|06-04-2004, 09:12 AM||#1|
Join Date: Feb 2003
Location: Cooperstown, NY
Cooperstown Confidential (June 3, 2004)
From Pirate Parody to Lumber Company Revival
Daryle Ward is this generation’s Willie Stargell. Jack Wilson is a combination of Gene Alley and Tim Foli, but with a better bat. Rob Mackowiak is Richie Hebner. Craig Wilson is the new Bob Robertson. And Jason Kendall is Manny Sanguillen, only with more talent.
Some of these statements are blatant exaggerations, while others are only slightly legitimate comparisons. The Pirates of 2004 are a far cry from Pittsburgh’s World Championship teams of 1971 and 1979, but for the first time in a long while, the Bucs are giving the city of Pittsburgh some real hope in the form of young, talented players who have futures in the game, unlike the Kevin Youngs and Raul Mondesis of the world.
To some extent, the comparisons of current-day players to Pirate stars of years gone by have some legitimacy, even if only through the images that the players create. Daryle Ward, like Willie Stargell, started his career as an outfielder before settling into a newfound role as the Pirates’ everyday first baseman. Like Starg, Ward is big, left-handed, and powerful, with the same kind of intimidating frame that “Pops” featured during his latter years, when he also doubled as the team’s father figure. Ward will obviously never develop into the Hall of Fame player that Stargell became in the 1970s, but he was once a top-notch prospect who was considered the “next, great left-handed power hitter” for the Astros, something they’d been searching for since John Mayberry’s early days as a prospect. At 28, Ward is still young enough to have Mike Easler’s kind of career, and there’s nothing wrong with a team possessing that kind of building block in trying to assemble a championship contender.
At shortstop, Jack Wilson’s defensive play reminds more than a few Pirate historians of the days of Tim Foli and Gene Alley. Wilson is actually a better shortstop than Foli and might be a better defender than Alley in every way except for the ability to turn double plays. If Wilson can avoid the kind of back problems that derailed Alley’s career and maintain a batting average of .280 or better (no one really expects him to hit .350 all season long), the Pirates might actually have a finer all-around shortstop than Alley—maybe their best since the salad days of Dick Groat.
Like Richie Hebner, Hacking Rob Mackowiak is a defensive liability at third base, but has the same kind of aggressive, left-handed swing that could keep him around for more than a few years as an infield cornerman and outfielder—the kind of supplemental piece that every playoff team needs. The Pirates are still searching for the Jose Pagan counterpart to platoon with Mackowiak, but that’s a lesser concern at a time when there are so few left-handed starting pitchers of any quality.
Of all the principals mentioned in this comparison, the Pirates’ most intriguing player might be Craig Wilson, a deserving favorite in the Sabermetric community who has finally been given a chance to play regularly after several seasons of platooning and super-utilityman status. Although the long-haired Wilson plays a different position (right field and left field) than the close-cropped Bob Robertson (who was primarily a first baseman), there are some similarities. Both have—or in the case of Robertson, had—enormous right-handed power, to the potential tune of 30 home runs a season, while supplying their managers with the flexibility to fill in at other spots in the order. It doesn’t seem like a stretch that Wilson will one day (and perhaps this year) better Robertson’s career high of 27 home runs, while also drawing more walks and giving Lloyd McClendon the added bonus of a third catcher (something that Robertson couldn’t do for Danny Murtaugh or Bill Virdon). The “Blonde Bomber” needs only to avoid the kind of injuries, especially back problems, that sidetracked Robertson, preventing him from becoming the next Ralph Kiner and forcing his departure from Pittsburgh well before the glory year of 1979.
Unlike the other players mentioned, Jason Kendall doesn’t merit being called a developing youngster anymore, but he won’t turn 30 until later this month and has the kind of athletic ability that could give him the longevity of a Craig Biggio. Kendall’s defensive game falls short of Manny Sanguillen in his prime, especially in terms of arm strength, but he sprays singles and doubles with the same proficiency. Plus, his superior power and athleticism could help him make the positional transfer that Sanguillen was unable to do in 1973, when the Pirates asked him to play right field in the aftermath of the death of Roberto Clemente
The images of the 1970s certainly exist with the current crop of Bucs, but that’s not to say that these Pirates are on the verge of World Championship status. They don’t have a corner outfielder of the vintage of Roberto Clemente or Dave Parker (few teams do), at least not until J.J Davis breaks through or Jason Bay lives up to the level of hype he received in San Diego. There’s no one to patrol center field who matches the hitting of Al Oliver or the speed and defense of Omar Moreno. The Pirates also don’t have a second baseman who ranks with Dave Cash, Rennie Stennett, or Phil Garner, though they’re still hoping that Bobby “The King” Hill will become better than league average. Most importantly, the Pittsburgh pitching staff is lacking the types of right-handed hammers that highlighted both the start and finish of the 1970s. Kip Wells might become the next Steve Blass, but there’s no one to fill the Dock Ellis or Bert Blyleven roles, and even less talent to occupy the bottom-of-the-rotation spots. (On the plus side, they may have the new John Candelaria in dynamic left-hander Oliver Perez, who was part of the haul for Brian Giles late last summer.) And no one is confusing the current-day Jose Mesa with palmballing Dave Giusti or submarining Kent Tekulve in their respective primes.
So what does all of this mean? The Pirates, currently toying with the .500 mark, are not going to make the playoffs this season, not in the tough environs of the National League Central. They’re not going to win a World Championship next season, either. Yet, they have a chance, albeit a remote one, of maintaining a .500 record through the remainder of the season. More importantly, they have given Pirate fans a reason other than the wonderful atmosphere of PNC Park to attend games on a regular basis. And that’s a start.
Author of the book, Tales From The Mets Dugout, available from Sports Publishing.
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