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SI FOR KIDS
The young Bucs can play, but they're not ready to record their greatest hits
By Mark Bechtel
During their preseason publicity caravan, the Pirates often reminded folks that this year marks the 20th anniversary of the franchise's last championship -- the 1979 club, which swung to Sister Sledge's We Are Family. But the Bucs' p.r. crew didn't suggest a song that might serve as the most fitting sound track to this season, so here are a few possibilities culled from the Billboard Hot 100 that hit the stands the week spring training opened.
No Scrubs, by TLC. The most noticeable difference between these Pirates and last season's team, which scored the second-fewest runs in the majors, is that this year's model is chock-full o' real big leaguers instead of unproven kids. "We thought we needed to bring in some older players," says manager Gene Lamont. "We've got to give our younger guys more time in the minors."
Acquired from the Indians for reliever Ricardo Rincon, the 28-year-old Giles will finally get the chance to show what he can do as a full-time starter in left after spending most of the last three seasons as the Tribe's fourth outfielder. Based on his career numbers, he would rack up 25 homers, 101 RBIs and 17 steals over a 550 at-bat season. Giles was always one of the kids in Cleveland, but on the Bucs he finds himself in the role of elder statesman. "The guys here look up to you because you've been on a team that has won and you know how to win," he says.
Winning types have been a rarity in Pittsburgh lately. Last year the team broke camp with only one player -- utility infielder Doug Strange -- who had postseason experience. Benjamin, Giles, Schourek and new centerfielder Brant Brown were all playing in October, and Sprague earned two World Series rings with the Blue Jays.
One Hit Wonder, by Everclear. One youngster who survived the purge is 22-year-old rightfielder Jose Guillen. In 1997 he jumped from Class A to the majors and hit 14 homers and drove in 70 runs. Guillen followed that up by batting .337 over the first two months of last season, and Pittsburghers found themselves bandying about the C-word -- Clemente -- rather liberally. But his performance the rest of the way (.234, nine homers) brought the F-word -- Frobel -- to the tips of fans' tongues. For the Pirates' offense to click, it's imperative that Guillen pick up some of the RBI load from first baseman Kevin Young.
Ex-Factor, by Lauryn Hill. When second baseman Tony Womack became an ex-Pirate, the team saved the $1.65 million he is scheduled to make this year. But by trading him to the Diamondbacks for a prospect, they also lost the National League's stolen-base champ. The Bucs plan to use Benjamin or rookie Warren Morris at second, while Lamont will ask Kendall to lead off. Using a catcher atop the order is rare, but so are catchers with a .411 on-base percentage and 26 steals, which were Kendall's numbers last year.
Watch for the Hook, by Cool Breeze. While they're at it, opponents should watch out for the heat, as well. Say what you will about Pittsburgh's inability to score runs, but this team has a potent pitching staff. "We've got a great rotation," says Kendall. "All five of them can go out there at any time and shove it up anybody's tail."
He's as right as he is blunt. The Pirates' ERA of 3.91 was 0.32 runs lower than the National League average. No team has lost 93 or more games and finished that far under the league average. Especially nasty is Francisco Cordova, who with his four pitches and several arm angles, can give hitters a dozen looks.
Believe, by Cher. Pittsburgh's off-season moves, coupled with its talented arms, have hopes running high in the Steel City. "We can contend," Giles says, and several of his teammates echo that sentiment. But the Pirates are at least a year or two away, and if they don't temper their enthusiasm with some realism, they'll find themselves singing along to a different hit -- Whitney Houston's Heartbreak Hotel.
Issue date: March 29, 1999
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