A spring training primer

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BRADENTON, Fla. — Some of you may flee snowy Pittsburgh in the next few weeks to catch some spring training games here in Flordia. Bully for you! Some advice:

• Never apply the sunscreen to your face immediately after shaving. You’d think this one would be self-evident, but I made the mistake yesterday.

• Bring an ugly shirt. I got mine on the end-of-season discount rack at JCPenny for $2 back in October. It’s a blue Hawaiian-type thing, printed with flowers and what appears to be a mandolin … or something. My wife laughed — hard — when I first showed it to her, and it spent the winter stashed in a drawer, biding its time. I would be ripped to pieces by wild dogs if I was caught wearing it on the North Side, but I fit in just fine down here.

• Be patient behind the wheel. Simply put, Florida drivers are insane. They have no common sense, little concern for other vehicles and pedestrians around them and are in no apparent hurry to reach their destinations. The only thing I can compare it to are the folks with out-of-state plates who ever … so … slowly … manuever the bend from the Carnegie Science Center toward the open end of Heinz Field, and who sometimes stop in the middle of the road without warning and stare at the stadium. “Look, a football stadium. Where the Steelers play. Gosh.” It. Drives. Me. Nuts.

• I hope you like strip malls. Bradenton’s got ‘em, baby. And they’re chock-full of TGIFridays, Starbucks, Mattress Land, Muffler King and every other chain store/restaurant you can imagine.

• The Giant Turkey Leg is back! Loyal readers of my blog (that’s you, Mom) may remember my lunch of a jumbo turkey leg last season at McKechnie Field. The yummy treat is on sale again, for the not-so-low price of 7 bucks.

• Did I mention the suncreen and the shaving? I did? Good.

There. You’re at least as prepared for spring training as was Ray Olmedo. Then again, look what happened to him — he would up a Phillie.

Enjoy. If you come to McKechnie Field, stop by the press box and say hi. And be sure to bring a giant turkey leg.
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Waiting for Kim

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BRADENTON, Fla — It’s no secret Byung-Hyun Kim is about to join the Pirates. That news broke three days ago, when terms were struck for an $850,000 major league contact. Kim is here in town and has passed his physical. There is a fully-stocked locker bearing his nameplate in the clubhouse.

So, where is Kim?

The right-hander was expected to settle in today and go through a light workout. However, the day came and went with no change in the status quo. When will Kim arrive? “Tomorrow,” we were told — the same message we’ve been hearing since Wednesday.

A team spokesman said there remained “details to work out” with the deal. That could mean Kim had some personal business to wrap up before reporting. Or, it could mean the Pirates are not quite ready to decide who gets whacked from the 40-man roster so Kim can take his place.

Do the Pirates designate someone such as John Van Benschoten or Ty Taubenheim for assignment, hoping they’ll clear waivers and remain in camp as a non-roster player? Possible.

Or is one of the long-awaited and much-discussed trades in the works, which could clear a major league veteran off the roster? There is a slight chance.

Or will Rule 5 pick Even Meek be returned to the Tampa Bay Rays? Doubtful. Management has been impressed with Meek, who fits into their long-range plans. Right now, I’d say he’s got about a 60-40 chance to break camp with the team. So much intrigue for Byung-Hyun Kim. Geez, what will happen if/when the Pirates ever sign a top-tier free agent?

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Pride, passion … patience?

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BRADENTON, Fla — Over the past few days, I’ve tried in my stories from spring training to sort of take the temperature of the Pirates and give you a sense of what the mood is like as the team prepares for its 127th season.

I’ve spoken with owner Bob Nutting and the new front-office team, manager John Russell and his coaches, the support staff around Pirate City, veteran players, rookies and new arrivals. This afternoon, I hung out for a while and chatted with Chuck Tanner and Manny Sanguillen.

Sanguillen’s opinion echoed what I heard from practically everyone else. “I see a lot of new things here,” Sangy said. “I really feel we’re moving up. They have good work habits now, like we used to have. They have the talent. We just have to help them get better and believe in themselves, believe they can do it. I know they can do the job.”

