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Dejan Kovacevic's Blog

Pittsburgh sports talk with the Trib columnist

Wakeup Call: On Birch, brotherly love, Big Ben

Some sporting thoughts before sunrise …

>> My Friday column seizes the occasion of PirateFest opening to give the Pirates a B grade for their offseason so far. That’s B as in blah.

>> All the buzz last night was over someone else leaving Pitt, that being basketball freshman Khem Birch, but that seemed to quell as the evening went on. Birch, one of Jamie Dixon’s best recruits in years, has started the past two games, but he’s averaging only about a dozen minutes of playing time.

One would imagine some sort of compromise can/should be achieved. Dixon has a history of not playing freshmen much, but he’s got to make exceptions for exceptional players.

>> This isn’t nearly as offensive, but let’s not overlook that Todd Graham not only would not face his players at Pitt. He won’t face — or take questions from — anyone in the Pittsburgh media since departing. He’s granted interviews only to pure-bred Arizonans so far, from what I can tell.

The Phoenix area has some fine journalists, though. He’ll get his before long.

>> John Harbaugh is known to be helping brother Jim Harbaugh in preparing the 49ers for the Monday meeting with the Steelers. Stuff goes on all the time in the NFL, but it still has a shady feel to it.

>> Ben Roethlisberger said yesterday his ankle is actually worse than it was after the Cleveland game. I’m starting to lean heavily toward wanting him not to play. Doesn’t make sense for the long term. Might not even make sense for this game, given how terribly limiting the Steelers’ playcalling will be.

>> Awful news about Chris Pronger being lost for the season with a concussion.

I’ll say it yet again: Something significant has to be done. The little dark room isn’t cutting it.

>> I’m almost as impressed with rookie Simon Despres’ early showing with the Penguins as I am with his English. The Quebec native speaks with a highly advanced command of English given it’s his second language, and he has no problem expressing himself. Not all that common of French-Canadian players his age. Really enjoyed our conversation earlier this week.

On the ice, Despres recognizes that his ticket to sticking once others get healthy is being reliable defensively. And he’s right. The Penguins know he’ll contribute, possibly a lot, on offense. But his steady play to this point on defense — “All I want to do is make sure I don’t give up an odd-man break,” Despres told me — surely means far more to the coaching staff.

Keep an extra eye on the kid tonight in Ottawa. Assuming Root Sports shows the game.

>> Here’s the chat transcript from yesterday. Heading to San Francisco later in the weekend for Steelers-49ers. Be good.


  1. Eric Bowser says:

    I was hoping you would be writing something today on the Pirates rather weak effort to improve their starting 8 in the lineup, quality off the bench, and questionable pitching staff anchored by Jeff Karstens.

    Huntington went on the radio last Saturday with Bob Pompeani and when Bob said it looked like the team has taken a step back, Neal fired back, “I don’t know why you would say that Bob” and then went on to say they made improvements.

    The reaction over these last two days to the news (not surprising mind you) of Todd Graham leaving a job and taking another while under contract seemed to indicate a sense of “how could you” with the university and the student athletes but every year, we’re hearing the same snake car salesman pitch from the Pirates and barely a story is done without the byline of Kovacevic attached to it.

    This strong of a reaction by the Pittsburgh media and fans is telling me apathy has set in across the region as it pertains to the Pirates and worst of all, I think acceptance of their position has been finalized for Bob Nutting as he refused to publicly criticize the new labor agreement with the MLBPA.

    Meanwhile, we see the Penguins organization at the forefront of criticism against its sport because of concussion and other injury related matters. The Penguins will spend over $60 million in player salaries in a sport that makes 1/3 of baseball’s revenues.

    The Penguins know that star power and winning is what attracts fans, if the Pirates invested in a player or two like Prince Fielder and Roy Oswalt, maybe it could change the attitude of its fans, until then, it will be a cycle in the abyss.

  2. Eric Bowser says:

    The list of the usual suspects for the next head football coach at PITT leaves a lot to be desired. Take Ron Zook for example, what he’s being listed because this situation is so special, maybe his special teams expertise might morph into being a special head coach? Are we talking about the same coach who failed to win with 5-star athletes at Florida and had some great recruiting classes while at Illinois?

    Then there’s Paul Rhoads, are we really going from hating the guy’s poor success as the defensive coordinator while at PITT to wanting him to fix THIS mess?

    None of that makes sense but at the same time it does, we’re talking about the worst athletic director presiding in college sports today. Steve Pederson is the same man who thought the Nebraska Cornhuskers needed an overhaul with their identity of you know, winning football games.

