Thursday, April 30, 2009

Why Wilson matters

Jack Wilson was almost traded at last year's deadline, then again in the offseason but the Pirates should think about signing the shortstop to an extension. With Wilson out with an injury, we have gotten a look at what his replacement might be in the organization in Brian Bixler and Ramon Vazquez. It's obvious the Pirates do not have a shortstop ready for the majors now or in the near future.

Wilson was being shopped because of his salary - about $7 million this season - and that's a lot for a weak-hitting, good glove shortstop in the league. On the free-agent market, he won't get much interest.

After watching Bixler strike out four times in a game in Milwaukee and Vazquez limp along at a .171 pace, the Pirates should extend Wilson, obviously not at $7 mill per, but something workable in the budget. His contract is up after this season and he's 30, still young enough to play the position effectively for two or three more years.

Bixler is a stiff, who won't be anything more than a bench player and Vazquez is just an older version at 33.

The other intangible for Wilson is that the fans like him and he seems to like playing here. Now, that might change with the next offer but the Pirates should at least try to keep him.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Miller time (to lose)

Unless you're a beer drinker, Milwaukee might not seem like the world's most exciting destination.

For the Pittsburgh Pirates, it's become a trip to dread. Big time.

With its 6-5 loss to the Brewers last night, Pittsburgh now has lost 17 games in a row at Milwaukee's Miller Park. That probably isn't a record – the old St. Louis Browns seem to have gone through most of the 1930s without winning a game at the original Yankee Stadium – but it adds one more item to the Pirates' long list of negatives.

The team has an opportunity to end the streak this afternoon before returning home Friday. And even if the Pirates lose, they're still one game above .500. So that's good, at least.

Miller Park wasn't always an automatic defeat for Pittsburgh. The Pirates won the first game they ever played there, with Jason Schmidt and two relievers combining for a 3-0 shutout on May 11, 2001.

And the following year, the Pirates swept the Brewers in an early-season three-game series, immediately after which Milwaukee fired manager Davey Lopes. And on the next visit to Miller Park, in July 2002, Pittsburgh won the first three games of a four-game series.

On July 9, 2003, then-Pirate Randall Simon whacked one of the Brewers' sausage mascots with a bat in what he thought was a humorous gesture. He ended up being arrested, fined and suspended.

That incident doesn't seem to have jinxed the Pirates, at least not right away. The team's Miller Park record after that was a decent 12-13 through the end of 2006.

On May 3, 2007, Tom Gorzelanny outdueled Dave Bush in a 4-2 Pirates victory. The next day, the Brewers won, 10-0, starting a losing streak that persists to this day.

At least, it persisted through yesterday. We'll see if the Miller Park curse ends today.

Monday, April 27, 2009

In the beginning: Allegheny

References to the Pittsburgh Pirates usually have the franchise dating back to 1887, and if you recall, the team officially marked its centennial in 1987.

Technically, the history starts in 1882, making Pittsburgh tied with Cincinnati and St. Louis for the third-oldest continuous franchise in Major League Baseball.

Those first five seasons generally aren't recognized because the team played in the American Association, which operated as an acknowledged major league from 1882 through 1891, in competition with the National League. When the Association went out of business, its memory was submerged in the depths of baseball history, to be unearthed by researchers generations later.

Pittsburgh's first major-league team actually played in the city of Allegheny, now the North Side; hence its nickname, the Alleghenys. In fact, the American Association was founded during a meeting held in Pittsburgh.

For a squad that came together for the first time, the Alleghenys did well in 1882, winning 39 and losing the same number, good for fourth place in the six-team league.

The star of the team was outfielder Ed Swartwood, who, at 23, was the youngest regular. He led the Alleghenys in most offensive categories, including a .329 batting average, 107 hits and four home runs.

Pitcher Denny Driscoll, one of baseball's first successful lefthanders, had a 13-9 record with a stellar 1.21 earned-run average, the lowest ever in the Association. But that figure is purely retroactive; the concept of the earned run didn't develop until the early 20th century. Research has shown that a whopping 46 out of the 73 runs Driscoll gave up that year were unearned! Even in an era where teams averaged three or four errors per game, that's an unusally high percentage of unearned runs.

Whatever the case, Driscoll wasn't nearly as effective in 1883, slipping to 18-21 on a team that finished 31-67. Swartwood again led the way at the plate, with his .357 average nearly a hundred points higher than the next-best batter on the team.

The Alleghenys did even worse in 1884, with a 30-78 record in a league that had doubled in the number of teams from its inaugural year. Swartwood slipped to .288, but the next best mark among Allegheny hitters was just .231; as a whole, the team batted only .211. The top pitcher was Florence – yes, he was a man – Sullivan at 16-35.

In 1885, the Alleghenys righted the ship to finish 56-55, primarily through the efforts of pitcher Ed Morris. The 22-year-old lefty won 39 times in 63 starts, all complete games. Back then, management considered pitchers a disposable commodity, good for only a couple of years.

But a late arrival to Pittsburgh that season broke the mold: James "Pud" Galvin's career lasted 15 season, and he was the first pitcher in history to win 300 games. He also was the first future Hall of Famer to play in Pittsburgh.

Galvin and Morris led the way to the Alleghenys' most successful season: an 80-57 record, good for second place behind the St. Louis Browns, today's Cardinals. The tandem combined for 70 victories, while the team batting average of .241 wasn't that far off the league mark of .243. (On the other end of the spectrum, the Baltimore AA batters combined to hit .204, the lowest team average in history.)

Meanwhile, Allegheny management had developed a contentious relationship with the American Association hierarchy, and Pittsburgh jumped ship to the National League for the 1887 season. And that's where team history starts.

But there was a prehistoric version of what became the Pirates, even if the team didn't have all that much success in the American Association.

Trivia #13: Who was the second future Hall of Famer to play in Pittsburgh? For the answer, scroll down and look to the right.

Time for 'Bucco fever'

An e-mail came from a friend today asking, "Anyone else have Bucco fever?"

That's what an 11-7 start will do for a victory-starved fandom.

The second-place Pirates will return to Pittsburgh Friday with an above-.500 record, even if they fail to win any of three games in Milwaukee. And the Brewers aren't exactly lighting it up so far, starting the season 8-10.

