BRADENTON. Fla. - Chairman of the board Bob Nutting wants to see significant improvement from the Pirates - now!
While watching Bucs pitchers take part in a bunting competition on the final day of workouts Thursday at Pirate City, Nutting was emphatic in saying bigger and better performances are a must in 2011 from a team that has stumbled through 18 consecutive losing seasons.
"We can't take small steps forward, and we set a clear goal to make this a championship organization," Nutting said. "We need to win the National League Central [Division] and see how far we go from there.
"When I talked to the players [Monday], I wanted to make it crystal clear that this is the year we need to raise up our expectations," Nutting said. "This is not a year that a one or two or three or five or 10-game improvement over last year is going to be acceptable."
Nutting is pleased with what he's seen so far.
"The most important thing we've really done so far in camp is the combination of some of the improvements, the maturation of the young players," Nutting said, "but maybe most importantly, the new sense of leadership with Clint Hurdle and the team he's assembled.
"You can see the enthusiasm and excitement," he said. "We'll see if these guys can pull together and over-perform, just as last year, we recognized we had some under-performance."
With championships at Lynchburg (high Class A) and Altoona (Class AA) the past two seasons, Nutting believes things are looking up.
"The [minor league] system is definitely fundamentally stronger than it was three years ago," he said. "You can see that not only in the records but the age-appropriate players who are ready. What you see now are people who have realistic chances to continue moving through the system and perform at higher levels, and that is what we're looking for.
"We're extremely pleased with the development system, but this is a year we're focused at PNC Park, major league baseball, and the performance at the Pittsburgh level."
Using back-ups and minor leaguers, Bucs played their annual benefit game against the State College of Florida on Friday at McKechnie Field and easily beat the college boys. A moment of silence was held prior to the game for senior advisors Bill Lajoie and Chuck Tanner, who passed away recently.
The club faced the Tampa Bay Rays on Saturday (away) and today (home) to open the Grapefruit League season. The Orioles will be in town Monday, the Yankees are here Tuesday, the Twins on Wednesday and the Phillies visit Friday in a week loaded with plenty of baseball.
Several Altoona area folks have been seen at Pirate City watching the club work out. Among the interested on-lookers: David Orr, Bill and Fritz Beard, Bob and Jane Lynn, Jim Weyant and Mike and April Galbraith.
One of the most interesting people we've met here is 93-year-old Karl Diehl of Roaring Spring, who makes his own baseball bats and has them autographed by the players. His daughter, Nancy, and son-in-law, Richard Dick, are accompanying him.
Taking advantage of the beautiful weather, we've been taking in some of the area sights. Recently visited Historic Bridge Street in Bradenton Beach and lunched at the Costa Ville. Also added Troyer's Dutch Heritage in Sarasota and Popi's Place VI to our list of new eating stops.
Until next week
Lane, a retired sports editor of the Mirror, writes from Florida in February and March.