    How he handled the firing of Dave Wannestedt (yes, I’m calling it that even if ‘Stache’ “resigned”), hiring Michael Haywood, the horrible embarrassment of firing Haywood, and now this.

    How Pederson has a job right now astounds me but it shouldn’t.

    It isn’t like the alumni at PITT are investing big time money into the athletic department, attending games, and boosting their football program into a perennial contender as it should be doing in a high school football crazed region.

    I’m not sure I agree with DK’s idea of Wannestedt as AD and Grimm as Head Coach but I agree with this, Pederson needs to go and go now.

  3. Leah Backus says:

    If the league is serious about doing something about concussions, every option needs to be on the table from using different equipment to changing to rules. No one wants to see the game slow down or be played less physically, but no one wants to see player after player go down with head injuries either. Something’s got to give because ultimately, this is an issue that could destroy the sport.

  4. Curt says:

    Great article Dejan about the Pirates winter! I agree with everything you wrote/stated.
    I will always believe they need to spend first for the fan base to pick up. The concept of fans coming first and then they will spend is so backwards and honestly to me its somewhat a slap in the face to the fans.

  5. JAL says:

    9 Rumbunter

    Pittsburgh Pirates Sign Lucha Mask Wearing Ryota Igarashi

    RumBunter Podcast 13: Neal Huntington Talks Pittsburgh Pirates Roster Moves

    Former First-Rounder Kris Johnson Signed by Pittsburgh Pirates

    10 McEffect

    What About Michael Cuddyer?

    11 The Green Weenie

    Pirate Roster As Of Today

  6. JAL says:

    Steelers Blogs

    -Behind the Steel Curtain

    Arians: Batch Will Start If Roethlisberger Cannot Play in Week 15

    Week 15 Steelers Spotlight: Breaking Down OLB Jason Worilds

    Has the NFL Painted Themselves Into a Corner With the Harrison Suspension?

    -Steelers Depot

    With Sanders Limited Young Money Receivers and Steelers Strike Gold

    -Steelers Gab

    Roethlisberger Misses Another Practice; But Ankle Getting Better

  7. Jandy says:

    Hey, JAL is back :)

  8. Jandy says:

    Leah ~ I agree 100%! CWalton and I were hashing this out yesterday. Even something so little as a face shield would prevent a lot of injuries, but the players refuse to wear them. A better helmet is definitely needed t protect their heads. It’s time the league step in and mandate the use of better equipment. I realize not ALL injuries/concussions are going to be eliminated. But it sure would go a long way to cutting them down.

  9. Jandy says:

    Curt ~ just a slap in the face? More like a kick in the kahunas! I’m not a big Pirates fan. I root for them. I’ve been to PNC Park, it’s beautiful. But seriously, I don’t understand how the fan base tolerates this season after season.

  10. Thundercrack says:

    Hi DK,
    Good article and assessment of the Pirates roster this morning. I think they have improved but not in a ‘big’ way. You’re a little tougher grader than me. I would have given this offseason a ‘Blah +’

    I found your reply to a question about Doumit in yesterday’s chat interesting. You said:

    “Ryan Doumit simply felt that he was not respected as a catcher and everyday player, and he didn’t feel that was going to change here.”

    He may have felt that way – that certainly is his right. But he was not a good catcher -horrible in fact – and he never stayed healthy enough to warrant more respect in regards to being an everyday player.

  11. Jandy says:

    23 players out in the NHL with concussions or concussion symptoms. WTH! That is horrible.

  12. Naje says:

    “Ryan Doumit simply felt that he was not respected as a catcher and everyday player, and he didn’t feel that was going to change here.”

    DK – Hard to defend a guy who didn’t improve his catching until his 6th major league season. Hard to defend a guy who didn’t feel respected as an everyday player when he was injured two, three times a year. Hard to defend a guy who threw out less than 10% of the guys who stole bases in 2010. Hard to defend a catcher with hands of stone, no ability to frame the plate and who butchered the game behind the dish.

    Ryan, sorry about your feelings, but you controlled your fate. You’ve been a catcher since 1999 and a pretty bad one (defensively). You seemingly never took steps to make yourself even an average receiver, pitch caller, blocker of balls in the dirt; never improved your throwing out runners until 2011 when Hurdle consistently challenged you to improve.

