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Baseball Notebook: Hey, if Cher could hook up with Sonny ...

Sunday, June 29, 2003

By Steve Ziants, Post-Gazette Sports Writer

The big news this week: Bruce Springsteen was given the OK to play Fenway Park in September, becoming the first rock ’n’ roller to set one Fender on the hallowed turf in its 91 years. Might as well have told The Guy In The Stands that Pearl Jam had been signed to open Friday for the The Pops in the annual Fourth of July extravaganza on the Charles.

And he has seen some unlikely matches over the years. Julia Roberts and Lyle Lovett. Felix and Oscar. Salads at McDonald’s. Cher and (your choice). Lennox Lewis’ fist and Vitali Klitschko’s face. The Three Stooges meet Hercules.

Guess this is only whetting our appetites for that All-Star Game pitching matchup we’re likely to be treated to two weeks from Tuesday at U.S. Cellular Field in Chicago:

Shawn Chacon vs. Esteban Loaiza.

Dare we dream?

If that’s not a meeting at the hips of Anna Nicole and spandex, what is?

A pitcher who was 11-21 until this season vs. a pitcher the Pirates gave up on five years ago.

Don’t get The Guy wrong. They’re having wonderful seasons. Chacon, who starts today vs. the Pirates, is 11-3 with a 3.91 ERA -- even more impressive when taking into account he is a Colorado Rockie (see chart above). Loaiza is 11-2 with a major-league-leading 1.99 ERA and perhaps the only reason the underachieving White Sox are still alive in the AL Central (5 1/2 games back going into the weekend).

But c’mon. What appeared to be more likely in March: A Chacon-Loaiza matchup in the All-Star Game or in Colorado Springs?

Chacon was demoted to the minors in August and not recalled when rosters expanded in September; Loaiza, 9-10 with a 5.71 ERA in Toronto last season, went to camp with the White Sox on a minor-league contract and wasn’t even pictured in a preseason promotional shot of the starting rotation. (A picture, by the way, he keeps taped inside his locker.)

Anna Nicole, meet Mr. Marshall.

Who could have imagined that a Colorado Rockie would have a National League-best 11 wins with two weeks to go before the break?

“He’s our go-to guy,” Manager Clint Hurdle told Tracy Ringolsby of the Rocky Mountain News after Chacon beat the Padres, 5-1, Monday. “He has established himself as the ace of our rotation.” An eye-opener, considering 2002 NL rookie of the year Jason Jennings (7-5, 4.76) remains very much a part of the staff.

Who could have imagined that Loaiza would still be in the majors in five years, let alone starting in the All-Star Game, when the Pirates dealt him and his 27-28 career record to Texas in 1998 for Warren Morris and Todd Van Poppel?

“He’s just having a great year and showing that he can pitch his pitches when he has to,” Chicago Manager Jerry Manuel said after Loaiza beat the Twins, 2-1, Tuesday. “We haven’t said anything about the All-Star Game, but if they have some other people they’re considering to start, I don’t see anybody better than Esteban Loaiza.”

“Other people” would seem to mean Toronto’s Roy Halladay (11-3). Or maybe Seattle’s Jamie Moyer (10-5), who at age 40 stands to become a first-time All-Star and would be a sentimental choice. But Loaiza has his own karma at work. Namely the chance to start in his home park.

It makes Loaiza nervous to hear such talk. He still has three starts before the break, including today vs. Kerry Wood and the Cubs. And he knows he has a track record of starting seasons strong and finishing wrong. As he told Teddy Greenstein of the Chicago Tribune: “You never know what can happen.”

Bruce could call out Celine Dion for a stirring duet of “My Heart Will Go On” from on top of the Green Monster.

Well, OK. So maybe not that.

But after imagining that, Loaiza vs. Chacon in two weeks doesn’t seem so unlikely anymore, does it?

Learning from history

True, with Adam Bernero’s 5-3 loss to the Rockies Sunday, the Detroit Tigers became the first team since the 1906 Boston Pilgrims to own three 10-game losers before July 1. But, alas, for a change The Guy did not come to bury the House Cats, but to give them hope. To remember the 1988 Atlanta Braves, a team similarly hapless (54-106), but one that like the Tigers had an idea of allowing a talented, young pitching nucleus to learn on the job.

Tom Glavine, then 22, spent his first full season in the majors that summer. A young right-hander by the name of John Smoltz came up at midyear. They took their beatings, going a combined 9-24, but have had just two losing seasons since and, well, it’s baseball history what’s become of the Braves since then.

This is not to say that Detroit’s Mike Maroth, 25, and Jeremy Bonderman, 20, will become Hall of Famers or the Tigers will dominate the AL Central for the next decade, but their seasons thus far have been strikingly similar to Glavine’s first full season. In some cases, their starts have even been better. A look at their numbers through 16 starts this season and Glavine’s first 16 in ’88 (thanks to RetroSheet.org):

Innings9284 2/381 2/3

Said Bonderman to John Lowe of the Detroit Free Press after losing, 3-1, to the Red Sox Monday: “They don’t have to spare me. So what if I’m 2-25? Stats for one year don’t mean anything.” At least they don’t if you’re Tom Glavine.

