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Kovacevic: From Pirates to D-Lee, with love

| Monday, June 11, 2012, 12:38 a.m.
The Pirates Neil Walker and Garrett Jones celebrate after scoring on Matt Hague's two run double in the sixth inning against the Reds at PNC Park May 30, 2012. Chaz Palla | Tribune Review
Pirates starting pitcher A.J. Burnett throws against the Royals on Sunday, June 10, 2012, at PNC Park. Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review

TO: Derrek Lee

FROM: Your old friends

What's up, D-Lee?

Remember us?

Hope all's well out on your yacht or sun patio or wherever you are out there in Cali. We know how you love that coast.

Hey, just wanted to touch base … crazy thing … we're, um, in FIRST PLACE.

No, really.

Been an amazing season.

And never better than Sunday: We beat the Royals, 3-2. A.J. Burnett took a no-no into the sixth, Cutch lasered a bomb to left — why do people keep pitching to him? — and the pen did its thing. We've won four in a row. We've got the best record in the majors — 12-3 — since May 25. We swept an interleague series for the first time since 2001. We even drew 101,133 for the weekend, sunny skies at PNC, the whole deal.

You should've been here.

But you know what?

Don't take this badly: We're kind of glad you aren't.

Sure, it was awesome how you came over from the Orioles at the trade deadline last July and hit .337. Looked like your prime. And defensively, nobody picks it at first like D-Lee. It was cool having a player of your caliber wearing our uniform, even if just for a couple months.

But what happened in the winter, man?

Neal Huntington personally visited you and your agent. Clint Hurdle called you so often you made it to speed-dial. A few of us called or texted, too.


Then, in December, the Pirates even put up the cash. (Doesn't happen every day. Trust us.) They offered $7.25 million in arbitration. Guaranteed at age 36. And they would have gone higher!

Guess anything was better than the Pirates, huh?

Yeah, we know you've turned down a couple other teams, too. Read in the Milwaukee paper that the Brewers tried just last month. But we'll still take this personally because a) you were with us last, and b) we'll bet nobody's offered anywhere close to what we put on the table.

Admit it, you thought we'd stink again.

Can't say we blame you, to an extent. You got here five days after Jerry Meals made a call so atrocious he could work for the Nevada Boxing Commission. We'd just begun a 10-game losing streak and wound up 18-37 post-D-Lee.

We did stink. And, yeah, we've stunk for 19 years.

We also realize you weren't alone in this. Edwin Jackson turned down our $30 million to take the Nationals' $11 million. Roy Oswalt wouldn't even take Neal's calls!

But you're different. You saw our pitching first-hand.

You saw James McDonald at his best down the stretch. You saw Joel Hanrahan striking out the world. You saw our depth. And you probably noticed in the offseason when management ponied up $17 million to get A.J. and Erik Bedard.

Even we didn't think we'd pitch this well — our 3.25 ERA is third-best in the majors! — but there were enough signs.

We still don't hit so well, you might have noticed. But we've got one of the game's best young players — no, scratch “young” — in Andrew McCutchen. We've got Neil Walker, too, and … well, let's just say you would have been a fine fit coming back in the cleanup spot.

We don't need much. With this win, we're 31-12 when we score two lousy runs.

Insane, right?

It's because we're all chipping in at least a little, like we did again yesterday. Hanrahan couldn't go, so Jason Grilli stepped up for the save, then nearly threw his shoulder out of its socket celebrating. We got a nice bounce-back from Juan Cruz, too. And instead of Cutch generating all the offense … OK, he did generate all the offense.

And A.J. … wow. Dude's got two World Series rings, comes here at 35 years old and, instead of seeing us the way everyone's seen us for so long, he saw a chance to do something special.

“Wouldn't trade it for the world,” he told the Trib last week.

If A.J. leads this team into … well, let's not get ahead of ourselves … let's just say he'll have achieved something no one else has in Major League Baseball in exactly 20 years.

We'll be blunt: It's nice to have players who want to be here, who want to win here.

Clint Barmes was our biggest free-agent signing this winter, and, yeah, it's been a huge struggle. But he's coming out of it, and no one here questions if he cares. Or if he believes in what this team can do.

Listen to what he said yesterday about bringing future free agents here: “If we're playing winning baseball, if we turn it around … who wouldn't want to play here? The city, the ballpark, the passion of the fans … it's been fun to be part of it. Sometimes, it just takes one big year. Who's to say free agents won't be begging to come here?”

Right. Instead of the other way around.

Have a swell summer.



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