    What-freaking-ever, dude. Good luck with the DH/C/1B/OF roles at Minny…

  13. dcpinpgh says:

    Khem Birch,

    I hope you read this. We were all your age and we all thought we knew more then we really did. If you transfer, you will have to sit out a year. That means that you won’t enter the NBA draft till atleast 3 seasons after you left high school. Right now you are getting the playing time of someone with the ability to leave for the NBA after 3 years. While as a future pro athlete you should want to play as much as possible. You and the coaches are on the same page as your current skill level. Work harder and gain more minutes and also make yourself a better player for the NBA. Which will mean more money for you.

  14. Stuart says:

    DK, enjoyed your article on Bucs. I personally grade the off-season as “Showing signs of life” as opposed to the usual “comatose”. Barajas and Barmes are better than what we had but they certainly aren’t going to make us contenders. I’d feel a lot better if we got a top of the rotation starter as an addition. BTW, I assume your lineup was the one against a left handed starter. Here’s mine against a righty:

    Tabata-rf, Pressley-lf, Cutch-cf, Alvarez-3b, Walker-2b, Jones-1b, Barajas-c, Barmes-ss, P.
    I like Pressley in the #2 slot semi-permanently given his left-handed batting and ability to move the runner. I know we will have to be lucky to reach .500 with the current roster, but maybe we can catch a little magic in a bottle again. I know that I am an incurable optimist about our prospects in Winter/Spring and have had quite a few years running of disappointment, but that, for me, is the promise of baseball.
    With hope,

  15. Drew71 says:

    Shady freaking brothers. No More Brothers In The NFL. That’ll show em.

    Or just WIN. That’ll REALLY show em.

    I’m not as negative about the Pirates signings as you are, Dejan, but neither am i happy. I think they were ok. “ok” with small letters. When i write ok, i mean JUST ok. Less than good. a quarter step up from 2011. Better. Not good enough. In aggregate, probably watchable baseball. You know. Competitive games you mostly lose 5-3. ok.

    One thing I’m tired of is the philosophy of signing band aids because we’re just gonna watch the young guys improve. Maybe the young guys are what they are. Maybe, for instance, Neil Walker is a .270 hitting, barely average defensive 2Bman. Fine, by the way with that. Maybe McCutchen will be a very talented but maddening inconsistent player. Maybe that’s it. And at the end of the year, Huntington will point to the players for NOT improving. Again. As if it is all their fault.

    You know, as if they assembled themselves.

    Sooooo….Thunder writes in one word, “Blah+”, what it takes me three paragraphs to TRY to get across.


  16. JMB says:

    Nice article today DK.

    I don’t see the Pirates being any better than last seasons 72-90 in 2012. NH’s year five and we are still just treading water.

    If this team magically (& finally) gets going in 2014, practically no one on the current roster will still be a contributor on that team. I think Cutch & Hanny will be traded, and Tabby will end up being an injury prone 4th OF’er.

    Looking at what the A’s got for Cahill and a question arises: why couldnt we have done a similar deal. Presley + ?, etc for an Ace level pitcher.

    I just think NH has always had a seven year plan, and he doesnt really care about competing until then. It makes it hard to get excited for 2012.

  17. TheDude says:

    As much as I love baseball, I don’t think that I’ll be able to watch the Pirates play this year. I do not understand how anyone could believe that the front office has improved the team up to this point.

    The staff is remarkable weak. There seems to be little threat of the long ball from anyone on the team, and little to no protection in the line-up for any of your “stars” (i.e. Cutch) if that is what you want to call him. But that will not be the main reason why I won’t watch baseball this season…

    I don’t know how owners of small market clubs, like the Pirates, could stand by and allow the league to make rules against overspending on the draft, while teams like the Angels, Yankees, Red Sox, etc can spend $325 million on two players. There is such inequity there that I can no longer support this league. Those two players contracts are more than the Pirates will spend over the next five years, and yet their leadership allowed it to happen without so much as a whimper.

  18. Drew71 says:


    That’s EXCITING. You’ve given me HOPE.

    You mean there’s actually a PLAN??

  19. dickyp23 says:

    Nice subtle jab at root sports….About Birch, Julius Page tweeted last night that Jamie is the only coach in the country who doesn’t play these McDonals guys right out of the gate and that if he wants to keep getting them, he better. I think it’s a fair point given the egos they have and the guarantees schools will give them to start.

    Jamie seems to do better with guys like this Malcolm Gilbert who will sit out the year and then probably play sparingly next year. By his Junior and Senior year though, he’ll be so strong and win the most improved player award. Problem with these guys is, the ceiling is only so high.