The Pirates' hot start is attributable mainly to a starting rotation that's been stellar so far. Zach Duke, Paul Maholm, Ross Ohlendorf, Ian Snell and Jeff Karstens have combined for a 10-5 record and a stingy 3.02 earned-run average. Duke, Maholm and Ohlendorf have particularly helped the cause by walking a cumulative 2.18 batters per nine innings.

Can the pitchers possibly sustain the good work?

Sabermetricians, as baseball-statistic geeks like to be known, come up with all kinds of numbers to explain the nuances of the game. One of the newer stats to catch on is BABIP, which stands for batting average for balls in play. It's meant to measure a "luck" factor for pitchers; in other words, whether batters who hit fair balls end up on base. A low BABIP usually means you've been getting a lot of breaks, and sooner or later those balls are going to start skirting between infielders or dropping in front of outfielders.

The way to avoid BABIP being a huge factor is to strike batters out, something the Pirate pitchers don't do as often as they should. Snell, at 6.1 strikeouts per nine innings, leads the starting staff by a wide margin; Maholm, Ohlendorf and Karstens all are under 4.

By comparison, the Cubs' Rich Harden has struck out 35 batters in just 21 innings, a National League-leading average of 15 per nine. The Pirates' starting five hurlers have fanned 55 in 113 1/3 innings, fewer than one for every two innings.

Read into those numbers what you'd like, but don't be surprised if the runs allowed start piling up as the season progresses.

But perhaps the Pittsburgh hitters will step it up, too, and "Bucco fever" will persist well into the summer.

Trivia #12: Name the player who, in his only season as a Pirate, hit 31 home runs and stole 15 bases. For the answer, scroll down and look to the right.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

I hate the Yankees

Growing up in New Castle, the population was split between cheering for the Indians and the Pirates. I was in the former group, but I did like the Pirates. The arch enemy of the Indians were the Yankees, and I hated them, not just because they were always good but because they always beat the Indians.

So it is with some satisfaction that I have watched the Yankees and their $200 million payroll play like a mediocre team over the past few years. Their payroll drags up salaries for every player in the league.

The Yankees are old, slow and will be out of the playoffs again this year. One of their best players, Alex Roid-riguez, admitted to cheating and now is rehabbing an injury. But his presence in the lineup won't change the Yankees' fortunes. Their pitching stinks and defense is mediocre. Does Johnny Damon even have an arm connected to his shoulder to throw the ball.

They can't build a new stadium right. Their right-field fence is of Pony League dimensions, thanks to unexpected wind pattersn that their engineers did not take into account. But hey, they only spent $1.5 billion,

New York fans are not thrilled with the new edifice, leaving thousands of the best seats empty because of how expensive they are. On Friday night, they lost to the hated Red Sox, an organization that is far and away more intelligent than the Yankees.

It's so much fun watching that.

Friday, April 24, 2009

In the beginning

My last post was about the troubles the Phillies are having this season. And even though the team won the World Series last year, the franchise is much better known for its losing ways than for winning.

Only a handful of teams have been around longer than Philadelphia's National League entry, which debuted back in 1883 and immediately set the bar awfully low, posting a miserable 17-81 record.

Back then, one pitcher would hurl a majority of games for a team. And the guy who drew the short straw for the Quakers ("Phillies" came a few years later) was 20-year-old John Coleman.

Opponents treated poor John like he was tossing batting practice. He managed to win a dozen games, but lost 48, surrendering 772 hits and 510 runs in the process. (Yes, you read that correctly.) And they stuck him in the outfield on the days when he wasn't pitching! It was a different game back then, but still ...

Actually, he wasn't even the worst pitcher on the team. Art Hagan, also 20, managed to give up 151 runs in just 17 games. That helps a great deal in explaining his 1-14 record.

Bob Ferguson, the team's first-ever manager, resigned from the top spot after a 4-13 start, but continued to play second base, hitting a respectable (it would seem) .258. Baseball historians tend to remember him best for his nickname, "Death to Flying Things." Sounds like a good name for a heavy-metal band ...

The Quakers fared somewhat better in 1884, when Hall of Fame manager Harry Wright came on board. Still, it took until 1915 for the franchise to win its first NL pennant and until 1980 to win its first World Series.

Champs' rough start

People here in Pittsburgh tend to root against Philadelphia teams, particularly when the intrastate rivals are battling in an NHL playoff series.

In baseball, while the perennial doormat Pirates are off to a good start, the champion Phillies are struggling. They're 6-8, which certainly could be worse. But the manner in which they've compiled that .429 winning percentage so far is making history.

Philadelphia's opponents have hit at least one home run in every one of those 14 games, which the Elias Sports Bureau has determined to be a record for the beginning of a season.

Giving up the long ball is going to lead to a ton of runs on the other side of the ledger, and it took the Phils to Game 13 to hold the other team to fewer than three runs. They lost that one, 3-1, to Milwaukee, even though Brewers starter Braden Looper failed to strike out a batter in six innings.

That all adds up to a 6.31 team earned-run average and 31 home runs surrendered, which is on pace for 359 on the year. And the weather is just warming up at Citizens Bandbox Park!

Matt Stairs, who was born during the LBJ administration (albeit in Canada), is doing all right for the Phillies, with two home runs in his first 10 at-bats. That gives him 256 for his 17-year career. And 20 of those came during 2003, his only season in Pittsburgh.

Not bad for a guy who, according to some observers, looks like he should be playing in a beer softball league.

Another older Phillie, 37-year-old Raul Ibanez, is off to a good start as well, with five home runs and a .345 batting average.

Ibanez is one of those classic late bloomers. He was 30 before he got his first full-time major-league gig, in the Kansas City outfield in 2002. Since then, his driven in 89 or more runs each season. Four times he's topped 100 RBI, including the past three seasons with Seattle.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Money for nothin'

Barry Zito is a good guitar player.

He used to be a good pitcher. Good enough, in fact, to have the San Francisco Giants offer him a $100 million-plus contract after the 2006 season.

That's about the time people could stop using "good" and "pitcher" in the same sentence when referring to him.

