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.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Astros-Pirates Liveblog

With the Pittsburgh Pirates going for their third three-game sweep of the 2008 season, you know it’s time for another riveting liveblog! I went to bed last night with the Pirates trailing Houston 3-1 in the sixth inning at PNC Park…no, I’m not on a 10-year-old’s sleep schedule; the two teams were in the midst of the second rain delay of a stormy summer night at 11:50 p.m.

Even though I embarrassingly quit my viewership early, this morning I was happily surprised to see that Our Buccos had rallied with three in the eighth to win 4-3. The Pirates’ lone all-star representative, Nate McLouth, drove in the tying and go-ahead runs as part of his three RBI night. Tonight, it’s the final game of the series between the bottom two teams in a suddenly newsworthy division, the NL Central. While the Brewers trade for CC Sabathia and the Central-leading Cubs grab former Oakland Athletic Rich Harden in a much-talked about deal, the ‘Stros and the Bucs will duke it out in Pittsburgh.

7:05 p.m. – Pirates’ starter John Van Benschoten (JVB from here on out) starts with a flourish by getting South Atlantic League legend Hunter Pence to pop out to second baseman Freddy Sanchez. Then Kaz Matsui stares at a third strike! For a guy with a major-league ERA over 10, one would think JVB would benefit greatly from a quiet, quick start to this one. Hard to believe he was the No. 1 overall pick in the 2001 draft, considering his poor track record in the bigs.

7:11 – JVB plunks The Puma, Lance Berkman, with what appeared to be a cut fastball. Van Benschoten has MLB-caliber stuff, but his location and pitch sequence seem to hurt him more than most guys. Now he walks Carlos Lee – we have The Puma and El Caballo (The Horse) on the basepaths. It sounds scary, but it isn’t.

7:13 – Now that was scary. A fastball tails over the middle to Geoff Blum, who promptly crushes it over the Clemente Wall into the first row of seats. 3-0 Astros. Oh, no again. I really feel for JVB; it looks like he took that dinger pretty hard. Bob Walk says he now has “no margin for error” for the rest of the night. I would agree, unfortunately.

7:17 – Back-to-back singles from old Bucco great Ty Wigginton and Michael Bourn put runners on first and third with two outs. Remember when there was no one on and two out? Brad Ausmus is up next, as soon as pitching coach Jeff Andrews gets done talked to JVB and Ryan Doumit. Ausmus is possibly the worst hitter in the majors, so maybe this is a respite.

7:20 – Unreal. Ausmus bloops a single to right-center, just in front of a charging McLouth. Wigginton scores to make it 4-0. Brian Moeller bats for Houston before he throws a pitch; he’s gotta love that. JVB strikes Moehler out swinging on a good curveball to end the top of the first. Lanny Frattare gives us the damage: four runs on four hits, close to 40 pitches. Hey, at least he got two Ks! Ugh…let’s just move on.

7:24 – Back for the bottom of the first with a cold Coors Light in hand. Definitely need a brew with the way this one in going. We have a delay as a bat boy has to fetch Bourn’s sunglasses out of the visiting clubhouse. Now we’re ready as Nate strides to the plate. After a three-week slump, it seems like McLouth is pulling out of it.

7:27 – Way to make me look smart, Nate! The Michigan man rips a leadoff double into the rightfield corner. Bob Walk brings up a good point, “How many times have the Pirates been in this situation this year?” Seems like about a third of the time. Thank goodness the offense has been so good, otherwise the Bucs could be 15-20 games under .500. Instead they’re five.

7:30 – Freddy Sanchez strikes out on a called third strike. He complained vociferously, but it looked to be a fastball on the corner. On the first pitch to Doumit, he grounds out on the short hop to second base and McLouth has to hold. Ouch. Now Jason Bay has to clean up this mess and at least get a run home.

7:32 – With a feeble-looking swing, JBay strikes out and the Pirates don’t score. I know it’s early, but you’re looking pretty dumb if you brought a broom to PNC this evening.

7:37 – Matsui laces a double off the chain-link in right with one out in the second. So much for a chance for JVB to settle down. Berkman waves at a tremendous curve to strike out and leave the work to Carlos Lee. That quality of a breaking pitch makes you wonder why JVB isn’t more consistently successful. On a close call, El Caballo walks after watching a 3-1 pitch slide by. No problem though, as Blum skies the first pitch he sees into Jack Wilson’s glove. Good work to squeeze out of that mini-jam.

