Nobody Asked Me, But…

  • I’ve made up my mind on the Pirates this year. Sort of.

Andrew McCutchen’s homecoming game, lo and behold, is on my fiancee’s and my proper birthday this year, and she and I agreed that would be a nice fun birthday thing for us to do together. Furthermore, they’re doing one of those Paint Monkey things before the game, which seemed like good, clean couples fun. Also, on Saturday, August 4th, they’re giving away an Andy Van Slyke bobblehead, and he was my favorite Pirate as a kid.

Those are two games this season that I will unabashedly attend, and, in the case of the McCutchen/Paint Monkey game, don’t mind giving the Pirates my money for as a one-off, as opposed to going through one of the third-party sites like I do commonly. The rest, I could take or leave until the organization shows more transparency and a more tangible commitment to winning.

I was one of the people willing to give upper management a chance after Clint Hurdle came and the culture changed, but between their dormant winters (sorry, one 11th-hour Corey Dickerson signing does not an exhaustive off-season make), their inability to maximize the value of the assets they’ve sold (i.e.: Cutch, Cole) and their senseless, passive-aggressive buck-passing to non-attendees, they’ve got a long road back to regain my respect.

For the record, I did watch some baseball on Easter Sunday and didn’t mind it all that much. I’m glad the Pirates swept Detroit, and I hope they continue winning and, ultimately, prove the lot of us wrong. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with continuing to root strictly for the team on the field, because there are still 25 guys in that clubhouse killing themselves in good faith for the City of Pittsburgh, and they had nothing to do with the aforementioned buffoonery. And quite frankly, if you go back and listen to some of their comments prior to spring ball, clearly there are at least one or two who would express solidarity with us if they could.

So if you are one of the Pittsburghers who vowed a “Bucco boycott” this year, if not longer, at one time or another, and you still plan to go through with it, please know that you, like the players, have my unapologetic support. Even in the darkest days of the Dark Ages, PNC Park was the place to be in Pittsburgh on Opening Day, but it’s pretty obvious that fans have had enough of getting their stomachs punched and their intelligence insulted, and the fact the Pirates have been anticipating so many empty seats today is as encouraging to me as it is telling.

  • I want to “3elieve.” And a part of me still does. But my optimism is even more guarded than it was a year ago at this time, when we all knew they had to win sans Letang. History and common sense tell me, come Game 1 of Round One, to take the chances of a healthy, Mike Sullivan-coached Penguin team over those of the field seven days of the week out of seven. My eyes tell me I’m seeing the classic Bylsma-era trend of bad late-season habits exploitable in a seven-game series that get masked by short-term results.

Scoff if you want, but look at the teams they’ve lost to down the stretch, at times when the games still “meant something.” No, seriously. Look at them. Aside from that, the defense has been too feast-or-famine and wasn’t improved enough at the trade deadline after losing Ian Cole’s character and shot-blocking skills (albeit for the best available impact player on the market), the penalty kill is beneath itself, the goaltending has been consistently inconsistent and I’m getting a little tired of watching their point men run the power play with my hands half-covering my eyes. Right now, there’s just too much pressure on the Penguins to out-talent opponents, and they learned two coaching regimes ago that playoff hockey doesn’t work that way.

Again, I could easily be proven full of you-know-what starting a couple weeks from now. It could be as simple as, they’re tired and saving whatever gas is still in the tank for the playoffs. Two long seasons will do that to anybody, as will 18 back-to-backs, or whatever the number is–which is as absurd today as it was when the League dreamed it up last summer. And I can forgive Murray not looking like himself, knowing the trials and tribulations of concussion recovery, and taking into account the human tragedy he’s had to overcome this year–let’s not forget that, either. As for Letang, however, the honeymoon is over for me, neck injury or not. Sit him for these last couple games, now that the division is out of reach, and let him get more rested, get his head out of his rectum or both.

I’ve said time and again, when you have 87 and 71, you always have a chance, and few organizations in professional sports can flip a switch at the exact right time like this one. I just have a feeling the switch is going to be a little harder to flip this year.

