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Jim O’Brien: “Getting Warmed Up for Pirates’ Opener”

April 3, 2012
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Jim O’Brien: “Getting Warmed Up for Pirates’ Opener”:

Pittsburgh sports author and Valley Mirror columnist Jim O’Brien

I have been doing a lot of traveling lately.  Over the past six weeks I have spent a week in Los Angeles, a week in New York and a week in Phoenix.  Sometimes you have to leave Pittsburgh to appreciate Pittsburgh, and you have to have comparisons to know its strengths and its weaknesses.

          I spent eight days in Phoenix late last month with my buddy Alex Pociask, who flew in from Chicago, and we stayed in Sun City West at the home of his sister, Mary Alice, and her husband Gerry Rowley.

          Phoenix is a nice place to be in the winter, even though the weather was actually better in Pittsburgh that particular week.  Poor planning on my part, I guess.  It was the first time I have been in Arizona for Cactus League action.  I have been in Florida for Grapefruit League play, but that was long ago, so this was a refresher course on spring baseball activity.

          It’s much more of a big deal than it was when I was starting out as a sportswriter back in 1969 at The Miami News.

           The ballparks are bigger and brighter and it cost four times as much to see a game.  Our tickets in Arizona last month ranged from $20 to $25, but we had seats in the shade behind home plate and by first base, and, for a pale Irishman, seats in the shade these days are priceless.

          We saw three Cactus League games over a six-day stretch.  We saw the LA Dodgers against the Texas Rangers at Camelback Park in Glendale.  There were some good plays in the field, but the highlight of the day was watching former Dodgers’ manager Tommy LaSorda dozing off in the dugout.  His chin hit his chest more than the Dodgers, now owned by basketball great Magic Johnson among other investors on the West Coast.

          We also got to see Rangers’ owner Nolan Ryan, a Hall of Fame pitcher whom I first met when he was a young wild-throwing pitcher on the New York Mets in 1970 and 1971 (he was 18-25) over those two years when I was working for The New York Post.

          The next day we saw the Rangers again, as the visiting team against the Arizona Diamondbacks, at Surprise Complex.  The following week we saw the Los Angeles Angels play the Kansas City Royals back at Camelback Park.

          I wanted to see Albert Pujols in an Angels’ uniform.  Pujols might be the most productive player in baseball right now, and I hated to see him abandon the St. Louis Cardinals in favor of the Angels, no matter how much money the Angels were throwing his way.  How much is enough?

          He looked comfortable in the bright red uniform of the Angels – not much difference there – but he didn’t have a great day in the sun.  He struck out looking on his first at-bat, and then went 0-for-4.  He did hit a solid line drive to left field, but it went foul.  He’s still No. 5 and the number still looks small on his broad back.  He still looks like he believes he’s going to hit the ball – and hit it hard – every time he gets set in the batter’s box.

          Two teams share most of the ballpark complexes in Arizona.  The state has done a great deal to attract major league teams to the area.

          I swear the only stretches of green grass I saw in Phoenix were at the ballparks and at the golf courses of retirement communities such as all the Sun City developments by Del Webb.

          People forget that Del Webb was once one of the owners of the New York Yankees.

          I did miss the green, green grass of home. Stone chips filling the yard just don’t do it for me even if it eliminates having to mow the lawn.

          I didn’t realize when I made my plans for the trip to Phoenix that the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament would have some regional games there, or I would have included that in my itinerary as well.

          I did watch the games on television and I was glad that the tournament came off so well in Pittsburgh, and the site of the basketball action on the floor at Consol Energy Center was a familiar one, and a point of pride to a Pittsburgher.

          I met people from Pittsburgh and McKeesport and Beaver Falls and South Fayette when I was in Phoenix.  I think they went there to get away from it all.  “Too many negative people in my family,” moaned the man from McKeesport during happy hour at Sun City Festival, a brand-new community that is really in a remote location.