7:44 – Alright, now we’d better get this run home. With the benefit of a hard carom off the top of the Clemente Wall, Xavier Nady gets into third base with a triple. The suddenly torrid Adam LaRoche then promptly brings the X-Man home with a chopper to the left side. One out and a run in.

7:47 – Veteran Leader Doug Mientkiewicz pops out to center, bringing up former Kent State first baseman JVB. The man who once led the NCAA in home runs strikes out on three straight fastballs down the middle. Through two innings it’s Houston 4, Pittsburgh 1.

7:53 – Lanny and Bob discuss the AL East briefly, which causes me to remember that the Yankees are coming back to the ‘Burgh tomorrow night to play the rescheduled series finale from two weeks ago. As it turns out, both teams had tomorrow off in the first place. With the all-star break coming up, it shouldn’t be too tough for the players to tackle 10 straight gamedays.

7:58 – After a two-out walk to the putrid Ausmus, JVB then walks the even worse Moehler on a full count. For his sake, Van Benschoten had better get out of this.

8:00 – Pence hits a 36-hopper to Jack at shortstop. He flips to Sanchez covering second and the inning is over with no harm done, unless you count pitching coach Jeff Andrews’ rising pulse rate. Onward to the bottom of the third!

8:04 – On a tumbling play, first baseman Berkman is able to tag Jack Flash out after what amounted to a swinging drag bunt up the line. Fairly graceful play, although The Puma did roll almost halfway to the dugout after the tag. That’s gotta count for something.

8:06 – Make that 31 doubles for the NL leader in that category as McLouth drills a long fly that hits near the top of the green padded wall in dead centerfield. Centerfielder Bourn had trouble finding the ball in the air, causing Lanny to call his troubles a “Bourn Mis-Identity.” That’s a groaner even for me. Sanchez up with one out and a chance to drive in a second run.

8:09 – Freddy hits a liner that looked good from the centerfield camera, but is right at shortstop when the camera switches. I hate when that happens. Two outs for Doumit.

8:10 – Ryan pops one to center on a line for a two-out RBI! Big hit for the official Polish Prodigy-endorsed player and it’s now a 4-2 game.

8:12 – JBay scorches a grounder inside the third-base line for a double. The now-svelte Doumit shows off his improved conditioning and sprints around the bases to tally the Pirates’ third run! Nady then clubs a broken-bat liner up the middle, but Matsui is there to make the catch and end the inning. However, we are only through three innings and Our Buccos are only a run down at 4-3. Here we go.

8:15 – Time for the AFLAC Trivia Question! “Who as an Astro pitcher had the most wins against the Pirates? A) Nolan Ryan, B) Shane Reynolds, C) Larry Dierker or D) Roy Oswalt. Lanny and Bob agree on Reynolds, whereas the radio guys tonight, Greg Brown and Steve Blass, both select Dierker. I say Reynolds – he used to be dominant in the late 90s when I first started watching baseball.

8:20 – Berkman gains entry to the bases via a single to center, then gets a good jump from first and steals a bag. El Caballo hits a hot smash to third, where Mientkiewicz takes it off the chest, jumps up and throws Lee out. It was a great play for a man who rarely played the position coming into 2008. JVB then induces a popup from Blum that finishes the fourth. Can you feel the momentum swinging?

8:25 – The AFLAC answer is C) Dierker. Chalk one up for the radio guys. Bob Walk suspects foul play, as usual. He then calls Greg Brown a cheater, who responds with something that we can’t hear. I’ve got to give these broadcasters credit – these four have seen all 15 years of losing and they still keep the atmosphere light and entertaining.

8:30 – LaRoche, Mientkiewicz and Van Benschoten are retired in order. After four complete, it’s Astros 4, Our Buccos 3.

8:34 – The good for Ty Wigginton: he singled sharply to left to start the fifth. The bad: he is thrown out trying to steal by 10 feet. He never actually made it all the way to the bag, as Doumit’s throw tailed toward the runner and Jack more or less performed a takedown on Ty on the right side of second.

8:37 – The Gateway Clipper cruises by the park with its customary horn blast. Good times being had on the Clipper, as always. Good times in PNC, too, as JVB strikes out Bourn with a good-looking deuce. The only problem is that he has tossed 111 pitches to this point.

8:40 – Ausmus walks again! Now it’s the .000-batting Moehler trying to keep the inning alive. JVB falls behind into a 2-1 count, predictably. A check swing on a 2-2 pitch should have been called a strike, but is not. JVB then proceeds to fire one inside for ball four. Simply stunning. Here comes manager John Russell to grab the ball. If I had to grade the outing, it would be a C-. In other words, it wasn’t exactly a revelation, but it could’ve been worse.