Zito, who's scheduled to start for the Giants today, has compiled a 21-30 record so far with the team. And it's not really a matter of no offensive support. His earned-run average in a San Francisco uniform stands at 4.95, in a home park that's supposed to favor pitchers.

So far this year, he's lost his first two starts giving up 10 earned runs in 9 innings. That must have Giants fans groaning: Here we go again …

In 2008, Zito, a former American League Cy Young Award winner, lost his first eight decisions. San Francisco management threatened to banish him to the bullpen, but he responded with a victory just in time, beating Florida on May 23.

From then on he wasn't so bad, but he did end up tying for the league lead in losses with 17.

Zito won't turn 31 for another couple of weeks, so he's not too old to turn his career back around. And since he throws with his left hand, he probably will be in demand for quite a few more seasons in one capacity or another.

But his performance so far as a Giant serves as a reminder that long-term contracts for pitchers might not be the wisest of baseball investments. Even if they play a mean guitar.

Trivia #11: Who signed with Colorado for what was the richest contract for a pitcher at the time, and compiled a 21-28 record for the Rockies? For the answer, scroll down and look to the right.

First game

Baseball fans tend to have vivid memories of the first major-league games they attended, and I'm no different.

On Saturday, April 14, 1973, our dad drove my brother and me from home in Harrisburg to Veterans Stadium, to see the Phillies play the Mets. We picked that night because Steve Carlton, who was coming off a 27-win season for a 59-win team, was scheduled to pitch for Philadelphia.

I'd never seen a structure as immense as the Vet, which seated more than 60,000 at the time. As we walked toward the stadium, Dad pointed toward the columns at the top and joked, "Those are people standing up there because there aren't any seats."

We squinted to determine if those really were people and worried that, with Carlton on the mound, we might not be able to get tickets. Turns out the attendance that night was only 11,000-plus, so we were able to buy general admission, no problem. I think it cost a total of $7 for the three of us.

I remember the vendors walking around selling beer (I wasn't interested in that yet) and hot dogs, which they kept in portable heating units strapped to their necks and sold for what seemed like the unreasonably high price of a dollar apiece.

I remember the deep green of the Astroturf; the yellow, orange and red seats differentiating the various levels; and the striking symmetry of the Vet. Since I'd never been to a "traditional ballpark" like Forbes Field or Connie Mack Stadium, the newly designed stadiums that became known as "concrete ashtrays" were just fine with me.

I remember looking into center field and seeing the legendary Willie Mays. He might have been 42 years old, but his presence was a thrill for a little kid like me.

Most of all, I remember a couple of rookies who were available before the game to sign our yearbook. Their names were Bob Boone and Mike Schmidt. Boone went on to set the record for most games caught, since broken by Carlton Fisk. Schmidt, of course, went on to Cooperstown.

Boy, I wish I still had that yearbook.

As for the game, I remember the Phillies winning and Carlton pitching well. I looked it up, and he actually pitched a complete game in a 7-3 victory. I also remember that I'd never heard of his mound opponent, Jim McAndrew, before. It turned out that McAndrew, once a highly regarded prospect, was in his final season with the Mets and next-to-last in his career.

Things went much better for Carlton, who retired with 329 victories, second to Warren Spahn among lefthanders. But 1973 was far from his best season; he ended up losing 20 games as the Phils ended up in the basement again. The Mets went on to the World Series.

We attended several more games in '73, including one at Three Rivers Stadium, where we saw Willie Mays a final time. (Unfortunately, he fell down and hurt himself.) But the memories of those other games are lost in a haze compared with the first one.

Trivia #10: Which pitcher's team failed to score a single run for him in his first four major-league starts? For the answer, scroll down and look to the right.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

I thought he was dead

This short story caught my attention the other day.

"The Washington Nationals placed left-handed relief pitcher Joe Beimel on the 15-day disabled list and recalled right- hander Saul Rivera from Triple-A Syracuse on Tuesday. Beimel is suffering from a strained left hip flexor muscle he sustained while making a defensive play in the team's 3-2 win against Atlanta on Monday. He has a 1.23 earned run average in eight games this season."

Most of you remember Beimel as a relief pitcher for the Pirates. But what's truly amazing about Beimel is that he is one of three current professional players who attended Duquesne University, my alma mater. I didn't think they had three professional athletes in the history of the university.

Can you name the other two?

Frustration … elsewhere, for a change

One of the more promising young pitchers in the majors is Max Scherzer, a 24-year-old righthander for the Arizona Diamondbacks.

So far in his brief career, Scherzer has shown signs of living up to his potential. In 66 innings, he's struck out 73 batters while compiling a 3.14 earned run averages.

He also has five losses and has yet to earn his first major-league win.

The D-Backs haven't given him much offense. In his seven starts last year, Arizona scored a total of 16 runs. Scherzer's team did score seven runs in his first 2009 start, a victory over the Cardinals, but he was gone by the time the game was decided. And on Sunday, he lost when the Diamondbacks were blanked by the Giants, 2-0.

If he keeps pitching well, his luck is bound to change. But until he earns that first win, no one can blame him for feeling frustrated.

Speaking of frustration, let's take a look at the Washington Nationals. They've played a dozen games and have two wins to show for it.

And few people expect the situation to improve much throughout a long summer in D.C.

On paper, the Nationals don't look that bad, especially at the plate. Nick Johnson, Adam Dunn, Elijah Dukes, Austin Kearns and Ryan Zimmerman all have shown ability to hit, and all are 30 or younger. Another Nat who's currently in the minors, Lastings Milledge, is supposed to be pretty good, too.

As for the pitching … well, that's what usually builds winning teams, and Washington looks to be suffering. Heralded 23-year-old righty Jordan Zimmermann provided a bright spot by beating the Braves Monday in his major-leage debut. But beyond him, the pickings look rather slim, even with ex-Pirates Joe Beimel and Kip Wells in the bullpen.

Frustrating for certain New Yorkers, but not for the rest of us, are the travails of the Yankees in their new stadium.

