Aug 022009
World Series Trophy

I have a question for all the Pittsburgh Pirates fans who have gone apoplectic during this most recent roster purge – what else do you want? What alternative are you looking for?

Even with the most productive outfield in baseball last season including a surprising campaign from Nate McLouth, even with a recent batting champion in Freddy Sanchez and a rock solid defensive shortstop in Jack Wilson, the Pirates went 67-95. Prior to the start of this fire sale, there were two possible courses of action – keep the batting lineup intact and try to build the pitching up quickly through free agency. Or tear it all down. Completely.

I don’t understand how we as fans can get attached to any players on a team that pretty much stunk anyway. I do have my doubts as to owner Bob Nutting’s commitment to winning but I think that critique is separate from a critique of the plan, which is the same as any small-market franchise must undertake. Build up the farm system, draft solid, develop prospects. Sure we’ve heard this song and dance before but what’s the alternative?

A picture of Lastings Milledge

OF Lastings Milledge

Barring abandoning the team, a Pirates fan has no choice but to stomach another rebuilding job. It’s sickening that we have to endure another one; that all the others have been so unsuccessful. However, I don’t believe that voting disapproval with one’s wallet is an effective strategy. With a decrease in ticket sales and thus less revenue, ownership would simply lower payroll even further and still pocket profits from revenue sharing.

I’m not willing to declare any belief that this particular rebuilding plan will work when all the others haven’t worked. But it’s still the right way to go about business. Tear down the half-assed incarnation of the last rebuilding job, build organizational depth, develop players. And with all the recent criticism (however deserved) and declarations from fans that the franchise doesn’t deserve our support, I find myself becoming somewhat defiant.

Someday, we will all bear witness to the rebirth of one of the great franchises in Major League Baseball. Remember where you were and what attitude you took during this trying time. LET’S GO BUCS!

Photo Credit: AP

Jul 312009

The Pittsburgh Pirates have completed a huge purge of the vast majority of their roster since Neal Huntington took over leadership of the franchise a few years ago. They’ve traded a large number of serviceable major leaguers including the likes of Jason Bay, Nate McLouth and Jack Wilson.

All these trades have provoked a huge amount of outrage among the Pirates’ fanbase. (Yes, there still is a fanbase). I think most fans would have preferred to keep that lineup largely intact and then perhaps raise the bar on the pitching staff by going after some free agents. Wishful thinking. Free agents wouldn’t want to come to the Pirates right now.

Andrew McCutcheon (pic)

The alternative is to develop great pitching. But by the time the pitching could catch up, the offense would have started to go down. It’s a half-assed approach. You either spend more to bring the pitching staff up to par quickly, which won’t happen, or you tear it all down. In almost all the recent trades, Pirates GM Neal Huntington has gone after pitching, pitching and more pitching.

The Pirates went 67-95 playing a large part of the last season with the most productive outfield in baseball. There was solid, if unspectacular play, from the likes of Jack Wilson and Freddy Sanchez. But whither the pitching.

Now I have my doubts as to whether Pirates owner Bob Nutting will pony up the money to keep a developing team together if recent drafts and trades start to pan out as we all hope. But the plan itself is solid. Some fans may have been content for the team to make a run at .500 this year, which may have been doable with the collection of players that came out of spring training. But in the City of Champions, we cannot accept anything less than a team that wants to win titles. We don’t do Loveable Losers.

Jul 152009
A-Rod and only A-Rod

As the Pittsburgh Pirates purge their roster for the umpteenth time in the past 16+ years, I’m reminded of the little-noted failure by the MLBPA of its membership. A trade union, by definition, is supposed to use collective bargaining with management for the overall betterment of its membership. The MLBPA has lost sight of the fact that this collective bargaining should not be strictly limited to wage increases.

In any given year, there are 4-6 teams with a realistic shot at winning a title. Minnows, through careful scouting and not a little bit of luck, will occasionally pop up in the ranks to disturb the big boys. But if you knew little of baseball, it wouldn’t be totally unreasonable to assume that in a given year, the Yankees, Red Sox, Angels, Cardinals, Mets and Braves will be the main contenders.