8:44 – Are you ready for some Sean Burnett? We’ll see if Hunter Pence is.

8:46 – He was not ready. Pence taps out to Mientkiewicz for the inning-ending fielder’s choice. Play goes 5-4 and the score remains 4-3.

8:48 – Bob Walk delivers a rather humorous teleprompter presentation on potential rain clouds behind the press box. In all seriousness, there’d better not be any rain delays tonight. Jack Wilson places a grounder inside third for a leadoff two-bagger. That’s the Bucs’ fifth extra-base hit of the game.

8:50 – See if you can follow this: McLouth hits a floater to right-center that rightfielder Pence makes a diving attempt at, but misses. Wilson had to hold up in case the ball was caught, so even though it’s Nate’s third double of the game, Jack can only advance 90 feet. Nobody out and the go-ahead run in scoring position…nice.

8:53 – Jack comes to the plate on a would-be wild pitch. I say “would-be” because he is tagged out by the covering Moehler on as close of a play as you can imagine. One out and McLouth advances to third.

8:54 – Sanchez rips a 3-1 pitch to left-center where Bourn has to make a sprinting catch. As a result, there is no play at home and Nate scores to tie the game 4-4 on the sac fly. New ballgame as we roll into the sixth inning. I wouldn’t have predicted this after the top of the first!

8:57 – The X-Man runs down an impressive opposite-field drive off the bat of Matsui for the first out. Nady wears a jersey about four sizes too big, so you can always tell who’s sprinting around the outfield by the telltale billowing fabric. Berkman walks for the seventh Houston base on balls.

9:02 – The Puma, Lance Berkman (it’s his self-appointed nickname, in case you’re wondering), steals his second base of the game. It doesn’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world because Lee walks.

9:04 – Hard drive on a line by Blum settles nicely into the outstretched glove of Jack Flash. Two away in the sixth and one pitch away from escape for Burnett. And he does it on the second pitch of the at-bat, getting Wiggy to bounce out to shortstop. Let’s get to the bat rack and take a lead.

9:08 – The Southwest Airlines Scoreboard flashes up on the screen, revealing that the Astros have left 11 men on base to the Pirates’ two. The Bucs offense has been above-average in the efficiency category this season, but tonight has been even better than usual. As I’m typing this, Bay and Nady go down on groundballs. I suppose it’s been a decent performance by Brian Moehler; he hasn’t given up the big blow yet, but he has blown a 4-0 lead so it can’t qualify as a good start.

9:14 – LaROACH draws the first Pirates walk of the night with two outs. Let’s see what Veteran Leader Doug M. can do.

9:18 – Mientkiewicz smacks one on the ground right to Berkman at first, who bobbles, then collects and takes the rawhide to the bag for the final out. Things are quieting down a bit as we proceed to the final third of the contest.

9:24 – Bourn leads off the inning with an infield single up the first-base line, then he’s sacrificed to second via the bunt of Ausmus. That’s all for Sean Burnett, and it’s double switch time! Mientkiewicz, who was in the seventh spot, is out as the new pitcher Tyler Yates takes his place there. Jose Bautista, or Joey Bats if you please, will bat in the No. 8 hole, where the pitcher was previously hitting. Got to love National League strategy! I had to explain that to Jillian, who is a Detroit Tigers fan and thus doesn’t see that kind of thing very often.

9:29 – Boner just committed by catcher Ryan Doumit: on a tapper in front of the plate, Doumit tried to get Bourn at third base instead of taking the sure out at first. As a result, the Bucs got nobody out on the play and the subsequent Pence groundout pushes Bourne home with the Astros’ fifth run. If Doumit would have taken the easy out, we’d be singing “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” with a tie score.

9:34 – Kaz Matsui makes it two runs that shouldn’t have scored when he cracks a double to right-center, plating another run for a 6-4 Houston edge. Berkman is now being intentionally walked.
9:37 – Carlos Lee hits one pretty well to center, but McLouth is there for the final out. More work to do for the offense.

9:39 – In the dugout, some Pirates hitters study the scouting report on new Houston hurler Chris Sampson. Jose Bautista gets the first crack at the Astros reliever and grounds out. Jack Wilson strikes out, leaving it all on the shoulders of Nate the Great.

