Wednesday, March 29, 2006

To Bay, production more important than profile

Wednesday, March 29, 2006
By Dejan Kovacevic
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

BRADENTON, Fla. -- If Jason Bay played in Boston, he might already have his image adorning magazine covers, his brand coveted by Madison Avenue executives and a snappy nickname courtesy of some "SportsCenter" anchor.

If he played in Toronto, he might be a national treasure in his native Canada.

If he played in New York ...

As it is, Bay plays in Pittsburgh and, despite a meteoric ascent through the ranks of Major League Baseball, he barely has penetrated the public consciousness.

Even in his place of employment.

Ask the common sports fan in Allegheny County to identify his or her favorite local athlete and the results surely will be dominated by Ben Roethlisberger, Hines Ward and maybe the long snapper of the Super Bowl champion Steelers. Others might point to Sidney Crosby, who is selling $40 tickets virtually by himself for the Penguins.

But Bay?

He plays for the Pirates, right?

If it bothers him, he doesn't come close to letting on.

"Oh, no, not at all," Bay said yesterday. "It deflects some of the notoriety, which is nice. And it's not really my personality, anyway. I'm not the look-at-me, look-at-me type. The situation I have here is just perfect for me."

He laughed when asked how he might respond to working in a city more in the national spotlight.

"You know, I don't know if I could go somewhere like that. I'm Pittsburgh. That's my personality. It would be a lot tougher, I think, to do well in that environment, too much attention called when you're not doing well. But I haven't thought about it, to be honest. I have my little niche here, and I like it."

At the same time, Bay's profile, unmistakably, is expanding.

Through this offseason and spring training, he has been interviewed by Sports Illustrated, The Sporting News, ESPN the Magazine, USA Today and just about every other national print outlet, plus several from Canada. He was among the six players featured in television advertising to promote the World Baseball Classic and was a guest on ESPN's morning show, "Cold Pizza."

And the material with the broadest scope is still to come this summer in a Fox commercial promoting the Pittsburgh-bound All-Star Game.

With the help of computer animation, Bay, Alex Rodriguez, Derek Jeter, Vladimir Guerrero and other elite players will sprint and dive across moving steel beams while building a skyscraper next to PNC Park. At its conclusion, Bay and the rest will take a breather with a lunch pail on a beam high above the construction site, a scene aimed at conveying the city's blue-collar heritage.
"Never did anything like it," he said. "Great experience."

Bay also has had his internal work with the Pirates ramped up, from posing for promotional photographs to acting out television ads to delivering the most sought autograph at Pirate City. On the latter count, he often signs until the last request is met.

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Ask Bay how he feels about the time invested this spring in such fare, and he will respond diplomatically.

"I've learned it's important. I'm not the type who says, 'Ooooh, pick me,' or who looks at himself like the face of the franchise or anything. But I understand it goes a long way for the organization. And I know more people are paying attention."

The attention hardly is unwarranted, as the numbers from Bay's superb first two seasons illustrate.

In 2004, he was the Pirates' first National League rookie of the year with a .282 average and 26 home runs. Last season, he was the only player in the game to top .300 (.306), 30 home runs (32), 40 doubles (44), 20 steals (21) and 100 RBIs (101).

There is more:

* As per an intricate statistic called Value Over Replacement Player, Bay was the fifth-most productive offensive player in the game. The four ahead of him, in order: Derrek Lee, Alex Rodriguez, Albert Pujols and David Ortiz.

* He had 82 extra-base hits, one more than Pujols, and trailed only Lee's 99 in the National League.

* His .346 average with runners in scoring position ranked fifth.

* His 95.5 percent success rate in steals was the best in the majors.

* He drew 95 walks, ranking seventh in the league, only nine of those intentional.

And it has not stopped this spring. With a 4-for-4 showing yesterday in the Pirates' 7-5 victory against the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, he is batting .464 with four home runs and nine RBIs in 11 games.

Such figures explain why Bay is anything but a secret in the baseball world.

"He's a special player, a very special player," manager Jim Tracy said. "People know that in our game."

"I can tell you from when I faced him with the Reds, Jason Bay's peers know about him," first baseman Sean Casey said. "When we played the Pirates, he was the one guy we feared. We'd talk beforehand about how to get him out, how he could change the game if we let him."

If any of such talk has gotten to Bay's head, on or off the field, it does not come close to showing. He remains as affable and humble as anyone in the Pirates' clubhouse, and he credits his wife, Kristen, for that.

"I'm still not that big, as my wife loves to remind me," he said. "And I know it."

That grounded nature is seen, to some extent, in how he views what might be the next logical progression in his career.

"You want to keep improving every year, and I've obviously set a very high bar for myself after two seasons," he said. "At some point, though, that's going to stop. You're not just going to keep getting better forever."
Which is why he delightedly would accept a flat line over, say, the next decade.

"My main thing would be to be consistent, but it won't be easy. There will be more protection this year with Casey in front of me and Jeromy Burnitz behind me, and I think that's going to help me maintain that. But some people seem to think that will automatically make everything that much better, and that's going to be very tough to do. The way I look at it is, if I can maintain that average, up or down a little either way, that would be a great career."

Pirates general manager Dave Littlefield, who signed Bay to a four-year, $18.25 million extension in November, expresses a similar view.

"There are some places Jason still can go," he said. "If he can do it year after year, that puts him in a different category, on an even shorter list than he is now."

Above all, Bay speaks of craving success at the team level.

"Believe me: I'd gladly sacrifice my numbers and see them go down if it means we're winning games."

It is in that vein alone that Bay allows to a trace of jealousy for the adulation some of Pittsburgh's other sporting figures receive.

"I keep looking back to when were 30-30 last season. It felt like we were in a playoff hunt. You were walking around town, and everyone's upbeat ... it just made it so much fun to come to the ballpark. Just that little taste is all I have. But you see the excitement in Pittsburgh for the Steelers and the Pens, and you realize people just need a reason to get excited."

(Dejan Kovacevic can be reached at or 412-263-1938. )

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Cowher prepares for challenge to keep Steelers on super level

Tuesday, March 28, 2006
By Ed Bouchette, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

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ORLANDO, Fla. -- Moments after they snapped the annual team photo of NFL coaches yesterday, the group scattered save for two men who lingered another 15 minutes.

Bill Cowher and Bill Belichick chatted and laughed like old neighbors over a backyard fence.
Together, they've won four of the past five Super Bowls. Now that Cowher's Steelers won their first in 26 years, he would like to join New England's Belichick in more than friendship. He would like to win a second consecutive Super Bowl.

"When they've won, they've done it with humility and they've done it with class," Cowher said of Belichick's Patriots, who won two AFC championship games in Heinz Field. "I think that's why they've been able to play at a very consistent level -- they've kept a very simple approach to the game. They've never taken themselves very seriously. They realize it's done through a lot of hard work and a lot of good fortune.

"I learned a lot just watching them handle that and hopefully we can emulate what they've done. Three in four years is not easy. We've done it once; nobody can take that away from you, but now the challenge is to be able to maintain that same level."