Aided and abetted the team's 22-4 pasting at the hands of Cleveland on Saturday, the New York pitching staff is putting up some truly ugly numbers: 6.53 earned-run average, lowlighted by ex-Pirate Damaso Marte (21.00 ERA), formerly reliable Chien-Ming Wang (34.50) and Anthony Claggett (43.20), whose only career appearance to date was mopping up in that Indian massacre.

Some of the pitching problems have been caused by the large number (so far) of what looks like routine fly balls landing in the stands. Engineers who designed the new stadium have been consulted about why this is occurring, but the totals are in the books: four games, 11 homers surrendered by New York pitching. At that pace, opponents would hit 223 home runs at Yankee Stadium this year.

Also frustrating for the Steinbrenner clan are attendance figures, with more than 5,000 seats not sold for Sunday's game. TV cameras are showing plenty of emptiness, especially in the areas where tickets are going for hundreds of bucks per seat.

Couldn't happen to a better team …

Trivia #9: What pitcher lost the most consecutive games at the start of his career? For the answer, scroll down and look to the right.

Who are those guys?

Let's take a look back at the 2008 season, specifically the performances of the Pirates pitchers.

As a whole, the team compiled a 5.10 earned-run average, which ranked last in the National League by almost a quarter of a run. And the second-worst team was the Colorado Rockies, where pitchers still are susceptible to getting crushed despite the baseballs being stored in humidors.

Between hits and walks, the Pirates allowed more than a baserunner and a half per inning. They walked 657 batters, the most in the league, and struck out 963, just six more than St. Louis, which ranked last in the category.

With a few exceptions - Paul Maholm, Matt Capps, John Grabow and Damaso Marte, before he was traded to the Yankees – Pittsburgh's hurlers were substandard by just about any measure.

Tom Gorzelanny posted a 6.66 ERA, which earned him a trip to Purgatory (also known as the minor leagues). Franquelis Osoria and Denny Bautista both posted ERAs over 6 while pitching in 35 or more games. Matt Morris earned an eight-figure salary while posting a 9.67 ERA in five starts before management had sense enough to cut bait.

And onetime top draft pick John Van Benschoten managed to win a game but topped out at 10.48, giving him an historically awful 9.20 ERA for his 90-inning Major League career.

OK, enough of 2008. How about Pirates pitching in '09?

If you've caught some baseball in between hockey playoffs and NFL draft talk, you may have noticed that Pittsburgh leads the majors with four shutouts already, including three in the past four games. Zach Duke blanked Houston while going the distance, only the fourth time he's done that in more than 100 career starts. Maholm so far has shown that his decent '08 season was no fluke, with a record so far of 2-0 with an 0.87 ERA. Even Ross Ross Ohlendorf has shown that last year's trade with the Yankees might pay some dividends, as his ERA is 3.00.

Meanwhile, the Pirates are leading the league in earned-run average while playing over .500.

Who are those guys?

Yeah, I know. It's early.

But Pittsburgh baseball is so starved for good news, we'll take it, even if we're still in April.

Trivia #8: What was the first team to finish in last place despite leading the league in earned-run average? For the answer, scroll down and look to the right.

Monday, April 20, 2009

'Chicks dig the long ball' ... but will HOF voters?

With the count at 3-0 and the game in the ninth inning, my friend and I figured we'd have to come back on Sunday.

We'd been at Three Rivers Stadium Friday night, too, and witnessed the 499th home run hit by Michael Jack Schmidt, our favorite player while we were growing up in Harrisburg in the '70s.

The outlook didn't look so good for Saturday, April 18, 1987. Schmidt started 0-for-3, and in what we were assuming was his last at-bat of the day, Pirates pitcher Don Robinson had thrown three straight balls. With Pittsburgh winning 6-5 and two runners on base, it seemed like Robinson would have been wise to waste a pitch and take his chances with the next man in the lineup, rookie Chris James.

Instead, Robinson's pitch sailed into Schmidt comfort zone, and he launched it into the stands for home run No. 500 (and won the game for the Phils in the process). His feat was celebrated not only in Philadelphia, but throughout the baseball world, with the possible exception of Pittsburgh.

Twenty-two years ago, baseball enthusiasts could rattle off the legendary names in the 500-homer club, from Ott and Banks and Mathews to the trio at the top, Aaron, Ruth and Mays. Each and every one of the men who had reached that plateau had been enshrined, or eventually would be, in the Hall of Fame.

The other day, Gary Sheffield hit his 500th career home run as a pinch-hitter for the Mets. Did you know? Did you care?

Sheffield is yet another product of the era of the prevalent home run, when circumstances conspired to make baseballs sail out of parks with a frequency never seen before. Blame steroids; blame loaded balls; blame lousy pitching, as I do. Whatever the case, 500 home runs is no guarantee of immortality.

Heck, I remember when 400 homers ensured a trip to Cooperstown, until Dave Kingman came along. However many long balls you hit, a .236 career batting average isn't going to cut it.

Here are the players who have reached at least the 400 mark in the years since Schmidt hit his 500th: Chipper Jones, Mike Piazza, Cal Ripken Jr., Juan Gonzalez, Andre Dawson, Jeff Bagwell, Jose Canseco, Dave Winfield, Carlos Delgado, Fred McGriff, Sheffield, Eddie Murray, Frank Thomas, Manny Ramirez, Jim Thome, Alex Rodriguez, Rafael Palmeiro, Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa, Ken Griffey Jr. and Barry Bonds.

Ripken, Winfield and Murray already have been voted into the Hall of Fame. But how many of those other guys are going to make it to Cooperstown?

Piazza is a shoo-in as probably the best-hitting catcher in history. Jones has a very good shot as a mainstay of all those Braves' division-winning teams, and Griffey has had a long, productive career despite losing significant time to injury.

As for the rest of them, Dawson has been received a good many votes, but so far, no good. Bagwell and Thomas probably will get serious consideration. And A-Rod's numbers eventually might be too much to ignore, despite his recent steroid-related issues.

Voters already have made it clear that McGwire and Canseco are persona non grata in Cooperstown, and they'll probably do the same for Palmeiro and Sosa. And even the all-time leader, Bonds.

That leaves Thome, McGriff, Delgado and Gonzalez. Wonderful players, all. But eventual Hall of Famers?

Stay tuned.

