Kovacevic: Pirates earn handful of respect
NEW YORK — Poor Evan Meek.
On this scorching Monday afternoon inside Citi Field's Jackie Robinson Rotunda, which Major League Baseball set up as a sensational stage for its All-Star media sessions, you could spy with no more than a couple glances no less than 20 percent of Clint Hurdle's roster.
Side by side, left to right at their individual podiums, it was Jeff Locke, Jason Grilli, Andrew McCutchen and Pedro Alvarez. Across the hall, presumably for being late to the party as a last-minute replacement, was Mark Melancon.
Count 'em up ... five.
What a day for the Pittsburgh Baseball Club, as proud as any in this already bodacious summer.
“It says a lot,” McCutchen was saying amid a crush of several hundred media members navigating the room. “All this, it says a lot about our team and what we're doing this year. People are starting to recognize us. It's not just us seeing it anymore. And honestly, that's the only way we could have five guys here.”
He cut himself off.
“It's amazing just to say that.”
And yet, I swear, all I could think of was Meek.
‘Happy for Pittsburgh'
Meek was the Pirates' lone All-Star in 2010 and the last, if you will, of their token selections.
Yeah, he was having a strong season with a 0.96 ERA and, other than a still-blooming McCutchen, was a logical choice to send to Anaheim. But let's face it: If rules didn't require each team to be represented, no one would have missed Meek.
Maybe he knew it, too. He was fairly shaking on the day he found out. Called it “overwhelming” and “definitely a surprise.”
Some were surprised in a more negative connotation, naturally, and it took only a nanosecond or so for the national online outrage to commence: Evan Meek? Who's Evan Meek? The process is a joke! Enough of the obligatory Pirates and Royals! Just take the best players!
Yeah, well, this year they did take the best players.
And they were Pirates.
And if any of these five was overwhelmed or surprised, it was impossible to detect.
As McCutchen put it, “This is just how it should be right now.”
McCutchen's a bit more defensive about his time these days, given the growing demand. At the same time, he's very much in his element as a star, and that was evident again Monday. Before being one of the more popular figures at the media session and an ESPN favorite later in the workout, he visited the set of MSNBC's “Morning Joe,” the daily political gabfest with Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski.
How'd that go?
“I didn't get to talk a whole lot. Had to butt in to talk,” McCutchen replied with a laugh. “But it was all right. It's all good.”
Locke, who you'd figure would be most blown away, described feeling something like that only during the flight he and his mates made from Pittsburgh late Sunday. (Except for Melancon, who had to drive.)
“We're getting on the plane, I look around, and we had the whole first-class section taken up. Just us,” Locke said. “I mean, people had their families with them, but I'd say that's still a pretty good sign.”
The two-man back end of the bullpen, the backbone of these Pirates, also stayed as cool as ever.
They talked more about the fans back home than anything.
“I don't think there's much more you can say about our team than the representation we have here,” Grilli said. “Really, it's nice to be part of something that's special not just for the Pirates but for the city.”
“I'm just happy for Pittsburgh,” Melancon said. “To be able to represent like this for our fans ... it's really neat.”
You've heard or read by now, I'm sure, about the historical implication, how the Pirates hadn't had this many All-Stars since five in 1972. How they'd sent more than two players only once during this 20-year losing streak. How they'd sent Meek, Carlos Garcia, Denny Neagle, Jason Kendall, Tony Womack, Ed Sprague — Ed Sprague! — Brian Giles, Mike Williams, Jack Wilson, Jason Bay and Freddy Sanchez all as solo representatives.
One more time, all together now: Ed Sprague!
That's important. It's another of the countless barriers this woebegone franchise has needed to break for a long time.
But I have to tell you, I picked up on something else in that rotunda Monday that might mean just as much.
‘Pirates for real'
Listen to the answer Adam Wainright gave when I asked if his Cardinals, neck and neck with the Pirates, believe that their Central rival will stick around this time: “From our side of it, I can tell you we are not expecting them to fall off. I just think they're a team that's built for winning. They have a great rotation, a lineup that can beat you different ways, and they've had a good bullpen for a few years now. Sounds like a well-rounded team to me.”
Even better, from the Reds' always-blunt Brandon Phillips: “To tell you the truth, I think the Pittsburgh Pirates are for real. They've got great pitching. They've filled in some gaps, especially with Russell Martin. That guy knows the game. Great catcher. And you know, they can still make a move. When you've got great pitching, all you need with your position players is to be average or above. You just need guys who can get the job done. And that's what the Pirates are doing. They're playing great baseball.”
It looked like Phillips was done, but he then added: “It's good for baseball that the Pirates are doing what they're doing. I think it's good for the Reds, too. Makes us want to step up our game.”
Genuine motivation from facing the Pirates?
That's respect that's been hard-earned.
As for Meek, he's had shoulder trouble and is still trying to fight his way back to the majors — as a starter, no less — with Triple-A Round Rock in the Rangers' system. That's commendable, of course, but his fall only lends credence to those who criticized the All-Star selection three years ago.
Meek and those 2010 Pirates went on, by the way, to win 57 games.
Same number the current club can achieve Friday.