9:43 – A quiet bottom of the seventh comes to an end as McLouth is retired first baseman unassisted. 6-4 Astros lead through seven innings.

9:51 – Tyler Yates finishes a tidy top of the eighth by striking out Bourn. Just what was needed if there’s going to be any kind of comeback tonight. Sanchez, Doumit and Bay due up in the last half of the eighth.

9:54 – Freddy infuriatingly swings at a bad first pitch, flying out harmlessly to center. Time for Doumit to redeem himself for his seventh-inning mental mistake.

9:57 – Or not. Ryan taps a grounder over the mound that is handled by shortstop Blum. Chris Sampson has retired five of five Pirates that he’s faced so far. He’s mixing up his pitches nicely. JBay makes it a quick 6-for-6 by grounding out to Blum. One last chance upcoming.

10:00 – It’s T.J. Beam’s turn out of the Bucco ‘pen. He will face Ausmus, pinch-hitter Darin Erstad and Hunter Pence in an attempt to keep this game salvageable. Ausmus sends a medium-depth fly ball to Nady for the first out.

10:03 – Erstad shows off a vicious swing as he strokes a Beam delivery into the right-center gap. It crashes off the Heinz sign and threatens to extinguish a little more hope. However, Pence chops a ball to Wilson, who makes the sound play and gets the out at first.

10:05 – With Matsui at the plate, a foul tip catches Doumit in the side of the mask, knocking him back and onto his feet. That’s the last thing he needs since he missed a few games in mid-June with concussion-like symptoms. Count runs full on KazMat with Erstad at third.

10:07 – Beam massages a 4-3 groundout from Matsui. Head to the ninth!

10:09 – Miguel Tejada comes in to play shortstop for Houston, and closer Jose Valverde takes the mound to try to finish it. Bob Walk says he has a good splitter and “can be colorful at times.” Hopefully we don’t see any of said “color” tonight.

10:10 – Nady pummels the first pitch from Valverde to right-center, but Pence tracks it down with a big-time major-league play. That’s huge to start the inning…one down and it’s LaRoche’s turn.

10:13 – LaROACH cracks his bat for the second time tonight and gets a single out of it. Berkman couldn’t knock down the hard-hit ball as it got by him on one screaming hop. That’s the runner on the Bucs needed.

10:15 – Valverde gets ahead of pinch-hitter Jason Michaels 0-2. On a 1-2 pitch, the former Phillie and Indian hits one to the warning track in right field, just a couple of feet short of ideal. Two outs as Pence squeezes it. It’s all up to Joey Bats.

10:17 – “Let’s go Bucs! Let’s go Bucs!” 2-2 on Bautista and the crowd is heard from for the first time tonight.

10:20 – Joey Bats reaches out and taps a 3-2 pitch from Valverde to shortshop. I hope for a bad throw from defensive replacement Tejada. I don’t get my wish. Ballgame – Houston takes it 6-4 and the Pirates have to settle for two out of three instead of the sweep.

Considering they were down 4-0, it’s tough to be really upset about the loss. On the other hand, and there’s ALWAYS the other hand, we had a tie score through six innings and the game basically was lost on a mental error by “my boy” Ryan Doumit.

Yankees in town tomorrow night for the delayed final showdown of a prolonged three-game set. In case you’ve forgotten, each team won a game in blowout fashion. Good night and GO BUCS.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

The Polish Prodigy Manifesto

I was flipping through the latest edition of ESPN: The Magazine this past weekend when I stumbled upon a commentary from the seemingly-ubiquitous talking head duo of Mike Greenberg and Mike Golic.

As you likely already know, Mike and Mike began as a sports talk show on ESPN Radio during the weekday morning “drivetime” hours of 6-10 a.m. Soon, their popularity grew and they starting being simulcast on ESPN2, presumably to increase the public’s awareness of their radio program. Now the ESPN viewer is subject to relentless appearances by the two across the Worldwide Leader’s multiple platforms. Essentially, you can’t watch ESPN on a semi-regular basis and not know who they are.

Anyway, back to the magazine article. In said piece, which happened to be about the future of the Tour de France, Greenberg and Golic have a written discussion that goes like this:

Greeny: It’s a shame they stopped running the Tour de France. It was a lot of fun back when
Lance was competing. I really do hope they start it up again. I’m sure it would be a great success if they just decided to bring it back sometime in the upcoming years.
Golic: Greeny – it’s still being run!
Greeny: It is? No one told me. Maybe my confusion stems from the fact that no one in the United States cares, or is even remotely interested in it.
Golic: I completely agree.

