An Open Letter to Ron Burkle

Ron –

A few years back, you served as a knight on a white horse, riding to the reduce of my beloved Penguins. Outside of a couple of ugly labor issues since, your stake has shown to be worthwhile. The Penguins found a way to return to competitiveness, and your work with the City of Pittsburgh and with your co-owner got a new arena, a gorgeous palace for fans to watch Sid, Geno, Marc Andre, and all the rest. You not only saved hockey in the City of Pittsburgh, you’ve become part of a true renaissance of the sport there, from the school level (three of the gold medal winning world junior champions team are local boys), college (with RMU and Penn State both playing), to your own team.

And now, you’re being asked by another city to be their savior.

This time, it’s Sacramento, California, and the future of the city’s NBA franchise, the Kings. As someone who grew up in Pittsburgh, and who lives in Albuquerque, I think I can bring unique perspective.

Back in the mid 1990s, Pittsburgh was in position to lose its historic marquee franchise, the Pirates. And Sacramento came to the rescue, in the form of Kevin McClatchy. He bought the team, and worked through a land mine of local issues to get a new ballpark, PNC Park, built. It is a gem. The team may struggle on the field, and ownership has changed, but the fans’ faith was reaffirmed through the actions of Mr. McClatchy in support of the City of Pittsburgh.

Now Sacramento, a city similar in size to Pittsburgh, faces a similar struggle with its lone pro sports team. The principal owners are the children of George Maloof Sr., who made his name and his money with a Coors beer distributorship here in Albuquerque (it was a good investment – we drink a boatload of beer here). Dad did well enough to own a chunk of the Houston Rockets in the late ’70s, which was sold after he passed in 1982. But by this point, the bug of owning something, some part, of an NBA franchise was in the family.

The Maloof kids grew up here. Some of them went to school here. But for the most part, the kids are better known for what they own – the Palms Casino in Las Vegas – and where they’re seen – The Real Housewives of Orange County, for one. They also own the majority share in the Kings.

Now, to say that the kids have over the last decade become…overextended is not an exaggeration. When you sell off the cornerstone of the family business, the beer distributorship, a veritable cash cow, because your other bills are so high…well, lets just say there’s a problem.

Some of that problem is the casino. Some of it is the Kings. Last year, the family readied a move of the franchise to Anaheim. You had apparently enquired about whether the team was for sale. “Stop calling”, the brothers said. But Sacramento fought back. They started real, honest to goodness grassroots efforts to keep the team, to build a new arena – sorely needed – and in the end an agreement was (apparently) reached. The mayor, Kevin Johnson, stood at center court with two of the brothers, arms raised high. A new arena was agreed to. Things would work out after all.

And then reality hit.

The team was for sale. And Seattle (more specifically, Microsoft honcho Steve Ballmer and hedge fund manager Chris Hansen), which had lost their Sonics to Oklahoma City last decade, came in with a monstrous bid. Sacramento, knowing this was coming (as the Maloof cash flow issues weren’t improving), began an effort to counter-bid. Several local businessmen have placed a stake forward, but it covers only a small fraction of the amount offered by Ballmer and Hansen.

So now, a single sport town turns its eyes to you, Ron. It is a devoted fan base. I know, I follow things there a bit, with friends who are there. it’s a fan base that, through lean years and good, sold out the arena formerly known as Arco, when other teams – the Sonics included – didn’t. They want to know if you’ll be there for them the way you were with Mario, in Pittsburgh. The same batches of plans for a new downtown arena, to serve as a cornerstone for revitalizing the city’s core, are in place.

They just need you, Ron.

I for one hope you’ll be there. I hope you can return the favor that Kevin McClatchy did for the City of Pittsburgh years back.

Hoping to hear from you soon,

Kevin in ABQ

That’s What I’m Talking About

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Now, that was a superior win. Better than the December 2008 win in Baltimore – the goal line catch – that all but clinched the AFC North and paved the way to Super Bowl XLIII.

