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Curve stank it up during the first half
July 12, 2011 - Cory Giger
A skunk recently took up residence at Blair County Ballpark.
This has been a stinker of a season for the Curve, and the pesky little critter's appearance represents the definition of apropos.
With a 37-52 record at the all-star break, this is shaping up to be an awful season for the defending Eastern League champions. But the bizarre thing is this is not an awful team.
The 2009 club, now that was an awful team. Altoona started 0-8 two years ago, got its brains beaten in many nights, had the worst record in all professional baseball for much of the season and finished with the worst record in franchise history at 62-80.
That record looks like it will fall this season. The Curve need to go 26-27 the rest of the way to avoid losing 80 games, and there's little reason to believe a team that's gone 9-27 since June 3 will turn things around enough to be that good in the second half.
It's difficult to figure out just how the record is this bad. On most nights over the past month, the Curve fielded an offense with numerous players performing well statistically and a starting pitcher with a decent or very good ERA.
It hasn't mattered.
Exactly half (26) of the team's 52 losses have been by one or two runs. That's because almost every night the club has been done in by one or two crucial mistakes.
It's tough getting blown out a lot, as the 2009 Curve did, but it's devastating to be in every game and come up just short.
That takes a toll on everyone.
Manager P.J. Forbes is only 43, but on occasion after some recent losses, he has looked a good 10 or 15 years older. The frustration has added wrinkles to his face and led to a look of bewilderment in his eyes.
"This team has really struggled with a lack of focus," Forbes said after Monday's loss to Bowie, the Curve's fifth in a row. "I blame myself partly because I haven't found a way -- not because I don't talk about it, not because it's not addressed, not because we don't attack it -- but because I haven't found the way to get these guys to get over the hump and play nine innings, play every pitch."
Forbes has tried everything. He has fined players for poor performance and even given them money when they have executed in certain situations. He went so far as to let the pitchers make out the lineup for Monday's game, but it didn't work.
Nothing has worked.
Forbes also has continued his well-publicized team meetings after almost every game, a baseball oddity that some players on any losing team undoubtedly would grow tired of at this point in the season.
The value of a manager in baseball is a good debate. Some believe it makes a big difference, while others say it means very little.
Anyone in the latter camp clearly hasn't been paying attention to the John Russell versus Clint Hurdle comparison in Pittsburgh.
In the minor leagues, the manager is tasked with getting the players to work hard every day, setting a good tone, making sure everyone follows the organization's development plan and staying in good graces with the farm director, roving coaches and other personnel.
By all accounts, Forbes does those things. (Matt Walbeck did not, and the fact that he was fired after leading the Curve to the 2010 EL title shows just how little emphasis is placed on a manager's ability to win.)
Regardless of Forbes' likability and good communication skills, the Curve look flat at the outset of many games. The players, perhaps already beaten down by this rough season, show very little enthusiasm or emotion, something that's obvious to even the casual fan.
When asked if he has lost his team or lost his players, Forbes quickly replied, "No. No."
"I have guys that come in my office every day wanting to know what can we do," he added. "I say, 'This is what we're going to do. This is what we're going to do today.' We have a plan every day. Whatever we're doing that day, there's a plan."
But as Forbes himself admitted, laying out the plan and having it executed are two different things.
"When it rains it pours, and it's freaking pouring right now," Forbes said of the recent struggles. "And we continue to try and find a way to get out of it."
One thing the manager hasn't tried is running more. The Curve are next to last in the league in stolen bases (61) and rarely try hitting and running or being aggressive on the basepaths.
Forbes said the players all have the green light to go whenever they want and noted he doesn't usually tell them to run.
"I can't force that down their throat," he said. "Guys are a lot more comfortable when they pick their own spots. ... Part of development is learning how to steal bases. I've found that if I try and make them run, they get picked off."
That's just one major area in which the team struggles. The players also can't bunt, they can't hit with runners in scoring position, the pitchers can't avoid giving up runs early or issuing walks at terrible times.
There are some good individual players on this team who will go on to have solid careers, and that's really the most important thing. If five or six of these guys can help the Pirates over the next few years, it won't matter if they had a stinky record in Double-A.
Speaking of stinking, luckily the skunk has moved on and vacated its home in the picnic area at BCB. That's good news for everyone.
Now if only the team on the field would quit stinking up the joint, maybe something still can be salvaged out of this season.
Cory Giger is the host of "Sports Central" from 4 to 6 p.m. daily on ESPN Radio 1430 WVAM. He can be reached at 949-7031 or firstname.lastname@example.org.