Monday, February 26, 2007

February 26, 2007

-- Open letters to each Pittsburgh team.

-- Next broadcast of Steeltown Sports: Live! on WMBS-AM.

---Dear Penguins...---

First of all, congratulations on your recent string of victories/non-regulation losses that raised the eyebrows of hockey fans all over and made believers throughout the Pittsburgh region that this will be a team to take seriously, should it hold on and reach the playoffs.

That said, we need to see Marc-Andre Fleury take that step into "dominant". He's shown more flashes of that this season than in the past, but his name isn't spoken in the same sentence as Hasek and Brodeur. Or in the sentence afterward. His recent streak of sub-80 save percentage over the past week almost unravels everything he was able to build up during the streak, particularly the early portion of it.

While goalie coach Gilles Meloche has done some good work between this season and last, I still see regression. It's like trying to plug 5 holes in a boat, but only 3 or 4 pegs with which to do it. I keep hearing that he does a good job of not dropping into the butterfly too early, which was a major problem in seasons past, but beyond that, he still looks like he doesn't know where the puck is during a rush, and his control of rebounds has been getting lax. I haven't seen much of the stalwart MAF since he made the overtime toe-save on Martin Havlat in the opening seconds of overtime against the 'Hawks that eventually resulted in a Pittsburgh shootout win. Losing multiple goal leads has been the most disconcerting recurrence.

Considering that we're even talking playoffs as we enter March (after the last few seasons) should make Penguins fans ecstatic in and of itself, but the demand for a playoff round or two this season is especially important with the future of the franchise still in doubt. Some view the recent silence between Penguins ownership and Pennsylvania and Pittsburgh politicos as an encouraging sign. Others see the longer we go without hearing anything as a reason to begin the internal debate as to whether we'll be able to root for the Kansas City Penguins next season.

General manager Ray Shero, your contributions to the team in the less-than-a-year you've been with the organization have been largely fantastic. Whether it's bringing Mark Recchi back, or letting Andre Roy and John LeClair go, most moves have paid dividends toward the positive. Not giving up the farm for Georges Laraque, though a winger with some size is needed, shows fair restraint.

However, pursuing Gary Roberts using Noah Welch as "bait" seems a bit lop-sided in the Panthers favor, if for no other reason than the age differential. Roberts is 40; Welch is 25. Speaking just from the needs of the Penguins, a budding defenseman is more important to the club than a winger without much shelf life when looking long-term. Two things that keep this from being completely unsatisfactory; 1) Roberts was a first round pick back in the day, and appears to be like Recchi in that he hasn't completely imploded with the "new NHL" as several of the old guard have. 2) Left wingers are at a premium on the team, Jarkko Ruutu being the only one on the roster who's healthy.

The only other question I have is: who do you have in mind to bump down should you acquire Roberts? Perhaps Petrovicky? I know he's becoming a bit of a fan favorite with some of his on-ice exploits.

And, finally, Mr. Sidney Crosby: at this point, having a 12-point lead in the chase for the Art Ross Trophy, I feel foolish asking anything more of a 2nd-year player. Your passes are things of beauty more often than not, and your selflessness is to be commended. But I'd like to see you put the puck on the net a little more yourself. You've got some special kind of energy that makes fluky things happen to the other team. Consider the goal you scored in Phoenix as you were falling on your backside. That kind of goal only happens to those who are known by one name. Ride that and have faith.

Heading into tomorrow night against the Devils, you've got a chance to rebound from your first out-and-out shellacking in at least a month and a half in a big way. Just keep in mind that recent streaks like the one you just experienced don't happen to mediocre teams. Maintain focus, follow your own lead, and you cannot fail.

---Dear Pirates...---

For the first time in several years, the stars have aligned to potentially surprise the baseball world. There's a staff of young starting pitchers who have the potential to draw comparison to teams like Braves of the early '90s, and not dissimilar to the surprising Florida Marlins staff of '06.

You finally have a lineup that you can play around with a little bit, thanks to what many consider the crowning achievement of General Manager Dave Littlefield's career. You have players challenging each other, a move which says to me that the players actually believe that they have a chance to make some noise for the first time since they landed in Pittsburgh, instead of forcing words through their calm demeanors that they don't believe deep down.

The aforementioned trade didn't deplete the Pirate bullpen as much as some expect. Mike Gonzalez has had some health problems, and wasn't nearly as dominant last year as some made it out to be. Lots of Jose Mesa-esque late-inning drama. With Torres, Kolb, and Capps, the future of late-innings is in, potentially some good hands.

One suggestion I'd make: strongly consider a lineup that gets either Bay or LaRoche to the plate in the first inning. This would entail putting Jack Wilson toward the bottom of the order.

Think of the scenarios:

1) Chris Duffy gets on. He can steal his way into scoring position. Or not. The pitcher knows he can't pitch around Sanchez with, lets say LaRoche on deck. With Duffy on, the opposing pitcher can't completely focus on Sanchez, and Sanchez's patience either results in a walk or Sanchez does his thing. You're potentially up 1-0, or have runners at the corners. Once again, the pitcher can't pitch around LaRoche too much with Bay on deck and at least one runner on. Even if LaRoche makes an out, you have the potential to have both sluggers appear in the first inning with runners on, rather than leading off the 2nd with none on.

2) Duffy doesn't get on. Sanchez is still obviously a dangerous hitter for average. The opposing pitcher still doesn't want to pitch around anyone with a home run threat waiting on deck. Repeat the end of the previous scenario.

3) Duffy, Sanchez and LaRoche go down in order. Chances are better at getting LaRoche and Bay at least 4 at bats in the game, and, if there's plenty of offense, 5 or 6 times. One spot in the order may make all the difference in the later innings.

