Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Flower Replanted

Through 30 games, the defending Eastern Conference champion Pittsburgh Penguins stand at 16-10-4, just a few points behind the Rangers for first place in the Atlantic Division and in fairly solid playoff position with about two-thirds of the schedule remaining.

Yet the question on the minds of many who cover and follow the team persists: Why haven’t the Pens separated themselves from their East brethren?

The possible answers—or excuses, if you are head coach Michel “Iron Mike” Therrien—are readily available.

A) There hasn’t been enough offensive contribution from forwards not named Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin.
B) A plague of injuries has crippled their defensive corps, whether referring to the long-term absences of elite puck-moving D-men Sergei Gonchar (out for several more weeks) and Ryan Whitney (hoping for a pre-Christmas return), or the recent loss of the rangy, rugged Hal Gill.
C) The club remains one of the youngest in the National Hockey League, and as conventional wisdom suggests, youthful players tend to be inconsistent.

One potential tipping point left relatively unexplored is goaltending, and more specifically, the month-long convalescence of Marc-Andre Fleury from what the Penguins have deemed a “lower body injury.” Unconfirmed media reports have pinpointed the ailment as a groin strain, although it’s anyone’s guess which leg it affects (thank you, NHL general managers, for voting to institute the maddening new injury revelation policy that keeps us in the dark).

Lest we forget, Fleury’s performance in last year’s Stanley Cup playoffs was a key factor in the Penguins’ unforeseeable blitz through the Senators, Rangers and Flyers en route to a six-game defeat at the hands of the Detroit Red Wings, the modern version of the Red Army.

Statistically, the man known to his teammates as “Flower” put together one of the better two months between the pipes in recent history. How does a 14-6 record, 1.97 goals-against average, .933 save percentage and three shutouts sound? With apologies to Crosby and Marian Hossa, it sounds a lot like a Conn Smythe winner if the Penguins had claimed the chalice.

Prior to the injury incurred near the end of a 5-2 home win against Buffalo Nov. 15, the numbers that were so kind to Fleury in the spring screamed autumnal mediocrity. Sure, his 8-3-2 record thus far this campaign looks solid, but a .907 SV% and a 2.86 GAA rank him 23rd and 26th in the NHL, respectively.

By comparison, Fleury’s backups match up favorably. Dany Sabourin, last year’s third-stringer behind current Red Wing Ty Conklin, has played 15 games, surrendering only 2.47 goals per 60 minutes (13th in the NHL) and stopping just over 91 percent of the shots fired his way, good for 21st among his peers. Rookie John Curry has also acquitted himself well, earning his first two NHL victories in three appearances.

However, despite seemingly better goaltending, the Penguins have fallen from a season-high five games over .500 at 11-4-2 (overtime losses counted) on the morning of Nov. 16 to their current position on the merits of a lackluster 5-6-2 run. In order to explain this lull, we must venture from concrete stats into the realm of the intangible.

First, let’s step back and explore the scope of Fleury’s NHL career. The No. 1 overall selection in the 2003 NHL Entry Draft played 21 games as a 19- and 20-year-old for the Pens during the 2003-04 season, the squad that finished last in the league. He was hung out to dry nightly by one of the worst Pittsburgh teams in franchise history and sent back to his junior team to spare him further bombardment.

After benefiting from a year with Wilkes-Barre of the American Hockey League during the lockout, Fleury has shown consistent improvement that has eerily mirrored the evolution of the Penguins from league laughingstock to current holders of the Prince of Wales Trophy.

As one of the three longest-tenured members of the Black and Gold (defensemen Brooks Orpik and Rob Scuderi also played in the pre-lockout days), Fleury has the respect of the locker room, and more importantly, he has earned the team’s confidence.

He was in net for the Penguins’ unquestioned biggest triumph of the young season, a 7-6 comeback victory over Detroit at Joe Louis Arena Nov. 11. Down 5-2 and 6-4 in the third period against the team that demoralized and frustrated them in the Cup final, the Pens played with a freedom that has been elusive ever since Fleury hit the trainer’s table.

With Sabourin or Curry in net, the Penguins have often had the look of a team consciously trying to protect its goalie, rather than a self-assured squad playing instinctively. The numbers bear out this difference: Pittsburgh has allowed about four fewer shots per game with the backups on the ice. While it’s great that the team has locked down defensively, offensive talent is more potent with an unfettered mentality.

In a recent interview with the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, none other than the captain and face of the franchise gave Fleury an endorsement just as substantial as the one described above.

“It’s big,” Sidney Crosby said when asked about Fleury’s return to the lineup. “Obviously, it would be nice to get him back. He’s our starting goalie.”

Slated to get the start in Atlanta Thursday night, Marc-Andre Fleury can be expected to play a large role in pushing the Penguins back onto the perch they claimed last spring.

Monday, December 15, 2008

NHL Standings Revised

Although I may not have enumerated it prior to this, I'm a proponent of making every game a three-point game in the NHL. Since the league began awarding a single point to a team that loses in overtime - a change that took effect in the fall of 1999 - some games have resulted in two total points being handed out while other tilts have distributed three. When the shootout was instituted for the 2005-06 season, all the games that would have resulted in ties (and a point given to each participating club) suddenly became three-pointers as well.

Naturally, this two-step evolution in the way the NHL awards standings points has led to inflated points totals over the past eight-plus seasons, thus rendering any comparisons to the pre-1999 team records irrelevant. This point was underscored in my mind anew this past weekend, when the San Jose Sharks tied the alltime record for the quickest march to 50 points from the start of an NHL season; they have reached the mark in just 29 games, matching the 1929-30 Boston Bruins.

Not to discount the Sharks' incredible start, but what makes the Bruins' accomplishment even more impressive is that they pulled it off without the benefit of any ties. The B's went 25-4-0 back in the era when even a five-minute overtime was a distant dream; if you wanted a win, you had to get it done in 60 minutes.

If you think about it, the NHL's seemingly progressive decision to give each team a point for being tied after 60 was actually a throwback to the days when the third-period buzzer meant the end of the game, no matter what the score. The score-for-the-extra-point OT effectively restored the sanctity of the three-period regular season contest, since a team could no longer skate away empty handed after playing an even game for 64 minutes and 59 seconds.

This season, the Sharks have benefited from both overtime (2-2 in OT for six points) and that newfangled tiebreaker, the shootout (2-0 for four additional points). We've already established above that the Bruins of roughly 70 years ago can boast to having accrued their 50 points all by virtue of regulation wins; however, returning to the present, what would the standing look like if every game yielded three points?

Looking at overseas leagues that have adopted a three-point standings system like the Kontinental Hockey League in Russia, we can experiment with the NHL standings through Sunday's games to reflect the KHL's format - three points for a regulation victory, two for an overtime/shootout win, one for an OT/SO loss and none, of course, for a regulation loss. The goal is to determine a truer assessment of a team's play. Since I'm a Penguins fan and it's a tight race so far, we'll apply the KHL's formula to the Atlantic Division.

CURRENT ATLANTIC DIVISION
RK. TEAM: W-L-OTL=Points
1. RANGERS: 20-11-2=42
2. FLYERS: 16-7-6=38
3. PENGUINS: 16-10-4=36
4. DEVILS: 16-9-2=34
5. ISLANDERS: 10-18-2=22

REVISED ATLANTIC DIVISION
RK. TEAM: W-OTW-OTL-L=Points
1. RANGERS: 11-9-2-11=53
2. FLYERS: 10-6-7-6=49
3. PENGUINS: 10-6-4-10=46
4. DEVILS: 9-7-2-9=43
5. ISLANDERS: 6-4-2-9=28

On first glance, it doesn't seem that much has changed, but upon closer examination, changing to the 3-2-1-0 point distribution actually made the division tighter. To wit, since a three-point gap can be overcome with one 60-minute win. The Flyers are three points back of the Rangers in both versions of the standings, but in the revised scenario Philadelphia is only one game back, as opposed to two games behind in actuality. Right now the difference seems insignificant, but as the season wears on, a team that relies on overtime/shootout wins would not achieve the separation in the standings that is possible under the current system.

I was secretly hoping this experiment would expose the Rangers a little more. After all, they are 9-2 in games that go beyond three periods. As the system stands currently, we might have to wait until the playoffs to see if New York's overtime and shootout successes artificially enhanced their status in the league.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Friday Potpourri

Thoughts while desperately trying to ignore mindless T.O.-Romo coverage/lovefest...

-I suppose I should be grateful that the Penguins' 9-2 romp over the visiting Islanders last night got a quick mention on SportsCenter this morning. After all, there was a football game last night and plenty of Brokeback Cowboy talk to breathlessly indulge in. No matter how much I try to convince myself otherwise, getting hockey a legitimate seat at the ESPN table is important, because like it or not, ESPN is probably still the primary agenda setter in the media world. Until the coverage balance tilts further toward the NHL once football season comes to a merciful end, I can ponder how things would be different if hockey was still being broadcast on the four-letter network.

-Speaking of the Pens, boy, was last night's annihilation of NYI ever needed to release some mounting pressure. It was liberating for once just to sit back and enjoy the second half of a game without worrying about either protecting a tenuous lead or frantically trying to come back from an early hole. The club had played well Wednesday night in New Jersey, but came up on the short side of Lady Luck's coinflip seemingly every time in a 4-1 loss. Although after a few games this season that felt like fortuitous escapes (hello, Detroit!), maybe a game like that was due. After Miro Satan scored his 5-on-3 goal in the first period, it seemed that the team played with freedom and fun in front of the home crowd.

-I was chanting along with the Mellon Arena throng who were screaming "WE WANT TEN" in the waning moments of the third. Alas, it was not to be, so we'll have to settle for the biggest Pittsburgh offensive outburst since February 2001 and the first dual hat tricks recorded since this night in 1993:

Joe Mullen had the other HT on that historic night, as the Pens blitzed the Rangers to set the alltime NHL record for consecutive wins with 17.

