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.

Saturday, February 03, 2007

February 3, 2007

-- Listen to the latest edition of Steeltown Sports: Live! (commercial free!)

-- Penguins run their streak to 8-0-1.

-- Pirates sign Armas, Kolb, agree to deal with Sanchez

---Today's Broadcast---

First of all, I would like to thank Jim Shireman (a.k.a. TheJim) of for joining me today on the first episode of "Steeltown Sports: Live!" in 6 months. It went pretty smoothly, and while I had some rust to shake off, I feel it went fluidly. The only brain fart I made is that I was so pressed for time (only 21 minutes, essentially, with commercials) that I forgot to mention Mark Eaton when we talked about the Penguins, and I mentioned him in my intro.

Right click to download, if you wish...

---Sniffing 5th---

The Penguins 2-0 triumph over a team that views them as one of their most hated rivals (a.k.a. The Washington Capitals), coupled with a Montreal regulation loss to the New York Islanders (uh, thank you, New York?), tomorrow's rematch against the Canadiens could result in the Penguins occupying the 5th position in the conference by virtue of having more games in hand vs. the Habs.

And 4th, my friends, is the ceiling. As it is, I'm already ahead of myself, and I may have even jinxed the Penguins for tomorrow; therefore I'm not even going to speculate on the possibility of overtaking the Devils. That, of course, being the only way in which Pittsburgh could improve beyond the 4th slot. The Devils may not be on quite the tear the Penguins are enjoying, but the Devils have gained 23 out of a possible 30 points in the standings since the start of 2007, including their win over Buffalo.

Take care of business tomorrow, and the Penguins continue their push toward a tenuous hold of the drivers seat for the last of the "home ice advantage" slots in the first round.

And what a physical hockey game we'll see. This might actually be better than the SuperBowl...

---Armas, Kolb, Sanchez Signed---

Far be it from me to discourage picking up relatively cheap starting pitching to "add depth". If I had faith that Dave Littlefield would trade semi-early in the season if either Chacon or Tony Armas, Jr., would pitch with ERAs at 4 or below while the trade value was as high as it was likely to get, I might actually like the signing of Armas. Either one should be better than Victor Santos was for the Bucs last year, even Chacon now that his knee should be fully functional again.

Over the last 3 years, Armas' ERA has been right around 5, and his WHIP has been just over 1.5. In seasons where he's started at least 15 games, his ERA has never been better than 4.03. Chacon's been more erratic in 2 fewer seasons.

And speaking of question marks, Dan Kolb is now in the Pirates system after signing a minor league contract. After a pretty impressive season with Milwaukee in 2004, it's been all downhill, just the type of player that the Pirates love to get. Can he even get back to a season where an ERA below 4 is possible (he was below 3.00 in '04)? Or is he doomed to be somewhere between 5 and 6 for the rest of his career (he's turning 32 in March, so it could be sooner rather than later).

And why does he remind me more than a little of Rick White 7 years and 30 pounds from now?

It's probably just me...

And what else can you say about Freddy Sanchez getting a one-year deal for two-and-three-quarter mill? That is, besides, "Keep it up, Freddy!"

Friday, February 02, 2007

February 2, 2007

-- A short installment of "Steeltown Sports: Live!" to air Saturday, Feb. 3 from Noon to Noon-thirty.

-- Penguins finally have a team.

-- Steeltown finally commits to a SuperBowl XLI prediction.

-- The lost art of sportsmanship in the pros.

---For a Limited Time...---

"Steeltown Sports: Live!" returns from a long hiatus with a very short show (apparently, I emerged from the ground, saw my shadow, and promptly returned). I'm giving yinz very short notice, too. Saturday, February 3rd from 12 noon until 12:30 (you take air time where you can get it).

Scheduled guest: Jim Shireman (a.k.a. "TheJim") from

In the Pittsburgh region (City and south, mainly), tune to 590AM.

Out of the area, listen online. Copy this link into your Windows Media Player:

---Finally a Contender---

One great disadvantage to working in radio (and another job on top of it) when it comes to sports blogging and the like is that you tend to either not actually "see" what's going on, or you're too tired to spend more than an hour or so looking at sports related stuff. Hence why my production in all stages of the blogging/broadcasting/(and especially) podcasting arena have been, in my own estimation, pretty sub-par. Much of what follows are things that I have pieced together from the select stories, blog entries, and events I've heard on the radio.

With the return of Mark Eaton after 35 games, the Penguins might actually be able to cling to a playoff berth. Few question his value to the team defensively. Imagine if he'd been healthy just three weeks earlier. There were two one-goal losses to Tampa Bay (one in OT), and another OT loss to the Boston Bruins. After his return, the Penguins beat a Western Conference playoff contender in Dallas on its home ice, then absolutely destroyed the streaky Coyotes. As I did not see or hear any of the Dallas game (much to my disappointment as I kept hearing how fantastic of a game it was), I don't know how Eaton played. But, according to our friends at ThePensBlog, he made at least one critical play. After losing some tough games without him, he may end up being the difference-maker if the Penguins hold on and have a playoff berth come April.

Marc-Andre Fleury has been playing above "acceptable" during this most recent stretch run of 7-0-1 (15 points in 8 games!) From portions of games I've seen and heard, some of the goals scored on him have been more the result of an unfortunate carom off a Penguins equipment. I believe in last night's win over the Montreal Canadiens, I heard that one of the goals went off Rob Scuderi, and another off of Gonchar's stick. He did get deked into next Tuesday during the shootout by former 'guin Alexei Kovalev. From what I've heard and read, God Himself would have had a tough time making that save.

