Notes and observations from a recent trip to Pittsburgh's PNC Park:
PITTSBURGH - The Major League Baseball season is broken down into a variety of components, and none is more interesting than the World Series.
The championship series in both the National and American Leagues follow closely behind, and the second wild-card playoff spots accorded teams in both leagues last season have injected a sense of special dimension into even the beginning playoff rounds.
The July 31 non-waiver trading deadline has taken on its own brand of intrigue and excitement that is almost as riveting as the postseason itself.
Speculation begins swirling around Independence Day each year as to which teams will be buyers, which teams will be sellers, and which big-name pitchers and run-producers will change uniforms before the stretch drive.
Some of the trade rumors that float around wind up being validated. But many don't. Last season, the Pirates were believed to be in the running for both third baseman Chase Headley and outfielder Josh Willingham, but both stayed put at San Diego and Minnesota, respectively.
This season, the names of Alex Rios (Chicago White Sox), Giancarlo Stanton (Miami Marlins) and Marlon Byrd (New York Mets) have been among those bandied about to address the Pirates' lack of offensive production from the right field position.
But the non-waiver trading deadline passed on Wednesday without the Pirates making any significant transactions.
All the talk generates much interest among baseball fans at bar rooms and board rooms throughout the country each July. At the same time, the additional wild-card playoff spot makes each general manager's task of engineering 11th-hour trades a lot more formidable.
Some teams may need to fill a void at a certain position, but can't afford to part with a certain player because they're still in the playoff chase.
Other teams would consider parting ways with a certain player, but the asking price for that player is way too high.
Still other general managers must weigh the pros and cons of risking mortgaging the organization's future for a trade that will bring a two-month rental player that could help the team win a World Championship in the immediate present.
It all creates a fascinating chess match that has taken on a life of its own each July.
The Pirates, who entered August with the best record in Major League Baseball, wound up taking an "If it ain't broke, don't fix it" approach to negotiations this year.
"I do think the second wild card has really changed things,'' Pirates manager Clint Hurdle told the media earlier this week. "I've talked with [Pirates general manager] Neal [Huntington], and that challenge is real. There are some doors that are literally not open, and the [things that are being asked for by other teams] just don't make sense.''
n The Pirates have surprised some people this year, but Cardinals' manager Mike Matheny isn't one of them. "They're no surprise,'' Matheny said of the Bucs and their success this season. "We respected them last year, and we respect them this year.''
n No player on the Cardinals is more important to the team's success than veteran catcher Yadier Molina, who left Tuesday's second game of the doubleheader after aggravating a knee problem and was sent back to St. Louis for evaluation. He was placed on the 15-day disabled list Wednesday. If the five-time National League All-Star winds up missing any extended period of time in August and September, the Cardinals' National League Central Division title hopes will be severely impacted.
n As important as this week's five-game series between the Cardinals and Pirates was, there's plenty of baseball left in the season, not to mention between the two teams themselves. Between August 13 and September 8, they'll play each other six more games in St. Louis, and the Cardinals will make a return trip to Pittsburgh for a three-game series.
n Hurdle's presence in the manager's chair gives the Pirates a larger-than-life type of personality whose people skills and sense of humor have put him in a class of his own. Hurdle celebrated his 56th birthday earlier this week, and spent time fielding calls from well-wishers. "It's my birthday, and I've been getting a lot of calls, [President Barack] Obama won't let go,'' Hurdle cracked, shutting off his cell phone. "I'm 56, and still bringing it.''
John Hartsock can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.