Pirates 3-Braves 3-Jerry Meals 1

I was beginning to hit the wall.

My eyes had grown bleary from the constant movement from T.V. to Tweet Deck for the past six plus hours.

“I have to get to bed for work tomorrow,” I thought to myself. “But I can’t miss this.”

I had made it through 18 and a half innings of the Pirates-Braves contest last night, and lived to tell the tale (actually I am pretty sure everyone did).

The events of the ground ball Scott Proctor hit in the bottom of the 19th will resonate with me for a long time. That shot of adrenaline as I saw Jerry Meals make the safe sign kept me up until four.

Having been an umpire through my teenage years, I understand the stress that comes with the job. I usually give them the benefit of the doubt knowing that their judgement is usually right.

But c’mon man.

I’ve umpped games through rain and snow, from 95 degrees to below freezing. Yet I always knew better than to call it a day early. People can sniff it out, easily and there would probably be a smashed window in my car to remind me. There is no doubt in my mind Meals wanted to get the heck out of there after seeing somewhere in the ballpark of 600 pitches.  It just didn’t matter to him.

But I’m not going to let that ruin my enjoyment of what will probably be one of the best games any of us will ever witness.

The Pirates got three quick runs at the start of the game. A big triple from Neil Walker and a bomb of a home run from Michael McKenry were the key hits. The Braves fought back scoring three of their own in the bottom of the third despite having the first two batters of the inning get out.

Then things settled down.

Both starters Tommy Hanson and Jeff Karstens didn’t go deep due to high pitch counts early. The bullpens became the stars of the night afterwards.

Inning after inning. Jam after jam. Neither would budge. There were enough escapes to make Houdini jealous.

Situations like that are what make for great baseball. Will this be the winning run on base now? Is this the pitch that ends it? How much longer can it go on?

The sideshows that went on also added another fun dimension to the game. As the stadium emptied out, a girl could be heard screaming her lungs out for her beloved Buccos before every pitch, even though the clock read past 1:00 a.m. A group of college kids attempted balancing a huge stack of over 100 souvenir cups they had collected from the nearly empty Turner Field. Hearing Greg Brown and John Wehner trying to keep themselves awake and coherent made for a classic broadcast.

Yet after the whole debacle was settled, and the venting online was made, I took a second and appreciated what I saw.

I saw two teams on a muggy night give it their all over the course of what was essentially a little more than two games. It’s unfortunate the way it turned out. I was upset that I didn’t record it, just for having in the future. The Pirates should probably release it on DVD as I don’t think there have been many more exciting games in the team’s history. I know I would buy it the second it comes out.

If anything, this game let me know just how much the revived Bucco Nation is into this team. Here it was, 2 a.m. on a Wednesday morning, with Twitter and Facebook crashing from all of the people commenting.

The real concern here is if the team lets it affect them in the next few games. It could, but I highly doubt it. Clint Hurdle knows these Pirates are better than that.

The best part is the players know it too.

Ben Roethlisberger Wedding: Just Stop Already

Unless you were living under a rock in the Steel City this past weekend, you knew two things: The Pittsburgh Pirates need a bat, and Ben Roethlisberger got married.

Trying to shed the image of a womanizing jock,  Big Ben tied the knot with Ms. Ashley Harlan Saturday in a church in Ohio Township.

All I can say about it is good for him. If you two are happy together, so be it.

The problem I had with the whole ordeal was the fact that this event was example A of just how much of a joke the Pittsburgh media is, and just how stupid those who let the Pittsburgh Steelers consume every second of their lives are.

It all began with this tweet from a reporter for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in the afternoon shortly before the ceremony started.

Hot day for a wedding. But don’t pity the media. This is what we do.

Yes that’s right because when it’s nearly 100 degrees outside, I think of the writers and reporters covering a football player’s wedding. Forget construction workers, landscapers or the elderly.

