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Savran: Don't be too quick to judge Pirates

Saturday, April 06, 2002

Exactly what were those odds on a Pittsburgh-Tampa Bay World Series? Of course, I mention that in jest. The next time the Pirates meet the Devil Rays will be sometime next March. Any discussion of anything to the contrary would be premature. But then, weren't the hysterical, scalding reviews of the Pirates' opening day loss to the New York Mets equally premature?

It was as though people were unable to draw any distinction between the forgettable, regrettable 2001 season and the new one. As if the first loss this year was actually the 101st of the last. Not only because they lost the game Monday, but the all too familiar ineptness of the way they played. "Same old Pirates. Nothing's changed ... another terrible team, another embarrassment."

The court of public opinion was too quick to condemn. Which is not to suggest that the opinion will prove to be wrong, just that the court issued its verdict without viewing enough evidence. It was one game.

Conversely, the series win against the Mets is just one series. Half a hundred will follow. There are many miles and losses yet to travel and endure. But before fans rush to judgment, shouldn't these Pirates at least be given a chance to escape the muck and mire of last season ... indeed, the last nine? Shouldn't they be given an opportunity to at least shed the tag of laughingstock?

It has been my experience that players, managers and coaches in all sports easily adopt an 'us-against-the-world' mentality. "Nobody but those in this locker room believed in us." You're just as likely to hear that from the New York Yankees or the Detroit Red Wings as you are the Kansas City Royals or the Nashville Predators. And while it's mostly paranoia, often calculated, adding manufactured animus to an already contentious relationship with the media, there are times when it can serve as a motivational tool.

Baseball isn't like football, where players have to play with an edge and a certain anger. But you can play with a chip on your shoulder. And if that chip is placed there as a result of criticism -- or worse yet, ridicule -- that can result in making the whole better than the sum of its parts.

Much was made of the $9 million dollar payroll of the 1997 Pirates. When the Chicago White Sox came to town with Albert Belle, much was made of the fact that his annual salary was substantially more than that of the entire Pirates' team. The players declined to buy into that stuff -- publicly. But privately, and collectively, it served as a rallying cry. And they played way over their heads that series and over the entire season. They relished being cast in the role of David wielding the slingshot against any and all Goliaths. It put fire in their eyes and gravel in their bellies.

The ballplayers on the 2002 team not only are aware of their record a year ago, but also the brand of baseball they played to achieve it. They hit 100 on the wrong side of the ledger strictly on merit. But it might serve as a positive to look beyond the numbers and realize how they're regarded.

The talk shows (I am the host of two myself) were unbelievable after that opening-day loss. If the players aren't aware of their fans' reaction, they should be made aware. It should make them angry, and it could make them play with that chip on their shoulder.

Attitude certainly isn't a replacement for talent. Give me a choice between five good ballplayers and a snarl, and I'll take the players every time. But attitude can supplement what you have. And what the Pirates have appears to be at least slightly better than what they've had.

Getting off to a decent start is critical, for the fans and for the Pirates' psyche. Beating the Mets two out of three was important because it temporarily halted the storm of venom. And while it would be a mistake to project one series win as a predictor for an entire season, it also was a mistake to dismiss an entire season after one game. But if that one game serves to galvanize this team, giving them a sense of purpose, it might well be their best loss in a long time.

Stan Savran is the host of a sports talk show from 8 to 9 p.m. weekdays on WBGG-AM (970).

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