Collier: LaRoche's bat big enough to end losing

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On Jan. 18, 1947, the Pirates purchased from the Detroit Tigers the contract of power hitting first baseman Hank Greenberg.

One day short of 60 years later, the Pirates acquired from the Atlanta Braves power hitting first baseman Adam LaRoche.

Thanks to the department of Things I Wonder About Without Knowing Why, and thanks especially to the wizards at the Elias Sports Bureau, the two facts at the top of this show can be said to be related. They describe the only two times in the entire history of your Buccos that the club added in the offseason a player who hit 30 homers or more the previous summer.

So don't ask again why all the buzz about Adam LaRoche.

Greenberg led the American League in homers in 1946 with 44, came to Pittsburgh near the end of a Hall of Fame career, smacked 25 more, some beyond the left-field fence the Pirates shortened specifically for him (hence the beloved term "Greenberg Gardens") and never played again.

LaRoche jerked 32 homers for the Braves last year, tied for seventh in the National League in slugging percentage and should end up playing the bulk of his career on the North Side. As of this writing, no plans are apparent to alter the Clemente Wall in right field or move the Allegheny River closer to home plate for LaRoche's pleasure.

But short of that, the acquisition of LaRoche is a landscape changing event for a franchise with 14 consecutive losing seasons. Should the Pirates draw close to 2 million again this year, a major portion of the audience will walk in for the same reason, to see LaRoche hit the ball over the wall in right, the wall placed in that exact spot for the kind of left-handed hitter the Pirates haven't had since Brian Giles went away. To an equally important extent, the club's often dispirited fan base can't wait to see what impact LaRoche's presence will have on the balance of a lineup that suddenly looks highly professional.

"I have not talked with him about expectations specifically," said Pirates general manager Dave Littlefield, "other than having some discussions early on just to give him a sense that there were a lot of people who seem to like having him aboard in the middle of the lineup. We might have touched on expectations being larger than what he's had, but obviously he's been around that guy everyone depends on, and seen the way players like Chipper Jones and Andruw Jones handle it.

"Of course, when it's on your shoulders, it's a different situation."

That it is, and maybe you've noticed that the spring has not exactly bloomed with Bradenton dispatches describing LaRoche homers as long and frequent. You'd be perfectly justified in dismissing that as irrelevant, but come Monday, just about every move LaRoche makes will take on the kind of baseball relevance rarely seen in these parts in, oh, randomly, 14 years.

"He's growing into it," Littlefield said. "He's 27 years old, and I feel comfortable that he'll continue to progress. My sense of it is that he's been around baseball his whole life, and has performed well as he got more playing time last year in a challenging environment. He's had the experience of playoff baseball and played a lot of pressurized games."

With the Braves playing themselves out of contention in the National League East, LaRoche flourished in those desperate days after the All-Star break, when he hit .323.

The guess here is that LaRoche will thrive with the Pirates, and that he'll make the hitters around him better. If, for reasons other than health, he fails or regresses, both he and the general manager who weathered so much flak to acquire him could be in for a cruel, cruel summer.

On a team that hit a league-low 141 homers a year ago, LaRoche might be the most conspicuous new Pirate since, umm, Hank Greenberg.

If you're wondering how that worked out, the team Greenberg joined had won 63 games in 1946. With Hank aboard, the Pirates won 62, and that was with Ralph Kiner belting 51 homers. Hank's Hall of Fame presence apparently proved less inspiring to the likes of Dixie Howell, Jimmy Bloodworth and Eddie Basinski.

LaRoche will have better luck, helping the Pirates to their first winning season since 1992. I'm saying 82-80. It's what I said last year, and it's bound to happen eventually.

Stacy Innerst, Post-Gazette
Click photo for larger image.
View from the press box

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Baseball 2007

The Post-Gazette's run-up to opening day:

THURSDAY: Why the Pirates could finally break through the .500 ceiling (or not).

FRIDAY: The PG's columnists Ron Cook, Bob Smizik and Gene Collier look into the crystal ball. Also, PG poll results.

SATURDAY: Paul Meyer takes his annual trip through the minor-league system.

SUNDAY: Dejan Kovacevic introduces you to Adam LaRoche.

MONDAY: Opening day. How the Pirates start could well determine how they finish.

 

Gene Collier can be reached at gcollier@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1283.


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