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Starkey: Pirates must finish last

Sunday, Aug. 16, 2009

Keep losing, Pirates.

Lose like your life depends on it.

Lose like you've been losing this month, which has begun with two wins in 14 games.

Does everybody realize what's at stake here, heading into the final quarter of the season• It's incredible that more people aren't talking about it: One of the most tantalizing prospects in recent baseball history is expected to be the first pick in next year's draft, and the Pirates might get him if they simply continue to do what they do best.


Lose, lose, lose.

The chant at home games for the rest of the season should be, "Let's Fold Bucs!"

I'm not joking. This franchise and its fan base have been so viciously beaten down for the past 17 years, so blatantly stripped of their dignity, that the rest of the baseball universe has declared them dead.

Forget rebuilding. The Pirates need a resurrection.

Forget good players. The Pirates need a transformative player, which is where Bryce Harper comes in.

You've probably heard of Harper by now. He is the 16-year-old Las Vegas phenom who graced a recent Sports Illustrated cover under the headline "Chosen One ... Bryce Harper Is The Most Exciting Prodigy Since LeBron."

This kid could be Sidney Crosby in spikes, for all we know, or even Mario Lemieux — and you remember what then-Penguins GM Ed Johnston did in the 1983-84 season to guarantee he'd get Lemieux.

Let's just say E.J. made it real hard for his team to win, though no general manager should ever — or would ever — ask players to give less than 100 percent.

I'm sure a bunch of seamhead snobs are laughing at the hype surrounding a 16-year-old who might not play in the majors until something like 2012. Let them laugh. They're probably the same people, along with the rest of the baseball world, who've been laughing at the Pirates for 17 years, anyway.

The 6-foot-3, 205-pound Harper can hit a baseball 500 feet and throw it 96 mph. Scouts describe his bat speed as faster than A-Rod's at the same age. He could be a catcher, a pitcher or a position player. In a home-run derby in Tampa, Fla., he hit the longest home run recorded (albeit with an aluminum bat) at Tropicana Field, a 502-foot missile that bounced off the back of the dome.

The kid wants to play professional baseball so badly that he dropped out of Las Vegas High School in June and enrolled in a junior college. This way, he can earn a GED after his 17th birthday in October and be eligible for next year's draft.

He has an attitude, too, which is another thing this sorry franchise needs.

Consider what Harper told SI, when asked to identify his long-range goal.

"Be considered the greatest baseball player who ever lived," he said.

Here's what he told : "Don't want to watch me• Then don't buy the ticket."

I like him already. And his dad's a steelworker, so the story is tailor-made for this town.

Not that it's going to be a cinch to pull off. Going into Saturday night, the Pirates were a half-game ahead of the Kansas City Royals and five ahead of the Washington Nationals at the bottom of the Major League Baseball standings.

Five games is a decent lead, but if anyone can blow it, the Pirates can. They have 46 games left. Why can't they lose 35 times?

This team has traded almost every one of its competent veteran players. It has gone into games of late without a lefty in its bullpen. It kept Virgil Vasquez in the rotation when it had better options in the minors.

All tremendous moves, and reminiscent of the '83-84 Penguins, when Johnston traded star defenseman Randy Carlyle for a player to be named later (much later, as it turned out) and sent hot goalie Roberto Romano to the minors late in the season. In his place, Johnston brought up Vincent Tremblay, who allowed 24 goals in four games and never saw the NHL again.

The Pirates just lost Evan Meek, their best relief pitcher, for maybe a month with a rib injury, and replaced him with Steven Jackson, who'd been shelled in his most recent big-league outing.

That's the spirit!

The Pirates also just recalled utility man Brian Bixler, who struck out 18 times in a span of 26 plate appearances earlier this season, and pitcher Denny Bautista, who had a 4.88 ERA in Triple-A.

The key now is to finish the job, and the Nationals seem more than willing to oblige. Those fools actually won eight straight games earlier this month, thereby injecting some serious drama into the Harper sweepstakes.

Of course, the Nationals might not want the first pick next year, considering the stress they've endured with this year's top pick, pitcher Stephen Strasburg, and the money they might have to shell out to sign him. Strasburg is a Scott Boras client and only a bit less-hyped than Harper (who is expected to team with Boras, as well). If Strasburg re-enters the draft next year, it could become really interesting at the top.

But first things first: Perhaps the Pirates could coax Matt Morris out of retirement for the stretch run and bat Bixler and in the clean-up spot.

Hey, whatever works.

In this case, losing isn't everything, it's the only thing.




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