Then came the reports of all the people who had lined the road in the middle of nowhere that is Ohio Township to see the parade of tinted-window limos make the trek to downtown Pittsburgh and the Convention Center for the reception. Not only were there people from all over Western PA, but there were also people from out of state holding signs wishing their hero well even if they could not see him. Sorry, but when Andrew McCutchen and Sidney Crosby get married, you will never catch me dead doing the same.

Perhaps the most offensive thing about all of this came when the P-G reported this nugget about the cake served to the gentlemen at the reception.

“The men’s servings came from a three-tier groom’s cake — a ‘camouflage topsy turvy cake, complete with the inscription ‘The Hunt is Over,’  Ms. Weiner said.”

If I read that correctly, that cake implies that this man, who has twice faced sexual assault charges during his career, is comparing deer hunting to the gross action of “hunting” women and thus meeting “the love of his life”. Do those around him even think about these things before letting them slide?

The hysteria was almost over, and then the 11 o’clock news rolled around. What shooting spree in Norway? Debt ceiling? Who cares? For roughly the first twelve minutes of the newscast it was all Ben, a true testament to the “news values” of the local channels.

But why do people care so much?

There is the talk about how this generation is so celebrity-obsessed, but if you don’t live in New York City or LA who do you talk about?

This is where sports stars come in. Cities like Pittsburgh put their athletes on god-like pedestals because there really isn’t much out there to latch on to. There are no movie stars or musicians to give tabloid-like fodder that people crave. Athletes are the closest things to it.

As long as people find this kind of crap to be the most important stuff to know about, then I don’t see it changing any time soon.

My thoughts on the “bandwagon”

With the Pittsburgh Pirates’ success in 2011 coming out of nowhere, the inevitable fact of so called “bandwagon” baseball fans coming out of the woodwork came true. Crowds of 10,000 or so in the opening months of the season turned into capacity crowds that have the Pirates pushing 2,000,000 fans in attendance for the fourth time in team history.

With all of the bucco fever that has come about this summer, I get asked frequently: “Hey Steve, you’ve been a Pirate fan forever. How do you feel about all of these bandwagon fans?”

Well, at first I was quite upset. I liked coming to a a quarter-filled ballpark without having to worry about crowds, lines, and traffic. I think the turning point of how I felt came on July 8, a game against the Chicago Cubs.

We all know that the Bucs pulled out a resilient victory thanks to a clutch home run from Michael McKenry. But what I did take out of the game as much of that emotional win was the crotchety older gentleman seated next to me who spent most of the game complaining about all of these “bandwagon hoppers”.

After saying aloud his displeasure for seeing all of these people “who have never been to a game in their lives nor care what goes on” for the fifth time, it finally hit me. It’s absolutely stupid to not like more fans discovering a team, and even more stupid to let it affect your enjoyment of your team’s first pennant race in your lifetime.

Yes, I might have to wait in line for food a bit longer or spend some extra time in a garage when the game is over, but do you hear the crowds and the enthusiasm they have for the team? Heck, on a Monday night, fans were on their feet in the first inning trying to give their support to Charlie Morton as he tried to get out of a jam (after over two hours of rain delays no less!). Games have become exponentially more fun to go to since fans started turning out in droves. It certainly is much better than the sea of blue empty seats that became commonplace over the past decade. It can use some work (here’s looking at you Saturday night drunks and wave starters) but in time, PNC Park could be a very tough place for opposing teams to play. Just ask anyone at the game this past Friday against the Cardinals how loud it got before the bottom of the 9th.

With that said, it is quite amazing how many young people I see around the park now. This so called “lost generation” is turning out in force and showing that the past 18 years haven’t completely turned off Pittsburghers to the game of baseball. Not all have been going to games since they were three years old like me, but they aren’t stupid. They have played baseball and softball and know the game. Here’s hoping this “new generation” can keep the momentum going.

The old folks that said they would never be back, now are starting to return. Many realized the errors of their ways and admitted it. After all, like religion, there are always opportunities for redemption and coming back to the light.

So next time you scowl at the lines to get your Primanti’s sandwich or get a ticket, just remember the options: Crappy, irrelevant baseball that is more convenient or a pennant race with fans flocking to see the Buccos.