  • Oh, and, speaking of my fiancee, I wasn’t going to until she gently talked me into it, but I ended up going to the Riverhounds home opener Saturday. Result aside, I wasn’t disappointed. One point is better than none, but, minimally, they should’ve gotten a 1- or 2-0 result. Saying that, I kept my eye on Bob Lilley, since I was sitting close enough to the Hounds bench to reasonably do so, and I liked what I saw a lot. He’s very intense, he’s an ABC guy (always be coaching) and when the Riverhounds, clear as day, should have been given a penalty roughly midway through the first half, he was all over the refs like a cheap suit, well past the halftime whistle.

I really think Lilley has a chance to do for the Riverhounds what Michel Therrien did for the Penguins at the dawn of the Crosby-Malkin era: be the human Molotov cocktail through the glass window of the establishment, and, in doing so, change the organizational culture for the better. He’s a straight shooter, like Therrien was, as evidenced by his postgame remarks, and he strikes me as the kind of guy who can inject some alpha-male, but also some structure and discipline, into the on-field product. The Penguins’ Renaissance started at the top. If the Riverhounds want to change, beyond merely their new, more avant garde branding, that has to start at the top, too.

I don’t care that the Riverhounds lucked their way into this guy, relying on the incredible misfortune of the now-defunct Rochester organization to find a licensed Division II-level coach, because the bottom line is, they had the wherewithal to go get the best free agent coach available when the getting was good. Furthermore, they weren’t shy about cleaning house, Kerr, Parkes and one or two others(?) notwithstanding, after a couple non-playoff years.

(Wasn’t I just saying something about organizations that show a commitment to winning?)

Perhaps it was to be expected that they still looked like a work in progress on Saturday. But I forgive that, because my instincts tell me “Lilleyball” will catch on eventually, for as long as the buy-in from his hand-picked players is there. They need time to find their form and develop chemistry, which doesn’t happen after two matches. They also need forwards who can finish, but I digress.

In the meantime, as an RMU employee, I can’t wait until Neco vs. Speedy Sept. 15.

Five Completely Unoriginal Predictions for 2016

1. The Penguins Will Make the Playoffs –

I’m in the camp that believes Mike Sullivan’s sample size isn’t big enough to indicate how well he will do on the Penguins bench. I don’t believe he will do worse than Mike Johnston did with what he was given to work with, because very few English-speaking adult males could. The Pens will officially hit the midpoint of their regular season Saturday in Montreal, and I expect them to have a big second half simply because they can.

Let’s clarify that for a second. I sure as heck don’t expect a Cup this year–not that I expected one to begin with. Their defense will still let them down, and the sport will still be strategized and policed in a manner that the Penguins’ stars will not have room to play to their true potential. The 2008-09 Penguins, the last ones to win it all, were one of the greatest examples of a switch being flipped in NHL history, trumped only by the 1991-92 Penguins. The current state of the Pittsburgh Penguins is the result of multi-layered failure by many people, not all of whom work for the Pittsburgh Penguins, at many times. Sullivan is a hockey coach, not a miracle worker.

History won’t be made, but signs of a turnaround are already present. Evgeni Malkin has risen above team- and league-wide scoring woes and has become quite the leader. Sidney Crosby is finally starting to look like his old, dangerous self. Players have stood up for each other, or, in Kris Letang’s recent case, for themselves. The power play is coming around, and the offense, in general, has played more purposefully under the new boss. Meanwhile, Marc-Andre Fleury, in a sane world, would be a Vezina Trophy and perhaps long-shot league MVP candidate right now.

The gap between the haves and have-nots in the NHL is not as big as it once was, but the gap between the Pens and playoff contention is even smaller–one point entering this weekend, to be precise. Sullivan can’t completely change the DNA of that locker room in less than a year, but his team will play well enough to offset the madness of the first half.

2. The Panthers Will Make More Strides Under Pat Narduzzi –

Had Paul Chryst stayed for a fourth season at Pitt, 2015 would have been a make-or-break year for him. The Panthers would have had to show tangible progress under his watch, or else Steve Pederson, or whomever the athletic director would have been in that alternate universe, would have had a very tough decision to make this offseason. Would a fourth year of Chryst on the Pitt sideline have been successful? Would the decision-maker have made the right decision? Fortunately, we never had to find out.

