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Pirates ready to show some upside

The Pirates are hosting the All-Star Game next July in PNC Park and are already seeing a spike in season-ticket sales from fans looking to lock up seats for the Midsummer Classic. But team deep thinkers are desperate to show some signs of on-field improvement soon or they know all those season commitments will dry up come 2007. So that was the backdrop that conspired to end Lloyd McClendon's five-year reign as manager Wednesday.

The team was going nowhere and a big move was necessary.

With his payroll not likely to go over $50 million, Pittsburgh owner Kevin McClatchy is poised to make a major move in the dugout, insisting he wants someone with major-league managerial experience. That would seem to foolishly exclude farm director Brian Graham, the former Buffalo Bisons manager who has done a spectacular job of molding Bucs' prospects and is a fashionable choice among many who follow the Pirates.

Pittsburgh-area natives Art Howe (currently out of baseball) and Ken Macha (in the last year of his contract in Oakland) immediately surfaced as major candidates to replace McClendon. The biggest rumor, however, is the return of beloved Jim Leyland to Pittsburgh.

The Pirates have not had a winning season since Francisco Cabrera's two-run single in the bottom of the ninth beat them in Game Seven of the 1992 NLCS in Atlanta. That was the last of Leyland's three straight division champions but there's been no hope since. Another last-place finish in 2005 will make 13 years of sub-.500 play.

"I've put a lot of focus on 2006. I think we have to improve next year," McClatchy told MLB.com. "I think we are going to put ourselves in the best position that we have been in a long time."

The future is finally brighter because Graham had several players, notably pitching ace Zach Duke, graduate from Triple-A to the big leagues and there are several prospects at Double-A Altoona as well. It's a far cry from 1996, when Leyland asked out of his contract to join the Marlins because he felt the Pirates were going nowhere.

Leyland, who still lives in Pittsburgh, has been out of the dugout since abruptly leaving the Rockies in 1999 but is now looking to get back into the game. He interviewed over the winter for the Phillies post that went to Charlie Manuel and is currently working as a scout for the Cardinals. As luck would have it, Leyland was at the ballpark scouting the day McClendon was let go.

"It's been known for some time that I would like to manage again in the right situation," Leyland said when approached by reporters. "That's nothing new. People have known that since I interviewed for the Philadelphia job. Again, it would have to be the right situation."

Hard to see how Pittsburgh would be the right situation for a man who has left his last three jobs because the rosters were filled with young players. With McClendon gone, General Manager Dave Littlefield is now firmly under the microscope. He can't afford too many bonehead moves like getting ex-Bison Jody Gerut, whose ravaged knee is still far from 100 percent, from the Cubs as payment for Matt Lawton.

Bisons manager Marty Brown was Pittsburgh's Triple-A manager under McClendon in 2001 and 2002 and said he felt bad for what his former big-league skipper endured.

"He's getting the blame for what's gone on in Pittsburgh and I think you can point the finger in a lot of other directions," Brown said. "There's been different general managers, a question about commitment of the organization, all sorts of stuff. Lloyd will take responsibility as a manager but it's not just stemming from him."

> Phils phalling

The Phillies' wild-card hopes might have died Wednesday night when closer Billy Wagner was taken deep by Houston's Craig Biggio for a two-out, three-run homer in the ninth that gave the Astros an 8-6 victory. It was the first homer hit off Wagner since May 24.

Wagner, who had converted 23 straight saves, chafed when the hyperbolic Philadelphia media asked if it was a "devastating" loss.

"First of all, we're going to stop using 'devastating' because it's not devastating," Wagner said. "New Orleans is devastating. . . . It's not the end of the world. I'll be out there. This team will be out there."

The Astros have won 12 straight from the Phillies since 2003 and everyone else in the wild-card hunt is chasing them. Biggio and Wagner are former teammates and close friends, so much so that Biggio had given Wagner a signed jersey for his son earlier in the series.

"Here, son," Wagner recalled telling his kid. "Here's a jersey signed by the guy who just hit a homer off your dad."

> Big slump for Peralta

A major test for the Indians in the wild-card hunt will be to see if their young players can withstand the rigors of a 162-game schedule. Last year, remember, the Tribe fell apart after being within a game of the Twins for the Central Division lead Aug. 15.

The first sign of trouble has come from the sudden slump of shortstop Jhonny Peralta. He got a day off Wednesday night in a futile attempt by manager Eric Wedge to shake him from a slump that grew to 1 for 27 entering the weekend. That dropped his average to .281, its lowest point since July 1. Peralta has not homered since Aug. 22.

> Around the horn

The Yankees remain on target to draw more than 4 million fans for the first time in their history. Tuesday's crowd of 48,820 to see the Devil Rays broke a 30-game streak of 50,000-plus gatherings in the Bronx.

The Mets are 4-22 at Atlanta's Turner Field in September and October and many of the losses have been excruciating, such as Wednesday's debacle that saw closer Braden Looper give up the tying run in the ninth and two runs in the 10th after the Mets had retaken the lead.

Who said the fans in Toronto are so docile they don't care about the game? Unable to find his swing since his steroid suspension, Baltimore's Rafael Palmeiro went home to Texas to rehab knee and ankle injuries and his bruised psyche from a 2-for-26 slump. Palmeiro left because he was becoming a big distraction on the road; taunting from fans got so bad last week in Rogers Centre that Palmeiro wore earplugs in the field and at bat.

There was no major damage at any minor-league park in the strike zone of Hurricane Katrina. The Pacific Coast League said there was only "peripheral" damage at Zephyr Field in New Orleans, limited mostly to the roof. The parking lot is being used as a staging area for the National Guard. The team was out of playoff contention and its final two home games were canceled.

The day before his team's playoff series with the Bisons began, Indianapolis Indians manager Trent Jewett declined to talk to the Indianapolis Star for its series preview story. This is a rare case where reporters around a league are applauding a no-comment because Jewett cited a valid reason.

This is the second year in a row the Star has opted not to cover its team's home games, a decision that has rankled reporters and front office types around the IL. Indianapolis is the only Triple-A city that doesn't get coverage of its home games, a disgraceful shirking of duties by a paper that once upon a time sent a beat writer on the road during the team's American Association heyday but is now more interested in covering the WNBA.

e-mail: mharrington@buffnews.com

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