9/3: Griggsy’s Gripes

Griggsy is filling the void while I am crotch deep in packing and boxes and insanity. Ol’ Walt is heading off on Wednesday and it’s likely I will not be around until the following weekend at the earliest, but first – Griggsy. Also, thank baby Jesus for football. Here we go.

 

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I’m finally back. The Gripes have returned. Your long national nightmare is over. OK, maybe you didn’t miss me quite that much. Regardless, I’ve climbed back into the saddle, and the Gripes will come riding out with me.

Before that, though, a word of congratulations to the esteemed head of the site. Very happy to see Walt get the job he’s richly deserved for a long time. I’m very happy for you, man, and I hope all goes well in the next phase.

Alright, enough with the kind words. It’s time for griping:

->I am sick of hearing about Sidney Crosby’s concussion. I am sick of hearing about Sidney Crosby’s recovery from his concussion. I am sick of people speculating about when (if) Sidney Crosby will be healthy enough to come back. I get that it is the 87-ton elephant in the room, if you’re a Penguin (or NHL) fan. But with all the speculation, the non-stories, the non-updates, etc., It’s driving me insane. I don’t want to hear anymore.

Look, it’s clear that no one knows anything about this. The Penguins, the media, the fans, Crosby himself, none of us. We are all clueless about how severe the concussion was. Or was it multiple concussions? None of us know how long it’s going to take for all the symptoms to go away. We sure as hell don’t know how it’s going to effect him when he gets back on the ice to resume his career. Whenever that may be.

Let me repeat that again: No one knows anything about this!

So, everyone needs to stop speculating. Until he’s cleared to be on the ice, practicing, able to take hits, the speculation needs to completely stop. I don’t want to see, hear, or read anything about it anymore. Please. For the love of Mario, just stop!….

->Craig Adams had an appendectomy a couple of weeks back. My best wishes to him. Also, no truth to the rumor that he cut himself open and ripped out the appendix with his bare hands, with only a bottle of whiskey to numb the pain. That’s completely untrue. Craig Adams doesn’t feel pain….

->The faint “beeeeeeeeeeeep” you hear in the distance? That’s the Pirates’ season flat-lining. The viewing will be held this weekend. The funeral? It’s 8 losses away….

->I am fresh off one of the worst vacations possible. Two cars and six people started out of the Pittsburgh area for a trip to the beach for a wedding, originally scheduled for August 27. In order, this is what happened: A tire blowout on Car #1, followed by that car’s battery dying on the side of the highway (3 hours into the trip); My body completely betraying me for the entire trip in multiple ways; Car #2 getting stuck in the sand in the Outer Banks; Car #2 getting pulled over for speeding the next night; Car #2 getting totaled the day after that in Georgia (long story, don’t ask); An earthquake knocking a pipe off-track for one of the sinks in the beach house; The threat of a hurricane looming for a week; That threat eventually leading to the wedding being moved up two nights; Having to strap most of the luggage to the roof of Car #1 because an additional two people had to be fit into said car; Running like crazy to get away from the storm in time on Friday; On said run, Car #1 nearly loses another tire because 4 of the 5 bolts are sheared off without anyone knowing; And finally, after getting back to the starting point, Car #1’s battery dying again when we head out to take me back to my house.

Worst trip ever? Probably not. And I’m sure you could send me stories of your trips from hell. But holy hell, I had to laugh most of the time, just to keep myself from crying….

->So, college football has started this week. And to be honest, I always feel very mixed at the start of college football season. It’s a strange mingling of excitement and disappointment. Excitement because there are always a lot of entertaining games every year. The Big Ten, SEC, Big 12, and Pac-10 (or whatever they’re calling these leagues now) all have high-level teams that lead to entertaining action week in and week out. Lots of future NFL stars coming out of those games, believe that.

However, disappointment creeps in quick, and the reason is obvious. College football never decides a true champion. Never. The BCS is a joke, has always been a joke, and will always be a joke. I refuse to invest my attention into a sport that doesn’t decide who the best team is on the field. So, I will watch a couple of games when there isn’t something better on, which is mostly in September. Once the NHL starts up, college football gets pushed to the side almost completely. I will continue to watch my alma mater (We Are! Penn State!) and have a passing interest in Pitt and West Virginia, but that’s it.

You have so much potential, college football. But until you fix the big problem, you’ll be nothing more than a minor blip on my sports radar….

->Onto big boy football, the NFL is less than a week away from regular season kickoff. It snuck up on us really quick. Peyton Manning isn’t healthy yet, and Colt fans are in panic mode. Arian Foster’s hamstring is causing much consternation (both for Texan fans and fantasy football owners, but don’t tell Arian that). Chris Johnson may or may not report to the Titans before the season begins. And that’s just the AFC South.

So, with that in mind, what follows is the Gripes’ NFL Predictions:

AFC East-

4) Buffalo Bills (4-12): Ryan Fitzpatrick is a better-than-you-think QB, but he can’t do it all himself….

3) Miami Dolphins (8-8): They are going to be a lot better than most people predict. Not good enough for a playoff spot. But .500 for them is an accomplishment….