Just finished watching most of the fourth quarter again – it was so pleasant – and it brings home the important point that turnovers should be avoided. Driving, Charlie Batch tried to hit Heath Miller in the back of the end zone. Ed Reed cut across and made the pick. On third and four, the Ravens looked for a pass – one that was apparently far afield, because James Harrison had plenty of time to get around the left side to liberate the ball from Joe Flacco. Ziggy Hood made the recovery. A few plays later, Batch found Miller, who channeled Lynn Swann’s ballet practices to tie the game.

The defense continued to surprise, as much as anything else for making sure tackles, not making the dumb play on the Flacco deep ball – and there were plenty of those. The Steelers got the ball back with plenty of time for a clock-killing GWFG drive. That’s just what Charlie Batch and the offense had in hand. An earlier screen fake with a Miller seam route opened up the WR screen just enough late – there were three of them on the final drive – to keep yardages reasonable.

Also, no dumb penalties. Yes, the false start on the last set of downs served as a setback, but the random holding calls were held to a minimum.

So, 7-5 going in to a closing quarter with three of four at home. Ben might be back. Ike might be out. But we’ll take a win like this every Sunday.

Twenty Years Ago…

…was a hell of a lot more painful than fifty-two years ago, plus one day.

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On an October afternoon in 1960, the 13th to be precise, Bill Mazeroski took Yankees pitcher Ralph Terry deep to Right Field in the bottom of the ninth inning of the seventh game of the World Series. A home run at 3:13 PM ended a most improbable World Championship for the Pirates over the heavily-favored Yankees, who had heavily outs ores the Buccos in three games, but lost four nail-biters as the Pirates won it all for the first time in 35 years.

Forbes Field has been gone since the early 70s, but fans still gather on the thirteenth of October by the remnants of the outfield wall on the University of Pittsburgh campus, with a radio broadcast of the game, to recollect a great moment over once again.

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The spot the ball cleared.

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Remains of the wall

For a Pittsburgh sports fan, the thirteenth of October is a glorious day.

The fourteenth of October is a different story.

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Twenty years ago, the Pirates were again something. They had built a great pitching staff (Drabek, Smiley), a great set of clutch bats (Bonds, Bonilla, Van Slyke), and had a manager in Jim Leyland who made it all work together, if not perfectly, then with enough harmony to win.

And win they did. Three straight division titles, starting in 1990.

And then came the postseason.

In 1990, the Pirates ran into a Reds buzz saw that put just enough runs on the board before turning things over to a dominant bullpen of Rob Dibble and Randy Myers. The Reds won in six games, then demolished the Oakland A’s to win the World Championship of Professional Baseball.

In 1991, the team was different – the Atlanta Braves won the NL East – and the pitching dominance was in a now well-known set of starters. The result was the same: Braves in seven, the Pirates shut out in the last two at home.

In 1992, it was the Braves once again. Atlanta took a 3-1 series lead, then the Pirates found their bats, winning games five and six. Game seven was tight, but the Buccos squeaked across a pair of runs; the Braves, meanwhile, seemed snakebitten. With the bases loaded, a line-drive was caught by Pirates third-baseman Jeff King, who doubled up the runner on third. A pop-out later, the Pirates were clear of a jam. The seventh and eighth were uneventful.

Then came the ninth.

I won’t say anything to the play that inning, just to my experiencing of that moment.

My dorm room was positioned such that I could pull in KDKA-AM’s call of the game. Long-time play-by-play man Lanny Frattare was nervously confident. I was at the same time on the phone with my brother. Nerves were frayed all around.

The inning degraded. We felt worse. The Braves scored a run on a Sac Fly. Then filled the bases again. A pop-out, and one out to go.

One out to go.

And no closer.

I don’t remember hanging up the phone. Or turning off the TV. I was just…numb. I still am, through twenty consecutive years of losing. Accustomed to it, I suppose.

The Braves would lose to the Blue Jays in six. I was convinced things would’ve been different, if only for a game – that team would be no more because of free agency, win or lose.