After 15 straight losing seasons — man, am I sick and tired of typing that phrase — I was skeptical about whether Nutting really wants to spark a turnaround. But I’ve seen enough small, positive steps so far to believe he warrants some trust. The new infrastructure. The gutting of the front office. The removal of those silly “We will” signs. The roster moves. (Oh, they haven’t happened yet. But they’re coming …)

Building a winning franchise from the rubble of the past 15 years is sort of like trying to turn the Titanic — it’s a large thing and it’s got some momentum, so you’ve got to do it gradually, gently and firmly.

In one or two years, will “Pride. Passion. Pirates.” be just another laughable slogan? I can’t say right now. But I’m willing to wait and see.

We’ll check in again on this topic around Aug. 1. By then, a few things should come into sharper focus.
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The pursuit of happiness

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BRADENTON, Fla — In my feature story in today’s Trib, I touched on some of the reasons the Pirates did not make many offseason roster moves. The new front office team says it wants to give the players it inherited a chance to perform up to their proper levels and win. It also hopes certain players can boost their value as the midseason trade deadline draws near.

Remember tuning into “The Sopranos” each week and wondering who would get whacked and who’d be around for the next episode? That’s sort of how I think this season will play out for the Pirates, especially in the last few days of July. Who gets traded? Released? Banished to Indy?

The Pirates also did not do a lot of shopping — at least, not a lot of buying — on the free-agent market. A lot of that was because the market wasn’t that strong and it was overpriced. The days of the Pirates bidding against themselves for random has-beens — Joe Randa, Randall Simon, Raul Mondesi, Jeromy Burnitz — are over.

Money is one reason the Pirates did little on the free-agent front. Another reason was revealed in the explanation free-agent infielder Morgan Ensberg gave for signing a minor league contract with the Yankees: “It’s a great team and a great lineup. Most importantly, it’s a team that’s consistently playing for the World Series. After you’ve been in the league for a few years, you really start valuing that pursuit.”

The Pirates haven’t really been in that hunt since 1992, eight years before Ensberg made his major league debut.

Pretty ballparks and thick towels in the clubhouse don’t lure free agents. Neither, for the most part, do brand-name coaching staffs. What does cause a player to want to play for a particular team are money and a high probability of victory.

Right now, the Pirates cannot offer much of either.
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Going batty

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BRADENTON, Fla — Photographer Chris Horner is stationed with me here at the Trib’s Bradenton bureau (a six-room condo on 59th Avenue). He provides all the photos of workouts and games that you see in the paper and on the Website. He’s also taping the video snippets on the Web (check out the latest here).

The other day, Chris made an interesting observation: “What is it with managers and bats?”

Practically every time Chris peers through his lens to get a shot of John Russell, the Pirates skipper has a bat in his hands. Same goes for many of the other coaches, both on the Pirates’ staff and on other teams.

And they don’t just carry the bats around. They swing them, twirl them, tap them on the bench, point with them, stretch with them, pound them into the ground for emphasis. Saturday morning, coach Ray Searage was walking around with one sticking out of his back pocket.

It’s amazing somebody doesn’t get accidentally whacked in the noggin and knocked out every day.
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The countdown is on

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BRADENTON, Fla — Two days into spring training, and already I’m eager for the season to get under way.

I don’t mind being able to slip into shorts every day and going to work under sunny skies. And there are plenty worse jobs out there than lobbing questions at ballplayers.

And yet …

It won’t be long before the Every-Day-Is-Tuesday effect kicks in. The same routine, same schedule, blah blah blah every day.

I miss making breakfast for my kids. I miss the Junker and Crow show on the radio. I miss pierogies. I miss my XM Radio (the tuner has 10 presets, but all I really need are XM175 Home Plate and XM44 Fred).

In other words, I’m counting down the days until the home opener at PNC Park.
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