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Kovacevic: Pirates misfire on priorities

| Saturday, Aug. 25, 2012, 12:02 a.m.
Christopher Horner
Pirates manager Clint Hurdle talks with team owner Bob Nutting in the dugout at the start of the game Sunday July 22, 2012 against the Marlins at PNC Park. Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review

It was 3:30 a.m. Thursday when Pirates players, coaches and other personnel dragged themselves off their charter plane at Pittsburgh International Airport. They'd just flown five hours from San Diego, they'd just played their 20th game in 20 days, they'd just been swept by the Padres and they'd just fallen out of playoff position.

Spectacular time for that scheduled day off, right?

A chance to plop on the couch, unplug the phone, surf through Netflix and forget it all.

Well, forget that.

The day off never came.

Those players, coaches and other personnel were sent off the very same morning for the Pirates Charities Sporting Clays Invitational at the Seven Springs Resort owned by team chairman Bob Nutting.

No, really.

Right from the aircraft to a waiting bus on the tarmac.

In the dead of night.

To drive over three counties.

To blow up clay pigeons.

Not optional.

As in, you know, “all in.”

Players who participated in the June 11 Pirates Charities Golf Classic were excused from the shoot, but that still left 10 players who were told to go, including a few key performers, plus pretty much everyone else who'd been on the plane.

What a blast it must have been.

The bus capped the 90-minute drive at Seven Springs by the crack of dawn, way early for the morning session that began at 10:30 and ended at 1 p.m.

By the time all were bused back to PNC Park, retrieved their cars and drove home, it was about 4 p.m.

The day was as shot as those pigeons.

Of the several players with whom I spoke Friday at PNC Park before that beat-goes-on 6-5 loss to the Brewers, every last one of them fumed over it, though none would speak on the record.

“It's a pennant race,” one player said. “Maybe everyone around here will realize that at some point.”

Yeah, maybe.

Actually, I'm sure the Pirates' front office already has a firm grasp of that. I'm just not sure they know how to conduct business in a pennant race, whether that's related to trades, roster management, game strategy or even silly stuff like this.

Look, this is no egregious offense.

There's nothing in Major League Baseball's labor agreement preventing the Pirates from ordering players to work on off days. Article V, Section C, which deals with scheduling, stipulates, “An open day shall be scheduled following travel from cities in the Pacific time zone to cities in the Eastern time zone,” but that applies only to playing games. Same with the clause that prevents teams from playing “more than 20 consecutive dates without an open day.”

Nothing about pigeons.

The Pirates' players did not contact the MLB Players Association over this matter, and Greg Bouris, MLBPA spokesman, declined comment until or if they do.

So this isn't about the Pirates breaking or even bending rules.

It's about common sense.

It's about priority.

The Sporting Clays shoot has been in place since Nutting became controlling owner in 2007. It's a worthwhile event that last year raised more than $100,000 for Pirates Charities' many excellent initiatives.

But these aren't the 105-loss Pirates anymore. This isn't the same as when Adam LaRoche would don the camo and facepaint, and everyone would get a big chuckle out of it.

It's a pennant race.

In fairness, these 10 players were given a choice: They could participate in the shoot as scheduled or have it pushed back to Sept. 6. Because the latter would have been a true day off — with no travel — the players decided to just get it over with.

But how about a third choice: Kill the whole thing.

Or do it in the offseason.

Do clay animals hibernate?

The amount raised by the shoot is roughly what Wandy Rodriguez earns per start.

Why not just cut a check for that amount and cut everyone on the team a break?

In a November interview with MLB.com, Nutting said this of charity work: “Everyone at the Pirates, from myself to our manager, coaches and players, understand that giving back is a significant part of each of our responsibilities as an employee of the Pittsburgh Pirates.”

That's commendable.

But it would be fair to counter that the Pirates' most significant responsibility to the community is to win baseball games.

It's outright bizarre that, even this summer, this still needs to be reinforced.

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