Three in four years? The Super Bowl honeymoon appears to be over as the Steelers begin their quest to win another.

"When you have opportunities that we have in front of us to do that, you have to ride it," Cowher said. "We have a lot of people back. It's not going to be easy, it's a big challenge, but boy, to me it's very invigorating. I think we're all kind of champing at the bit to get back."

Not that Cowher hasn't enjoyed the ride since his team beat Seattle Feb. 5 in Detroit. He cannot walk far around the Hyatt Grand Cypress Hotel without receiving congratulations from most everyone at these NFL meetings, including Belichick.

"Bill Belichick's a guy I have tremendous respect for," Cowher said. "We talked even before the Super Bowl this last time and he was very insightful, not so much [about strategy] but kind of what he's gone through the last few years. It'd been 10 years since we'd been to one."

Cowher, speaking at length publicly for the first time since the Super Bowl, revealed he took a different approach through the 2005 playoffs than he had previously.

"I probably coached more desperate and more fearful of losing than I was questing to win. You coach a little bit different that way, particularly in the Super Bowl. Having been there, people don't realize that loss stings more than any championship game loss, particularly when you have two weeks to lead up to a game of that magnitude."

Among other topics Cowher addressed yesterday:

On the media reaction in Pittsburgh to his buying a house in North Carolina:

"I call them the PP, the Pittsburgh papparazzi. I guess that just comes with the territory and I respect that. We have very passionate fans. They've always been that way, not just now. I'm very respectful of that but at the same time I think people have to be a little bit respectful of what you do in your personal life."

On moves the Steelers have made the past two weeks:

"I like the fact we were able to get Jerame Tuman back, Brett Keisel back. We lost Chris Hope but I like the kid we got from the Redskins, Ryan Clark, I think he's a good, young player. I was glad we got Deshea [Townsend], I thought that was very important, bringing him back. Kimo [von Oelhoffen] is a tough loss. I'm a big fan of him. Getting Verron Haynes back ... may be one of our most important ones."

On the prospect of adding a back to compete with Duce Staley and Willie Parker:

"I feel good about the competition we have there. That will not hinder us; if we feel we can better our football team with another back, we will do so."

On Seattle coach Mike Holmgren blaming the officials for helping cost the Seahawks the Super Bowl:

"I would attribute some of that to frustration and a little bit of what happened in Cincinnati after that game, too. I understand it. I think time heals all those. When it's all said and done, people aren't going to think about penalties, they're going to think about who won the game. Part of any game is how you respond to anything. I've seen all those calls that were made, I've seen them made in other games. They were judgment calls. I don't think anything was really missed. ... It's all a matter of who's viewing it."

On his "Who Dey?" chant that mocked the Bengals after the Steelers' playoff victory and again at the Super Bowl parade:

"I kind of regret what happened. At the parade, I kind of got caught up in that. The locker room thing is kind of the locker room. I have a lot of respect for Mike Brown and for [coach Marvin Lewis], and the fact is that they won our division. They're the team we have to beat in our division because they're the ones on top. Marvin has done a fantastic job of turning around the whole mind-set and the whole culture of the Cincinnati Bengals. There's a lot of pride when they walk on the field and they have an expectation of winning. I'm sure the first time we play next year, I will have to relive everything I did and I will regret that and I will apologize at the time. It wasn't done with disrespect. It probably was done out of respect. What do they say? Imitation is the biggest form of flattery? That's the boat I'm in."

(Ed Bouchette can be reached at or 412-263-3878. )

Monday, March 27, 2006

Joe Bendel: Ike Likes Disney World

Joe Bendel
Monday, March 27, 2006

ORLANDO -- Ike Taylor did not win the MVP of Super Bowl XL, but he still went to Disney World.

And he hasn't left.

The Steelers cornerback arrived here four days after the Steelers' 21-10 victory over the Seattle Seahawks to train with renowned conditioning guru Tom Shaw at the palatial Wide World of Sports at Disney World.

"I could have taken a break, but I didn't want to let myself do that," Taylor said Sunday, his lone day off here. "The way I look at it is -- there's a draft every year, and in that draft, there's a guy who wants to take my job. I want to be the best. I don't want anybody taking my job."

Taylor trains a minimum of five hours a day, six days a week with Shaw, who's developed 77 first-round draft picks and is working with Steelers linebacker James Farrior, Philadelphia Eagles linebacker Shawn Barber and safety Darren Sharper of the Minnesota Vikings, among others.

Taylor's grueling regimen consists of speed and conditioning drills, lifting weights, training in state-of-the-art swimming pools and working on football-specific movements. The sparkling training facility is used by the Atlanta Braves and Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Taylor has not missed a workout since completing a 2005 season that saw him tie for the NFL lead in pass breakups with 25, while also contributing 95 tackles (the most by a Steelers cornerback since Rod Woodson in 1992). He also held 18 of the 20 wide receivers he faced without a touchdown, and two of his three interceptions (counting the postseason) occurred in the AFC Championship Game and the Super Bowl.

One of Taylor's missions this offseason is to improve on his interception numbers. He estimates he dropped up to 12 last season, which is why he catches 100 or more passes a day out of a JUGS gun.

"There are days that I'd rather not do this, just like I'm sure there are days for people in the business world when they'd rather not get up and go to work," said Taylor, who was clocked at 4.34 seconds immediately after the season. "But you have to be focused; you have to be hungry. That's where my thoughts about the draft come in. I know I need to keep getting better."

Taylor, 6-foot-1, 191 pounds, signed a one-year, $1.55 million tender as a restricted free agent with the Steelers earlier this month. That assured the Steelers that they would receive a first-round draft pick as compensation if another team signs Taylor to an offer sheet and the Steelers decide not to match it.

There is interest in Taylor around the league. Kansas City and New England are two franchises that would like to fortify their cornerback position and could risk a first-round draft pick -- they select 20 and 21, respectively -- for a player of Taylor's skills.

No team, however, has made an offer. And history suggests that it could remain that way. The most recent time a team signed a restricted free agent with a high tender such as Taylor's was in 2003, when the Washington Redskins signed wideout Laveranues Coles from the New York Jets.

The deadline for Taylor to sign an offer sheet from another team is April 21.

Taylor would like to receive a long-term deal from the Steelers at some point, but he appreciates the business side of the NFL.

"It's a great feeling to know that I'm in a position that another team, maybe, would be willing to give up something to try to get me, but I'm not worried about that," Taylor said. "I want to be a consistent football player and known as a great cornerback.

"I love the coaching staff in Pittsburgh. I love the Rooney family and coach (Bill) Cowher, and his staff has been great to me. I have no reason to leave. But it's definitely a business, and that's how you have to look at things."

Taylor's agent, Scott Smith of X-A-M Sports, said Taylor has set his sights on staying with the Steelers, but he added that "we have received inquiries from several teams about Ike as a free agent."

"I don't like to deal in speculation, but we are hopeful and optimistic that Ike can reach a long-term agreement with the Steelers this year," Smith said.