2) New Jersey Jets (10-6, AFC Wild Card, #6 Seed): Great defense, and a great 1-2 running back punch. But the passing game still isn’t strong. Good AFC team, but not truly elite….

1) New England Patriots (12-4, AFC East Champion, #2 Seed): Tom Brady is one of the best in the league (still), and he has great pieces around him. An elite NFL team, without question….

AFC North-

4) Cincinnati Bengals (1-15): Probably the worst team in the NFL this season. Andy Dalton is basically being fed to the wolves….

3) Cleveland Browns (6-10): The Mistake by the Lake is actually improving quietly. Scary that they may actually contend again in the near future….

2) Baltimore Ravens (11-5, AFC Wild Card, #5 Seed): They’ve lost a few players, and gotten older in some spots, but they have great players, and will contend all season….

1) Pittsburgh Steelers (13-3, AFC North Champion, #1 Seed): They’ll fight off the Super Bowl loser curse. They’ve gotten faster on offense, and the defense is healthy and deep, despite age….

AFC South-

3T) Tennessee Titans (4-12): Chris Johnson’s holdout is portending bad times this season. They look worse than last season on paper….

3T) Jacksonville Jaguars (4-12): Maurice Jones-Drew has health concerns, there is upheaval at QB, and the D isn’t that good. They will struggle….

2) Houston Texans (10-6): So close again to making the playoffs. But close isn’t good enough. Not enough D to match the explosive offensive talent….

1) Indianapolis Colts (12-4, AFC South Champion, #3 Seed): They are ripe for the taking this season, with Manning’s injury. But they’ll just have enough to hold off the Texans….

AFC West-

4) Denver Broncos (6-10): Kyle Orton is good, or at least good enough to fight off Tebow. The D is still too young and full of holes, though. Knowshon Moreno’s a stud….

3) Oakland Raiders (7-9): McFadden’s very talented, Campbell will be better, but the D can’t be as good after losing Nnamdi. Despite that, I wouldn’t be surprised to see them make the playoffs….

2) Kansas City Chiefs (8-8): Last year was a perfect storm. This year is the opposite. Bad schedule, inconsistencies all over the field, and luck last year that won’t be there this year….

1) San Diego Chargers (9-7, AFC West Champion, #4 Seed): I am not as high on them as others. But the talent is there on both sides of the ball. A playoff team, but not a champion….

NFC East-

4) Washington Redskins (5-11): Addition by subtraction helps (McNabb, Haynesworth), but I don’ttrust the QB, and they will still give up too many points….

3) Dallas Cowboys (8-8): They have tons of offensive weapons, the defense does a lot of good things. But it’s a tough schedule, and I don’t trust Romo (health) and Jason Garrett (weasel)….

2) New Jersey Giants (9-7): They and the Cowboys are virtually equal.The Giants look extremely average, and Eli turns the ball over a ton. But he keeps them in games….

1) Philadelphia Eagles (11-5, NFC East Champion, #3 Seed): They proclaimed themselves a “dream team”. But Vick is brittle, the front seven is weak, and Andy Reid is still Andy Reid….

NFC North-

4) Chicago Bears (5-11): I still don’t know how they made the playoffs last season. This season? A massive step back. Bad O-Line, turnovers from Cutler, and the defense falls apart….

3) Minnesota Vikings (6-10): Donovan McNabb is washed up at this point. Adrian Peterson will face 23-man fronts. The defense really lacks playmakers….

2) Detroit Lions (10-6, NFC Wild Card, #6 Seed): Yep, you read that right. The Lions are in the playoffs, baby. Playmakers on D, playmakers on O, soft schedule, it all adds up….

1) Green Bay Packers (12-4, NFC North Champion, #2 Seed): The World Champs (and it pains me to type that) will be back in the playoffs again. And they’ll be much healthier this season….

NFC South-

4) Carolina Panthers (4-12): They have a great backfield (Williams, Stewart, Goodson), but Newton is going to struggle, and the defense isn’t good enough….

3) Tampa Bay Buccaneers (9-7): Josh Freeman will be a year better, LeGarrette Blount will get a chance to prove he’s no fluke, but I don’t love the defense. This 9-7 record feels right….

2) Atlanta Falcons (12-4, NFC Wild Card, #5 Seed): They might be the second-best team in the league. The offense will be more explosive, and the defense is just plain solid….

1) New Orleans Saints (13-3, NFC South Champion, #1 Seed): The offense has an overwhelming amount of weapons, and the defense still makes huge plays. Very high on them….

NFC West-

3T) Seattle Seahawks (5-11): The fall will be hard for them, despite only losing two more games than 2010. Awful at QB, weaker on defense, especially losing Lofa Tatupu. Not good….

3T) San Francisco 49ers (5-11): Jim Harbaugh has a lot to do to overhaul this team. And he still doesn’t have the QB he wants. He’ll trade up to the #1 spot next season to draft Andrew Luck….

2) Saint Louis Rams (7-9): A lot of tough games on their schedule. They might be the best team in the division by Week 13, but by then, Bradford & Co. will be too far out of it….

