God bless Frank Coonelly

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ATLANTA — Frank Coonelly was disgusted last September when, a few days after being hired as Pirates president, he saw the Pirates lounging and laughing in their dugout while “God Bless America” was being played.

Coonelly brought up that moment more than a few times this past offseason, telling fans it wouldn’t happen again on his watch.

Monday night, the country group Whiskey Falls sang the song during the seventh-inning stretch. I made sure to look down at the Pirates’ dugout … and I saw several players and coaches standing alongside the railing, hats off and hands over their hearts. Three Pirates players in the infield were doing the same.

For what it’s worth, Coonelly’s culture change appears to be taking effect.

&#149 Ninety-seven miles per hour.

That was the speed of the fastball Tyler Yates threw past Chipper Jones to end the eighth inning.

Yeah, Yates is going to have his control issues this season, as he’s had in other years. But that kind of heat, as I chronicled earlier this spring, is a rare commodity in the Pirates’ system. The addition of Yates could pay big dividends this year. &#149 The scene at Turner Field as the first pitch was being thrown tonight reminded me of a Braves playoff game. There were camera flashes going off everywhere — and also plenty of empty seats.

And in the eighth inning, after Nate McLouth drove a 2-0 pitch into the right field seats for a three-run homer, there was a mass exodus for the parking lots.

Same old frontrunning Atlanta fans.
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Surprise! It’s Doumit at catcher

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ATLANTA — John Russell’s first surprise move as Pirates manager came in today’s season opener against Atlanta, when Ryan Doumit replaced Ronny Paulino as the starting catcher.

Russell said he made the switch because Doumit’s patient approach at the plate would be a boon against lefty Tom Glavine. Yet, Doumit insisted his approach is no different now than it’s ever been ….

Even as I was typing those words, Doumit bounced a single up the middle in the second inning on a 2-1 pitch against Glavine. Adam LaRoche, however, was held up at third base.

As I was saying, Doumit said his approach is the same. And Paulino’s career batting average against lefties is a robust .373 …

First and third, one out. Jose Bautista works the count full — hey, maybe the Bucs really are taking a more patient approach at the plate against Glavine. So much for that; Bautista struck out.

As I was saying, maybe Russell had a gut feeling that Doumit was the man for the job tonight. Or maybe it was a none-too-subtle way of delivering a message to Paulino — and the rest of the team — that no one is safe from riding the bench on any night.

&#149 Bad mistake by Nate McLouth in the first inning. After drawing a leadoff walk from Glavine, McLouth wandered too far off the bag — actually taking another step toward second as catcher Brian McCann was catching the ball. McCann fired to first and McLouth was picked off easily.

&#149 It’s only the second inning, and already I am weary of that damn Tomahawk Chop. Ever since ’92, it makes my flesh crawl.

&#149 Freddy Sanchez just fielded his first grounder of the game, an easy roller off McCann’s bat. Don’t worry about Sanchez’s sore shoulder; he had plenty of time to make a soft lob to first base. The real test will be how Sanchez feels later this week, after he’s played a few games and had to make some tricky, full-speed throws.
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Final spring thoughts

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TAMPA — As I drove to Tampa Airport this morning, I was reminded of a scene from a couple of days ago on the same stretch of highway.

The Pirates had played the New York Yankees that afternoon at the freshly renamed Steinbrenner Field (where the only thing larger than the payroll is the ego). I was riding back to Bradenton with another reporter and we heard sirens as we waited at a red light. Suddenly, a police cruiser screeched to a stop in the middle of the intersection. An officer jumped out, and began to frantically wave traffic out of the way so whatever official vehicles were behind us could pass through the red light.

It was a caravan of police cars and three tour buses — the Yankees were en route to the airport, to fly to Miami for exhibition games against the Marlins.

For this, all the traffic at a busy intersection in downtown Tampa was ground to a halt. So the Yankees could pass without having to wait through a red light like the rest of us.

Unbelieveble.