I’ll take the latter every time.

 

 

 

 

A picture worth savoring

I use words to express my thoughts on this blog, but after the doings of last night I thought a picture could do a much better job. Enjoy.

 

All Fun League

This day had been a long time coming.

After stumbling upon the Arena Football league as a young kid one day on TNN (Yes The Nashville Network) it instantly became a sport I took interest in.

The only problem was, Pittsburgh has never had a franchise in my lifetime. The only time I got to enjoy this game was watching it on TV. Finally in 2011, I would get my chance with the establishment of the Pittsburgh Power.
My schedule of school, interning, and a bunch of other things made it difficult to get to a game. I finally was able to get out to Consol for their final home game of the year against the Arizona Rattlers.

If you are unaware of what the Arena Football League it essentially takes the game of football as presented in the NFL and flips it completely. With loud music, plenty of trash talking/ TD celebrations, and fast-pace play, it is very different from what is seen in the fall.

The Consol Energy Center could not be more suiting of a place for an AFL team. The ridiculous sound system the arena offers had my drink resting on the balcony ledge nearly shaking while rap music blared during warm ups. The entry the team had through fountains of sparks was pretty cool too.

The one goal of Arena Football is to be as fan-friendly as possible. They certainly did a good job of achieving this by bringing fans closer to the game than any other sport. Balls that get thrown into the stands are allowed to be kept by fans. There is no out of bounds so fans close to the front are literally inches from the field of play. The loud, and at times obnoxious PA announcer encourages fans to boo bad calls. After the game, AFL rules mandate that the home team be made available for autographs on the field right after the game. Little things like this make the experience unique.

The atmosphere the fans put forth is great too. Though roughly 7,000 fans were in the building (pretty good by AFL standards), the arena got loud while the team was on defense. I’d argue the sea of vuvuzelas and other noisemakers made it louder than the Penguins games I’ve been to at the new digs, even with the place half empty. You can’t go wrong with the $15 general admission tickets, though I question why a team would charge $180 for the front rows with such an inferior product. A good part of the seats in the lower bowl up close were empty.

As for the game, the rules have almost a WWE-like fix for the offense. Any penalty the defense commits results in a first down. The offense can have a man charging toward the line of scrimmage as the ball is snapped, and defenders cannot twist while trying to rush the quarterback. Rules like this explain how the Arizona Rattlers scored 10 touchdowns in the 10 possessions they had on the evening.

Perhaps the biggest downfall the AFL has is the lack of talent. Back in its heyday of the mid 2000’s, it wasn’t uncommon to see teams with payrolls of $2 million. Now with player making just $400/game after the financial restructuring of the league, they can no longer attract the players they used to,. Tts days as the second best football league in America are over.

But flaws aside, I still found myself having a great time even though the league-best Rattlers crushed the Power. Yes, it may not be a perfect game, but it is different, and I like different. The biggest goal of Arena Football is to make sure it’s all about the enjoyment of the people coming through the turnstiles. Any organization that operates with that goal is a winner in my book.

The Last Laugh

The Pirates-Padres game played on August 3, 2005 at PNC Park sticks out for a couple of reasons for me.

First, I got my first ball ever on my own during batting practice. Standing in the last row above the Clemente seats, Padre (and ex-Pirate) Brian Giles demolished a homer right at me. Without my glove I took my hat off but misjudged the ball. It hit off my thumb holding my hat. I was able to scarf it up, and the stitches embedded in my thumb were a cool battle scar.

The only thing I remember about the game was Brad “Big Country” Eldred hit a walk-off double in what was one of his first major league games (turned out to be the highlight of his career).

The game got done and my dad was off the next day at work. He had the briliant idea, “Let’s stay and see if we can get autographs outside the player garage.”