-On to college football for a moment, and specifically the Heisman Trophy ceremony this weekend at the Downtown Athletic Club in NYC. Of course, I won't be watching because Texas Tech's Graham Harrell hasn't been invited to attend, despite the fact his performance this season is just as good as the three official finalists - Florida's Tim Tebow, Oklahoma's Sam Bradford and Texas' Colt McCoy. I seem to recall a couple occasions in which four players were asked to be on hand for the trophy presentation (Randy Moss' big year in 1997 stands out in my mind, right or wrong). If any year called for the DAC to bend its rules a little bit, it was this one as Harrell, McCoy and Bradford each put his team in position to play for the national title. Chalk it up to just another way in which college football gets it wrong.

-Pens at Flyers on Saturday afternoon, then four days off. Games against Philly are always important, and check it out, the Flyers have recovered from a bumbling start to the season and are tied with the Penguins for second place in the tightening Atlantic Division. The Rangers are four points ahead of both Pennsylvania teams, but one gets the sense that they are primed to be overtaken in the coming weeks. The team that wins Saturday gets an early leg up in the effort to push past New York.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Recession = Progression?

I've enjoyed this whole "the economy is in the gutter" storyline as much as anyone. After all, it helped get my presidential candidate elected and has caused a delicious amount of bellyaching, whining and strife on the part of the CNBC set. Plus, I'm the guy that secretly rejoices when a huge snowstorm is on the way; I just love to see powerful natural forces get the best of people who think they have everything figured out. Call me morbid, call me what you will.

Considering my fatalistic mindset, it's probably not surprising that I find myself thinking the current economic downturn could ultimately be beneficial for the sports league most near to my heart - the National Hockey League. It's no relevation that the NHL overzealously overstepped its bounds by expanding into cities that arguably weren't suitable to support an AHL team. So in this period of financial uncertainty, now is the ideal time to clear out some of the deadwood franchises that are dragging the league down.

This isn't to say that Gary Bettman and his boys should be actively contracting the league; rather, I'm calling for a hands-off strategy that would allow failing franchises to drop off the map, with either a dispersal draft or relocation as the next step. In other words, you get all the benefits of declaring bankruptcy (restructuring/streamlining) without all the messy PR.

Which clubs would I like to see bite the dust?

1. Florida Panthers - The definition of lame duck. If someone could tell me exactly what this franchise has contributed to the NHL, besides making the New Jersey trap palatable for the masses while breaking up a dream Stanley Cup final of Colorado vs. Pittsburgh in 1996, I'd appreciate it. Oh yeah, toy rats on the ice. Thanks.


2. Phoenix Coyotes - They should be in Winnipeg and that's all there is to it. Although without the Coyotes, Sidney Crosby couldn't have done this:


3. Atlanta Thrashers - The final two on this list are tough calls. If the Thrashers don't get their financial house in order soon (members of the ownership group are currently battling it out in the courtroom), it would be the second hockey experiment to tank in the ATL. Who can forget the Atlanta Flames? Actually, as it turns out, almost no one remembers the Flames before they were moved to Calgary. As it stands, the Thrash's only playoff appearance was defined by none other than Sean Avery - with a little help from a rogue Phillips Arena glass partition.


4. Nashville Predators - Lord knows that when Jim Balsillie is stiffing up your tree, you might be in trouble. As a Pens fan, I know this better than most. (It's easy to forget how close the Penguins came to being property of Mr. Blackberry in the fall/winter of 2006.) But beyond Balsillie and the legal misadventures of investor Boots Del Biaggio - another would-be financier with Penguins connections - the Predators actually have been successful on the ice and have a sizable group of loyal fans. Those two things going for them separate the Preds from the first three teams on this list, but it might not be enough to keep them from being the Hamilton Predators in a couple of years. Sadly, this is the team that least deserves to get the axe, yet if I had to put $100 on an NHL team to be dissolved/relocated, it would be Nashville. Just for fun, here's the Preds shocking the Red Wings in last spring's playoffs.


******

Pens host the Isles tonight and I'll get to actually watch it for the first time this week. Look for a recap and crack analysis tomorrow.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Time Is On His Side

While listening to the Penguins Hotline podcast from last night's 4-3 home loss to the Buffalo Sabres, I couldn't believe my ears. On the recording of the Penguins Radio Network's postgame call-in show, provided through the Pittsburgh Penguins' official Web site (penguins.nhl.com), host Bob Grove was lamenting the fact that Sidney Crosby had just set a career high for ice time in a regular season game with 27 minutes and 34 seconds.

First of all, more than 10 of those minutes came on the power play, a fact that Grove eventually mentioned. The Pens were given eight chances with the man advantage, including three separate 5-on-3s, and if I'm Michel Therrien, I want my best player on the ice for just about all of my team's time with a two-man advantage. Even though the Pens were only able to generate one goal on the power play, I find no fault with how MT allocated his players' ice time. (Hidden in all this discussion is that Evgeni Malkin was on the ice for 25:54, 11:17 of which was on the PP.)

Secondly, and most importantly, my main gripe with Therrien's coaching of Sid during his first three years in the league was that he wasn't getting enough playing time. There was many a game in Crosby's career in which I found myself wondering why a strong young man in obviously fantastic cardiovascular condition was skating for fewer than 20 minutes a game. Now that MT has finally decided to take the shackles off of 87 (and Geno as well), I find it ironic that I'm hearing complaints about the best talent in the National Hockey League playing "excessive" minutes.

Crosby is 21 and Malkin is 22. Both still have a few years to go before they reach their respective physical peaks as males. Trust me, they can handle a couple more minutes a game, especially while fellows like Miroslav Satan and Petr Sykora continue to have trouble finding the back of the net. After a nine-win November, the Penguins are now 1-2-1 this month. Certainly, improvements and changes can and will be made. Just don't nitpick about supposedly too much ice time for two of the best players in the world.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

In Enemy Territory

As I mentioned in the previous post, I now reside in the state of Michigan. Contrary to conventional wisdom, Michigan is an incredibly multifaceted state; to put it simply, most of it isn't at all like Detroit and it's surrounding areas.

Living on the opposite side of the state in Grand Rapids, I don't feel the need to carry a loaded handgun in my glove compartment. (Sure, there are some areas in town in which I would prefer not to break down at 3 a.m., but every city of a certain size has rough areas.) While I may be just a few minutes from 8 Mile Road, the atmosphere is far from "8 Mile." In fact, Grand Rapids is a growing, vibrant community that unfortunately is a very well-kept secret outside the immediate area. Growing up in the Pittsburgh/Tri-State region, I had no clue that Grand Rapids was the second-largest city in Michigan, outpacing more exposed places like Lansing, Flint, Kalamazoo, Ann Arbor and Saginaw.

Just a half-hour drive from the eastern shore of Lake Michigan, Grand Rapids is also nearly equidistant from Chicago and Detroit. Thus, one might expect some crossover between the fan bases of Windy City and Motor City professional sports teams. As I've discovered in the past two years, that assumption is not on target. Make no mistake, GR is a Tigers, Lions (sadly), Pistons and, especially, Red Wings town.

Probably the most prominant reason for the Winged Wheel affection is the Grand Rapids Griffins, Detroit's American Hockey League affiliate that plays at the new-ish Van Andel Arena in a popular district downtown. Considering the depth of the Wings' organization, it's not surprising that the Griffins have consistently been near the top of the AHL's standing for the better part of a decade. Winning, as always, cures most everything in pro sports, but beyond that, key contributors to Detroit's Cup run last year spent (or are still spending) considerable time in GR. Jiri Hudler, Darren Helm and Valtteri Filppula, the current understudies to Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg, et al, are just some of the Wings that have passed through West Michigan on their respective ways to the Show. The sign that hangs from Van Andel's upper deck says it best: "Hockeytown West."

Another factor that boosts the Red Wings fervor on Michigan's Golden Coast (I swear I'm not making that up) is the nature of the Lions, Tigers and Pistons fanbases in the region. While the Tigers' recent success, 2007 notwithstanding, has helped them win back previously-dormant baseball lovers, there is still a noticable faction of Chicago hardball fans around, enough that the local newspaper renders both "Cubs" and "White Sox" in boldface when listing the standings. As far as the Lions go, I shouldn't have to tell you that morale is low. And the Pistons are overshadowed on the left half of the state by the traditionally outstanding Michigan State Spartans men's basketball program.

That leaves the Wings without any competition or hindrance on the route to dominance of hearts and minds. Recently, local columnist Bill Simonson suggested Grand Rapids could be in a good position take in the Wings if Detroit suffers some kind of economic apocalypse, which isn't outside the realm of credulity in this fiscal climate. It says something that when I read Simonson's proclamation, I didn't laugh or shrug it off.

Not that it really matters to an embedded Penguins fan. I doubt I'd get any less grief about my Pens paraphrenalia if I actually lived within a short distance of Joe Louis Arena. Speaking of the Joe, I was forturnate enough to acquire free tickets to a Red Wings game there on the evening of November 11. You remember what happened, don't you?



Could it be that the whole reason I wrote this post was to relive the moment?

Probably. Pens at Canes tonight from Raleigh, N.C.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

I'm Back...For A Look Back

Now that I finally have access to a high-speed Internet connection, I believe it's time to rev this blog up once again. Much has changed since I last posted here - most notably, I've gotten married and moved to Grand Rapids, Mich., in search of a hockey broadcasting career. Currently I'm a PR intern for the Kalamazoo Wings of the International Hockey League. Now that the business of reacquainting myself is out of the way, let's get on with the content.

During my inaugural Web surf using this Comcast cable modem (which took almost two weeks to arrive after I ordered it, but that's a shameless digression), I visited the Pensblog for the usual dose of Pittsburgh Penguins-related merriment. Today's post on the recent Dark Ages of the Pens (2001-2006) took me back to a time when being a 'Guins fan meant you were a fan for life, or you were a sporting sadist, or both.