Trivia #7: Which non-pitcher whose career started after 1900 has the fewest career home runs among Hall of Famers? Scroll down and look to the right for the answer

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Oh, happy day!

As they say, it's only April. There's a long way to go in the 2009 season.

But Saturday was about as fun as baseball gets.

A television happened to be tuned to the Cleveland-New York game at the new $1.5 billion Yankee Stadium. The Yankees took a quick 2-0 lead in the bottom of the first. Then ...

I watched the Indians go to work on Yankees starter Chien-Ming Wang, who already was off to a rough start this season, giving up 15 runs in his first two starts. Shin-Soo Choo belted a three-run homer to give Cleveland the lead, then came a bunch more hits to make it 9-2, with the bases loaded. Up stepped Asdrubal Cabrera, who made his first home run of the year a grand slam. Grady Sizemore followed Cabrera's blast with one of his own, before Mark DeRosa finally made the third out. That was OK; DeRosa ended up with six RBI on the day in the Indians' 22-4 win.

Poor Wang. The guy's numbers now look like this for '09: three starts, six innings, 23 hits against, six walks, two strikeouts, and 23 earned runs. That gives him an ERA of 34.50, meaning he's pretty much ruined the season already for anyone who drafted him in a fantasy league.

Relieving Wang was a pitcher named Anthony Paul Claggett, a 24-year-old righty making his Major League debut. The kid probably wishes he'd stayed in Scranton after the pasting the Indians gave him: eight earned runs in 1 2/3 innings. That's an ERA of 43.20.

Whatever the case, it was great to see the Yankees and their zillion-dollar payroll get pounded into the dust in their brand-spanking-new ballpark, where the average seat costs $73. The New Yorkers who anted up on Saturday sure got their money's worth!!!

And while the Bronx Bombers were getting bombed, the good ol' Pirates were winning their second straight shutout over the Braves, this time 10-0.

Come October, the Yankees probably will be in the playoffs, and the Pirates long since will have gone home. But we always can look back on April 18, 2009, and smile.

Trivia #6: What team scored the most runs in one inning (post-1900)? For the answer, scroll down and look to the right.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Return of the complete game?

Longtime broadcaster and former catcher Tim McCarver was talking on EPSN's "Mike & Mike in the Morning" about yesterday's opening game at the new Yankee Stadium.

To the delight of Yankee haters everywhere, Cleveland smacked the Bronx Bombers around, 10-2. McCarver blamed middle-relief meltdown for New York's loss, then said it's about time to return to the days when starting pitchers lasted more than five or six innings per game.

The problem, he said, is that pitchers are brought along too gingerly in the minor leagues, and by the time they reach the majors, their arms can't hold up too, say, 200 innings in a season.

He did admit that he'd probably be long gone when (if?) baseball returns to the tradition of pitchers going the distance being the norm again.

McCarver cited Toronto's Roy Halladay as the prime example of the type of pitcher who throws nine innings. Indeed, Halladay led the American League in complete games last year, with nine, a huge total for these days.

During McCarver's playing career (1959-80), the story was much different.

For example, McCarver caught Bob Gibson for several years during the Hall of Famer's heyday. Between 1965 and 1972, Gibson logged 20 or more complete games seven out of eight seasons, including two years with 28 CGs in each. And the only year he missed the 20 mark, he missed a a month and a half after Roberto Clemente lined a ball off Gibson's leg and broke it (July 15, 1967).

For the record, here are the last pitchers to reach the following complete-game milestones:

  • 10 – Randy Johnson, Diamondbacks, 1999 (12)

  • 15 – Curt Schilling, Phillies, 1998

  • 20 – Fernando Valenzuela, Dodgers, 1986

  • 25 – Rick Langford, A's, 1980 (28)

  • 30 – Jim "Catfish" Hunter, Yankees, 1975

By the way, Zach Duke already has pitched a complete game for the Pirates this season. The team as a whole logged a total of three in 2008.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Show me the money

It was only a few years ago that the debate raged in Major League Baseball about why black children were not playing baseball anymore. Polls were taken, data collected and analysis made on why these children were abandoning the sport for basketball and football. One of the reasons offered was that the other two sports offered better salaries.

Well, consider this: The top 10 paid players in Major Leage Baseball for 2009:

1. Alex Rodriguez, NYY $28,000,000
2. Jason Giambi, NYY $23,428,571
3. Derek Jeter, NYY $21,600,000
4. Manny Ramirez, BOS $18,929,923
5. Carlos Beltran, NYM $18,622,810
6. Ichiro Suzuki, SEA $17,102,149
7. Johan Santana, NYM $16,984,216
8. Todd Helton, COL $16,600,000
9. Torii Hunter, ANA $16,500,000
10t. Bobby Abreu, NYY $16,000,000
10t. Carlos Delgado, NYM $16,000,000
10t. Andy Pettitte, NYY $16,000,000
10t. Carlos Zambrano, CHC $16,000,000

Three players - Mark Teixeira, Mike Lowell and Carlos Lee - were tied for 50th at $12.5 million. At 150 on the list is New York shortstop Jose Reyes at $6.1 million.

I'm not sure why this debate began in the first place but looking at these numbers, it's obvious that salary should have little to do with why fewer blacks are playing baseball.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Man of many talents

We'd all love to be able to say we excel in one high-profile field of endeavor.

For Bernie Williams, make that two.

Unlike many athletes, the longtime Yankeee center fielder had another career waiting for him once his playing days ended. Then again, he's still playing, guitar instead of baseball.

I'd caught Williams performing occasionally on TV shows and thought, man, I'd love to play like that! And I heard him once again this morning on ESPN's "Mike & Mike in the Morning," finger-picking a jazzy version of "Take Me Out to the Ballgame."

Bernie was promoting his second CD, "Moving Forward," which was released Tuesday on Reform Records. According to his Web site:

"The Puerto Rico native and five-time All Star is a classically trained musician who developed his love for playing guitar alongside baseball, while listening to salsa, merengue and '80s rock. 'Moving Forward' embraces those early influences, while also reflecting a unique mixture of classical and jazz guitar topped-off with additional Latin rhythms."

