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If, in the course of a five-minute conversation with new first baseman Randall Simon, you do not hear God's name evoked repeatedly, it's a rare day, indeed. "God is my friend," says the 6-foot, 230-pound Simon, who has a refrigerator-sized cross dangling from his neck. "God has watched over me only like God can, and if God protects me like God has protected me, then God will make sure God is doing God's best for God and me."
Translation: God is on the Pirates' side. Which, for a franchise that has failed to reach .500 for 10 straight seasons, is much better than having Derek Bell look after you. So strong is Simon's faith that he feels comfortable making a prediction that, should it come true, would rival any partings of the sea or burning shrubs for impact. " Pittsburgh," he says, "is going to challenge for the playoffs."
In the unlikely event this happens, fans in the Steel City will be looking with great reverence to another larger-than-life being. Simon may not have arrived from Detroit with the fanfare that would have accompanied, say, Jason Giambi or Jim Thome, but by trading for Simon in November, general manager Dave Littlefield added much-needed pop to the big leagues' worst offense. Last year the Pirates had the lowest batting average (.244) in the majors, and their 140 homers and 610 RBIs ranked 14th and 15th, respectively, in the National League.
Although starring for the Tigers in 2002 earned him as much acclaim as Eddie Murphy got for The Adventures of Pluto Nash, Simon amounted to a one-man wrecking crew for Detroit. He led the team in batting average (.301), homers (19) and RBIs (82) while playing his home games in pitcher-friendly Comerica Park. That big year—his first full season in the majors—was a long time coming for the native of Seru Fortuno, Cura�ao, who, as a chunky 17-year-old, was signed as an undrafted free agent by the Braves in 1992.
Simon has always battled a weight problem, but his delayed development was more the result of his approach to hitting. He is a ferociously hard swinger who seldom strikes out (30 times in 506 plate appearances last season) and rarely walks (13 times); he dazzles with his sonic moon shots but frustrates with his puny on-base percentage (.320). "There's a lot of talent there," says Littlefield. "But Randall has never put it all together. Maybe here he can."
In only 1� years Littlefield has started turning around the Pirates, who improved by 10 games last season from 2001. Under former general manager Cam Bonifay, Pittsburgh spent a combined $97 million on outfielder Bell, catcher Jason Kendall, shortstop Pat Meares and first baseman Kevin Young. Those were all terrible signings for a low-revenue team, and they put the franchise in a hole that it won't get out of until the declining Kendall's $60 million contract expires after the 2006 season. (Bell is retired, Meares is sidelined for the season after suffering a fractured bone and torn tendons in two of his fingers, while Young is still with the team.)
With a $49 million payroll to work with, Littlefield has worked wonders. He swindled emerging righthanded starters Josh Fogg and Kip Wells from the White Sox before last season, and now—with righty Kris Benson healthy after reconstructive elbow surgery in May 2001 and righty Jeff Suppan arriving from Kansas City as a free agent in January—Pittsburgh has the division's third-best rotation, behind Chicago's and Houston's. After Littlefield acquired Simon, he signed outfielders Kenny Lofton, Reggie Sanders and Matt Stairs—a trio of low-risk, potential high-reward free agents. All three are proven playoff performers, with Lofton and Sanders fresh from appearances in last year's World Series with the Giants. This year's lineup will be a significant upgrade over Brian Giles and the Eight Dwarfs of last season.
Simon, remember, has faith. On the middle of his left cheek there is a white birthmark the size of a vanilla wafer. When he was a young boy, his mother, Lucilia, told Simon it was God's way of making sure he didn't shoplift. "You'll always be easily identified," she said. "So don't steal. Earn what you get through hard work."