          While there, we also toured the University of Phoenix Stadium, the home of the Arizona Cardinals.  I have only toured one other stadium, Heinz Field just before it opened, and let me say there is no comparison.  The Cardinals, who were always thought to operate on the cheap side, really did it right. 

          Their stadium is definitely an all-purpose domed stadium.  It’s the one where the football field slides on a tray in and outside the stadium so that real grass can get natural sunlight and thrive in the desert surroundings.  The stadium can seat between 64,500 and 72,000 fans.  A gun show was to open the day after our visit.  It would be a great stadium to have in Pittsburgh.

          The view of downtown Pittsburgh and the surrounding hills, green hills that is, would be the one aspect that is better at Heinz Field.

          Former Pitt star receiver Larry Fitzgerald is the face of the Cardinals and his likeness can be seen everywhere one goes in Phoenix.  That, too, was a point of pride for a visiting Pitt man.

          Even before I traveled to Arizona, I kept thinking that the Cardinals and their stadium and Larry Fitzgerald would make it the perfect place for Peyton Manning to play when he was checking out his options.

          Manning has thrived while playing in a domed stadium where conditions are always perfect, and Danny Marino can tell him there’s something to be said for practicing and pitching passes in a warm weather city like the one he enjoyed in Miami.

          I also thought that Manning would be in good hands with head coach Ken Whisenhunt and Russ Grimm, who were part of the Steelers’ coaching brain-trust under Bill Cowher.

          In addition, it was my opinion that the Cardinals would be wise to add Hines Ward to their receiving corps.  They took a big hit in that respect two years ago when they lost Joachim Bolden and Steve Breaston (the former Woodland Hills and Michigan grad) to free agency.  I thought Ward would be the perfect complement to Fitzgerald.  They know each other well and respect each other’s talents.

          I have a different view from most of the media in this town, or anywhere else for that matter, about Hines Ward.  I believe he can still be a valuable component for a championship team in the National Football League.  I think he’d be great again with Tom Brady and the New England Patriots.

          He’s certainly a safer bet than adding Randy Moss to the mix.  I think Harbaugh made a big mistake picking up Moss, who sat out last season and was a distraction for other clubs before that.  Moss could ruin what Jim Harbaugh established in his first highly successful season with the San Francisco 49ers.

          The media keeps pointing to the fact that Ward’s production went down last season.  That’s true, but it happened because he wasn’t on the field as much as he had been in previous seasons.

          For some reason, the Steelers’ coaching staff soured on Ward last season.  They had three gifted speedsters at wide receiver in Mike Wallace – he’d be the first to tell you how great he is – and Antonio Brown and  Emmanuel Sanders.  When Mike Tomlin was asked about Ward, he never sounded too supportive, as if he’d lost faith in him.

          I don’t think the Steelers owe anything to Ward – he has had 14 mostly great years with the team – but I think they are making a bad judgment on his ability.  He can still help them.

          They’re all much faster than Ward and they can beat you deep and he can’t.  But Ward knows how to play the game, and how to contribute in other ways – such as blocking downfield – and he knows how to get open, how to separate himself from a defensive player.

          That would have come in handy down the stretch last season, and especially in the Steelers’ one-and-done playoff game, when they had a wounded quarterback in Ben Roethlisberger.  Bruce Arians has Roethlisberger throwing fade passes into the corners of the end zone – the same play that won the Super Bowl against the Cardinals – after Ben had already demonstrated that he couldn’t throw the ball as accurately as he can when he’s healthy.

          I don’t get it.  Everyone has given up on Ward.  When I was in LA and New York and Phoenix, I never saw Ward’s name appear in the national reports about who was out there and available in free agency.

          Ward is a tad younger and certainly in better physical shape than Peyton Manning, less of a problem in the clubhouse than Randy Moss, and, while we’re at it, he’s younger than A.J. Burnett, the newest Pirates’ pitcher.

          I think Manning is still a risk.  Neck surgery is always a precarious deal.  He could get re-injured real fast next fall.  I don’t know why he picked Denver.  I think John Elway talked him into it.

