Giants are one of his biggest suitors, so what better way to spoil their covetousness than to sit him.  Not only does this deny them a good, up-to-the-minute view of his play, but it also puts that most horrid of labels, “injury-prone,” into the minds of the Giants’ brass.

Of course, there are two other explanations, which are both more simple and more likely — first, Freddy really is hurt, and second, he’s been slumping really badly, and facing one of the game’s premier pitchers would probably not be much of a confidence boost.

Of equal interest as the games this week, is, of course, that aforementioned trade deadline.  Most sources now have Freddy and Jack getting dealt by week’s end.  So as I sleepily follow the Buccos on the West Coast (I conked out in the seventh last night, and would predict an earlier demise tonight), I also hesitantly check all the trade rumor websites.  Because much as I hate moments like last night’s bottom of the second, the moment when one or both of my favorite Buccos is traded?  Well, that would be a moment hard to get over.

Encouraging sign of the game: Despite what his two strikeouts last night might indicate, Steve Pearce has looked significantly less overmatched at the plate during this most recent recall to the Majors.  He even got a double off of Lincecum!  Pearce’s performance over the remainder of the season remains a story to watch.

Discouraging sign of the game: The defense, which has been so good, kind of pooped out last night.

Things that make you go “hmm” (in a good way): Delwyn Young continues to swing a hot stick, particularly when he starts.  Might he be a suitable replacement for Freddy, at least in the short term?

Things that make you go “hmm” (in a not-so-good way): Maholm seems to be racking up more iffy-to-awful starts than quality-to-impressive.  I think he might be hurting a little bit more than he’s letting on, which could be a major problem from here on out.

Jolly Rog status: Lowered, and, in some ways, at his lowest of the year, with the Pirates now at a season-worst 13 games under .500.  And yet this Jolly Rog also remains optimistic that the Buccos can do good things against Barry Zito tonight.

Rip Van Winkle, over and out

That’s right; I’ll admit it.  I fell asleep during the Pirates’ first three games against the Diamondbacks this past weekend.  And despite the rather abrasive nature of my opening sentence, I’m actually somewhat ashamed of my narcolepsy.  Thursday night, OK — it was a work night, and the game didn’t start until 9:40, approximately an hour before I usually hit the hay.  But Friday and Saturday nights?  That’s somewhat embarrassing.  Not that I was ever a big partier.  But there’s something about collapsing into an almost-comatose sleep at 9:45 on a Saturday night that really makes a person start to feel old.

But then there was yesterday’s game, which started at a very managable 4:10 in the afternoon, and I was optimistic that sleep would not overtake me this time.  Because the fact is, I feel disloyal when I don’t watch a Bucco game and the sole reason is that I fell asleep.  (Bible Study, work, travel, these are all good excuses.  Sleep?  Who needs that when there’s a ballgame to analyze?)  I don’t like having to wait for the score and notable stats to scroll by on ESPN’s Bottom Line to find out what transpired.  It makes for significantly less compelling blog posts, I can tell you that right now.

But to get back to yesterday — oh, that I had fallen asleep!  The Pirates’ 9-0 drubbing at the hands of the Diamondbacks has to rank, in my estimation, as one of their worst games of the year.  In so many ways, it was reminiscent of the myriad, awful blowouts the Buccos suffered last year, in which the starting pitching would dig an insurmountable hole early, and the offense would prove themselves bereft of anything resembling potency.  And yet yesterday’s radio broadcast was somewhat different in that it did not even feature any of the delightful announcer non-sequitors that so often made last year’s games bearable.  The Pirates were so bad that Greg Brown couldn’t even muster up an, “awful…wow!,” which remains my favorite of his ever-candid assessments of the Bucs.

I’m not saying the Pirates didn’t try yesterday.  But there sure were a lot of outs that happened quickly, and innings that were over virtually as soon as they began.  Let’s face it — having five hits over the course of the game (and all of them singles) is not often going to lead to a victory, particularly when your starting pitcher struggles, from the outset, to keep the game within reach.

