Saturday, September 30, 2006

Crosby and Ovechkin in Vanguard of N.H.L.'s Uphill Battle

By LYNN ZINSER
The New York Times
Published: October 1, 2006

Sidney Crosby long ago grew used to the idea of lifting a team on his shoulders, and last season he added the job of boosting the entire N.H.L. as one of its new, bright stars.

But one night last week, in the woods outside West Point, N.Y., Crosby, the Pittsburgh Penguins’ 19-year-old wunderkind, found himself with an unexpected heavy-lifting assignment: pushing a Hummer up a hill. The Penguins sprinkled various military exercises into their training camp at the United States Military Academy, including a night march through a swamp, rolling a Jeep with three bad wheels and teaming in groups of eight to move the Hummer.

“That,” Crosby said, shaking his head, “was not something I ever thought I’d experience. We realized we’re lucky to be playing hockey.”

The drills were designed as team-building exercises, an appropriate theme for the N.H.L. season, which opens this week. For all that Crosby accomplished in his rookie season — as did Alexander Ovechkin, the Capitals’ 21-year-old star — the buzz two dazzling players brought to a league rattled by the lockout season of 2004-5 is likely to wane if Pittsburgh and Washington remain two of the league’s worst teams.

Despite Crosby’s 102 points and Ovechkin’s amazing 52 goals and 106 points, the Penguins and Capitals combined for fewer victories (51) than Ottawa (52), the Eastern Conference champion.
The Pittsburgh and Washington franchises have had success; the Penguins won Stanley Cups in 1991 and 1992, and the Capitals made the Cup finals in 1998. But both teams have struggled in recent years, with ownership and arena issues to complicate their on-ice failures.

Their misery landed them the high draft picks that netted Crosby and Ovechkin, who made their debuts last season and lived up to their considerable hype. Now the question is whether their teams can build contending squads around them. They can hardly become their league’s saviors, the N.H.L. equivalent of Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, without at least the hope of winning a Stanley Cup.

Their cause is helped by the remaking of the N.H.L. in the postlockout era. A salary cap has brought back competitive balance, and new rules have opened up offenses.

“Sid and Alex have come into the league at the perfect time,” said Bill Clement, the lead analyst for NBC and Versus (formerly OLN). “If there hadn’t been a lockout, we wouldn’t be having this conversation. Now the game showcases just what they do, which is skate, pass, shoot and score.”

The league is also showcasing its young stars in an invigorated marketing campaign, and it is hard to find a hockey preview not decorated with Crosby’s and Ovechkin’s elfin smiles. They have participated in those efforts happily, and neither has seemed to let it warp his perspective.

“If Alex and I can be part of a group of young guys who help the league, it’s great to be a part of that,” Crosby said. “But we’ve played only one year. You can’t forget that. We have a lot more to prove. Hopefully, it will continue to go well for both of us, but we have a lot of work to do.”

Crosby has Pittsburgh sold. His No. 87 jersey drapes shop windows, and he seems to trail only Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger in local sports stardom. Crosby appeared on “The Tonight Show” before he scored his first N.H.L. point, shooting pucks into a clothes dryer at Jay Leno’s bidding.

The attention, though, has not seemed outsized to Crosby, who had the mantle of Canada’s hockey savior thrown on him at age 15 by none other than Wayne Gretzky.

“I couldn’t imagine getting that much exposure and attention at that age,” said forward Mark Recchi, one of the Penguins’ elder statesmen at 38. “He’s handled it wonderfully. He’s a great kid in the dressing room. He’s fun on and off the ice. He’s a very competitive kid, too.”

One of the few ideas that widens Crosby’s eyes is trying to lead Pittsburgh to a Stanley Cup. The reaction is natural for Crosby, a 19-year-old surrounded by a gaggle of teammates who appear to have started shaving last week. The Penguins are banking on a core of players like Evgeni Malkin, Jordan Staal and goalie Marc-André Fleury, of whom only Fleury can legally buy beer.

“I don’t think there are any shortcuts to building this,” said Ray Shero, who took over remaking the Penguins this year when Craig Patrick, the general manager for 16 years, was fired. “There are a lot of good assets here. It’s just a matter to me of getting the right personality, the right fit around some of these young players and building around them. Whether it’s the right identity for our team, we’ll find out.”

Perhaps the only player who can relate to Crosby’s situation is Ovechkin, whose bosses have taken the same approach to rebuilding the moribund Capitals.

Before the lockout, the Capitals were known for spending big on underachieving free agents, a philosophy they ditched when they traded Jaromir Jagr to the Rangers in 2004. The Capitals’ roster, while not quite as young as the Penguins’, is loaded with enough 20-somethings to make the 36-year-old goalie Olaf Kolzig feel as if he were baby-sitting.

Ovechkin, though, treats the team’s growing pains with a shrug. Asked if he would prefer to play with a top-flight center, a natural question for a talented left wing, Ovechkin said he was perfectly happy with Dainius Zubrus.

“Last year we played together, so I know him and he knows me and we understand each other O.K.,” Ovechkin said. “We are getting better.”

Ovechkin has drawn as many raves in Washington for his attitude as for his scoring. General Manager George McPhee said that he was among the hardest-working players and that he amiably agreed to any promotional appearance the team asked of him. Ovechkin attended the draft this year, and when McPhee offered to let him announce several of the Capitals’ picks, Ovechkin barely paused before marching to the microphone.

“He just does not have a bad day,” said McPhee, who added that watching his team practice and play has been much more fun since the youngsters took hold. “You see those young guys out there working their tails off. No one wants to lose, but we are enjoying the process of building this.”

McPhee and Shero say it is harder in hockey than in other sports to build around a single star player, who is on the ice for only 60 to 90 seconds at a time. Having a top-flight goalie is also crucial, a need both teams are working on. But McPhee and Shero also said that they considered themselves lucky to have the game’s brightest stars glittering in their lineups.

“We have not seen the limits of what Alex can do,” McPhee said. “He is one of the most creative players we have seen in a long time. He’s only going to improve, and we’re going to see how good he can be. If we make the club better, people will see a lot more of him.”

Gene Collier: Sanchez Summer was the lone interesting sign


Sunday, October 01, 2006
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

You've got to be awfully consistent to win a batting title in the major leagues, so I suppose it was not surprising that Frederick Philip Sanchez, who has consistently denied any particular interest in winning one, spent a good portion of his fateful 2006 baseball weekend demonstrating that same consistent disinterest.

When the Pirates' clubhouse opened yesterday afternoon, he was watching Purdue wrestle with Notre Dame on the big screen that is the room's focal point, even though several smaller monitors including the one closest to his locker had the Phillies-Marlins game on. The Marlins' Miguel Cabrera, Sanchez's only remaining competition for the National League batting championship, was at that moment getting punched out on three pitches by former Pirates pitcher Rick White on a Florida afternoon that would see his average dip to .339721, which is .340 in topical conversation.

That's the number he'll have to build on today, the final day of the season, if he's to keep the .343-hitting Sanchez from winning the 25th batting championship in Pirates history, more than any other franchise.

"Freddy needs a hit or two over the next two games," manager Jim Tracy guessed before the game last night.

Freddy doesn't have 'em yet.

Sanchez's 0-4 last night kept Cabrera within striking distance.

Sanchez dressed quickly and bolted without comment after the game, but Tracy said he planned to write his name on the lineup card today. To sit Sanchez would be an accepted strategy on the final day of a batting title issue, but it can backfire as well, as when the Reds' Sparky Anderson sat Ken Griffey on the final day of the 1976 season, only to absorb the 4 for 4 turned in by Chicago's Bill Madlock, who won the batting title, .339 to Griffey's .336.

It might seem an exercise in statistical trivia, a small matter of numerological housekeeping for earnest readers of baseball's record book, but batting titles are often the launching points of distinguished careers. Sanchez had an undistinguished one to this point, but a rich sampling of the company he can join today indicates essentially that excellence will ensue -- Bonds, Gwynn, Madlock, Parker, Rose, Clemente, Aaron.

The past 50 National League batting titles have been won by only 27 people, 27 people whose typical career batting average wound up at .302. They've varied wildly in style, with more of them hitting only two homers in their batting title years (Dick Groat 1960, Richie Ashburn 1958, Matty Alou 1966) than belting 45 or more (Derek Lee 2005, and Barry Bonds 2004 and 2002). None of them could have been said to have had undistinguished career.

Even a player such as Ralph Garr (1974), a defensive liability on some terrible Atlanta Braves teams, wound up with a career batting average of .306 across 13 seasons. Terry Pendleton (1991), with the lowest career batting average (.270) of anyone who won the league title in the past 50 years, won an MVP award and three Gold Gloves in a career that spanned 15 seasons. Bill Buckner (1980), whose career was poisoned by a single World Series ground ball, was a .300 hitter or better five times.

"There's no such thing as a fluky batting champion," Tracy said. "There's nothing fluky about a player just continuing to go the plate and taking superior at-bats. Freddy Sanchez not only knows how to take a critical at-bat with a runner in scoring position, he's capable of making productive outs."

That is, of course, the raw fabric of the Sanchez story, that despite some rather persistent evidence that he always knew what he was doing at the plate, he never played his way into an everyday lineup until a year ago. Even this spring, the offseason acquisition of Joe Randa figured to put him back in the dugout and pretty much keep him there. It was Randa's foot injury in early May that brought him back.

"I think he would have wound up with something like the same number of at-bats anyway," Tracy said. "You could just tell very early by the kind of at-bats he was having in pinch-hit situations that there was no way you could not play this guy. If it hadn't been Randa, someone else would have gotten nicked up just enough for it to happen.

"He's not the first player in this game who's done that and then gone on to have a very special year."

No matter what happens at PNC Park and in Florida this afternoon, this has been our Sanchez Summer. The very sound of summer on these mostly quiet North Side nights has been the regular vocal eruptions sparked by another line drive off the bat of steady Freddy, who has very simply hit the ball hard in every direction in every month and in every situation.

