Off-field moves, Pirates surprising surge marked intriguing first half

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PHOENIX -- It was an interesting first half. Two managers quit. None were fired. Two managers were hired. The average age of them was 74. The heavily-favored Phillies did what they were supposed to do, and the Red Sox pretty much did, too. But surprises abounded, led by none other than the usually pathetic Pirates, who are capturing a city and threatening to post a winning record for the first time since Barry Bonds left town. The Indians are right in the thick of things, too, to nearly everyone's surprise. And the Nationals would be, if they weren't in the same division as the Phillies and Braves.

Here's a rundown of what we witnessed, and some of what's to come...

Take This Job and Shove It. Nationals manager Jim Riggleman was vilified in some circles for leaving a job when he had a contract. But Riggleman didn't leave until well after it became obvious to him he was not wanted. His boss, GM Mike Rizzo, was given a fresh five-year deal last winter, and Rizzo wouldn't even talk about picking up Riggleman's team-friendly $700,000 option. You can say a lot of things about Riggleman (and many did), but say this for him: He knows how to take a hint. The move to quit with the Nationals a game over .500 was derided by many who believe that folks should fulfill their contracts (even though nobody believes the reverse, that the employer is obligated to allow an employee to fulfill one). Riggleman understood that he would be let go eventually, and rather than stay where he wasn't wanted, he opted out. Good for him. Many said that he would never get another major league managing job. But he had to feel better after GM Brian Sabean and manager Bruce Bochy of the world champion Giants called him to interview for a job. He'll be going to see them shortly after the All-Star break.

No, This Isn't the Florida Marlins' Answer to Golden Girls. Jack McKeon, 80, a favorite of team owner Jeffrey Loria's, took an underachieving 2003 team to a World Series title when he was a comparative spring chicken at 72, and was once again summoned to the managerial chair after the surprise resignation of Edwin Rodriguez, who was well aware that he was nearing the end with a free-falling Marlins team. McKeon still has his wits about him, but his hiring has made for some interesting moments, such as when McKeon confided that he had never heard of the band U2, and when he responded to outfielder Logan Morrison telling him after a game that he was going home to play with Twitter by asking what kind of breed of dog Twitter was. (McKeon still isn't on Twitter, but his bosses have since asked Morrison to tone down his candid tweets, and Morrison responded by posting a cartoon avatar of himself with the word "Censored'' over his mouth.) Morrison is just one of the Marlins good young pieces, but the long-lasting injury to Josh Johnson (he was supposed to be back by June 1) and the inexplicable fall of Hanley Ramirez have doomed them. For the first time, they are drawing the crowds they deserve. Maybe the whole team should be censored at this point.

These Aren't the Pirates We've Come to Know and Love. The marriage of eternal optimist Clint Hurdle and this perennially losing team seems to have been heaven-sent. The Pirates were supposed to make it 19 straight losing seasons, no sweat, but Hurdle didn't wanted any part of the typical Pirates season. He set a tone by benching the team's star player, Andrew McCutchen, after he failed to run hard on a ball that skipped past the catcher on strike three, and McCutchen responded, appropriately, by conceding that his misdeed deserved such punishment. The Pirates were on their way. Of course there's plenty of time left. But in the meantime, the great fans in Pittsburgh are starting to get excited about the possibilities.

The Cubs' Kooky First Half. Spring training began with a dugout shouting match between Carlos Silva and the perpetually calm Aramis Ramirez. Silva wound up having a terrible spring and was cut from the team, though that hasn't helped matters. Bookending the first half nicely, manager Mike Quade and respected pitcher Ryan Dempster, who happened to be one of the most vocal supporters of Quade's long-shot managerial candidacy, got into a shouting match when Quade removed Dempster after five innings -- with the lead in what became a Cubs victory, no less. So they aren't even happy when they're winning, apparently.

The Secret Negotiations Nobody Knows About. The principles responded to a New York Post report suggesting that there had been or shortly would be secret contract negotiations between the Mets and Jose Reyes by saying that nothing was going on. Which, of course, makes sense in a way, since any admission would ruin the secret -- if there is indeed anything to keep quiet about. Ed Greenberg, one of Reyes' agents, said he wasn't aware of any talks, and that in fact it would seem to be impossible because his brother and partner Peter was out of the country at the time. Mets GM Sandy Alderson similarly also suggested that he knew of no such talks. In any case, with three months to go before the National League leader in hits, batting average, triples and runs can become a free agent, it makes no sense for him to sign long-term with the Mets, cutting himself off from all sorts of possibilities. Mets owner Fred Wilpon already was on record, in The New Yorker, as saying there was no way Reyes was worth a Carl Crawford contract, which didn't seem like an appropriate way to open talks -- if there are any.

New York's Quiet Owner Showed his Boss Side. Through all the Mets' trials, tribulations and disappointments over the many years, Fred Wilpon remained New York's kindly owner. But New Yorker writer Jeffrey Toobin must have caught him in a dark moment, because Wilpon gave less than flattering portrayals of Reyes, Carlos Beltran and David Wright ("not a superstar'') in a regrettable interview. Club employees were shocked. "I've never heard Fred say one bad word about a player,'' said one 30-year employee. Then again, possibly losing several hundred million dollars to a con man who professed to be your friend can do funny things to folks.

