5 Baseball Thoughts At Five

Well everyone, we made it another week and here we are starting another. Some of us are stuck at home working and some are wondering how the hell they’re job could be considered essential. Real heroes are out there risking their own health to save the lives of those afflicted. We owe everything to those on the front line and if you know one, make sure they know next year when we’re all back to work that they are just as important then as now.

Now, onto the baseball/sports thoughts.

5. With the news today that The Open Championship, A.K.A. The British Open was cancelled for 2020, I wonder if international sports leagues are going to struggle to restart more than domestic leagues. For instance, the NHL, NBA and MLB all have teams in Canada. Will involving more than one government body complicate the issues the leagues face?

4. News broke yesterday of the Arizona Diamondbacks majority ownership trying to force minority owners to increase their shares or be forced to sell. This is going before a judge to litigate the legality but I can’t help feeling like some Expos fans have seen this before. Along those lines, it seems to be a popular rumor in Arizona that the owner wants to move the team to Las Vegas. First, why? Second, why is Vegas always the rumor?

3. I wonder if sports has inevitably changed forever. If games are indeed played without fans, will some leagues start to gear the product into made for TV events and lessen the focus on the in stadium/arena experience. This would be counter to the stated intent of many but realities change, as evidenced by recent events.

2. I’ve been working from home for nearly a month now, I believe we have used about 8 rolls of toilet paper. There has never been a more panic purchased item in anytime I can remember. OK, maybe frozen pizza.

1. Are there any major league teams that could suffer the ultimate price for this shutdown? In any sport? I think not. If that ends up being the case, does that end the argument that boycotts could force changes in ownership?

In A World Without Baseball

Baseball has survived everything imaginable. World wars and American tragedies have only slowed the game. Nothing has ever brought it to a screeching halt, until now. It has often rallied us together, given us comfort or a sense of normalcy. Now the sounds of the ball hitting the leather of the catcher’s mitt, the crack of the bat or the roar of an afternoon crowd have been silenced. We are left with nothing and no answers as to when it will begin again. As of right now there is no hope, no light at the end of the tunnel.

For about a week I ran simulation games of the Pirates season on MLB the Show, until I got the home opener. I texted a friend in the middle of the game and told him I was having trouble watching it. It wasn’t the same. I had no interest in the outcome. Win or lose, it wasn’t going to make a difference. Baseball wasn’t here.

I am not telling anyone to stop their simulations or trying to pretend. If that is working for you, I say keep it up. However, I know sooner or later you are going come to the same realization I did. It will lose its luster and its entertainment value; you will be left holding your controller unable to go on. It was a fun escape for a while, but now reality will start setting in. It’s ok, let it! It is new world we live in.

Baseball will come back. I am not saying it is gone forever, but we need to stop willing it to appear like nothing ever happened. We are only setting ourselves up for disappointment. It is a process; not a a snap of the finger or a blink of an eye. We are waiting for someone to give the word and players will start appearing on the field as if nothing has happened. That is not how any of this is going to work.

It sucks, it truly does, but none of us are going to will a change to happen. We just have to be patient. We have to doing everything that is asked of us, which for plenty of us is not much at all. As a baseball fan, it will be all be worth it. I for one will not judge anyone; who has a tear in their eye, or a lump in their throat when see their team take the field for the first time after an eerie calm such as this.

The Sweetest Swing – A Very One-Sided Discussion

I was having a conversation with some folks on Twitter last week about the sweetest swings in baseball history. Names started popping up in the conversation from all angles, Barry Bonds, Ken Griffey Jr., Fred McGriff, Tony Gwynn.

Notice anything with those names? Sure, they’re all great players, but they’re also all left-handed. We had this conversation over about two hours and finally someone said Hank Arron, the first righty mentioned. That struck me as odd. Not because anyone really made a conscious decision to exclude right-handed batters, but because given no parameters 99% chose a lefty on their own.

Why is that? I mean, clearly the game has had some incredible players with great swings from both sides of the plate, but the iconic grace of a powerful swing from the left side just sticks with you. I asked Michael “The Fort” McKenry and his answer really did sum up my feelings “There is just something poetic about a sweet left-handed swing.”

Sure, that’s not scientific but he’s absolutely correct. There really is something special about the effortless sweep of a lefty going down to get that curveball and almost golfing it 400 feet.

