Cumberland Times-News

August 5, 2010

A new dynasty quickly crumbles

Mike Mathews
Cumberland Times-News

— John Kruk has always been entertaining.

He’s always been candid and unafraid to say what’s on his mind, during his career as a Major Leaguer and especially in his current role on ESPN’s Baseball Tonight.

Monday evening he made a short but not-too-sweet comment and once again hit the bull’s eye. This time the revelation was about the Pittsburgh Pirates, after a 4-0 loss to the Cincinnati Reds.

“The Pirates look like a team that’s lost interest.”

Right to the point. A bit mild, though, in his description, because here the Pirates go again, destined for a record-padding 18th consecutive losing season and, at 37-70, easily on pace for a 100-loss season.

The last time the Pittsburgh Pirates had a winning season, George H.W. Bush was president, the Redskins beat the Bills in the Super Bowl, sportscaster Howard Cosell retired, and Bill Cowher was a rookie head coach of the Steelers.

It’s been that long since the Pittsburgh Pirates won 82 games. It’s going to be a while longer, too, because Kruk is right. The Pirates have lost interest — in a lot of things — and it’s painful to watch.

They were swept in a series for the 13th time this year when they lost three games at St. Louis last weekend. It wasn’t even close. The Bucs were 2-for-19 with runners in scoring position, and were outscored 21-2.

But those numbers only scratch the surface.

• More than a hundred games into the season and there remains poor communication between outfielders at times.

• There are still overthrown cutoff men, and pitchers aren’t always backing up throws to the plate.

• Too many times a pitcher is unable to get a bunt down, and several times have bunted directly to the charging infielder.

• At St. Louis, with a runner on first, the shortstop and the second baseman covered second base — on a grounder to the first baseman! The end result was chaos at the bag with two infielders, a sliding baserunner and a throw converging as one. The ball ended up in the outfield.

• A dropped infield pop fly by St. Louis ended up as a double play for the Cardinals because neither of the two Pittsburgh baserunners (and two of the umpires, truth be told) reacted as if they knew the infield fly rules. Both runners took off at their own risk, and one was thrown out.

• The next day, during a sunny afternoon game, right fielder Lastings Milledge lost a fly ball in the sun and allowed it to drop in front of him for a double. After the damage was done he took his sunglasses, attached to the back of his cap in usual fashion statement position, and put them on.

And he stayed in the game.

• Tuesday night, with the Pirates up 7-3 and a Reds runner on second, left fielder Milledge fielded a single and made another dreadful decision, firing wildly and unnecessarily to home plate, allowing the batter to easily take second base.

Can’t anybody here play this game?

Either the Pirates are disinterested, as Kruk said, or there’s very little coaching going on and very few feet being held to the fire.

To their credit, Pirates TV announcers have been candid, especially analysts Bob Walk and John Wehner. It’s impossible to spin ugly baseball no matter how many years you try.

The Pirates have improved themselves since last year but the ugly play at times makes it very difficult to see.

Jose Tabata and Andrew McCutcheon in the outfield and Pedro Alvarez and Neil Walker in the infield are four good, young building blocks. But who else will be part of the answer?

Those are questions that the Pirates, for the 19th consecutive offseason, will be trying to answer.

Just five months ago at spring training, team president Frank Coonelly said, “Don’t let people tell you that the Pirates have a great future, but it’s not today. Today is our future. 2010 is the beginning of the next dynasty of the Pirates.”

Nobody’s asking for a dynasty, World Series, pennant or division title.

They just want 82 wins and someone to light a fire under the backsides of these Pirates, young as they may be. Otherwise, 82 wins will forever remain a mission impossible.

So will that dynasty, too.

Mike Mathews is a Cumberland Times-News sportswriter. He can be reached at mmathews@times-news.com