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Savran: Penguins in same fix as '92 Pirates

Saturday, April 14, 2001

At the confluence of sports sensory overload. The beginning of the baseball season, the beginning of the real hockey season, and the NFL draft.

Is this 1992 all over again? The Penguins hope so in the competitive sense. That year they were the last team standing.

But given the monolithic personnel decisions facing them at season's end, whenever that end should come, the parallels to the '92 Pirates are inescapable. Most understood that 1992 would be the baseball team's last, best shot at a World Series.

The Penguins' management team must be keenly aware that what faced the Pirates then is about to face them now. Mario Lemieux has committed only to next season. The core of their corps is standing at the gate, although free agency is not as free-wheeling as it is in baseball.

If they don't win now, the Penguins might not for a while. Sounds very much like what faced the Pirates moments after Sid Bream's toe beat Mike LaValliere's tag.

The vise squeezes even more tightly on the Penguins than some other teams. Not only must they win this opening-round series in order to further their quest for the Stanley Cup, they also need the revenue from a second best of seven.

Teams budget for a first-round playoff appearance. It's the second round where those living on the edge of the financial abyss begin to see red ink turn black. The third round is like hitting the lotto. Or at least the daily number. Lemieux came back not only to play for the Cup, but also so that the team's cup is filled.

The television ratings for the Masters makes one thing abundantly clear: People love watching the best be better than everyone else.

When Tiger Woods leads or is in the chase, more people watch. Fans celebrate and revel in his excellence. Why, then, does everyone west of the Bronx revile the New York Yankees? Have they not been excellent, masters for three consecutive seasons and four of the past five? Why do we take delight in rooting against them with such passion and fervor?

Partially because they're from New York, and their owner makes Saddam Hussein look like Ozzie Nelson. But the basic difference is that Tiger uses the same equipment as everybody else. He's not better because he can afford to buy better golf clubs.

Opening day, I had the opportunity to interview the two lead combatants in what figures to be the biggest battle since Allegheny County began reassessing homes.

Commissioner Bud Selig and players union chief Donald Fehr offered that the climate between the two parties is significantly better than it was in 1994 -- the season that was never completed. And from which baseball has never fully recovered.

I've wondered why there was no news of negotiation. At this survivalist juncture with only the future of baseball, especially small market baseball, at stake, would the warring parties do as they've always done? Wait until after the season to begin serious negotiation. Then take a month off for the holidays. Then stroll through spring training so that a delay to the start of the season was unavoidable, if there was to be a start at all.

Why aren't we hearing anything about such talks?

After talking to both, I now believe silence is not only golden, but it's also by design. Selig has already threatened to fine any owner a cool $1 million for speaking publicly about labor-related matters. That tells us that he believes the preening and public posturing is detrimental. He did let one thing slip during the interview, however. He mentioned that ancillary issues are being cleared from the deck so that the home-run hitter issues -- revenue sharing, salary restriction, etc. -- can be the main focus.

That would not only indicate there is indeed a better relationship, but also that talks are being conducted . Privately. A classic example of no news being good news.

Levon Kirkland, now Signed in Seattle, will get about half of what he was scheduled to earn in Pittsburgh. But how much more, or less, is that than what the Steelers offered him to return after his release? We'll never know. But even if the offer to stay was greater than what he got from Seattle, I never expected Kirkland to come back. He's too proud a man to accept his release or the reduced offer that followed.

You can't win if you don't score. You can't score if you don't shoot. You can't shoot if you don't give your best player room to do so.

Mario Lemieux without a shot? Britney Spears without a halter top? It seems to me the Penguins, in an attempt to outsmart the Capitals by changing their line combinations, outsmarted only themselves.

If the Capitals are intent on mugging Mario, keep him on a line with mates who can make Washington pay for their transgressions, not Aleksey Morozov or Wayne Primeau.

Stan Savran is the co-host of SportsBeat, weeknights 6:30-7:30 p.m. on Fox Sports Pittsburgh

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