One of the CD tracks is a live performance featuring Mr. and Mrs. Bruce Springsteen, who, being from Jersey, probably have some affinity for the Yankees.

I can't stand 'em personally, but I love Williams' guitar playing and am willing to overlook his tenure in pinstripes!

In a previous post, I mentioned several candidates to have their major-league careers span four decades, the 1980s through the 2010s.

Among them was Tom Glavine, the Braves' lefty who joined the 300-win club last year and was targeted to be in Atlanta's starting rotation this season.

But as Lee Corso would say, "Not so fast, my friend." reports:

"Tom Glavine may retire if his sore left shoulder doesn't improve in two weeks. Glavine was told Tuesday he must rest for at least two weeks after inflammation was found in his left rotator cuff. The 43-year-old had an MRI and was examined by Dr. James Andrews, who advised treatment and rest."

If we've seen the last of Glavine on the pitcher's mound, here's a tip of the baseball cap to one stellar career.

Today, Pittsburgh acquired switch-hitting outfielder Delwyn Young from the Dodgers for two minor league players or for cash. Didn't they learn their lesson when Andy LaRoche came over from LA?

The skinny on Young: a .267 average in 110 games over three major league seasons; 14 pinch-hits for the Dodgers last season while hitting .246 with one home run and seven RBI in 126 at-bats.

He'll turn 27 in June, and that sometimes marks the point when hitters start reaching their potential. Let's see if he's still in Pittsburgh by then.

Monday, April 13, 2009

The Bird is dead at 54

BOSTON (AP) — Former All-Star pitcher Mark “the Bird” Fidrych was found dead Monday in an apparent accident at his farm. He was 54.
Worcester County district attorney Joseph D. Early Jr. saids a family friend found Fidrych about 2:30 p.m. Monday beneath a pickup truck at his Northborough, Mass., farm. He appeared to be working on the truck, Early said.
The colorful right-hander was the American League rookie of the year in 1976 when he went 19-9 with a 2.34 ERA. He spent all five of his major league seasons with the Detroit Tigers, compiling a 29-19 record and a 3.10 ERA.
His career was cut short by injuries.
Fidrych attempted a comeback in 1983 with the Boston Red Sox and went to their Triple A team in Pawtucket, R.I. But he never pitched in the majors after 1980 and retired in 1983.
The Worcester, Mass., native later owned a trucking business.
Fidrych acquired the nickname “the Bird” because of his resemblance to the Big Bird character on the Sesame Street television show. During games, he would bend down and groom the mound with his hands, appear to talk to the baseball and slap high fives with teammates in the middle of the diamond.
He started the 1976 All-Star game after opening the season with seven wins in eight decisions. He finished that season with 24 complete games.
But he tore knee cartilage during spring training the following year and was placed on the disabled list until May 24. He sustained a shoulder injury in July 1977 and ended up pitching in just 58 games during his major league career.
State police detectives are investigating the circumstances of his death, Early said.

Goodbye, Harry

They're all gone now.

When I became a baseball fan in the early 1970s, it was of the Philadelphia Phillies. My dad's family came from Philly, and where we lived in Harrisburg, we received the Phils' broadcasts and telecasts.

So the first voices of the game I heard were those of Phillies announcers Byrum Saam, Richie Ashburn and Harry Kalas.

Saam, I'd soon learn, had been broadcasting for the team since 1939, the year after the Phillies moved out of the decrepit 19th-century playing venue known as the Baker Bowl. Ashburn had starred for those same Phillies when they suddenly turned into National League pennant winners in 1950, known to history as the Whiz Kids.

Kalas was the new kid on the block, in his 30s when he joined the broadcast team in 1971. But what a voice he had. I soon heard it on National Football League broadcasts in the off-season, and narrating NFL Films for posterity.

Richie was the first to go, suffering a fatal heart attack after a road game against the Mets in 1997. By lived until 2000, passing away at 85 after enjoying his retirement from broadcasting.

And today, we learn that Harry collapsed prior to the Phillies game scheduled in Washington, D.C., and died shortly afterward. He was 73.

Goodbye, Harry. Thanks for the memories.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

A younger generation of researchers

They say the “younger generation” has no interest in baseball anymore, especially people who have grown up around Pittsburgh.

There’s at least one exception, though. My oldest son has the vaguest of memories of the last time the Pirates played winning ball. But he’s a big fan of the sport in general, including its storied (and not-so-storied) history.

Last weekend, after a couple of hours of helping me with yard work while we listened to the Buccos lose another one, he said he was going to do a bit of research. He emerged with a list that I found so interesting, I’d love to share it with you. ...

... and I will, in my column in Wednesday's Observer-Reporter. Pick up a copy at your local newsstand!

Trivia #5: Besides Willie Stargell, who is the last Pirate to hit 40 or more home runs in a season? (For the answer, scroll down and look to the right.)

Reds' bunch o' bums

In Pittsburgh, it's fashionable to bash the Pirates, and for good reason. But after their series in Cincinnati, it seems as if Pittsburgh is going to finish ahead of anyone in the NL Central, it's the Reds.

I've heard some talk on sports radio that Cincinnati might make some noise this year, with "young talent" and "good pitching." Well, if they watched Aaron Harang shut out the Pirates on Sunday, that type of reasoning might hold some merit.

Judging by the "talent" in the latter half of the Reds' lineup, their pitchers are going to have to put up a lot of zeroes for the team to have any kind of success this year.

On Sunday, hitting fifth through eighth for Cincinnati were Jay Bruce, Edwin Encarnacion, Ramon Hernandez and Alex Gonzalez. They went a combined 2-for-13 against Ian Snell and three relievers. Encarnacion got one of those hits, but he also hit into a rare triple play.

For the first week of the season, those players had a cumulative 60 at-bats and 8 hits for a .133 batting average. Hernandez and Gonzalez were a combined 1-for-27.

It's not as if those guys haven't had success in the past. Encarnacion, Hernandez and Gonzalez all have had 20-homer seasons. Bruce broke into the majors with a bang last year, hitting .400 over his first 14 games and finishing fifth in National League Rookie of the Year balloting.

Yet everyone from Pirates announcer Bob Walk to Reds manager Dusty Baker has been commenting on how they all have looked lost at the plate so far this year.

