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Kovacevic: 'Man, just let the kid play'

| Wednesday, June 11, 2014, 12:09 a.m.
Pirates right fielder Gregory Polanco walks down the stairs to the dugout with Starling Marte before their game against the Cubs Tuesday, June, 10, 2014, at PNC Park.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Pirates right fielder Gregory Polanco walks down the stairs to the dugout with Starling Marte before their game against the Cubs Tuesday, June, 10, 2014, at PNC Park.

And on the first day, Gregory Polanco traversed the commonwealth without ever touching soil or water (cruised I-80 from Allentown and over the Allegheny River), spread his gospel to the most vile of cynics (charmingly tackled questions from us media types), donned his royal robes (the Pirates' weekend softball unis), channeled a power beyond compare (effortlessly launched batting practice bombs into the bushes and bleachers), was hailed by the citizens as a conquering hero (the 31,567 at PNC Park stood and roared before his first at-bat) and, within moments, had all his enemies raising their arms (popped up to the Cubs' infield).

Am I doing it right?

Hey, not going to lie here. I'm guilty of Polanco-looza, too, or whatever you'd call it. I've been as eager as anyone to see the franchise's most promising player since Barry Bonds get to Pittsburgh, even while appreciating the Pirates' financial reason to keep him down. It felt almost privileged just seeing him stroll to right field before the game, out there for the first time, taking tips from outfield instructor Rick Sofield on managing the Clemente Wall's many nuances. It felt as if every gesture was something worth noting for the next generation.

Which is both silly and unfair.

Just as it would be terribly unfair for the city as a whole to unload its many baseball neuroses on this baby-faced, loopy-limbed 22-year-old man-child.

In other words …

“Man, just let the kid play.”

That was the sentiment of Gaby Sanchez a few hours before the comparatively anticlimactic 7-3 loss to the Cubs, and it was as profound as any I'd heard all day.

He shared it with Polanco, too, in Spanish.

“I just told him to have fun, to be himself,” Sanchez recalled. “And I'm sure he will. We already saw in spring training that he respects the game. We already know about his talent level. So will we keep an eye on him to help him out? Sure. And I'll be there myself. But the biggest thing for me, everyone else in here and even the fans is to just let him play.”

Certainly seems a reasonable request.

Polanco did follow that opening popup with a lasered single to left-center in his second at-bat off a fastball from the lefty Travis Wood. But he wound up 1 for 5, including a popup, a groundout and strikeout all with men in scoring position. In the field, he muffed Anthony Rizzo's liner to the gap off his mitt for a run-scoring double.

As immortal debuts go, this was decidedly mortal.

And so what?

Contrary to the paranoia that blanketed the local social and traditional media circuits the past couple months, there's no one in the Pirates' organization who genuinely believed Polanco was a finished product. Don't feel obligated to believe that, but it's true. He's an enormous talent who, yes, would have been here had it not been for Super 2, but he still arrives nowhere near as polished as they expect he'll become.

Want a tiny example?

Marc DelPiano, one of the organization's sharpest pro scouts, was dispatched to tail Indianapolis on the Triple-A trail over Polanco's final week, and his report included all the usual platitudes about all five tools, with vivid descriptions of monstrous blasts and multiple stolen bases and guys gunned down at third. And it didn't hurt that Polanco was in a ridiculous run of 49 plate appearances with one strikeout.

I'll let that last one simmer for a moment.

Well, even DelPiano came away with concerns — repeating that this is a tiny example — about Polanco's inability to read shallow flies to right. Or, for that matter, balls that might zip over his head. Neither was the case with Rizzo's ball Tuesday, of course, but the problem is going to pop up again and it some point. And it won't look pretty.

“It's a hitch,” Rene Gayo, the Pirates' Latin American scouting director confirmed by phone from Houston. “It's fixable, but it's there.”

Polanco confessed, as well: “The angle of the ball from a right-handed hitter … the ball doesn't come in a straight line.”

Wonderful. Let's cling to that, then. An actual flaw.

Because to look beyond the infancy of this career, to start projecting within the incredible context already established … well, let's just say that it wouldn't be a match for the focus himself. Because, by all appearances, no one is more grounded about Polanco than Polanco.

“One thing I'll tell you about Polanco: He doesn't care,” said Gayo, the man who signed him as a “sick giraffe” of a failed pitcher out of the Dominican. “And when I say he doesn't care, I mean he doesn't care what anyone thinks of him. He isn't cocky. Not at all. He was raised in a good home. Both his parents are policemen. He was taught right. But he knows what he is, and he doesn't care if anyone else does or not.”

That was blissfully evident Tuesday, as Polanco, who calls Gayo “like a father to me,” played that out at PNC Park. He was funny and playful in his media session, insisting on speaking in his distant second language without help. He shook hands all through the building, from ballpark security to Neal Huntington's boy, all with form.

“I'm so happy to be here,” he was saying as he bounced around.

Sure, there were nerves on the field. It bears pointing out, though, that the bulk of Polanco's BP was focused on the opposite field, and it paid off with his first souvenir.

He tried to keep a stern face and hushed tone through his postgame interview but failed to hold back — at all — when asked about the hit.

“So excited,” he said through a corner-to-corner grin. “Very excited.”

Good for Polanco. But better for Clint Hurdle to have had this response, one you can expect to hear repeatedly in the months ahead.

“I'm not getting ahead of this one,” the manager said. “I'm just going to enjoy watching him play.”

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