You want science? Fine, I also asked Eric Minshall, Pitching Coach for the Southern Illinois Miners and formerly of the Pirates Bristol affiliate helping to develop pitchers. He also happens to be one of the more well-spoken baseball men I’ve had the pleasure to speak to. I asked him, when you think of the game’s sweetest swings, most are left-handed. Why do you think that is? Real or perceived?
Here was his answer, “Both… highlights and replays are often centered around home runs and extra base hits. Those images get imprinted in our minds. As young kids, we went into the back yard to emulate our favorite players while playing with neighborhood friends. We took a lot of time to get their swing “down”. Today, when you see hard contact made, even if you don’t know anything about hitting mechanics, you’ll hear somebody say, “he’s got a sweet swing”. No doubt that Ken Griffey Jr and Barry Bonds had sweet swings. Perfection some would say. Would you say the same about your favorite .230 hitter? What’s even more interesting is that .230 hitter was once a star at some level and a young kid probably emulated his swing too!”

He’s not wrong. I remember growing up in the height of the early ‘90s Pirates and emulating the entire lineup. So much so that I taught myself how to switch hit so I could swing like Bonds and VanSlyke. I copied Jay Bell opening and closing his grip on the bat in his stance. I stood up straight when I was VanSlyke, I took a huge sweeping swing when trying to be Bonds. Eric is on to something here. Now, I never thought about the average much as far as the swing composition, but he surely is correct that it plays in.

Andrew McCutchen had, well he still has it I suppose, a beautiful swing from the right side, so did Starling Marte. Both were balanced and the contact was true, each had a tremendous finish too. Still, neither look as pretty as even a player like Joey Gallo who hammered some balls out of PNC when the Rangers last visited.

The best I can figure is this, right-handed batters have seen predominately right-handed pitchers as they developed. Despite the amount who make it to the Major League’s left-handed pitchers are still not the majority. The release point of a right-handed pitcher looks like it is heading for your dome as a righty in the box. This causes more of a quick, compact, well, less sexy swing.  Even as I write this “explanation” I have visions of Paul Goldschmidt pounding balls off the batter’s eye at PNC.

Where do you fall here? Have an honest look and see how many of your “Sweet Swings” is left-handed. It’s interesting to say the least, I’d love to hear your thoughts.

My Letter to Rob Manfred: One Man’s Plea

Dear Rob, I know that you have been very busy over the past couple of week, so I hope you can find some time to read this. I am just an average baseball fan, with no real motivation to write you other than the fact that I miss the game and only want you to do the best job you can to help it grow in the future. So far I believe you are failing miserably. I understand that you have 30 different bosses to please, which could be difficult. I only have one boss and she drives me nuts at times, but she always acts with the best of intentions so I usually cut her a lot of slack. Your 30 bosses have one goal in mind and unfortunately it is not a World Series Trophy. That is just a bonus. Money is the root of all evil and all of your owners have an abundance of it. If that is what is being focused on, the game as we know it is finished. Some may say that it has already been ruined by greed and ruthless actions or plans on the part of owners and Major League Baseball operations as a whole.

It is shame that when the entire world is experiencing a pandemic the main focus has been on protecting the owners investments and the players who have already established themselves; the ones who have already been paid and aren’t in danger of any negative consequences or repercussions. This what is really important, right? Let’s make sure Mookie Betts has the opportunity to get his big contract. Guess what? It was coming regardless. This should not be a major concern or point of compromise. If it is, they are missing the mark. The big names will always get there just dues. They aren’t they ones that should be worried about, but for some reason they are treated with kid gloves. They are grown men. I think they can handle it.

Now let’s talk about the $170 million that has been promised. This sir is a joke. Not because you shouldn’t pay them, but because you are acting like it is some great sacrifice. I understand this is a different across all teams, but it might be easier to look at it for the entire league as an average. So you asked the MLB owners to pay $170 million across 30 teams? That is an average of $5.7 million per team, so please don’t act like this is breaking the bank for anyone. We all know it is not. It’s the same for the $400 a week that is being given to MiLB players. Don’t act like you don’t have the money and don’t cut players because you would have if was a regular season. Guess what? It’s not, if you haven’t already recognized that. Why are you releasing anyone? Baseball is not happening right now in any shape or form, so why is anyone acting like it is? Suspend everything Rob. Suspend everything “Tony the Tiger”. You signed these guys to play baseball and they can’t right now. It’s not their fault, They are still your employees, even if they have not paid any money into your precious union. This causes me to question the MLPA as well and it’s not like this is the first time; with their history of protecting cheaters over the ones that chose to play the game with integrity.