1) Arizona Cardinals (10-6, NFC West Champion, #4 Seed): I don’t trust this team a lot, but Larry Fitzgerald will have a huge year, because he finally has a QB who can throw passes within 20 feet of him….

 

2011 Playoff predictions:

Wild Card Week:

NFC) #3 Philadelphia def. #6 Detroit, #5 Atlanta def. #4 Arizona;

AFC) #6 New Jersey Jets def. #3 Indianapolis, #5 Baltimore def. #4 San Diego

Division Round:

NFC) #1 New Orleans def. #5 Atlanta, #2 Green Bay def. #3 Philadelphia;

AFC) #1 Pittsburgh def. #6 New Jersey Jets, #5 Baltimore def. #2 New England

Championship Round:

NFC) #1 New Orleans def. #2 Green Bay

AFC) #1 Pittsburgh def. #5 Baltimore

Super Bowl XLVI: Pittsburgh def. New Orleans, 24-22; MVP- Ben Roethlisberger

->Come on, you couldn’t expect me to pick anyone else, could you?

8/13: Griggsy’s Gripes

Griggsy is back with a vengeance. Not really, he’s just got more thoughts on various things (hooooorrrrraaaaayyyyy football is back). While he’s gripin’ on the internets, I’ll be gripin’ as I mop the floors at my weekend job. All things depending, I plan on getting the new Pens Preview up between tomorrow and Tuesday. Until then, here’s Griggsy

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A couple of odds and ends to tie up to start off this week’s show.

First, in two weeks, I will be on vacation in an undisclosed location (one that hopefully has lots of sun and sand). So, no Gripes from me that week. Be strong, you’ll make it through. Second, I do encourage you to leave feedback, whether you love what you read here, or hate it, or just think it’s OK. I’m always trying to get better at this, so please do let me know what you think. I am still debating whether I should give Walt my e-mail address to put out there to get more feedback. More on that in coming weeks.

For now, here come the Gripes:

->I’m finally excited for the NFL season. No, it has nothing to do with the preseason games that started this weekend. And no, it definitely has nothing to do with the precipitous decline of Das Buccos (more on this later) leading to me turning my attention elsewhere. In actuality, my excitement comes from the text I got from my best friend last night.

“Sending out the FF info e-mail out tonight.”

Yep, fantasy football. Woooo!

I know there are a ton of people out there who think fantasy football is a pointless waste of time where grownups play armchair GM/coach for a fake sports team. And I get that. Which is why I am very selective about how much fantasy sports I do. I have one (very intense) fantasy baseball team, one (extremely intense) fantasy hockey team, and this is my single fantasy football team. The reason for my participation, especially in the football league: It’s a blast to do it. There are 10 guys who play. My (above mentioned) friend is the commissioner, I assist him with the league, and all 10 of us just enjoy the hell out of making fun of each other, each other’s teams, and everything under the sun, really. Anything that allows you and your friends to have more fun for a couple of months out of the year, do it.

Also, it gets me more interested in the NFL as a whole. I am not going to be drafting only Steelers, so this requires me to keep tabs on every team’s goings-on across the league. It’ll make me watch a few more preseason games, and will have me watching pregame shows early on Sunday mornings during the season. It forces me to have more knowledge about the league, and I am a fan of gaining knowledge.

I know they’re not for everyone, but if you are making fun of those who do fantasy sports leagues now, you’re in the minority now…

 

->The insanity of Steelers fans struck again this week. Well, that might be too strong. Let’s just say that some fans were a bit ridiculous after finding out about an injury. There is a segment of fans that get attached to players very fast, and sometimes they do so without real merit. They showed it again this week when it was announced that rookie late-round draft pick Baron Batch, a running back, suffered a season-ending ACL tear during practice Wednesday. Batch was making a decent name for himself in training camp by picking up on the playbook fast, and impressing coaches and fans with his skills when given the opportunity to do so. However, Batch was still a long shot to do anything beyond making the team as a 4th string running back and special teams player.

If you read the Twitter accounts of many Steelers fans, though, you would’ve thought this was a sign of the apocalypse. Reactions of shock, horror, and unmitigated depression. If you had removed the player’s name from the reactions, you would have expected this to be the aftermath of the loss of a Harrison, Woodley, Miller, or Wallace. Someone needed to slap some sense into these people. I liked what I heard about Batch’s showings in camp, but losing him will not have an effect on the result of any single game. Perspective, people. Save your wailing and gnashing of teeth for when Ben throws 3 interceptions in one half, or when the defense collapses in a 4th quarter. Or, you know, you could just not do that either…

 

->As mentioned above, the Buccos’ slide has taken them well below .500, putting them in serious danger of a 19th losing season. While there are still plenty of games left between now and the end of September, a lot of those games are against Milwaukee and Saint Louis, two teams that have absolutely crushed the Pirates in recent seasons. That’s not encouraging at all.