This approaching season, Pitt football, for the first time since the Dave Wannstedt era, and just the second time since its quarterback was the official spokesman for Anthony’s Coal Fired Pizza (cha-ching!), will win ten games. This will be achieved with a 9-3 regular season and a victory in an ACC “Tier One” bowl game. And for the first time since we Feared the ‘Stache, the Panthers will show tangible progress.

It’s funny how we hardly ever hear anymore how much Pitt fans, closet and otherwise, miss Wannstedt, isn’t it? Never mind that he couldn’t beat Navy with four cracks at Heinz Field’s south end zone from one yard out, NFL talent on his offensive line, and a future NFL tailback running through holes all night long that the entirety of Section 132 could have penetrated–and that’s the tip of his iceberg. As bad as things used to be around here, what in blue-and-gold hell made those people think that same guy could have kept up with the Clemsons and Florida States of the world, let alone the version of Navy Narduzzi had to prepare his team for?

Okay, so maybe we shouldn’t break our arms patting the Nard-Dog on the back for an 8-5 season that included rocky home losses to quality opponents and a disappointing showing in the Military Bowl against another quality opponent. But let’s not kid ourselves: anyone who can’t see the difference between Chryst and Narduzzi hasn’t been paying attention. Unheralded players became stars. Talk of the “process” of winning turned into talk of winning, period. Defensively, the Panthers were liberated, ditto on offense, where Narduzzi took chances that Chryst would not–and quite frankly, he and erstwhile OC Jim Chaney probably should have taken more. Pitt showed toughness in tenuous games it hadn’t shown previously.

Chryst would have been scuffling just to get to .500 with the 2015 Panthers, and might not have made it. Narduzzi will have the 2016 Panthers in serious contention for the Coastal Division crown that will only turn more serious when James Conner makes his triumphant return.

Pitt has legitimate depth behind Conner in its backfield. It has an offensive line that can protect Nate Peterman, who gets one more year to prove himself while Narduzzi grooms his other QBs and prays, along with the rest of us, that Thomas MacVittie is the Chosen One Pitt has sought for years at that position. It has a defense that is now, at the very least, well coached, if not yet well peopled, at every spot. And although Tyler Boyd is a virtually impossible act to follow, the sum of Pitt’s remaining parts can certainly fill that hole. In addition, it has a manageable home schedule (e.g.: Villanova, Syracuse, Virginia Tech) that mitigates a less forgiving road schedule (e.g.: Oklahoma State, Clemson).

When put in perspective, it’s easy to call the 2015 season a success for Pitt. It won’t be easy to call the 2016 season a success without Conner kicking cancer and the Panthers kicking Penn State’s butt, among others. Plan accordingly, because both are going to happen.

3. The Riverhounds Will Beat an MLS Team in the U.S. Open Cup –

Back in June, when the Hounds hosted D.C. United, a Supporters’ Shield challenger at the time, there were times when it looked like this prediction might come to fruition a year early. Pittsburgh didn’t play well at all after forcing extra time, but even extra time was not without its chances.

Rob Vincent and Kevin Kerr, the two best players from that team (Vincent, reportedly, even got a look from United scouts), are officially back for 2016, as is stalwart goalkeeper Hunter Gilstrap for a second tour of duty. In addition, head coach Mark Steffens, whose team is coming off just its second USL playoff berth ever, has added pieces up front with a little bit of MLS experience, Corey Hertzog and Zak Boggs from the NASL’s Tampa Bay Rowdies (the team they beat for the right to play D.C.), and seems intent on revamping his defense.

Domestic cups are a big deal in pro soccer internationally. In America, to an MLS side, it’s more tantamount to college basketball’s NIT. Teams want to use the opportunity to give their youngsters a look and focus their energies on winning the MLS Cup.

For soccer in Pittsburgh, however, that game against DCU meant more than the minutiae of the game itself. It showed in the work ethic of the Riverhounds that night.

They haven’t upset an MLS team in the Open Cup since Colorado Rapids were ambushed at Bethel Park High School in 2001. The time is right to catch one of them napping.

4. The Pirates Will Win a Playoff Game –

Interpret that however you wish. If you’re a Pirate fan, this winter has been an underwhelming one, but winning winter means nothing–just ask the Washington Nationals. Nevertheless, this management team, still haunted by the proverbial sins of the father, probably doesn’t get enough credit for stabilizing the organization and putting an exciting product on the field despite notable instances of roster attrition in recent years, the latest and most notable being Neil Walker.