Now onto your master plan to rip baseball from communities, 42 to be exact. You say that this is necessary to upgrade all of the minor league facilities and to put the well-being of the players first in terms of travel and living conditions. If this was the case then why are Erie and Binghamton on the list? Both the Seawolves and Rumble Ponies’ owners have acquired the funds to upgrade their stadiums and ultimately brought their plans to fruition. The Rumble Ponies’ home ballpark was set to host the Eastern League All-Star game this year. Why would an event of this caliber be held at a place that is on the chopping block? It’s because they shouldn’t be. All-Star Games are held at the nicest, newest and most financially profitable stadiums or ballparks at each and every level, from top to bottom and the choice of NYSEG Stadium is not an exception to this rule. However, under your plan Rob, this community would be left with a team. Now if the proposal is truly about the players well-being, which I know it’s not, then good for you and I am willing to let you use a couple of my ideas; you can even take the credit, I am a humble man just like you. Reorganize the leagues so that travel is not as much of an issue. I know that this means that some of the teams would have to sacrifice their AAA or AA affiliation in favor of being in a “lesser” league, but I see that as a lot better than the alternative. Another idea is to not allow teams like the Mets to make a $57 million upgrade to their facilities at Port St. Lucie if they are not going to allow the minor league players to utilize them. Or better yet, put that $57 million dollars to work in assisting their minor league affiliates upgrade their facilities and help with travel accommodations. Neither of these are radical ideas or suggestions.

I could keep going on for much longer than I have because there are plenty more examples of your shortcomings as an ambassador for the great game of baseball, but I think I have made my point pretty sufficiently. It’s plain and simple Rob. You can’t grow a game if kids can’t go to their local ballpark, teams can be made to use their funds more efficiently and the agreements that you have come to with the MLBPA are selfish; not just on your part, but on their’s as well. You are not alone in addressing situations in the worst way possible. However, you can make a change. It’s not too late. Baseball is in your hands. Please don’t screw it up anymore.

Sincerely, Craig W. Toth (aka Bucs in the Basement)

The Commissioners of All Sports Met with the President, and Here is What Came of It.

First, let me start with this, and its sad I have to add this in. This is not about politics. When the President meets with nearly every top official of all the major sports leagues in our country, it gets covered. So, spare me your opinion on President Trump or his handling of this entire situation, because this is a sports story and its on a sports site.

The newsiest soundbite if you will, and we don’t have tape just reports about what was said, is that President Trump feels the NFL should kick-off as normal. Even that was posed as a “hope” and not a pinpoint demand. August and September were brought up as realistic for fans being permitted to get back to arenas and stadiums around the country.

Our country faces some challenges for something like this that others may not encounter, at least not on the same scale. Forgive me as I’m going to slightly head off into a bit of a civics lesson, unfortunately its sorely needed for many. Everyone knows we have 50 states and most of us have heard of the independence of those states to self-govern, but at this point I write this to reinforce, its more than lip service.

When you see maps of the country and notice there are still 4 or 5 states not enforcing a stay at home directive, its important to understand the President and his task force have recommended that everyone in the country operate under these recommendations, but the States have rights.

If you actually listen anymore to the press conferences or read reports about them, you hear things like “we’d like” or “it’s our recommendation” often, and the reason for that is quite simple. The President does not have the power to supersede the States from making decisions for their own governance.

So, when you get back to national sports, you can see where this would start to become hairy. Gavin Newsome, the Governor of California has already stated for instance he doesn’t see mass gatherings taking place in California by the timeframe outlined by the President.
“So look, I’m not here to second-guess anybody, but I am here to say this, our decision on that basis, at least here in the state of California, will be determined by the facts, will be determined by the health experts, will be determined by our capacity to meet this moment, bend the curve and have the appropriate community surveillance and testing to confidently determine whether that’s appropriate. And right now I’m just focused on the immediate, but that’s not something I anticipate happening in the next few months.” Newsome said.

Mr. Newsome only speaks for California of course, but his sentiment is very much echoed by other leaders, including the President himself who in yesterday’s presser refused to name a date and stated he put forward August/September as a goal, not a demand.

All of this points to sports either simply being off through at least this summer or possibly playing all contests in empty neutral sites in cleared areas to restrict travel.

Adam Silver of the NBA on the call reportedly mentioned his sport being the first to close up shop, and they would like to be part of signaling the country is back in business. A nice thought but how realistic it is remains to be seen.