You can switch a name or two here and there but, in general, this leaves 24 out of 30 teams that, for all their fuss and bluster, don’t have a shot to contend. This is the nature of sports and I won’t dispute that. But it’s also partly a result of the revenue/salary structure of modern baseball.


In leagues with a tight salary cap/luxury tax, such as the NFL, NHL or NBA, well-managed teams can contend year-in, year-out regardless of market status. A small-market team in MLB can contend for maybe 2-3 years out of every 8 years. Build up, torn down by free agency, build up, torn down by free agency. Ask Billy Beane, one of the best GM’s in baseball, how MLB’s cost structure is working out for him.

Let’s look at it from a Union’s viewpoint. Is it better for a Union to seek the highest individual salaries regardless of how those left behind in middling teams fare? Or should a Union seek the greatest possible distribution of salaries among its membership. One player makes $20mil while four players make $3mil. The average is $6.4mil. The median is $3mil. The high outliers skew the average salary.

Furthermore, for every team that can pay $200mil+ for its roster, there will be more teams with salaries around $50-$80mil. The team that can pay $200mil+ will compete year-in, year-out. The teams with $50-$80mil can compete only for a short time before being raided by the $200mil team. And with roster size limits, not everyone can sign with the $200mil team so that money is allocated to only a few players.

In a more egalitarian system, such as the NFL’s, the overall number for salaries will stay the same. But the distribution becomes wider. Yes, it’s called spreading the wealth. But a Union that negotiates distribution in addition to overall number is doing its job. The NFLPA, by agreeing to a salary cap, ensures wider distribution of monies as well as giving a greater percentage of its membership a realistic chance of landing with a team that can build a contender.

Photo Credit: Details Magazine

Jul 142009

A few years ago, MLB designated that the winning team of the All-Star Game would clinch home-field advantage for its League in the World Series. The move is supposed to liven up the game and get the players to care about the outcome. The allegedly heightened circumstances are also supposed to get the fans to care a little more as well. This year, MLB is using the slogan, “this one counts.”

I fail to understand why World Series home-field advantage would matter to poor unlucky schlobs like Freddy Garcia or Zach Duke of the Pirates or whatever token schlomo got in from the Washington Nationals. Unless they’re expecting to be traded to a contender, perhaps. (In the case of Garcia, the answer is no because the Mets aren’t in contention this year).

In the unbalanced world of Major League Baseball, few teams are in real contention by this point of the season, despite any protestations to the contrary. Why should their few representatives really care about handing home-field advantage to an opposing team. It seems to me that since they are already out of contention, Orioles, Athletics, Pirates, Padres or Diamondbacks players and fans wouldn’t be particularly in favor of handing home-field advantage to potentially the Yankees, Angels, Cardinals or Dodgers.

Oh, I’ve heard that the players are putting forth more of an effort since this scheme was adopted but Bug Selig can’t seriously think that it will bring back the level of competition that resulted in Pete Rose crashing into home plate so many years ago. Way to come up with another gem, Bud.

Pete Rose crashing into Ray Fosse at the 1970 All-Star Game

May 082009 reports that Rick Pitino may be interested in the Sacramento Kings head coaching job. Having largely failed in two previous stints in the Ligg, Pitino’s outsized ego may push him to give the NBA another shot in order to prove that he has what it takes to succeed on both levels, ala Larry Brown.

With the exception of the aforementioned Brown, few successful college coaches, football or baskeball, seem to prosper in the Pro’s. Tim Floyd, Nick Saban and Mike Montgomery easily come to mind. Pitino’s new nemesis at Kentucky, John Calipari wasn’t successful in the Pro’s.

John CalipariOn the other hand, Bill Callahan failed miserably at Nebraska. Charlie Weis has yet to deliver at Notre Dame. Al Groh chose to go back to UVA rather than coach the New York Jets and although his record in Charlottesville is admirable, it’s not particularly elite.