Unlike most of the yinzer front-runners, I’m not yet ready to pick up my pitchfork over the Walker trade until I see what Ray Searage, the best pitching coach in the majors, can do with Jon Niese, one of his new projects. More to the point, I wholly expect Alen Hanson to thrive as the eventual everyday second baseman when J-Hay isn’t doing his best Lee Lacy impression. In time, he will make those righteously indignant fans forget Walker the same way Andrew McCutchen made them forget Nate McLouth.

Would I like to see the Pirates swim against their own stream more often for the sake of acquiring impact players? Absolutely, especially if it means bringing in a (natural) first baseman that we’ve, you know, actually heard of. Inevitably, they’ll have to swallow their organizational pride in order to get what they want, as the Kansas City Royals’ front office can attest. In any event, with this mostly intact offense and its usual brand of consistently consistent pitching, plus a healthy Jung-Ho Kang, this team will still be fun to watch.

You can’t pick your division. You can only worry about beating the teams in it. Economically, the Pirates are never going to have a fair fight with the Cardinals or Cubs, and there’s no guarantee they’ll finish ahead of either this year. But with the Royals winning a championship and the Cubs cementing themselves as a sexy 2016 World Series pick, it’s time for the next-most put-upon fanbase in baseball to get a little good postseason karma thrown its way for a change–even if it’s just a harried pitcher dropping the ball (literally, if possible) for one magical night.

5. The Bengals Will (Finally) Win a Playoff Game –

I’m less of a believer in jinxes, curses or what-have-you than ever before. The Pirates’ renaissance had a lot to do with that. I believe in good football, bad football and mediocre football. But a lot of other people think the hex hanging over sports in Ohio* (*Non-Buckeyes only) will stay put Saturday night.

Speaking of the Pirates, it strikes me that Marvin Lewis is to Cincinnati what Jim Leyland was to Pittsburgh–too anal retentive for his own good when the stakes are raised. He is as big a reason as any that the Who-Deys are staring a quarter-century of postseason futility in the face. Too bad that, in this what-have-you-done-for-me-lately business, Mike Tomlin, a Super Bowl-winning coach who some feel rode the coattails of the last Super Bowl-winning coach, has his own demons to exorcise.

Since Tomlin lost that Wild Card game four years ago to Tim Tebow–I repeat, Tim Tebow–he has been, by Steeler standards, an adequate coach at best. Too often the Steelers have been held back by his own hubris, not unlike how the Penguins were held back at the same time by Dan Bylsma’s. Too often they have looked too unprepared to win winnable games, not unlike Saturday’s.

The Bengals may not have Andy Dalton, but they still have A.J. Green ready to line up against a secondary that could be charitably described as suspect. They don’t have anything resembling a running game to worry about when the Steelers have the ball, and we saw how well that worked out in last year’s Wild Card round when the Steelers tried to bleed offense from Ben Tate. Furthermore, the Ben who really matters has been turnover-prone lately, and he already did everything in his power to hand one game to the Bengals on a silver platter. Never put it past history to repeat.

Credit the Steelers for not giving up. They handled their business in Cleveland and accidented their way into this thing because the Browns are still the Browns, and the Jets are still the Jets. Granted, the Bengals are still the Bengals, but the Bengals are also due, and you might as well throw a dart to determine which version of the Steelers will show up at a given time. I could very easily see Cincinnati winning 17-13, which, of course, could only mean one thing:

The Steelers will win 27-10.

My Top Pittsburgh Sports Moments of 2015: The Year that Actual Coaching Took Place

6. Birthday Baseball with Burnett –

I’ll begin my countdown by breaking an unwritten rule and underlining my own ego right away: Is it any wonder the Pirates started turning around their season at the same time my girlfriend treated us to a game for our shared birthday? One fine Saturday afternoon at PNC Park saw the Dark Knight go to school, and Batman was the professor:

In addition to Courtney and I winning just about every gameday freebie imaginable (including free tickets to a later A.J. gem and walk-off victory over the Padres), McCutchen and Alvarez both hit balls that needed clearance from Pittsburgh International to land, and the Pirates won en route to a pivotal sweep of the Mets. Perhaps the only thing that could have made the experience better would have been a repeat result five months later.

