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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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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– Rob Biertempfel