While the first three seasons in that stretch were newsworthy, if only because they followed a streak of 11 straight years in the playoffs for the Penguins, the 2005-06 season arguably was the most interesting out of the four consecutive losers that preceded the team's current run of success.

Allow me to count the reasons why:
1. Hockey was back, and presumably new and improved after the first full season to be cancelled in the history of major North American pro sports.
2. The Pens had improbably came out on top in the only draft lottery in the history of the NHL in which every team had at least a nominal chance to win. The prize, of course, was Sir Sidney Crosby.
3. Craig Patrick, in what proved to be his final season as the Pens' general manager, had signed a group of free agents that looked awfully impressive on paper - former Pen Mark Recchi, power forward John LeClair, erstwhile sniper Zigmund Palffy, and the talented and enigmatic (at least for the first half of 05-06) defenseman Sergei Gonchar. As it turned out, this awfully impressive group produced simply awful results on the ice.
4. Oh yeah, Mario was back after a full year of rest, which seemed to be just the remedy for a man who was having trouble staying on the ice at the end of his breathtaking career.

Of course, Penguins fans know that the squad was a collosal disappointment, going winless in its first nine contests (0-4-5) en route to getting head coach Eddie Olczyk fired in December and a 22-46-14 final record. That last-in-the-Atlantic finish earned the Pens the right to draft Jordan Staal, so it wasn't all terrible, just like the previous three basement-dwelling teams helped the Pens reel in Marc-Andre Fleury, Evgeni Malkin and Crosby.

And now, courtesy of NHL.com's game highlights archive (which conveniently begins with the season in question), the Polish Prodigy presents your 2005-2006 Pittsburgh Penguins, likely the last black and gold-clad squad to miss the playoffs in a long time.

October 7, 2005: The Pens drop their first ever shootout at what will end up being a Stanley Cup champion Carolina Hurricanes squad. Crosby shows his first real spark of greatness on the set-up to tie the score late in the third.



October 8: The next night, Pittsburgh held its home opener and dropped a wild 7-6 overtime decision to the Bruins. Crosby drilled home his first goal in the NHL, and Mario had a big night, scoring a pair. Mysteriously, this video is missing the OT game-winner by Glen Murray, which is just as well considering I was there to see the Pens blow two separate two-goal leads. At this point, we suspected something might be amiss.



October 27: Finally! I still have the Post-Gazette news clipping somewhere for this game, as the Penguins came back from 4-0 down less than 10 minutes into the first period to pick up their first victory of the season, 7-5 over the Atlanta Thrashers. We'll see more of them later.



November 10: A 3-2 shootout win over Montreal is notable for two reasons. 1) Mario scores the final goal of his NHL life and 2) Sid wins it in memorable fashion.



November 22: Once again, I was there. (Sensing a theme?) Sid and fellow super rookie Alex Ovechkin get together for the first time, and Crosby's squad comes out on top. Watch for a highlight reel goal and spinning assist from No. 87.



December 8: The game that probably broke Eddie O's back. Just a terrible effort at home against the Minnesota Wild. Watch and puke.



December 16: Mario's last game and Michel Therrien's first as Penguins head coach. Michel Ouellet scored his first goal as well, if you care. Pens fall to Buffalo 4-3 in overtime.



December 31: Back to some uplifting stuff. Crosby beats the Rangers in OT on New Year's Eve. Could the Pens be turning it around?



January 5, 2006: Ilya Kovalchuk nets a hat trick for the homestanding Thrashers, taunting Crosby after the Kid took a penalty that lead to Kovalchuk's second tally. Easy to forget how reckless Sid could be in his rookie season; he's matured so much since then.



January 10: In response to my previous question about the Pens getting things together, the answer is no. This sorry performance against the Oilers led to Therrien's famous rant on the ineptitude of his team's defense.


BONUS - The postgame press conference:



February 10: After dropping 15 of 16 leading up the Olympic break, the Penguins finally break through and improbably beat the surging Hurricanes in Raleigh.



March 24: Ryan Malone scores on "an impossible play" (credit: Mike Lange) to get the Penguins off and running against the Islanders at the Igloo, then Sid finishes yet again in the extra frame. I swear this is the last time I'll write this: I was there for this one!



April 17: And to wrap it up, Crosby picks up three assists in the final home game of the 05-06 slate to reach the 100-point milestone. Lange absolutely nails the call on the 100th point: "Let it be said: One hundred!" Just another reason why he's in the Hockey Hall of Fame.


******

There you have it. I hope you enjoyed the trip back in time as much as I did. For a last-place team, there were a good amount of highlights, but of course the lows were as bad as anything I've seen in 10+ years of following the Flightless Fowl. Nonetheless, it's worthwhile if only to appreciate how far the team has come in three short years.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Met-Rx World's Strongest Man 2008 Qualifying Awards

The first four days of competition in Charleston are complete and the top 30 strongmen on the planet have been whittled down to the top 10. They are as follows:

Travis Ortmayer - United States of America
Phil Pfister - USA (Charleston, W.Va. and WSM 2006)
Derek Poundstone - USA
Dave Ostlund - USA
Jason Bergmann - USA
Mariusz Pudzianowski - Poland (WSM 2002, 2003, 2005, 2007)
Sebastian Wenta - Poland
Tarmo Mitt - Estonia
Terry Hollands - United Kingdom
Arild Haugen - Norway

Of course, all ten of these guys did notable things over the four-day qualifying period, but I'm devoting this post to the 20 gentlemen of leisure who came up short. So without any additional delay, here are your Met-Rx World's Strongest Man 2008 Non-Finalist Awards!

Tragic Tale
This first award has got to go to the U.K.'s Mark Felix. This soft-spoken and unfailingly polite Brit had a crowd-electrifying habit of belting out primal screams prior to and after every event he completed. His nice-guy intensity made him an instant favorite of the spectators and his well-rounded ability put him in position to advance to the final going into the final qualifying event - the Atlas Stones at the University of Charleston. A torn right biceps tendon incurred while trying to hoist the second of five stones left Felix unable to finish his heat and allowed Wisconsinite Jason Bergmann to surge past him for second place in Group 1 and a spot in the final round.

Best Display of Raw Emotion
On the first day of competition at Magic Island, Swedish twentysomething Johannes Arsjo was the unofficial "guinea pig" for the Keg Toss event. He did more than test the waters, though, as he hurled all eight leaden kegs over the 15-foot-high bar with apparent ease, then took a victory lap around the edge of the platform while high-fiving just about every spectator in the front row. For a visual, just image Hale Irwin's jubilant reaction after winning golf's U.S. Open in the late '80s and replace the lithe golfer with a 280-pound, yellow tank-topped Scandinavian with spiked hair. Yeah, that's just about right.

Name I'll Miss Enunciating In Public
This is a truly tough call - who wouldn't love spitting names like Raivis Vidzis (Latvia) and Janne Virtanen (Finland)? In the spirit of decision-making, I'll have to settle for Elbrus Nigmatullin as the one I'll truly miss pronouncing when the finals start tomorrow. The eastern Russian politician with the famous father (the senior Nigmatullin played Oddjob in the James Bond films), has just the right amount of syllables and variety in his moniker to make it truly fun for a foreign-name aficionado like myself to speak. [EL-broos NIG-ma-TOOL-in] is a public address announcer's dream.

Name I Couldn't Quite Nail Down
Jean-Francois Caron of Canada was also a blast to say, until his fellow Quebecois competitor told me that my French accent needed a little improvement. Apparently Louis-Phillippe Jean did not approve of the particular nasality I was using to pronounce "Caron." Whatever that means. You would think the fact that having Sebastian Caron as the Penguins starting goaltender for a season would've given me a leg up, but evidently that wasn't the case. No matter, J-F Caron has been eliminated...and I still stand by my version.

Slightly-Embarrassing Subplot
Through the influence of one Phil Pfister, Brian Siders of Clendenin, W.Va., was admitted to the field of 30. Siders holds world records in several powerlifting disciplines, but if you've seen any WSM events performed before, you know that brute strength is just one of many attributes you need if you hope to make a good showing. It also doesn't help if you're slightly shorter than the average American male. Predictably, Siders turned in the worst efforts of the qualifying rounds in the Fingal Fingers and Atlas Stones, then looked overwhelmed in Sunday's Truck Pull. Only a respectable result in Monday's Deadlift kept him from finishing last in every event of the first three days. Give the local boy credit, though; Siders shone in Tuesday's Overhead Axle Press, hoisting the 300-pound object 10 times in 75 seconds, finishing behind only four-time champ Pudzianowski of Poland on the day.

Best Swan Song
Two former World's Strongest Men hinted repeatedly that this would be their last kick at the can: Swede Magnus Samuelsson (1998 champion) and Finn Janne Virtanen (victorious in 2000). Both of these classy competitors are still obviously capable of world-class demonstrations of strength, but you can no longer call them serious contenders for the crown, either. No matter. The two gentlemen still gave all they had over the six qualifying events, and their experience and expertise in uniquely Strongman disciplines like Truck Pull, Fingal Fingers and Atlas Stones was evident as they smoothly tackled that trio. However, the younger athletes had their numbers in the pure strength and conditioning categories, making a final run at the title for either Magnus or Janne nothing more than a dream. Both represented themselves and their countries well through their tireless efforts and affable demeanors, so I have to split this final award between the two.
_______________________________

Much more on WSM to come as we work our way toward determining this year's champion over the weekend! For schedule of events, go to either http://www.theworldsstrongestman.com or http://cityofcharleston.org/.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

There's Strong...And Then There's The World's Strongest

For those of you who are unaware, the World's Strongest Man competition for 2008 is about to take place in none other than Charleston, W. Va. And by the way, none other than yours truly will be the official site host/master of ceremonies for said event.