Although that didn’t happen, it doesn’t change the fact that one of my favorite stories of the year was watching one of my favorite Pirates of all time return with flair to the franchise–and the fanbase–he helped resuscitate.

5. Popping the Pitt Cherry –

A shout-out to Pitt Athletics wheeler-and-media-dealer E.J. Borghetti seems necessary here. I promised him at Fan Fest that I would get Courtney to her first Pitt football game in due time, which I did, on the first weekend of the Pat Narduzzi era. Despite intolerable heat, it proved to be a good time and a prudent pick for my other half’s first game, because it featured exactly what I’ve come to except from Pitt–a little bit of everything:

The sudden and sobering end to James Conner’s season was offset by the ominous (and, in the former’s case, unforeseen) debuts of Qadree Ollison, the eventual ACC Offensive Rookie of the Year, and Jordan Whitehead, the eventual ACC Defensive and Overall Rookie of the Year. In addition, the Panthers’ much-hyped new coach passed his first big test: For the love of all things holy, don’t do what the last guy did in his first game against Youngstown State.

4. Taming the Tigers –

I’ll continue with my overly self-indulgent theme–Courtney and I were at this game, too, thanks to a wonderful Christmas present from her parents–though there isn’t much I could say to do further justice to the majesty of a Pirates home opener. Especially this one.

Josh Harrison reminded us all never to [mess] with a Bearcat, and Gerrit Cole delivered one of the most masterful performances by a Pirate pitcher I’ve ever seen in person. Sitting in our veiled seats along the first base side, I told my girlfriend, in so many words, we were watching a legend in the making. For all the hyperbolic statements I’ve made, I wasn’t wrong about that one:

3. Meet and Greet –

Okay, no more horn-tooting after this, I promise. But I almost completely forgot another even more unique sports experience from my past year, and I’m kicking myself for doing so, and so now I can’t brag for very long about the experience and the person who helped engineer it, because I have to go to work in the morning. (Sorry, dear.)

Popchock with Clint HurdleAnyway, two friends of ours share a Pirates season ticket plan, and one of the mid-season perks was an impromptu photo session with several random players that, regrettably, they were unable to attend. So, as a surprise, Courtney drove my unsuspecting rear end down to the North Shore one summer Sunday and spilled the beans once we got in line.

Our side of the line, in case you’re curious, got to take selfies and shake hands with, among others, Starling Marte, Mark Melancon and Francisco Liriano. Not a bad haul for not knowing what we were walking into, eh?

Oh, and I had to get a photo with that guy up there. I don’t care what anyone else says–what he has done for baseball in this town is historic.

2. Stickin’ It to St. Louis –

There’s a recency bias toward hating the Chicago Cubs. I’ll do us all the courtesy of not reviewing why. But it’s the Cardinals who provided the feel-bad ending to baseball’s best feel-good story a couple years ago. It’s the Cardinals who keep putting the Pirates at the mercy of buzz-saw pitchers in the Wild Card by squeaking past them in the Central, thanks in large part to a few head-to-head games over the years that could easily have gone Pittsburgh’s way instead. It’s the Cardinals who are the one thing every other rival fanbase in the National League can agree upon. It’s the Cardinals who the Post-Gazette‘s Craig Meyer once perfectly described as “that rich kid you knew in high school [whom] everything always seemed to break for.” But for two nights right before the All-Star Break, things didn’t break for the Cardinals at all, and it was awesome:

Both wins represented an emotional high-water mark for Pirate fans in 2015, while turning the fabled Twitter account Baseball’s Best Fans (@BestFansStLouis) into CLO-caliber theater. If not for another wet-fart ending to another otherwise impressive season, the Pirates might top my list, even if for no other reason than that exhilarating July weekend on which little brother got a couple good licks in at big brother.

