Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Is Hines Ward the Greatest Steeler Ever?

Before you immediately discredit me, give me a chance to explain.

As I was heading into work Monday morning, I was listening to analysis of the game on the radio. They went over Mendenhall's performance, how inconsistent Dixon looked, yadda yadda yadda. Then a caller called in to talk about Hines Ward, and he said, "If Hines Ward isn't the greatest Steeler of all time, I don't know who is."

My first reaction was to roll my eyes and think, "Typical 'Yinzer'. The Steelers win an early season game, and it's as if we found a cure of cancer, and there will be an 80 percent chance of money rain today (Where are you, Pac Man Jones?). People need to get a grip."

Then I actually thought about it. And it may not have been the dumbest thing I've ever heard.

With his six-catch, 108 yard performance on Sunday, Ward became only the 12th receiver in NFL history with both 900 catches and 11,000 yards. The TWELFTH. His 78 career touchdown catches is good enough for 22nd. Ward already rewrote the Steelers record books long ago, and he continues to cement his place as one of the greatest to ever play his position.

There is no doubting that Ward is the best wide receiver to ever don the Black and Gold, but could he be the best Steeler player ever? That would mean placing him above such names as Franco Harris, Terry Bradshaw, Jerome Bettis, Jack Lambert, Joe Greene, and the list could go on and on. The only one that statistically holds a candle to Ward is Bettis, who ranks 5th all time in rushing yards, and 10th in touchdowns. Bradshaw ranks 44th in passing yards, behind such stars as Dave Kreig (13th), Jim Everett (16th) and Brad Johnson (38th).

But we all know that statistics aren't everything. Numbers are simply the only tangible way of comprehensive evaluation. In order to truly determine a player's worth, one needs to just watch him play. Even though his stats are impressive, that's where Hines Ward truly stands out. Hines is known throughout the league more for plays that don't end up in the scoresheet, rather than ones that do. Ward plays wide receiver with the same tenacity as Jack Lambert played linebacker, which has always been the key to endearing himself to the Steeler faithful.

I haven't even mentioned his Super Bowl MVP award, but uh, yeah, he's also a Super Bowl MVP.

So I'm going to go ahead and start making the push. For the first time, I agree with a radio yinzer. I think Hines Ward, when he hangs up his cleats for the last time, should be considered the greatest Steeler ever. He personifies the heart and soul of Pittsburgh: the relentless, gritty underdog that brings his hard hat to work day in and day out.

If you needed a reminder:

Feel free to tell me if you think I'm right, or if I'm right.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

The Kids Are Alright

This will probably be my next to last post about the 2010 Pirates, and I don't want to end things on a bad note. Given the Buccos 46-91 record, viewing things in a positive light is difficult, nearly impossible. Watching Pirate games is akin to watching an antelope evading a lion. The effort put forth by the antelope is both heart-wrenching and admirable, but the natural order is such that the story seldom ends well. That's the way it's been for the 2010 Pirates, loads of heart, but a dearth of victories. That dichotomy makes Pirates games difficult to stomach. Watching things like Ryan Doumit pumping his fist and pointing at Pedro Alvarez after Alvarez made a great defensive play are images that we, as fans, grasp on to. The talent on this team has yet to catch up to their heart.

But the times, they are a' changing. The youthful infusion is starting to pay dividends for the Pirates. Three players that weren't in Pittsburgh on Opening Day have become staples of the team. Can Jose Tabata, Pedro Alvarez and Neil Walker alone save the Pirates? Of course not. But along with Andrew McCutchen, they are certainly proving to be a step in a different direction. Guys who didn't come to the major leagues to toil in mediocrity, but rather to lift each other to levels unseen. There seems to be a tomorrow for this team, and from the looks of it; Tabata, Alvarez and Walker certainly want their say.

Jose Tabata

The youngster that was the key cog in the Marte-Nady deal with the Yankees (side note: that deal looks much better than it did 2 years ago) started hitting right from his call-up, and hasn't stopped since. Tabata has kept his average above .300 for the majority of his time in the Bigs, and has shown glimpses of what he can offer the Pirates on the basepaths. His patience, speed and effectiveness as a contact hitter help label him as a potential star leadoff man, something the Pirates have lacked since their playoff days.

Pedro Alvarez

Of the three players mentioned in this article, the one who came in with the most fanfare was undoubtedly Alvarez. Early on, Alvarez showed signs of a player who was tremendously burdened by the expectations of a city; constantly swinging for the fences, and having defensive lapses. However, as his season has progressed, Alvarez has begun to grow into himself offensively and defensively. He's shown a flare for the dramatic, saving his best for when the game is on the line (basically Adam LaRoche's complete opposite). Alvarez has also displayed his range at third, making some absolute gems. Pedro will probably never be a consistent .300 hitter, but he gives the Pirates significant power at a corner infield spot, just one of the tonics the Pirates have so desperately needed.

Neil Walker

If you watch any Pirate games at all, and you HAVEN'T fallen in love with Neil Walker, then you may not have a heartbeat. A year ago, many wondered how and if Walker had a place on this team. After showing tremendous versatility in the entire infield, he finally found a home at second base (.986 fielding percentage). His recent offensive burst has put him in NL Rookie of the Year conversations with a .312 average, 10 HR and 51 RBIs in 85 games, alongside 25 doubles. If the Pirates were to get that type of offensive production by a middle infielder, it gives them an advantage over almost every team in the National League.

Moreover, Walker seems to be the type of player that Pittsburgh needs on the Pirates: A hometown kid who barely remembers Sid Bream crossing the plate in 1992, but who knows exactly how things have been for the team since. Someone who the city can wrap their arms around. We all have dreams as a kid of hitting that decisive home run in the bottom of the ninth for your hometown team: a scene that plays out in schoolyards and backyards every summer. Walker gets to live his. That should be motivation enough for anybody.

There's a lot of work left to do, but the Pirates focus on youth over the past couple of years is starting to come to fruition.

The world is cyclical. The downtrodden don't stay down forever. Empires rise and fall.

And sometimes the antelope becomes the lion.