In the coming days, I will be posting my observations and impressions as I get an improbably close firsthand look at the premiere strength test on the planet. For those interested in attending, the schedule of events can be viewed on WSM's Web site at www.theworldsstrongestman.com.

As you could likely imagine, I'm incredibly psyched to have this opportunity, both to be privy to such an international happening and also to make all those years of watching previous competitions late at night on the ESPN family of networks pay off in a way I couldn't possibly have foreseen.

Keep it right here for all your insider info on World's Strongest Man 2008!

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Duke Welker: First-Hand Look at a Pirate Farmhand

I've been sitting on this analysis of a pitcher in the Pirates' minor-league system for two weeks. It's an obvious case of small sample-size, but it's much better than reading a box score. My fault for not putting it on the blog sooner. Nonetheless, enjoy.

As I’ve written and said in the past, I’ve been spending more than half my time this summer in Charleston, W. Va., the home of the West Virginia Power, Class A affiliate of MLB’s Milwaukee Brewers. Two weeks ago, the Pirates’ representative in the sprawling South Atlantic League, the Hickory (N.C.) Crawdads, paid a visit to Charleston’s four-year-old Appalachian Power Park for a four-game series.

I had hoped to catch the second Crawdad start for the newly-acquired Bryan Morris, who came over from the Los Angeles Dodgers system in the Jason Bay-Manny Ramirez three-way trade. Morris, said to be the pitcher with the highest potential of the five acquired by Pittsburgh in the final week of July, was enjoying a good measure of success as a member of the Great Lakes Loons of the Class-A Midwest League. Unfortunately for me and all the rest of the Buccos fans in central West Virginia, Morris threw in the game immediately previous to Hickory’s trip to Charleston, a home win against Rome, Ga. There was an off day sandwiched between the finish of the ‘Dads series against Rome and the showdown with the Power, but the Hickory coaching staff elected to maintain a five-man rotation instead of throwing Morris in the series finale against the Power.

Long story made short: I missed out on a front-row view of Our Buccos’ promising pitching pickup, but instead got a chance to scope out the only other Hickory hurler worth seeing – Duke Welker. As it turned out, the 6’6” righthander enjoyed what could be considered a showcase start against the best hitting team in the South Atlantic League on the evening of Aug. 7.

It was apparent Welker brought his best stuff from the get-go, as he struck out the side in the bottom of the first. Welker got the Power’s Eric Farris and Logan Schafer to swing over nasty “downer” curveballs for third strikes, then finished the frame in impressive fashion by freezing No. 3-hitter Eric Fryer with a fastball at the knees in a 2-2 count. All in all, it took Welker 18 pitches to set down the Power in order, 11 of those offerings for strikes.

Using his above-average height to his advantage, Welker continued to keep his pitches low with a pronounced downward flight. He surrendered a pair of baserunners in the second on a leadoff infield single by Steffan Wilson and a full-count, two-out walk to Caleb Gindl. Catcher Ronald Pena nailed Wilson on a caught stealing to settle things down, and then Welker did the rest, getting Zelous Wheeler to wave over another “plus” curveball low and out of the zone, then set down Curt Rindal on a shallow flyout to left to finish the second.

The only serious critique of Welker’s work through two was an elevated pitch count – 38 to only seven batters. But the Crawdads’ righty made up some ground by slipping through the third on just five pitches, inducing a pair of harmless groundballs on the way to his second perfect inning of the night.

After two quick groundball outs to kick off the fourth, Welker endured some hard luck that partially contributed to what proved to be the ballgame’s deciding inning. With the bases clear, Wilson stroked a medium-paced grounder directly over second base. Wheeler followed with a seven-pitch at-bat that ended in a base on balls. Then, on a 1-0 pitch, Gindl fought off a Welker inside fastball and poked a two-run double inside first base, just beyond a diving Tom Hagan. Rindal completed the Power onslaught when he chopped one off the upraised glove of Welker that died on the infield grass for another RBI. Bottom of the fourth: three runs on three hits and a walk; Welker threw 27 pitches to push his game total to 70.

Welker continued to throw quality pitches, however, as he used a 6-4-3 double play to shimmy out of a spot of trouble caused by the Power’s improbable third infield hit of the evening, this time off the bat of No. 9-hitter Lee Haydel.

The sixth inning turned sour when two out of the first three West Virginia batters reached by way of singles to left. Welker managed to set down Gindl on a 1-3 putout, then was lifted for reliever Wanell Macia. The Dominican lefty would escape that jam, but the Hickory bullpen went on to give up a nine-run eighth in what finished as a 13-2 Power victory; the main culprit was Francisco Ortiz, who incredibly allowed the first eight West Virginia hitters to reach base. Let’s just say it’s no mystery why the Crawdads are firmly entrenched in the South Division basement.

Final line for Welker: 5.2 innings, three runs, seven hits, four strikeouts (all in the first five batters) and two walks on 89 pitches. He got the loss, but if you are an aficionado of sabremetrics like me, you know never to pay attention to a pitcher’s record as it is almost entirely a result of offensive support and factors outside his control.

Polish Prodigy final analysis: Duke Welker turned in one of the more dominant performances by a starting pitcher I’ve seen in my nearly two years following the South Atlantic League. His fastball bounced from the low 90s to as high as 95-96 and his aforementioned “12-to-6” curveball had a good tight break as it fell from his high release point. He showed an occasional changeup, more often as he got deeper into the game. The key to his success Aug. 7 was staying in the lower half of the strike zone and not surrendering many line drives or fly balls. As I wrote above, he was the victim of bad fortune in the “hits allowed” category, seeing grounders either barely sneak through his infield defense or settle on the grass for infield safeties.

Don’t assume Bryan Morris is the only pitcher in the low minors with a high ceiling; as Duke Welker showed on the road against the SAL’s premier hitting squad, he has the ability to make a charge up the Pirates’ prospect list.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Whilst I Was Away

After a 12-day gap between posts, you can be certain I have excuses (five days in Michigan w/o Internet access, weekend at home consumed with moving my grandmother out of her house) and that I have a backlog of thoughts on the sports world. So, leaving the irrelevant excuses behind, it's once again time for an always thrilling, yet occasionally disorienting potpourri post!

-Just one week after the conclusion of one of the most annoyingly over-covered sports stories I can remember (the Brett Favre un-retirement and subsequent relocation), we get the Michael Phelps epic to save us from our August doldrums. If there ever was an event that was suited for the modern 24-hour news cycle, it was Phelps' 8-for-8 roll in Beijing. Add a 12-hour time difference from the Eastern Time Zone to a grueling schedule at the truly stunning Water Cube, and the hunger for information on the 23-year-old's quest was insatiable. Beyond all that though, I am continually surprised by how much a transcendent performance at the Olympics can still captivate an enormous segment of the consuming public. I guess it's just jarring in this era of increased regional/local focus that an event halfway around the world can draw the largest time-slot viewing audience on NBC since 1990. For me, it's comforting that national pride can still be roused by Olympic excellence.

-Staying on the Olympics theme, I usually come into the summer Olympiads with low expectations. I believe this subdued attitude stems from my unfamiliarity with most of the sports and almost all of the competitors, with few exceptions. At least in the winter Games, I have the ice hockey tournament, which features a huge contingent of recognizable NHL players, to look forward to. To highlight my malaise this time around, I even skipped the Opening Ceremony to play tennis. However, I'm always quickly captivated by the both the variety and earnestness of this quadrennial athletic extravaganza. Also, the magnitude of the moments that occur during a given Olympiad are nearly impossible to ignore; when an athlete such as Phelps trains for four years in order to peak at exactly the right moment, the pressure is undeniable. All in all, it makes for a fantastic spectator experience.

-Oh, and by the way, it's pronounced Bay-Jing, not Bay-Zhing. Brian Williams has it down, do you?

-While I was in Grand Rapids this weekend, the Pirates managed to sign No. 2 overall draft pick Pedro Alvarez to a minor-league deal right at the midnight Aug. 15 deadline. I had a good feeling he was going to eventually cave to Our Buccos' proposed contact terms, simply because his family is sliding just above the poverty level (just like Jillian and I, now that I think about it) and Pedro would have put his earning potential at serious risk if he waited for next June's amateur draft. Of course, sources say that the former Vanderbilt third baseman is eager to begin his professional career and is genuinely happy to be property of the Pirates. Whatever his motivations may be, his addition to the organization is arguably the largest step the franchise could take toward making an honest commitment to building a winner. The trades involving Jason Bay, Xavier Nady and Damaso Marte were important, natch, but forking over a $6 million signing bonus to Alvarez shows that the ownership group, led by Bob Nutting, is actually willing to take a bit of a financial hit if it makes baseball sense. That is something Pirates fans haven't seen in close to 20 years.

-While watching the Pirates-Cardinals game on FSN tonight, I am reminded of a conclusion I reached last week: Greg Brown has supplanted Lanny Frattare in my mind as the Voice of the Pirates. Yes, I know Lanny has the tenure - he's been broadcasting Bucs games for more than 30 years - but it really seems like the 15-plus years of losing have officially gotten to him. His technical skills haven't appreciably deteriorated, but his level of enthusiasm has indeed waned. I think the only game that got a rise out of him this year was the insane comeback against St. Louis just before the All-Star Break. I enjoy Lanny and respect his perspective and even commiserate with his frustration level, but as a pro broadcaster one has to put aside personal feeling to a certain point and give each game the attention it deserves. At this point, I feel Brown better represents the on-air treatment I'd like my favorite team to receive. Perhaps it's to Brown's advantage that he's never broadcast a winning Pirates club (he was hired in 1994); it's hard for him to get too down when all he knows is the underside of .500. That's not to say he's not upset by the Losing Streak; he is among the team's most frequent critics when on-field events go awry. But no matter whether he's cheering or moaning, I get the impression he actually still wants to be there every day, whereas Lanny has his good days and bad.