Was it nice to win two of three games from the World Series champs in San Francisco? Of course. But they didn’t face the Giants’ two best pitchers (Lincecum and Cain), and new acquisition Carlos Beltran sat out all three games. Let’s not start thinking that things are right back on track. A weekend in Milwaukee will tell the tale on that…

 

->Despite saying that, I don’t want to hear anyone say the Pirates should start looking to lose a majority of their remaining games to get another high draft pick for next season. That is absurd at this point. The team can’t go from 54-54 to residing in the bottom five in the league standings, and to try would be a pointless venture. Not to mention, that would not win the hearts of any fans. Now, I don’t think that teams need to take fans into account for every decision they make. But this team, with these beaten-down fans, are a special exception, for sure…

 

->As expected, over the last few days I’ve started to watch DVD’s of old Pens playoff games, trying to hold me over until hockey starts picking up again. And something struck me as I sat here watching the post-series celebration and handshakes. I am honestly surprised that a sports company hasn’t put the footage together from the numerous camera angles they have available and used it to make a DVD of these celebrations in uninterrupted form. Half of the time, there are interviews or handshakes going on, making us miss something that would be great to see: two guys that tried to maim each other all series having a conversation while shaking hands, or two teammates sharing a moment of unbridled joy away from the middle of the ice.

I am stunned this hasn’t been done yet. Hell, I’m stunned that no one’s had this idea yet…

Um, you know what? Ignore these last few sentences. Nothing to see here.

Now, where the hell is the number for the patent office? It was here a second ago…..

Failtown – Population: Me

I feel like such a chump. I have not been writing as much as I would like lately, which is unfair to both myself and to all of you. Thank God for Griggsy. He’s been covering up for my punk ass the last week with his Gripes and his unreal look at the Pirates.

I have been doing quite a bit of work behind the scenes in my personal life lately. Nothing has changed, which is a disappointment. The previously mentioned job in NC did not pan out, which is a big time bummer. The job with the civil service is, well, a job with the Civil Service. I did well on the exam and now just need to wait and hope for an opening. Other than those, the job field is, erm, sparse. I’m well aware that this is a unique sentiment and there are a lot of people hurting looking for work. I’ve even been debating about making a career change because things are so hard right now in Education, but I just can’t do it. There are no jobs/careers out there I want to do outside of teaching. I just love it too much to leave, even if it means sticking it out for a while without permanent work.

I do have a few other things cooking. I am looking to pick up another job in the evenings/weekends while I keep working in the schools during the day (and do my night janitorial job on the weekends). I will, hopefully, be moving ahead with life over the next few years as I am, somewhat begrudgingly, planning on going back to school to begin working on my Master’s. I’m debating a few different programs and different schools, but I’m pretty well sold on the general umbrella study of Special Education. I’m going to make my decision over the course of the next month or two. I’ll talk to the schools I’m looking at and see what kind of packages they can put together and go from there.

The pond project, too, is at an end. I am completing the final part of the project this week. The waterfall is the final major obstacle. I have the supplies and have a plan. Once it is completed I will get some nice photos and post those soon enough. I am hopefully going to finish the last of the work on Friday so I can celebrate by watching some Steeler football.

I do have a few other hopeful odds and ends on the horizon, but I don’t want to get too far ahead of myself. The next few years are going to be some interesting times. I’m looking forward to the challenges and being able to spend them with all of you.

-Walt

2011 Pittsburgh Pirates: A Season on the Brink

Foreword: I approached Griggsy the other day about writing an article about the Pirates because he is a much better and more learned fan of baseball than I am or could ever be. It just so happens that we are on similar wavelength regarding the Pirates’ season and the infamous Jerry Meals safe call to end the 19-inning marathon game. I hope Griggsy and maybe even some of you out there will continue to make Avoid the Clap an enjoyable blog and provide some different perspectives on things. Comments are appreciated or you can contact us directly here .

With that, I give the floor to Griggsy.

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The Major League Baseball season lasts 162 games. It’s by far the longest of any pro sport. Baseball fans will tell you that this makes certain that the teams that deserve to make the playoffs are the ones who get in. They also will tell you that it ensures that no one game makes or breaks a team’s season.

Tell that to the Pittsburgh Pirates and their fans.

In the aftermath of a 4-3 loss to the Atlanta Braves in 19 innings on July 26th (and 27th), the Pirates have gone into a tailspin of epic proportions. That game was the beginning of a stretch of 7 losses in 8 games. The Pirates have gone from a first place tie in the NL Central to being in third place, 5.5 games behind the Milwaukee Brewers.

All of this, as the result of arguably the worst blown call by an umpire in the history of baseball.

Before I get into that, let me state that I do not like blaming officials. By and large, the players on the playing surface decide who wins and loses. Blaming officiating tends to mask mistakes made by the players that cause them to lose.

But, in this case, the call actually decided who won the game. Not saying the Pirates would have ultimately won the game. This call, however, did not allow the Pirates to win or lose the game on merit. Jerry Meals’ call, which I won’t get into detail because everyone who is reading this either has seen the play or can go find it in 5 seconds, prevented the fair outcome of the game from occurring. After using just about every player on the roster, some for far too long, it’s a massive stomach punch to lose a game in that manner.

