Can Ben Cherington and Travis Williams Restore the Trust of the Pirates' Fan Base?

Pirates' owner, Bob Nutting, made changes to the Pirates management of baseball operations, and they were significant. Will the fans ever really trust that winning is as important to the owner as it is to them?

After a tumultuous 2019 the fans in the city of Pittsburgh were anything but optimistic. The emotions ran from angry, to apathetic and the demand for change grew louder than ever after Clint Hurdle, in one of his most ill-advised public statements, decided to announce that he had been informed he would be returning as the manager of the Pirates in 2020. Clint is an honest man and as such there was little doubt that he was in fact told he had been retained. Clint staying on another year would not have been the worst thing for the club, as it could be argued he was the only thing keeping this patchwork roster together last season. The question I had was, who made the decision to fire him? 

As a fan it would be unfathomable to believe Neal Huntington would have that kind of power as he himself should have been on the hot seat. Clint’s statement really escalated everything. If he hadn’t come out with that decision, the Pirates could have slipped into the off-season and the fans could have yelled and screamed but weeks and cooler heads could have prevailed. 

Instead, the Pirates were forced to make a move, and that move was firing Clint Hurdle before the last game of the season. This was accompanied by a statement that Bob Nutting believed this management team was the right one to move forward with and that was the plan.

The fans erupted. Several writers spoke out, none stronger than Dejan Kovacevic, founder and owner of DK Pittsburgh Sports, rightly pointing out just how disingenuous this move was and leading to the trending #OurTeamNotHis on Twitter and Facebook. Mayor Peduto made statements on the situation wishing that the owner wanted to win. Even Bob Nutting’s father, Ogden Nutting, was disgusted by what happened in 2019.

Change came. No matter what caused Mr. Nutting to reverse course, the point is he did. He fired everyone, starting with Frank Coonelly, then came Huntington and his cronies.

 After all that, and its quite a bit to digest, how can we trust this man to rebuild this team? As someone new to writing about the team I’ve started to get a taste of just how fed up the fans are. There isn’t a subject that is immune to the “As long as Nutting is here…” comment. There is no way to definitively tell readers this time is different. You know why? Because there is no way to know for sure that they are.

There are indicators though - real differences that fans can look to, but are they enough to look past the owner and let one believe? Here’s the rub, Travis Williams is different, he isn’t a baseball lifer, he is young and hungry. He wasn’t desperately in need of employment to move up as his career trajectory was just fine in the NHL. Ben Cherington is different, he’s already won a World Series and built a top 5 farm system in Boston. This is the first GM with a World Series Title on his resume since Branch Ricky to be hired by the Pirates. Men like these don’t accept jobs that will make them look bad, nor do they seek positions in which they don’t control their own outcomes. 

I can’t tell you that Bob Nutting is a different man with a new outlook on how to properly run a Major League Franchise. I can’t convince you he has seen the light and wants to open his wallet to bring a championship home to Pittsburgh. The question is, has he done enough with these new hires to show you he means to do things differently? The bottom line is every fan will have to choose for themselves, everyone is going to look at things differently and read into situations as they see fit.

I’ve written before that Bob Nutting is never going to be a hero in this town. I strongly believe that, but can he get out of the way and give the resources needed to his new operations team to take himself out of the collective everyday conversations of fans? Can we get to a place where we genuinely believe baseball decisions are being made with an eye toward winning rather than enriching the owner? 

Can we watch a player have an MVP season without picturing him in pinstripes? Is there a chance we can see a player get a contract extension no matter who he hired as his agent? The general feeling of being a fan of a club changes drastically when small changes in thought like that occur.

Mr. Williams and Mr. Cherington have their work cut out for them and fairly or not, they will be tasked with healing the trust in the fanbase. Coming into the organization from the outside, a clean slate is deserved for these men, but too much has happened and the onus of renewing the faith of the masses will fall on their shoulders. 

Can they carry the weight? Time will tell, but Bob Nutting would be wise to ensure the fanbase that he is providing the resources to enable the team to compete. He should come out and illustrate exactly what has changed in his thinking and how he aims to better equip his management to get the job done, better yet, how he plans to back out and allow them to operate with nothing but baseball on their minds. Because if it is Mr. Nutting’s intention to repair what he damaged so severely, he will realize the face of failure is something he alone is left to carry, and he’d do well to not impede his new hires as they embark on an already difficult task.

When the Pirates take the field in 2020 at Lecom Park in Bradenton, will the story be about baseball or the overly frugal owner who doesn’t care to win? That reality is yet to be decided, but the path forward needs to be sincere and open from the team, and we need to be open to forgive and allow ourselves to heal. 

Follow Gary on Twitter: @garymo2007

Comments (2)
No. 1-1
Billdunn
Billdunn

This highlights the most frustrating part about trying to have a discussion on the Pirates. It's almost like you need to just say "ok...Nutting doesn't spend a lot of money and that sucks" now let's have an intelligent conversation.