-I'm sure the previous paragraph would seem irrelevant to many people who aren't in the sportscasting business (or trying to be). I'm thinking in particular of my brother, who tells me he often cannot tell the difference between Lanny and Greg. *sigh* For those of you with similar issues, Lanny says "And there was noooooo doubt about it!" after Bucco victories, whereas Greg christens the moment with the Polish Prodigy-endorsed "Raise the Jolly Roger!"

-Time to get back to the Pirates (Ian Snell is actually cruising through five) and Day Twelve of the Bay-Jing Olympics. Expect a podcast before the end of the week, likely featuring Jillian once more. I've been told we have good chemistry on more than one occasion. Until next time!

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Polish Prodigy Podcast #7

In today's episode, Jillian completely outclasses Matt in her second podcast appearance. Also, listen as Matt claims Jeff Karstens could have become the 15th pitcher to throw a perfect game in MLB history (actually the 18th) and the first Pirate to record a no-hitter since John Candelaria in 1976 (how easily we forget the Cordova-Rincon gem in '97). Mistakes are fun...this is what happens when you don't have regular access to the Internet.

To subscribe to the podcast, copy and paste this link (http://feeds.feedburner.com/blogspot/UgrK) into your iTunes under the "Advanced" menu. Click on "Subscribe to Podcast" and paste the above URL there. Enjoy!

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

You Are Toast

Over the past two nights, I’ve had the best possible seat for the wackiest, wildest, most stupefyingly hilarious show in all of baseball.

You won’t find it in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Boston, Philadelphia, Detroit or even Pittsburgh. All you need to attend is $8, the cost of a reserved seat at Appalachian Power Park in Charleston, W. Va. Ask for a spot in Section 106, 107 or 108.

The star of this theatre-worthy performance is one Rod Blackstone, the assistant mayor of the Mountain State’s capital city. But while he may play understudy to Mayor Danny Jones during the day, when the South Atlantic League’s West Virginia Power is in town, Blackstone is truly lord of his front-row manor.

Around the four-year old ballpark on Charleston’s East End, Blackstone is better known by his one-of-a-kind alias, the Toastman. And while every sports team has its share of “superfans,” I’m rather confident in saying the Toastman has no peer.

The name comes from his decade-plus habit of tossing out actual pieces of toast to nearby fans after a Power pitcher records a strikeout. That in and of itself is pretty funny and definitely unique in the quirky realm of ballpark behavior. That, however, is just one facet of his pleasingly zany gametime persona.

Start with Blackstone’s method of toast production. One might guessed that the longtime season-ticket holder chars his slices of Wonder bread at home, in a kind of heckler’s pregame ritual. On the contrary, he brings the bread to the park and prepares it in a family-sized toaster that the Power allows him to store in the press box between games.

As the smoke from the intentionally-scorched slices wafts into the evening air, the Toastman uses one of his many signs – I’ll get to those in just a bit – to fan the smell of the burnt morsels into the nostrils of opposing hitters, especially those in the on-deck circle conveniently located just a few feet from Blackstone’s seat.

Since the fortysomething Toastman does all his cooking on the spot, he saves his free time during the summer months for opposition research, or more accurately, opposition failure research. You see, the toast show is almost secondary to Blackstone’s relentless needling of enemy pitchers, hitters and, yes, even coaches on their every statistical blemish and/or character flaw. A voracious fan of the game and a man willing to do whatever is necessary to give the home team a psychological edge, the Pittsburgh-born and -raised Toastman scours the Internet for anything he can use to the Power’s advantage.

For instance, while Delmarva Shorebirds Tuesday night starter Nate Nery came into his appearance against the Power with a respectable stat line, the Toastman dug deep and found a nightmare outing in Lakewood, N. J., to report: “DO YOU REMEMBER THE LAKEWOOD GAME, NATE NERY? BECAUSE I DO! YOU GAVE UP NINE RUNS IN THREE INNINGS JUST A FEW STARTS AGO! I KNOW YOU’RE THIKING ABOUT IT!”

As one would expect, the visitors don’t always take too well to the incessant and damningly accurate ribbing from a mustachioed man they’ve never seen before. From the irritable young pro ballplayer, there is typically one of two reactions: death stare or feigned disinterest. Either way, the Toastman knows he’s getting through.

By the final game of their team’s stay in Charleston, though, the initial ire begins to erode in favor of begrudging appreciation, and in some cases, actual affection for the passionate heckler trying to pry his way inside their heads.

After all, it’s impossible to deny the Toastman’s dedication to his craft. I briefly mentioned his vast collection of signs above – placards that help him lead encouraging chants among the Power faithful, e.g. “Cline Drive” for infielder Matt Cline and “Deep Fryer” boosting catcher Eric Fryer. Did I mention nearly every sign is in full vibrant color and features distinguishing fonts and flourishes? This isn’t a hobby; it’s a vocation.

I worked as an intern for the Power last summer, and it was during my time as the on-field between-innings MC that I met the loquacious legend. Upon conclusion of a midseason contest, the Toastman introduced himself through the screen behind home plate and complimented me on my ad lib work. I eventually found out he was a Syracuse graduate and earned his degree in journalism with the intention of being a newscaster. It’s probably a combination of that plus his confession to being a rabid Pirates fan that caused us to immediately hit it off.

Anyway, since my fiancée works in the Power front office, I can essentially sit wherever I want when I attend a game at Appalachian Power Park. The choice is simple.

One last story: While he was preparing to pack up his paraphernalia and leave Monday’s game, a convincing victory for the first-place Power, the Toastman noticed Delmarva shortstop Pedro Florimon battering the dugout trash receptacle to hell after a poor performance. Segue to last night, when during Florimon’s third at-bat, Blackstone came striding down the aisle with, incredibly, a concourse garbage can in his hands. Ridiculously brandishing the oversized bin, the Toastman questioned the shortstop at high volume, “WHAT DO YOU HAVE AGAINST GARBAGE CANS, PEDRO? WHY DID YOU TAKE OUT YOUR FRUSTRATION ON THIS INNOCENT INANIMATE OBJECT?!”

Florimon never had a chance to see the uproarious display in his honor, as he briskly walked on four pitches. No matter. As the Toastman will readily tell you, his act is all about getting the fans involved. If he happens to throw a Power opponent or two off his game in the process, all the better.

In the often-grueling marathon that is minor league baseball, one man in Charleston, W. Va. keeps it fresh and energized.

For a minimum of 70 nights a year, Rod Blackstone shouts down ballpark boredom with three short words: “YOU ARE TOAST!”

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Polish Prodigy Podcast #6

As proof that August doesn't have to be boring, I submit reasons to keep the passion alive as a sports fan during supposedly the quietest month on the sporting calendar. If you're hungry for some hearty Pirates talk, supplemented by a little tennis and golf, you've come to the proper place. Oh, and it's just me again...so don't expect multiple opinions unless I have a schizophrenic episode.

To subscribe to the podcast, copy and paste this link (http://feeds.feedburner.com/blogspot/UgrK) into your iTunes under the "Advanced" menu. Click on "Subscribe to Podcast" and paste the above URL there. Enjoy!

Monday, August 4, 2008

August and Forever After

August has always been my least favorite month for mainly one reason: the incoming specter of pencils, books and teachers' dirty looks. Now that I've graduated from college, August has lost most of its dread-inducing qualities, allowing me to properly enjoy the final full month of glorious summer for the first time since I was four.

(Notice that I wrote "most," not "all" regarding this month's dread inducers. Remember, we have five months of wall-to-wall football coverage to look forward to!)

In honor of the underappreciated eighth month, I present eight things to get excited about during the following 27 sultry days of August. "Dog days" no more!

1. Pirates' post-Bay progress - As was predicted here on The Polish Prodigy, Jason Bay was part of a three-team deal that sent Manny Ramirez out of Boston. Alright, so maybe I didn't so much predict it as I reported the rumors circulating around MLB on Trade Deadline Day. What I did do was admit that trading the two-time All-Star leftfielder could really kickstart a legitimate rebuilding process if he were traded for the proper pieces. While we won't truly discover the quality of the deal for five or more years, I believe that Pirates fans have to at least be optimistic about the four-player yield. Andy LaRoche is one of the best hitting prospects in baseball and seems pumped about playing on the same infield as his older brother. Bryan Morris is by all accounts I've read/heard a projected top of the rotation starter, even if its still very early in his pro career. Craig Hansen still needs to work on his consistency, but he has the stuff of a future closer; this is good because Matt Capps is better suited as a setup man. Brandon Moss has already established himself as a legit major leaguer and now he'll get the number of starts and at-bats to reveal his potential. Yes, I'm bullish on the Bay deal, and any serious follower of Our Buccos should be excited about the new blood in the organization.

2. Steelers' preseason games - No, not to watch them, silly. I'm talking about making fun of the psycho "Super Steelers" fans who will throw a fit every time Big Ben throws an incompletion during the exhibition season. Just watching the overreaction makes the interminable length of the NFL preseason completely worth it.

3. Getting outside - In the Northeast and Midwest, August is usually the last month of reliable warm weather, day and night. This means that whether you enjoy cool, hazy mornings, bright, hot afternoons or warm, pleasant evenings, the eighth month is ideal for getting active outside. Just pick your favorite time of the day and go for it, but make sure to watch out for those powerful late-summer electrical storms. I'm lucky - I happen to like those, too.

4. Thanking the Yankees - While Xavier Nady tears it up in the Bronx, making you like a proud father and a jealous sibling at the same time, know that the three pitchers the Pirates picked up from the Yanks could lend some instant credibility to the starting rotation. Jeff Karstens already reintroduced us to the joy of the quality start as he shut down the terrific Cubs offense through six scoreless innings this past Friday afternoon at Wrigley Field. The other two former New Yorkers, Ross Ohlendorf and Daniel McCutcheon, could be up with the big club very soon depending on the upcoming fortunes of Yoslan "La Pinata" Herrera and Zach Duke. Either way, it's nice to know that John Van Benschoten will likely never start another game in Pirates black and gold. He is now officially a member of the Indianapolis Indians bullpen.