Teams tend to get their mettle tested after something of this nature. A lot of adversity is heaped upon a team, with exhausted and frustrated players having to come back to play another game 17 hours later. It’s not as easy for players to put a game like this behind them. It tends to linger or fester, with all the replays shown on TV, and the media wanting to talk about it, and fans complaining about it, and the team’s front office releasing a statement about it, and so on. Men that are taught to have short memories inevitably cannot shake this moment from their brains.

As mentioned, the Pirates have stumbled in the aftermath. A team that stood at 53-47 after 100 games, as they took the field for this 19-inning marathon, now has completed two-thirds of their season, and they are wobbling at 54-54. And in the last eight games, the major problem has been pitching. Before the marathon, Pirates pitchers were giving the team consistent turns through the rotation. Since then, here are the rotation’s results:

7/27- @ATL – L, 2-1 (10 Innings) – Maholm: 7IP, 9H, 1R, 1ER, 0BB, 8K
7/28- @ATL – W, 5-2 – Correia: 6.1IP, 9H, 2R, 1ER, 1BB, 3K
7/29- @PHI – L, 10-3 – Morton: 4IP, 9H, 8R, 6ER, 4BB, 4K
7/30- @PHI – L, 7-4 – McDonald: 5IP, 10H, 5R, 5ER, 2BB, 5K
7/31- @PHI – L, 6-5 (10 Innings) – Karstens: 7IP, 7H, 3R, 3ER, 2BB, 5K
8/1- v. CHC – L, 5-3 – Maholm: 6IP, 6H, 4R, 4ER, 3BB, 3K
8/2- v. CHC – L, 11-6 – Correia: 2IP, 10H, 8R, 8ER, 0BB, 2K

[EN: Per Griggsy’s request, it is to be noted that this was written prior to the loss to the Cubs on 8/3, as such those stats have not been included.]

Now, to be fair, of the seven games after the marathon, there were 3 awful starts, 1 average start, 1 good start, and 2 great starts. But it’s not just the starts themselves. It’s also the workload on the bullpen that is making the pitching staff as a whole fall apart. After the bullpen worked 13.1 of 18.1 innings in the marathon, they were forced to pitch 24.1 of 61.2 innings in the seven games since. For relief pitchers that were thriving on a reasonable number of innings, this change in workload for them has turned the bullpen into a disappointing entity as a whole. This is without even mentioning the inconsistent usage of the best reliever, Joel Hanrahan.

To review, this is now a struggling (at best) rotation, an overworked bullpen, and a confusingly used closer. It’s no wonder that the team has lost 7 of 8 games now. With the offense sputtering along (3.75 runs per game in the last eight, consistent with the 3.84 runs per game average for the season), the pitching has to be similarly consistent with the season totals. Obviously, giving up 5.88 runs per game will not cut it (nearly two full runs over the 3.94 runs allowed per game average for the year).

For those of you looking to take this forward a step, you’d ask how the Atlanta Braves are doing over this post-marathon stretch of games. If the Pirates players are worn out, the Braves played the same game, and would be similarly worn out. This has shown slightly for the Braves, as they are 4-4 over those same eight days, dropping their last three. The fatigue may be catching up with them a little bit now, but it did not in the immediate aftermath. Including the 19-inning game, the Braves went 4-1 right away. The momentum and adrenaline provided by winning that game carried the Braves in the short-term, allowing them to stay afloat despite fatigue issues. This has kept them in control of the NL Wild Card lead, albeit a slightly shrinking lead. Meanwhile, if the Pirates had gone 4-4 instead of 1-7 in these last eight games, they would be sitting in a 2nd place tie in the division, only 2.5 games behind a hot Milwaukee team.

Is the 2011 season over for the Pittsburgh Pirates, at least in terms of playoff contention? Not quite, but it is certainly at the precipice. They are a team teetering on the edge, and one more turn through the rotation with bad results would send them falling away for sure. Jerry Meals’ call didn’t devastate the season for the Buccos, but he has given them a push that may send them falling back to earth, hard, after four months of climbing towards the pennant.

7/23: Griggsy’s Gripes

Welcome to Griggsy’s Gripes 2: Electric Boogaloo. It’s the only chance I’ll get to say it, so I couldn’t pass that up. Apparently, quite a few people decided my first attempt at this was worth reading. I thank you all for that, very much. Hopefully, there will be no sophomore slump. Anyways, without further ado, this is what I’m griping about this week:

->The weather blows! I know, I know. All of you are either so sick of the weather yourself, or so sick of hearing others complain about it. But I can’t help but complain. And if you’re wondering why, it’s because I can’t get away from the heat. When I’m outside, it’s a killer. But inside, it’s even worse. That’s right, I don’t have air conditioning in my house. Fans aren’t helping. And the one-room A/C unit in the house only helps so much, because I can’t possibly stay in that one room all day. Hell, I can’t stay in there for more than two minutes if I want to be productive at all.

It also doesn’t help that I am a fat guy who sweats when it’s 12 degrees outside. 95+ degree weather is like the Ninth Circle of Hell for me. The only good thing? Maybe I can sweat off a couple (hundred)

pounds as I sit here. Can’t hurt, right?