At any rate, I am relieved and excited to finally blow out of Bradenton and put another loooooong spring training behind me. The only downside: The weather looks brutal for the first two weeks of the season — rain in Atlanta, snow in Pittsburgh.

The final few roster cuts made the Pirates seemed like no-brainers to me. I can understand Sean Burnett’s fury over his demotion, but Evan Meek is younger, healthier and, frankly, a better prospect. Remember, Burnett put up great numbers last spring, was among the final cuts, then wound up wounded again at Triple-A.

Doug Mientkiewicz and Chris Gomez will be more valuable, I think, for the attitude they bring than for whatever they do with their bats and gloves.

This is not a championship roster … yet. It won’t be for years, most likely. But it doesn’t seem to be a stagnant roster anymore. The new management group has realized the past seven or eight drafts yielded precious little talent. Burnett, John Van Benschoten and Bryan Bullington are great guys, but their time as bona fide prospects is over.

The roster purging has only begun. It ought to be an interesting summer.
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Picking a roster

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TAMPA — The Pirates won’t make another big round of cuts until Saturday at the earliest, and the 25-man roster won’t be finalized until a day or two before the season begins.

But even at this point, I don’t think it’s too difficult to project who will break camp with the team after the March 29 Grapefruit League finale. I’ll take it a step further and predict the Opening Day lineup:

Nate McLouth, cf
Jack Wilson, ss
Freddy Sanchez, 2b
Adam LaRoche, 1b
Jason Bay, lf
Xavier Nady, rf
Jose Bautista, cf
Ronny Paulino, c
Tom Gorzelanny

The rest of the starting rotation: Ian Snell, Paul Maholm, Matt Morris, Zach Duke

Bench: Doug Mientkiewicz, Chris Gomez, Ryan Doumit, Luis Rivas, Kevin Thompson

Bullpen: Matt Capps, x-John Grabow, x-Damaso Marte, x-Sean Burnett, Byung-Hyun Kim, Franquelis Osoria, Evan Meek

The Rivas-Josh Wilson decision may be the toughest to make. Wilson is out of minor league options, so the Pirates likely will lose him through waivers if they try to send him to Triple-A. Rivas’ career has been on a downward spiral the past few years, but he’s wowed management with his glovework and is getting on base like crazy.

Doumit would be the backup catcher, but not in the same invisible way that Humberto Cota was the backup. Expect Doumit to get 70 or more starts behind the plate

First player to get traded? Nady. He’ll be the first, but not the last.
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What a joke!

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BRADENTON, Fla. — Today is the Pirates’ lone day off during spring training. They’re back in action tomorrow and Thursday play the New York Yankees in Tampa.

But it appears the Yankees consider that game against the Pirates as a day off of sorts, too.

Comedian Billy Crystal will be in the Bombers’ lineup that day. Crystal, who has made a lot of money by basically doing the same old shtick since the early 1980s, was given permission by the Yankees and Major League Baseball to suit up. Crystal will wear uniform No. 60, as the game will be played the day before his 60th birthday.

Why is Crystal playing? Because he’s a Yankees fan and he’s a wealthy celebrity.

The Pirates are going to say all the right things about it — What a neat idea! It’s a terrific p.r. move for baseball! Wasn’t “City Slickers” a real knee-slapper?

But you’ve got to wonder if they don’t actually feel more like Pirates fan Tom Cuozzo, who today sent me this e-mail: “Do you see this as a slap in the face – (Crystal) suiting up against the Pirates? Why not the Red Sox? The Pirates are literally a joke! Where is the dignity from this ball club?”

Cuozzo is not alone. When I woke up this morning, I discovered this text message from my buddy Marty Caridi: “Who’s pitching? He should drill (Crystal) right in the back.”

Marty was joking, I’m sure. But the implication is clear: Why is it when a another team wants to make a mockery of the game, it chooses to do it against the Pirates?

You don’t have to be Billy Crystal to insert your own punch line there.
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What, me nervous?