I certainly said yes, as I really wanted my first ball signed. We began the wait on the Mazeroski Way cul-de-sac hoping for players to stop. One by one they drove by: Darryl Ward with his tinted windows and blue headlights, Jack Wilson with his kids in the back seat, the hero of the night Brad Eldred driving a beat up Toyota pick up truck waiting for his first paycheck. Nobody bothered signing. That was until a Jeep Wrangler pulled up to the group of eight or so gathered. Down came the window, and the man behind the wheel was pitcher Ryan Vogelsong.

Vogelsong, the proverbial 25th man on the Buccos during the Littlefield era, he came to the team in a trade, along with Armando Rios, that sent Jason Schmitt to the Giants. Schmitt went on to have a very successful career including a Cy Young Award. Rios never lived up to the promise as a bat the Pirates needed to protect Giles, and Vogelsong spent the bulk of his days in the back of the bullpen as one of the many symbols of incompetency in the front office. When you checked into a game on the radio and heard Vogelsong was in, chances was the game was out of hand.

Anyway, he couldn’t have been kinder. He signed for every fan and his girlfriend sitting next to him didn’t care either (that’s usually a big reason why players don’t stop to sign after games).

When I got home, I prominently displayed the ball next to the Barry Bonds and Willie Stargell autographed balls on the shelf in our basement. It ended up being an inside joke among my brothers and dad. Vogelsong throws a scoreless inning down 7-0, that ball is now worth a whole 50 cents. 49 cents for the material, one cent for the autograph.

Ryan was let go by the Pirates following the 2006 season, having posted an ERA over 6.00 three out of the four seasons with the team. He then began a strange journey that saw him play three years for the Hashin Tigers and Orix Buffalos of the Nippon Professional League in Japan. Despite being 31 years old, an age that players usually see decline in both skill and interest from Major League clubs, he refused to give up.

After spending parts of the 2010 season as “organizational depth” in the minor league systems of the Philadelphia Phillies and Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. Prior to the 2011 season he signed with the team that drafted him, the San Francisco Giants without anyone noticing.

I don’t really need to tell you the rest of the story, you probably know it already. One thing that I will look forward to on Tuesday is hearing Joe Buck announce the name of 33-year-old first time All-Star  Ryan Vogelsong. He will most likely tip his hat to the crowd, something I along with the rest of Baseball Nation should do toward him.

And Ryan go ahead and make a joke about me.

Chances are I would have given up a long time ago.

Halfway home

It seems like yesterday that the Pirates were beginning the 2011 season. After Friday’s game, they reached the halfway point of the season. At the time I am typing this, they hold a 42-41 record that is lightyears beyond what anyone expected. Time to give some mid-season grades.

Offense

A main goal for the Pirates in 2011 was to improve their pathetic offense that averaged just 3.62 runs per game last year. Adding Matt Diaz to platoon in right field with Garrett Jones along with Lyle Overbay to add pop at first gave the team hope that they would be able to score more and take pressure off the pitchers.

So far in 2011, in 83 games the team has averaged just 3.87 runs per game which ranks well in the bottom third of the league. The problem is the team still has poor on-base and slugging numbers.

In 2010 the team had an on-base percentage of .304. This year the number is .310. While it is a slight improvement, it is still well below the league average. The hitters are not staying patient enough to draw walks along with hits. The strikeout numbers are very alarming too. Pirate batters have struck out

The Pirates lack power too. Their team slugging percentage of .354 is 14th in the National League and down from the .373 in 2010. They have hit just 53 home runs, which puts them on pace to have less than they did in 2010.

The general guide for all-around hitting, on-base plus slugging percentage is .664 which is also 14th in the National League. What this stat shows is that the team has some of the worst offensive production in the league.

Obviously, Overbay and Diaz have been disappointments. The fact Pedro Alvarez has done very little this year along with regression from Neil Walker hasn’t helped. With the offense banged up, the team will hopefully see more production when healthy. But to this point in the season, it has been pretty awful.