Shaw, who works around the clock here, began working with Taylor when the latter was a middle-school student in New Orleans. Shaw said Taylor is one of the more unique players he's trained, not only because of his on-field skills, but how he conducts himself away from the game.
"He wants to win another Super Bowl; he has that drive in him," Shaw said yesterday from the Wide World of Sports facilities. "I was with the Patriots the last six years, and players from other teams would see those guys coming in right after the Super Bowl and say, 'They're starting already?'

"Well, the players on the Patriots learned what it takes to come back and (repeat). After they won that first Super Bowl, there were guys saying, 'We were just here; now, we have to do it again?' But after they went 9-7 following that first Super Bowl, they learned they had to work harder and sooner. That's when they won another one, and that's when we had no problems getting back to work.

"That's the way Ike and James Farrior are approaching this. They want to get right back to the Super Bowl."

Joe Bendel can be reached at or (412) 320-7811.

MLB stars to visit Pittsburgh in style

Red carpet just part of welcome to All-Star Game
Saturday, March 25, 2006
By Robert Dvorchak, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

When baseball's elite players cluster in July, they needn't worry about tapping into their All-Star bonuses for taxicab or limo fare to reach PNC Park.

All-Star Game events scheduled
Pirates' season-ticket sales surge

As part of the Hollywood-style, star-studded events surrounding the 77th edition of Major League Baseball's mid-summer classic, the 64 All-Stars from the National and American Leagues will parade in convertibles on a red carpet from the Byham Theater across the Clemente Bridge to the ballpark.

The cavalcade of stars, introduced last year in Detroit, is but one example of the evolution of an event returning to Pittsburgh for the first time since 1994 and for the fifth time since 1944. Back in the day, ballplayers could ride the trolley to Forbes Field, both of which are as extinct as steelmaking inside the city limits.

"It's more than just a game. It's five days of events, some of which extend beyond the ballpark," said Marla Miller, MLB's senior vice president of special events. "People who can't get to the festivities will be able to actually see the players and their wives parading on a red carpet like they were arriving at the Oscars. We're going to showcase the city. We're going to decorate it in ways never seen before."

The game, which has become one of the premier sporting events in the world, will be held on Tuesday, July 11. Related festivities include the John Hancock All-Star FanFest at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center beginning on Friday, July 7; the Taco Bell All-Star Sunday that includes the XM Satellite Radio All-Star Futures Game and the Taco Bell Legends & Celebrity Softball Game; and the Gatorade All-Star Workout Day coupled with the Century 21 All-Star Home Run Derby.

Of all the details still to be made public, the ones concerning ticket availability and prices are the most tantalizing. Those nuggets will be announced at a news conference on April 28, the day balloting begins among fans choosing the eight starting players on each team.

But the roughly 11,000 or so fans who have Pirates' season tickets or qualifying partial plans, which are still available for purchase, will have priority for All-Star tickets. Notifications are being mailed out now, and the response will help determine how many tickets will be sold at-large through a public lottery. Last year, 2,000 tickets were made available out of 60,000 requests.

"Is it ever as much as people would like? That's always the question," said Ms. Miller, who will be in the city Wednesday and Thursday for another round of planning meetings with the Pirates and the city. "We do feel strongly that season ticket-holders are the group that should be rewarded for their support and love of the game."

Premium prices will be charged for some premium seats in the Home Plate Club and club level sections. But for the most part, costs are expected to be in the range they were last year in Detroit -- $150 to $250 for a game ticket; $175 for the Home Run Derby; and $50 for the Futures Games, which features top minor leaguers representing the stars of tomorrow. FanFest tickets range from $20 for adults to $15 for military personnel, senior citizens and children under 12; the same tickets were $16 and $12 last year.

"Ticket prices will be in the same range as last year," Ms. Miller said. "We're not looking to increase ticket prices significantly."

Whatever the price, demand will exceed the supply of 40,536 tickets. Some web sites that specialize in special events are already offering game tickets starting at $575. An all-inclusive Grand Slam ticket can be had for $3,060 to $3,755.

Baseball markets its appeal to the passions of generations. In Pittsburgh's case, organized baseball dates to the Civil War. The city has had a franchise in the National League since 1877, the spring after George Armstrong Custer and his Seventh Cavalry were wiped out attacking a Sioux village.

Part of that generational appeal is reflected in the honorary spokesmen for the All-Star game -- Hall of Famer Bill Mazeroski and current player Jason Bay, the rookie of the year in 2004 whose bat is already on display in the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame. Last year's honorary dignitaries were Hall of Famer Al Kaline and current player Pudge Rodriguez.

Duties for singing The National Anthem and throwing out the ceremonial first pitch have yet to be determined, although MLB is focused on an artist who will appeal to the 18-to-29 demographic. When the game was played in 1994 at Three Rivers Stadium, Meat Loaf sang and the late Willie Stargell tossed out the first ball.

Twelve years ago, the All-Star Gala at Heinz Hall featured Tony Bennett in front of an audience of 3,500. The entertainment hasn't been determined yet, but the gala will be at the Convention Center for an audience of 5,000.

Although no overall theme has been announced yet for the five-day event, the portion of FanFest devoted to Hometown Heroes in other cities will carry the special designation of Steeltown Heroes to honor the city's baseball history.

Events are also planned to recall players from the Pittsburgh Crawfords and Homestead Grays of the old Negro League along with players from the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League.

Sean Gibson of McKees Rocks, great-grandson of the late Josh Gibson, has organized a gala through the Heinz History Center called "Remember The History." He is working to line up an A-list speaker for the tribute on Sunday, July 9.

Also on Sunday, a group led by state Sen. Jim Ferlo, D-Highland, will dedicate a historical marker in Oakland at the site of Forbes Field.

The Pittsburgh Symphony is expected to hold an All-Star concert, and a pre-game concert featuring contemporary music will be held at the Chevrolet Amphitheater in Station Square.

FanFest merits a special distinction this year and not just because it's billed as the largest baseball event in the world or the next best thing to being inside a ballpark. A baseball theme park, FanFest turns 16 years old this summer. And this is the first year it returns to a city a second time.

In 1994, the convention center was too small to accommodate baseball and a gathering of the Society for the Preservation and Encouragement of Barbershop Quarter Singing in America, so FanFest was split between the convention hall and Point State Park.

This time, FanFest will cover 400,000 square feet under one roof but within sight and walking distance of PNC Park.

"FanFest has evolved quite a bit," said Morgan Littlefield, MLB's director of special events. "It's almost as if Pittsburgh has grown with us. I never thought I'd be so excited about an exhibit hall, but it's gorgeous."

Ms. Littlefield was at the convention center during this year's PirateFest, held the weekend before the Super Bowl in Detroit. She got a sampling of how passionate football fans are when she met a couple touring the show with their grandson, who was named Steeler.
"Pittsburgh is such a great sports town. People were so fired up," she said.

