O’Brien: Rooting for Charlie Batch and Hines Ward
Rooting for Charlie Batch and Hines Ward
Pittsburgh sports author and Valley Mirror columnist Jim O’Brien
I was so happy for Charlie Batch. He looked like a kid on Christmas Eve who started opening his presents early.
Batch came to the sideline on Saturday afternoon as the skies were starting to darken over Pittsburgh and saw Steelers smiling at him, so happy for his success, and he smiled back at them. He jumped up and bounced against one of them to celebrate a victory and all that had gone right for him that day. Batch blushes, yes he does, and his complexion turns rosy on his cheeks, nose and forehead. It’s like make-up for Santa Claus.
Big Ben Roethlisberger was hurting and Batch, the backup who hardly ever plays, had to go in there and he did the job. Charlie Batch didn’t remind any old-timers of Charlie Connerly of the Giants or Charlie Johnson of the Cardinals, or current Steelers’ fans of Terry Bradshaw or Tom Brady, but Charlie Batch was good enough.
He directed the Steelers to a 27-0 victory over the St. Louis Rams. He passed for 208 yards, had only one interception, and nearly had a touchdown throw when he hit Mike Wallace for a 46-yard gain that was as good as anything Big Ben has done, perhaps short of his Super Bowl-winning pass into the deepest right corner to Santonio Holmes against the Arizona Cardinals.
Batch threw the ball into some tight spots and looked terrific at times, and other times he looked like a backup, throwing the ball astray. But, hey, Big Ben does that, too.
Batch had become a hometown hero in Homestead several years ago, though he seldom took a snap in a real Steelers’ game, because of his efforts to keep kids active in sports and, hopefully, out of trouble, and for attempting to turn things around in the Steel Valley.
He’s bounced back from bankruptcy caused by overextending himself in real estate ventures and he’s done enough in his own community and Pittsburgh at large to be a serious contender someday in the political game if he chooses to pursue a political career. I could see him being the mayor of Pittsburgh and that’s not because Luke Ravenstahl hasn’t set the bar that high.
Fans were also rooting for Hines Ward. They want him to get his 1,000th career catch in regular season play. Ward came up with four catches to inch closer to his goal. There had been rumors and rumblings all week that Ward might be playing his last game as a Steelers’ player at Heinz Field.
Ward needs five more in Cleveland this coming Sunday and I hope Mike Tomlin and Bruce Arians find a way to do that once a victory is assured. I believe Ward is still a go-to guy when you want a first down or a defensive back knocked on his keester. There’s a strong assumption that the Steelers no longer need Ward, not as a fifth receiver with top receiver compensation. When Ward suspects anyone is short-changing him or underestimating his ability, he tends to wander into a blame game and starts saying the wrong things.
Ward has the best numbers of any receiver in Steelers’ history, surpassing John Stallworth and Lynn Swann, and is a sure bet to be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame some day and to have his bust in the same room at Stallworth and Swann and so many other Steelers’ stalwarts.
But the Steelers have so many talented young receivers these days. I always credit Mike Tomlin for talking a thoughtful game, for understanding the psyche of his ballplayers so well, but I think Tomlin has said some less than supportive stuff when Ward’s name comes into the conversation or press conference, and it has been unsettling for Ward.
Ward has always walked on the kind of railway tracks one finds in a subway, where there’s a third rail that can electrocute you if you totter and step on it. Ward does that sometimes and says the wrong thing. He fires up his personal motor or mojo that way and it’s worked so far, but I hope he’s careful.
I want Ward to finish his career as a member of the Steelers. He should talk to Franco Harris, who made the mistake of getting mad at the Steelers because they wouldn’t come up with a better contract at the end of his career, and he bolted for the Seattle Seahawks. They, in turn, released him at mid-season, something the Steelers never would have done had he stayed here. It took Harris quite a while to heal the wounds here.
Players always have a hard time letting to and that was true with Joe Greene, L.C. Greenwood, John Banaszak and Mike Webster, to name a few. Coaches have a tendency to keep players one year longer than they should.
Maybe Ward was watching Steven L. Jackson on Saturday. Jackson has rushed for over 1,000 yards for seven straight seasons of his eight seasons with the team, and the Rams have won something like 31 of his 108 starts.
That could have happened to Jerome Bettis had he remained with the Rams who drafted him out of Notre Dame. But he came to the Steelers and had a chance to play for a team that won more often than it lost and was always a legitimate contender.
I believe Steven Jackson is better than any running back in the Steelers’ current lineup, and even better than Bettis, but he can’t enjoy playing pro ball as much as Bettis and Ward.
I’d love to have Steven Jackson carrying the ball for the Black & Gold. He’d help the Steeelers win and get those tough two-yard scores.