And, the magic stat that I've been referencing since October, the SOG vs. SOGA, the Pens are at an OK -2.2 in the differential. There are 9 teams behind them, and only 3 of them (Calgary, Montreal, and Nashville) would be in the playoffs if they started today.

I wrote a post at the forum about how having a negative SOG/SOGA differential isn't necessarily the kiss of death, it's been fairly indicative of one's chances to reach, then advance in the playoffs. I can easily see it shaping up that way again. Still a ways to go yet.

Oh, and Sidney Crosby. He only leads the league by 12 points for the Art Ross Trophy. 2nd place? Alex Ovechkin.

And he's comin' to town tomorrow.

---XLI (part II)---

Firstly, I actually expect this to be a good game. And for once, I don't have to invest emotional energy into rooting for a team (Steelers last year), or against a team (New England, the two years previously). I can just sit back, eat pretzels, and watch football with no stress.

Secondly, I know enough people in Chicago from my days there that I'm kind of pulling for the Bears, though I really like Dungy and have felt bad for him since another coach took his Tampa Bay team to the pinnacle. I also wouldn't mind seeing Peyton Manning win, because I'm tired of the whole "monkey" thing. I would not, however, look forward to all of the endorsement that would follow. Heck, at that point, they might as well include PMN (Peyton Manning Network) on your basic cable/satellite package.

Third, I'm not sure why Brian Urlacher is seen as the godsend of this team. No doubt he's good. He has the potential to reach Singletary status (probably not Butkus, because today's rules don't lend itself to that kind of defense), but he actually is not the true anchor of the Bears defense.

I'd been driving myself crazy with wondering why the Bears defense went to Hell in the last few weeks of the regular season.

After some cursory searching, DT Tommie Harris is the answer. I did not realize how important he was to the Bears scheme. Pre-injury (including the game in which he was injured): 12.5 points per game allowed, and some of those were off turnovers and don't count against the defense. After (including playoffs): 23.8

That's almost double.

The Colts, meanwhile, as far as wins and losses, appear to be hitting their stride at the right time, too. The comeback over New England is the only thing that has impressed me about their playoff run. Peyton Manning was ineffective against Kansas City, and only slightly better against Baltimore.

Kansas City game-planned into Indy's hands and Baltimore just didn't have the rushing attack to keep their offense balanced. Indianapolis, really, has only had one really good half of postseason football.

I look for Chicago to be more effective on the ground, helping take the burden off another embattled quarterback in Rex Grossman. And, a steady rushing attack will help take time off the clock. Chicago is skilled enough in the secondary, even without Mike Brown (who's been out since week 6) to disguise their coverage packages to be able to get Peyton Manning to make a couple of mistakes.

Urlacher will have to be used like Troy Polamalu. He's fair in pass coverage and a great run-stopper. Get him in the backfield, and he can make things happen. He won't be the MVP, but:

Bears 24, Colts 20 (MVP - Devin Hester)

---Downward Spiral---

I guess the average Joe Sportsfan doesn't care much for seeing athletes respect each other.

I'm not referring to the SuperBowl Media Day stuff where each team takes turns throwing each other bouquets and saying nothing more of their own team than something like, "We've put ourselves in a position to have a chance, and we're looking forward to it." All that fluff is to avoid saying something dumb (a la Jerramy Stevens) to get players on the other side riled up. It's a part of their job as "professional athletes" to keep the self-praise to a minimum and the compliments to the opponent in steady supply.

I'm not even specifically talking about the athletes.

People would rather watch Jason Varitek and A-Rod go at it than the St. Louis Cardinals and Los Angeles Dodgers shake hands after a playoff series. Oddly enough, some of these same folks hate boxing and "wrestling".

Perhaps it's my experience in the martial arts that has taught me that physical conflict is largely an unnecessary thing. Most of that conflict can be avoided through a willingness to calmly discuss differences. But that's considered boring in a society where political parties are regarded as sports teams. Why isn't the physicality of sports itself enough?

I was very surprised by a column at Mondesi's House that says the lack of friction in the days leading up to the Superbowl is a "blogger's nightmare". When it happens, I'll gladly admit that it does make for interesting reading and speculation. Maybe I've implied the wrong thing here, but it almost seems like the author wishes for these things to happen, rather than just accept whether these things unfold (or don't).

There are still displays of good sportsmanship out there in the pros. Even during some heated rivalry games in football, following the final gun, players from both sides kneel together in a circle and pray, or can otherwise be seen congenially speaking. At the conclusion of playoff hockey series, both teams form the handshake line.

The attention, however, goes to what T.O. is doing now or who Randy Moss fake-mooned (which really wasn't that bad when you consider the gesture was a returned jab at the Packer fan base who actually DO moon the opposing team's bus). We focus on Michael Barrett's child-like response to a collision with A.J. Pierzynski.

It seems we love to see things like the Denver Nuggets' Carmelo Anthony run away from a fight he pretty much instigated, or, even closer to home, Jack Lambert light up an opposing quarterback, then emphatically tell him not to get up. Is it additional bragging rights we as fans seek? Or are we gradually headed toward the day when there'll be an experimental TV show that features two inmates on death row engaging in mortal combat?

Mortal KONbat?

If large, grown men throwing themselves (and each other) around the gridiron, mashing each other against the rink's plexiglass, or blocking the plate with a runner bearing down aren't enough, I guess it's not a surprise why "Bumfights" was such a smash hit.

The reason why that's necessary, however, may never be explained properly to me.