Paul Meyer covers the club over the weekend for day baseball at Wrigley. I will be back Monday for the home series with Florida, which, coincidentally, will present your next chance to bombard me with Matt Morris mail ...
Q: Hi, Dejan. I want to ask if this team is closer as a group. They seem to have this air about them that they do believe in each other, much more so than last year or even the year before that.
Yes, I know it is still very early and there is much, much more ball to be played.
Tony Welling of Springdale
KOVACEVIC: The team got along just fine last year, Tony, so that aspect has not changed. But there are two key differences that I can detect ...
One, the groups of players engaged in fun activities are larger than in the past. Before, it would be two or three guys. Now, you can see seven or eight. Social cliques in larger groups tend to make for the best team atmosphere.
Two, there just seems to be a lot more business involved. Sure, they will mess around and toss around a football, as they did a couple afternoons ago at Dodger Stadium. But the focus seems to be a lot more on the games and winning than it did for most - though not all - of last season. That could have something to do with a rather intense coaching staff, or with just having Doug Mientkiewicz around, or with some of these guys simply having grown up together.
Whatever it is, yes, it is there.
But I repeat, as I always do when this subject arises: Leadership and camaraderie and all that stuff is not nearly as important as having talent.
Or playing good defense.
Q: Hey, Dejan. I went to the game this past Saturday night and, as I do for all Saturday night games, I got there before the gates open to snag a spot along the wall in left field in the hopes of snagging a BP ball or two.
What struck me was that the Pirates in the outfield were actually working on their fielding, with the coaches hitting fly balls, not just fooling around as they had under Lloyd McClendon and Jim Tracy.
Part of the new culture of accountability or my imagination?
Donna Fagnelli of Greenfield, Pittsburgh
KOVACEVIC: No, there is extra work going on before every game, Donna, home and road. It tends to vary a lot, too, from extra infield to specialized instruction for specific players to plain, old extra BP. As was documented last year, that was not common under Tracy and his staff.
If you happen to change your view of that over the year, though, feel free to write back and share that, as well.
But, again on the defensive theme, at some point that work has to translate into better performance on the field. Right now, the Pirates are becoming, to use Adam LaRoche's term, "embarrassing" with the glovework.
Q: Dejan, how do you prepare yourself to remain enthusiastic in covering this team which has been in a 15-year death spiral with no hope in sight?
James Kent of Squirrel Hill, Pittsburgh
KOVACEVIC: More of these tend to come in than usual when the Stanley Cup playoffs are going on, I have noticed. As if I am somehow longing to be across the river, covering the hockey team that I have not covered in action since ... wow, 2004 now.
Well, nothing I write will ever put this issue to rest because few of you seem to believe it, so I will try in my strongest language yet ...
In flipping through Major League Baseball's annual media directory that lists every person assigned to cover a major-league team as the primary, traveling guy that a newspaper assigns, there are only 75 or so jobs in the world.
Stop and think about that for a second. Only 75 in the world!
And I am somehow supposed to be looking down my nose at this?
It is a privilege and, when I am sharing a press box - and nothing else - with someone such as Hal McCoy, the venerable Reds beat writer for the Dayton Daily News, I am regularly reminded of this.
On top of that, I get to do this job in my hometown, a place I never will leave. Not for any job anywhere. I would dig ditches in Pittsburgh before making a lateral or even upward move to another city. Anyone who does not believe me on this ... well, that person does not know me. No amount of pay or job status would compensate for the daily heartbreak of being somewhere else.
Finally, to the subject of enthusiasm ...
My enthusiasm for the job has nothing to do with the Pirates, just as it never had anything to do with the Penguins or the Olympics or anything else I covered for any sustained period. It has to do with the job.
I grew up a carrier for The Pittsburgh Press, and my fascination was with newspapers and the journalism business. Sports, including Pittsburgh's three teams, were a hobby for me, as were other things in life. But journalism always was the focal point. I knew what I wanted to do starting in sixth grade, and I never took my eyes off it. It had nothing to do with sports, and it certainly had nothing to do with whether or not the team I was covering was any good, for crying out loud.
The enthusiasm comes from feeling that every day, I give you the most reliable, most timely and best-presented information that I can. If I do that - and I fall well short of those goals, in my own eyes, on most days - then that is the source of my enthusiasm.
Let me put it another way: Most of the articles I feel have been my best on this beat have been either about how awfully the Pirates have been run this decade, how dubious their claims have been to re-investing money into the team as opposed to making a profit and, yes, the drama that naturally accompanies all the losing of a franchise that is on the cusp of becoming one of the worst in professional sports history.
I found plenty of enthusiasm for those pieces, I can promise you.
And you know what? I will find plenty of enthusiasm for describing the Pirates' successes someday, if we ever see those. In fact, I might find even more enthusiasm after having delved into all of the above for this period of time. I will enjoy writing about great players, about meaningful victories, about p ... pla ... playo ... wow, I can't even get that word through my spellcheck.
But you get the point, I hope: The enthusiasm will be there no matter the subject matter because to me it is about the reporting.
Thing No. 89 that makes Pittsburgh great: We get to pick the president.
Well, us and Cincinnati and the eastern coast of Florida, but that is really about it. Go over the past two general elections, and you will see that these were the areas, including Allegheny and its surrounding counties, that provided what the political types describe as swing areas, the type particularly critical within the Electoral College system that is all-or-nothing.
And this year, you might have heard from a TV ad or two, there is the unusual addition of an actually relevant primary at hand.
What makes us a swing area?
All kinds of schools of thought here, not the least of which is that the city proper is overwhelmingly Democratic while the suburbs are less so and, in some areas to the north and south, significantly leaning to the Republican side.
But that explanation is too boring. What makes us such a contrast, I always have thought, is that our Democrats have been Democrats for so long that they harken back to that party's more conservative past. So, in many cases, they might label themselves one way and vote another. Or they might wholly disregard parties when it comes to state and national elections and simply choose the candidates of their preference.
Think of it along the same lines as why we complain about all the misfortune that befell the city in the 1970s but still listen to WDVE and fill that big white tent for Foghat: We live in the past, but we are not entirely sure why.
Anyway, I am not coming close to taking sides here, but I think it does say something about our unusual social and political climate here that, somehow, we end up with a larger voice than New York or Los Angeles and other much larger cities.
Until next week ...