5. Hit the road - Hey, I know gas prices are at about twice the palatable level and that a long drive in a sweltering petroleum-guzzler doesn't sound like a particularly enriching experience. So why not take a short sports-oriented trip that will neither hit your wallet too hard nor make you miserable. My family and I just spent a day on the grounds of the Lindner Family Tennis Center in southwest Ohio for one of the premier ATP events of the year: Tennis Masters Series Cincinnati. Every summer, the classy suburb of Mason offers both a men's and a women's hardcourt tournament in the run-up to the U.S. Open. We attended the men's event and were lucky enough to see Wimbledon champion Rafael Nadal square off with world No. 3 Novak Djokovic in the semifinals. Also, training camps for the NFL's Bengals (Georgetown, Ky.), Browns (Berea, Ohio) and Steelers (Latrobe, Pa.) are within two hours driving time from West Virginia, if that's your thing. Finally, a quick hop to downtown Pittsburgh's Western Pennsylvania Sports Museum is a must-do for any fan of the area's pro franchises, colleges and high schools.

6. In case you didn't know - Brett Favre's back!!! Just messin'...

7. PGA Championship - Once again, Tiger will not be in the field for the season's final major. No matter. Much like the recently-completed British Open, the PGA will be interesting if only because of the quality of the course it's played on. I'm certainly not saying scoring conditions at Oakland Hills in southeast Michigan will be as punishing as those at Royal Birkdale. However, none other than Ben Hogan considered the track outside Detroit the most difficult he ever encountered; that's gotta count for something. Simply put, don't count on any of the qualifying club pros to hang with the big boys this week. Tee times are set for early Thursday morning...should be fun.

8. U.S. Open - Just two weeks after the world's best golfers have their last shot at major tournament glory, the premier tennis pros take their cracks in Flushing Meadows , New York. Anyone has a shot at the big trophy: new No. 1 Nadal, Roger Federer, Djokovic, Andy Murray (winner in Cincinnati), hometown boy James Blake, heck, maybe even Andy Roddick has a chance at repeating his 2003 Grand Slam breakthrough. The women's side should be just as competitive and wide-open, if not more so. Take the electric atmosphere of the Big Apple and combine it with the best talent in the world and you get the most captivating event in individual sports.

Thursday, July 31, 2008

Polish Prodigy Podcast #5

"Don't wanna be/All by myself/Anymore"

Too bad, because I am for this special solo edition of the PP Podcast. Download for three full periods of sports talk on this MLB Trade Deadline Day. The discussion among me, myself and I centers around what Our Buccos might do trade-wise and what that might mean. Also, a quick MLB overview and Penguins news!

To subscribe to the podcast, copy and paste this link (http://feeds.feedburner.com/blogspot/UgrK) into your iTunes under the "Advanced" menu. Click on "Subscribe to Podcast" and paste the above URL there. Enjoy!

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

The Barter System Is Alive and Well, Thank You

As I get settled into a thrice-weekly blogging pattern, I figured I should weigh in with my impressions on the Thursday afternoon (4 p.m.) Major League Baseball non-waiver trade deadline, and specifically how it affects Our Buccos.

I touched upon the Nady+Marte to Yankees deal in the previous post, and upon reading/hearing some more perspectives on it over the last 48 hours, I’m convinced it was the proper move to make, even if a top-class pitching talent didn’t come over to the Pirates’ galleon. After all, for all the talk on how effective and exciting the Pittsburgh offense has been (and I’m one of its proponents, if you search this blog), it hasn’t been enough to push the club over the .500 mark.

This is not an indictment of the hitters, rather it’s a statement in favor of evening the talent balance, both on the big club as well as the minor-league system. Run prevention must take precedence over run production as this point in the franchise’s history, and this trade is a solid, if unspectacular first step.

Also, on a purely emotional level, this deal barely registered a jump in my heart rate for one reason: I never got attached to Xavier or Damaso. Of course they are talented players, but they came around at the wrong time in the team’s development. Considering their ages (in their primes or just beyond them) especially, it is obvious that Nady and Marte are better fits on teams who already have multiple championship-caliber pieces in place. While the Bucs have a few potential cornerstones on the current 40-man roster – Ryan Doumit, Nate McLouth, Jason Bay, Paul Maholm, Andrew McCutcheon, Pedro Alvarez, assuming he signs – they are simply not yet in a position to compete for at least a division title, so they had to get whatever assets they could in exchange for the two newest Yankees.

Moving on, here are some current Buccos that would merit trade consideration if I were in GM Neal Huntington’s shoes this week:

1. SS Jack Wilson – Jumpin’ Jack Flash was rumored to be headed for Detroit last year at this time for current major league pitcher Jair Jurrjens. Instead, then-Pirates GM Dave Littlefield flinched in the final moments and watched as the Atlanta Braves flipped SS Edgar Renteria to the Tigers for Jurrjens, who has impressed this season with his electrifying stuff. Considering the current condition of the Pirates’ pitching staff, the non-deal looks like the final crescendo of Littlefield’s misguided reign.

At the same time, Wilson has been a valuable member of the Pirates for the past several years. He plays efficient-to-outstanding defense at a premium position for glovework, can be counted on to contribute a .260-to-.280 average with good awareness in bunting/sacrifice situations, is a vocal hardworking leader and does a great deal of charity work in the Tri-State area. In short, Jack is just about everything one can ask for in a shortstop. When he went on the disabled list for an extended time to begin this season, the infield defense was a travesty, giving most Pirates fans a new appreciation for the Flash.

In my mind, the only way I trade Jack is if I can get a premier talent, preferably on the mound, in return. The Dodgers have leaked to the Los Angeles media that they are interested, and if Huntington can get a young asset or two from either the Dodgers or another desperate contender (like last year’s Tigers), he would be foolhardy to pass on that exchange.

2. OF Jason Bay – I know what you’re thinking. “He’s finally getting back to his All-Star form! His knees are truly healthy! He looks as good as ever!” I know you’re thinking these thoughts because I’ve had them too whenever I hear rumors about Bay being shopped.

Well, being in his late-20s, Jason SHOULD be enjoying his best play ever right now. And, like his former-outfieldmate Nady, Bay is at his highest trade value at this present moment, and since he is not a pending free agent, he looks even more delectable for teams currently in need of an instant offensive supplement. (Hello, Tampa and Arizona!)

Even though Bay is not technically a Pirates product (he came over with Oliver Perez in the deal that sent Brian Giles to San Diego in 2003), trading the 2004 NL Rookie of the Year would likely create a tremendous public relations backlash, as Bay is the player that usually comes to mind first when bringing up the Pirates. But if Huntington and team president Frank Coonelly are truly sold on the idea of selling high and buying low, they would have to seriously weigh any offers for Bay in the upcoming hectic hours. If the Rays come calling and dangle last year’s No. 1 overall pick David Price, perhaps baseball’s best pitching prospect, for a package including Bay, I think Huntington would have to pull the trigger.

3. LHP John Grabow – As we saw in the Marte trade, effective relievers, especially the lefthanded variety, are perhaps as valued a commodity as any for a team trying to add that mythical “last piece of the puzzle” prior to October. Grabow is probably a level below that of Marte or the Rockies’ Brian Fuentes, but he is still largely dependable and is definitely not untouchable.

The effect on the Pirates pitching staff if Grabow is dealt would be essentially negligible. Waiver-pickup Denny Bautista looks to be embracing the increased workload of recent weeks, and while manager John Russell wouldn’t have an immediate replacement for Grabow in certain late-game situations, it’s not like the Bucs are competing for anything beyond respectability in the season’s final two months. This is a time to find out who might be able to be a contributor on the next winning Pirates team, not charge single-mindedly toward the ever-elusive 82-win milestone.

If the club manages to end The Streak while evaluating talent, that’s just fine, but it can’t be the ultimate goal. Judging by the regular talking points delivered by Huntington and Coonelly, achieving a winning season in 2008 is properly taking a back seat toward constructing a championship club. That’s why Grabow, or anybody of value to the other 29 teams, should be on the trade market as I write this.

New podcast tomorrow. Until then, hit ‘em straight folks.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Epiphany in Section 127

On an afternoon in which I watched the Pirates lose their third consecutive game against MLB’s worst team, the San Diego Padres, I had a strange thought while solemnly filling out my team-issued scorecard.

On the day the attention-siphoning Steelers training camp began in Latrobe, Pa., all this dutiful Bucco cheerer could think about were the following four words: Pirates fans are lucky.

That’s right, lucky. As in fortunate, serendipitous, in a good spot.

Before you quickly and dismissively click somewhere else, hear me out on this one. I know the team is on the seemingly inescapable path toward a record-tying 16th straight season below .500. I see that attendance at America’s best ballpark has dropped to its lowest level since the franchise moved to PNC Park in 2001. Of course I recognize the state of disrepair that consumes the player development system, particularly from a pitching standpoint.

But any reasonable fan would acknowledge that what happened in 1998 has essentially nothing to do with the 2008 edition of Our Buccos. That same fan would likely agree that dormant baseball fans in the Tri-State region would crawl out of their hibernation caves and through the turnstiles if only the team could play winning baseball past the first few weeks of the season.

So we’ve made short work of the shadows of the past and the increasing number of empty blue seats on the North Side. Now, what to say about that final pesky reason for perpetual pessimism – lack of talent?

First, let me say that in the past 12 months, the status of the baseball operations department of the Pirates front office has changed dramatically for the better. Led by new team president Frank Coonelly and his most significant hire, general manager Neal Huntington, the ballclub has finally joined the 21st Century as far as the use of advanced statistical analysis (sabermetrics). This new management team has also shown a resolve to do business from a position of power, an attitude foreign to this organization in the past decade of panic trades (remember Matt Morris?) and desperate free agent signings (hello, Derek Bell and Pat Meares).

