Ouch!

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“Freddy’s down.”

The folks sitting on either side of me on press row at McKechnie Field were looking down at their laptops, so I was the first one to notice when Freddy Sanchez didn’t bounce up right away after turning a double play yesterday against the Much-Hated Phillies. But as soon as I said those two words, everyone’s heads snapped up.

You always hate to see someone injured, but it seems worse when it happens on sunny afternoon in a meaningless game. Another reason I hate injuries — I have to follow up on it. You ever stand next to someone who’s writhing in pain and have to take notes on what’s wrong and what it might mean? No fun there, pal, but it’s my job. Still, I feel a little like those vultures who slow to a crawl to inspect a two-car pile-up on the Parkway East. If you can’t help the situation, get out of the way.

We waited in the clubhouse while Freddy was being examined. The door to the trainer’s room (which is off-limits to media) was open when we walked into the clubhouse. It closed quickly once it was obvious we were there. Finally, Freddy walked out, limping just a bit. It looked like a best-case scenario, given the circumstances: just a mild sprain.

Freddy wasn’t scheduled to make today’s trip to Fort Myers, anyway, so he’ll get some time to rest. He’s a tough guy, though; he’ll be back out there in a few days.

You’ve gotta wonder, though, if maybe the Pirates aren’t re-thinking the decision to move Freddy to second base.

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Welcome to the jungle

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Friday, the Pirates played at the Atlanta Braves’ spring site, Disney’s Wide World of Sports complex in Orlando. What a change from Bradenton! Everything looked like a Disney production — freshly painted, clean and bright. During batting practice, the public address system played a totally PC playlist from the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s — the raciest tune was “Afternoon Delight” by the Starland Vocal Band. Everyone smiled and was pleasant, offering directions around the park without being asked first.

Today, the Bucs were in Tampa to play the Yankees at Legends. We were directed to five different parking lots before finally stumbling across the one reserved for media. And the guy at the gate tried to get us to pay $10 to park, even though media parking is free. Nobody smiled. During b.p., the speakers blared a Beastie Boys tune.

Love New York? Not me.

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Baby, I’m a star

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I am now a media star in Japan.

There is a flock of about 25 Japanese reporters in camp following every move made by Masumi Kuwata, a 38-year-old pitcher trying to break into the majors with the Pirates. Kuwata is something of a baseball god in Japan because he put up amazing stats in the Central League. Here, he’s a longshot to make the 25-man roster; he’ll start the season in the minors.

The flock follows Kuwata everywhere. They careen around Pirate City and McKechnie Field at full speed, camera cords and laptops in tow, recording his every grunt during warmups, every pitch, every time he sits, walks or talks.

Thursday, during the Pirates’ Grapefruit League opener at McKechnie, I was asked to do an interview about Kuwata for Japanese TV. Sure, why not?

The “interview” was far different than what I’m used to as an American sports writer. The setup was staged — the interviewer told me to pretend we met by accident at the game, while I was standing near the Cincinnati Reds bullpen, “writing” a story on my laptop. “Are you a newspaper writer?” Why, yes, I am. “Do you know about Masumi Kuwata?” Why, yes, I do. “Do you think he will do well pitching for the Pirates this season?” Actually, no, I don’t.

Wrong answer, apparently. Take two.

My interviewer wasn’t going to be happy until I said Kuwata would ring up the wins in Pittsburgh this summer. It was getting late in the ballgame and I still had my own stories to write, so I took the easy way out.

“Will Kuwata do well pitching for the Pirates this season?” Oh, yes. He’ll win 20 games, maybe.

Smiles all around.

No big deal, I thought. After all, how many people in Japan would be watching that TV show, anyway?

About 125 million, I was told.

Uh oh …

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Let the games begin

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Thursday is the first, bona fide Grapefruit League game of the spring. The Pirates play Cincinnati at McKechnie Field. I’m going to miss the routine of the past two weeks, when the players worked out on the practice fields at Pirate City.

Sure, there are only so many bunt drills you can watch before your eyes start to bleed. And the “relief pitchers take their lead off third base” drill is based on a situation that rarely happens in an actual game. But the pace is more relaxed, even by spring training standards.

Plus, Pirate City is nestled next to an orange grove, away from the bustle (such as it is) of “downtown” Bradenton. Quiet. Pastoral. Only a hundred or so die-hards come to watch the workouts — heck, there are fewer Japanese reporters following Masumi Kuwata’s every move — so there’s lots of elbow room.

The press box at McKechnie is economy-sized, so you don’t have room to sprawl with your notes, media guides, laptop, cell phone, computer bag, and bottled water. And just to keep everyone honest, a foul ball whizzes up into the box every once in a while. Brad Eldred smacked up on there Wednesday, and Mike Henry of the Bradenton Herald scooped it as it banged around the press box. Mike, who’s in his 50s, said it was his first foul ball ever. Well done, Mike. I’ve snagged a few in my time, but maybe I’ll get one more before we break camp and head to Houston.

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– Rob Biertempfel