And let’s talk about Virgil Vasquez for a moment, if we may.  I had thought that the main idea of having depth in one’s system was to be able to quickly and effectively take those who are not performing out of the Majors, because there are several ready and willing replacements behind them.  And yet here we are, with several good starters down at Triple A, and Vasquez is allowed to continually go out there and struggle.  Apparently there are issues with Tom Gorzelanny’s service time, which, to me, seems simultaneously stupid and as good a reason as any to keep him with Indy.  I don’t think Ian Snell is the answer, either, since he is still having his mental breakdown when it comes to the thought of returning to Pittsburgh.  (And a word about that — the Yankees are apparently scouting him.  The implications of that are scary.  I’m sorry, but if Ian Snell’s psyche couldn’t handle things in our fair, small-market city, how in the world will he make it under the brightest, most scrutinizing lights in the game?  Yikes.)  And Jeff Karstens (Jeffy K, as I like to call him), with the exception of yesterday, has been a bright spot in long relief.  But I really think something needs to be done to work around these complications, because what we have in the fifth starter’s spot right now is a guaranteed loss each time out.

And oh, that the pitching was the only thing wrong with yesterday’s game.  How about the offense, which seemed to have evaporated into the three-digit temperatures of the Arizona desert?  The Pirates have now been shut out eleven times this season (approximately once every nine games!), and on three separate occasions they have been shut out in consecutive games.  I firmly believe that the offense is in there (one needs only look at Garrett Jones’ slugging percentage, or Freddy Sanchez’s doubles and hits totals to determine that), but for now, it seems to be on a bit of a hiatus.  Which is all fine and good, but you’re not going to win games by scoring zero runs.  One run?  OK, occasionally.  Two?  Maybe a little more often.  But zero?  That, my friends, is another guaranteed loss.

So that’s pretty much all there is to say about the series in Arizona.  I hate to be this negative, but frustrations are abounding. 

And besides, no one is cheerful when they’ve just woken up.

What a ride!

One of the songs that they play at PNC Park this year when introducing the Pirate lineup is “Roller Coaster.”  You know the one, with the really high-pitched chorus and the really funky beat.  Well, here’s hoping they played it for all three games against the Brewers earlier this week, because it would be the perfect summation of the series.

I’m not kidding — by the time last night rolled around and the Pirates boarded their plane for Arizona, I was emotionally exhausted by all that had transpired in the previous three games.  In fact, these emotions were so strong that I am going to withhold any sort of intense statistical analysis of the series, and instead (at the risk of being too girly) recount my feelings during it. 

Here we go!

Disgust (at seeing that it was the Brewers coming in to town)

Fear (at the prospect of the Pirates’ losing streak against the Brewers stretching to 18 games)

Disappointment (at the rain delay that delayed the start of Monday night’s game by more than two hours)

Enjoyment (at Rocco’s rain delay broadcast, in which he was on the air, non-stop, for close to 90 minutes)

Disgust (at seeing the actual Brewers take the field)

Joy (at seeing the Pirates post 6 quick runs off of Brewers’ starter Mike Burns)

Even More Joy (at seeing yet another Garrett Jones home run)

Disgust (at having to watch the Brewers)

Exhaustion (at falling asleep in the top of the eighth inning)

Confusion (at waking up in the bottom of the eighth inning to see a shoving match taking place around home plate)

Anger (at realizing what had precipitated the shoving match taking place around home plate)

Glee (at waking up the next morning and realizing the Pirates had won the game, 8-5)

Disgust (at reading some of the Brewers’ childish comments about the shoving match in the paper)

Optimism (at the potential for the Bucs to make it two in a row against the Brewers on Tuesday night)

Disgust (at having to watch the Brewers, again)

Frustration bordering on anger (at the Pirates’ complete inability to score runs on Tuesday night)

Disgust (at listening to Tim Neverett describe the Brewers’ stupid shirt-untucking ritual as they celebrated their 2-0 win)

Glee (at listening to and putting my two cents’ into Tuesday night’s discussion du jour on Extra Innings; namely, “How much do you hate the Brewers?”)