Recent history has been less than stellar for the Pirates and their fans, however. A franchise record of 13 straight losing seasons has dovetailed with economic disparity and an offensive boom fueled by steroids even as overall baseball attendance keeps reaching new heights.

If it weren't for PNC Park, the Pirates would likely have gone the way of the old Montreal Expos. The ballpark has drawn nothing but raves as a venue and will be on display as much as the city at All-Star time.

While the economic impact of the event is oft-debated, a formula devised by the International Association of Convention and Visitors Bureaus estimates the event will be worth $52.3 million to the region.

Former Mayor Tom Murphy, the driving force behind ballpark construction, said the boost to the city's image is immeasurable.

"On the night of the All-Star game, with 100 million people watching, a lot of people will have a different view than they've had of Pittsburgh," Mr. Murphy said. "What's that worth? It's priceless."

In addition to promotions that are heavy on the All-Star theme, ballpark workers will wear All-Star logos on their caps beginning with opening day. All-Star jerseys will be worn as the game draws nearer.

A couple of changes to the ballpark are required to accommodate the 2,000 or so media who will attend the game.

In the area behind center field, a third tier is being added to the camera perches because so many more photographers will be on hand.

In the main concourse, 16 auxiliary broadcast booths will be built.

And an auxiliary press box will be noticeable down the right field line. Instead of the area serving as the Pirates Cove, it will seat 400 media and will require work stations and wireless connections.

In the bowels of the ballpark, every inch, every room and every closet of the service tunnel will serve some All-Star function. Plans include entry and exit to the field for VIPs and mascots, workrooms for productions, interview rooms for Fox Sports and ESPN and a commissioner's holding room in the event of inclement weather.

Additionally, security will be of paramount concern. With Pittsburgh police acting as coordinating agency, security will include elements of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, the FBI, Pennsylvania State Police and the U.S. military, especially the Coast Guard with its jurisdiction on the three rivers.

Meanwhile, about 2,000 All-Star volunteers have already signed up to help with events and the influx of visitors. Additional volunteers can register through the Pirates' web site ( but are advised to do so soon.

The All-Star game will have an impact in ways not readily seen.

The Allegheny Conference and the Convention and Visitors Bureau will be available to discuss economic and business issues with visiting media interested in the story of Pittsburgh.
And baseball's national sponsors will enjoy some local recreational opportunities. A fantasy camp for sponsors will be held at Falconi Field, home of the Washington Wild Things, with a championship game between the two finalists to be played at PNC Park the day after the All-Star game. In addition, sponsors will enjoy a golf outing at Fox Chapel Country Club.
"It's going to be a tremendous event for the region," said Patty Paytas, vice president of communications for the Pirates. "It's Major League Baseball's event, and the Pirates will serve as the host. But it's Pittsburgh's game."

(Robert Dvorchak can be reached at or 412-263-1959.)

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Dave Molinari: Fleury has been hot on the ice

Tuesday, March 21, 2006
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

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OTTAWA -- Those reflexes -- the ones that make it seem as if Marc-Andre Fleury's shadow operates on a seven-second delay -- are as sharp as ever.

The left hand still moves so fast that if it were any quicker some of his glove saves might be accompanied by a sonic boom.

And the 500-megawatt smile that has been a part of him forever hasn't dimmed.

But Fleury is not the same goalie he was when the Penguins claimed him with the No. 1 choice in the 2003 entry draft. Or when he spent his first full season in pro hockey the winter of 2004-05. Or when the NHL shut down for the Olympics last month, for that matter.

He has, in the past five games, raised his game to heights he hadn't previously reached in the NHL, stopping 145 of 155 shots and making it possible for the Penguins to win three of those games, all against teams likely to qualify for the Stanley Cup playoffs.

"He's been playing spectacular," forward Ryan Malone said yesterday.

Even Fleury, who doesn't seem terribly comfortable praising his own work, allows that, "to be able to have five straight good games is probably the best sequence I've had."

Coach Michel Therrien said yesterday he hadn't decided whether to start Fleury or Sebastien Caron when the Penguins face Ottawa at 7:38 p.m. today at Scotiabank Place, and a case could be made for giving Fleury the night off.

After all, Caron can't be expected to keep an edge on his game if he doesn't get an occasional start. And there's always the possibility that the Senators, who have scored a league-high 266 goal, will make the night miserable for whoever is in goal against them.

But if Therrien decides to go with Caron, it shouldn't be because he's concerned about protecting Fleury's ego. Or his stats. Fleury made it clear yesterday that he enjoys the challenge of facing a high-octane offense such as Ottawa's.

"Maybe it's better for the [goals-against] average if you play a worse team," he said, "but it's always a good challenge when you play a team like that."

That Fleury has taken his game to a rarefied level should surprise no one. The issue never has been whether he would consistently perform at an elite level, but when it would happen.

At age 21, he's doing it a bit earlier than probably should have been anticipated, although it's reasonable to expect him to stumble a few more times along the way.

There never was a question about his talent or potential, however. Defenseman Alain Nasreddine realized that while playing with Fleury in Wilkes-Barre last season, but even he is struck by the way Fleury's game has evolved over a relatively short period of time.

"It's unbelievable, the maturity he's gained over just one year," Nasreddine said. "It makes you think, 'How good is this guy going to be, down the road?'

"Last year, you could tell he had the talent. You could tell he was quick. He still had to learn about positioning. He was relying on his talent a little too much. Now, he's really got it figured out."

Not all of it, actually. Not yet. Fleury is only 21 years old and plays one of the most demanding positions in team sports; he'll be traveling on the learning curve for years to come.

Indeed, that's the thing that should really concern other teams. If Fleury can play this well when he's this young, how tough will he be to beat when he's accumulated another three or four years of knowledge?

"He's already a top-notch goalie," Nasreddine said. "You can only think he's going to get better with experience and maturity."

Therrien watched Fleury go through an up-and-down season with the Baby Penguins a year ago, and still was in Wilkes-Barre when American Hockey League shooters found Fleury to be all but unbeatable last fall.

"Early in the season, he was playing this way in Wilkes-Barre," Therrien said. "He was really sharp."

Sharp enough that, coupled with the subpar goaltending the Penguins were getting at the time, management abandoned its attempt to save the roughly $3 million in bonus money Fleury stood to earn if he got regular work in the NHL and summoned him from the minors.

As it turns out, Fleury isn't going to cash in on the bulk of his potential bonus earnings, but he has made it clear that the only goaltending competition on the Penguins next fall will be for the right to be his backup.

"Every year, you expect a young player to improve," Therrien said. "His development isn't finished."

(Dave Molinari can be reached at 412-263-1144.)

Thursday, March 16, 2006

Gene Collier: Pirates know Bautista will be here soon

Thursday, March 16, 2006
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

BRADENTON, Fla. -- The more aesthetic and even opulent moments of any spring training very often present themselves with no foreshadowing.