The bottom line remains clear, sports have significant hurdles to clear before any of them can resume play, just as the country faces questions about how to return to business as normal. Normal, there’s a word that had better have some flexibility, because who knows what will look “normal” as we move forward.

The President also reiterated his sentiment that the cure can not be worse than the problem. He’s right. And we as a country will surely have to decide where that balance is. You can’t just shut down this much of the country and expect things to be ok indefinitely.

Pressed on the possibility of creating a second task force for getting the country opened back up, the President said he was thinking about it. I suggest he needs to do it, and we all need to understand that waiting for 100% eradication is not going to happen. Eventually a percentage of those who have had the virus combined with treatments and testing will create enough of a work force to begin the process of starting the wheels turning again. How that looks, and when it happens needs to be based on science, but hoping for, or looking to, a timeframe does no harm.

We must be careful together. We must not rush back, simply because we want to, but we must understand also that these decisions will and have been based on the most up to day information available.

For sports, all it will take to prevent “business as usual” is one home city that can’t get to “all clear”. The nature of something like this will make that difficult beyond many of our imaginations.

Buckle up, this could be an incredibly long ride, and quite honestly, sports may not look the same again. We might lose teams; some could lose TV contracts or at the very least lose money from those contracts. Contracts to players that have been committed to could be in jeopardy. Don’t get me wrong, the Yankees aren’t closing up shop, but a team like Tampa who were already not satisfied with where they are or the support they receive could very well push to move.

Right now, we need to drop our civic oriented rooting interests and realize it’s time to root together, root for our country, our world. We will survive this together. We’ll beat this if only because for the vast majority of those who contract this will not die, if we want our businesses, and that is exactly what sports franchises are, to survive we’re going to need to get creative.

The Battle To “Save” Baseball

How many of you have ever been in a fight with someone? I am not limiting the answer to this to a question strictly about physical altercations. This isn’t the same thing as have you ever taken a punch? It could have been argument with a friend, teacher, co-worker, loved one or even stranger. I am pretty sure we have all been there. As the exchange intensifies, we begin to feel our body “tense up”, our eyes may water, our fists may clench, some of us actually take a defensive stance and our mind starts to race, sometimes out of control. During any circumstance such as this it is hard for many of us to keep our cool and make valid and pointed assertions. Our thoughts and ideas become more about how to “win”, rather than convincing the other person based upon our original logic. This is about being right. This is about making everyone else involved agree with us or even better yet, admit that they are wrong.

Now imagine you are merely a spectator to the intense struggle of wills; with no ability to influence the outcome of the debate one way or another. No-one wants to hear what you have to say, even if it will settle the argument in favor of one side, gives someone an out without admitting they are wrong or allows for a compromise to be made that would be beneficial to all parties involved. This is how I currently feel about the battle that is going on involving Major League Baseball, the MLPA and advocates for Minor League Players, with the MiLB players being in the crowd along with all of us.

Thus far some agreements have been reached. Major League Baseball and the MLB Players Association come to understanding on a deal pertaining to issues including service time, pay, and the amateur draft. As it stands now, players would get credited for a full year of service time for games played in 2020 and every player on an active roster will get service time whether or not there is a 2020 season. That means players; including many of the high profile free will become free agents heading into the 2021 season; including Keone Kela. If there is a season, pay will be prorated. Players will also not receive any penalties through arbitration for lesser stats in a shortened season. The MLB has to and is advancing the players $170 million for pay in April and May. In the event there is no season, the players will not be asked to return that money. Also as part of the agreement the MLB is given the right to shorten the 2020 draft to five rounds and can delay the start of the international signing period to as late as January 2021. The 2021 draft can be shortened to 20 rounds, and the 2021-22 international signing period can be pushed to anytime between January and December 2022. Finally a transaction freeze was be put into place for all MLB players. The two sides have the ability to lift this at an agreed upon time in the future, which has yet to be determined.

Anthony “Tony The Tiger” Clark is a former 1st Baseman and current Executive Director for the MLBPA.

This is a lot of information to unpack, but for the Pirates it only means a few things. Major League Players will receive a payment for their services in April and May, despite participating in no meaningful games, if you are on the active roster you accumulate a year of service time no matter if there are zero or 100 games played, someone that was supposed to a free agent at the end of the season will automatically be granted this status. So the Pirates have to pay Major League Players, they lose a year of service time/control on many players, Keone Kela could be gone at the end of the year without any ability to acquire anything for him and none of the players GM Ben Cherington acquired on 1 year deals can be “flipped” at the trade deadline.

