- Wednesday, August 17, 2011 9:09 AM
- Written By: Jim Reich
It used to be easy to paint Pittsburgh baseball with a broad brush and conclude quite easily that as a small-market team the Pirates would never sign blue chip prospects. Evidence, such as not signing Duke Weiker when they had the chance, due in no small measure to the fact that Scott Boras was his agent and it was impossible for the Pirates to meet Boras' demands, only fortified this contention. Others, such as Prince Fielder, were also passed over while second-and third-rate players were chosen in the very first rounds.
But just when I thought I learned the answers to all of life's answers, they changed the questions. Screaming, over the years, that the only way for small-market teams to try to compete was to put their money on untried, but thoroughly scouted youngsters, the Pirates seem to be following that very philosophy. It's a turnaround of mammoth proportions. To wit, last year they spent what for them was the king's ransom in signing two consensus top pitchers. This year they even topped this by signing their prospects for more money than any other team in the league. Their second-round choice, Josh Bell, had announced to all teams that he would be matriculating at the University of Texas as a quarterback. His mother, a college professor, seemed to be a big influence in making sure her son got an education before entering the professional arena.
But the Pirates, undaunted by his statement, drafted him anyway and waved enough money in front of him, $5 million, that he decided to forego college and play professional baseball. This type of action by Pirates' management is mind-boggling. It knocks your socks off. And all this happened after they spent money beefing up their scouting staff and their presence in Latin America. Wow! All the cliches about how cheap and disinterested Pirate ownership is with regard to creating a winner have vanished. One must be a believer now that they have put their money where their mouth is. Now, we just have to be patient enough to wait until these prospects jell. By the way, both the first- and second-round choices were represented by Scott Boras ... and the Pirates dealt with him and concluded deals.
In the meantime, while we realists knew that the Pirates weren't going to win the division, we have to be amazed at what they have accomplished in 2011. They were in first place in late July, which, in itself, is a minor miracle. But a 10-game losing spell blew them out of first, out of contention, and into sub-.500 baseball. But after the losing streak, and but for losing a very tight series in Milwaukee, they have won two in a row against the Cardinals. On Tuesday night, behind one run in the bottom of the ninth, Neil Walker homered to tie the game; and in the bottom of the eleventh, the first batter, Garrett Jones (pictured), with two strikes, smashed an Arthur Rhodes pitch literally into the river (on one bounce) for a walk-off homer. As of now, the Pirates have won more games in 2011 than in all of 2010, not that that is such a big deal considering last year's record, but it shows amazing improvement in one short year. Go, Bucs!
** Of course, we're excited about the upcoming NFL season. It's hard to judge how things are progressing with the Steelers. They didn't look too hot against the Redskins in the first pre-season game. But one never knows what coaches are looking for in these games. So, we'll see how things go as we move along. We are also excited about Pitt's prospects for the upcoming season. Again, we'll see how things go with the new coach and radically changed system.
** Now, we hear about a University of Miami booster who gave a lot of money and other things to Hurricanes players over about eight years. This violates NCAA rules ... big time, and we'll find out more about this as the story unfolds. But does anyone really question that these things go on in big-time college sports? Just look at Ohio State. Where there's money, and big-time money at that, involved, people will shave the rules. I am not sure how to solve it without paying college players. But the current system is broken.