The Yankees' Captain Hits History with a Flair. Could it have been any other way, really? Derek Jeter, who has made a career of rising to the occasion, had his best game in years, going 5 for 5 to blow past the magic 3,000-hit mark. The path seemed mostly mundane, with Jeter struggling in the .250s and suffering a calf injury, but the magic day was nothing short of storybook. Jeter's 3,000th hit was a home run, and his fifth hit was the game-winner. Crazy day, better life.

The McCourt Mess. Frank McCourt's decision to file for bankruptcy seems like the first smart thing that he has done in seven years as Dodgers owner. It seemed to keep MLB at bay, at least for now, while a bankruptcy court judge decides whether McCourt should get to reorganize the way he wants and sign the TV deal he wants. The proposed new deal, with Fox, seems to be a way to take future Dodgers revenue to pay old debts run up through insanely poor management. It seems absurd. But in a court of law, you never know how things will go.

A Season of No-Nos, and No-No Chances. Justin Verlander threw a no-hitter, which is no great shock in that he had done it before and will probably do it again. Francisco Liriano also threw one, which was a surprise since he wasn't showing the ability to get anyone out, with his 9.13 ERA heading into that game against the White Sox. Then Liriano almost did it again, carrying a no-hitter into the eighth inning before Adrian Beltre broke it up. Anibal Sanchez came close a couple times, and so did several others. The Padres, who've never had a no-hitter in their history, came within an out of nine no-hit innings against the Dodgers. But alas, the Mets, who've also never had one, remain perfect for their history. Or is imperfect?

• The White Sox are fielding calls on Edwin Jackson. In this market he may be the best out there as far as starting pitchers.

• Some teams are waiting and hoping that there's a surprise starter or two on the market. Right now, it's pretty bleak. "There's nothing but No. 4 starters,'' one AL executive noted.

• The relief market looks very strong, with a glut of viable relievers available. One team that is rarely mentioned as having chips, but should actually be a big bullpen seller, is the Blue Jays. They have Jon Rauch, Jason Frasor and Octavio Dotel.

• The Marlins aren't expected to seriously considering trading Ricky Nolasco or Anibal Sanchez -- though they can expect calls. The Marlins want to head into their new stadium next year a viable contender, and couldn't do so without those pitchers.

• Some are wondering whether the Dodgers will trade even if they fall completely out of it. There's speculation that they might not want to hurt the team's sale price with trades. But that seems to be a silly argument. Sure, they should keep Matt Kemp, Andre Ethier and Clayton Kershaw. But a trade of anyone else shouldn't reasonably affect the team's valuation. So they should become sellers eventually -- assuming they don't play their way back into it.

• Indians prospects impressed in Sunday's Futures Game. Infielder Jason Kipnis homered and left-handed pitcher Drew Pomeranz continued to throw well. Rays lefty Matt Moore also looked superb. Bryce Harper, the marquee name, had no hits in four at-bats but demonstrated an über arm, throwing the ball from the warning track to the plate on one hop. Though the throw missed the cutoff man and didn't nail the runner at the plate, it was still something to behold.

• It should come as no surprise that Steve Garvey was fired by the Dodgers. He was taking a paycheck from McCourt (presuming it didn't bounce) while also campaigning to get the team from McCourt one day. Garvey is a pleasant man but ultimately has too much baggage for MLB to seriously consider him. Some have speculated that Mark Attanasio, the Brewers' excellent owner, may jump to own the Dodgers, but sources say that he is happy in Milwaukee. While he lives in Los Angeles, he has family connections in Milwaukee. Ex-super agent Dennis Gilbert is a logical candidate to become Dodgers owner. He is a lifelong Los Angeleno who loves his city, has worked as an executive and agent in baseball, and attends every Dodgers game (you can see him in the front row just to the left of home plate).

• This year's All-Star Game could be subtitled, "The Replacements.'' I half expect Keanu Reeves to show up. Why not? Everyone else is. Many of the game's biggest stars aren't here due to injury, timing, rest or lack of interest. Which puts a bit of a hole in the marketing plan trumpeting the fact that the game counts. We are now up to 84 All-Stars between those originally named and their replacements. Which makes it hard to believe that Tommy Hanson and Dan Haren still haven't made the team. If anyone deserves to be offended, it's them. The real shame is no CC Sabathia, King Felix, Justin Verlander, Alex Rodriguez, Derek Jeter, Ryan Braun, David Price, Jose Reyes and so many other big stars. The rule allowing Sunday starters to skip the game needs to be reconsidered; there's no reason why Sabathia, Verlander and King Felix couldn't pitch an inning. Top MLB people have tried to lure Jeter to come, if only to take a bow and celebrate his 3,000th hit. But it didn't appear that he would. His agent Casey Close said, "I don't think he has any plans to go to AZ,'' by text. That's baseball's loss.