Ward should keep that in mind. He’s done well by the Steelers and they have done well by him. He’s been a Pittsburgh favorite for a long time – women especially love him and Troy Polamalu and are even forgiving toward Big Ben despite his bad behavior off the field in recent years.
I don’t want Ward to walk away mad, or spoil his reputation or the love he enjoys with Black & Gold devotees. Batch turned 37 earlier this month and Ward is 35 and they are two of the oldest Steelers. Maybe that’s why I root for them. We’re so familiar with them; they have stayed the course. They’re great competitors and they still come through in the clutch.
Batch has been with the Steelers for ten years, picking up a nice paycheck for doing a great imitation of Cliff Stoudt with a clipboard on the sideline. In recent years, he hasn’t even had to carry a clipboard. That wasn’t a clipboard Ben Roethlisberger was holding in his hand on Saturday. He looked like another kid in the shopping mall minding his iPod or texting a friend.
Batch has always been ready, always preparing himself to play, just in case. He’s been popular with his teammates. They elected him their team representative. He has been a clubhouse lawyer, but in the best fashion and not in a disruptive way.
I caught Batch filling in for LaMarr Woodley at the Coaches Corner Luncheon last month. Batch learned an hour before the luncheon was to begin that his services were needed, and he made a U-turn in his car and did a fine job of representing the Steelers.
There were coaches and players from several local high schools being honored at the luncheon, and there are always players from Summit Academy there. They are second-chance kids who’ve gotten into trouble and are going to a school that addresses their behavior problems and tries to get them headed in the right direction.
Those kids recognized Charlie Batch. He’s been to their school many times to talk to the kids. Batch has been involved in a lot of community service activity since he returned home from Detroit. Batch was lecturing everyone in the room this time around.
The best part of it was that Batch sounded sincere. He’s for real. A month later, the lecturer at the luncheon would be Todd Graham, in his last day as the Pitt head football coach. Todd Graham thought he was Billy Graham that day.
He preached a sermon about integrity, loyalty, commitment – something a man who jumps jobs routinely and has been married three times should know a lot about – and Todd Graham came off more like Billy Sunday or Elmer Gantry. He came off, as the sports talk radio station in town suggested, like Fraud Graham.
He was gone the next day to Arizona State. So much for loyalty and commitment and his “dream job” at Pitt.
Batch was a 14-year NFL veteran and he commanded attention. He had found a way to stay around.
He said from the time he played at Steel Valley High he has always loved the game and played the game because he loved it.
He said he always looks at the scores in the paper on Saturday morning to see how Steel Valley fared on Friday night.
Batch believes high school coaches can have the greatest impact on young players. “High school coaches have the ultimate power to influence kids,” he said. “You can’t take that responsibility lightly. Every coach has his own philosophy. Mine would be to work hard and have fun and win!”
He told the kids the window of opportunity is small and that they must make the most of it. “A lot of people want to tell you what you can and can’t do. You have to become what you want to become.
“We have three quarterbacks on our team that played in the Mid-American Conference. It’s not supposed to be as good as the Big Ten or even the Big East, but tell that to Ben Roethlisberger, Bryan Leftwich and myself. We’re all MAC alumni.
“I’m from Homestead. I went to Steel Valley. I want to Eastern Michigan. I’m living my childhood dream every Sunday.
“There are a lot of distractions these days for young people. You have to keep your nose clean. You have to be a leader, not a follower. I wasn’t always the best student, but I did what I needed to do to stay eligible. I think I’d be a better student today, knowing what I know now.
“Some people will say you’re not smart enough. I heard that, too. But I refused to sell myself short. Most people from here when asked where they’re from say ‘I’m from Pittsburgh.’ But I love saying I’m from Homestead.”
No wonder I was rooting for Charlie Batch last Sunday. We got off to a bad start, back when he was playing for the Detroit Lions. I made plans to interview him at a Damon’s Restaurant near Century III Mall.
Charlie Batch blew me off that day because he was with old friends. I felt like somebody had kicked me below the belt when I left him that afternoon. He would not be in my book Hometown Heroes. I didn’t think I’d ever write about him again.
When he came to the Steelers I walked up to him one day at St. Vincent College and recalled that earlier fiasco and disappointment. I told him that I couldn’t root against him if he was going to be playing for the Steelers.
He didn’t apologize but he agreed we’d get along just fine. He has kept his word. He has acknowledged me and my support – as well as that of my fellow columnist Darrell Hess – when he sees us in the audience at the Coaches Corner. He has thanked us for standing by him.
That’s why I smiled when I saw Charlie Batch smiling last Saturday. That’s why I want Hines Ward to be careful about what he says, and not let the media lure him into a bad place with the Pittsburgh Steelers’ organization. They’re my kind of guys. The late Art Rooney would say they were real Pittsburgh guys.
Pittsburgh sports author and Valley Mirror columnist Jim O’Brien will be appearing next weekend at the Pittsburgh Remodeling Show at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center.