It's late in a ballgame. The regulars have long since bolted McKechnie Field for the beach, the bungalow, the bar or the links. Even the Pirates with April destinations that include Indianapolis, Altoona, and parts less known are playing out of position. The Florida sun, warm and life-replenishing at the national anthem, has gone to cooking up a sweat-suckingly hot seventh-inning stench. Seventy percent of the remaining spectators over 70 have forgotten which team is ahead in the game, plus a few other things.

Someone with an offensive tackle's number on his back lifts a lazy fly ball to medium right, carrying no consequence except that which might be contrived from the fact that, oh yeah, there's a runner tagging at third.

And suddenly you get it.

An unforeseen spring training moment that begs for importance.

"I pretty much knew the guy wasn't going," Jose Bautista says of that runner on third. "I just didn't want to throw it soft."
So he threw it hard. Almost insanely hard.

It left his right hand and sketched a sizzling trolley wire to home plate, exploding into the catcher's mitt with an audible whap!

We all gaped. Then the applause cracked the stunned silence, first an arrhythmic staccato and then a rich, appreciative crescendo that roared out onto 9th Street.

This was the Pirates' 2005 Minor League Player of the Year, merely plugging right field at the end of a shaggy spring training game.

"I played right field and center field last year in winter ball," shrugs the 25-year-old Dominican.
Officially, he is the third baseman of the very near future, which means the minute the one-year contract that 36-year-old Joe Randa signed on New Year's Eve looks in any way imprudent.

"He does have a very good arm," general manager Dave Littlefield says. "[Playing the outfield] is something we're at least looking at. We've played him some there in spring training and some at second base, too. He's in one of those situations where we have to make a call on whether he's big-league ready or better served with another year in the minor leagues.

"But the good news is, he looks like a player. It's just a matter of where we go with that."

Lithe and chiseled at 6-0 and 195 pounds, Bautista commands his range at third with major-league quickness, but it's more his quick bat that has gotten him an indefinite appointment in Pittsburgh. In 130 games last summer, 117 of them at Altoona and 13 at Indy, Bautista stroked 30 doubles, 24 homers, and drove in 94 runs.

"I have confidence that when I'm in a major-league lineup that I can compete," Bautista says. "I'm not saying I'm going to the All-Star Game or anything like that, but I can compete. Some guys compete hitting .250 and some guys compete hitting .300. It's what you do with your ability.
"You can't take anything for granted in this game. There are a ton of scouts out there, trying to exploit your weaknesses. They're writing reports. 'Oh, he's been pulling off that pitch for the last three weeks.' "

He has seen an awful lot in these first five years as a professional. He bounced through four organizations one summer as a Rule 5 player in 2004 -- Baltimore, Kansas City, Tampa Bay, and the Pirates -- languishing in big-league dugouts and accumulating only 78 at-bats. At-bats are what he needs more than anything right now, and, if the next 500 come at Indianapolis, no one's going to do a lot complaining, because Bautista already seems to own an understanding of the game's monstrous psychological demands.

"It's not just hitting and defense," he says, "it's all aspects of the game, baserunning, preparation, everything. Talent is going to take you only to a certain place. Your mind-set is what's going to make you a major-leaguer. Sometimes, that takes a little time."

Nearly halfway through another attention-span challenging Grapefruit League season, Bautista found himself hitting .417 and leading the Pirates in total bases, on-base percentage, and slugging percentage.

His time is coming, and it's coming like that splendid throw from right, faster and harder than you expect.

(Gene Collier can be reached at or 412-263-1283.)

Ed Bouchette: Steelers' moves enhance their future

Steelers receiver Antwaan Randle El dances around on the snow-covered turf at Heinz Field as looks for a seam in the Chicago defense to return one of the Bears' seven punts during their December matchup.

Thursday, March 16, 2006

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Realted article
Steelers Notebook: Tuman comes to terms; Bailey to return at DE

The flurry of moves involving the Steelers two days ago came hours before the Ides of March, and they came out believing not only did they, unlike Caesar, avoid a knife to the heart of their Super Bowl team, but also might have enhanced future runs at more championships.

The Steelers, who already had lost receiver Antwaan Randle El, moved quickly to shore up two more possible holes by signing new starters at free safety and defensive end and did so with modest, long-term contracts for young players who appear to be on the rise.

In free safety Ryan Clark, 26, they acquired a player at least the equal to Chris Hope and at a much better price than Hope wanted from them.
"The thing about Ryan as a player is that he was always at the right place at the right time," said Kevin Colbert, their director of football operations. "He was somebody who could set a defense and run a defense. Ryan's similar to the types of free agents that we've been able to sign, a young kid coming off his first contract as a starter. He was productive on a very good defense."

They wanted to keep Kimo von Oelhoffen and Brett Keisel but, in the real world, that was never going to happen, and they could have lost both defensive ends. While Keisel, 27, has not started a game, they didn't want to lose what they believe is a good, young player the way they did with Mike Vrabel in favor of an older one.
"We felt that Brett was going to be a full-time player on our team," Colbert said.

They also forced Jerame Tuman's hand by inviting free-agent tight end Aaron Shea for a visit. Tuman learned of it, quickly placed a call and told them he wanted to sign their latest contract offer.

Those moves also mean that, other than cornerbacks Deshea Townsend and Ike Taylor, all of the Steelers' starters are signed through the next two seasons.
"We're not in a situation where we have to tear it up," Colbert said about the Super Bowl champions. "When you look at our team, we have a lot of guys under contract for a minimum of two years. We're kind of caught up right now."

There is still the matter of their starting cornerbacks. Taylor has attracted interest from several teams, but has no visits set and is unlikely to receive a contract offer from elsewhere -- another team would have to send the Steelers a first-round draft pick in return. Even three-time Pro Bowl quarterback Daunte Culpepper brought just a second-round pick to the Minnesota Vikings this week.
The Steelers are hopeful they will lure Townsend back, but they also have a young cornerback in Bryant McFadden who looks as if he is ready to start.
The loss of Randle El could hurt, but they lost Plaxico Burress last year and won the Super Bowl.
They have two plans to replace Randle El -- with Cedrick Wilson and possibly undrafted 2005 rookie Nate Washington, and there's also the draft.
Washington, who has the size (6-1) and speed to play split end, made two key plays in the AFC championship game that kept their first scoring drive alive. On third-and-7, Washington caught a 13-yard pass to keep the drive going. He then broke up a potential interception in the end zone before Jeff Reed put the Steelers in front -- for good as it turned out -- with a 47-yard field goal.
"We feel good about Nate," Colbert said. "Nate was a kid coming out of small college, and he had to adapt. He had to make a more dramatic leap than a kid coming from a bigger school. Throughout the year, he got better and better and better, to where he helped us win a playoff game. You look at him and say, OK, this kid's got a chance to develop."

The Steelers have no further visits by free agents scheduled but will continue to look for value in the market. Colbert believes the club's reputation along with winning a Super Bowl could tip the decision their way for other signings, including their own free agents.

"They feel good about the organization, the team, the coaching staff and the city. I think it's a good place to play. I think the Super Bowl put that feeling over the top, but I think that feeling existed before that.

