Cook: Pirates' Sanchez is the best man in a strong field as the Dapper Dan Sportsman of the Year
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You know it's been a pretty good year when you can't put a check next to Willie Parker's name or Sidney Crosby's name for the 2007 Dapper Dan Sportsman of the Year award. All Parker did for the Steelers was run 75 fabulous yards into Super Bowl history and follow it up with a team MVP season. Crosby hasn't won a Stanley Cup for the Penguins yet -- give him time, it's coming -- but, at 19, he's become the best player in the NHL and shown he has a chance to be -- sorry, Mario -- the greatest player in Pittsburgh hockey history, assuming that history lasts longer than June.
You know the competition for the Dapper Dan award is stiff when you can't bring yourself to vote for Pitt's Jamie Dixon or Penn State's Paul Posluszny. Pitt and Penn State people don't seem to agree on much, but they'd have to admit Dixon is a phenomenal basketball coach who has built Pitt into a national power, and Posluszny could play linebacker for any college team in America.
You know the Dapper Dan field is ridiculously strong when West Virginia's Rich Rodriguez and John Beilein should finish down in the voting. They're central figures in what maybe is the hottest college athletic program this side of Gainesville, Fla. Rodriguez as the football coach who delivered the Big East Conference's greatest victory in the 2006 Sugar Bowl and Beilein as the basketball coach who plugs in new players and keeps winning because of his estimable system.
Any one of those six sports figures would be a deserving winner of the prestigious Dapper Dan award in any other year.
But not this year.
You ultimately will help to decide the honoree with your votes, but it says here the award should go to the guy who overcame a club foot as a child, a serious ankle injury that cost him most of two years in the minor leagues, and the short-sightedness of his Pirates general manager and manager to win the 2006 National League batting title.
The batting championship alone is enough to win Sanchez the Dapper Dan award. He put together six incredibly consistent months, hitting .333, .360, .380, .301, .355 and .320 on his way to a final average of .344, the highest by a Pirates player since Roberto Clemente hit .345 in 1969. He led the league with 53 doubles and was remarkable in the clutch as evidenced by his .386 average with runners in scoring position. He also was a versatile and steady fielder, making just 10 errors in his 92 starts at third base, 27 at shortstop and 18 at second base.
Sanchez's success was no surprise. He always seemed to hit well above .300 as a minor leaguer in the Boston Red Sox's system. He also has a long history of working toward his goals, no matter the adversity. Doctors wondered when he was young if he would walk normally because of that club foot. Baseball executives wondered if he would make it in the big leagues because of that ankle problem that required surgery and cost him most of 2003 and 2004.
Sanchez answered all of the doubters, including Pirates general manager Dave Littlefield and manager Jim Tracy.
Sanchez didn't figure in their plans as a starter going into last season even though he finished the 2005 season by hitting .306 after the All-Star break. Littlefield signed Joe Randa as a free agent to play third base, a decision he soon would regret. Tracy didn't turn to Sanchez as his starter at third until after Randa went on the disabled list with a foot injury in early May.
Less than 21/2 months later, Sanchez played in the All-Star game at PNC Park, having been swept in as a National League reserve on the groundswell of fans' write-in voting.
Perseverance should get Sanchez the Dapper Dan award.
But there's so much more to Sanchez's magical season.
The man did the impossible by keeping people interested in the woeful Pirates in the franchise's 14th consecutive losing season. More than 1.86 million fans went to PNC Park, at least in part, to see Sanchez. They loved his effort. They loved his humility; hits weren't important to him because of the batting title, he often said, they were important because they helped the team. Most of all, they loved his production.
Certainly, Sanchez was the reason a crowd of 25,004 came to PNC Park for the season's otherwise meaningless final game Oct. 1 against the Cincinnati Reds. Fans, waving their "Go Freddy!" placards, wanted to see if Sanchez could hold off Florida's Miguel Cabrera for the batting title. He did it in extraordinary style, getting singles in his first two at-bats to finish the year with an even 200 hits.
If you listen closely, you still might be able to hear the echoes of the "Fred-dy! Fred-dy!" chants.
It's nice to think we'll hear them again in three months at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center.
On the night of April 15, when they officially make Sanchez a Pittsburgh sports legend by giving him the Dapper Dan award.
Peter Diana, Post-Gazette
Freddy Sanchez: The newly minted batting champion on the season's final day.
Click photo for larger image.
First Published January 14, 2007 12:00 am