—Ready or Not...(Part 2)—
With apologies to Don Long, he's pretty much doomed.
The Pittsburgh Pirates' new hitting coach isn't going to fare any better than his last three predecessors.
This probably won't come as a shock to anyone who follows baseball, let alone the Bucs.
Still, I feel some comparative stats I pulled up from this Spring Training demonstrates that it's insanity to expect vastly different results with essentially the same team.
These numbers have quashed even the faintest hope I had as a fan that the Pirates would surprise in what will once again be a weak National League Central.
Usually, I dismiss Spring Training and its results because pitchers are working on developing new pitches and sometimes having them hammered out of the park while tweaking.
At the same time, managers are fiddling around with lineups before squeezing in players who won't make the 25-man roster anyway toward game's end just to try to "make an impression".
On any given day, any team can have a late surge or a late collapse and it really doesn't matter. It's learning what they can while it's still "acceptable" to lose.
Looking at the Grapefruit League standings, the Pirates and the Phillies (the latter won the NL East last year in surprising fashion) are right at the bottom. And a team that's supposed to be as bad as (or worse than) the Pirates, Tampa Bay, is something like ten games over .500 at this point.
Sure, sure. It's all meaningless on the surface.
But, in theory, managers usually play their probable rotation pitchers in the first few innings and their regular hitters in the same frame (split-squad games make it a bit of a different animal).
And they're all trying to develop something. The playing field is generally level in that regard, too.
But check this:
In the first three innings of games (through March 16th's 6-3 win over Boston), the Pirates have been outscored 44 to 17.
After five, the margin shrinks a little bit, but they are still in the hole 61-41.
Only in "make an impression" time, do the Pirates have an edge. Innings six through nine, the Pirates have trumped their opponents 49-38.
Jeff Manto, the hitting coach the past two seasons, got raked over the coals a bit too much.
I am not saying he was "good", but I had actually thought him to be an upgrade over Gerald Perry. But when I check the season batting averages, neither was better or worse than the other.
In Manto's two seasons with the club, the Bucs hit .263 each year.
In Perry's three-year tenure, the club averaged .262 (.259 in '05, .260 in '04, and .267 in '03...the year of the infamous 'Aramis Ramirez, Randall Simon, and Kenny Lofton to the Cubs for Bobby Hill and a bag of balls' trade).
Both of them, as it turns out, were better than the guy who came before, Dave Clark. Pittsburgh's BA in '02 was .244, and only slightly better in '01 at .247.
It's tough to make something formidable out of a bunch of average-to-below-average parts. You can only do so much with what ownership and management will give you.
Mr. Long had best prepare himself for more than his fair share of criticism in what lies ahead.
In the absence of anything encouraging coming out of Spring Training in Bradenton, I have to smile a little each time I hear a mention of Billy Crystal batting leadoff for the Yankees (I have, therefore, been 'smiling a little' a lot).
The smile grows a little wider with the knowledge that this 60-year old got to live another dream.
It was probably a dream older than his desire to become a comedian or an actor. I don't know very many guys who, as boys, didn't want to be a baseball player at some point.
But can you imagine getting that chance at 60, long after the dream's tombstone had eroded? And to actually catch up with a major league pitch (even a slower major league pitch) and hit a ball just foul in your only appearance?
Consider that Crystal had done what he could do to stay close to the Yankees and to baseball, since he thought he would never be part of the on-field action himself.
He directed the film 61* about Roger Maris' breaking of Babe Ruth's home run record. He was even part owner of a major league team (that ironically ended the 3-year reign of his beloved Bombers in 2001).
Then, just in time for his 60th birthday, he finally got to step up to the plate.
I know the media has a tendency to beat things to death, and it's easy for non-Yankee fans to jeer at just about anything the top-spending club in the league does.
The special part of this, to me, is that this story involves a man who just about everyone has heard of—who we see as more than just a regular guy because of his successes in life—who was simply overjoyed just to be a part of something.
He didn't need to be successful. He wasn't actively seeking attention. He was enjoying the birthday present of his life.
And his gift was the opportunity to be young again, if only for a day.