"For guys coming from the outside, as Ryan is, he's looking at it and saying, wow, that's a Super Bowl team and they want me to be part of it. I think that helps, definitely, in the recruiting process."

(Ed Bouchette can be reached at or 412-263-3878.)

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Mike Prisuta: Lessons Learned

Mike Prisuta
Tuesday, March 14, 2006

It's been an unprecedented rookie season, one in which Sidney Crosby has made a profound statement and received quite an education.

Now, with the optimism of October shattered and the Penguins hopelessly buried in the standings, Sid The Kid is merely trying to finish what he started.

"From what I've learned this year, the game's not played on paper," Crosby observed.

On paper, the Penguins were a promising bunch prior to the first drop of the puck back on Oct. 5 in New Jersey. Maybe not, in retrospect, imposing enough to proclaim themselves the potential "team of the decade," as CEO Ken Sawyer boasted in the preseason, but intriguing.

They already had Mario Lemieux, Mark Recchi and Dick Tarnstrom. And they had acquired Ziggy Palffy, John LeClair, Jocelyn Thibault and Sergei Gonchar, among others.

And they had drafted Sid The Kid.

Six months later only LeClair, Gonchar and Crosby remain from the Penguins' initial collection of headliners, and only Crosby has delivered as advertised.

"He certainly hasn't disappointed anybody," said Bob Errey, a two-time Stanley Cup-winning winger with the Pens and currently a television analyst on FSN Pittsburgh.

"Oh, my goodness yes," added Pierre McGuire, formerly an assistant coach on the Penguins' 1991-92 Cup champion and currently a national television analyst. "He's been even better than people thought he would be."

Through his first 64 NHL games (as of Monday morning), Crosby ranked 10th in the NHL in scoring with 31 goals, 43 assists and 74 points, including a combined two goals and three assists in back-to-back wins over the Devils and Flyers on Saturday and Sunday nights.

At 18 years of age and as a veteran of 74- and 86-game seasons with Rimouski of the QMJHL, it's not the length of the NHL season that's threatened to get to him at times.

The losing is another matter entirely.

"It's probably a little bit tougher than it ever has been just with us not being able to win as much as we were supposed to," Crosby said. "I'd say that's been the hardest part, just mentally going through that.

"I don't think it's that bad where you don't sleep at night, but it's tough being on this side of it. I don't think I've ever experienced being on this side of it. Every year I've played, I've won."
Every year except this one.

Despite the surprises over the Devils and Flyers, Crosby's Penguins continue to maintain the NHL's worst record at 16-37-12.

The onslaught of losses long ago cost head coach Eddie Olczyk his job and of late has inspired a reshuffling of the roster.

Through it all Crosby has been consistently spectacular, failing to register at least 10 points in just two of six 10-game segments - the manner in which "Badger" Bob Johnson used to like to analyze campaigns - through the Pens' first 60 games. During the first of those, Crosby endured a three-game scoreless streak (another first, as far as Crosby can remember). During the second, he missed his only game of the season (on Feb. 2 against Ottawa).

Crosby has three goals and six assists halfway through the Penguins' seventh 10-game segment of 2005-06.

"And it gets tougher as you go along," McGuire pointed out. "Everybody gets a book on you, and when you don't have a lot of help around you it's really tough, especially for a targeted guy.
"Obviously, it's a real difficult situation there. He's done exceptionally well."

With the spotlight on him throughout, Crosby has neither shied from it nor proved undeserving of the unrelenting attention.

He's sold out the United Center in Chicago, jawed with a fan in Columbus and been chased by taxi cabs full of overzealous autograph seekers in Toronto.

Crosby has been taunted by Atlanta's Ilya Kovalchuk, carved up by the Flyers' Derian Hatcher and mocked in print by Philadelphia's Ken Hitchcock.

Crosby has endured it all with a veteran's poise and perspective, taking over as the spokesman for the Penguins before Lemieux called it a career and handling off-ice issues that arose with Recchi, a linemate of Crosby's prior to being dealt to Carolina last Thursday with whom Crosby worked wonderfully on the ice.

No wonder The Hockey News designated Crosby No. 13 on its list of 100 People of Power and Influence in its Jan. 3 edition.

Crosby has demonstrated both qualities so far.

Now, he wants to finish the job.

"I just want to keep going," Crosby maintained. "With the way things have gone, with us not being in the playoffs, it might be easier not to have that same energy, not to have that same motivation as maybe the first half (of the season). I want to make sure that's what I don't lack.
"For our team, we have to challenge ourselves to win every night. If that means having to motivate yourself to be a spoiler or something like that, if that's the way you have to do it, then fine. For me, I just want to finish with the most momentum possible going into next season."
The possibility exists - it's a likelihood in Errey's estimation - that Crosby's current season won't end until after he represents Canada at this spring's IIHF World Championship tournament in Latvia.

Crosby's already looking ahead to next season.

And this time, his eyes are wide open.

"You can't speculate, especially as a player," Crosby said. "You can't look at the guy next to you. You have to push, everyone, and not just show up for a season or for a game and expect to win. You have to play the game on the ice.

"You have to work hard for what you want and what you get and you have to expect to do that. And you don't take anything for granted."

Crosby's learned that much this season the hard way.

Mike Prisuta can be reached at

Saturday, March 11, 2006

Review: Steelers DVD is a must see

Saturday, March 11, 2006
By Bob Smizik, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

It is not surprising that some stores in the region have sold out of copies of the NFL Films-produced DVD of the Steelers' Super Bowl championship season. What is surprising is that every store in the region hasn't sold out.

This is an absolute gem, a must-have souvenir of the recently completed season that takes you behind the scenes of the Steelers' success. It's a 72-minute feel-good ride filled with all of the highs and some of the lows.

What's more, the wise shopper can purchase this DVD for well below the advertised price. Some of the low-budget chains were selling it for as little as $12.

The DVD is more than a tribute to the Steelers' season. It's also a tribute to Jerome Bettis, the team's inspirational leader who was playing his final season. The Bus is heavily featured, and understandably so.

The masterful Harry Kalas narrates, but the live play-by-play calls of Bill Hillgrove on the Steelers Radio Network are heard almost as much as Kalas, and Hillgrove rarely disappoints. His calls of all the big plays were invariably on the mark and ringing with the kind of enthusiasm that helps make this product special.

The DVD opens with Willie Parker's 75-yard touchdown run in the Super Bowl and Bill Cowher exulting in victory.

But it quickly goes back in time to memorable disappointments that cost the Steelers a trip to the Super Bowl. We see the key plays in the Steelers' AFC title game losses to San Diego, Denver and New England. We see Kordell Stewart being mocked by a Denver defender. We see Hines Ward, weeping unashamedly after the loss to New England in January 2005, and saying of Bettis, "It hurts ... because he deserves to be a champion."

But we mind none of these sad remembrances because we know what's coming, and it comes with all the flourish and music and cleverness that we've learned to expect from NFL Films.

Their cameras capture inside stuff that gives a hint of who are the leaders of this team and what Cowher means to it. Some of it is totally candid, but other times the players know the cameras are there and make use of them.