  20. sidelinespensfan says:

    -Until the Pirates make a “Big Splash” signing, I am going to assume that they are going to continue to promote the idea of “just wait till all of our good young guys are here.” I will never understand the premise of our guys are one year better because of experience. I guess that doesn’t effect other teams, just our guys, therefore we get better while other teams stay the same…..same ol’ same ol’ for the Bucs.

    -I would like to see the NHL actually call charging the way it is written in the rule book. It says that a player “traveling a distance” to hit another player or leaves his feet to hit another player can be charged a minor or major penalty by the referee. Think about that next time you watch a game. I bet at least 25% of the current hits in the NHL could be labelled “charging”. If you take those hits out of the game, THEN you can say you are serious about player safety. Also, I watched the Caps v. Jets game last night. I don’t think there was one hit in the third period, at least not one big one, and I thought the game was really exciting.

  21. PetroSteel says:

    We have shown you that we will come if you build it!

    Neal, Frank and Bob, here is the bottom line: I’ve been very optimistic over the years. I’ve supported the plan that you have in place for the teams future (I’ve been criticized several times for my support of you in this blog). BUT, come on…You can’t expect us to go through another year without some hope for a winning season. You are two players away from making this town and these players excited about maybe winning the damn division. Two players. We need a first rate first basemen and we need a top of the rotation starter. I think we have enough other pieces in place to compete if we have that. We need it NOW. Enough is ENOUGH. Just make it happen. Spend the money! Go to 60M if you have too. I’m not asking for an 80M/90m payroll. We have shown you that we will come if you build it!

  22. stewart says:

    I would only play Birch more if he earned it, not just because he is an “exceptional” player. That is unfair the other players who are working just as hard for their minutes.

  23. Vinqtin says:

    Birch should realize that his time has increased since the beginning of the season and realize that if he keeps improving, his minutes will grow. Personally, I would like to see Birch and Taylor on the floor together more.

    As for hockey, I agree with those that say some equipment changes need to be made. The amount of serious concussions that are happening in hockey seems to be way more than in football even though the hitting is more frequent and most of the time more violent. A good start would be to make the players wear the full cage helmet like the NCAA does. It would eliminate the shoulders, elbows, and fists to the face that seem to cause a lot of the concussions. Are a lot of college players getting concussions?

  24. JAL says:

    Birch should talk to Aaron Brown of WVU–from a story on WVIllustrated

    Passing is just one of many things Brown is still adjusting to and in the process, he’s realizing just how little he truly knew about the game of basketball before he got to West Virginia.
    “It’s so many principles now and rules you have to know, things you have to see,” says Brown. “In high school, you really don’t have to see that kind of stuff, but this is the next level. Everything is much better and faster, so you got to learn it.”

  25. CWalton_67 says:

    The Pirates, yet again, are striving for mediocrity. I thought Hurdle might drive the “the best management team in baseball” towards actually finding some people for the team who can actually, you know, play baseball. Apparently not the case. Wonder how long he’ll tolerate operating in an atmosphere with no hope?

    Very much agree with your thoughts on Pens Simon Despres, Dejan. He has been extremely impressive on the ice. He’s showing a high level of maturity and from what I can see, is a terrific skater.

    Again, the link to the Messier Project M-11 helmet:

    26% better performance from this helmet. So, something in the neighborhood of 6 of the 25 NHL players suffering from concussions would not have been injured, or been injured less severely had they been wearing it.

  26. Bizrow says:

    Re – we’re just gonna watch the young guys improve.

    They’re getting older, times a wasting.

    Someday, maybe the BMTIB will try to win – NOW

  27. Milo Hamilton says:

    I have learned that James Harrison has lost his appeal.

  28. Milo Hamilton says:

    Have you heard that Harrison news anywhere else yet ?

  29. jackdeloplane says:

    The Birch deal is the risk-reward equation you take when you sign these type of guys. They have people whispering in their ears who benefit from instant success, not the long-term foundational success Dixon teaches. That’s why its key to have Pitt NBA b-ball mentors come back and stay in touch with the program like the U of Miami football guys did back in the day.

    The NHL will have to do something, be it a rule change (I know they already have…) or the Messier helmet or something. Those numbers are shocking.

    Jandy, 75 degrees and sunny again today :)

  30. Bizrow says:

    No Milo, have not seen anything on it

  31. Bizrow says:

    I take that back, its a headline on ESPN web page

  32. Milo Hamilton says:


    Pro Football Talk has it now. But I had it 1st.

  33. Milo Hamilton says:

    You know, I hope the fact the blog still being held hostage by daylight savings time won’t cost me my scoop. #impeccablesource

  34. Ryan(Nor-Cal Stlrfanrc) says:

    DK–Enjoy San Fran….the 2nd best city in the country!!!!