But none of that — I say none of that — was preparation for the roller coaster of yesterday’s game.  To fully understand the ride, it’s necessary to bring in some primary sources; namely, the email conversation that transpired between TBMLR Kev (who was following the Phillies’ game at the same time) and me.  Oh, and we sometimes speak in our own language, so explanatory italics are included where necessary.


After some talk about the Adam LaRoche trade (which is covered in another post, if you scroll down a bit), we got into our respective games.

Kev: And Garrett Jones!  My goodness.  He’s as hot as the Phillies.  We should trade for him.  Put him at catcher.

Me (7 minutes later): Not gonna happen.  He’s our everyday 1B now.  TRB!  That’s right, baby!  I am so overly excited…Pirates have scored all of their runs on HRs.  Doumit with 2, Cutch with 1, and Jones (natch) naturally with 1.  Maybe Cutch and “GFJ” (as Rocco has dubbed him) will tie for ROY Rookie of the Year.  TRB!

Kev (13 minutes later): They’ll both tie for 2nd behind Happ.



Me (2 minutes later): Doors now officially off in PGH as well — McGehee with the two-run job.  Just for the record (in case you were wondering), I hate the Brewers!

Kev (3 minutes later): Didn’t know you didn’t care for that team.  Phils go 1, 2, 3 in the 4th.  Ugh.

Me (10 minutes later): That’s the worst, when you can’t even make some noise after you serve it up.  Buccos are about to do the same in the 5th.  Scratch that.  LaRoche (the only one left now) doubles in Delwyn Young.  Good.  Still need one more.

Kev (2 minutes later): Moyer just gave up another run.  5-0.

Me (7 minutes later): Ouch.  Hanrahan’s in the game.  This means trouble.

Kev (7 minutes later): Well that may have been our shot.  Bases chucked nobody out.  Only got 1.  Not soooo gooood.

Me (18 minutes later): Who’s pitching for the Petsies Cubs today?  It’s not Z is it?  My appleols apologies to Hanrahan so far — very, very impressive.  (Knock on wooden peg-leg.)

Kev (5 minutes later): Zambrano.  We’re not getting his pitch count high enough.  5-3 now.  Pete Happy Pedro Feliz with a 2-RBI single.  Uncle Charley Charlie Manuel got tossed.  Top 7.  Ryan The Riot Ryan Theriot is up.

Me (8 minutes later): SEBBIN!  Basically, gosh darn it!  Jeff Salazar GIDPs to end the threat in the bottom of the seventh.  Maybe that was in honor of the dearly departed Adam LaRoche.  7-7, top 8.  I lied.  In the time it took me to answer that phone call, Johnny Grabs set them down on 8 pitches.  That’s what I’m talking about!  Momentum still swinging our way.  But something must be done, post-haste.

Kev (14 minutes later): Saw you stranded two in the 8th.  Not good.  Doors off again in Philly.  Cubs got three more in the 7th.  Durbin decided to walk 167 people.  Ugh.  8-3 now.  Not looking good.

Me (3 minutes later): Yeah, I’ll tell you what — GFJ is going to throw his back out from singlehandedly carrying the offense.  2 2Bs, 1 HR, 1 BB on the day.  Matty C in the game, despite Grabow only throwing 8 pitches in the 8th.  I’m starting to have a bad feeling about this.


Unfortunately, that bad feeling seemed on the verge of coming to fruition, when in the top of the 9th, Capps served up a triple to Mike Cameron (or, as I like to call him, Mr. HGH) with only one out.  Emotion at that time: dejection.

But all was not lost!  Incredibly, Ryan Braun and Casey McGehee struck out swinging, which, of course, left Cameron stranded at third.  Emotion at that time: excitement mingled with sheer disbelief.

And then, moments later, I started a whole new email to Kev.  The subject line: “Honestly.  I am sorry that you are losing.  But…”

And in the biggest font I could find, the body of the email went a little something like this: “YESSSSSS!  BRANDON MOSS WALKS IT OFF.”  Emotion at that time: elation.

