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Savran: Littlefield's vision gives Pirates hope

Saturday, March 01, 2003

In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king.

Have we lived in the land of bad baseball so long that we've become blind to what's good? Perhaps to the degree that being not bad has become a substitute for being good?

There's a palpable buzz about the Pirates. The fan base has finally decided to leave ticket price hikes, bottled water, high school baseball at PNC Park and General McClatchy mauling behind. Surveying the baseball-only sector of the Pirates' landscape, they like what they see.

But what you see and I hear is coming from our little corner of the world. Are we seeing with a blind eye and hearing with a deaf ear when it comes to the Pirates?

Is their anticipated improvement grounded in fact?

Or hope?

Is it prejudiced by provincialism?

An outside perspective might be in order.

Jeff Pearlman covers baseball for Sports Illustrated and is touring every major-league camp this spring, filing reports on the magazine's Web site. He visited Bradenton this week and his review of the Pirates was entitled, "Sinking Ship: It's hard to find hope for the Pirates."

Need I continue?

Pearlman writes: "GM Dave Littlefield is an energetic, no-excuses-allowed powerhouse, who somehow gets visibly excited over Pirates baseball. Littlefield is refreshingly candid, and willingly admits his club is struggling to dig out from under a thunderous pile of manure."

Pearlman calls Jason Kendall "disappointing," Kevin Young "useless," and is less than enthusiastic about some of the nonroster invitees. He refers to Rolando Arrojo as a 500-year-old Cuban and calls Dennys Reyes a Mr. Stay Puft look-alike.

The only positives he offered (other than the bouquets tossed at Littlefield) were that Aramis Ramirez had lost 15 pounds and that Derek Bell was gone and Operation Shutdown was over.

So was Pearlman's analysis too harsh?

Or too true?

Obviously, the acquisitions Littlefield made this off-season didn't titillate a detached observer. The additions of Randall Simon, Jeff Suppan, Matt Stairs, not even Reggie Sanders, weren't enough to spawn even a scintilla of optimism for Pearlman.

Whereas, here in the land of the blind, the region has been sparked to near baseball combustion.

Who's right?

Well, no one is wrong.

Pirates fans shouldn't be ridiculed for finally being able to take a deep breath of baseball air without holding their noses. They've drawn hope from the fact that there actually appears to be some. And it's not based on how many more games the Pirates may win this year, or even if they manage to stop the consecutive streak of losing seasons at 10.

The foundation of hope is their faith in Littlefield. That he has a plan and that, at last, there's some positive movement.

Despite the ever-present constraints caused by never-changing economics, Littlefield is in the process of implementing a plausible plan for the Pirates to compete. And that's the beacon of hope, not that they might win as many as they lose this season.

Make no mistake, the fans are sick of the losing. But what truly sickens them is the disturbing image of their team being a helpless victim. Face down on the canvas, they've been the Clifford Etienne of baseball teams, engaged in pennant races the equivalent of 49 seconds.

It's embarrassing.

Never disregard the fact that fans closely identify with their teams. And when their team is humiliated, they feel humiliated as well. It's tough for them to maintain their dedication when they're taking an emotional beating and aren't making millions to take it.

But Littlefield is changing the perception that Pittsburgh is the Siberia of baseball. He's buying time until the real solution for small-market teams comes forth: The fountain of youth.

He has signed a number of major-league graybeards -- castoffs if you will. But he has signed them only for the short term at reasonable prices. He hasn't painted the franchise into a financial corner by signing veterans of dubious pedigree to multiyear contracts at inflated prices that dog you long after, like eating an anchovy pizza at midnight.

If they work out, it makes the major league-club more competitive at minimal expense and, more important, buys another year for prospects to develop in the minors.

Pearlman is right. Even if this Pirates team is vastly improved, they won't cause the Yankees, or even the Astros, to quiver.

But Littlefield is providing people with hope that the decade of abuse to which the Pirates have been subjected is about to end and that maybe, in the not too distant future, they'll be the ones administering the abuse.

Stan Savran is the host of a sports talk show from 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WBGG-AM (970)

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