Following this deal, Rob Manfred and Major League Baseball changed their focus and decided to address the payment of Minor League Players, who realistically have minimal representation other than a few outspoken advocates. Manfred informed minor league ball clubs and its players on March 31st that the season was currently suspended, but agreed to pay minor leaguers $400 per week through May. The $400 wage is a serious paycut for minor league veterans. many who expected to earn more than $10,000 a month at the Triple-A level. It will be a raise for minor league players in the lower levels. Minor leaguers will also continue to receive medical benefits, but they are not eligible for unemployment because they still under contract with their respective ball clubs.

Ok, it’s something, but is it enough? That’s the rub. For some it may be adequate; especially if they received a significant bonus when they signed with their parent club. For others it may not even be enough to pay the rent in their team’s hometown, where they were planning on beginning the season. Also the previous agreement between Rob and Tony could have future consequences, not only players that have yet to be drafted, but also the organizations and communities of a specifically listed 42 teams. If there are say 5 to 10 (the highest number I have seen discussed) rounds in this years MLB Amateur Draft and 20 in next years, that is a significant drop in the number of players entering the minor leagues during the next two years. This falls right in line with Manfred’s plan to dissolve 42 minor league teams and gives him an out because he would only be reacting to address some of the unfortunate consequences of COVID-19. Thanks Rob! Your such a compassionate fellow; a martyr if you will!

The Bristol Pirates are one of the 42 teams on Rob Manfred’s chopping block.

So how does this affect the Pirates? Right now it doesn’t. They are paying some AAA and AA players less than they would have during a regular season, while paying some A and Rookie Level players more. As I see it, this is a proverbial push for the Pittsburgh Pirates Front Office and Bob Nutting. In general it is win for the minor league players. They are actually getting paid something and they actually have jobs. The devil’s advocate perspective would be that since they are still employed, they cannot collect unemployment; which could potentially pay them more. As a player I am not sure which set of circumstances would be better and would have to examine each on a case to case basis. Although based on the statements from some of the minor league players that have been release by their teams I would have to believe they would rather have jobs. As of April 1st the Pirates have not released any of their minor league players, but ones on other teams have not been as lucky. The Cubs, Cardinals, Angels, Tiger, A’s, Giants and others went on mass dumping sprees of minor league players in the days surrounding the announcement.

In my Twitter conversation with J.J. Cooper (link below) he reported that last year between March 23rd and March 29th there were 301 MiLB players released and this year there were only 159 total between March 1st and April 1st. I understand the sentiment and the idea behind this, but this isn’t a normal season with a normal set of events and timelines. No one is operating in the same way because Rob Manfred and the MLB have not laid out any specific guidelines. I am not saying that they should because I am not sure that it would help, but then at least everyone would be doing the same thing and no one would be made to look like jerks for operating like every thing is status quo.


I fully understand that this was not expected and none of this is an easy task. However, there is a right and a wrong way of doing business. As of right now there have been a lot of positives to come out of this unfortunate situation, but there have also been some negatives. It has not been life and death by any means; this is a sport after all. I just want everyone to remember that for some, this is their lively hood. This is how they support themselves and sometimes their families. This should be a time of togetherness in the figurative sense; where no one is left behind if it can be helped and no one feels like they are alone.

The Cost Curve is One That Won’t Be Lowered

The price we as a country and for that matter the world will pay as a result of COVID-19 will be heavy. The most obvious being loss of life, no matter how well it is ultimately contained the toll will be too great. Economically much of the world will be crippled, potentially for years to come.

Today, I’d like to discuss the impact this shutdown could have on the players we spend so much time rooting and following as they play the games we love. If you just see them all as overpaid, maybe stop reading, I’ll do nothing to convince you to care.

A typical career for one of us citizens will span 40-50 years. We’ll toil away building our reputation, skill set and hopefully paychecks as we travel that path. Every decision you make and risk you take either moves you forward or keeps you where you are. The growth is usually fairly steady and if everything goes right you retire comfortably to enjoy the fruits of your labor.

Small businesses take a leap at the beginning. Choosing to work for themselves many will never do more than support their own family and a few employees for the duration of their career. An event like this is something they can ill afford. Despite popular belief, many of these folks aren’t driving Mercedes and lighting cigars with 100-dollar bills. That said, this too is a venture that can easily span a lifetime.

Baseball players suffer the same perception in many ways, people see them as millionaires who don’t deserve our concern. The average baseball career will last 5.6 years as of the latest figures and while I realize your favorite player will probably be in the league a whole lot longer than that, reality is there are far more who play closer to this number.