The .392 he hit at PNC Park was the best batting average by any player at any Major League Baseball Park in America. No wonder it will end with thousands holding up their "Go Freddy Go" signs. That's what will have to sustain them through the long offseason that starts again within hours.

Time for Crosby to write Chapter 2


Loaded down with high expectations, Penguins' rookie sensation was just that
Sunday, October 01, 2006
By Robert Dvorchak, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

On the first day of Penguins training camp last year, Sidney Crosby blended in with the pack except for one subtle detail. He was wearing a black helmet while every other player on the ice was wearing a white one.

The easy explanation was that the white model hadn't arrived yet from the manufacturer. But the message was that this gifted young man with a passion for hockey and a drive to excel was going to stand out, even in the most pedestrian of circumstances.

The expectations heaped on his 18-year-old shoulders were weighty enough to make his skate blades break through the machine-made ice. But by the time he faced his final media scrum in the season finale last April 18 at the Air Canada Centre in Toronto, Crosby had provided a reason for Pittsburgh fans to keep watching even if the Penguins' overall performance provided plenty of reasons to turn away.

By scoring 102 points, he eclipsed the Penguins rookie record established by Hall of Famer Mario Lemieux, the man who had saved the franchise twice -- once from its own futility and once from bankruptcy.

Crosby also became the youngest player ever to compile that many points. Dale Hawerchuk, also a Hall of Famer, scored 103 in 1982-83, but he was 101 days older than Crosby when he reached that milestone.

"Individually, I was pretty happy with the way things went," Crosby said in summing up his first season. "But if you look on the other side of it, I also want to win. I'd probably trade a few of those [points] for some wins and a playoff spot."

The only expectations Crosby heeded were the ones he placed on himself. Simply, they were to give his best every time he was on the ice and to make sure he contributed his best to helping the team win. Which is why his own summation of his season was spiced with mixed feelings.

"My whole life, I was kind of the youngest guy on my team. It was kind of unique I was able to do it and be the youngest, because that was something that was repeated to me a lot. But I was always told that age is just a number," Crosby said. "You're only a rookie once. By no means did I think about getting 100 points or a certain point total coming into the season. Once it became near, I thought it would be a nice feat. I just tried to have the best finish to the season I could and have no regrets. In a way, it helped motivate me a little more. But honestly, it wasn't something I was thinking about."

As it turned out, Crosby wasn't the league's top rookie. That honor was won by Washington's Alexander Ovechkin. And it was anything but a trophy season for the Penguins, who finished in the cellar.

Still, a brigade of Zambonis cannot erase the marks Crosby left on the ice during a rookie season baptized by blood, chipped teeth and dazzling displays that produced disbelief even among seasoned hockey people.

"You rub your eyes," said Michel Therrien, the second coach the Penguins employed last season, following one of Crosby's highlight-reel assists. "He does things that few players can."

The answers to what is next for Crosby and the Penguins start to come on Thursday when the rival Philadelphia Flyers visit to open the regular season. It was the Flyers who cast aspersions about diving -- the hockey equivalent of being soft -- last season. Peter Forsberg, a player to whom Crosby is often compared, even made a diving motion with his arms during one game. But in the eight games between the two teams, the only diving penalties called were on Philadelphia's Sami Kapanen and Derian Hatcher, the defenseman who split Crosby's lip and rearranged three of his teeth in a game Crosby won with an overtime goal.

High expectations

Labels get tossed around with ridiculous regularity in sports, where those who stand out are accorded the celebrity status of rock stars.

In Crosby's case, he was touted as The Next One from the time he was 16 after none other than The Great One, Wayne Gretzky, said he might have a shot at his records.

He was also dubbed as The Savior not only for the Penguins but also for the NHL, which had relegated itself to the status of a niche sport in the U.S. with its clutch-and-grab drabness.
"He's a breath of fresh air for the NHL. He's tremendous for our game," Gretzky said on a visit to Pittsburgh last year.

"He probably has more pressure on him than I did because of the extra media, but he handles the pressure as well as anybody. He's been under the microscope. He understands what everything is about," Gretzky added.

And what stands out about Crosby?

"His vision, his work ethic. He sees the ice extremely well. He passes the puck extremely well. He loves coming to the rink. He's mature beyond his years. He's way more mature than any 18-year-old I've ever been around," Gretzky said. "How can you get a better combination than that?"

Like Gretzky in hockey, Tiger Woods in golf and Michael Jordan in basketball, there are athletes who not only raise their play when the spotlight is white-hot but also transcend their sport. Crosby's impact extended far beyond the dasher boards.

Endorsement contracts from Reekbok and Gatorade made Crosby a multi-millionaire before he entered the NHL.

After the Penguins won the lottery for his draft rights but before the puck dropped on the reborn NHL, the team sold more tickets than it had during the 2003-04 season. Despite a dismal season, the team led the league with a 33 percent increase in attendance.

Sales of merchandise at the team store also shot up about 30 percent because of him, and Super Bowl MVP Hines Ward attended hockey games wearing Crosby's No. 87 jersey, a tribute that Crosby returned by waving a Terrible Towel on the ice.

Young ladies squealed in Crosby's presence as if he were Elvis on skates. Hand-made placards appeared in hockey rinks that read: "Marry Me, Sidney"; "Future Mrs. Crosby"; "Give Us A Goal and I'll Give You A Kiss." One that was hoisted the night he scored his 100th point while he exchanged unpleasantries with the Islanders' Miroslav Satan asked him to go to the prom.

During his first trip to Toronto as a Penguin, in a scene reminiscent of The Beatles in "A Hard Day's Night," Crosby was chased by a fleet of autograph hounds in cabs. In Montreal, a wave of autograph seekers almost swamped the team bus. A similar scene played out just days before when the team practiced at a rink in Castle Shannon.

"I've never seen anything like it," said Tom McMillan, the team's vice president of communications who routinely arranged group media sessions to meet the demands for Crosby's time. "It was never like this even for Mario."

A star from the start

Observations made during last year's training camp were telling.

One came from Mario Lemieux when an interviewer suggested that Crosby wouldn't be the biggest star on the Penguins roster as long as the Hall of Fame captain, team owner and landlord was on the ice.

"He might. He has a chance," said Lemieux in one of the earliest indications that the torch was being passed to a new generation.

"I know how good he is. Nothing surprises me," Lemieux added. "There's no weaknesses. He's a great skater. He's strong physically. His first couple of steps are very quick. You can get away from people when you skate like that. He's taking to the game very well. I think he always knows what he's going to do with the puck before he gets it. Anytime you can do that, you have a big advantage."

Another prophetic perception, offered when training camp moved to Wilkes-Barre, came from Pierre McGuire, the hockey analyst who was the assistant coach when the Penguins last hoisted the Stanley Cup.

"He's the ultimate apple-polisher. He's addicted to being good. Wherever he's played, he's been the best. He accepts that mantle. He wants it. He gets it. He's legit," Mr. McGuire said. "He's going to be the measuring stick for every young player who comes into the league from now on."
Crosby started making lasting impressions the very first time he laced up skates as a 3-year-old when his father escorted him to Nova Scotia's Halifax Forum, a warehouse-like venue where the pigeon droppings that rained from the rafters to the ice were scraped off with shovels.

For one thing, Crosby's ankles never bowed when he skated. And when toys were tossed onto the ice for the kids to play with, Sidney always grabbed the plastic hockey stick.

"I didn't have to teach him to hold it. He just picked it up naturally," said his father, Troy Crosby, once a goalie in the Montreal system. "I never had to encourage him to play. You could tell he had talent, a gift. He had a passion for the game too."

Almost from the time young Crosby played novice, atom, peewee, bantam and midget hockey, he was so good that he was moved up to play against older competition. He gave his first newspaper interview with he was 7 years old.

"From the time he was a kid, he played up to the competition. I told him to always challenge yourself to be the best. Don't settle for being ordinary. That was just my philosophy," Troy Crosby said.

"He never wanted to be the next Wayne Gretzky or the next Mario Lemieux. He wants to be Sidney Crosby. He's comfortable with who he is. He's not just playing hockey. He's playing to be the best he can be," he added. "He hates to lose. Hates it. He's his own worst critic. He's always trying to get better."

After scoring his first NHL goal in his first home game, Crosby autographed his game jersey this way: "To Dad: Thanks for helping me live my dream."

Hockey genes came from both sides of the family. Trina Forbes Crosby's brother and a nephew played professionally.

When younger sister Taylor was born, Sidney asked why he was the only one in the family whose first name didn't begin with a T.

"Because you're special," his mother told him.

It wasn't the last time he heard the word.

Brad Crossley, one of Crosby's coaches in the amateur ranks, spotted something extraordinary early on.

"I've never met a person or a player as driven as him. He just wants to be the best in everything. To talk about Sidney Crosby fills your heart," Mr. Crossley said. "I think he was made to play hockey. He has an innate ability that can't be taught. He's a hockey artist. He can do things others can only dream of."

But a gritty side also developed. At its essence, hockey is a game played on the micro-edge of steel blades, a game of speed, skill, passion, lip-splitting violence and mental toughness. Anyone who is the best player on a team can expect confrontations with opponents determined to test them, whether it's in the NHL or the major midget leagues.

"He's played through slashes that would break any normal person's arm. It was vicious," Mr. Crossley said. "But he plays better after he's hit. It drives him more. There have been and always will be naysayers. But he likes to prove people wrong."

Crosby grew up in Cole Harbour, Nova Scotia, a tidy community of 30,000 where the streets run in alphabetical order and where he bought a house in the off-season. Technically, the town is part of the provincial capital of Halifax, where the British built a fort atop Citadel Hill to protect the harbor.