Whew!  I need a nap.  (Or a tranquilizer.)

And another thing…

I’m pretty much sick and tired of hearing FSN’s Final Score and ESPN’s Baseball Tonight rip the Pirates for the LaRoche trade.  In the matter of a few hours last night, I was privy to the following nuggets from the national media, which seems to enjoy completely ignoring the Pirates except when the opportunity presents itself (or is created by the anchors) to criticize them.

(while showing John Russell pulling LaRoche out of the dugout in the middle of yesterday’s game): “Good news, Adam, you’ve been traded to a playoff contender!”

(while going to a commercial break): “And when we come back, we’ll examine — is there anything good about staying a Pittsburgh Pirate?”

(while introducing Pirates-Brewers highlights): “You know, they’ve shown a lot of heart to keep coming out and winning some ballgames, even as their clubhouse has so much turnover and their team has no direction.”

(while showing said highlights): “Oops, Ryan Doumit homered.  He’ll be the next to get traded.  Oops, Brandon Moss homered.  He’ll be the next to get traded.”

That’s right — instead of giving actual, relevant commentary on one of the Pirates’ most exciting and satisfying wins of the years, these stupid talking heads were making fun of the Buccos, and on what grounds?

I mean, we all know that I love the Pirates as much as anyone, but have you seen their farm system?  Did you see it at this time last year?  The Pirates are not just giving up players for the sake of it.  There is a very clear plan in mind, and that plan involves — to borrow the phrase Rocco has used many times over — infusing the system with young talent, not hanging on to guys who are getting up there and whose best years may be behind them.

Another thing I resented is the implication that Neal Huntington is making these trades willy-nilly, just throwing darts at the lineup card to determine who is the next to go.  He is not going to trade Ryan Doumit or Brandon Moss because they hit a home run or had a good game.  Just like he didn’t trade Adam LaRoche, Jason Bay, Xavier Nady, Nyjer Morgan, or Nate McLouth for no reason, or for just one reason.  Each of these decisions is carefully thought-out, and the intimation that the Pirates’ front office is filled with buffoons made me wonder if these silly national anchors wouldn’t be better served for their cheap laughs by looking in a mirror.

As Adam packs his bags, I scratch my head…

Things could have been a lot worse yesterday, around noon, when one of my co-workers came over to my desk, looking somber, and simply asked, “Did you hear the news?  Are you OK?”

My heart sank.  I dared to ask the question, “Did they trade Jack?”



“No…I’m not even sure if you like this guy.  He strikes out too much for me.”

And I knew, in that moment.

“Adam LaRoche?!”

My co-worker nodded, at which point my incredulity reached a fevered pitch.  How in the world had Neal Huntington wrangled two prospects — and from a respected Red Sox organization, no less — in exchange for the man Pittsburgh sports fans had derisively taken to calling, “LaChoke”?  How had Huntington managed to get anyone in return?  Had he pulled the wool over Boston GM Theo Epstein’s eyes?  Had he duped the entire Red Sox front office?  Or maybe, just maybe, did Boston see in Adam LaRoche what the fans in Pittsburgh never took the time to?

I’ll admit to not having much of an opinion on Adam LaRoche when he was here.  Yes, I would groan when I saw he was coming up to bat in a key situation, and yes, his name would be the one most often uttered in frustration while watching the game on TV (it happened as recently as Tuesday night, in fact, when I also punched the sofa cushion loudly enough to wake one of my cats from a sound sleep).  But I never had the kind of honest-to-goodness hatred that a lot of Pirates fans seemed to feel for LaRoche.