Sure, it's early yet. But if Pittsburgh fans want to concentrate on the miseries of other teams, Cincinnati seems like a good place to look.

Trivia #4: Who was the second pitcher in history, after Grover Cleveland Alexander, to win a World Series game for the Philadelphia Phillies? (For the answer, scroll down and look to the right.)

Friday, April 10, 2009

Tragedy nothing new to baseball

The baseball world will be reeling for quite a while following the death of Angels rookie pitcher Nick Adenhart, who was one of three people killed after their vehicle was struck by a van Thursday.

Adenhart's death, unfortunately, is the latest in a long line of tragedies that have claimed the lives of active major-leaguers. Here as some that I remember occurring over the past few decades:

Josh Hancock, P, Cardinals, April 29, 2007. Hancock was 29 when he died in an auto accident in St. Louis. He compiled a 9-7 record in 102 games, most of them in relief, over six seasons.

Cory Lidle, P, Yankees, Oct. 11, 2006. The plane Lidle was flying crashed into a building in Manhattan during the League Championship Series, after his team had been eliminated from the playoffs. Lidle, 34, posted an 82-72 record in nine major-league seasons.

Lidle's father learned of his son's death on television.

Darryl Kile, P, Cardinals, June 22, 2002. Kile, 33, was found dead of a heart attack in his hotel room prior to a scheduled game in Chicago. He had won 36 games for the Cardinals during the previous two seasons. He won 133 games, including 19 in 1997 and 20 in 2000. In both those seasons, he finished fifth in Cy Young Award balloting.

Steve Olin and Tim Crews, P, Indians, March 22, 1993. Olin and Crews were joined by teammate Bob Ojeda on a Florida spring-training speedboat outing just before opening day. Their boat struck a pier in Little Lake Nellie. Olin died at the site, and Crews died at a hospital in Orlando.

Olin, 27, a submarine-style pitcher, saved 17 games after the 1991 All-Star break for a bad team, and followed that up by saving 29 games for a team that wasn't much better.

Crews had signed with the Indians in January 1992 after spending six seasons with the Dodgers. He was 11 days shy of his 32nd birthday at the time of his death.

Thurman Munson, C, Yankees, Aug. 2, 1979. The team captain was piloting an airplane that went down in Canton, Ohio. He was 32. Munson was the first catcher in American League history to win the Cy Young Award (1970) and followed that up with the Most Valuable Player award in 1976. At the time of his death, he probably had been best known besides his success on diamond for his running feud with teammate Reggie Jackson.

Despite a stellar career for a high-profile team, Munson has not received serious consideration for the Hall of Fame.

Lyman Bostock, OF, Angels, Sept. 23, 1978. Bostock was in the wrong place at the wrong time: He was visiting his uncle, Thomas Turner, in Gary, Ind., and they went to visit Joan Hawkins, a woman whom Bostock had tutored as a teenager, but had not seen for several years. After the visit, Turner agreed to give Hawkins and her sister, Barbara Smith, a ride to their cousin's house. Smith had been living with Hawkins while estranged from her husband, Leonard Smith.

As Turner's vehicle was stopped at a traffic signal, Smith's car pulled up alongside. Smith leaned out of his vehicle and fired a shotgun into the back seat of Turner's car. The blast struck Bostock in the right temple. He died two hours later at a Gary hospital, at age 27.

Four decades?

Toward the close of each decade, baseball historians start keeping an eye out for veterans whose careers could extend long enough that they play in the majors in four different decades.

Some past players of note who have achieved the distinction include Hall of Famers Eddie Collins (1906-30), Ted Williams (1939-60), Early Wynn (1939-63), Willie McCovey (1959-80), Nolan Ryan (1966-93), Carlton Fisk (1969-93) and new inductee Rickey Henderson (1979-2003).

There's a possibility that 2010 could see up to half a dozen four-decade major-leaguers, which would be a record. They are:

Tom Glavine. The Atlanta Braves of the late 1980s were baseball's laughingstocks, known primarily for being visible to most of the nation for most of the season on TBS. With the development of players like Glavine, the Braves turned into the juggernaut that appeared in the playoffs every year for a decade and a half. Glavine debuted on Aug. 17, 1987, and since has racked up 305 wins. He opened 2009 on the disabled list for the Braves but is penciled in as part of the starting rotation.

Ken Griffey Jr. Griffey has returned to the Seattle Mariners, where he started his career as a 19-year-old, batting .264 with 16 home runs, 61 RBI and 16 stolen bases in 1989. This year, he homered off the Twins' Francisco Liriano on Opening Day, career blast No. 612.

Randy Johnson. The Big Unit was already was pushing age 25 when he debuted in 1988, but he's just five victories shy of 300 as a member of the San Francisco Giants' rotation this year. He lost his first start of the year Wednesday to Milwaukee.

Jamie Moyer. He's the last major-leaguer who's older than I am (46), but his contract with the Phillies runs through 2010. The lefty, who debuted with the Cubs in 1986, had 246 wins entering this season, including 82 after he turned 40!

Gary Sheffield. The Mets signed the guy who once used to make bad throws so the Brewers would trade him. Many fans hope his stay in New York will be a short one.

John Smoltz. A trivia favorite of mine involves Smoltz: The Tigers traded him (as a minor-leaguer) to the Braves for Doyle Alexander, who once was involved in a trade for Frank Robinson. That's more than half a century of baseball, right there! Smoltz opened the season on Boston's disabled list, but he's shown the tenacity to battle back from injury and wants to improve on his 210 wins thus far.

Two other players who were active in the '80s also might end up pitching in the majors in four decades: journeyman relievers Kent Mercker and Rudy Seanez. Both pitched in 2008, Seanez for the World Champion Phillis, but neither is on a big-league roster at the moment. You never know if they'll pop up somewhere this season and/or next.

And I wouldn't bet against some team giving Julio Franco a shot sometime in 2010. He played until he was 49, a record for a position player. And with his track record of physical fitness, he probably could get a hit or two at age 52. Hey, Minnie Minoso got a hit at age 53 when the White Sox made him a four-decader. (He didn't do the same at 57 when they made him one of two five-deacers in major-league history. But that's another story.)