Crosby trains on that hill, running up and down and around the sides because so much of hockey involves leaning one way or the other on skates. When he was 14, he improved his time in the 40-yard dash from 4.8 to 4.3 seconds -- the equivalent of wide receiver speed in the NFL, according to Andy O'Brien, his former personal trainer.

"I've always said that he was born to be a hockey player. He's just got that natural ability," said Mr. O'Brien, now the strength coach of the Florida Panthers. "He's not designed for one specific thing. He's designed for everything. He's strong. He's hard to knock off the puck. He's got good balance. He's got tremendous speed and acceleration. And he's worked at each component to make them better. He's never, ever taken anything for granted. "

In Crosby's childhood bedroom, which was adorned with Montreal Canadiens' wallpaper along with posters of Lemieux and Gretzky, there is a framed text from Oliver Wendell Holmes that reads: "Make it happen. Greatness is not where we stand but in what direction we are moving. We must sail sometimes with the wind and sometimes against it. But sail we must and not drift. Nor be an anchor."

If Crosby plays for another 20 years, it's hard to imagine a more eventful season than his first.
The team lost with such frequency that coach Eddie Olczyk was fired, and general manager Craig Patrick was dismissed after the season. At 40, Lemieux was afflicted with a heart ailment, announced the team was up for sale and then retired for good. Winger Ziggy Palffy, one of several big-name free agents brought in and one of a seemingly endless number of linemates, quit on an eight-figure contract and went back to Slovakia. Crosby was left off the Canadian Olympic team. Frictions were noted in the locker room. The lights flickered in the Mellon Arena, and the franchise cannot say with certainty what its address will be in the future.

But Crosby's reaction to the tumult is the reason why some say his greatest asset is the five inches of space between his ears.

"A lot of different things have happened, but that's why you don't go into a season with any expectations. There are things you can't always prepare for. That's hockey. That's life," Crosby said one day last March.

"If you think about what could happen or what may happen, your energy's not in the right place," he added. "The game hasn't changed on the ice, and I don't think it ever will. I came here to play hockey. That remains my job and my focus."

Drop the puck. On to Chapter Two.

(Robert Dvorchak can be reached at bdvorchak@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1959. )

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Analysis: When Steelers return, there could be changes

By Ed Bouchette
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
September 27, 2006

Bill Cowher said he came away encouraged by some things from the Steelers' game Sunday against the Cincinnati Bengals. One of them, we presume, was not the play of return man Ricardo Colclough.

As the Steelers coach and his team take their traditional look inside themselves -- they call it self-scouting in the business -- as they return to practice today to go through their off week, early changes could be forthcoming. Some might be subtle, some more significant.

The most obvious is to keep Colclough as far away from returning punts as possible. Colclough might have done a fine job at Tusculum College (24 punt returns for a 14.4-yard average), but he returned only one in his first two seasons with the Steelers, and the evidence this year is overwhelming that a no return policy should be in effect for him.

If that part of the game truly is considered important, then a way must be found for rookie Willie Reid to handle it. His 15.4-yard average on punt returns is a Florida State record, better than Deion Sanders, and is third all time in the Atlantic Coast Conference.

Reid returned 10 punts in the preseason for an 8.8-yard average.

Another option is rookie Santonio Holmes, who averaged 10.1 yards on 38 punt returns for Ohio State, which is in the Big Ten Conference, not Division II.

Here is what Cowher said shortly after the Steelers traded away a third-round draft choice to climb higher in the first round to take Holmes with the 25th overall pick: "Look at his production and look at his speed; it was a very unique combination. We wanted to get a returner and a speed receiver and he was probably the one guy on the board this is proven in both of those areas."

Holmes returned one punt in the preseason for 12 yards.

Here is what Cowher said, comparing Reid to Holmes as a punt returner: "Willie has been more impressive on the punt returns. Both of these guys can return and we feel good about that."

The single most other glaring trouble spot the past two games has been quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. Roethlisberger, the picture of efficiency through his first two NFL seasons with an overall 98.3 passer rating, has a horrendous 34.3 rating after two games. That reflects his five interceptions, no touchdowns and 49.3 percent completion rate.

Yet Roethlisberger is the least of the Steelers' worries. Perhaps he did return too soon after his appendectomy. Through two full seasons, he has shown he is one of the best young quarterbacks to come along in the NFL in a generation, and he is expected to return to form before long.

There's not as much confidence in the group of receivers. Third-down back Verron Haynes leads the receivers with 10 catches. Hines Ward has only nine for 99 yards but he also entered the season injured, with a bad hamstring, and has a proven pedigree. Cedrick Wilson dropped what could have been big catches in each of the past two losses and has only four receptions. Nate Washington, the No. 3 receiver, got off to a fast start with a touchdown catch in the opener. But he has dropped three passes in the past two games, one in the end zone Sunday. Santonio Holmes could be in line to move up from No. 4 before long.

Tight end Heath Miller has been the exception. He has been reasonably productive for that position with seven receptions for 146 yards. He was the target on several other occasions the past two games, but the pass went awry, as it did for an interception in the end zone against the Bengals.

Two areas that Cowher found encouraging were his offensive line and the running game, which go hand in hand. The line not only blocked well enough to help spring Willie Parker for 133 yards and two touchdowns, it provided Roethlisberger with great protection, even if he could not many times find a receiver to take advantage of it.

"We did play better, gave the backs some better holes," guard Alan Faneca said. "We played better as a unit."

Parker ran much better Sunday than he did in Jacksonville. He cut back through holes, missing few of them, and followed the flow of his blocking to a T.

Through three games, the defense looks like a typical Steelers defense. They have been aggressive and have 10 sacks, five interceptions and a touchdown. They've stoned opposing running games to an average of 78.3 yards. They have allowed more passing yards (295.3) than they would prefer, although the five interceptions help negate that.

Their special teams have not played well through three games, weighed down by the lack of good returns, Colclough's muffed punt that might have cost them a victory and Jeff Reed's two missed field goals, one from a block. Punter Chris Gardocki is off to a fast start, averaging 45 yards per punt with five of his 15 stopped inside the 20. However, the punt coverage has not been good -- an average of 13.3 yards on eight returns by opponents.

The worst news for the Steelers as they take the week off is that they are 1-2, but the flaws that helped cause those two losses are correctable or should, in a case such as Roethlisberger, work themselves out.

(Ed Bouchette can be reached at ebouchette@post-gazette.com or 412-263-3878. )

POSITIONS THAT MUST IMPROVE

Quarterback:Ben Roethlisberger has a horrendous 34.3 rating after two games. That reflects his five interceptions, no touchdowns and 49.3 percent completion rate.

Receivers:Hines Ward has nine receptions for 99 yards and Cedrick Wilson and Nate Washington continue to drop passes. The only bright spot is Heath Miller's productivity.

Special Teams: Have been weighed down by the lack of good returns and Ricardo Colclough's muffed punt that might have cost the Steelers a victory against the Bengals.

POSITIONS THAT ARE PLAYING WELL

Offensive Line: The O-line has opened holes for Willie Parker to run for 268 yards and two touchdowns through three games and has given Roethlisberger excellent protection.

Running Backs: Going hand in hand with the offensive line, the running backs have performed well, despite their low output at Jacksonville. Parker averages 3.8 yards per carry.

Defense: Although it has allowed more passing yards than it would like, the defense has been aggressive and has 10 sacks, five interceptions and a touchdown.

MORE COVERAGE

Bob Smizik: Penalties showed lack of class
Blog 'n' Gold A different take on Black and Gold news

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Malkin won't need surgery on shoulder

Could return in 2-4 weeks

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

By Dave Molinari
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

WEST POINT, N.Y. -- Ray Shero isn't entirely clear on the finer points of the program Evgeni Malkin will go through to rehabilitate his dislocated left shoulder.

He's pretty certain, though, that at least a few things aren't part of Malkin's regimen just yet.

"I'm sure he's not walking on his hands," said Shero, the Penguins' general manager.

Probably not, but Malkin's bosses might have been tempted to try doing that -- if not cartwheel across the room -- after word began to circulate yesterday that he will not need surgery to repair his shoulder.

"It's a big relief for him -- and for this organization and this hockey team -- that we'll see him pretty soon," coach Michel Therrien said.

Even though the Penguins are adamant that they will not set a timetable for his return yet, it's clear Malkin's absence will be measured in weeks, not months.

The most optimistic projection for an injury such as Malkin's would be for him to resume playing in about two weeks, but it just as easily could take twice that. Or, if things progress more slowly than usual, even a week or so longer.

Had surgery been needed, Malkin would have been out until sometime in 2007, so even a relatively drawn-out rehabilitation sounds good by comparison.

"If he was going to get an operation, who knows?" Therrien said.

"It could have been three months, up to six months. The season probably would have been over."

Malkin began his rehabilitation with physical therapist Mark Mortland yesterday, but Shero said the Penguins, who will train at the U.S. Military Academy until Thursday, want to see how his early sessions go before targeting a time for him to begin practicing, let alone playing.

"We need to see how he responds," Shero said. "From our standpoint, we'd like to have a timetable. When we get back, maybe we'll have some sort of update."

Malkin's absence leaves a hole in the middle of the No. 2 line and Jordan Staal, the Penguins' first-round choice in the June entry draft, remains a candidate to fill it.

He played between Ryan Malone and Mark Recchi in the Penguins' 2-1 victory against Philadelphia Sunday night in London, Ontario -- he also picked up an assist on John LeClair's winning goal late in the third period -- and will get more work there before the Penguins decide whether to send him back to his Ontario Hockey League club in Peterborough.
"We're probably going to try it again this weekend," Therrien said.

The Penguins have remained noncommittal about their plans for Staal, who can play up to nine games in the NHL before 2006-07 would count as his rookie season, for purposes of taking a year off his entry-level contract and his eventual eligibility for free agency.

