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Pirates can be Rays

| Monday, June 30, 2008

There was plenty of ooing and aahing over the New York Yankees visit to Pittsburgh last week. The team we should all have been paying attention to though (especially those getting paychecks from the Pittsburgh Baseball Club) is the one that was here over the weekend.

The Tampa Bay Rays reached a new franchise high water mark when they went 17 games over .500 for the first time ever this weekend. They are ahead of the Yankees in the standings and they are battling the Red Sox for first place in the American League East.

And they are doing it all on a payroll of $5.5 million dollars less than the Pirates, a payroll that is second from the bottom in all of Major League Baseball.

The Pirates will never be the Yankees. But they sure could be Tampa Bay. The Rays and Pirates are baseball's two least successful franchises the last decade. It would appear that one of them has figured a way to get out from under that.

• Speaking of Tampa, the fact that Penguins General Manager Ray Shero was able to get anything for the negotiating rights to Ryan Malone and Gary Roberts by trading those rights to the Lightning is another reason you should feel confident about his ability to run this organization.

In the moments immediately following their elimination by Detroit in the Stanley Cup finals, the most visibly upset player in the Pens locker room was Malone. I think it's not just because they had lost, but because he knew in his heart that he was gone.

This close to a great Cup run, Pens fans feel attached to everyone and want them to re-sign everyone which we all know is impossible. As the clock ticks on this last day before free agency begins, the real work still sits in front of Shero. As does the real judgment of his performance this off season.

• There is no big-time sports league in North America that depends more on ticket sales than the NHL. And many would argue the NHL doesn't fit into the category of big-time sports league. That's why the surprisingly large increase in the salary cap isn't just good news for players, it's good for the sport.

For the fourth straight year the NHL broke it's total attendance record. TV ratings don't come close to the other major sports but they have been rising and the Penguins-Red Wings brought good numbers by hockey standards to the finals.

As tough as the lockout was to stomach for hockey lovers, the end result has made it worthwhile. The on-ice product is better, the finances are better and more even distributed, and things look better for the NHL in general than they have in a long time.

The Penguins themselves should be glad to see the cap increase. It's risen more than $12 million in just two years. And while that means every team has more money to throw around, the Pens have more young talent than anyone and they can certainly use every penny available to try to keep that talent here. The tighter the cap, the harder it is to keep a budding powerhouse from fragmenting before they've won anything.

• Pirate fans seem pleased that they were willing to draft Pedro Alverez earlier this month because he is expected to command more than top dollar and they took him anyway. But how about their fifth round pick, pitcher Justin Wilson from Fresno State• Did you see him pitch the championship game of the College World Series last week• On three days rest he struck out nine Georgia batters and allowed only five hits in eight innings as Fresno State won their first ever baseball championship.

• Aren't you at least a little glad that Pirate Pitcher Ian Snell was diagnosed with golfer's elbow• If the medical examination had turned up no physical reason for his drop in performance then the mystery would remain. If he can rebound after the All-Star break this team could still rattle a cage or two because they continue to score more runs than any of us expected.

• I've always wanted to play golf like a professional. After watching Michelle Wie take a nine at the U.S. Women's Open, I can now say that I have.

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