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October 12, 2011

Ross Ohlendorf poster boy for what’s wrong with   Pittsburgh Pirates – Jim “O’Brien

 I actually felt some compassion for Ross Ohlendorf and that surprised me.  He looked so forlorn and lost as he sat on the bench after he was knocked out of his last two starts as a Pirates’ pitcher.

Ohlendorf looked like a man who was wondering whether he would be wearing a Pirates’ uniform next season.  He looked like a man who was wondering how everything was going wrong for him, and what was to become of him. 

         I don’t think Ohlendorf will be back with the Bucs.  I don’t think another pitcher with similarly awesome stuff, Paul Maholm, will be back either.  They can’t win, they’re high maintenance and they make more money than they’re worth.  Catcher Ryan Doumit may not be back, and shortstop Ronny Cedeno could be gone as well.  Pedro Alvarez must improve or be a bust.

         The Pirates made significant progress this past season, but they had a losing season for the 19th consecutive year – a record for all major sports – and they must make some changes if they are to become a legitimate contender for a championship in Major League Baseball.

         Ohlendorf is a 29-year-old righty with a hard-biting sinker and he can hit 97 miles per hour with a two-seam sinking fastball.

But he hasn’t stayed healthy and he hasn’t been able to win.

         During the last off-season he rejected the Pirates’ contract offer and took them to arbitration.  When he did this I offered the thought that the Pirates should have told him, “Sorry, but we’re not interested.  You should look elsewhere for future employment.  Good luck.”

         But Ohlendorf knew what he was doing.  He was a Princeton grad, an all-Ivy standout, and he’d written a 140-page paper atPrincetonabout the financial aspects of the draft in Major League Baseball.  He majored in Operations Research and Financial Engineering atPrinceton.

         Now this was a guy who had posted a record of 1-and-11 and an earned run average of 4.07 in his previous season as a pitcher for the Pirates. He won his arbitration hearing and a $439,000 raise to $2,025,000 for the 2011 campaign.

         How’d he do that?  In truth, though, the Pirates aren’t the only team that operates this way.

         Ohlendorf is making almost as much as another overpaid pitcher, Todd Graham, the first-year head coach and pitchman for Pitt’s “high octane offense” this season.  Graham is getting $2.25 million.  Hopefully, the fine win againstSouth Floridais a preview of what’s to come for the Panthers.

         This year Ohlendorf missed most of the season with arm ailments and didn’t join the team until the final six weeks of the season.  He posted a 1-3 record with an 8.15 ERA.  So he’s been paid more than $3.5 million for two pitching victories over the last two seasons.

         His one victory last month came against the Dodgers, but he followed it up with two disastrous and short-lived appearances in the stretch run.  I witnessed both games on television.  It was hard to watch.

         He was shelled for seven runs in two plus innings in an 8-5 loss to the Arizona Diamondbacks, the team that drafted him out ofPrinceton.  The D’Backs managed to pull off two double steals on Ohlendorf, a club record.  I’d never seen that happen in my lifetime.

         In his last outing, against the Brewers inMilwaukee, he gave up a monster home run to Prince Fielder and then an even longer one to Rickie Weeks, the next batter.  The Bucs managed to tie the game at 2-2 and Ohlendorf singled in a go-ahead run, but he couldn’t hold the 3-2 lead.

         Afterward, Ohlendorf said, “I wish I could have held the lead but that was a lot of fun.”

         Did he really think so?  That was a lot of fun…

         But Ohlendorf talks like that.  At spring training, he was brought along carefully because of arm problems.  After he pitched an extended inning (four outs) in spring training, he declared himself fit for the coming season.

         He likes to put a positive spin on his efforts. 

         When he was ripped by the D’Backs, he said, “I felt like the ball was coming out of my hand real good and I made good pitches, but they took good swings. I had some really good pitches but I didn’t make enough good pitches.”

         Even the late Chuck Tanner was never that positive and upbeat.

         I’ve seen where the Pirates have fired their trainers since the season was completed, so maybe they were to blame for Ohlendorf missing so many games, or the Pirates falling apart after the All-Star Game.  It was said some of the coaches were in jeopardy of losing their jobs as well.

         The problem with the Pirates is that they just don’t have enough good players, and I think that’s going to be a problem for the Penguins and Steelers as well.  Oh my oh my.  Imagine if Sidney Crosby can’t play. 

         There would not be any Pittsburgh Penguins playing at theConsolEnergyCenterexcept for Sidney Crosby coming here.  There wouldn’t be anyConsolEnergyCenter. And they wouldn’t be tearing down the Civic Arena. See the domino effect?

         That’s why sports command our attention.  This past weekend there were some great last-game of the schedule outings in baseball, some terrific match-ups in collegiate and professional football, and some hockey and golf thrown in for good measure.  The Steelers lost inHoustonbecause their offensive line can’t block for Big Ben or any of the running backs.

         The Red Sox took a monumental dive and that, along with his own words, cost Terry Francona ofNew Brightonhis job as manager inBoston.  Maybe he’ll end up with the White Sox.

         It was good to see Jim Leyland leading the Detroit Tigers into the playoffs against the New York Yankees.

         But, for some reason, I kept thinking about Ross Ohlendorf.  He’s probably a fine fellow.  He’s taken advantage of a system that doesn’t make any sense.  There are no NBA pre-season games going on right now because they have followed the lead of the NFL in having a labor dispute.  There is never enough money to go around.

         Unemployment is high in this country and in the world right now, and the Average Joe is hurting.  But the ballplayers never make enough money.  Prices are going up after a long hiatus for the Pirates next season.

         They need more money to pay for the kind of players they need to make a serious run – and not just to the All-Star Game like they did this season – for a National League playoff position.

         Sometimes I think the Pirates’ broadcasters would be speechless if they didn’t have statistics to spew out throughout the telecasts and broadcasts.  But one statistic caught my attention last week.

         Greg Brown came up with a gem. He said that the great Walter “Big Train” Johnson, who pitched for the Washington Senators way back when and was a charter member of the Baseball Hall of Fame, was a pretty fair hitter, too.

         Brown said there was a ten-year stretch where Johnson had a higher batting average than his earned run average during the same span.  Now that’s impressive.     

           Johnson surely didn’t make as much money as Ohlendorf’s raise of $439,000 during those ten years combined.

         It’s a different day, of course.  I thought about my friends Bob Friend and Bob Rowe.  They both had their right shoulders surgically replaced this past year.  Friend pitched every fourth day for the Pirates back in the ‘50s and ‘60s, and Rowe was a lineman for ATT, working a high-wire act with a hook.  The wear and tear on their shoulders finally got to be too painful.

         They didn’t need rehab until they retired.

          Pittsburghsports author and historian Jim O’Brien has a series of “Pittsburgh Proud” books available at area book stores.  His website is


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