Putting Wilson in the 2nd spot gives the pitchers a potnentially early escape. With this young pitching staff, I'd think you want to increase the odds of an early lead.

While some may think that putting your best hitter for average defies conventional baseball wisdom, you have to consider that in order to rise through the ranks of teams with higher (sometimes MUCH higher) payroll, you'll have to do some unconventional things.

Also, please make sure that performance dictates your starters rather than pay scale. If Castillo and Armas, are your best 2nd basemen and 5th starter in Spring Training, put them out there, but make sure that their leash is proportionately as long as the disparity between their performances and those of Bautista and Chacon.

This may be your last chance to keep the fans that have remained loyal through this nearly-historic 14-year (and counting?) drought.

---Dear Steelers...---

First of all, welcome to Pittsburgh, Mike Tomlin. Many of us are happy to see that the Steelers Front Office have decided to hire outside of the current coaching organization. I personally think a new sheriff in town will instill a sense of urgency in some of the veterans who may have felt entirely too lackadaisical following their Superbowl championship the previous season.

Yes, Willie Parker, I'm looking at you, respectfully nodding at your personal and accurate take on your own teammates last year.

Incidently, Mr. Tomlin, thank you very much for giving Dick LeBeau a reprieve. Again, many Steeler fans believe that was the smartest non-move you could have made. A 3-4 mind and a 4-3 mind working together, not to mention tapping LeBeau's knowledge of and loyalty from the current personnel, is going to produce some interesting, and likely effective, blitzes and other defensive packages.

To Ben Roethlisberger, I don't think this needs to be said, but don't take what coach Whisenhunt said this week as a negative thing. Deep down, you probably also know that it might have been too soon for a return after an incident that could have killed you. What is important is that toward the end of the season, you were starting to find your touch again. Now that the season is over and you've finally had a bit of space from the pervasive media, I don't doubt that you've finally had some time to clear your head a little better than you could when microphones and cameras were in your face from the time of the accident, through training camp, and through the season.

Now you can address his remarks as a simply as, "He may have been right. But we're hoping to move on from last season, just as he's doing in Arizona."

Hopefully, you, as a team, can have a quiet off-season, leaving the lawbreaking to the Cincinatti Bengals and PacMan Jones, get healthy quietly, get your resolve back quietly, get your hunger back quickly, and return the Steelers to the status of "Elite."

---Dear Panthers (Hoops)...---

"Concern" is not an accurate word to describe what I feel after watching and/or listening to what's been considered a top 10 team for much of the season struggle so badly.

While I appreciate the gutsiness of Aaron Gray being thrust into the line-up against Georgetown while considerably less than 100%, I don't see a lot of gutsiness when it's crunch time coming from the players.

There's a time to make the extra pass (as Pitt radio color man Dick Groat often praises), and a time to take the shot or drive to the hole. Late in the Georgetown game, you played like it was the first half again. Only when you trailed late did I see your collective knees buckle. Shooting 31% against a ranked team is not going to win you many "marquee matchups."

Eight-for-sixteen from the foul line is also not impressive. Nor is getting annhialated on your home court by Louisville. Or letting Seton Hall play you close, no matter if you played at the Pete, at their house, or on the damn moon.

And Levon Kendall, when you're called for blocking fouls, standing in place and rotating toward the refs with arms still upraised isn't going to change the call. Have the guts to not move your feet when you're standing in another player's path. You'll either draw a charge or you reduce their chances of making the basket. I shouldn't need to say that. You didn't move them much, on a couple of calls that went against you, but it's enough to have the ref say you were not set.

Sorry to say, it's times like this that I wish Carl Krauser was still on the team. At least he'd try to take charge of the game. The success of this tactic would be a coin toss, but it would have been nice to see someone try to take over late.

With the Hoyas losing tonight to Syracuse, you've been given a bit of a reprieve. Defeat West Virginia, as we've seen you can do, then go repay Marquette on their court in kind, and you may...MAY...make me believe this team can make it beyond the Sweet 16. But it might be too late to show me this team's ready to win it all at Madison Square Garden.

---Dear Panthers (Pigskin)...---

It's a double-edged sword, Mr. Wannestedt.

Once again, you're considered to have one of the top recruiting classes in the Big East, even in the nation. Now that the last remnants of the Walt Harris era have virtually disappeared, it's time to show that what you've been planning to bring to Pitt football is indeed to be a force to be reckoned with.

Almost to a man, I can say Pitt fans hope that it's not geared toward becoming a primarily power-running attack that would make the old-schoolers proud.

If you weren't a Pitt alumnus, I'd say that last season would have been your last after failing to make a bowl game for the 2nd consecutive year with members of a team that went to the Fiesta Bowl the year before you arrived.

This is, or at least should be, your final test. West Virginia is still potent, but Pitt must at least make a bowl appearance this coming season for your tenure to continue. Your doubters have years of watching you in Chicago, Miami, and now at Pitt to strengthen their arguments that you should not hold a head coaching post.

More than organizing your new offense, I hope you have a plan for your paper-thin secondary now that Darrelle Revis has gone the way of the NFL Combine.

There are signs of hope, but, as with other teams in the city, fans view this optimism cautiously, not having faith in the leadership.

Please prove us wrong.

---Next Broadcast---

This is a heads up to mark your calendars. "Steeltown Sports: Live!" returns on 590AM, WMBS Uniontown for another half-hour segment. Pat from "Where Have You Gone, Andy Van Slyke" is tentatively scheduled to join me.

March 10th from 12-noon to 12:30PM.

We'll, of course, be discussing the current state of affairs in Bradenton as reported to us by the ever-reliable Pittsburgh media, as well as our preliminary outlooks on the 2007 season.

We know you can't wait. Neither can we.


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