Yes, the average MLB salary is around 4.1 million. Over the course of a career, that’s a nice chunk of money and spent wisely they should find a way to be set for life. Take into account the debt incurred simply trying to make it to the show and it gets a bit murkier. Now imagine your average career, witch at most gives you one contract year beyond the rookie contracts and arbitration years.

Something like this is unprecedented and will affect us all in different ways. To the typical 40-50-year career person, this will be little more than a weird blip they look back on in a long life’s work. Even if you’ve been laid off, chances are when all this clears up you resume your career either were you were or a new opportunity.

For many small businesses, unless someone does something to pay their rent or mortgage, secure loans, or recover monies lost from inventory that went bad they will shutter forever. Some of these hearty entrepreneurs will surely hurt at the loss of what they’ve built, but many who are young enough to start again will do exactly that. Others will have to face the possibility of working for someone else after a lifetime of building the life they wanted to live.

Now take that 40-50-year span and condense it into 5 or 6 years. That’s how long you have to make your money, build your reputation and your brand. Chop a year out of that timeline and you can see just how crippling that could be.

Financially, of course, but it’s bigger than that for some players. Those who signed the one year “bet on yourself” contracts, will have to do it again, now two years removed from the last time they did anything productive on the field. Others will miss the opportunity all together. The agreement struck to ensure service time will cause a chain reaction of decisions to be made.

I don’t write all this so that you feel bad for baseball players or to say the game is more valuable that human life. I’m simply saying “we’re all in this together” should mean more than a cool frame on your Facebook profile picture.

When events like this happen, we need to remember everyone. While we miss the game, its somehow far more than that to those who play it as a profession.

Stay safe out there everyone.

Watching It Grow: The 1997 Pittsburgh Pirates

“The Freak Show” as they affectionately came to be known thanks to Pirates long time announcer, Greg Brown, have been the inspiration for a few segments on AT&T Sports Net (as well as the past incarnations of the same network), promotions at PNC Park and multiple articles over the past 20 plus years. Our own Gary Morgan even wrote about them at the previous publication we “worked” at together. They hold a very special place in Pittsburgh Pirates folklore, as well as in the hearts of many Pirates Fans that had the opportunity to see them play first hand. They were a ragtag bunch of baseball players with no expectations placed on them, mostly due to $9 million dollar payroll that was invested in their creation. The 1997 Pittsburgh Pirates hold a special place in my fandom not only for what went only inside the friendly confines of Three Rivers Stadium, but also for what was going on in the life of a young man from Apollo, Pennsylvania.

As the 1997 season started I was finishing up my senior year at Apollo-Ridge High School, with plans to been college at Mercyhurst in the fall. I had a part time job at McDonald’s, spent most of my time at one of the local restaurants (Patrick’s Pub or the Mosey Inn) with my friends, midnight bowling at Lee’s Lanes on a Saturday Night or at the Country Club on Sunday’s. During the previous summer mine and my friend’s parents had also started to let us venture the hour long drive to Three River’s Stadium to let us what Our Buccos play, mostly because they pretty much knew when they could expect us to get home; even though we often tried to push the limits by stopping at Smartie Arties in Holiday Park for some wings on the way back from the game. This summer would be no different, except for the fact that we may have attempted to force our parents expectations even further beyond their boundaries due to a sense freedom on the horizon as we all looked forward to the future.

Along with the new sense of freedom we had instilled in ourselves, the Pirates were also going through some changes of their own. Gone was the Pirates Manager of 10 years, Jim Leyland. In his place stood a familiar face in the form of Pirates former 3rd Base Coach Gene Lamont, who himself had returned to the team from the a stint as the Chicago White Sox Manager during the previous year. Kevin McClatchy started to become a more familiar name to a Pirates Fans, after having purchased the team during the previous off-season in February of 1996. After his first full season as owner of the team, he took it upon himself to slash the team’s payroll from an already near league low of $21 Million in 1996 to the ridiculously low, previously mentioned, $9 Million payroll in 1997.

New Pirates Manager Gene Lamont is brought in to try to fill the shoes of the Legend Jim Leyland.