A few years later, Jim Leyland would take the Florida Marlins to the World Series, and win. I was happy for him. He lost in ’92, in part due to a ridiculously tight strike zone; he won with Livan Hernandez due to a similarly large one.

Side note: My neighbor four years later was a die-hard Yankees fan. That year, I did the impossible.

I rooted for the Yankees.

I cheered when they beat the Braves.

God forgive me, I loved it so.

Update: As I wrote these words, the Yankees, who had another improbable comeback in Game One of the ALCS (against Jim Leyland’s Tigers) not only lost in extras, but lost Derek Jeter for the season with a broken ankle.

My penance is done.

Forty years ago today

The fondest sports memories of my youth took place primarily at Three Rivers Stadium in Pittsburgh. In the 1970s the Pirates, and then, the Steelers, found ways to win. It helped a community through an economic downturn to have one thing, just one thing, to feel good about during the week (or at the end of the week).

The Steelers had plenty of names – Bradshaw, Franco, Mean Joe, Jack Splat, Dobre Shunka, Rocky – plenty of Hall of Famers, too. A trip to training camp at Saint Vincent College in Latrobe was an opportunity to see giants – literal giants of the game – walk past you between the practice field and the locker room.

The Pirates had two distinct periods in the ’70s. I was just old enough for the second, when Willie Stargell, by then the most seasoned of veterans, along with the Fam-A-Lee, found a way around a deep Orioles pitching staff to win the 1979 World Series.

But years earlier, it was another seasoned veteran, who led the Pirates. And forty years ago today, he registered his 3,000th regular season major league hit.

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His name was Roberto Clemente.

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And a mere three months after this play, his last regular-season plate appearance in the season, he was dead, trying to take relief supplies to Nicaragua after an earthquake, his overloaded plane crashing just before midnight on New Year’s Eve, 1972.

I was too young to see Roberto play. I’ve seen him at his best, though, on the field and off. MLB will occasionally show one of the games of the 1971 World Series. His arm in Right Field, his legs on the base paths…he played a different game than anyone ever. Off the field, his legacy lives on in the sports city in his name, and in the hearts of Puerto Ricans and Pittsburghers who share the stories of his legacy and his devotion to his fellow man.

Much has been written of the events of these days. David Maraniss’ wonderfully poetic biography speaks of Clemente’s life in total. Bob Cohn at the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review penned a very nice column today on the at-bat itself. And if you’ve never read it, find a copy of W.P. Kinsella’s short story “Searching for January”. It’s in his short-story collection, The Dixon Cornbelt League (as an aside, there are no bad Kinsella stories – as much as I like Shoeless Joe, I love The Iowa Baseball Confederacy).

As a long-time Pittsburgh resident and by default a sports fan, one big thought:

The passing of Roberto before his time marked a point of transition for the city from a baseball town to a football town. When Roberto got hit number 3,000, the Steelers were 1-1 in the beginning of what would seem a magical season. Roberto’s plane crash took place nine days after the Immaculate Reception. From that day forward, the franchise which hadn’t won a thing in its’ first forty years – the Steelers – would win twenty division titles, eight Conference Championships, and six Super Bowl titles.

As for the Pirates? While they would close out the decade on a high note, the ’80s would be best known for the drug trials and for lackluster play (joggin’ George Hendrick, anyone?). The ’90s would begin with so much promise. Three straight division titles. Three straight playoff disappointments, each more painful than the last. And since then? Since that season, twenty years after Roberto’s last hit? Twenty years of losing, unprecedented in team sport in America (well, at least last night, a losing season was averted for one more day thanks to the bat of Andrew McCutchen). Half of the time since Roberto’s last hit has been continuous losing.

We fans still hold out hope, though – however implausible it might be. There is, always, next year.

Ask a Steelers fan in 1972 – or a few years earlier, at the arrival of yet another head coach, an assistant from Baltimore – whether there was hope after almost four decades of losing.