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Opening-day madness

A 27-year-old man died after being involved in a fight on Opening Day at Angel Stadium. An Angels spokesman told the Associated Press that the fight occurred shortly after the game and that the man was pronounced dead at the hospital. Witnesses said the man was involved in a fight with another person, when a third man entered the fight and punched him in the head. The man fell and struck his head on a concrete step.

While this is extreme, opening days have always been full of outrageous and sometimes, dangerous, behavior in Pittsburgh. I recall seeing multiple fights in the stands at Pirates opener at Three Rivers Stadium, especially near the end of games. Maybe people just wanted to let off steam from a long winter, or that many of the fans who showed up didn't care much about baseball and just wanted to be part of the event. I am sure alcohol played a major role.

As security has tighten, it has gotten better over the years at PNC Park. But the only time I made sure I had my binoculars in my computer bag was when I covered the Pirates home-opener.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Time for an audit

By Michael Jones

With it being tax season, I think it’s time the our Internal Revenue Service to launch an investigation into our pitiful Pittsburgh Pirates. And I’m not talking about how Bob Nutting spends his money.

Is Andy LaRoche really a baseball player? I’m sure he lists that as his primary occupation on his tax forms, but I think it’s time for an audit by the IRS. The man has yet to get a base hit in six at-bats and committed his third error on a routine pop-up. This is a guy who is supposed to provide some pop in the lineup and be the future after the Jason Bay trade last July. Does anyone else in Western Pennsylvania have the same kind of job security as LaRoche2.0? Not that the Pirates have a suitable replacement at third base, but management can’t let this circus sideshow go on much longer. It’s just another example of how spring training statistics are worthless.

Update 4:50 p.m. - Pittsburgh Post-Gazette beat writer Dejan Kovacevic is reporting that LaRoche2.0 has been dropped from Wednesday night's lineup in favor of ... Ramon Vazquez? Now that is a slap in the face. It seems that the Pirates' management finally got a clue. Maybe it's time for LaRoche2.0 to do the same.

(AP Photo: Andy LaRoche drops a pop-up in Tuesday night's game)

Monday, April 6, 2009

Way to go Emilio

MIAMI (AP) — Emilio Bonifacio has hit the first opening-day inside-the-park homer in the major leagues in 41 years.
The Florida Marlins’ new third baseman and leadoff batter hit a drive over the head of center fielder Lastings Milledge and circled the bases for a two-run homer in the fourth inning Monday against the Washington Nationals.
The last inside-the-park homer on opening day was by Boston’s Carl Yastrzemski on April 10, 1968.
Bonifacio earned a curtain call from the crowd of 34,323 for the homer, his first in the majors.

A good start

ST. LOUIS (AP) — Jack Wilson gave the Pittsburgh Pirates a dramatic opening-day victory.
With the Pirates down to their last strike, Wilson hit a three-run double to cap a four-run ninth inning off rookie closer Jason Motte, leading Pittsburgh over the St. Louis Cardinals 6-4 Monday.
In a game played in 41-degree chill, Ryan Ludwick broke a 2-2 tie with a leadoff homer in the eighth off Tyler Yates, and David Freese added a sacrifice fly off John Grabow (1-0) for a 4-2 lead.

It started already

The first pitch of the regular season has yet to be thrown in Chicago, and already Carlos Zambrano is doing stupid stuff. The latest came after the Chicago Cubs pitcher was in New York to play in an exhibition game to christen the new Yankee Stadium.

Zambrano said an Associated Press story misquoted him in reporting that he coveted a replacement for Wrigley.

"I didn't say that," Zambrano said Sunday, according to the Chicago Tribune.

According to Saturday's story, Zambrano said "you wish that Chicago'd build a new stadium for the Cubs."

But Zambrano backed off his comments Sunday.

"I said anybody wants to have a new ballpark," the Cubs' ace said, according to the newspaper. "As a player, you feel like you're trying to be more comfortable. As a player, you want to have the greatest ballpark in the National League, or the big leagues. As a fan, we should stay there."

With today's technological advances, it is hard to believe Zambrano was misquoted. He also has a reputation of being emotional and fiery on the mound. Cubs fans will tolerate that because he is a winner. There is no faster way to draw the rath of Cubs fans than to criticize Wrigley Field.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Baseball in rebuttal

By Michael Jones

I fully understand those who plan to stay away from PNC Park this year, and I don’t blame them. The thought of another dollar going into Bob Nutting’s pocket makes many Pirates fans cringe, but the man still will make millions regardless if we attend a few games or take our proverbial ball and go home. PNC Park is still a bargain since the $9 cheap seats are about the same price as an evening out at the movie. And wouldn’t you rather spend a night outdoors rather than inside a cramped and dark theater? So I have devised a plan over the years to limit the revenue streaming into Nutting’s coffers.

The easiest way to save a few bucks is to refuse to buy concessions at the game. That $8 beer and $5 hot dog are not conducive in a recession, so I instead go to Primanti’s in Market Square for a Capicola on rye while splitting a pitcher of Yuengling with friends.

Before walking across the Clemente Bridge, I’ll buy a bag of $2 peanuts and a $1 water bottle to hold me over while inside the stadium. Still without tickets, I go to the gate and purchase a $9 nosebleed seat I’ll never use and maybe flash my former WVU student ID card for an additional discount. I always buy my tickets at the gate rather than get raided by Ticketmaster and its ridiculous surcharges.

This is where things get interesting because I have no intentions of sitting in Section 399. By June, the Pirates will suck as usual, meaning there are at least 20,000 open seats from which to choose. Just stroll down to the lower deck and find a seat with a clustered population, because the ushers usually don’t check your stub if you can slip in behind other fans and blend into the crowd. At a game against St. Louis a few years ago, my father and I made our way to an open section near third base, only to be escorted out by an usher during the national anthem. But we found even better seats on the first-base side after a five-minute walk around the concourse. The key, that time, was moving into a populated section where we could hide.

Maybe this is stealing. But I think the reign of Bob Nutting (among others) has stolen more from us the past 16 years. I think the Pirates owe me a discounted seat every once in a while, don’t you?