Stray finds a home

OK, make your jokes. Maybe the 2003 edition of the Detroit Failing Felines don’t count (titter, titter), but former Pirates second baseman Warren Morris finally appears to have made it back to the major leagues. Since his callup from Class AAA Toledo June 6, Morris has ingratiated himself so well into the Tigers’ lineup by hitting .302 (19 for 63) with 3 homers and 8 RBIs that Manager Alan Trammell had already determined that either Omar Infante or Ramon Santiago -- the club’s opening day middle infielders -- would be shipped out when Carlos Pena came off the DL. “[Morris] deserves to be in the major leagues,” Trammell told the Detroit News. “Sometimes guys take an opportunity and they run with it.”

A true Hart throb

Holy Harold Hecuba, his name even sounds like a matinee idol. Bo Hart. What kind of name is that? The kind of which legends are made, apparently. Called up from Class AAA Memphis by the Cardinals only because regular second baseman Fernando Vina (hamstring) and backup Miguel Cairo (broken hand) are on the disabled list, Hart has joined the likes of Stubby Clapp and Joe McEwing as just-add-water Busch Stadium legends. He is 22 for his first 45 through a 4-for-6 game last night. Not bad for 5-foot-11, 33rd-round draft pick out of Gonzaga. “He strikes out and gets a standing ovation; he’s doing something right,” marveled teammate Woody Williams. And when he hits a leadoff home run, as he did Wednesday, it’s curtain call time, baby ... so lights, camera, hit!

Pump him up?

Amazing how guys just keep finding new and innovative ways to land on the DL. Jaime Jones of the Diamondbacks’ Class A team in Lancaster, Calif., will be out until mid-July after getting injured putting air in his tires at a gas station. Oh, it wasn’t the air pump that did the damage ... but the minivan that backed up over his foot.

Recipe for success

Theirs is one of the quirkiest rooting sections going, and its momentum -- and exposure -- will only build as Gary Sheffield adds to Triple Crown-caliber numbers (.331, 22 HRs, 64 RBIs). “Sheff’s Chefs” -- who sit in right field at Turner Field adorned in chef’s garb right up to the tops of their puffy hats -- have come to be as much a part of Braves games as the tomahawk chop, Ted ’n’ Jane and Leo Mazzone’s bench rocking were at various times the past decade.

But before this thing gets out of hand, Jeff Schultz of the Atlanta Journal Constitution wanted to set the record straight this week. These are not necessarily diehard Sheffield fanatics, he reports, but mostly bad Shakespeare wannabes. Seems their fanaticism only runs as deep as their desire, upon perusing the roster before the season, to find a player whose name would make a cool rhyme.

This ’n’ that

Ya gotta love the honesty of Indians GM Mark Shapiro, who upon trading Karim Garcia and Dan Miceli to the Yankees Wednesday for a player to be named, described said player as “an unsubstantial” one. But hey, the two-dozen balls should come in handy. ... Scary thought for the week: The Blue Jays lead the majors in runs (501), hits (844), and slugging percentage (.494) and are second in batting (.296) -- and this week welcomed back Shannon Stewart and 2002 AL rookie of the year Eric Hinske, both of whom missed about a month, from the DL. ... Reds Manager Bob Boone has grown weary of having to explain himself every time he sits one of his four outfielders. “I address it with that blue thing,” Boone said Thursday, pointing to the lineup card. “What am I going to do? Pet them? It’s a manly game.” ... The ascension of Dontrelle Willis’ star in South Florida has produced some of the highest local TV ratings for his recent starts since the Marlins’ World Series year of 1997. ... Good thing Orioles pitcher Sidney Ponson doesn’t sit on the Supreme Court. After fans ran onto the field at SkyDome in the ninth inning Wednesday, Ponson couldn’t have been more succinct in his feelings: “I hope they beat them,” he said. ... And finally, asked what would’ve happened if Phillies catcher Mike Lieberthal hadn’t tackled him on his way to the mound after being buzzed by two Carlos Silva pitches in RedsBrawl I of the month June 13, Adam Dunn said: “I’d be serving jail time.”

Shot and a Jeer

Shot: The Boss welcome at Fenway Park? Yes, it’s true. Bruce Springsteen will play Fenway Sept. 6. He will also play baseball venues PNC Park (Aug. 6), U.S. Cellular Field (Aug. 13), Comerica Park (Sept. 21) and Miller Park (Sept. 27). In a related announcement, George Steinbrenner insists the Yankees have a tougher schedule.

Jeer: Here’s guessing those $2,500 Internet bids for “An Afternoon with Jose” aren’t coming in quite so fast since Jose Canseco went to jail this week for violating probation.

Steve Ziants can be reached at sziants@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1474. This notebook was gathered from personal interviews, the wire services and other newspapers.

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