TALENT CHALLENGED/NL CENTRAL
Countless times in recent seasons veteran Pirates leftfielder Al
Martin would reach base and a sympathetic infielder would
saunter over to express his condolences for Martin's plight as
the longest-tenured member of the National League's most
moribund team. "The Pirates were thought of as a glorified
Triple A team," Martin says. "People treated me like I was in
The plight of the Pirates, who finished last in the East three
times between 1993 and '96, was captured poignantly last spring
when pundits noted that the combined salaries of the '97
Pittsburgh roster ($9.1 million) was less than that of new White
Sox leftfielder Albert Belle ($11 million). By the end of the
season the punch line wasn't quite so amusing, however,
especially in Chicago: The White Sox won 80 games, only one more
than the Pirates.
For Pittsburgh, the '97 season represented a welcome blip on the
team's EKG, a sign of progress for a bunch of guys so young they
look as if they'd need fake IDs to get into Boogie Nights. The
radical youth movement was mandated in '96 by new owner Kevin
McClatchy, who at 35 is younger than eight Orioles. Between July
and December '96 general manager Cam Bonifay dutifully shrunk
the team's payroll by purging virtually all veteran talent in
exchange for 17 younger players. Since then the Pirates have
actually outspent most teams on scouting and development and
have cultivated one of the best farm systems in the majors.
Pittsburgh has three of the top 13 players on Baseball America's
Top 100 prospects list.
"When I bought the team, we had the third-worst record and
lowest attendance in baseball, and everybody thought we were
leaving town," McClatchy says. "By developing young talent, we
have given our fans one thing back--hope."
Even though the Pirates turned a $2 million profit last season,
that barely dented the $59 million debt McClatchy inherited when
he bought the team. The team's payroll could jump to as much as
$14 million this year, but that would still be among the lowest
in baseball. Put it this way: The same week the Red Sox made a
$75 million deal with Cy Young winner Pedro Martinez, Pittsburgh
signed its most significant new pitcher, Jeff Tabaka, a lefty
middle reliever with four career victories, for about $250,000.
It's a fact of baseball life that every winning team last season
spent at least $33 million.
Therefore, McClatchy--as well as many other owners--is convinced
that his club's salvation depends on moving into a new,
baseball-only ballpark. After Pittsburgh voters soundly rejected
a .5% sales tax to finance a stadium, McClatchy met with city
and county officials to concoct a new funding plan, which was
announced last week. He is cautiously optimistic that his team
will have a new home by 2001.
With that in mind, the franchise has tentatively begun to commit
to a more costly future. Though they entered '97 with only
Martin signed to a multiyear deal, the Pirates now have 10
players under long-term contracts. Pittsburgh still drew the
third fewest fans in the National League last year, but
attendance has increased by 750,000 from two seasons ago and
season-ticket sales for '98 are up 15% since last year. The
Pirates faithful are beginning to warm to their pesky team of
overachievers. While only Kevin Young (out for 35 games with a
thumb injury) had as many as 18 homers or 74 RBIs, and no
pitcher won more than 11 games, Pittsburgh held first place for
40 days and wasn't eliminated from the division race until the
season's final week.
Still, nobody in the organization is predicting a pennant in
this millennium. "There's a fine line between optimism and
realism," Bonifay says. "For our strategy to work we need
perfect timing. Our young players [Rich Loiselle, Jermaine
Allensworth, Freddy Garcia and Jason Kendall] must develop into
winners before they become too expensive. Frankly, we really
don't know if our plan is going to work."
Martin is intrigued enough by his team's future that he has
refused to decorate his house. He harbors a superstition that if
he puts anything up on the walls, he might be traded. Imagine
that--a Pirate who is worried that he might have to leave
Pittsburgh. "We're evolving," Martin says. "For years this
franchise was crawling on its hands and knees, and now we're
walking. There's a chance that someday we may be running, but
I'm just happy we're on our feet."