While Malkin's injury has given Staal an opportunity to play between a couple of top-six forwards, Shero insists that his short-term future is not tied to Malkin's recovery.

"I don't think it affects Staal at all," he said. "There will be a further evaluation for him, as we move along. We have the bigger picture in mind. ... We're not going to plug Jordan Staal into the lineup just to have a body."

Although Shero described himself as a "worst-case scenario guy," he acknowledged that he hadn't formulated a plan to fill the void that would have been created if Malkin had required surgery.

"It'd be a huge hole," Shero said. "Did I have something in place? No. It's a tough hole to fill."

Turns out that's a non-issue. But despite the personnel headaches that losing Malkin for an extended period would have caused, Shero said the Penguins would not have balked at having him undergo surgery if that had been in his long-term interest.

"There's a bigger picture involved [than the team's short-term fortunes]," he said. "We want to make sure he's 100 percent. There would be no rushing that."

NOTES -- With the training-camp roster at 27 -- not counting Malkin and forward Ronald Petrovicky, who is recovering from hip surgery -- Shero said there likely will be no more cuts until after the Penguins complete exhibition play, but did not guarantee it. ... The Penguins kicked off their team-building stay at West Point with a game of paintball and a team dinner at the home of Army hockey coach Brian Riley. ... Malkin's coach with Magnitogorsk of the Russian Super League, Dave King, was fired yesterday after the team got off to a 3-4-1 start.

Freddy or not, here comes final stretch of batting race


Six points separate Sanchez, Cabrera with six games to go

Tuesday, September 26, 2006
By Dejan Kovacevic, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

If the National League batting race were boiled down to a simple matter of desire, the duel between the Pirates' Freddy Sanchez and the Florida Marlins' Miguel Cabrera probably would wind up in a dead heat.

With neither man going off at the gun.

"It's not what I'm shooting for," Sanchez continued to insist on the just-completed West Coast trip. "My goal is to help this team win some more games, so we can continue this good baseball we've been playing."

And Cabrera?

"I'm not thinking about that," he said over the weekend in Philadelphia.

OK, then, just for fun: What if the determining factor were which hitter admires the other more?
"He's unbelievable," Sanchez said of Cabrera. "He's the type of hitter where you feel he can get a hit at any time. And not just that, but hit it out of the ballpark, very far and to any field."

"I've always thought he was a great hitter," Cabrera said of Sanchez. "Everybody said he was a good hitter. He just never got the chance. He was in Boston and didn't get the chance. And early on with Pittsburgh, he didn't get the chance because there were other players in front of him. But now that he's gotten the chance, look what he's done. He's been consistent the whole year."

Sounds like a tie there, too.

Well, believe them or not, ready or not, here comes the home stretch of Sanchez vs. Cabrera, with Sanchez holding a .342 to .336 edge. The Colorado Rockies' Matt Holliday is lurking, too, at .332. But his chance at leapfrogging from the third spot is a long shot this late in the game, so he can remain out of the discussion for now.

That leaves two players who, for how close their averages are, have little in common.

The advantage

Start with their service time in Major League Baseball.

Sanchez is a late bloomer, a 28-year-old just now on the verge of finishing his second full year.
Cabrera is much younger at 23, but already has 3 1/2 seasons, including his wunderkind contribution to the Marlins' 2003 World Series champion.

Their styles differ, too.

Cabrera's swing is more methodical and much more powerful. He has 25 home runs to Sanchez's six, and his 50 doubles are a match for Sanchez's total that is second only to Paul Waner in Pirates history. Sanchez's swing is as flexible as any, making for an uncanny -- and often unorthodox -- approach to getting the head of the bat on the ball.

Sure, some similarities can be found: Each bats right-handed, plays a fine third base and works out of the No. 3 spot in the order with a left fielder batting cleanup behind him.
But, as Sanchez will attest, those are few.

"Miguel's really a powerful guy. I mean, he can do all kinds of things with the bat, including hit out of the park to all fields. He's amazing."

And yet, power numbers are immaterial in determining the batting champion. What will matter, obviously, is who gets the most hits in the final week. And there are variables aplenty there.
The biggest could be Sanchez's health.

He felt what he called a "tweak" in his left wrist Friday in San Diego, and he would go 0 for 9 in that series while hitting only three balls out of the infield. But the injury apparently is not serious, as the Pirates' medical staff did not perform any scans on the wrist. Sanchez expressed optimism that the team's day off yesterday would be enough for it to feel better.

Cabrera, too, has been bugged by injury. A strained left shoulder caused him to sit out two games late last week, and he indicated it might nag him the rest of the way.

What would be the next-largest factor is pitching.

Sanchez unquestionably has to face the tougher set of starters, beginning tonight with the Houston Astros' Andy Pettitte, Jason Hirsh and Roy Oswalt. Then, he gets the Cincinnati Reds' two best in Aaron Harang and Bronson Arroyo, followed by Matt Belisle.

Cabrera's Marlins take on the Reds for three beginning tonight, but he misses Harang and Arroyo. Instead, he gets Belisle, Chris Michalak and Kyle Lohse. After that, he should see the Philadelphia Phillies' Jamie Moyer, Randy Wolf and Brett Myers.

A closer look, though, shows that Cabrera's advantage might be slight.

His cumulative career average against the six starters he will face is .333 -- 20 for 60 -- but almost half of that is the result of being 9 for 18 against Wolf. He never has faced Michalak or Lohse, and first-time matchups tend to benefit the pitcher.

Sanchez's career average against his six starters is .302 -- 19 for 63 -- and he has at least three at-bats against each. Perhaps most promising, his best numbers -- 6 for 15 -- have come against Oswalt, the most formidable pitcher of the group.

Each hitter will play the rest of the way on his home field, and that looks like a wash. Sanchez bats .388 at PNC Park, the best home average in the majors, and Cabrera bats .350 at Dolphin Stadium.

The general math is favorable for Sanchez, as well. So late in the season, with so many at-bats in the equation, an 0-for-4 game usually results in a loss of no more than two percentage points. Even one hit per night can keep his mark from sliding, especially if he finds other ways to avoid piling up empty at-bats, such as walks, bunts or sacrifice flies.

History? Now, that one swings heavily in Sanchez's favor. No Florida player has won a batting title, while the Pirates' 24 is the most of any team. The most recent was Bill Madlock in 1983.

The mind-set

Ask Sanchez if he might alter any aspect of his approach in the final days, and he responds with a laugh.

"I'm not changing a thing. If Jack Wilson's on second base, I'm giving myself up to move him over," he said. "That's the mentality I've had all year, so why would I change it now?"
Might he have allowed himself to imagine the feeling of winning the batting title?

"I'm really not doing that. It's just not there yet for me. I'm the type of person who doesn't really think about stuff unless it's there. I'm just not worried about it. And I'm sure Miguel's not, either. I'm sure he's more worried about the playoffs. Florida's having a phenomenal year, and I'm sure that's what's important to him. For me, too."

And how might Sanchez feel, then, if manager Jim Tracy benches him Sunday to preserve a sizable lead in the race.

"There's nothing I can do about that, but it won't be me asking. I want to win. I'm not one that wants to sit on the bench. I want to play."

So, he has absolutely no thoughts, no talks on the matter?

"Look, I'd be lying if I said my parents, family, friends weren't all really into it. And, you know, my teammates are, too. I appreciate that. I know they care. But I sometimes think that they want it for me more than I do."

The most persistent is his father, Fred Sanchez Sr., for who he recently purchased the MLB Extra Innings television package to watch all of the Pirates' games. He phones almost daily from California, and he apparently does not stray much from the topic at hand.

"I listen for a while. Then, I'm, like, 'OK, Dad, enough. I'm done talking about it.' "

Monday, September 25, 2006

Joe Starkey: Cowher's Unthinkable Folly

Additional Stories
Bengals steal one from Steelers
Bengals utilize receiving depth
Prisuta: QB matchup leaves much to be desired
Colclough's blunder disastrous for Steelers
Palmer gets his revenge
Bengals' fortunes turn against Steelers
Steelers missing Randle El -- as a punt returner
Bengals 28, Steelers 20: How they scored
Inside the game
Quarter-by-quarter summary
Steelers notebook
Steelers by the numbers
Bengals notebook
Cincinnati mayor pays off debt
Palmer gets his revenge
Galling numbers plague Steelers
Calm, cool Palmer has burning desire to win
Palmer, Cowher turning Bengals-Steelers into real rivalry

Joe Starkey
TRIBUNE-REVIEW
Monday, September 25, 2006

Nobody was surprised when Ricardo Colclough muffed a punt midway through the fourth quarter Sunday and, essentially, cost the Steelers a winnable game against the Cincinnati Bengals.

You don't have to be a coach, scout or player to know this much about Colclough:

HE CAN'T CATCH!

That's why so many people were questioning coach Bill Cowher coming into the game, wondering why he would keep putting Colclough back there -- never mind putting him back there on a windy day with a critical game on the line, protecting a 17-14 lead with 8 minutes left.
It was unconscionable, really. Incomprehensible. It made Cowher's decision to leave Tommy Maddox out there in the second half of last year's Jacksonville game look like a stroke of genius.

Colclough's been misplaying punts since the early days of training camp. It didn't stop once the regular season began. He misplayed one in each of the first two games -- luckily recovering them -- and was averaging a robust 3.0 yards on his first two returns. He muffed a few in warmups yesterday, too.

I'd rather see Ricardo Montalban returning punts.

The only good return Colclough had was in the preseason against Carolina, and he spiked the ball before he was tackled.

All of which was why I asked Cowher at his news conference last Tuesday if he was going to dress rookie Willie Reid against the Bengals.

Reid, you'll recall, was drafted specifically to return punts. In order to dress him, the Steelers probably would have to de-activate one of their other receivers. I'm guessing they could get by without Santonio Holmes or Nate Washington for a day (Quincy Morgan sure would look good on this team, wouldn't he?).