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BRADENTON, Fla. — The two games in which Daniel Moskos has pitched so far this spring were an audition of sorts. They were a way the Pirates’ new management team and coaching staff to get an up-close look at the first-round draft pick they inherited.

Moskos tossed a 1-2-3 inning in the unofficial spring opener against Manatee Community College. A week ago, he gave up two runs on one hit and a walk against Cincinnati.

Although this is Moskos’ first time in the big league camp, he insisted he wasn’t nervous.

“One thing they’ve taught me how to do is stay within percentages,” Moskos said. “All offseason, I’ve been throwing long-toss at 60 percent, flat ground at 70 percent, bullpen at 80 percent. They’ve educated on keeping it within myself.

“There was some adrenaline rush because these are basically my first big outings. But at the same time, it’s nothing I hadn’t done before.”

Pitching coach Jeff Andrews knows better.

“He should be nervous. They’re all nervous,” Andrews said. “But did the nervousness affect his performance? No. When the nervousness doesn’t affect how they throw, you say, ‘OK, he’s a good one.’

“Daniel is going to look back, hopefully after a really long career, and say, ‘Gosh, remember how goofy I was? How excited I was? How happy I was to be here?’ That’s what baseball memories are made of.”

Then again, in another day or two, Moskos also will be a memory around Pirates camp — he’ll likely be among the first group of players sent down to minor league camp. The cuts are expected to be announced tomorrow or Monday.
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Lights out

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BRADENTON, Fla. — Last night was supposed to mark the first night game in the 85-year history of McKechnie Field. But the game was washed out by a line of lightning storms and a tornado watch.

Good times!

The evening was eerily similar to circumstances we’ve all experienced the past few years at PNC Park. The grounds crew rolled the tarp over the field during batting practice, when radar showed the storm was still miles away. The first pitch was supposed to be thrown at 7:05 p.m., but we were in a “rain” delay, even though there wasn’t a drop of rain falling. The game was on hold, but the concession stands were open. After nearly an hour’s wait, they shot of what was supposed to be a post-game fireworks display, pacifying the crowd. Finally, the storm arrived and everybody went home.

The only thing missing was a bobbleheads giveaway.

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Win? Lose? Who cares?

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SARASOTA, Fla. — There are some Buccos bloggers and casual fans out there who get all worked up over spring training losses. I can’t understand why.

The Pirates had lost six games in a row before rallying in the ninth inning yesterday to beat Toronto. Yippee. By the sixth inning, both teams were sending out their minor leaguers.

Sure, nobody likes to lose. But these games aren’t played to produce a final score. (As I type this sentence in the Ed Smith Stadium press box, Neil Walker smacked a two-run double to left field. That boosted the Pirates, who had trailed 4-0, into a 5-4 lead.) It’s about individual results — batter vs. pitcher — and getting into a rhythm to improve as the season-opener nears.

The other day, Doug Mientkiewicz spent about 20 minutes talking to me and a couple other reporters in the clubhouse in Fort Myers, Fla., as the game against the Red Sox wound down. Actually, it was more like a lecture in Batting 101 than an interview, and I found it fascinating.

Mienky explained his whole hitting approach in spring training — how he’ll spent days working on nothing but recognizing pitches, allowing even hittable pitches to go by without a swing so he can see a pitcher’s entire arsenal. He works on timing, allowing the ball to run in on him early in camp. It’s the same kind of baby-steps approach that hitting coach Don Long is taking with the rest of the team.

“It’s not important to be ready today or tomorrow,” Mientkiewicz said. “It’s important to be ready in April.”

A year ago, I sat in this same press box in late March and grumbled in this blog about another poor spring outing by Tom Gorzelanny. Folks were wondering whether Gorzo was hurt or if he should be shipped down to Indy to start the season.

Then the regular season rolled around, and it turned out Gorzelanny was just fine.

