My favorite part of covering a big-league game? It's not the late-inning drama on the field, the chaotic post-game scrums in the clubhouse or even the pregame spread in the press box (we pay everywhere, just for the record). On a lot of days, the best part is getting involved in the manager's pregame media session.12
I did it dozens of times in the dugouts with Joe Torre, who always leaned on a fungo bat and slugged cups of green tea, as well as the Cleveland trio of Mike Hargrove, Charlie Manuel and Eric Wedge. Had wacky Ozzie Guillen tell me one day in Cleveland, "the only reason you're here is to see if Ozzie says something bleeping crazy." Of course, he was right.
I've been in the office with Terry Francona. Saw Jim Leyland lying on a couch in Toronto cackling and cursing out Detroit beat reporters -- only half-jokingly -- about how their papers sent backups to a previous series. Last weekend in PNC Park, I had a great reunion with Terry Collins and we joked about how his recent postgame rant on SNY, which he kept rated PG because it was televised live, was nothing like the R-rated ones I heard here 20 years ago.
Then I went over to the Pirates clubhouse last Sunday morning. It was 10:15 a.m. when Clint Hurdle had his daily briefing. There were maybe 10 of us in the office (longtime Pirates announcer Greg Brown, the former Bisons and Bills voice, was among those in the room). It was incredible stuff.
The Pirates entered the weekend over .500 in June for the first time since 2005. They're closer to first place this late for the first time since 1997. They just might have enough to finish over .500 for the season for the first time since 1992.
They've got great starting pitching, a vastly improved bullpen and young stars like center field Andrew McCutchen and second baseman Neil Walker. But the big difference this year is they have Hurdle, a baseball lifer who took the Rockies to the World Series in 2007 and was the hitting coach for the Rangers when they went last season.
I asked Hurdle what it was like to be nurturing all this young talent after dealing with stars the last few years. His smile showed he was loving it.
"Things solidified in Colorado but my start in Colorado was just about exactly like this," Hurdle said. "It was very similar. There were times we started five rookies in the lineup. One year we tried to break three or four rookies in the bullepn. This is nothing for me. It's challenging from one side, invigorating from a side. It's exciting to see the maturation process."
It's also a rollercoaster ride, I reminded him. Young players will make mistakes, often big ones at the worst time of games, and their careers may appear to stall.
"They will not pop all at the same time even though they want to all get there," Hurdle said. "They will not. The pace of maturation and experience in the big leagues is different for every individual. That's an interesting part, to see who catches quicker, who might take a little longer.
"You just keep speaking greatness into them, keep encouraging them. These guys understand that I'm easy to please and I'm hard to satisfy and that's not going to change."
The player that's the most fun to watch on the Pirates is McCutchen, a star in the making. Last weekend against the Mets, he hit a scorcher to third that Daniel Murphy couldn't handle and made it all the way to third as the ball rolled into short left field and two runs scored.
"It happens in the blink of an eye," Hurdle said of McCutchen. "You're watching one guy hoping he can score, the ball comes out of the outfield hot and the next thing you know the helmet is off, the dreadlocks are flowing and he's brushing the dirt off at third base. Wow. He can make things happen. That's game-changing speed."
Hurdle said he has the same message to each new player that shows up in his clubhouse (there are several spring training-type No. 60s and up). It's what he told McCutchen & Co. during spring training.
"What I throw at all of them the first time is 'Fear nothing, respect everything. We've got a good thing going on here. Be a part of it,' " he said. "The other thing is 'Go play in the backyard and pretend it's Wiffleball when you were 6.' That kind of shout back from your manager will mean a lot more than, 'Hey, you've got to go out there and do a good job tonight.' "
The Pirates have a big interleague set this weekend with the Red Sox. I've heard from several of you that you're making the trip. You'll love the park, perhaps the best in the majors. And the home team is a whole lot better too.
"The one thing I really feel good about is that these guys have grasped the idea of pitch and play defense," Hurdle said. "It makes for a good game and keeps everybody in the game. You have to love the crowd and energy, love hearing them when their closer is on the mound at the end of the game. That's good stuff."
> Dumping on Wrigley
It's been a pretty crummy season in Chicago to date and things got even worse last week when legendary scribe and MLB Network analyst Peter Gammons dumped on beloved Wrigley Field during an appearance on Chicago radio.
"The Ricketts family [owners of the Cubs] has a serious issue they're going to have to understand it's not only rebuilding personnel," Gammons said. "They got to make that ballpark livable. It's a dump. They're going to have to spent $200-something million on renovating Wrigley Field, do what the Boston owners did with Fenway Park. And the investment is far greater than they realize."
The Cubs have a plan on the table called Wrigley 2014 that would do plenty of things to upgrade the park in time for its 100th anniversary. But they'll be hard-pressed to match all the work that's been done in and around Fenway, which turns 100 next year.
I've probably been to 50 games at Fenway in the last seven years and it's amazing, destined to live on several decades. I have not been to Wrigley in 18 years and I'm told there are plenty of infrastructure issues that need to be addressed. Get to it, Chicago. It's a treasure.
> Mets matters
* I'm getting a lot of e-mails from Mets fans questioning my feelings on the affiliation with the Bisons. Repeating my stance to stop the confusion: I do not blame the Mets for the Bisons' on-field struggles this year.
The Mets can't control injuries to the likes of David Wright, Ike Davis, Angel Pagan, Johan Santana, Chris Young, Jenrry Mejia, Boof Bonser, Lucas Duda and Kirk Nieuwenhuis. Those sunk the Bisons.
My issue is that the Mets are simply not credible business partners anymore in the wake of the Wilpon family's troubles. The Bisons as an organization should not be in business with them, especially with the potential of a much better relationship for their fans 90 minutes away in Toronto and the majority of folks here following the American League.
* Want to pacify some folks in Buffalo? Give us some rehab days with Wright. Santana was not all that interested in rehab starts and now has been shut down so he might not pitch until later this season, if at all.
* After watching Jose Reyes in person for three days, here's my analysis: Pay the man. If the Wilpons can't, they should sell the team. Reyes might be the National League MVP. You're in New York. If you can't pay, you don't deserve to be an owner.
> Locals get drafted
Who says we can't produce baseball players in Buffalo? Things are admittedly pretty lean these days at the high school level due to weather and the growth of other sports but going better in college. St. Bonaventure has a history of producing pros and according to Matt Lozar, one of the gurus of the Canisius College sports information department, the Griffs are tied for sixth among Division I teams in the Northeast in picks over the last three major league drafts.
Connecticut has had 18 players drafted in that time, according to Lozar, followed by Boston College (14), Pittsburgh (11), St. John's (9) and Maryland (7). Canisius, Villanova and Army are at six apiece after Griff seniors Chris Cox and Shane Davis were taken by the Blue Jays on the final day, and Sean Jamieson was taken in the 17th round by the Athletics.