Meanwhile, running back Najeh Davenport continues to dress and not play.

Anyway, Cowher glared at me and said, "Probably not."

Now, Reid didn't exactly light it up in the preseason, but if the Steelers weren't going to dress him, Cowher should have had Holmes out there late in the game.

Holmes, after all, has been the Steelers punt-return man inside their 10 because, Cowher said, "we feel good about his hands."

Nobody feels good about Colclough's hands. As usual, he tried to catch the punt above his head. It plunked to the ground and bounced off his leg. Cincinnati recovered at the 9 and scored on the next play.

Ballgame.

"You can put that one on me, as well," Cowher said, throwing it in with a couple of costly personal fouls his team committed.

For all the Steelers' blunders, this game was theirs before Colclough's muff. They were dismantling Cincinnati's depleted offensive line and had sacked Carson Palmer on three of the previous seven plays. They were running the ball at will.

After the Cincinnati touchdown, Cowher sent Colclough back onto the field, along with Holmes, to return a kickoff.

Yet, after Cincinnati scored again to make the score 28-17, Cowher kept Colclough on the sidelines and replaced him with Ike Taylor.

Having a little trouble making up your mind, coach?

Colclough actually had the nerve to confront Cowher after Taylor went in.

"We talked about it," Colclough said. "I mean, he's the coach. He's going to make the decisions. He's going to make the right decisions."

Not if he ever lets Colclough return another punt, he's not.

Joe Starkey is a sports writer for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. He can be reached at jstarkey@tribweb.com

Gene Collier: 'Classy' Bengals Quietly Take Control

Monday, September 25, 2006
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Out-fumbled, out-bungled and generally out-dumbed across three fairly frantic football hours, the Cincinnati Bengals had little choice but to beat the Steelers yesterday, even if that wasn't quite the analysis emanating from the borderline giddy visiting locker room.

Quarterback Carson Palmer, who lasted one half of one play the previous time these teams met, didn't feel as if he played terribly well in this hyper-anticipated rematch, but he still led the Bengals in cogent observations:

"They're an intimidating team, a talking team," he reminded his teammates about the defending Super Bowl champions late in yesterday's second half. "We were getting to the point where we were talking ourselves, like we were playing their game. My message was -- shut up and play. We ended up getting back under control. We're a classy team, so we're not going to get into that. Just play football."

And ...

"If you're going to take Chad [Johnson] away, then you're going to have to deal with Chris [Henry] and T.J. [Houshmandzadeh] one-on-one, and I don't think that's a good thing for a defense."

Palmer is perhaps a decade away from his studio analyst career, but he passed the audition right there.

On an afternoon when Verron Haynes and Willie Parker and Mike Logan talked and taunted the Steelers into 25 yards of penalties, 10 of them to open an ill-fated final drive, Henry and Houshmandzadeh combined to score four touchdowns as Cincinnati put an early hammerlock on the AFC North. Johnson caught one pass for 11 yards.

Henry, the WVU product who spent part of the offseason fighting a bogus concealed weapon charge -- he was waving it about menacingly, not concealing it -- beat Ike Taylor and Ricardo Colclough like bongos for the first two Bengals touchdowns, the better ballet being a stunning up-the-ladder grab of a Palmer pass for the 16-yard touchdown that erased the first of the Steelers' leads late in the second quarter.

"Taylor's a pretty good defensive back, but I still feel like that's a mismatch," said the 6-4 Henry. "Carson just lobbed that ball high and I went up and made a play."

On Cincinnati's next possession, Henry scorched Colclough off the opposite corner to put the Bengals up by a touchdown at the break.

Before Palmer could begin to advance his I-wasn't-very-good theory very far, it has to be pointed out that on those two scoring drives, Palmer went 8 for 8 and then 4 for 4 for a total of 130 yards, never mind that he was technically 12 for 14 because he spiked it twice to stop the clock in the half's final minute.

"I put the ball on the ground too many times," Palmer said. "But I think it shows how good a team is when you play a good team and your quarterback doesn't play very well, and you still win."

And that right there would be the first incompletion among the cogent observations, because it is merely impossible to determine how good the Bengals are in a laboratory where the Steelers are cooking up five turnovers, four in the second half. Given all of that, Cincinnati still might not be unbeaten today without a monstrous contribution from Houshmandzadeh, who wasn't even expected to start because of a bum foot.

"He gave us some very productive snaps," allowed coach Marvin Lewis, who has beaten Bill Cowher on his home lawn three times in four years. "He was fighting through a very, very sore foot. We had a lot of guys fighting through things today."

When Colclough's fumbled punt return set the Bengals up at the 9 in the fourth quarter, Palmer had no doubt where he was throwing the next ball. He drilled Houshmandzadeh with a post pass that looked way too simple.

"[Troy] Polamalu's very aggressive playing the run in those situations," T.J. explained. "He was right up there tight and I just ran right past him. That was a systems touchdown."

And while that put the Bengals ahead to stay at 21-17, there is no system even in the annals of physiology that might explain T.J.'s second touchdown, the one that followed the Steelers' second fumble in 40 seconds. The one that started and ended Cincinnati's second consecutive one-play touchdown drive.

Houshmandzadeh streaked toward the left pylon with Deshea Townsend in his shirt, turned and skied for the lofted Palmer pass, tipped it with his left hand and caught it as he fell to the grass.
"That was by design," he said, barely suppressing a laugh. "I mistimed my jump when I went up with two hands, but I just tried to stay with it."

That's pretty much what Lewis had been telling his team all day long. Don't flinch. Stay with it. Keep playing. I guess because somehow he knew the Steelers would eventually make enough mistakes to hand this one over.

Sunday, September 24, 2006

Bob Smizik: Pirates Improved Play Should Not Be Dismissed


Sunday, September 24, 2006
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

The Pirates' surprisingly improved play hasn't created much more than a tiny ripple of interest in this Steelers-obsessed town, but it's worthy of examination, even on a day when the Bengals are at Heinz Field.

For starters, let's dismiss the notion held by many that this success is nothing more than another Pirates late-season run with the pressure off that won't translate into any kind of success next year. Since 2001 the Pirates have historically played better before Aug. 1 than after. Only once since PNC Park opened, in 2003, has the team done better in the final two months than in the first four. Over the past six years, the Pirates have a winning percentage of .442 in the first four months of the season and .410 in the final two.

So this is something new and, yes, is something worthy of attention -- with this caveat. The pressure is off. The Pirates began to play well when their season was over. That doesn't make their accomplishments meaningless, but it must be taken into account.

All the important players will be back next season barring, of course, trades. A nucleus is in place. But that's all it is. Much more needs to be done.

For example, the last time the Pirates were good, in the early 1990s, the nucleus of that team -- Barry Bonds, Bobby Bonilla, Andy Van Slyke, Doug Drabek and John Smiley -- was in place by 1987. But that team had only one winning season over the next three and reached championship-caliber status only after significant other parts were added.

Obviously, the Pirates don't have that kind of talent to build around. But for the first time in a long time they have decent talent returning, and of greater significance, that talent is under their control for several more years.

The most heartening turn of events for the Pirates is the general decline of the National League Central. For the Pirates to reach .500 or better, it's not just a matter of how good they are, it's a matter of how good the rest of the division is. Since 1998, the first year the Central became a six-team division, no team has finished fourth and been at or above .500. Which means for the Pirates to have any hope of reaching .500, they have to be better than three other Central Division teams.

It's too early to make any kind of prediction for 2007 but the division is coming back to the Pirates. Perennial powers St. Louis and Houston, are in decline. Cincinnati made a run this year, but there's a lot not to like about that team. Milwaukee went backward after reaching .500 in 2005 and the Cubs came apart this season and will finish last.
Which means third place is within reach.

Here's why the Pirates have a chance next season to reach .500:

Not enough can be said about the fact their young starters, Ian Snell, Zach Duke and Paul Maholm, have pitched the entire season and gained valuable experience. Snell has been a major surprise. It's more impressive that he was 8-6 when the team was 30 games under .500 than it is that he's 14-10 and with a chance to be the team's first 15-game winner since Todd Ritchie in 1999. After a poor start, Duke looks like a long-term fixture at the top of the rotation. Maholm has been adequate, at best. But those three, along with rookie Tom Gorzelanny, have the makings of a strong rotation in the future. A veteran right-hander must be added.

The earned run average of the bullpen is fifth best in the National League. Mike Gonzalez had a good year as closer, and Salomon Torres and Matt Capps are capable setup men on the right side, as is John Grabow on the left.

Freddy Sanchez opened the season as a utility player and probably will finish it as the National League batting champion. Jason Bay has the look of a perennial All-Star, a 30-home run, 100-RBI player. Jack Wilson needs to lose some weight so he can become the shortstop he once was but that is more than likely to happen. Catcher Ronny Paulino will hit over .300. It's too early to call him the catcher for the next five years, but he could be.

Here's why they might not reach .500:

Jose Castillo has been a major disappointment. He has slowed in the field and his bat is erratic. In late May he hit six home runs in five games. He hit only five in his next 226 at bats. He's batting .226 since the end of May. Worse, he had four hits in his first 51 at-bats (.078) in September. He is definitely available on the trading market, but who would want him and what could the Pirates get in return?

Jose Bautista looked like a definite building block for the future either at third base or in the outfield when he smacked 10 home runs in 145 at bats after being recalled from the minors in May. In his next 226 at bats, he hit only five home runs. Of greater concern is his August-September batting average of .197 (26 for 132) going into the weekend.

Chris Duffy is having a spectacular September, batting .347 after a .229 August. The Pirates must make a major decision on him. Is he the guy or do they have to go out and get someone like Juan Pierre.