Upon consideration of the above, all but the most beaten-down Bucco fans would have to agree that the franchise is on the mend and walking (not quite running yet) in the proper direction. But what’s this talk about being lucky?

I’m glad you asked. Well, since it has been so long since the Pirates of the Allegheny have tasted anything resembling consistent on-field success, the next time it happens (and I’m confident it will, even though I’m not predicting exactly when) will feel like the first time – which for younger Bucco followers like myself, it will be the maiden voyage into contention and, Lord willing, October baseball.

For the more senior members of this Pirate ship, the next winning team will both remind of fond memories and renew their faith in the value of patience.

Until a new era of glory comes to the Pittsburgh Baseball Club, look to the 2004 Red Sox, the 2005 White Sox or even the crosstown Penguins for a taste of the joyous atmosphere when a team returns to the party after a lengthy absence. In the meantime, Pirates fans are lucky because their days of excitement are still to come.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Polish Prodigy Podcast #4

For the third time, Brother Mark returns to the podcast to contribute his unique sensibilities...right. For a torrid discussion on Federer-Nadal, the All-Star Game, the British Open, the Pirates, Penguins and definitely not the Steelers, follow the instructions below.

To subscribe to the podcast, copy and paste this link (http://feeds.feedburner.com/blogspot/UgrK) into your iTunes under the "Advanced" menu. Click on "Subscribe to Podcast" and paste the above URL there. Enjoy!

Sunday, July 20, 2008

British Open Back Nine Blog

Coming into today’s final round at Royal Birkdale golf course near Liverpool, England, 53-year-old Greg Norman led the field by two strokes.

Read that again.

Greg Norman, who entered this tournament as a glorified warm up for next week’s Senior British Open and the upcoming U.S. Senior Open, had endured the damp, windy conditions of the first three rounds to shoot two-over-par, two shots clear of last year’s Open champion Padraig Harrington.

Sure, there’s no Tiger. But I would challenge you to come up with a better story than the one with which we are presented. If the golfer formally known as the Shark can hang on to his lead, he will easily be the oldest player to ever win a major championship. (Julius Boros, at age 48, is the current record holder in that category. He won the 1968 PGA Championship in San Antonio.)

Prelude – As we work our way to the final nine, the blustery nature of this 137th Open has continued in spades, as it seems every player in the field has lost significant ground to Old Man Par. I would tell you more, but I had to go to Catholic Mass with my parents, which caused me to miss the first seven-plus holes played by the Norman-Harrington pairing. Evidently, attending an evening service was not an option. Gotta enjoy living back at home part-time.

As always, remember the five-hour time difference between the Eastern Time Zone and Greenwich time, which encompasses the British Isles. Thus, just add five hours to whatever time I record for the actual time at Birkdale.

11:27 a.m. – Norman tees off on the par-4 10th with a driver, probably the wrong club but he’s been busting it out there no matter what all day. He was once the best driver in the world, but he hit this one left, as did Harrington. By the way, the Shark is now at +6, but still on top by one over Harrington and by two over pink-pantsed Ian Poulter and fellow Brit Simon Wakefield.

11:34 – Norman missed the green with his second to the left, and his chip shot cruises about 10 feet by the hole. He’ll have some serious work to stay on top. Meanwhile, Padraig has a look at birdie from around 20 feet away, but pushes it by. Ahead on 15, Poulter takes a vicious rip at a tee shot and pures it down the middle on the par-5. Maybe a chance an eagle upcoming?

11:39 – Bogey for Greg as his putt misses to the left. As Harrington lifts his mark, his ball is blown a couple of inches to the side, something we saw a lot of yesterday. No penalty, since he wasn’t addressing the ball when it scooted. He then calmly pours in the par putt and is tied with the No. 646-ranked player in the world at +7.

11:43 – Poulter is near the green at No. 15 in two. If he can get up and down, he’ll be tied for the lead. 23-year-old American Anthony Kim, who has picked up his first two PGA Tour wins this year, just misses a birdie try and remains two strokes behind.

11:45 – Jim Furyk taps in at 18 for a one-over 71 on the day – simply incredible on an afternoon like this on the links. He finishes at +10 and is the leader in the clubhouse. Poulter couldn’t get close with his third and has to settle for a par at 15.

11:52 – At 11, Norman punches a 6-iron from 130 after drilling one down the middle on the par-4. He’s on the front portion of the green with Padraig.

11:54 – The Shark nearly rams one in from 40 feet, lipping it out on the high side! Now Harrington has a little three-footer…which he buries for his four. Norman, now taking forever over a four-foot par try, puts in right in the middle. Geez, he must have spend 20 seconds poised to strike; more like a Serpent than a Shark. ABC commentator (and this fall’s U.S. Ryder Cup captain) Paul Azinger says Norman’s hesitance made his palms sweat.

12:00 p.m. – By the way, Mike Tirico is on the mic for the play-by-play, with Azinger and Tom Watson in the booth alongside. Poulter knocks one to 15 feet on No. 16, as he is keeping the pressure on the leaders and hoping to post a solid final score.

12:03 – Poulter gets his birdie to trickle over the edge and in! He’s tied for the lead now, and if he can finish at +7 or even +6, you’ve got to love his chances to take home the Claret Jug.

12:06 – Norman is out of the lead. A poor tee shot at the par-3 12th leads to a bogey after his 10-foot par attempt burns the edge. It’s now Harrington and Poulter alone at +7. What’s the highest score to ever win a major? We might be challenging that today.

12:12 – The Poulter Push continues: he’s on the par-5 17th in two with a sizable eagle try on the way. On 15, Kim misses another opportunity to draw within one, slightly pulling a 10-foot birdie effort.

12:14 – Harrington hits a brilliant two shots to get hole high on the 499-yard 13th. Norman, who was forced to punch sideways out of a fairway pot bunker, comes up shy of the green in three. Big trouble for Greg, who has a depressed look as he trudges up to the putting surface.

12:20 – Ian Poulter gives a birdie a shot from just about 12 feet after a so-so lag. He juuust barely misses on the low side, and after a tremendous drive, that’s a tough par to take. Back at 13, Norman is in with his bogey, and here’s the defending champ Harrington with a birdie to take the lead outright! Three great shots on a lengthy par-4 and Padraig has a leg up on the rest. Just to reset: Harrington +6, Poulter +7, Norman/Kim/Henrik Stenson +9.

12:24 – I just got my answer on the highest score ever to win a major. It was the aforementioned Boros, who won the U.S. Open in the early ‘60s with a score of +9. If you’re just wondering about the British Open, look to Paul Lawrie’s winning total of +6 at Carnoustie in 1999, a.k.a. Jean Van de Velde’s torture chamber.

12:28 – Poulter, still appearing to be affected by his bad par at the 17th, hits his approach at 18 a little heavy. He’ll have to get up and down from in front of the green to finish at seven over.

12:32 – After blasting out of a greenside bunker at 14, Norman just nails a bomb from across the green to save his par! He remains three back as Harrington completes his routine par on the par-3. Stenson, the 17th-ranked player in the world, then rolls in a bird at 17 to improve to +8, two behind.

12:35 – The leaders move to the par-5 15th. British amateur Stephen Wood stumbles to a bogey finish, but still shoots 72 on the day, ten over for the Open. He is tied for fifth; if he remains there, he’ll be playing at Augusta in the springtime. Poulter now lining up a critical par putt from above the hole. 15-18 feet left for a one-under 69.

12:38 – Nothing but cup! Poulter guns one right in the center to finish up at +7. That putt seems enormous now, but it might become even more significant in about an hour. Harrington and Norman in the fairway at 15.

12:42 – Norman, going for it in two, hits a draw with a 3-wood that slips into a bunker at greenside. Padraig Harrington, sensing victory in his clutches, pounds a low hooking shot curling toward the center of the green. It’s on the front, and the Irishman can two-putt for a two-shot advantage.

12:48 – Phenomenal sand shot from Norman, as he sticks it to five feet. Harrington struck a solid first putt and is slightly inside the Shark for his birdie four. Greg nails his birdie up the hill and watches Padraig stalk his downhill effort.

12:50 – Harrington sneaks it in the left side and is two clear of the field with just three to go! Stenson completes his round with a bogey five, ending the Open at +9.

12:53 – Padraig and Greg both bomb it down the fairway at the 16th, a par-4. Norman needs to birdie at least two out of the last three, one would imagine. Poulter just needs to hope for a couple of Harrington hiccups, which seem unlikely at this point.

12:58 – Harrington hits the bulls-eye on another approach, stopping it below the hole into a strong wind. Norman, keeping it low and under the 33-mph breeze, knocks it pin high but 20 feet astray. He’ll have the first crack at birdie here.

1:02 – My mistake: Harrington is actually away here. He lags it tight, taps in a par and now we await Norman’s attempt.

1:04 – Improbably, the Shark comes up short on his look at a bird. That might have sealed his fate, but you never know at the end of a major, even with a leader who’s done it before. Kim makes bogey at No. 18; he led the field in greens-in-regulation, but his putting on the links greens, which are slower than their counterparts in the States, limited him to a +12 finish.

1:09 – Both in the final pairing are in good shape off the 17th tee: Harrington split the short grass with a 3-wood; Norman is down the right side after making a good swing with the driver.

1:13 – I believe Padraig Harrington just clinched the Open. He pummeled a 3-wood up into a helping wind that rolled through the end of the fairway, onto the surface and all the way to within 10 feet behind the role. Stunning! Norman follows with an uninspired try that finishes in the right rough. Man, you cannot emphasize enough how amazing of a shot that was. Padraig should be able to cruise home now.

1:18 – Norman chips to the back fringe with his third shot; he’s still away as he scans the break on his birdie putt. Despite his falling short today, it was a truly impressive accomplishment for Greg to hang with the young guys this week, looking to be in prime position up until the last few holes. He lips out another one and will have to settle for par at 17.

