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Pirates facing wrong kind of challenge

Updated: September 13, 2012, 9:53 AM ET
By Buster Olney

The Pittsburgh Pirates understand that if any member of their organization uses a racial slur, or a word rooted in racial hate, then it's a serious issue that needs to be addressed. "If that ever happened," said one official, "then we'd have a major problem, and we would do something about it."

After Cincinnati Reds second baseman Brandon Phillips accused Pirates pitcher Jared Hughes of yelling an unacceptable racist word at him the other day, Pittsburgh officials looked into the matter extensively, even forensically, examining different angles of television replays of the incident. They spoke with players and staffers who were in the vicinity, from catcher Rod Barajas to manager Clint Hurdle to center fielder Andrew McCutchen.

The Pirates reached this conclusion: Hughes did not do what Phillips says he did. "Jared Hughes is a tremendous young man," said Pirates GM Neal Huntington. "Jared knows what he said. He knows he did not say what he's accused of saying.

"We know beyond a shadow of a doubt he didn't say what he's accused of saying."

Beyond the simple fact that the Pirates are certain that Hughes didn't yell the word "boy" at Phillips, they moved aggressively to defend the pitcher Wednesday because they know how a charge of racism can hang on a player's reputation.

Phillips and Hughes spoke by phone Tuesday and seemingly settled their differences, but the Pirates were greatly surprised when Phillips reiterated Wednesday that Hughes used the racially charged phrase, and said that Hughes acknowledged using it in their phone call. From Rob Biertempfel's story:

    In an interview with NBC's "SportsTalk," Phillips told Erik Kuselias that Hughes "said what he said" after Phillips was hit by a pitch. Phillips said it was the first time he had heard a player make a racist comment on the field during a game.

    When Kuselias pressed Phillips to confirm Hughes made an offensive remark, Phillips paused and said, "He did. That's what we talked about. If you want to know what he said, you should ask him." Phillips said he forgave Hughes during their phone conversation Tuesday.

    Hughes said Wednesday he was surprised and frustrated by Phillips' comments to NBC.

    "I did not say those things he is saying I said," Hughes said. "I did not make any comment with a racial undertone or connotation during our exchange on Monday night -- period. While I cannot repeat everything that I said because I did swear, it is obvious when reviewing the tape that I in no way, shape or form made any remark that was in any way connected to race. It is not how I was raised and not who I am as a person."

Nobody other than Phillips can speak for him, or what he believes he heard. But none of the television replays the Pirates viewed show the pitcher yelling the word "boy" at Phillips.

The replays do show Hughes aiming a 12-letter profanity at Phillips that is well within the bounds of professional sports.

There were others in the room when Hughes spoke with Phillips, including manager Clint Hurdle, and they offered a different version of Hughes' end of the conversation, saying that Hughes never acknowledged using the word.

The Pirates aren't trying to vilify Phillips. But they maintain, with 100 percent certainty, that Hughes did nothing wrong.

Meanwhile, the Pirates have pressing issues on the field: They have lost six straight.

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