Xavier Nady is batting .311 as a Pirate but with only three home runs and 19 RBIs in 167 at bats going into the weekend. The Pirates need more than that from a first baseman/right fielder.
The chance for .500 is there. Much will depend on the rest of the division and much will depend on what improvements general manager Dave Littlefield can make.

Friday, September 22, 2006

Brown, Frattare Become Co-No. 1s


On the air with Bob Smizik
Friday, September 22, 2006
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

In a move that might not mean much for the present, but which speaks significantly to the future, the Pirates have elevated announcer Greg Brown to a role equal with Lanny Frattare, long known as the Voice of the Pirates.

The announcers will be co-No. 1s and co-Voices of the Pirates for the 2007 season and beyond.
The only on-air change listeners will experience is during radio broadcasts. In the past, Frattare has done the first three innings and the last three. In the future, the two men will more equally share the broadcast. Additionally, some of the ceremonial duties which mostly fell to Frattare will be more evenly divided.

To the surprise of many, the move was initiated by Frattare, who has been with the team since 1976.

"I didn't want to see Greg leave," said Frattare. "Greg is a talented guy, and I know that good broadcasters leave for better opportunities. I didn't want to see that happen with Greg."

The Pirates were only too happy to accommodate.

Tim Schuldt, the team's director of marketing, sales and broadcasting, said: "This is about giving Greg Brown the knowledge that when the club and Lanny agree it's time for Lanny to go off into the sunset, Greg is the guy. We feel Greg is as good as any No. 1 guy and we wanted him to know that."

Frattare and Brown, along with analyst Bob Walk, have agreed to three-year contracts through 2009, although the deals have not been finalized. Their existing contracts expire at the end of the season. The club had one-year options on analysts Steve Blass and John Wehner, and those deals have been extended through '07.

"I'm thrilled, absolutely thrilled," said Brown, who had expressed an interest in the Chicago Cubs' job after the 2005 season. "What's great about it is that Lanny went out and lobbied for this. I think that is unprecedented."

It is something Frattare would not have considered in the past.

"I'm really an insecure guy," he said. "But over these last two years, which have been extremely enjoyable for me, I've got myself mentally where I need to be. It meant a lot to me years ago to be the No. 1 guy. It's not as important to me now."

Frattare soon will finish his 31st season as a Pirates broadcaster, a span in which he has done more than 4,700 games. He has announced longer and done more games than any broadcaster in team history.

He joined the Pirates in 1975, after the controversial firings by KDKA of Bob Prince and Nellie King, as a junior partner to veteran Milo Hamilton. Frattare had been broadcasting for the Pirates' Class AAA minor-league affiliate in Charleston, W.Va. In the early years, Hamilton dominated the broadcasts, allowing Frattare to do only the second and seventh innings.

When Hamilton left after the 1979 season to go to work for the Chicago Cubs, he was replaced by Dave Martin. Martin left after one season, and Frattare became the principal voice of the Pirates from that day on. He has been criticized over the years, once a stunning public rebuke by Bill Craig who ran KBL (the forerunners to FSN Pittsburgh), which was the television station that carried Pirates games. Over the years, Frattare has come to realize criticism is part of the business and never really stops.

When it was announced last week that Frattare would be back for three seasons, reader Dave Rider, an XM Radio subscriber from Bloomsburg, Pa., wrote:

"I wish the Pirates had changed announcers. I have heard many of the other team's announcers, who I believe do a much better job than Lanny and Bob [Walk]. I'm so tired of hearing their personal discussions. I would rather hear about players, managers, strategy, etc., as opposed to their current snacking preferences or their plans for dinner."

It's a legitimate complaint, something to which Frattare will listen, but it won't cause him to change his style.

Brown, who grew up a Pirates fan in Harrisburg and whose parents were from Western Pennsylvania, started with the team in 1994 and seems set for the long haul. "I'd like nothing more than to retire as the Pirates announcers," he said.

By all accounts, some day he'll be No. 1. And Frattare won't stand in his path.

Junker gets weekend job

After going more than three months with a one-man on-air sports staff, WTAE has hired Guy Junker as weekend anchor and promoted Jon Burton to the No. 1 role, where he replaces Andrew Stockey, who moved to morning news anchor in June.

Junker will continue to do the Junker and Crow show from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. on ESPN Radio 1250. He worked at WTAE in a weekend role from 1984-90. He is a native of Baldwin, steeped in Pittsburgh sports expertise and best known for playing host to Sports Beat on FSN Pittsburgh with Stan Savran.

(Bob Smizik can be reached at bsmizik@post-gazette.com. )

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Gene Collier: Thrift Went His Own Way

Thursday, September 21, 2006
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

In the small Virginia hamlet of Locust Hill, Mr. and Mrs. Thrift ran a Depression Era general store off Route 33, peddling everything from seeds to saddles, milk to mulch, cat food to corsets.

Mrs. Thrift was a schoolteacher, but her brightest pupil was at home at her feet, an intellectual sponge she somehow named Sydnor. When it was finally time to unleash young Sydnor on the educational system, an administrative debate swirled around whether to start Syd in the fourth grade, his mental aptitudes were so extraordinary. The compromise made him the smartest kid in the second-grade room, and he would be the smartest kid in just about every room for what was left of his 77 years.

When Syd Thrift died the other day in a Delaware hospital, he was still the most successful Pirates general manager of the past 20 years, even though he had lost still another front-office power struggle and departed early in 1989. In a book he published a few years later, he coined the term "corporate masturbation" for the kind of business model-driven baseball he felt afflicted certain organizations, not to name names.

"I'm an advocate of excellence in a close-minded community," Syd lamented.

Another favorite platitude: "The worst thing you can have is traditional people."

Syd Thrift was a thinker of the first order who disdained the known and embraced the unknown. The ways in which he tried to bring science, psychology, mathematics, probability, physiology, ophthalmology and homespun bird-dog wisdom (he once told Branch Rickey that all minor-league managers should have to spend a year training a bird dog to learn how to make things perfectly clear) to the closed society of hard-line baseball knowledge was as revealing as it was often downright comic.

Standing around the batting cage the day before he was fired by George Steinbrenner later in that summer of 1989, Syd didn't want to talk about the particulars of his first baseball stop after the Pirates, but pulling a hot dog from the inside pocket of his ever-rumpled sportcoat, he offered a wonderfully sarcastic summary:

"One thing about workin' 'round here," he said in his near perfect Foghorn Leghorn cadence. "There's no pressure!"

Syd threw his head back and laughed, and though a lot of baseball people and a lot of the game's old-guard executives found him less than amusing, the Pirates laughed their way through the late 1980s due mostly to the trades the sly old Virginia bird-dogger pulled on some supposedly more sophisticated front offices. He got Doug Drabek from the New York Yankees, Andy Van Slyke and Mike LaValliere from the St. Louis Cardinals, Bobby Bonilla from the Chicago White Sox and rushed Barry Bonds out of the Pirates' Hawaiian minor-league outpost, all of them forming the nucleus of three consecutive National League East champions.

A few years before that, he'd hired then 41-year-old Jim Leyland, who was working on an undistinguished career as a baseball lifer somewhere among the army of anonymous baseline coaches. Leyland, who had learned the game in every traditional way, came to respect Syd Thrift immensely.

"I don't think you can buy everything that's new," Leyland once told me of Thrift's constant innovations. "You can't get away from the concept that the game is still played the way it's been played, but it doesn't cost anything to listen. A lot of people getting involved in gimmicks, but Syd has a reason for everything he does."

Syd's great mission, in baseball and in life, was, as he often said, "to find out the 'why'."

Why does a four-seam fastball fly harder than a two-seamer? Why does a runner get picked off first base? Why don't more teams employ my time-measured lead theory?

That was one of his greatest hits. The time-measured lead. Just about anything that could be measured, Syd would measure. He once convinced Pirates assistant general manager Larry Doughty that the height of pop-ups should be measured, as it might reveal something about the batter's swing. In time-measured lead theory, the pitcher's pickoff move to first would be timed, and the runner positioned so that he was never too far off the bag that he couldn't get back in 1.4 seconds, or whatever the pitcher's move typically consumed.

Syd was a talking river of theories, and it didn't matter who was listening or who was laughing. When Bonilla launched a homer into the upper deck at Three Rivers Stadium, the only player other than Willie Stargell to do so, Thrift figured Bonilla had finally bought into his theories on the so-called two-strike approach to hitting.

I asked Bonilla to outline his understanding of that theory. He looked at me as though I should quickly name my planet of origin.

"There's an amazing thing about him," Leyland said at the time. "He can be talking to you around the batting cage and judging a player at the same time. It's amazing how thorough he is that way. He can come into the clubhouse and be laughing and joking, but out of the corner of his eye he'll see something that's not quite right, somebody acting unusual or something."
And that would be the start of it.

And then Sydnor W. Thrift Jr. would find out the 'why.'

And pretty much all we've known around these Pirates since is the why not.

(Gene Collier can be reached at gcollier@post-gazette or 412-263-1283. )

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Q & A With Lanny Frattare: Part I & II


09/14/2006 2:36 PM ET
Frattare a familiar voice for Pirates fans
Bucs broadcaster recalls stories from early stages of career
By Ed Eagle / MLB.com

Broadcaster Lanny Frattare has been the voice of the Pirates for 31 years. In Part 1 of an interview with Bucs beat reporter Ed Eagle, Frattare discusses the early stages of his career, replacing Bob Prince and the recent switch in radio affiliates.

In his 31 years as a Bucs broadcaster, Frattare has covered two no-hitters, four division champions and the 1979 World Series championship team. He's been on hand for some of the finest moments in the careers of Pirates superstars such as Willie Stargell, Dave Parker, Barry Bonds, Brian Giles and Jason Bay.

Recently, Frattare sat down with MLB.com to discuss his views on the team's recent change in affiliate stations, the challenge of having to take over for Hall of Fame broadcaster Bob Prince, and the highlights and lowlights of a career spent calling the games of the team that he loves.