Grade: D+

Defense

Another goal for 2011 was better defense. The Pirates committed the most errors in the majors in 2010 and looked like a team of little leaguers most nights. That has changed quite a bit in 2011. Take Ronny Cedeno for example. In 2010 his Defensive Runs Saved Above Average (a metric that measures how many runs above or below average a player was worth to his team based on the number of plays made) was -15, meaning he cost the team 15 runs. In 2011, turn that around to a +8 so far, meaning he has saved the team 8 runs. This is very important since the Pirates don’t score much. Ronny has been one of the best defensive shortstops in the game so far this year and has taken a ton the pressure off the pitchers. Andrew McCutchen has also seen a tremendous increase as and many members of the team have improved as well.

There still have been some flaws that these metrics don’t cover. The defense from Lyle Overbay at first has been pretty terrible, and the Pirates still don’t have a catcher that can consistently play good defense behind the dish. The outfielders, primarily Andrew McCutchen, have had a devil of a time remembering what bases to throw to and how to hit cut off men. The addition of Xavier Paul has helped out in that regard. Either way, the defense has been tremendously better than in past years.

Grade: B+

Starting Pitching

Now we’re getting into the good stuff. Gone are the days of embarrassing outings with double digit runs allowed. Gone are the days of the revolving door of starters brought in for the heck of it. The Pirates rotation has established themselves as dependable thanks to the work of Pitching Coach Ray Searage and some pleasant surprises.

Kevin Correia was signed to be a serviceable starter that would just be average and round out the rotation. He has been anything but great, keeping the team in just about every game he has pitched and is one of three pitchers in the NL with 10 wins.

Jeff Karstens wasn’t in the rotation to start the year but an injury to Ross Ohlendorf gave him a chance. He has done more than take advantage of it, as he has an ERA that ranks in the top-10 of the league. By pounding the strike zone and a little luck, he is having a breakout season.

Charlie Morton was one of the worst pitchers in baseball in 2010. With the help of a tweak to his motion and a new sinker, he has made a complete 180 degree change. By keeping the ball on the ground and good defense, Charlie has established himself as a good pitcher night in and night out.

Paul Maholm, my pick to disappoint this year, hasn’t done so. A lack of run support during his starts has kept his record down, but for the most part he has shown up when he takes the mound.

James McDonald was picked by many to be the breakout pitcher for the Pirates. Unfortunately, he has been inefficient during starts and has control issues from time to time. Luckily for him, he has done a very good job limiting the damage. His stats are still much better than the average fifth starter.

All in all, the rotation is the reason this team is competitive. As long as it holds up the way it has, the team will be in the thick of things in the NL Central.

Grade: A

Bullpen

Another bright point for the team. We all know how dominant Joel Hanrahan has been converting all of his save opportunities. But credit is also due to the middle relief corps. Chris Resop and Jose Veras have been very good in set-up, and Daniel McCutchen has been a pleasant surprise in his move from starter to reliever. The team still lacks a true lefty that can get outs from those batters consistently, and Evan Meek’s arm troubles have led to a subpar campaign from him. But the good has outweighed the bad, and the team’s ability to shorten games has been invaluable to their success.

Grade: A-

Management

One of the big questions for 2011 was how this team would perform under new manager Clint Hurdle. The team has looked more motivated with the new skipper, and Hurdle holds the players accountable for their mistakes much more than John Russell. There are some parts to Hurdle’s strategies that baffle me. He likes using the sacrifice bunt, a lot even though it has been proven that bunts hurt more than they help in a lot of cases. He also has a weird way of managing his bullpen. He’ll put in left-handed pitchers to face left-handed batters, but then he’ll refuse to replace them when righties come to the plate. The team has also been reckless on the bases (as Hurdle likes having runners try to take the extra base), as only the Arizona Diamondbacks have been caught stealing more. Despite this, you can’t argue with results. The Pirates are still having their best season since 1999.

Grade B+

Summary

As mentioned before, the Pirates are having their best season in over a decade despite numerous injuries and holes. It certainly made for a fun first half of the season. If the pitching can hold up, and the offense comes around, I don’t see why the Pirates can’t keep competing in the weak NL Central. The only problem I have is thinking how good this team would be if they had close to a league average offense.

Overall Grade: B+