->This is my first real chance, so please allow me to gripe (and praise) the relevant moves in NHL free agency. Obviously, Jagrwatch was the most captivating story in our world. Jaromir Jagr would’ve helped the Penguins. Without question, he would have had an impact skating on one of the top two lines for the team. But, by choosing the Philadelphia Flyers, he simultaneously cut all positive ties with his past in Pittsburgh and chose the worst possible team for himself as a player. OK, maybe a little hyperbolic, but I say that with good reason. The Flyers got rid of their two best natural centers (Mike Richards and Jeff Carter), while the Penguins are getting their two best centers back from health issues. Jagr may very well be able to play at an average to good level in orange and black, but he will never do as well as he could have in black and gold.

The Penguins, rebuffed by Jagr, chose to go with Tyler Kennedy and Steve Sullivan as their two Top 6 right wings. It puts a lot of pressure on those two gentlemen, and they may not be able to live up to that. Both have clear flaws that may hold them back, and by proxy, hold back Crosby and Malkin. Kennedy has been inconsistent throughout his career in the NHL, with the only exception the last three months of last season. Can he keep up that hot finish, or will he slip back into that inconsistent style that he couldn’t shake for so long? Sullivan is older, has a checkered injury history, and is undersized. He’s certainly got statistics that show he could be perfect alongside one of the talented centers, but the question marks are worrisome. Will he work out like Mike Comrie did in ‘10-’11, or will he work out like Petr Sykora did in ‘07-’08 (and beyond)?

The Pens also let a handful of role players walk away. Chris Conner, Max Talbot, Eric Godard, and Mike Rupp all left the Penguins, with all but Godard going to rival teams. Godard, while useful in his role during his time here, won’t be missed terribly. This was reinforced when the Pens signed enforcer Steve MacIntyre to a two-way deal shortly after Godard signed with Dallas. MacIntyre will be shuttled frequently between Pittsburgh and Wilkes-Barre, something the team couldn’t do with Godard. Conner moved on to the Detroit Red Wings, lowering the team’s average age significantly. While Conner was lauded in some circles for being plucky and tenacious, he had no place on the Pens’ roster going forward. He wasn’t skilled enough for a Top 6 role, and wasn’t a long-term fit in a Bottom 6 role, due to size issues. He’ll likely make a bigger impact in Detroit, but that’s because the fit is much better than it ever would’ve been here.

Talbot left for the Philadelphia Flyers, signing a 5-year deal. The Penguins would never have signed Talbot for that term, based on injury and inconsistency. His signing in Philadelphia made for a divide within the ranks of Pens’ fans. Some supported Talbot, stating that it was simply a business decision. Some hated Talbot, stating that it’s unforgivable for a player to leave the Pens to play for the hated Flyers. Originally, I was in the middle, not choosing a side. After hearing interviews Talbot gave after the fact, I firmly moved into the hate category. If the Philly contract was the highest-paying one, I would have understood. But he confirmed what had been reported at the time of the signing, which was that he left deals with other teams on the table that offered more money. According to Talbot himself, he signed with the Flyers because they gave him the best chance to win a Stanley Cup. That makes it a non-business decision. Unforgivable, indeed.

Lastly, Mike Rupp left the Penguins for the New York Rangers. There was no way to keep Rupp, as many teams (reportedly nearly half the league) had made offers with great financial terms and with more length than Ray Shero was willing to offer. It just upsets me seeing Rupp in a Ranger sweater, for obvious reasons. However, don’t expect to see Rupp live up to those contract numbers. I am a firm believer that Rupp maxed out his play on the ice with the Penguins. There are some guys who are perfect in smaller doses, but struggle when over-exposed. Rupp’s age, physical style of play, and penchant for taking penalties all don’t translate to doing well with bigger minutes.

Speaking of the Rangers, Glen Sather is still a joke. He signed Brad Richards to an absurd contract of 9 years and $60 million. For a guy with injury risks, and inconsistency issues, that contract is unfathomable. Which, of course, means he fits in perfectly with the Rangers.

Looking around the Eastern Conference, the Sabres and Capitals overpaid for decently talented players; the Flyers and Rangers appeared to rearrange deck chairs on their own personal Titanics; the Devils and Islanders didn’t really do much of anything impactful; the Lightning and Bruins kept their teams relatively the same, which isn’t a bad thing for them; the Canadian teams didn’t do anything overwhelming, which is a bad thing for them; the Hurricanes improved slightly; the Panthers overpaid to hit the salary floor; and the Jets’ only big move was taking the franchise from Atlanta to Winnipeg.

If you made me rank the teams from top to bottom, I would go: Boston, Tampa, Pittsburgh, Washington, Buffalo (and that is where I draw the line of conference title contenders), Philadelphia, New York Rangers,

Carolina, Montreal, New Jersey, New York Islanders, Toronto, Florida, Winnipeg, Ottawa.

I await your criticism for that list.