After the AFC title game win against Denver, backup center Chukky Okobi approaches Bettis -- because he knows that's where the cameras are aimed -- and says, "It's only a 40-minute flight [to Detroit], but we're taking The Bus."

After moving briskly through the first 12 games of the season, spending a minute or two on each, the DVD slows down to capture the 7-5 Steelers' memorable run when every remaining game was virtually sudden-death football.

The cameras take full advantage of the snowy afternoon at Heinz Field when the Steelers began their comeback against the Chicago Bears, with the power running of Bettis taking control of the game. "Ride The Bus," yells Ward. "He's got his snow tires on."

The playoff games are covered in detail with none of the big plays missing.

With the Steelers facing a third down on the Seahawks' 1 in the Super Bowl, Cowher gets a most unexpected request. The camera catches Troy Polamalu approaching Cowher and saying, "Give it [the ball] to me. I'll take it over the top, coach."

There are lots more like that. If you're a Steelers fan -- and who isn't? -- this is must viewing.

(Bob Smizik can be reached at or 412-263-1468.)

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Casey's defense rare treat for Pirates at 1B

Wednesday, March 08, 2006
By Gene Collier, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

BRADENTON, Fla. -- On adjacent stools in the Pirates' clubhouse sat two members of the franchise's semi-ancient hagiology, Messrs. Virdon and Mazeroski, quietly spooning soup out of identical Styrofoam cups.

"Not bad," Virdon said.

"All right," Mazeroski said.

"Yeah, pretty good," Virdon said in a tone used just as effectively with "pretty bad."

"Adequate," Mazeroski said.

But they weren't talking about the soup.

The subject was first basemen and the little-known fact that, while this will be the 50th baseball season to include at its end the awarding of Gold Gloves, the signature Rawlings hardware for defensive excellence, not one has ever been handed to a Pirates first baseman.

Perhaps for fear he would drop it.

There have been rag gloves and iron gloves and even a Dr. Strangeglove, but never a Gold Glove.

In the era when Bill Virdon and Bill Mazeroski played elegant defensive baseball, the Pirates' first basemen ranged wildly from the very good (Bob Robertson) to the comically bad (Dick Stuart, Dr. S. himself). They included Donn Clendenon, Dale Long, Rocky Nelson, Al Oliver.

Not bad. All right. Pretty good. Adequate.

"If I had to put one above the rest," said Maz, the acknowledged best second baseman who ever breathed, "it would be Clendenon. He was tall."

And that's when Sean Casey walked into the clubhouse. No one bothered to tell him, but he's the first real first baseman to walk into this one in about 16 years, or since the fate-torturing departure of Sid Bream.

"I take a lot of pride in it," Casey said of his glove, which is on the wrong hand for a classical first baseman, but generally holds everything that hits it. "I don't want to be known just for being a good hitter."

In detaching Casey from the Cincinnati Reds this winter for the price of one starting pitcher (Dave Williams), the Pirates instantly upgraded their infield defense fairly dramatically. Though Casey is big enough at 6-4 and just mobile enough without being terribly athletic to make all the plays a right-handed first baseman should, the Pirates will benefit as well from Casey's mental approach.

In his new book, "The First Baseman," the highly respected baseball chronicler Tom Keegan devotes a chapter to Casey, and it includes this little debunker of the widely held notion that you can put just about any oaf at first and get away with it.

It relates to a moment in a Reds-Rockies game last summer, in which Colorado's Todd Helton comes to the plate to start the fourth inning, and fouls off the first two pitches from Reds' starter Aaron Harang.

"Helton's just such a good hitter, he can keep balls fair," Casey explained to Keegan. "I saw [catcher Jason] LaRue called for a fastball in, and he was really in off the plate, so I knew if [Harang] was going to miss he was going to miss really in. Helton's only way to keep it fair was going to be down the [first-base] line. I do that a lot, depending who's up. I might not do that if a little slap hitter was up, because he maybe doesn't get to that ball."

Helton got to it. Ripped it over the bag. Casey snagged it for the out.

This is not the way Daryle Ward played first base in 101 games last season, nor the way Brad Eldred played it in 46.

In fact, if the semi-ancient history of the organization is thick with depressingly average first basemen, its more recent history, with the notable exception of Kevin Young (a converted third baseman), is thicker with alleged glovemen of questionable utility: Randall Simon, Craig Wilson, Mark Johnson, Orlando Merced, Gary Redus, Randy Milligan, Jason Thompson, Orestes Destrade, Brian Hunter.

Casey might never win a Gold Glove either because the National League is stocked with excellent first baseman, but Casey's glove itself is above reproach.

In seven seasons with the Reds, Casey handled 9,129 chances and made only 46 errors, or roughly one every 200 times he puts leather on the ball. He made only two errors on 1,210 chances last summer, when he led the league in fielding percentage. He went 77 games between errors (May 2 to Aug. 7), the longest such stretch in the league, and put together 31 consecutive errorless games to end the season.

As it happens, the season ended prematurely while Casey was making the kind of play he was talking about yesterday, a play some first basemen make look so very easy and is actually complicated and even dangerous.

"It's the high throw you have to catch in foul territory, using the bag to boost yourself back and give yourself a few extra feet," he said. "Usually, it's when an infielder has made a really great play, but the throw sails on him a little bit. You have to be able to read the play, which means watching the throw but watching the runner at the same time. You can't do it if the runner will be on top of you by the time the throw gets there."

But seven years into a career as an accomplished first baseman, that's exactly what Casey misread Sept. 16 at PNC Park. Humberto Cota chopped a pitch to the left side of the infield and hustled toward first. Casey backed off the bag for the high throw, and Cota, fearing the throw would hit him in the head, brought his arms up to protect himself, bashing Casey in the side of the head with an elbow in the process. It was Casey's third career concussion, not that anybody's counting.

It's not exactly one of those baseball axioms, but, when you've got a first baseman who's more likely to get a concussion than to drop the ball, that's pretty good. And on that Cota play? Oh yeah. Casey caught that ball, too.

(Gene Collier can be reached at or 412-263-1283.)

Monday, March 06, 2006

Guy Junker: Tracy a breath of fresh air

Guy Junker
Monday, March 6, 2006

BRADENTON, Fla. -- Idle thoughts from a week spent between McKechnie Field, and Pirate City when the boss was watching and between gulf beaches and golf courses when he wasn't:
"If you have enthusiasm, thank God for it. If you don't have it, get down on your knees and ask God for it." Pirates manager Jim Tracy says he got that philosophy from his dad and he thinks about it every mornng before he starts his day.

Tracy is a breath of fresh air, blowing through a spring training site that has been the winter home to a team that has had a losing record for 13 straight seasons. How many wins that will be worth remains to be seen. But Tracy will not let an organizational lack of cash, a roster lacking experience, or the sun in his eyes be excuses for a 14th straight losing season.

