Doumit's start sends a message

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ATLANTA -- It would be nice to report that the Pirates' decision to make Ryan Doumit their opening-day catcher was the team's delayed reaction to the disgraceful play last season of Ronny Paulino.

It would be nice to report Paulino's in-your-face lack of hustle and outlandish defensive indifference, which the previous Pirates administration refused to acknowledge, were at long last being addressed.

But, no, manager John Russell and general manager Neal Huntington said the decision to start Doumit, a switch-hitter, against Atlanta Braves left-hander Tom Glavine was based solely on baseball reality and was not to be considered a rebuke of Paulino's style of play.

Well, we don't believe it.

Hours before the Pirates blew a five-run lead in the ninth inning but came back to beat the Braves, 12-11, last night, Russell and Huntington presented some inside baseball reasons for Doumit getting the start. But they were hardly overwhelming and did not negate the fact the right-handed hitting Paulino, for all his monumental shortcomings, had the third-best batting average against left-handers in the National League last season.

This decision, which surprised both of the involved players, went deeper than Doumit having a better "approach" than Paulino for the cunning and guile of the great Glavine. We think there was a not-so-subtle message involved with this decision.

It was a message first and foremost to Paulino, telling him that what he did last season was totally unacceptable. It was a message to Doumit, telling him that the hard work he put forth in spring training did not go unnoticed and deserved to be rewarded. It was a message to the 23 other Pirates telling them the Dave Littlefield-Jim Tracy era of no accountability was over.

And if the ticket-buying fans of the Pirates, who were enraged by the half-hearted effort of Joggin' Ronny, revel in this decision, so much the better.

Almost as soon as Doumit arrived at the visiting clubhouse at Turner Field yesterday, some five hours before the start of the game, Russell motioned him into his office.

``He told me I'd be starting,'' Doumit said. ``It was pretty cool. It wasn't expected on my part.''

Paulino had a similar reaction. ``I'm a little surprised,'' he said.

Russell made it clear Doumit is not the Pirates starting catcher and to bolster that viewpoint he said Paulino would start Thursday against Mike Hampton, a more conventional-throwing left-hander. Paulino batted .407 against left-handers last season.

But since right-handers are dominant in baseball, Doumit figures to get the most starts and the most at-bats.

The official reason for Doumit's start was that Russell likes the patient approach he has been taking, a improvement over the day when he was as free a swinger as there was on this free-swinging club.

``It's his approach,'' Russell said. ``He's been very patient in spring training. He's cut down his very aggressive approach and works the count. For the way Glavine pitches, I feel Ryan has a bit better approach.''

For his career, Doumit was 1 for 6 with a strikeout against Glavine. Paulino was 0 for 5 with a walk and a strikeout.

The new approach worked for Doumit. He had three hits, one of them off Glavine, in five at-bats.

There was another aspect of Doumit's approach that appealed to Russell and Huntington. It is his very anti-Paulino approach to the game. The manager and general manager offered unsolicited praise of Doumit's work ethic.

Russell said, ``He's worked awfully hard this spring. He was very productive. He really took the bull by the horns. He did some great things.''

Huntington said, ``Ryan has worked hard and put himself in this situation through his hard work.''

The rap on Doumit long has been his defense. In the minors he earned the nickname of No-mitt.

``I'm out to prove a lot of people wrong,'' he said. ``A lot of things have been said in regard to my defense. I'm out to silence a lot of critics. I think I'm getting better every day. Catching to the type of position where you can't be truly good if you're catching once or twice a week. The more I get back there the better I'm going to be.''

``I haven't played my best behind the dish, so I know where some of it [the criticism] is coming from. But I know what I'm capable of doing. I know my capabilities and I think I'm capable of being a pretty good catcher.''

Looks like he's going to get a chance to prove that. It's about time.

Bob Smizik can be reached at .


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