Some familiar faces remained, like Outfielder Al Martin and Pitchers Esteban Loaiza and Jon Lieber remainder and one returned; 1st Baseman Kevin Young after a year with the Kansas City Royals. The rest of the team was made up of cheap veterans and many young faces; including a 23 year old Jason Kendall and a September call-up 3 of the previous 4 years, Tony Womack. No one could have predicted what the season would hold for this team, not even the players in the Pirates clubhouse. I, myself, was just happy to have the freedom to go to see a ballgame as an “adult” and and was so wrapped in the social calendar of a recent high school graduate that it was probably about a month or so into the season before I even realized what was going on.

The first game I attended that year was a 10 inning thriller against the Marlins on Sunday in May. Midre Cummings brought the raucous crowd to their feet with a two run home run in the bottom of the 9th to take the game to extra innings, only to have our hopes dashed in the top of the tenth as the Marlins scored two runs. You know who scored the go ahead run? Marlins third baseman, Bobby Bonilla. It would be almost two full months before would attend another game because of work and graduation parties, but I still kept up with the team through radio broadcasts, my subscription to the Sporting News and games whenever they were broadcast.

My next game was a pretty infamous one; you guessed it, the 10-0 loss to the Houston Astros on Friday July 11th. The next day was one for the history and record books but unfortunately I had to work that night and didn’t even find out what had happened until later on the next day when I went to my Grandparents house and picked up the sports section of the Valley News Dispatch. The Pittsburgh Pirates Pitchers, Francisco Cordova and Ricardo Rincon, had combined for 10 inning no-hitter, the 8th of its kind and tied for the longest combined no-hitter in history. That day I watched the game on television with my Grandparents and the Buccos won again, giving them a 1 game lead in the NL Central over the Astros.

Toward the beginning and especially in the middle of August many of my friends began to head of to college, leaving only a few of us at home, waiting for it to be our turn. On Wednesday August 20th I went to my last game with one of my high school friends before he left for school that weekend. The Pirates won 7-3 over the Padres and moved back to .500 at 63-63. Honestly I don’t remember much more about the game other than the fact that Jason Schmidt almost went the distance. I was more focused on the “end of an era” and the trip to Smartie Artie’s on the way home.

Jason Schmidt went 10-9 for the Pirates in 1997, including 2 complete games.

Over the next two weeks I went to four games by myself, including a rare Monday double header against the Dodgers; the second game ended in a walk off home run by Mark Smith in the bottom of the 9th, right after Joe Randa has tied the game with a two run home run the batter before. I wish I would have made that my last game, it would have been a great way to physically walk away from that season and into life as a college freshman. Unfortunately I went to a disappointing 7-3 loss to the Indians a little over a week later and only three days before I left home.

The day that I arrived on the campus at Mercyhurst College in Erie, PA, the Pirates moved within 2.5 games of the Houston Astros. It was the closest they would get to the NL Central Title for the rest of the season. However, it was a sense of pride amongst all of us from the Pittsburgh area as our team was relevant with so many other baseball fans from different areas. And even though we finished 5 games back and 4 games under .500 some three weeks later, it brought me closer to some of the people I met, gave me a little bit of normalcy during a time of such change and attached me to my “hometown” when I was away from home for the first time in my life. I am eternally grateful to the boys from “The Freak Show”, my 1997 Pittsburgh Pirates.

Friday Focus – So, What Ever Happened to the Cheating Investigation in Boston?

Well, in a nutshell, it’s over. Rob Manfred blurted to ESPN that the investigation is over into the Boston Red Sox use of electronics to cheat and that he has not had time to write the report due to all the events surrounding COVID-19.

That’s it, no hints given of the findings, no timeline for when the report would be put together short of “by the time we play baseball”. I can certainly understand this and many other things taking a back seat to the situation at hand, but if the Sox were engaged in anything close to what Houston was, it better not be buried.

There are several executives and players who will wear a permanent stain at the very least, and I truly doubt the executives will find employment in the game anywhere. Stiff penalties were leveed on the Astros and just because the news cycle has shifted from cheating to when the hell are we going to play is no reason for favoritism.

Maybe this all comes down to time and place and Mr. Manfred simply doesn’t want to get into it at this time. That’s fair honestly, and I could understand if that happens to be the motivation for not publicly stating the outcome. As it stands, I have to assume the findings were rather benign or he’d almost have to come out with it for fear of looking like he sat on it.

If that’s the case, why not deliver some good news by clearing one of the most prominent clubs in MLB? The stench of this scandal has been overshadowed, rightly, by the crisis we face as a country, but there will be a return to normalcy at some point and when we do, I’d hope the answers show that the investigation was as thorough as it was in Houston.