In college, you have to schmooze alumni and boosters. You have to raise money for the athletic department. You need to court 18-year (oft-spoiled) superstar children who have never heard a bad word about their games. You have to graduate players. You are the face of a program, much moreso than in the Pro’s.

In the Pro’s, you have greater access to your players but have to deal with egos made larger by huge, sometimes unwarranted, contacts. You have to assist a general manager with navigating a salary cap/luxury tax. The season is longer.
Perhaps it takes failing like Steve Spurrier did with the Redskins for a coach to realize that he is better suited to one game or the other. I think Pitino is better suited for the college game. He’s a master at it.

I would posit that coaching in the Pro’s isn’t inherently more difficult; it’s just a different game. It’s not as if the salaries are markedly different. Phil Jackson, for instance, is a master at the Pro game. I don’t think he would be comfortable in college. But for some reason, we in this society equate the Pro’s with the pinnacle in all aspects. Becoming a Pro may be the ultimate goal for an athlete but it shouldn’t necessarily be the case for a coach.

Apr 172009

I’m here in San Francisco visiting a friend. He’s an northeastern transplant and as such, he’s pretty sports-oriented like many northeasterns. He confirmed a suspicion of mine (and many other eastern people) that sports just isn’t as huge a part of the culture here as it is on the right side of the country.

Now there’s no doubt that there are sports-mad people on the left coast but by and large, it seems as though the sporting-life isn’t as integral. He told me that not once during football season did someone give him a call to ask what he was doing for the games on Sunday. I would get email chains on a weekly basis asking what I was doing for the Steelers game, do folks want to meet at a bar or someone’s place to watch, who’s lucky enough to be going to a game, etc.

AT&T Park in San Francisco

AT&T Park in San Francisco

Some of it has to be climate-affected. During a northeastern winter, what better thing is there to do than escape the cold and watch some sports or go to a movie. But if it’s still nice enough to go for a hike, why not spend Sunday roaming the hills of SF. People go to wine tastings or art galleries or walk around the parks on a nice Saturday or Sunday afternoon. I enjoy those activities in the summer and Oreo loves going to the parks but I’m probably more likely to want to go to a Pirates game at PNC Park on a Sunday afternoon than the average Bay Area citizen is to go to a Giants game.

Please understand that I’m not making a value judgment here. If there’s one thing that annoys me about people who are stridently west coast or east coast, it’s the value judgments they place on their way of life. I don’t give a flying frak if you prefer wine tastings to football or hockey to hiking. I’m just pointing out a difference. Speaking of which, my northeastern friend and I are going to an SF Giants game at AT&T Park today. Go Sports!

Mar 292009

By and large, I consider myself to be a fortunate sports fan. My teams generally do well. Two Superbowl titles, 2 Stanley Cups, 7 Sweet Sixteens, 1 Elite Eight, 1 Champions League, 1 FA Cup, Curtis Martin, Larry Fitzgerald, many others. And someday the Pirates will get to .500 and all of Pittsburgh will go nuts.

I think a reasonable standard of expectation for a fan is for one’s teams to be in the hunt, in any given year. Nothing more, nothing less. All the crazies who expect a title every single season can stay in Lexington or Tuscaloosa or the Bronx.

In any given year, I expect that the Steelers will win 10+ games and have a shot at the Superbowl. I expect the Penguins to make the NHL playoffs and have a shot at the Stanley Cup. I expect that Pitt basketball will make the Field of 65 and have a shot to make a run to the Final Four. I expect Liverpool FC to contend for the Premiership, Champions League, and/or FA Cup titles. Eventually, I would like to expect that Pitt football will win 8-9 games in most years and once every few years when the pieces fall into place, they should contend for a national title.

Pitt vs Villanova

But even with what I believe are reasonable expectations, you inevitably get heart-breaking losses. I don’t have to tell you which loss I’m “mourning” today. I would have to say that Pitt’s loss to Villanova ranks second only to Francisco Cabrera’s single for Atlanta vs the Pirates in the 1992 NLCS. Even the Penguins recovered from David Volek. The Pirates have never recovered from that loss.