    A clam chowder bowl is a must down there….

  35. jackdeloplane says:

    Forget San Fran, take a trip up the road to Napa valley. Now that’s a trip to remember…or try to remember after the vino tastings!

  36. Jandy says:

    Jack, you suck! ;)

    it’s 36 and windy as heck here in PA :/

  37. Jandy says:

    Pens have recalled Tangradi and Picard, looks like Staal isn’t ready to go yet…nor Michalek. Dang!

  38. Milo Hamilton says:

    I’m rapidly coming to the conclusion that this whole Colt McCoy/James Harrison situation could have been avoided if they were just wearing the Mark Messier helmet.

  39. JAL says:

    No one talking about the impact of David Villa’s broken leg on Barcelona’s chances in the Champions League. They play Bayer Leverkusen in the round of 16.

  40. Milo Hamilton says:

    Is Steve Pederson about to give us the Fickell Finger of Fate ? Makes sense, though. Why not replace an underachieving 6-6 coach with another underachieving 6-6 coach.

  41. Jandy says:

    LOL @ Milo ;)

  42. Drew71 says:

    Milo, where are you seeing or hearing that?

  43. Drew71 says:


    BTW, I don’t hate this as much as some will. He inherited a mess, had a rep as both a very good assistant, and is one of the game’s better recruiters.

    The negative to me is that WHEN (not if) Runaway Bride Meyers, you know, runs away in a few years, if Fickell has done well with Pitt, he’s gone.

    Not every hire has to be a big name to succeed, or even have head coaching experience. Look at the most recent three head coaches the Steelers hired.

    I’m not in full throated support. I just think this TYPE of hire is a better choice than a semi-hot head coach of a rinky dink program. As Pitt recently hired (for three weeks) and then hired again (for 48 weeks).

  44. Bizrow says:

    I still want Tom Bradley, but I also want the Pirates to win, peace in the Middle East and the winning Powerball ticket.

    Zero chance at any of them…..

  45. Eric Bowser says:

    @Biz – isn’t that the truth. I think Bradley would be an excellent candidate because he would almost certainly have some of the current PSU staff with him and a few other quality coaches/recruiters. If Bradley gets the job, he has instant credibility with the local high school coaches and could add to this class of recruits by taking with him some of the PSU kids.

    But that’s just me, I wanted Bradley after Wannestedt was fired.

  46. Milo Hamilton says:

    That makes 3 of us. I wanted Bradley last year also. Unfortunately, he’s radioactive until this whole mess sorts out. I don’t think he or anyone else on that staff can get another college assistants job right now. If Bradley works next year, it’ll be in the NFL.

  47. Ryan(Nor-Cal Stlrfanrc) says:

    Eh, Bradley’s completely vindicated on all fronts outta PSU. Other than the fact that he may get/want the PSU job, he could be a good fit at Pitt…

    @Eric–Pitt is becoming a ACC team, so why not Chad Morris? He can go back and beat up Dabo…..such a funny name, Dabo…

  48. Eric Bowser says:

    @Milo – I would have figured Bradley was destined for the NFL with Indianapolis but it looks like the Colts ownership might blow it all up and fire Jim Caldwell and trade Peyton Manning.

    @Ryan – Good point, he might take the few years of pitiful Big East play to prepare for the arrival into the ACC.

  49. Eric Bowser says:

    PG’s Paul Zeise is reporting FIU’s Mario Cristobal is interviewing with PITT this afternoon.

  50. Milo Hamilton says:

    Clairton leads Southern Columbia 21-12 at halftime in the Class A State Championship Game. A Bears win would break Braddock’s WPIAL record of 46 straight wins set from 1955-1960.

  51. Eric Bowser says:

    Trib’s Jerry DiPaola confirms the same report regarding Fickell, Chryst, and Cristobal.

  52. BenderHeel says:

    Chryst should get the call, if he’d come. The Panthers need some real excitement on the field, not just hot air from a bad coach.

  53. David says:

    I basically agree with your column with the lone exception that the Bedard signing excited me. He is a very talented pitcher easily the best on this staff. I know he has injury concerns but his upside makes him an exciting addition.

    As for the rest of the signings some are solid but unspectacular, however as a fan of all 3 Pittsburgh teams I have come to expect that. I mean when was the last the Steelers or Penguins signed a free agent to a larger average annual contract than what the Pirates signed Barmes to this season? That is just life for a Pittsburgh (not just Pirates) sports fan, big time free agents are not coming here.

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