So what was it about him, exactly?  And what made things go so terribly wrong?  If you were living in Pittsburgh in early 2007, you remember the excitement that came when the Bucs acquired LaRoche.  You remember the ovations that greeted him at PirateFest, and the mantle of “franchise savior” that was bestowed upon him, making him the latest in a long line of Pirates to merit such a distinction.  Plans were made for his bobblehead night (June 2, 2007), and given the short left-field porch at PNC Park and LaRoche’s undeniably gorgeous swing, surely visions of 40 home run seasons (a rarity in these parts) danced through Pirate fans’ heads.  The most optimistic among us looked to his time in a winning Braves’ organization as evidence that he would be a big help when the Pirates made their long-awaited playoff run.

But then the 2007 season started, and LaRoche got off to one of his abyssmally slow starts, and the numbers tailed off considerably from those compiled in 2006 in Atlanta.

…But did they, really?  I just hopped over to baseball-reference.com to get some numerical evidence, and it’s not nearly as salient as everyone’s hatred of LaRoche might suggest.  In 2006, he hit 32 home runs and drove in 90.  In 2007, the numbers were 21 and 88; in 2008, 25 and 85.  Granted, he was struggling quite a bit this year (his .247 average and .770 OPS are about all you need to come to that conclusion), but was his stint in Pittsburgh really as bad as everyone would like to believe?

I think the case of Adam LaRoche comes — as is so often the case in baseball — down to the intangibles.  Because let’s face it, for every RBI he had, there were a half dozen opportunities where he didn’t get the job done.  For every home run he had, there were two or three strikeouts, or a rally-killing GIDP (ahem last Sunday ahem).  The more clutch the situation, it seemed, the more LaRoche fell short.

But my question to you, dear reader, is, was it really all his fault?  After all, “savior of the franchise” is a lot of pressure to put on somebody, particularly somebody with his makeup.  Obviously, he is a Major League ballplayer, but the tools of an Andrew McCutchen or a Pedro Alvarez (the latest two to carry the “savior” burden) are simply not there.  McCutchen seems, to this point, capable of living up to the hype.  In fact, he seems to enjoy it.  LaRoche?  Well, he was, admittedly, happier perched out in the frozen fields of Kansas during an offseason hunt than bearing the weight of thousands of fans’ expectations, made all the more unbearable, in fact, by sixteen years of losing.

And that’s the other thing, too, that I think was a problem during LaRoche’s stint in Pittsburgh.  Somebody pointed this out the other day on sports talk radio, and I think it’s a good point.  Adam’s personality doesn’t gel with that of Pittsburgh.  He’s laid-back and low-energy (which is not to be read as low-passion).  He doesn’t wear his heart on his sleeve.  Pittsburghers?  We’re gritty and hard-nosed.  We go full bore into everything.  We not only wear our hearts on our sleeves; we dress our babies in black and gold onesies and wear T-shirts declaring, “If you ain’t a Steeler fan, you ain’t ****”.  We show our passion, and expect our athletes to do the same.

But I don’t want that if it means a guy has to be someone he’s not.  LaRoche obviously tried his best while he was here, and although I’m not sorry to see him go, my opinion on the subject really has nothing to do with sentiment against him.  It’s more focused on what his departure means for the rest of the Pirates’ team, which, it seems to me, is getting thatclose to being all done with their wheeling and dealing.  The remainder of his $7 million salary?  I’m hoping the Pirates split that up and add it to their offers to Freddy and Jack.  The playing time at first base?  I’m hoping it goes to Garrett Jones, with Brandon Moss and Delwyn Young ending their platoon and becoming the everyday starting corner outfielders.  I’m starting to think we just might have something here.

So I agree with what Rocco said yesterday in recounting the trade — let’s not dance on Adam LaRoche’s grave.  I think we can all agree that his time in Pittsburgh didn’t work out the way anyone anticipated.  But that’s the way life goes sometimes.  We may never know exactly why Adam LaRoche and the Pirates weren’t a good fit, but it was clearly time for both parties to move on.  And not only do I feel like the Pirates are a better team today than they were two days ago, but I think Adam LaRoche is in a better situation as well.  For him, for his playing style, and for his personality.  We in Pittsburgh never really embraced any of those things, and I hope he finds in Boston whatever was missing here.