This is a semi-clumsy segue, but we'll try it anyway.
Crystal was 12 years old when Bill Mazeroski crushed the hearts of Yankees fans everywhere with the only Game-7-of-the-World-Series-ending homer in league history.
I was 12-years old when Francisco Cabrera crushed the hearts of Pirates fans everywhere with a blooper to left.
The major difference here is that Crystal got to enjoy Yankee championships in each of the following two years. And many more since, whereas I am still waiting for a playoff appearance (or even a .500 season, for that matter). And I will keep doing so for the foreseeable future.
Transcending time, in a way, to put things in perspective, is KDKA's Dave Crawley. He wrote a poem about the 1960 World Series, when he was about the same age as Crystal was in '60, and I was in '92 (he was 13).
Before the conclusion of that dramatic and statistically disparate Fall Classic (Yankees dominated like no losing team had dominated before or since), it had been, in fact, 35 years since the Bucs had won their last title.
I'm posting the piece below because I find it appropriate that this, 2008, will be the 29th year of the Pirates' current championship drought.
Keep the faith, Mr. Crawley. I will, too, once I remember where I left it.
(link to actual story)
ODE TO THE BUCS
By Dave Crawley (used with permission from KDKA-Radio)
'TIS A SAD AND GLOOMY DAY IN PITT.
THE BUCS TRAIL, 7-5.
AS THEY TRY TO WIN THEIR FIRST WORLD SERIES SINCE 1925.
THE PIRATES LED THE SERIES
THREE GAMES TO TWO, YOU SEE.
BUT THE YANKEES WON THE NEXT GAME,
TO TIE IT, THREE TO THREE.
PITT WON THE SERIES IN '25
AND HASN'T WON IT SINCE.
TO BROADCAST THIS IMPORTANT GAME
IS OUR OLD FRIEND, BOB PRINCE.
"IT LOOKS PRETTY BAD FOR THE PIRATES
IN THE SMOKY CITY.
IF THEY SHOULD LOSE THE SERIES NOW
IT SURE WOULD BE A PITY.
"THERE'S TWO ON, ONE OUT IN THE LAST
OF INNING NUMBER EIGHT.
AND CLEANUP HITTER ROCKY NELSON
STRIDES UP TO THE PLATE.
"NELSON HITS A FLY TO LEFT.
THE FANS ALL GIVE A SHOUT.
BUT YOGI BERRA MAKES THE CATCH,
AND NOW, TWO MEN ARE OUT.
"CLEMENTE HITS A GROUNDER,
WHICH HE BEATS OUT FOR A HIT.
AND THE NEW YORK YANKEE PITCHER
IS ABOUT TO HAVE A FIT!
"A RUN JUST SCORED. IT'S 7 TO 6.
HAL SMITH IS AT THE PLATE.
HE'D LIKE TO KNOCK THE VERY NEXT PITCH
OUT OF PENNSYLVANIA STATE.
"HERE'S A LONG, HIGH DRIVE TO DEEP LEFT FIELD!
HE REALLY TAGGED THE BALL!
SHE'S GOING, SHE'S GOING...JUST KISS IT GOODBYE!
IT'S O'ER THE LEFT FIELD WALL!"
FOR THE NEW YORK YANKEES IN THE NINTH
IT THEN WAS DO OR DIE.
BUT THE YANKEES BOUNCED RIGHT BACK
WITH TWO BIG RUNS TO TIE.
"THE BUCS WILL WIN THE BALL GAME NOW
IF THEY CAN ONLY SCORE.
IF THEY DO NOT, WE'LL HAVE TO PLAY
AN EXTRA INNING MORE.
"UP TO THE PLATE STEPS MAZEROSKI
WITH ALL HIS MIGHT AND BRAWN.
HE GIVES THAT BALL A MIGHTY WHACK!
SHE'S GOING, GOING, GONE!
"MAZEROSKI ROUNDS THE BASES,
AMID THE MIGHTY CHEERS.
THE BUCS ARE NOW WORLD CHAMPIONS.
IT'S BEEN 35 LONG YEARS!"
Copyright 2006, CBS Radio