In spirit, Tracy reminds me of Chuck Tanner. Even as a young reporter, I didn't buy into all the silver-lining junk Tanner dished out. I kept waiting to see or hear the real Chuck.

It's 28 years later and I'm still waiting. Hopefully Tracy will hold up the same way. If he fails, it won't be for lack of enthusiasm. That would go not only against his baseball beliefs, but against family.

* One guy who should be smiling from ear to ear is shortstop Jack Wilson.

You might be thinking I'm talking about the three-year contract extension he signed worth $20 million. That is reason to smile, but I'm talking baseball reasons.

Look for Wilson to thrive under a guy like Tracy. With the previous administration, Wilson was ridiculed by his own teammates at times because he had the audacity to be proud and excited to play major league baseball. How dare he! It will be different now. If a guy isn't excited to play for Jim Tracy, he probably won't.

* The good news about Wilson's new contract was offset by the bad news about Kip Wells needing surgery. But before that changes anyone's mind about this team's chances, it has to be considered that he lost 18 games last year with an ERA of more than 5.

* Everyone says the rotation is too young -- and it may be -- but all Wells has proven is that he's not consistent. Some of those young arms haven't had that chance.
Wells' circulation problems may be offset by Sean Burnett's quick start. Expected by most to not be ready until June, Burnett is throwing without pain and throwing well. This guy was a first round draft pick that was the Pirates' Minor League Pitcher-of-The-Year twice before getting hurt. He's still just 23. Keep your fingers crossed.

* It seemed curious to me when the Pirates invited Andrew McCutchen to major league camp. After all, last year's first-round draft pick is just 19 years old. But he is an impressive kid to talk to and to watch play ball. He showed a lot of patience at the plate in early intersquad and Grapefruit League games, waiting out the count from pitchers nearly twice his age. He has a long way to go but he looks like a guy that will be fun to watch develop.

* Oliver Perez is not throwing as hard as he did two years ago. At least not yet.

* Without a doubt, the Spanish-speaking players were the most excited about the inaugural World Baseball Classic. They were wearing the gear and chirping the most in the clubhouse.

* His hair is white, but there still is a twinkle in Bill Mazeroski's eyes when he talks about Spring Training, which he says is one of the parts of baseball he missed most when he retired.

* If I were betting, I think I'd still take Bill Virdon over half the players on the roster if there was ever a brawl.

* Duffy's Tavern on Anna Maria Island has the best hamburgers in the world.

* After covering Spring Training for 26 years in Manatee County and staying at a hotel on the Manatee River, I finally saw a manatee. It was in the channel across the street from Duffy's Tavern. And after what I ate there, it looked slimmer than me.

Guy Junker is the co-host of the Junker and Crow Show, 10 a.m.-1 p.m. weekdays on ESPN Radio1250. You can e-mail Guy at

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Joe Bendel: Randle El hopes to stay

Joe Bendel
Wednesday, March 1, 2006

It was fitting that Antwaan Randle El spent Tuesday afternoon at Wal-Mart, where the ad campaign features a commitment to "rollback" prices.

That's because the dynamic wideout said he is willing to rollback his price for the Steelers -- provided they come close to matching an offer made by another team during the free-agency period, which could be delayed from its scheduled starting date of Friday.

"If (the Steelers) are a million dollars off, that's not enough to make me leave," said Randle El, who greeted more than 1,500 fans at the Robinson Township Wal-Mart to autograph Warner Home Video's 2006 Super Bowl XL Champions DVD. "If I'm the No. 2 receiver and the punt returner, and, certainly, I have the opportunity to play, then a million-dollar difference won't make me leave here. Why would I want to move my family if I didn't have to?"

Randle El said he and the Steelers have talked, but "we're not there yet."

"It goes back to what they can spend without breaking the team," he said. "I'm not certain they'll be able to do it. If it works out, it works out. If it doesn't, it doesn't. We'll see."

The reality is, Randle El could receive offers that far outweigh what the Steelers are willing to pay, given salary cap restraints and the like. He said 10 to 12 teams could show interest in him at the start of the free-agency silgning period and that he plans to use his ability to return punts (he took two back for touchdowns last season) as a selling point if he hits the market.

He surely increased his stock in Super Bowl XL in Detroit, where his 43-yard touchdown pass to Hines Ward not only sealed a 21-10 victory but also upped his passing totals to 15 of 18 for 171 yards with three touchdowns.

"You have to take the punt returns into account when you're making deals," said Randle El, who had 35 catches for 558 yards (15.9 average) with a touchdown last season, while also averaging 10.2 yards on 44 punt returns. "I'm blessed that I have that (bargaining chip)."

Randle El pointed out that not all No. 2 wideouts come cheap. He mentioned the $13.5 million signing bonus Reggie Wayne recently received with the Indianapolis Colts. Not that Randle El was suggesting that he deserves Wayne money -- though he does have that previously stated bargaining chip.

"I'm saying you still get decent money as the No. 2 guy," said Randle El, who might have a hard time getting big money from the Steelers because the team used a $9 million signing bonus on Hines Ward in August. "But it's extra incentive when it comes to returns. I returned two last year for touchdowns, and that was big on my part."

Among the teams interested in Randle El are his hometown Chicago Bears, the Washington Redskins and the Philadelphia Eagles.

And, while going home to Chicago might be somewhat appealing, Randle El said he would be more interested in getting a chance to play for an up-and-coming Bears team in a significant role.

"The attractive thing is, they don't have a punt returner," Randle said. "I think they cut their punt returner last year after our game. And, they want a No. 2 receiver. Certainly, I can play on the other side of Mush (Muhsin Muhammad) and be able to make some plays. But that can happen anywhere. In Washington, I could be on the other side of Santana (Moss). There are 10 or 12 teams that I can name that need a punt returner and a No. 2 guy."

Randle El added that he'd prefer not to sign with a team that is in rebuilding mode.

"I'm not into that," he said. "I don't want to go anywhere where I'm losing a bunch. That's not what I want. We won the Super Bowl and have been in the playoffs in three of the four years that I was here. I wouldn't want to go where we weren't winning like that. Those are the teams that know that they have to jump higher than normal (in offering a contract) because it's not a great thing when you go to a losing organization."

The Steelers used their second-round draft pick on Randle El four years ago, selecting him ahead of Pitt's Antonio Bryant, who is also an unrestricted free agent this year and recently stated he would be interested in playing for the Steelers. Randle El, a quarterback at Indiana University, has 162 career catches for 2,012 yards with seven touchdowns during his Steelers career. He's also returned 168 punts for an average of 9.5 yards and four touchdowns.

Randle El has developed a strong bond with the Rooney family during his tenure here, but he understands that business and sports can be mutually exclusive.

"It's tough, but we have an understanding between me and the Rooneys that if it doesn't work out, they wish me the best," Randle El said. "There are no ill-feelings or hard feelings. I've tried to be gracious. They said they're going to make a push for me, and I respect that and I want it to work out here and not go anywhere else. But at the same time, I'll have to look into other opportunities if it doesn't work out."

Joe Bendel can be reached at or (412) 320-7811.