MLB.com: What is your take on the team's decision to move the flagship station from KDKA to WPGB?

Lanny Frattare: I have tremendous faith in the Pirates organization to do what's in the best interest of the ballclub, and yet, I'm positive that everybody associated with the team and with the radio stations knows how much I appreciate what KDKA did for me.

KDKA had the rights when I was chosen as a Pirates broadcaster 31 years ago. The executives there had a lot to do with the decision to hire me. I'm deeply indebted to a lot of people over there and I've developed a lot of strong friendships. I know a lot of those friendships are still going to be there because of the substance of those friendships.

I'm also quite confident that I'll be developing a lot of other great friendships with the Clear Channel family.

MLB.com: Your voice has become the soundtrack of summer for so many Bucs fans over the years. What does it mean for you to be the official voice of the Pirates?

Frattare: One of the things I realized when I took over for Prince -- and I learned a great deal from talking to Pirates fans about how much Prince meant to them -- is that whatever you get as a baseball broadcaster is given to you by the fans. If you are doing a great job and they can feel some affinity towards you, and you develop those "air friendships," they're the ones that basically make you the voice of the team.

I have had hundreds of people say to me that my voice is the voice of summer to them, and I'm extremely pleased about that.

I learned early on in Pittsburgh in the late '70s that Pirates fans loved Prince and they developed some tremendous memories through him. I thought that I would love to create a whole new generation of baseball fans. I've been afforded that opportunity. As I go out and make a lot of appearances for the ballclub, I have people that come up to me and say they remember listening to me when they were six years old, and now they're 37. It means a great deal to me.

MLB.com: How difficult was it to emerge from Prince's shadow early on in your career with the Pirates?

Frattare: It was probably more difficult a few years down the road.

When I first got the job, I was elated about having realized my goal. My goal was to be a Major League announcer. I told myself, "If this is only a one-year deal for me, I can still say I reached my goal -- my dream."

Fortunately for me, Prince was my biggest supporter. He pulled me aside on regular occasions and told me what I was doing right and what I was doing wrong. Here I am, one of the guys that replaced him and Nellie King, and he cares enough to share his advice with me. That was very important to my progress as a Pirates broadcaster. He pointed out that I had a ways to go. I was a raw broadcaster with a lot to learn.

MLB.com: So it was just a matter of time before you felt comfortable in the role?

Frattare: There have been two or three bumps in the road for me in my career.

After you've had a job for a little while, I did become somewhat paranoid about losing the job. That can become a negative, because you start worrying about how you are doing things. You second guess yourself as a broadcaster.

Finally, there came a point in my career -- probably later than it should have come -- where I said, "I can only be Lanny Frattare. I can't be Bob Prince. I can't wave green weenies. I can't wear loud sport coats. I can't be Vin Scully. I have to be Lanny and I have to hope that is good enough." Once I got that into my head, I was fine.

Then, the second bump in the road was the Bill Craig episode, where Bill lashed out at me publicly. [Craig was a general manager at KBL during the time when that network held the rights to the Pirates TV broadcasts.] I had lunch with him a week before he lashed out at me publicly, and he and I had a chance to go through this process of him telling me what he didn't like about my style, etc. And I was just disturbed that he wouldn't have given me an opportunity to take what advice I thought was valuable from him and blend it into my broadcaster. He didn't give me any time to do that.

There was a strong part of me that wanted to lash back at him publicly, and I didn't do that. It was probably wise that I didn't, but there was still a part of me that wanted to stand up for myself.

It was also very painful for my family. My daughter was going to school and being exposed to comments from her classmates. After I had gone to Spring Training, my daughter wrote a letter to the newspaper defending me. It was a wonderful letter, and at the time, my daughter might have been 16 or 17 years old. I knew nothing about it, but there were people in town that maintained that I put her up to it. That was difficult in that regard.

When the Craig article came out, I have to tell you that I had a ton of friends who came over to my house that night. It was like somebody had died. They all rushed to my side to defend me and support me.

MLB.com: What do you think fans would be surprised to find out about you?

Frattare: They probably would be surprised to know that through much of my career I have been a real insecure person.

A couple of years ago, I took 10 days off from the broadcast because I was battling some bouts with depression. The club, my wife, my friends, Kevin McClatchy and the Pirates organization were outstanding. They were very supportive of me.

I can talk about it now because I have gotten to the other side of this issue. I have been able to put a good bit of that insecurity behind me. Now, I can bask in the glow of my successes in the time I have spent here as a Pirates broadcaster.

Before, I was one of those guys that, if I had nine people tell me wonderful things and one person told me something negative, I used to dwell on that one person's comment. I've been able to get past that.

At times, people might think about broadcasters and egos, and at times, may even think that guys who are on the air, because of the way they carry themselves, are arrogant. But my issue was never ego or arrogance. It was insecurity and paranoia. I've gotten past that.


09/18/2006 12:51 PM ET
Frattare recalls ups and downs of career
Pirates announcer sits down for Part II of Q&A session
By Ed Eagle / MLB.com

MLB.com: Which Pirates have you most enjoyed covering?

Frattare: I have developed some favorites based on performances on the field or friendships. Kent Tekulve and I were together [in the Minor Leagues] in Charleston, W.Va., when I was a broadcaster in Triple-A and Teke was first coming up. In fact, Teke's wife, Linda, is godmother for my daughter, Megan. There was always a strong bond between the Tekulves and the Frattares.

My friendship with Jimmy Leyland is front and center. Jimmy gave me the opportunity to be with him a lot off the field. He trusted me with a great deal of information. It was very common for me to go after games to his suite, where he would be talking to his coaches about players.
I'm a big fan of Phil Garner. Ed Ott was another player who came up with me through the Minor Leagues. I was a huge fan of Art Howe. I think Art's a wonderful individual and I'm glad to see he had success as a big-league manager.

Most recently, I've spent a good bit of time trumpeting Freddy Sanchez. Freddy was on the Caravan with us this winter and enjoyed the experience immensely. I wasn't bashful when I introduced Freddy at a chamber lunch as my favorite Pirate.

In my 31 years covering baseball, this current crew of Pirates players is the best group of guys that I have ever been with. That's not to say that there weren't good guys from the '79 team -- Willie Stargell, Garner, Chuck Tanner -- or from Jimmy's teams, but from 1-to-25 or 1-to-32, [this group is the best]. There have been times this year where it was hard to see them not be successful. I really wanted to see these good people be successful, because I really have respect for the people that they are.

MLB.com: You have covered thousands of games since 1976. Which one has been the most memorable?

Frattare: There are number of games that stand out for different reasons.

First of all, there was the clincher in 1990 in St. Louis, with Doug Drabek pitching a masterful game against Joe Magrane, and the celebration [that followed]. I had developed a strong friendship with Jimmy Leyland, Gene Lamont and Kent Biggestaff, and I was so thrilled to watch Jimmy Leyland and his people put together this ballclub, and here they were celebrating.
Interestingly enough, after we clinched in 1990, I didn't go down to the clubhouse for maybe an hour after the game because I didn't want to impose on the celebration. But I was afforded the opportunity after we got on the airplane and then got back to Pittsburgh and went to the Clark Bar to watch them celebrate. I got great satisfaction from that.

The other game that stands out for me is in that 1990 season. Doug Drabek almost pitched a no-hitter against the Phillies. Sil Capusano broke it up. The reason that's been such a big deal to me is because I went through a period of my career where I was trying to do perfect broadcasts, and realized at some point that that was next to impossible. But that game, I thought I had come as close as I possibly could to doing a perfect broadcast, in terms of setting the stage, in terms of bringing in the history notes and the drama of the whole game. I was extremely proud of that, and that's why it's always stood out for me. I was extremely proud of that broadcast.

MLB.com: You've seen your share of stinkers, too. Which one stands out the most?

Frattare: I can vividly remember when the Cubs clinched the division title, it might have been 1984. It was at Three Rivers, and it was a painful game to do, because there were a lot of Cubs fans in the ballpark. So much of the excitement level that was in the park, it was just very frustrating to announce a game with that backdrop.

The most painful game, obviously, was Game 7 of the '92 playoffs, because I knew it was painful for Jimmy and his troops. I also wanted to make sure that I called the game with the professionalism that it deserved, and I'm pleased that I did that.

When I closed down the broadcast, because of my relationship with Jimmy, I was anxious to run down there and see if he was doing OK. I learned in the process what a true champion he was, dealing with the adversity of that painful loss.

MLB.com: You've seen the highs and lows with this organization. Obviously, with 14 consecutive losing seasons, this hasn't been the best of times. What signs do you see that lead you to believe that the team is ready to turn the corner?

Frattare: I see a lot of good signs. But one of the things that I strongly believe is that ... I'm to the point in my career, not only with the Pirates organization but with life itself and other sports teams, where I am turned off by disingenuous, phony platitudes.

I understand that spin is a part of baseball. Nevertheless, I'm quite confident of the fact that when a team is successful, that speaks a great deal more to fans than do discussions about who is in the Minor Leagues coming up or who has promise. I try to focus more on the fact that this is one game that I am doing, and I am going to zero in on it and talk about the things that happen. But in terms of what it means in the long term, I really don't know.

I want to help sell tickets. I want to get people excited about the team. But I also want to do it with some credibility. And the team understands that, as well. Consequently, that's probably the toughest thin line in which to walk, as a broadcaster. You want to be credible. You want to get people excited about the team. But you also know that if a team is right, if the team is good enough, that does a lot more for the organization than all of the talk about where we are, how close we are, etc.

MLB.com: How much longer to do you plan to call games for the Pirates?

Frattare: There a couple of issues here.

First of all, I want to tell you that I am ecstatic that I just signed a new deal with the ballclub.
In years past, there was so much made of being the voice of a team that consequently, talented "No. 2 guys" moved on to other teams. I've long believed that Greg [Brown] is an outstanding broadcaster, and this organization must make sure that Greg is happy here. What we're going to do next year is split the broadcast down the middle. I'm excited about that, because I don't want to see Greg go anywhere.