Will the Pirates lose six out of every seven games this season? Maybe. But if they do, it won’t have anything at all to do with their spring training record. During these few spring weeks, it really is not about whether you win or lose but how you play the game.
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No blockbuster … yet

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BRADENTON, Fla. — Minutes before the NHL trading deadline, the Penguins gave up two starters, a prospect and a draft pick and got Marian Hossa, one of the top offensive threats in pro hockey.

On baseball’s deadline day last year, the Pirates swung a last-minute trade and got … Matt Morris, an overpriced pitcher whom they’ve already tried to deal away.

A casual fan of both teams might look at the Penguins’ big trade and wonder, Why can’t the Pirates do something like that?

The Penguins were awful for years. The Pirates have been awful for a decade and a half.

The Penguins have young talent. The Pirates have young talent. Both teams have opted to build through the draft process.

“In a perfect world, we, like the Penguins, get to the trade deadline, we’re in the hunt and we can add,” Pirates general manager Neal Huntington said. “Hopefully, we get to that point — whether it’s this year or sometime in the future — when we feel we’re in position to make that trade that pushes us over the top.”

Yet, it’s not as simple as it may appear. There are important differences in the dynamics of the two teams and the economics of the leagues in which they play.

The NHL has a salary cap — the owners shut down the league for the 2004-05 season in order to get it. The $52.5 million cap evens the playing field for large- and small-market clubs.

Also, the Pirates do not have the talent at the major- or minor-league levels to swing a blockbuster deal.

In the offseason, Huntington tested the value of several of his players. The most marketable is outfielder Jason Bay, a two-time All-Star who is signed through 2009 to a very reasonable contract. The best offer came from the Cleveland Indians. Huntington was disappointed to discover that Bay and starting catcher Ronny Paulino were worth a fading left-hander, a backup catcher and a minor league outfielder who is a fringy prospect.

“We were looking to add, but we didn’t find the right fit,” Huntington said simply.

The Penguins ran into a perfect storm when they made their bid for Hossa. They have a young team of exceptionally skilled players who appear primed to go deep into the Stanley Cup playoffs, and room under the salary cap to add one more superstar.

The Pirates are at the other end of the spectrum, still building up from ground zero. In three, four or five years, they hope to be in the same sort of spot as the Penguins — able to swing a blockbuster trade that could possibly put them over the top.
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Meeting Mr. Red

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CLEARWATER, Fla. — Strange day at Ed Smith Stadium.

The game between the Pirates and Reds was marked by sloppy defense and ineffective pitching. It was a slow-paced game, and took 3 1/2 hours to wrap up. The Pirates blew a couple of one-run leads, fell behind, rallied for four runs in the ninth, then gave up two runs in the bottom of the inning for a 12-11 loss.

Left-hander Zach Duke made his first start of the spring and yielded five runs (four earned) on six hits in two innings. He did well against right-handed batters but served up long homers to a pair of power-hitting lefties, Ken Griffey Jr. and Adam Dunn.

Manager John Russell graded Duke’s outing as “OK” — hardly a strong endorsement for Duke’s bid to stay in the rotation.

But, it’s still early.

When the starting pitcher comes out of a spring training game, the drill for the media is simple. We wait until the pitcher finishes running sprints in the outfield, then interview him in the clubhouse while the game is being played.

Today, we tromped down to the clubhouse entrance and found two stadium workers manning the sign-in sheet. The steel door was locked, and neither worker had the key, so one of them began banging.

Why it’s necessary to have two people guarding a locked door, I can’t say.

Finally, we got in. As we waited for Duke to arrive, the Cincinnati mascot, Mr. Red — picture somebody in a ballplayer’s uniform with a giant baseball for a head, just as big but not as cuddly as the Pirate Parrot — wandered through the clubhouse. I don’t think Mr. Red had to sign in and I’m not sure how he got the door open. He never knocked.

Duke stared incredulously as Mr. Red strolled past. Once the mascot was out of the way, the interview — finally — could begin.

Ah, spring training.
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