Kovacevic: Should local teams dial 412 first?
Not since Neil Walker has Western Pennsylvania seen a baseball prodigy like Brendan McKay. He's a 6-foot-1 left-hander at Blackhawk High School with a blazing fastball, a knee-buckling curve and impeccable command. His string of 72 1⁄3 scoreless innings that ended Thursday night was second longest in national scholastic history. Twice this season, he's gotten 20 of the 21 necessary outs by strikeout.
And when Major League Baseball opens its 2014 draft Thursday, McKay will be expected to go in the top five rounds.
If only …
“Sure, we'd love to have another Neil Walker come through the system and have another local guy make it big,” Neal Huntington was saying the other day at PNC Park. “That'd be fantastic.”
The GM doesn't address draft prospects by name, but he did tackle a question about whether the Pirates ever lean toward local talent. And his stance couldn't have been clearer as he continued: “But we'd hate to take a guy that we like because he's local over a guy that we liked a little bit more, then have that other guy go on to be a pretty good player.”
So, no emphasis on Western Pennsylvania?
“We cover them the way we cover everybody else. We're certainly aware of guys who are local. Some organizations seem to go out of their way to draft a local guy. We want to make sure we understand what they can become.”
In other words, no.
And you know, I'm sure Huntington's right. It's logical to the extreme that a player's place of birth or upbringing should never supersede what he could bring in terms of talent.
Walker has hit 10 home runs in an apparent breakout that should secure a long-term extension from the Pirates. Between that and his personality and, yeah, his roots here, he has a chance to be a truly memorable performer in Pittsburgh sports lore.
None of that happens if Jon Mercurio, a longtime scout under Dave Littlefield and a local man himself, didn't do far more than due diligence on Walker at Pine-Richland High School. Meaning football, too.
“I felt like we knew Neil better than anyone, and the No. 1 thing that stood out to me, always, was his athleticism at whatever he did,” Mercurio once told me. “I felt, because of that, he'd always find a way.”
Right. As in being moved from catcher to third base to a middle infield spot.
Brandon Saad, also from Gibsonia, is fresh off a brilliant Western Conference final with the Chicago Blackhawks, outshining at times the likes of Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Anze Kopitar and Marian Gaborik.
The Penguins let Saad fall to the second round in the 2011 draft, opting for since-departed defenseman Joe Morrow, and the Blackhawks scooped him up. Sure, everyone else snubbed Saad, too, including Chicago three times. But no one else had the edge Ray Shero's staff should have had. Saad played locally until he was 14, then in Youngstown for a spell. He grew up skating alongside the sons of people in the Penguins' front office, some of whom are more furious than ever that Saad — and John Gibson, a goaltender from Whitehall already being labeled a franchise type with the Ducks — got away.
When draft day came, per what I've heard, the Penguins' knock on Saad was that he wasn't tough.
I recall asking Shero at that draft in St. Paul, Minn., about Saad and other talented locals passed up that day. His reply: “Was I supposed to take guys because they're local?”
No, it's because they were local and, as such, it shouldn't have surprised that they'd be good.
I won't hold it against the Pirates if they pass on McKay or J.J. Matijevic, a slugging infielder at Norwin. I'll trust, at least for now, that the scouts worked those kids as hard as Mercurio did Walker.
I also wouldn't have blamed the Steelers had they passed on Aaron Donald, Penn Hills born and Pitt bred, had the Rams not grabbed him two spots earlier in the NFL Draft last month. I'll trust, at least for now, that Donald's time at a shared practice facility would have given Kevin Colbert's men the best info.
But don't say local doesn't matter at all. Because it does to the paying public, even if in a secondary way, as they're the ones who buy tickets and boost TV ratings that keep teams fiscally competitive. It does to the community, which can benefit in so many ways from the golden touch of a Charlie Batch or Sean Casey. It matters to the scouts, too. Most don't seek credit for great picks, but no one wants to be the guy who blew it on Dan Marino.
As the Music Man once sang, “Gotta know the territory.”
Dejan Kovacevic is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @Dejan_Kovacevic.
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