Now, I could probably pick about 100 aspects of this cute little exchange that bother me, as a sports fan, as an American and as a person. For all of our sakes, I’ll pick out just a few of them and explain why they irk me.

1. “Greeny” – Does every person who is an athlete, or reports on or associates with athletes have to have a painfully unoriginal, supposedly endearing nickname? I get that since the two of them share the same first name, an alternate way of identifying them is necessary, especially on the radio. But before he was “Greeny” he was Mike Greenberg, one of the most staid SportsCenter anchors out there, a man you would never think had a nickname.

Beyond that though, it gives every yahoo who thinks he knows sports just because he listens to Mike and Mike spew their predictable “opinions” an excuse to use the moniker. Case in point: When I worked for the West Virginia Power, the executive VP Andy would talk about the show regularly using sentences that started with “Greeny said…” or “I agree with Greeny because…” He sounded absolutely ridiculous because it came off as if he thought he was tight with “Greeny” because he was using his superawesome nickname. Pathetic.

2. “It’s a shame they stopped running the Tour de France…” – I’m usually skeptical about these kinds of features from the so-called opinion makers (which is an absurd label anyway), but I’ll buy into what they’re selling if they attempt to make an honest argument. However, this unnecessarily sarcastic opening salvo from Greenberg gives me the license to completely ignore whatever follows it.

Think about it. What gives these two guys the authority to tell me what is legitimate and what I should care about? How about if I told you to stop doing what you love because it “didn’t matter?” You’d tell me where to stick it. Keep this in mind the next time some pundit proclaims that this or that isn’t worth anyone’s time and needs to disappear. I don’t personally follow cycling, but I know that millions of people in the world take part in it, and for a significant percentage of those, cycling is a lifestyle.

So why bash someone else’s passion? It’s simple; if Mike and Mike play like the Tour de France, or Wimbledon or the Stanley Cup Final doesn’t exist, it lets them off the hook as far as actually trying to learn something. With the weight of their ignorance off their backs, they can focus on who A-Rod (another horrible nickname) is dating or who the New England Patriots’ fourth cornerback is going to be this season.

3. “Maybe my confusion stems from the fact that no one in the United States cares…” – This is where my being insulted as an American comes in. As if the world at large didn’t have enough excuses to think of U.S. citizens as unconcerned with what goes on in other countries. We sports fans are constantly force-fed the notion that if our nation doesn’t have a dominating presence in an athletic endeavor, then we shouldn’t waste our energy on following it.

It is this kind of attitude that plagues a substantial segment of the American population, an attitude that simply isn’t acceptable in the modern climate of globalization. As I watched this past weekend’s epic Wimbledon men’s final, I stopped to marvel at the fact that at no time did anyone on the broadcast or in my tennis-mad family lament that there was no American presence in the tournament’s later rounds. It was simply No. 1 Roger vs. No. 2 Rafa – the matchup everyone wanted to see, regardless of the fact that Federer is Swiss and Nadal hails from Mallorca, Spain. International presence is a major part of tennis, hockey, baseball, golf and soccer; consequently, it is no coincidence that those five sports are my favorites.

While this ultimately inconsequential commentary from Mike and Mike no doubt raised my blood pressure, I’m thankful for the resulting opportunity to detail my unique character as a sports fan.

I don’t do pretense. I don’t tolerate xenophobia. I don’t tell people what to like. I don’t delegitimize anything because if I had been born into different circumstances, I would have passions at least somewhat divergent from my current ones.

If I accomplish anything with The Polish Prodigy, I hope I encourage a few people to think for themselves and not be afraid to like what they like. It’s not easy in a world and a sporting culture that rewards homogeneity; I always have to remind myself not to accept the agendas set before me by “traditional” media outlets.

The great thing about this place in time is that there are so many sources of information and opinion available, primarily through Al Gore’s Internet. Heck, if you’re reading this, you’re already aware of at least some of those sources. Not to be preachy, but the bottom line is that you’ve got to find your own truth, not just in sports, but in all facets of life that matter to you. The Mike and Mike’s of the world can have their opinions, and they definitely will, but don’t give them any more credibility than Uncle Ed at your family’s Fourth of July barbeque.

In the words of Public Enemy: Fight the power!

Coming This Week
Podcast No. 3 will be coming your way soon, featuring the soon-to-be Mrs. Polish Prodigy, Jillian Heeren. We'll get her perspective on growing up a sports fan in the great state of Michigan, as well as her experiences as part of a minor league baseball host family. We'll also hopefully find out what she really thinks about marrying a future low-income media professional.