1:22 – Harrington got his eagle! One more pure putt finds the bottom of the cup. A truly marvelous hole and the Irishman is +3, four shots up on Poulter and five ahead of Norman.

1:25 – Using the left-to-right wind, Padraig puts a down payment on victory with a drive that ends up on the center stripe of the fairway. Norman kills his tee ball up the right portion of the hole.

1:29 – Harrington has 212 yards left on this closing par-4. And he comes up with another golden shot! The approach slides right by the hole, leaving him a makeable birdie. Norman pumps his second into the short-side bunker, drawing groans from an otherwise very appreciative crowd. Harrington now enjoys the luxury of walking up to the final green, knowing he has won the Open.

1:34 – The Shark, needing to hole the bunker shot to tie for second, sends it by the pin about 14 feet. His par attempt with new wife Chris Evert watching slides by on the low side. Norman shot a 77 to end up six shots back after starting today’s round ahead by a couple. Still, not bad for the old man…it was awesome to watch him play championship-level golf again.

1:37 – Harrington can’t get the birdie to fall, but his par makes him the fifth back-to-back winner of the Open in the past 50 years. Other than Tiger, he’s the first person to successfully defend a major title since Nick Faldo at the Masters in 1990 and 1991. On the final six holes, he was a remarkable -4. His 69 is among the better closing rounds by a major champion in recent memory. No Tiger, no finishing charge from the Shark, but it was still fun to see Paddy bring another Claret Jug home.

***

Later this afternoon, the Pirates look to avoid a four-game sweep at the hands of the moribund Rockies. Let’s hope they can get it done.

Until later, hit ‘em straight folks!

Friday, July 18, 2008

Projekt Revolution

No substantive post today due to the fact that I'm about to leave for the Linkin Park-led Projekt Revolution tour, which today makes a stop in Burgettstown, Pa., just 15 minutes from my house in Weirton.

But why should I get to enjoy the music while you don't? I can't come up with a good reason either, so here's a song from each artist of note that will be performing today/tonight.

10 Years - "Wasteland"


Atreyu - "Becoming the Bull"


Busta Rhymes - "Break Ya Neck"


Chris Cornell - "Black Hole Sun"


Linkin Park - "Bleed It Out"


Enjoy! You know I will.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Hitting the Restart Button


After the quietest day on its calendar, the sports world gets itself back in gear with the resumption of the major league baseball schedule and the opening round of golf's British Open. (Or, if you're from anywhere else outside the United States, the Open Championship.)

For me personally, today also marks the first of 10 consecutive days in Weirton, as my family embarks on a mission to sell both my grandma's house and my childhood home. This certainly means there is a metric ton of work to be done.

Since I am currently unemployed, who has more time to help out than me? Nobody (unfortunately)! I look forward to a week-plus of sandblasting, painting and landscaping in what appears to probably be the longest stretch of tropically hot weather of the year.

Not to complain.

Nonetheless, I plan on releasing a new podcast imminently, as I realized I have yet to discuss the transcendant Wimbledon men's final of 11 days ago. My brother Mark and I will unleash mad discourse on that subject and more in podcast No. 4. (Yes, that rhymed.)

This should be quite the interesting two-week stretch for Our Buccos, says both the Polish Prodigy and the Post-Gazette's Dejan Kovacevic. I'm torn between wishing the team catches fire during this eminently manageable segment of the schedule; the other part of me wants GM Neal Huntington to get as many prospects as he can prior to the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline.

Either way, Polish Day at PNC Park is Sunday, July 27, so you know where I'll be on that banner afternoon.

Just checked out the coverage of the conspicuously Tiger-less British Open: Greg Norman (even-par 70), David Duval (73), Jean Van De Velde (73) and Tom Watson (74) all acquitted themselves well on a rain-battered Royal Birkdale course. With those lovely names at or near the top of the leaderboard after one day, you'd think it was 1998, the previous time Birkdale hosted the Open Championship. And hey, what do you know, '98 Claret Jug winner Mark O'Meara is also in contention after shooting a four-over 74. Maybe this will turn out to be a fun and wacky weekend across the pond.

Oh, by the way, western PA's Rocco Mediate is one of three tied for the lead at one-under. Full leaderboard courtesy of ESPN.com.

Time to do some actual work and start "earning my keep around here." <--My mom's words, not mine. They're so cute at that age. Until tomorrow. For now, enjoy "The Boys of Summer" by pop-punk group The Ataris. This one was huge in the high school days.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Polish Prodigy Podcast #3

Bear witness to Fiancee Jillian's debut on the podcast. Submitted for your approval, complete with discussion regarding minor and major league baseball and, yes, Brett Favre. (Argh.)

To subscribe to the podcast, copy and paste this link (http://feeds.feedburner.com/blogspot/UgrK) into your iTunes under the "Advanced" menu. Click on "Subscribe to Podcast" and paste the above URL there. Enjoy!

Monday, July 14, 2008

All-Star Breakin'

Coming at you live from the Steak Escape on MacCorkle Ave. in Charleston, W.Va...

Pirates reach the All-Star Break with excitement, resilience...and a 44-50 record
Our Buccos finished the first half-ending homestand 4-4. That's 2-1 against the Astros (see last week's liveblog for the only loss), plus a victory in Thursday's make-up game with the Yanks, followed by taking only one of three from St. Louis.

The last nine words of the previous paragraph are about as clinical and matter-of-fact as language goes, but they fall well short in describing the true nature of the series, most notably Saturday night's all-time great 12-11 comeback victory in 10 innings.

Since Major League Baseball keeps an apparent iron grip on its highlights, the only embedded video possiblities were provided by people aiming their camcorders at the TV screen or picking up some shoddy video phone recording from their box seats at PNC Park. So, just go to http://mlb.mlb.com/media/video.jsp and search for "Cardinals-Pirates 7-12-08."

Now that you've witnessed one of the better wins in the history of the Pittsburgh Baseball Club, allow me this digression:

After my too-short stint with the Fayetteville SwampDogs came to a disappointing conclusion last month, I returned to West Virginia with a skeptical attitude toward the game of baseball. Considering the depressing way in which I was treated in my first job as a professional broadcaster, it was understandable that I wasn't too excited about another summer of watching the Pirates build my hope and then inevitably tear it down by the end of July with on- and off-the-field blunders. In my mind, 2008 was doomed to be more of the same from the North Siders.

But an interesting thing occurred on the way to what still might be a 16th-consecutive losing season: the Pirates revealed themselves as a truly captivating team. Powered by an offense not seen in western Pennsylvania since Bonds and Van Slyke surveyed the Three Rivers Stadium outfield, Our Buccos are, at least to this most biased of observers, legitimately fun to watch.

Over the past decade-plus, the Pirates (like every team in MLB) would come up with a handful of thrilling wins over the course of otherwise underwhelming summers. To wit: Brian Giles capping a six-run ninth with a walkoff grand slam to beat Houston 9-8 in late July of 2001, or Jason Kendall lining an RBI single to score Tike Redman and beat Colorado 11-10 in what feels like 2005. This year, that brand of victory has been showing up on a seemingly biweekly basis and persistently pumping new life into a season that should have been in the grave (or at least dependent on an intravenous drip) by the end of May.

Three-fifths of what was supposed to at least be an above-average starting rotation (Ian Snell, Tom Gorzelanny, Phil Dumatrait) has battled/is battling arm problems, or in Gorzo's case, effectiveness and motivation issues. 2006 National League batting champion Freddy Sanchez is showing signs of rapid skill deterioration, sporting an on-base percentage nearly 100 points lower than his batting average two years ago. Adam LaRoche suffered through the most hapless first half of his career - now that's saying something. Closer Matt Capps is out for two months with shoulder irriation. The rest of the bullpen, save Damaso Marte and occasionally John Grabow, has been bouncing somewhere between unreliable and terrrrible since May ended.

Looking at all those factors, you would guess that the Pirates' record would be floating in the vicinity of 20 games below .500, but instead they're just six games under that fabled break-even point. Thanks largely to the Jason Bay-Nate McLouth-Xavier Nady outfield triumvirate, which has a better position-by-position OPS (that's on-base plus slugging) than tomorrow night's starting NL outfield, the '08 Bucs are conjuring memories of the Lumber Company teams of the 1970s.

Also, let's not forget the surgeance of Starting Catcher Ryan Doumit, who thankfully wrested control of the position from current-Indianapolis Indians backstop Joggin' Ronny Paulino. Doumit is looking like a future cornerstone, showing an improved plate presence and outstanding power. Jose Bautista is looking more and more comfortable, both offensively and at third base. Utilityman Doug Mientkiewicz has added some needed fire and intensity to the Bucco clubhouse. Zach Duke and especially Paul Maholm have regained their competent forms from seasons previous.

What lies ahead, including potential player movement at the trade deadline, is unknown. However, for now let's enjoy watching and supporting a ballclub that, perhaps for the first time since 1997, displays good camraderie and appears to actually battle for all 27 (or more) outs. More importantly, let's appreciate a Bucco offense that hits the crap out of the ball and makes opposing pitchers work.

Must be those 15 years of futility that are keeping the fans away: Pittsburgh is second-to-last in the NL in home attendance, at just over 19,000 a game. Only the Marlins, playing in the worst park in America now that the Nationals have moved out of RFK Stadium, draw fewer onlookers.

Podcasters Anonymous
Tonight, barring any unforeseen circumstances, Polish Prodigy Podcast No. 3 will be recorded from the Polish Prodigy Mobile Sound Studio. It'll be my fiancee Jillian Heeren and I discussing the relevant sports topics of the day, including tonight's Home Run Derby, from 4012 Venable Ave. in the Capital City of the Mountain State.

Log on tomorrow to give a listen! Until then, hit 'em straight.