It's important that baseball teams have two strong play-by-play announcers and two color analysts, or in our case three, so that the broadcast doesn't miss a beat whether I'm on or Greg's on. I'm proud that that's where we are, in that regard. I'm excited that for the next three years, Greg and I are going to share more of the responsibilities.

I must admit that something about doing 40 years would be a nice, round number. I would be 67 at that point, so that might be the time for me to say, "Thank you, and goodbye." But the other big issue is I've seen a lot of broadcasters that have stayed longer than they should have stayed. And, if at any point in the next nine years I get the sense, or my wife tells me or my bosses tell me that I am slipping too much, I don't want to stay longer than I should stay.

Ed Eagle is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

Obituary: Syd Thrift

Obituary: Sydnor W. 'Syd' Thrift Jr. / General manager who resurrected the Pirates
Feb. 25, 1929 - Sept. 18, 2006
Wednesday, September 20, 2006
By Paul Meyer, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Sydnor W. "Syd" Thrift Jr., who through a series of productive trades in the late 1980s laid the foundation for the success of the Pirates in the early 1990s, died Monday night in Milford, Del., of an apparent heart attack. He was 77.

Mr. Thrift had knee replacement surgery in Milford Monday afternoon. The official cause of death is undetermined pending an autopsy, according to Mr. Thrift's widow, Dolly.

"I'm shocked," said Jim Leyland, whom Mr. Thrift hired as the Pirates manager in 1985 and who now manages the Detroit Tigers. "I just talked to him two weeks ago. He called to tell me to keep going. He's the guy who gave me my chance. He was the one guy who believed in me. I'm forever indebted to him."

Mr. Thrift was named Pirates general manager Nov. 7, 1985 -- one of the worst times in franchise history.

Baseball's drug trials in Pittsburgh had rocked the franchise. On the field, the team had just finished a 104-loss season and finished last in the National League East for the second straight year.

"It ain't easy resurrecting the dead," Mr. Thrift said then.

Two weeks after being named general manager, Mr. Thrift hired Mr. Leyland, then the Chicago White Sox third base coach, as the Pirates manager.

That hiring began with this legendary telephone conversation.

"Jim, this is Syd Thrift," Mr. Thrift said.

"Yeah -- and I'm John McGraw," said a disbelieving Mr. Leyland, referring to the Hall of Fame New York Giants manager (1902-32).

The Pirates finished last in the NL East again in 1986 but won 27 of their final 38 games in 1987 after Mr. Thrift began making his trades and finished in a fourth-place tie.

They challenged the New York Mets for the division title for most of the 1988 season. In 1990, they began their run of three consecutive division championships.

However, Mr. Thrift was gone by then, having been fired Oct. 4, 1988, after a power struggle with management.

In Philadelphia in September 1988, Mr. Thrift, aware there was talk that he could be fired, said: "They talk about me leaving Pittsburgh. That would be like [Wayne] Gretzky leaving Canada."
As it turned out, Mr. Thrift did leave Pittsburgh and Mr. Gretzky did leave Canada when the hockey superstar was traded to Los Angeles.

Mr. Thrift, however, accomplished a lot with the Pirates before his firing.

In May 1986, he went to Arizona to watch outfielder Barry Bonds play for the Pirates' Class AAA Hawaii affiliate. Mr. Bonds, the Pirates' top draft pick in 1985, impressed Mr. Thrift so much that Mr. Thrift brought him back to Pittsburgh with him.

He brought outfielder Bobby Bonilla back to the Pirates organization in July 1986. In November 1986, he made a trade with the New York Yankees that netted the Pirates pitchers Doug Drabek, Brian Fisher and Logan Easley.

On April 1, 1987, he traded popular catcher Tony Pena to St. Louis for center fielder Andy Van Slyke, catcher Mike LaValliere and pitcher Mike Dunne.

Later in 1987, Mr. Thrift acquired pitchers Jim Gott and Jeff Robinson in separate transactions. In August 1987, he traded second baseman Johnny Ray to the Angels to make room for second base phenom Jose "Chico" Lind.

A year later, he acquired outfielder Gary Redus from the White Sox.

"He wasn't afraid to make a deal," Mr. Leyland said. "You have to tip your hat to him. The [Pena] trade was the one that got all the pieces together, but the Drabek trade quietly was one of the best he made."

"He was a smart baseball guy," Mr. Van Slyke said. "He pulled the trigger [on trades]. You can say what you want, but it could not have been an easy decision to get rid of Tony Pena."

"We had a lot of tough times, a lot of good times and a lot of laughs," said Rich Donnelly, hired as the Pirates bullpen coach in December 1986. "He made us laugh probably more than any other general manager we've had. Every day, something was hilarious."

Mr. Thrift also worked for the Oakland Athletics, Chicago Cubs, New York Yankees, Baltimore Orioles and Tampa Bay Devil Rays throughout a nearly 50-year baseball career.

Known as an innovator, Mr. Thrift was a major part of the Kansas City Royals' famed baseball academy in Sarasota, Fla. That project, designed to make baseball players out of athletes who had little or no baseball experience, ran only four years (1970-73) but produced 14 major league players, including standout second baseman Frank White.

"He was a fine baseball mind," said Cam Bonifay, hired by Mr. Thrift as a National League scout Sept. 5, 1988, and who later would become the Pirates general manager. "He was always looking for ways to innovate the game. He was never opposed to any new ideas no matter how off the wall other baseball people thought they were."

"He was flamboyant," Mr. Van Slyke said. "He was a politician more than he was a general manager. He was one of the reasons -- not the only reason, not the main reason -- but certainly one of the reasons we were successful.

"Syd, Jim [Leyland] and the coaching staff got the right players and got them to play. His track record was better than the recent track record [in Pittsburgh]."

"He was an entertaining guy, a fun guy and he wanted to win," Mr. Donnelly said. "He was a modern-day Bill Veeck. He was a baseball character. Don Zimmer is a baseball character. Casey Stengel was a baseball character. And Syd Thrift was a baseball character."

"He stuck out his neck for me," Mr. Leyland said. "Nobody [in Pittsburgh] knew who I was. He stuck with me after that first year.

"We had a lot of fun. We had a long way to go, but everybody chipped in and we turned it around pretty well. It was very rewarding."

Mr. Thrift, born Feb. 25, 1929, in Locust Hill, Va., was a 1949 graduate of Randolph-Macon College. He played in the minor leagues in the Yankees system for four years before beginning his off-the-field career.

In addition to his wife, Dolly, Mr. Thrift is survived by sons James, of Sarasota, Fla., and Mark, of Fairfax, Va.; two sisters, Lucy Chenery, of Glen Allen, Va., and Louise Owens, of Richmond, Va.; and five grandchildren.

Graveside funeral services for Mr. Thrift will be held at 1 p.m. Saturday at Middlesex Memorial Cemetery in Urbanna, Va. The family will receive friends Friday at Bristow-Faulkner Funeral Home and Cremation Service, 15 C.F. Edwards Lane, Saluda, Va., from 6:30-8:30 p.m.
Memorial contributions can be made to the Virginia Special Olympics, 3212 Skipwith Road, Suite 100, Richmond, VA 23294.

(Paul Meyer can be reached at pmeyer@post-gazette.com or at 412-263-1144. )

Saturday, September 16, 2006

Recchi compares Malkin to Lemieux

By Karen Price
TRIBUNE-REVIEW
Saturday, September 16, 2006

Evgeni Malkin's first true jaw-dropping play of his Penguins career came midway through the second half of the team's first training camp scrimmage Friday.

The 20-year-old Russian center, playing on a line with Ryan Malone and Mark Recchi, banked the puck off the back of goaltender Dany Sabourin to score. Afterward, Recchi said what people watching in the stands had been thinking.

"It was a very smart play," Recchi said. "He saw something, and he took it. ... He's as close to Mario in terms of size and what he can do with the puck as we've seen in a while."

It was a big statement, but Malkin, 6-foot-3 and 192 pounds, also made a big impression in his first day practicing and scrimmaging with the Penguins' full complement of players.

Coach Michel Therrien, who said yesterday that he plans to keep lines together as much as possible to build chemistry going into the regular season, praised the Malone-Malkin-Recchi line.

"(Malkin) looked really good," Therrien said. "That line seemed to click. I was really impressed with Malkin the way he played with Malone and Recchi. I thought they played really well together. That's the purpose of our training camp is we're trying to establish our lines quickly so when we start the season we've got a pretty good idea how things are clicking with teammates on lines and defense."

Therrien also had good things to say about his other top forward line made up of center Sidney Crosby between Colby Armstrong, his linemate at the end of last season, and newcomer Nils Ekman, who scored 21 goals with the San Jose Sharks last season.

"Very good," Therrien said of Ekman taking the left side with Crosby and Armstrong. "I liked the way that he skated, and I liked the way that he saw the ice. He's got the speed to play with Crosby."

Yesterday was a first look at the formidable punch the Penguins finally now pack down the middle with Crosby and Malkin both on the roster.

"(Malkin) passes well, shoots well, skates great. ... We've got a great 1-2 punch right now," Recchi said. "They're going to complement each other tremendously, and it's going to be fun to be part of it."

Crosby also had great things to say about the team's newest budding star, who also scored on a penalty shot and made another impressive move to circle away from a defender in the offensive zone yesterday.

"It was just as I expected," Crosby said. "Smart player, fast, and he showed his skill out there. I had skated with him a little bit before and I saw him play. He hasn't changed his game, which is good. The ice surface has changed, and it's a little different hockey, I think, and he's maintained the same game. I think that's a huge reason why he's doing well out there."

Karen Price can be reached at kprice@tribweb.com.