Alan Dell

Spring brings optimism for Pirates fans

The start of spring training games should be declared a national holiday for optimists. Out of nowhere they emerge, ready to defend their beliefs with the skill of a Clarence Darrow or any other lawyer good enough to earn a place in the history books.

Their favorite team has no losses, and if they start mounting up, there is always the excuse they don’t count.

Everyone has their constitutional right to be an eternal optimist on this day; even those from the city of Pittsburgh.

A whole generation of kids has been born, gone through high school and is now off to college or starting families without being able to witness a winning season by these Pirates.

It’s enough for them to question if legends Roberto Clemente, Willie Stargell, Bill Mazeroski and Ralph Kiner ever existed, not to mention long past iconic figures Paul Waner, Honus Wagner and Pie Traynor.

That is about to change, the optimists believe.

So while some might snicker when manager John Russell cautiously speaks about hope and some players talk about the postseason, it is no laughing matter for the 2010 Pirates.

Through good pitching springs the eternal fountain of optimism, and the Pirates seem to have brought together enough quality arms to point them in the right direction, at least until the dog days of August.

The Pirates finished the past two seasons like a horse pulling up lame during the stretch run, but harbor a belief that their offseason pitching deals will eliminate those end of the year meltdowns.

Good pitching is a tricky thing. It can carry a team beyond its wildest expectations. But it is fragile and can disappear in one mid-summer night’s dream.

The Pirates bullpen appears deeper than it has been for awhile, and in Octavio Dotel they seem to have a quality closer if he can stay healthy.

Some of the middle to late inning relievers have a history that stokes the adrenalin of Pirates fans still harboring pennant fever from almost two decades past.

Pitching coach Joe Kerrigan, a man of caution given his job description, feels pretty good about his setup guys, and his response to what happens if Dotel doesn’t work out or winds up in the doctor’s office is direct.

“We don’t ever think about that. We are still in February,” he said last week. “Neal Huntington (general manager) did a good job of acquiring a lot of options. We have left-handed options and right-handed power arms and some sinker ball specialists who can get the ground ball outs. But it’s too early for those types of questions.”

The Pirates hope Javier Lopez can rebound from a disappointing season and be their lefty out of the bullpen and that Brendan Donnelly has good mileage remaining in his 38-year-old right arm.

Four of the starters seem set with Paul Maholm, Ross Ohlendorf, Zach Duke and Charlie Morton. This quartet does not come without question marks, but it’s spring, and that is a subject they hope will iron itself out.

Local product Lastings Milledge brings an exuberance that is invaluable and believes the road to the Pirates success rests with their offense given the other parts are there.

If things could be so simple that would be nice, but his optimism could become contagious, and that’s not a bad thing.

The soon to be 25-year-old is a key to what happens this season. There is a general consensus he has a vault of talent, which has been locked up due to some of his own misgivings. The Palmetto native agrees and appears ready to release some of the baseball jewels that reside inside his 5-11, 200-pound frame.

That is enough to generate quite a bit of optimism.

Alan Dell, sports reporter, can be reached at 745-7080, ext. 2112.