Polanco turns normal day into holiday

PITTSBURGH – Usually this kind of anticipation pays off on Dec. 25 rather than June 10.

Gregory Polanco arrived on Tuesday afternoon, earning his long awaited promotion from the minor leagues to make his Pittsburgh Pirates debut.

When he got to the park, he found fans lined up outside the ticket windows, a new No. 25 uniform in his locker and a group of players ready to welcome him.

No wonder the 22-year-old Dominican native kept smiling so broadly. Imagine having that kind of talent and a fresh opportunity in the major leagues. It’s a blank canvas for this promising artist.

Polanco’s promotion turned a ho-hum weeknight game against the Chicago Cubs into an event. The Pirates’ ticket department was under siege as soon as the announcement was made late Monday night that Polanco was finally headed to Pittsburgh.

His name has been buzzing on talk radio and social media all season. Polanco, working on his game at Class AAA Indianapolis, said he was unaware of the discussion he’d created.

“I had no idea,” he said. “(The Pirates) just said to me keep playing hard and your time is going to come.”

It was due to come soon, but Neil Walker’s emergency appendectomy made the roster move easy. With Walker out, Josh Harrison can help cover second base while Polanco settles in as the right fielder.

During a pitching change in Monday’s game, the three outfielders gathered to talk. Polanco was smiling and laughing at whatever Andrew McCutchen was telling him and Starling Marte.

That shot was the blueprint come to life. Those three players represent the outfield the Pirates hope to have in place for the next five years or so.

In other years, the arrivals of McCutchen and Marte were anticipated just as eagerly as Polanco’s was.

And therein hangs a cautionary tale.

When Marte broke in on July 26, 2012, he hit the first pitch he saw for a home run. Fans were giddy with the arrival of the latest prospect.

Fast forward to now, and Marte is fresh from nearly a week on the bench, an effort to shake him out of a slump that has dropped his batting average to .240. This follows discussion about whether Marte would be best served by a return trip to the minor leagues to get things back together.

Baseball isn’t easy. Bobby Crosby was the American League’s Rookie of the Year in 2004. A few years later, the Pirates picked him off the scrap heap to be a low-cost utility player.

Polanco has to get used to a higher level of competition, a more intense level of travel and constant scouting that finds any weakness. The data base on him started building Tuesday night when he stepped into the batters box.

It helps that his manager knows what it’s like to be a much-anticipated prospect. Every week, people mail Clint Hurdle copies of that 1978 Sports Illustrated cover to autograph. It’s the one that identifies a thin and bushy-haired Hurdle as “This Year’s Phenom.”

Hurdle wound up playing just 515 major league games over 10 seasons, spread among four teams. After three years he was a part-time player who even learned how to catch so he could hang on.

Expectations are great, but they can also be an albatross.

On the first day of Gregory Polanco’s major league career, Hurdle’s message to him was as simple as possible.

“Play ball,” Hurdle said. “Just play ball.”

Mehno can be reached at