->So, where does this leave the Penguins roster, heading into next season? The seven defencemen and two goalies are pretty much set (assuming that Orpik gets healthy prior to October). As for the forwards, I don’t see Tangradi or Jeffrey starting the season with the big club, nor do I see MacIntyre at the NHL level right away. So, the lines (in my mind) are as follows:

Neal-Crosby-Sullivan

Kunitz-Malkin-Kennedy

Cooke-Staal-Asham

Dupuis-Letestu-Adams

This can change, based on what happens at training camp, but those lines are what I would want to see headed into opening night.

Anyways, enough hockey…

->Job-hunting is the most frustrating process known to man. Or, well, known to me, at least. I have an Economics degree, but I might as well just not have a degree at all. Anything in the field requires experience that I don’t have or licensing that I can’t get due to financial problems (yay, student loans). So, my search must expand outward. So, I end up at a disadvantage against people in their own chosen field. I can’t even tell you how many applications I’ve put in and how many resumes I’ve sent out without getting an in-person interview. I don’t think I’ve had a single in-person interview in 2011. For someone with a fairly high IQ that has a college degree, it makes me feel really worthless at times.

I’ve had friends tell me about job opportunities in other parts of the country, but I just don’t think I can do it. I love Pittsburgh. My family’s here, my closest friends are here (with very few exceptions), the area is beautiful, this is just ‘home’ for me, as hokey as it sounds. The roots are too deep for me to pull them out, even if just for a brief length of time. So, I really keep hoping that something will appear out of thin air for me to jump all over and make it my career. Fingers crossed.

->I wanted to avoid talking about the NFL lockout, because millionaires and billionaires fighting over millions of dollars does nothing for me whatsoever. However, the stunt that the owners pulled on Thursday night made me sick. They purposely voted on their own proposal (which of course, passed easily), knowing that the Players Association would never agree to it. They pulled a PR power play to win the public opinion, getting fans back on their side with the tired angle, “We’re trying to get something done. Why aren’t they?” It’s ridiculous.

As a fan, I am sick and tired of it all, but I am now insulted by the owners more than anything. To think that people wouldn’t realize this move for what it was, it’s a slap in the face of me and any other fan that has a couple of brain cells. Of course, the problem is that too many fans don’t have the brain cells necessary to realize it. So, this just might actually work. Not good.

One last bit of irony from this move is the fact that there was one owner who abstained from voting. That owner was Al Davis. At first, I thought he was just looking out for himself, as always. But, was he actually making a statement about how he knew this was just a PR move? Hmm.

->A dream of mine has died. The last planned space flight for NASA has come and gone. When I was a young boy, I dreamed of being an astronaut. When I got into high school, that dream morphed into being a rocket scientist. As I started college, Aerospace Engineering was my original major. My goal was to be a part of NASA, and while there, I wanted to figure out how to colonize either the moon or Mars. I wasn’t able to make it as an engineer, but I still had the dream that someone, maybe one of my smart former classmates at Penn State, would be able to make this possible. As funding keeps getting cut, and space flight gets de-emphasized in the United States, it seems like this will never happen, at least not in my lifetime.

It’s not just my dream in particular about colonizing another planet that depresses me, though. It’s the fact that so many people’s dreams are dying. There are so many men and women who looked to space as the next frontier. The space program in the United States has been getting declining funding for years and years, and this may be the death knell for the program. It’s tough to come back from this, and I get the feeling it never will.

->Another dream of mine, however, is very much alive and kicking. The Pittsburgh Pirates are in contention for the playoffs! Headed into their weekend series against Saint Louis, they are tied for first place in the National League Central division. The last time they were in first place this late in the season, I was 9 years old. I feel like this is an alternate universe I’ve stumbled into. How is this happening? To be honest, it’s a lot of smoke and mirrors.

First, the pitching staff, especially the starters, are pitching completely above their heads. I’m not a stat geek, so don’t expect mentions of xFIP or BABIP or any “IPs”. But suffice it to say that Jeff Karstens, Kevin Correia, Paul Maholm, and Charlie Morton aren’t nearly as good as their performances suggest. And James McDonald, the one who has a ton of natural talent, has struggled to find consistency the entire season. Over the course of the season, these guys are so likely to regress to their actual talent level. At this point, if you’re a Bucco fan, you have to hope that this regression doesn’t fully happen. If it does, goodbye first place.

The other half of the pitching staff, the bullpen, has been just as impressive, with just as little natural talent. Evan Meek, the Pirates’ lone all-star last season, has been injured and/or ineffective all of 2011. So, without Meek, who’s been getting it done in the bullpen? Joel Hanrahan’s been great as the closer, but he hasn’t done it alone. He’s had help from Jose Veras, Chris Resop, Daniel McCutchen, and Tony Watson. Look at those names again. And then pick your jaw up off the floor. It’s unreal that this squad has done so well together. They are getting reinforced now. By Joe Beimel and Jason Grilli. Yep, I said those names as reinforcements. The bullpen has really benefited from great starting pitching, allowing them to have less innings to fill, less pitches to throw, and less pressure to feel. If that doesn’t keep up, though, there may be trouble for the relief corps.

