Pirates' Church on meeting: Time to 'change it'

Outfielder, others used Philadelphia gathering to find motivation

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Team dinner ended.

Team discussion ensued.

The scene was a downtown Philadelphia restaurant. The moment was late last Thursday night, after the Pirates flew north from Florida to finish out spring-training exhibitions at Citizens Bank Park.

The message?

Ryan Church, Octavio Dotel, Brendan Donnelly and Bobby Crosby -- still in their first few weeks as Pirates after arriving in the offseason -- had heard enough about the 17 years of losing. They had seen enough of a 7-21-1 spring record, the franchise's worst in 26 years. So they huddled their remaining teammates in the tony establishment under the shadows of Philadelphia's city hall and held a players-only meeting.

They made a declaration of Pirates independence: It was time to change, unify, act accountable. Now.

"We had our dinner, had our fun talking," Church recalled after Monday's 11-5, opening-day romp over the playoff-steeled Los Angeles Dodgers. "Then we brought everybody together. Everybody said their piece who wanted to say something. I think mostly it was just [guys] sick and tired of being sick and tired, that kind of stuff. So it's like, 'Let's change it. Let's change what people say about us.'"

"It was great to see. I've never [seen such a meeting], especially that early," added outfielder Church, 31, an outfielder and a seven-year veteran old enough to have played for the final Montreal Expos. "You know what? These guys, really, they care. I think that was the whole thing with the [clear-the-air] attitude, 'cause they never would've done that in years past. It was great to see guys step up and say something."

As described by catcher Ryan Doumit, the position player with the longest Pirates tenure, "A lot of issues ... were addressed, a lot of people got their point across. People walked out of there feeling pretty good."

"That was a great meeting," added shortstop Ronny Cedeno, who came from Seattle last July in time to witness a 19-41 Pirates finish. "Now we got a different attitude."

Part of Thursday's discussion was about their team approach, a chord manager John Russell strummed from PirateFest onward. He saw a glimpse the day before, in a March 31 exhibition against Detroit in Lakeland, Fla.: After missed defensive plays contributed to a 5-0 Tigers lead, the Pirates promptly struck back with a five-run inning to tie it ... only to later lose as the team dropped 14 of its final 17 spring games. Then, amid Monday's opening-day sunshine, Garrett Jones -- who just hit consecutive home runs on season-opening at-bats for the first time in the club's 124-season history -- sacrificed for the whole his next time at the plate by grounding out the other way so Andrew McCutchen could advance to third.

Three batters later, with the bases loaded and starting pitcher Zach Duke due up next in the No. 8 hole, pinch-hitter Church drilled a Vicente Padilla 2-0 pitch into right-center field for a bases-clearing double.

Jones and Doumit, batting No. 3 and cleanup, combined to drive in six runs. Also getting an RBI apiece were Lastings Milledge and Cedeno, who had his 10th multi-hit game as a Pirate. Seven of the team's 10 hits went for extra bases. The Pirates walked three times in the erratic 4 1/3 innings by Padilla -- this after averaging just three per game last year.

Jones made two diving catches. First baseman Jeff Clement speared an Andre Ethier shot in the fifth, with no out and Russell Martin on second. After some dodgy end-of-spring displays, the Pirates had no errors.

Duke stranded three Dodgers at second base and one at third, all with two out or fewer. Jack Taschner, D.J. Carrasco (on the hook for three earned runs) and Evan Meek maintained an 8-5 lead -- until Doumit's first career homer with teammates on first and third -- so Donnelly and Dotel could salt away the triumph.

"Every position on the diamond had tons of energy and tons of focus," Duke said. "Obviously, it's just one day. We have to enter on Wednesday and have the same kind of focus, the same kind of preparation, and be ready to compete in that game, too. We're definitely committed to giving it our all every day. There's such a history here of a bad taste in your mouth. For us to come out and perform the way we did [Monday], it's definitely a plus for us. But we have to continue it."

Church added, "You just saw it: The pitching, the hitting, the clutch hits, the defense -- it was all there. That just shows if you believe in that whole team thing, this stuff can happen. You just have to trust one another, trust the other guy sitting next to you or playing next to you."

Church, Donnelly, 38, Dotel, 36, and Crosby, 30, with a combined 32 years of major-league experience, vowed to help to keep their teammates in line, too.

"It's all about being [accountable]," Church said. "We got one another's back. If something goes wrong, if they see something in our house, you're going to get called out for it. ... 'Cause in the end we want to win. There's nothing like winning and being on a winning team."

There's a phrase uttered infrequently around this franchise the past 17 years: winning team.

That can change, Church maintained.

"This is Day One," he said. "But this is what we expect to do."

"I'm so glad that we have Dotel, Church, Crosby, Donnelly here," Cedeno added. "They got a lot of time in the big leagues. They can say something right with these guys. If we just stay together and do everything with the same attitude we did [Monday], we got a good team and [can] surprise a lot of people."

Doumit continued: "Our spring training didn't really tell the tale, but we got some exciting players in here. We got a lot of talent in this room, and we're going to surprise a lot of people this year."

Chuck Finder: cfinder@post-gazette.com . Find more at PBC Blog.


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