Also, I keep promising a thorough treatment on the Pirates' recent successes and failures, and it is still in the works, as is a summary of my thoughts on Rafa taking Wimbledon in the best tennis match of all time.

Saturday, July 5, 2008

Polish Prodigy Podcast #2

Give a listen as my brother Mark and I discuss the conclusion of Wimbledon, Penguins free agency, Our Buccos, etc.

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!

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Are You In?

Recorded the second edition of the Polish Prodigy Podcast tonight. Should be up on the site by tomorrow afternoon.

My brother Mark and I are playing an early-morning round of golf at one of our favorite courses, so my apologies for the abbreviated post. I promise I'll talk about the Pirates soon, OK?? You guys need to relax!

Anyway, here's one of my favorite videos from my all-time favorite band, Incubus. With Double J still on the table, the title of the song is quite appropriate. Enjoy!

Edit: For some reason, embedding has been disabled, so click for "ARE YOU IN?"

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Redemption Song: One Man's Case for Signing Jagr

Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery
None but ourselves can free our minds.
Won't you help to sing
These songs of freedom?

Bob Marley - "Redemption Song"

Now that Marian Hossa has moved on to 8 Mile via a mystifying one-year contract, it is time to think about who will play on Sir Sidney's right wing in 2008-09.

Look no further than No. 68.


No matter what your feelings are for perhaps the most polarizing figure in Penguins history, you have to admit that when you look at the forwards still available to sign out of free agency, ol' Jaromir looks better and better by the minute.

Sure, former Penguin Markus Naslund returning to the Igloo would also be a good story and perhaps as good a fit with the Black and Vegas Gold, but the idea of Mr. Dying Alive being reborn in Pittsburgh is simply too tantalizing to be topped.

I may be biased because he was my first favorite player, but I believe Jagr has gotten unfairly treated by the majority of Pens fans since his unsavory departure (via trade to Washington) in the summer of 2001. If you remember, JJ was forced to cede the 'Burgh spotlight when Mario made his transcendent return to the NHL in December 2000. Even though that particular edition of the flightless fowl made it all the way to the East Final (losing to the machine-like Devils), Jagr expressed his desire to be dealt upon the season's conclusion.

Ostensibly, Jaromir wanted the Penguins to at least get something in return for him because the cash-strapped franchise could not afford to pay his enormous contract for its duration. Despite what the Czech superstar said on the public record, something was bothering him in the third act of his career in Pittsburgh, something that appeared to rob Jagr of his joy on and off the ice.

So he was gone, as then-GM Craig Patrick traded JJ to the Capitals for Kris Beech, Michel Sivek and Ross Lupaschuk, none of whom would contribute anything meaningful to those miserable Penguins teams of the early half of this decade.

Every time Jagr has returned to Mellon Arena since his semi-self-induced breakaway, he has been mercilessly jeered by a vocal majority of Penguins backers whenever he touched the puck. Quite an ironic turnaround for a man who finds his likeness on the Penguins Ring of Honor high above the Igloo ice surface.

The people who boo Jaromir have always been misguided. Here was a man who played key roles on the Cup-winning teams of the early 90s, grew into the most feared talent in the League this side of Lemieux the Magnificent, then took over as team leader and captain as Mario slipped into premature retirement.

While Lemieux was working his renowned magic in the boardroom to bail the Pens out of bankruptcy, his old sidekick was doing all he could to ensure that the fanbase still had something to cheer about in midst of financial morbidity.

Perhaps the best example of Jagr's value to the oft-troubled franchise occurred in the spring of 1999, as the No. 8-seeded Penguins struck down New Jersey in the first round of the playoffs. Playing on a severely-torn groin, JJ dramatically pushed his squad to victories in Games Six and Seven.

Watch for yourselves...


...and then the clicher.


Who knows how the free agency dance will play out as we're headed for Day Three of the frenzy? If Jagr decides to forego playing in Russia, at least for now, the Penguins have as good a chance as any team of landing the very good, but no longer great Jagr. With Crosby and Malkin locked up long term, the Pens don't need greatness on the wing, just a sure finishing touch. The money earmarked for Hossa can now be spread out among a couple veteran forwards, and Jagr could be one of them.

Are you ready to forgive? Let Bob serenade you, and then see if you're willing to let 68 back into your life.


Bucco talk tomorrow. Until then, hit 'em straight!