1. (Tie) Rise of the Riverhounds/Dawn of the ‘Duzz/Slammed by Sullivan –

While attending a tailgate prior to the Riverhounds’ U.S. Open Cup match against the Tampa Bay Rowdies, I asked my old colleague Dan Yost, a longtime Steel Army member and organizer, why the Hounds, a notoriously slow-starting team time and again, were playing so much better to start the 2015 campaign. His response: “This year, there’s actual coaching taking place. There’s an actual system being taught. It isn’t just ‘everybody get the ball to our best player,’ whoever our best player is that night.”

I’m a big believer in the adage that, ultimately, a team assumes the personality of its coach. We’ve seen it in the Steelers under Mike Tomlin, which has produced its fair share of good and bad. We’ve seen the resourcefulness and the heart of the Pirates under Clint Hurdle. We’ve seen it in the Penguins, who went from Dan Bylsma, a former Jack Adams Award winner done in by his own hubris, to my freshman English Lit professor on NyQuil–or, as he was known in these parts, Mike Johnston. Of the positive Pittsburgh sports moments of the past year, the most common one seemed to be that three teams that sorely needed coaching changes, and, by proxy, personality changes, got them.

Take nothing away from former interim coach and current assistant Niko Katic; one of the most prudent offseason moves made by Riverhounds management was not to burn that bridge. But new manager Mark Steffens, though failing to rid his team of all its bad habits, did put a more entertaining and more poised team on the field. That aforementioned night at Highmark Stadium, his boys beat the Rowdies of the NASL, the no-longer-undisputed second tier of American pro soccer, thanks to late heroics by USL scoring title contender Rob Vincent:

Furthermore, they looked like the more diligent and more desirous team for much of the ensuing round versus MLS powerhouse D.C. United in front of a capacity home crowd before seemingly running out of gas in extra time. They later capped their season with a return to the playoffs and concurrent Keystone Cup title over Harrisburg City Islanders that was previously aided by, arguably, the greatest win in franchise history:

Don’t look now, but if Steffens finds a little more goaltending depth and a steadier back line, the Riverhounds could win a championship before any of Pittsburgh’s other teams do.

Pat Narduzzi openly set the bar at a championship level when he took over Pitt football. He didn’t win any titles in his first year on the job, but it was still a successful year insofar as he achieved something much more practical with that program; he put a team on display that was watchable. The Panthers, in nailing my preseason prediction of 8-4, went from a team that dreamed of winning to a team that believed it could win. The belief was evident, as was their newfound poise and toughness:

The 2015 Panthers were a fascinating mix of resurgent seniors and exciting underclassmen who seem to be setting the tone for a bright future. They went from inventing increasingly infamous ways to lose to finding unique ways to win. Imagine what Pitt could do with those underclassmen maturing, with Narduzzi further growing into his first-ever head coaching role and with the firm support of an engaged and non-divisive administration that actually knows what the hell it’s doing.

One of the two moments most wonderfully symbolic of the multi-sport coaching revolution in Pittsburgh in 2015 happened in that penultimate home game. Terrish Webb jogged toward the Pitt sideline following a Louisville touchdown after being burnt like toast for the second or third time in the first half. Narduzzi immediately made a beeline for Webb and gave him an earful. On Louisville’s next drive, a different player had Webb’s assignment. It’s one of a number of things Narduzzi did this past season that his predecessor wouldn’t have dreamed of doing.

The other one involved the merciful swapping of the Mikes by Pens GM Jim Rutherford, who had just replaced Johnston with Sullivan after the latter had guided the once under-the-radar Baby Pens of Wilkes-Barre/Scranton to a red-hot start to the 2015-16 AHL season. In Sullivan’s second game with the big club, a ho-hum loss at Boston during which I fell asleep (figuratively and literally), Ian Cole was beaten on the back end for the Bruins’ second goal of the game, which stood despite a coach’s challenge. While officials deliberated, NBC Sports Network cameras captured Sullivan giving Cole the first tongue-lashing I could remember seeing from a Penguin coach in a long time. The scolding, to say nothing of Cole’s deer-in-headlights reaction, was priceless.

No new coach was going to change the DNA of the Penguins in the time that has passed since Sullivan was promoted. Friendly reminder: they were tolerable, and, at times, even entertaining, for the first few months that Johnston was on the job. But as 2015 has transitioned into 2016, Mario’s time-tested ship, with that big for-sale sign attached, at least appears not as rudderless anymore.