          I’m not on the inside anymore in pro sports, but there are things I can recognize from being out there on the sports front for so long.  I think John Elway still believes he’s the best quarterback ever to come along in the NFL, and that he will be looking over the shoulder of Manning from Day One.

          I thought it was a bit odd at the conclusion of last season that Elway said that Tim Tebow would be the starting quarterback for the Broncos when they went into summer camp.  I thought that decision should be made by John Fox, a former neighbor in Upper St. Clair who was an assistant coach at Pitt and with Bill Cowher’s staff on the Steelers.  I thought head coaches made those decisions.

          Now Tebow is gone, and I couldn’t think of a worse place for him to end up than playing for Rex Ryan and the New York Jets.  When I was in New York in March I couldn’t get over how negative the newspaper reports are each day about New York ballplayers and celebrities and political figures.  Who needs that?  I thought Tebow would have been much better off going back to Florida and quarterbacking the Jacksonville Jaguars.

          He might have been the savior for keeping the franchise in Jacksonville.  I don’t care what all these experts, including ex-Steelers’ star Merril Hoge, think about Tebow not being an NFL-caliber quarterback.  To me, he’s a winner and he will find a way to win.  He proved that last year as a rookie in Denver.  He certainly proved that when the Broncos beat the Steelers in overtime in the AFC playoff game.

          Tebow and Mark Sanchez say they are great friends and Tebow said 30 different ways that he is “excited” to be with the Jets, but I think it’s a pairing that won’t work.  The foul-mouthed Ryan will rub Tebow the wrong way and wear on him real soon.

          Now back to A.J. Burnett, bouncing around like we have been in our travels the past two months.  The New York Yankees do not get rid of a pitcher if they think he can still win. The New York Yankees buy pitchers who can win.  I’ll repeat that.  The Yankees don’t give away good pitchers; they buy good pitchers.

          Some point out that the Yankees had too many starters, and the Pirates are paying Burnett just $13 million over two years, while the Yankees are still responsible for $14 million over the same stretch.  So, he’s cheap for a starting pitcher in the major leagues these days.  Don’t get sick to your stomach on that note.

          The Pirates have gone down this road before – remember Matt Morris? – paying big money to pitchers who can’t win anymore.

          We already know Burnett can’t bunt the ball.  He’s going to have to do that in the National League where there are no designated hitters.  He put himself in the hospital when he attempted to bunt a ball during the Bucs’ Bradenton stay and he’s still in the rehab process after bunting a ball into his eye socket during spring training.

          I never liked the look of A.J. Burnett when he was pitching for the Yankees.  Forgive me this one, but he doesn’t look like a winning pitcher.  He’s got a weak chin.  How’s that for an inside scouting report?

          When I was in LA, I had breakfast with Bill Sharman, one of my all-time favorites as a player and coach in the National Basketball Association, and as a coach in the American Basketball League and American Basketball Association.

          Sharman holds a distinction that sets him apart from the pack in Major League Baseball.  He was once a member of the Dodgers’ organization – see they have a history of having Hall of Fame basketball players in their make-up or DNA – and he was called up to the Dodgers late one season.

          He never got in a game, but he was in the dugout one day when an umpire tired of heckling coming from the Dodgers’ dugout and cleared the bench.  So Sharman holds the distinction of being the only player to be ejected from a major league game who never played in a major league game.

          I plan to be in the press box this Thursday for the Pirates’ opening game at PNC Park.  I am looking forward to it.  PNC Park is special – the Pirates got it right – and I enjoy being there.

          A sports broadcaster friend of mine was in Bradenton for a few weeks and he tells me that Pedro Alvarez, the Pirates’ young third baseman who is supposed to be one of their saviors, appeared completely lost whether he was at bat or at third base during spring training.

          See you at the ballpark.

 Pittsburgh sports author and Valley Mirror columnist Jim O’Brien has a book called “Fantasy Camp: Living the Dream With Maz and the ’60 Bucs.  His website is www.jimobriensportsauthor.com and he can be found on Facebook and LinkedIn.

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