Pitt basketball is a strong program and they’ll rebound, rebuild and contend again. I know we had a successful season. I’m proud of how they battled and banged with the big boys. We’ll be back. I expect it.

Mar 262009

I want a salary cap and comprehensive revenue sharing in baseball. It’s the only way to ensure a proper competitive balance in the sport. It’s the only hope a small market team, such as my Pirates, have for contending on a regular basis. Every game that the NY Yankees or the Boston Red Sox play make this point even more painfully clear to me.

But the naysayers will point out that other small market teams have contended and even won the World Series. True though that may be, it hides the ugly reality that a well-run small market team (such as the Minnesota Twins or Oakland Athletics, NOT the Pirates) can only compete for a couple years in a given cycle. They will build a team, contend for a time, maybe even reach/win a World Series and then watch as their best and brightest leave for the big money spenders, such as New York, Chicago or Boston. Does anyone remember that Manny Ramirez began his career with the Cleveland Indians? Talk about the model small market franchise. The Indians drafted well, managed their payroll, tried to sign their stars to manageable contracts before their hit arbitration or free agency. They made the World Series and then went kerplunk!

World Series Trophy

A salary cap does NOT guarantee that every team will contend. But it does provide cost certainty such that any team, big market or small, will have a shot to retain its hard-earned, home-grown talent when the big money comes calling (without having to revert to the Reserve Clause).

In the NFL’s infancy, New York Giants owner Wellington Mara decided to give up what could have become a Yankees’ sized advantage in monies in favor of comprehensive revenue sharing. Later, the NFL adopted a salary cap that gives cost certainty to all teams. Today, Ben Roethlisberger is in the midst of a $102 million contract, Troy Polamalu is one of the highest paid players at his position and a team like the Washington Redskins is spending itself into oblivion. Well-run teams like the big market New York Giants or the medium market Pittsburgh Steelers continue to thrive by building rather than poaching.

If MLB did institute a salary cap, perhaps the Pirates would continue to lose; that wouldn’t surprise me one bit. But I think Wellington Mara would be pleased with the idea that well-run, well-built baseball teams would be afforded the opportunity to prosper for many, many years, not just 2-3 years.

Oct 232007

It’s simple really – bandwagon jumpers and obnoxiousness.

In baseball, you either love or hate the Yankees.  But after the Red Sox won the World Series in 2004 and broke their curse (and sadly, Maher did root for the Red Sox to beat the Yankees in the ALCS that year), they’ve almost become the new Yankees.  Suddenly there are scores upon scores of people claiming to have been Red Sox fans all along – so many people in Pittsburgh even began wearing that disgusting red B.  Seriously?

Normally I would ignore the Indians.  But because the Red Sox nation is peopled by a bunch of sanctimonious sh*ts, we root for the Indians.  Doing so in this limited instance does not mean that we approve of the very existence of Cleveland or Ohio, in general.  However, the Indians do not materially affect the Pirates’ fortunes, unlike the Browns.

Keep in mind though that had the Indians won the ALCS, we would have turned and rooted for the Rockies.  Of course, we are not surprised that the Red Sox came back from 3 games to 1 down to win the ALCS.  It is less testament to their excellence than the collective karma of the Mistake by the Lake.  We will continue to root against the Red Sox.

Another reason is Boston’s sports writers/sports personalities – people like Bob Ryan, Jackie MacMullen and Bill Simmons.  Oh to hear them go on and on and on about Boston this and Boston that.  Kill me now!

We all know that any East Conf team stands little or no shot at beating a Western Conf team in the NBA finals.  But now that Celtics have acquired Ray Allen & Kevin Garnett to go along with Paul Pierce, their national exposure will increase exponentially. Even though Allen & Garnett have been two of my favorite players over the course of the past decade or so (and who could forget Allen’s role as Jesus Shuttlesworth in He Got Game), I will be hard presst not to begin to hate the Celtics given the disproportionate amount of hype they are about to receive.

We now return you to your regularly scheduled hatred (of Cleveland).