There were 16 PirateFests before the one that ended yesterday at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center, all highly successful, more successful than the losing seasons that almost always followed. Who doesn't feel good thinking about a little baseball in the cold, harsh month of January? Even if it's Pirates baseball? But PirateFest No. 17 clearly was the best of the bunch. It's not so much because it brought the first Pittsburgh appearance of new slugging first baseman Adam LaRoche, although the energy that generated was immeasurable. It's because one of the Pirates' veteran players took the first step toward claiming ownership of the team's clubhouse, which has been something of a cesspool for years and contributed to nearly a decade-and-a-half of losing.
Shortstop Jack Wilson.
In case you missed it over the weekend, Wilson called out teammate Jose Castillo in a number of media outlets. His message was clear and on point:
Jose, we love you, buddy, but we need you to come to spring training with your head right. If you're not in shape, number one, and not focused, number two, we don't want you. If you're not ready to be your best every game, every at-bat, every play in the field, do us all a favor and stay home in Venezuela.
Is it too late to get Wilson on the Dapper Dan Sportsman of the Year ballot?
Wilson's show of leadership might not be as impressive as Freddy Sanchez's batting title last season. But, one day, it could prove to be more critical to any success the Pirates have.
Winning games in the National League Central Division isn't as difficult as eliminating the culture of losing that long has surrounded the Pirates. Years and years of getting your fanny kicked can beat down even the best of men. Jason Kendall and Brian Giles are two who come to mind. Good players, they were eager to make their mark as big-leaguers when they joined the Pirates, eager to be the ones to lead the team's resurrection. Slowly but surely, though, all of the losses took their toll on them. In the end, they couldn't wait to leave Pittsburgh.
It has been that way pretty much every year for the past 14 years. Opening day isn't the big day of the season. The trade deadline is. It's get-out-of-jail day.
Do you think Sean Casey wanted to scream with joy when he was traded to Detroit last July?
How about Craig Wilson when he was sent to the New York Yankees?
But maybe that's changing.
The Pirates have more young players -- especially young pitchers -- who aren't so accustomed to losing. They also have a few older players -- Jack Wilson, Jason Bay, Salomon Torres -- who are sick of the losing and want to keep fighting instead of looking for a way out. Jack Wilson is so sick of it that he took the extreme measure of publicly challenging a teammate and questioning his heart.
Way to go, Jack!
It's one thing for management to come down hard on Castillo. General manager Dave Littlefield and manager Jim Tracy have made it clear they weren't pleased with his conditioning last season, his work habits and his mental blunders at the plate, in the field and on the bases. Tracy has gone so far as to say Castillo will be in a fight with Jose Bautista for his starting job at spring training. If Castillo wins, he'll play second base and Sanchez will be at third base. If Bautista wins, he'll play third and Sanchez will be the second baseman.
It's nice to think Castillo will be right when he reports to Bradenton, Fla., next month. The Pirates will be a better team if he wins the job and the versatile Bautista comes off the bench. Bautista can play third base, second base and any of the outfield spots. But, that said, there's no way Littlefield and Tracy put up with another lame effort by Castillo.
That's where Jack Wilson comes in. Maybe he'll be the one who gets through to Castillo. It's always better when the clubhouse policing comes from within and not from the manager's or general manager's office. Castillo might be able to shrug off complaints from his bosses as long as they continue to sign his checks. But how does he walk into that clubhouse every day and look his teammates in the eye when he and they know he is letting them down?
What Wilson did this weekend won't guarantee an end to the Pirates' 14-year losing streak.
But it sure was a nice start.
Ron Cook can be reached at email@example.com or 412-263-1525.