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Date of Issue: April 07, 2005

Molly Slicker poses with former Pittsburgh Pirate great Bill Virdon before one of her two games she served as bat girl. Islander Photo: Courtesy Bob Slicker.
Click on image to enlarge
McKechnie Field faithful bid farewell to Pirates, regular season commences

Another season of spring training baseball has come to an end at McKechnie Field and scores of other baseball parks across Florida and Arizona. Teams have packed their bags and moved north for the regular season, which officially got started on Sunday night when the defending World Series champion Boston Red Sox took on the New York Yankees.

It was another very successful spring for the Pittsburgh Pirates, who have trained in Bradenton since 1969. The Pirates welcomed 68,562 fans to McKechnie Field - almost 5,000 per game - for their 14 home games. Beautiful weather and a strong schedule that featured teams like the Yankees, Red Sox, Twins and Phillies produced a record six sellouts making the Pirates very successful at the ticket gate.

Success on the field is something Pirate fans have been hoping for since 1992 when the team went 96-66 to win the National League East division for its last winning season. Pittsburgh is currently working on a 12-year streak where they've finished with a record below .500 and, judging from their 13-14 spring record, that streak could be extended to 13 seasons.

Having grown up in New Jersey rooting for the Philadelphia Phillies and later for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Tampa Bay Devil Rays, I know first-hand how it feels to have your favorite team stink year in and year out. With that being said, the key is being optimistic and believing in your team.

For fans of the Pirates and Devil Rays, speaking optimistically (in public) about pennant chances for either team could provoke an offer from someone who wants to sell you a really nice bridge.

However, there is a bright side to every story - even when the story involves the Pirates or Devil Rays.

The Pirates open the regular season hosting the Milwaukee Brewers at PNC Park in Pittsburgh with a young and unproven pitching rotation led by veteran righty Kip Wells and second-year southpaw Oliver Perez. Perez earned the opening-day start after compiling a 12-10 record last year, including 239 strikeouts. Beyond Perez and Wells, the starters are long on talent, but short on experience. Six-year veteran lefty Mark Redmond joins right handers Josh Fogg and Ryan Vogelsong and lefty David Williams in a six-man rotation.

The pitching is going to have to be good if the Pirates are to approach a .500 season. New rightfielder Matt Lawton should help the offense, but replacing departed catcher Jason Kendall with the ancient Benito Santiago will not. Craig Wilson (.264, 29 HR, 82 RBIs) is the Pirates best offensive player, but he doesn't even have a starting position. He splits time at first base with lefty Darryl Ward and will log time in left and right field. Shortstop Jack Wilson (.308, 11 HR, 59 RBIs) was the team's lone all-star last year, but he came into camp weak from an appendectomy and only appeared in 16 spring games.

Others who are expected to contribute mightily for the Pirates include 2005 rookie of the year Jason Bay (.282, 26 HR, 82 RBIs); centerfielder Tike Redman (.280, 51 RBIs, 18 SB); and new third baseman Ty Wigginton, who hit .261 with 17 HR and 66 RBIs for the Mets last season.

If the stars align perfectly for the Pirates, they could overtake the Brewers and perhaps even the Cincinnati Reds in the National League Central, but that's unlikely. It looks fairly certain that the Pirates will be a step closer to the all-time record of 16 straight losing seasons from 1933-1948 set by the Philadelphia Phillies.

Trying to remain upbeat and positive about the Tampa Bay Devil Rays chances got worse and worse with each passing day in spring training. Sure there's young stars like Carl Crawford, Aubrey Huff and Rocco Baldelli, and a ton of young pitching talent, but having to play the Yankees and the Red Sox 18 times each puts the Rays in a serious bind.

Throw in the fact that two players the Rays signed during the off season to improve the team (Roberto Alomar and Danny Bautista) retired at the end of spring and Alex Sanchez, who the Rays claimed off waivers to replace Bautista, became the first player this season to be suspended for failing a steroids test makes the Rays situation difficult to say the least.

Any talk on the Rays chances this season rests with their starting pitching. Youngsters Dewon Brazelton (6-8, 4.77 ERA, 61 SO) and second-year southpaw Scott Kazmir, who struck out 41 batters in 31 innings, lead a rotation that also includes 6-foot-9-inch lefty Mark Hendrickson (10-15, 4.81 ERA), Rob Bell (8-8, 4.48 ERA) and veteran righty Hideo Nomo, who is attempting a comeback from an injury-plagued 2004 season.

If the Rays staff can give manager Lou Pinella six quality innings on a regular basis, the Rays strong bullpen could give them a chance to surpass last season's 70-win total and may even challenge the Baltimore Orioles for third place.

The Rays, who went 13-16 in the spring, received pretty good pitching efforts from most of their staff, but offensively they averaged just over four runs per game, which won't cut it going up against the offensive juggernauts that the Yankees, Red Sox and even the Orioles field.

When you talk about the Rays offense, it has to start with Aubrey Huff (.297, 29 HR, 102 RBIs), who is coveted by virtually every contending team. Huff will start the season playing right field, but could end up moving back to third base if converted shortstop Alex Gonzalez can't hit somewhere around his weight. Leftfielder Carl Crawford (.296, 11HR, 59 RBIs) was the Rays all-star selection last year after he led the majors in steals with 59 and 19 triples while also playing gold-glove calibur defense.

Other strong contributors on offense include shortstop Julio Lugo (.275, 7 HR, 75 RBIs), young second baseman Jorge Cantu (.301 20 doubles in 171 at bats), and centerfielder Rocco Baldelli (.280, 16 HR, 74 RBIs), who is expected back from knee surgery somewhere around the all-star break in July. Newcomers Travis Lee, Josh Phelps and Sanchez, if he gets his steroid use accusations behind him, could all provide an offensive boost for the Rays this season.

There's also a lot of young talent down on the farm, but for now the Rays are going to let them play every day in the minors, rather then force-feed them at the major league level. Shortstop B.J. Upton and outfielder Delmon Young are future superstars who could be playing for the Rays before the season is half over.

Who will meet in the World Series? In the American League, it appears to be a three-way battle between the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, the New York Yankees and the defending champion Boston Red Sox. In the National League, the St. Louis Cardinals, the Chicago Cubs and the Philadelphia Phillies will do battle, with the Yankees emerging to take on the Cubbies. Last year ended the Curse of the Bambino. This year ends the Curse of the Goat. Cubbies win, Cubbies win!

Sorry there's no Devil Rays versus Pirates World Series in the cards. And since area baseball fans supported the Pirates so well for spring training, they should get on up to Tropicana Field and support the Devil Rays. It's fairly inexpensive as far as sporting events go and if you don't support them, there won't be a baseball team in the Tampa Bay area.

Roller hockey league kicks off season

The Anna Maria Islanders Roller Hockey League gets started Saturday, April 9, from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. at the Anna Maria Island Community Center. Play It Again Sports will be on hand to sell new hockey equipment at "greatly discounted" prices.

Team photos will be taken at 11 a.m. with games immediately following. Hot dogs, drinks and snacks will be sold in the Center lobby. For more information, call the Center's Andy Jonatzke at 778-1908.

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