Or are we simply accepting that this sort of thing was more widespread than any of us wanted to see previously? Let’s say the findings in Houston had tentacles that led to Boston and New York, perhaps beyond. Does it behoove MLB to stop it in its tracks? In other words, is it best to pretend Houston is the only cheater, put our heads in the sand and claim “We Got ‘em!”

 I’ll be honest, that’s my first thought. When the news started breaking about the widespread cheating the Astros pulled off, I immediately started wondering how far this would go. When executives were pinged, I thought it has to stop here for better or worse. If not the punishment in Houston is far too severe. Essentially, they would be paying because they did it better than the competition and won.

Otherwise you end up with a league full of front offices that resemble fields of land mines. Much like Steroids where some players were outed, most were left with a passed test and the problem was all but considered eradicated.

If you can’t fathom accepting that some cheating will always play a role in sports, you might want to stop watching. It stretches back as far as competition and cheating is in the eye of the beholder. Let’s look at Sammy Sosa, here is a guy who never tested positive for steroids, but c’mon. Does anyone ever talk about the time his bat exploded and it was filled with cork? We have real evidence of one cheat, but it wasn’t the hot topic, steroids were. In other words, MLB didn’t want to have that fight, they were more than engaged in the other already. I wonder if this is the same situation with different circumstances. Time will tell, but the questions shouldn’t disappear just because we want them to.

Condensed Schedule Will Likely Mean More Pitchers on Every Roster

One of the myriad options for starting a season in MLB would cause a condensed schedule with built in double headers and far fewer off days. To combat the effects of moving forward with such a schedule one of the proposals, and it should be obvious, more pitchers would be needed. Now, for some clubs this could help them avoid a few tough decisions, for the Pirates they might be tough for a whole other reason.

The Bucs have options, as do all teams, part of what goes into the decision would assuredly be just how many pitchers you think you have. We have no real vision of a proposed schedule but if we assume at least 1 double header and sometimes 2 in a given week, a club would like to have 6 or 7 Starting pitchers.

Do the Bucs have 6 or 7? Surely, Archer, Musgrove, Williams, Brault, Keller, Holland, Ponce, Brubaker, Stratton and we could go on. Now, how many of those would you want to trot out there every fifth game? The first 5 are pretty easy, Archer, Musgrove, Williams, Keller, Brault/Holland.

I think if I’m the Pirates I go with 6 starters and keep utility stretch man Cody Ponce in Pittsburgh. Ponce would do well starting bullpen only games and may even work his way into the rotation should any of the six falter.

In many ways, this keeps the Pirates from having to answer a few tough questions, at least for now. Holland or Brault to the bullpen was going to come up and if this concept does come to pass, they will now be able to keep them both stretched out and in the rotation. It could also give them the ability to finally at long last keep opposing lineups at least a little less comfortable. Setting up the rotation to not allow the opposition lineups to get settled in by alternating lefty’s and righty’s, something like this; Musgrove, Holland, Archer, Brault, Keller and Williams.

All those options and the Bucs again would find themselves an injury or two from a very bad place. Chad Kuhl deserves to be mentioned as an option but man its so hard to ask a guy recovering from TJ and had it stunted, to go out there and start. Maybe he does, perhaps he is one of the six and the Bucs do have to answer the Holland/Brault question.

No matter what, nobody would head into the year feeling super optimistic about the 1-5 starters, its hard to imagine 1-7 would make you feel more confident. The one thing the Pirates might have over some competitors however, we always here they don’t have any number ones, instead a bunch of 4s and 5s. That very fact might actually serve them well, because they have A LOT of them. Some of the competition will have three very strong starters and a fairly weak 4 and 5.

Let’s look at the Cards because we all know they’re our dream for running an organization. Flaherty, Hudson, Mikolas OK, now that’s solid. That 1-3 is the envy of most teams outside LA. Then we head to Wainwright, would I take him as a 4 or 5 on my team? Honestly, no, I was shocked they brought him back last season. Ponce de Leon has promise, Kim is a wildcard, Martinez is either a starter or a closer and as of now they haven’t decided. Now that’s 7, if you want 8 you go Gomber. Even with a delay Mikolas could start on the IL.

In a five-man rotation, those top three can carry a team to great heights, in a six- or seven-man rotation you could very well lose the impact of your best tossing the majority of starts. This could allow a team with lesser top end talent to even the playing field a bit by trotting a more overall competent rotation in totality.

So, there it is, clear as mud huh? What I can say is on the surface it doesn’t look great, but if you look a little deeper, it could actually help the Pirates compete.