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Pirates still seeking help for Bay in their lineup

PITTSBURGH -- Eighteen appearances and 17 innings. That's the extent of reliever Mike Gonzalez's contribution in Atlanta before he blew out his left elbow and underwent Tommy John surgery last month.

By that meager comparison, first baseman Adam LaRoche doesn't have to produce much to make the Pittsburgh Pirates feel like winners in their big January trade with the Braves.

Still, LaRoche wasn't thinking big picture while playing the role of automatic out in May. With every strikeout or weak ground ball to second base, he could hear the jeers in the stands, feel the disappointment in the air and see the consoling looks from teammates in the dugout. This was precisely not the way to make a good first impression.

Jason Bay

Bay

Left Field
Pittsburgh Pirates

Profile

"Obviously no one ever wants to be booed," LaRoche said, "but the important thing is to feel like you're contributing. I looked around at the other guys in the clubhouse and I felt like, 'These guys think I suck."'

No one took a formal poll, of course. But left fielder Jason Bay, who'll play Batman to LaRoche's Robin, is happy to cut his new teammate some slack. If he and LaRoche are going to be together in the Pittsburgh lineup for a few years, what's six forgettable weeks?

The Pirates don't have a lot going for them these days at 26-34, but their roster includes one of baseball's least-appreciated stars in Bay, who is on a nice, quiet run entering this weekend's interleague series against the Yankees in New York.

Bay recently won the National League Player of the Week award, and he ranks among the league's top 10 in RBIs (45) and combined on base-slugging percentage (.909). He hit a solo homer off Chad Cordero in the ninth inning Thursday to give the Pirates a 3-2 win over Washington.

Based on his two straight 30-homer, 100-RBI seasons, Bay might turn out to be a reliable, Moises Alou-type producer. Or perhaps he'll be more. As Pirates manager Jim Tracy points out, David Ortiz wasn't the larger-than-life "Big Papi" until he grew into the role in Boston. Ask Tracy if Bay has a chance to hit, say, 45 home runs, and the manager nods in assent.

"Is he capable of being a superstar-type player? Yes he is, in my opinion," Tracy said. "Didn't Manny Ramirez and Andruw Jones and Chipper Jones blossom into who they've become? They began their careers as big-time helpers and blossomed into aircraft carriers."

It's hard to assemble a flotilla with a $38 million payroll, and Pittsburgh general manager Dave Littlefield has struggled to find a middle-of-the-order complement to Bay. Two years ago, the Pirates surrounded Bay with Daryle Ward, Rob Mackowiak and Craig Wilson. Last season they tried the Joe Randa-Sean Casey-Jeromy Burnitz plan, and it didn't work out very well. We know this because Randa and Burnitz have since retired and Casey is now playing in Detroit.

When Atlanta began putting out feelers for LaRoche during the winter in an attempt to cut costs and shore up its bullpen, Littlefield quickly jumped into the fray. LaRoche hit 32 homers and slugged .561 for the Braves in 2006. You just don't find many prettier swings, and his $3.2 million salary fits conveniently into the Pittsburgh budget.

When the Gonzalez-for-LaRoche deal went through, euphoria reigned at each stop on the Pirates' winter caravan. But LaRoche, a notoriously slow starter, killed the momentum with a .133 April. He consistently fell behind in the count, became overly pull-conscious and failed to stay on his backside and drive the ball to all fields.

Adam LaRoche

LaRoche

First Base
Pittsburgh Pirates

Profile

LaRoche's father, former big league pitcher Dave LaRoche, warned him that Pittsburgh fans are a little more passionate and hard-edged than what he was accustomed to in Atlanta. Factor in LaRoche's desire to justify the Pirates' faith in him, and it was a recipe for a full-fledged slump.

After a recent game at PNC Park, LaRoche threw on his standard attire -- T-shirt, jeans and a cap that looked like a freebie from John Deere. The clubhouse was empty, and beneath the din of an attendant vacuuming the carpet, he assessed his travails with brutal candor.

"My swing is the same as it was last year," LaRoche said. "I told our coaches, 'Trust me, it's not my swing. It's my head.' I was just up there pressing, seeing 20 defenders in the field and not seeing any holes.

"Baseball is such a mental sport, you almost have to not care if you're successful. If you get in the box and say, 'This is the at-bat -- I have to do it here,' then you change your swing, your grip is too tight, and you start doing things out of the norm."

While raising his average to a disappointing but slightly less embarrassing .216, LaRoche has found a buddy and natural sounding board in Bay. Each of the two Pirates has a dry sense of humor and a fondness for fishing and playing cards. LaRoche, an ardent hunter, is already lobbying Bay to come out to his ranch in Kansas for a visit this winter -- although Bay, who has never shot a gun in his life, says he'll be happy to just tag along and watch.

Maybe the two Pirates can kill time commiserating over the rampant sense of fatalism in Pittsburgh. It's certainly warranted. Milwaukee played .500 ball two years ago and Detroit returned to the World Series last season, but Pittsburgh fans haven't enjoyed a winner since the Barry Bonds-Jim Leyland days in 1992. Fair or not, every player who passes through town feels the burden of that constant failure.

"I don't want to say it affects you, but it's definitely there," Bay said. "The fans get a little restless, and I don't blame them. You can only give them a 'rebuilding' or a 'next year' tag so many times, and they're like, 'We don't want to hear it anymore.'"

Pittsburgh fans have grown accustomed to seeing cornerstone players come and go. Aramis Ramirez went to the Cubs in a misguided, cost-saving trade. Brian Giles, once a local treasure, left for San Diego in a deal for Bay and Oliver Perez. That was one Littlefield can be proud of.

I don't want to say it affects you, but it's definitely there. The fans get a little restless, and I don't blame them. You can only give them a 'rebuilding' or a 'next year' tag so many times, and they're like, 'We don't want to hear it anymore.'

Jason Bay

For some younger Pirates, the initial sense of excitement over playing every day gradually gives way to fatigue over losing. It's followed by cynicism, then relief over the opportunity to leave town by trade or free agency.

In 2000, catcher Jason Kendall signed a six-year, $60 million deal with Pittsburgh. He got hurt, then underperformed, and when Littlefield packed him off to Oakland in 2004, everyone was grateful to see the relationship end.

For what it's worth, Bay isn't near the end of his emotional rope. He's signed to a four-year, $18.25 million contract with the Pirates through 2009. After that, who knows? Bay was born in British Columbia, so it's not as if he has a major league city that's beckoning him home.

The baseball romantic in Bay watched the Tigers win the American League pennant last year and wondered: Wouldn't it be neat to do the same thing in Pittsburgh, and finally relieve Pirates fans of their torment?

"There's some personal gratification in doing it that way rather than just going to a team, jumping on and saying, 'OK, we're winning,'" Bay said. "I've seen Pittsburgh with the Steelers and the Penguins, and the city would go nuts. I would love to give that to the people here."

It's a noble sentiment, for sure. All he needs now is a little help.

Jerry Crasnick covers baseball for ESPN.com. His book "License To Deal" was published by Rodale. Click here to order a copy. Jerry can be reached via e-mail.