The one thing the Pirates can’t control is their opposition in the NL Central. And on paper, the three teams in contention with the Buccos should be far ahead of them. The Saint Louis Cardinals have Albert Pujols, Matt Holliday, a resurgent Lance Berkman, and a good pitching staff. The Milwaukee Brewers have Ryan Braun and Prince Fielder, among many talented players. The Cincinnati Reds have great hitters, and they won the division last year. Somehow, none of these three teams have run away with the division. If you cheer for the black and gold, it’s a major worry that one of these teams will get hot, and run away with things in the next month or so.

Now, this is going to sound strange, but the weakest aspect of the Pirates may be their saving grace down the stretch. With how great the pitching has been, the hitting has been awful to an equal degree. Outside of Andrew McCutchen, and occasionally Neil Walker, the offense has been inconsistent at the best of times. They are getting nothing out of right field, first base, catcher, and shortstop. They are also not getting nearly enough out of third base and left field. That’s 75% of the hitters, not counting the pitcher’s spot. So, you’re surely wondering, how is this a good thing? Simply, they can’t hit this poorly the entire season. Even if the pitching does come back to Earth somewhat, the offense can make up for that with even a slight improvement.

Ultimately, what’s my gripe here? It’s unlikely that the Pirates will win the division, and it’s no guarantee they’ll finish above .500 for the first time in nearly two decades. As much as I’ll be cheering for it to happen, it’s a tall order to turn things around to the tune of 25 extra wins from last season. And the gripe comes in here: These players, this manager (Clint Hurdle, love the guy), this team deserves to end this generation-long funk in 2011. It will really suck if they can’t get to those goals this season, because some will view the season as a failure. They deserve better than that this year.

I really hope they can prove me wrong, because I’ll be happy to call myself out right here come October….

And There Was Lots of Doubt About It

I know I said that there was likely to be little to be said about the Pittsburgh Pirates, but I felt the need to write about them tonight.

I was a huge fan of the Pirates as a boy. I remember going to see them at the old Three Rivers Stadium. I still have my pennant from 1990. I remember always being upset in little league when I did not end up on the Pirates (I spent my entire youth baseball career between the Phillies and the Yankees, two teams I cannot stomach). And then something happened.

The Pirates sucked. For nearly 20 years the Pirates have been a laughable joke of a franchise. They have been the bottom feeders of MLB. I stuck with them through the 90s and into the very early 2000s. I don’t recall exactly when it happened, but one day I just snapped and that was the end of it. I have spent nearly the last ten years ranting about them, and I am unsure if I am willing to welcome them back into my life.

I described the Pirates over the last ~10 years as a living, breathing version of The Producers. For those unfamiliar, the musical/production follows the story of producers who create flop productions because you make more money with a flop than you do a hit. The Pirates have been The Producers. Ownership and management was making money hand over fist while effectively abusing the fans – the real, honest fans who still believed and stuck with them no matter what. While I can respect that, I also wish that people hadn’t stuck with them like they did. It was no different than enabling an alcoholic. By enough people sticking with the team, it became evident that no matter what the owners and management did the people were going to stick with them, so why sink money into high cost players when you can develop talent and trade them off for assets when it came time for their payday?

Obviously I still harbor plenty of feelings of resentment toward the Buccos brass for all the BS they’ve pulled over the last two decades.

But are things starting to change?

I have been sucked in by the team this year. They are winning. And they aren’t just winning against garbage teams or by dumb luck. They are competing. They are winning because they are a really good, strong team on the rise. I haven’t gone to a game in 7 years, but I am being tempted by this. I have watched probably 10 games on TV, and it’s been some up and down emotions. I’m happy they are winning, but I just don’t believe it. I don’t believe it because I can’t trust the ownership and upper management to actually commit to winning. I cannot put my faith, and certainly not my terribly limited money, into this batch of devilish hands without some proof of life from them. We’ve seen how excited people get about the team and players, only to see all-star caliber players shipped off for more draft picks and cash. We’ve seen the talent come, develop, and then leave.

Is this something different?

I’m not willing to go all-in. Hell, I’m not even willing to raise at this point. Until the ownership and the management can prove, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that they are committed to competing, if not winning, regularly, and do so without trading away every player worth a damn, well, then I’ll have to bring about an end to my stand. This is not something that will be resolved in one season of hopefulness. If this is a one-and-done magic carpet ride, what comes of the “franchise” players next year? Assuming the struggle, or problems arise, do we see a return to the last 10 years of trades and fielding a minor league team?

I am not ready to commit myself to the team until I can be assured that this isn’t some sick money grab and we’ll be back to the same bullshit we’ve been dealing with for far too long. Think back to only a number of months ago when Mario Lemieux said he was interested in purchasing the team. The entire world was listening. You could hear a pin drop. Everyone imagined what it would be like to have a proven owner who was committed to winning.  Everyone had hope. And when it gets down to it, hope is all you have sometimes.

I’m not there yet. I would genuinely like to see the Pirates become successful again. It would be great to know the team has a chance to be something. It’s great for the city of Pittsburgh and for the long suffering fans who just couldn’t take the abuse any longer. But we need to careful. How easily one’s heart can be broken if things revert to the norm. Enjoy the ride right now, but don’t take your eyes off the road in front of you. You never can be certain what waits around the next bend.

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