Not a Pretty Picture

July 11, 2010

With their rich heritage and jewel of a ballpark, the Pirates could be a major league treasure. Instead they're an object lesson in how a once-proud club can become the most futile franchise in sports

The man on the pregame show declares, "It's a great night for baseball." And he is right. It's in the mid-70s on this June evening, not even a little bit humid, and a low-slung sun splashes against the exposed steel beams of Pittsburgh's boundlessly charming PNC Park. Behind the outfield walls, boats zip up and down the Allegheny River. The Roberto Clemente Bridge, connecting the downtown to the ballpark, is closed to traffic to accommodate fans walking to the game from work. The price of a decent seat is cheaper than a movie ticket; for $5 you can get a pint of Iron City at the stadium brewpub; a kid's hot dog will set you back $1.50. When folks get all rhapsodic and lyrical about baseball—its pastoral appeal, how quintessentially American it is, the sport's ability to unite communities and generations—well, here's a convincing tableau.

But then, while The Who's Won't Get Fooled Again, a curious selection, blares from the P.A., the Pirates take the field and the game starts. Pittsburgh is hosting the Cubs, not exactly a National League powerhouse, but it doesn't much matter. The visitors take an early lead on a home run by Xavier Nady, a first baseman who, like many solid players on other teams, once played for Pittsburgh. In the field the Pirates misplay balls. At the plate they whiff early and often. Pittsburgh's first scoring opportunity is nullified when outfielder Lastings Milledge heedlessly tries to stretch a double into a triple and makes the final out of the inning at third base. The crowd of 11,334, less than a third of the park's capacity, is either too conditioned to bad baseball or simply too small to express much outrage.

It was, in other words, shaping up as a typical Pirates game. It's not just that the Pirates are bad: 30--52 through Sunday, losers of 21 of their last 30 games, the National League's worst offensive team (as measured by runs per game) and the second-worst pitching team in the majors (as measured by team ERA). It's that their badness is chronic. The team's last winning season came when George Bush was president. George H.W. Bush. The 17—soon to be 18—straight seasons with a sub-.500 record represents the longest losing streak in the history of major North American team sports. If baseball had soccer-style relegation, the Pirates would surely be in Triple A. Then again, given the no-names on their roster, their scant payroll of $35 million and their attempts to veil bad baseball with racing pierogi mascots, relentless giveaways (Commemorative Ceramic Stein Night!) and enough fireworks to blast a mine, games at PNC Park have the distinct echoes of the minor leagues.

Competition, by definition, yields losers as well as winners. Every league has bottom dwellers and sad-sack teams—if not for nearly two decades running. But what makes the state of the Pirates both sad and compelling is the team's history. This is an iconic franchise, a member of the National League since 1887 that since joining has won more than half its games, something longtime rival franchises such as the Phillies and the Braves can't claim. Pittsburgh has won the World Series five times—as many as the Giants; only one less than the Dodgers—and has been the base of operations for players on the order of Ralph Kiner, Bill Mazeroski, Roberto Clemente, Willie Stargell and a lithe, graceful Barry Bonds. "Luckily," says Manny Sanguillen, a former Pirates catcher, now the proprietor of a PNC Park barbecue concession, "people are still remembering the good times."

Lately the franchise tends to avoid outright irrelevance with unintentional comedy. In 2003 the Pirates made news when first baseman Randall Simon was arrested and fined $432 for swatting a Brewers sausage mascot with a bat during one of the encased-meat races at Miller Park. Two years ago the team was sufficiently desperate for pitching that it signed a pair of Indian cricket bowlers and reality TV contestants to contracts. Last month the club fired and rehired Andrew Kurtz, a 24-year-old who wore a dumpling costume in the aforementioned seventh-inning pierogi races, for railing on his Facebook page against recent contract extensions given to general manager Neal Huntington and manager John Russell.

Other locals have joined the ridicule. One T-shirt depicts an image of the Super Bowl trophy (Steelers) and the Stanley Cup (Penguins) and reads: PITTSBURGH, CITY OF CHAMPIONS ... AND THE PIRATES. It has gotten so bad that the Amazing Kreskin recently volunteered his "intuitive skills" to help the team. Really. "It's funny, but it's not," says Richard Pappa, 50, the CEO of a Pittsburgh tech company and lifelong fan. "This is a baseball town crying to be heard, but all we get is losing. You think about where this team used to be and just ask: What happened?"

It's a good question, but the incident report is complex. There hasn't been one seminal event or single colossal error that has sunk the Pirates' ship. Rather—fitting for a city situated at the convergence of three rivers—a confluence of factors has created this singular awfulness. Bad trades. Bad picks. Bad signings. Bad finances. Alone, none is insurmountable. But taken together, they create a death spiral for a faltering small-market team.

Talk with fans about the team's struggles and most will pinpoint the exact moment the downfall began. In Game 7 of the 1992 NLCS the Pirates were leading the Braves, a few outs from the World Series. In the ninth the Braves put together a few clutch hits and cut the Pirates' lead to 2--1. With two outs and the bases loaded, an Atlanta pinch hitter, Francisco Cabrera, smacked a single to leftfield. Sid Bream was the runner on second; in addition to being a former Pirate, he may have been the slowest man in baseball. No matter. He lumbered past the windmilling arms of the third base coach and narrowly beat the throw home by Bonds. Atlanta won the series. A few weeks later Bonds, who that year was named NL MVP for the second time in three seasons, left Pittsburgh as a free agent. Staff ace Doug Drabek, a former Cy Young Award winner, did the same. The Pirates haven't had a winning season since.

Over the next several years player salaries grew dramatically across baseball. Situated in a city with a relatively small metro population, an economic base transitioning from manufacturing to services and a limited market for local television and radio rights, the Pirates had a hard time generating revenue to stay competitive. Time and again, a prospect would show promise, only to be traded away because the team was unwilling or unable to offer a big contract when he became eligible for arbitration or free agency. The Pirates' regrettable trades over the two decades are too numerous to catalog here, but an illustrative example was the 2003 deal-cum-salary-dump that sent third baseman Aramis Ramirez, then a budding star, and veteran outfielder Kenny Lofton to the Cubs for infielders Bobby Hill and Jose Hernandez and minor league pitcher Matt Bruback. Hill and Hernandez provided few highlights in their brief tenures in Pittsburgh; Bruback never pitched in the majors. Ramirez, meanwhile, has been a two-time All-Star and knocked in 100 runs four times for Chicago.

When the team entered the free-agent market, the results were often shaky: Raul Mondesi, Derek Bell, Jeromy Burnitz and Pat Meares are among a litany of players, signed past their primes, who were productive elsewhere but fizzled in Pittsburgh. By virtue of its lousy record, the team has long held high picks in the annual amateur draft but has failed to capitalize with a consistency that is almost freakish. In '02, for instance, the Bucs used the first selection to take pitcher Bryan Bullington instead of B.J. Upton, Prince Fielder, Cole Hamels, Scott Kazmir, Nick Swisher or Jeff Francoeur. Bullington never won a game for Pittsburgh. Those six players that the Pirates passed on? Three have combined for four All-Star Game appearances.

Acts of commission were compounded by acts of omission. Unlike other small-market teams able to overcome an economic disadvantage by savvy talent evaluation and player development, the Pirates long had one of the least fertile farm systems. Whereas other small-cap teams, notably the A's and the Rays, made use of sabermetrics and data-driven analysis to assess players and roster moves, the Pirates tended to rely on the intuition of scouts. The result was both a roster in perpetual flux with no real nucleus and a gnawing sense that there was no real plan in place. "That was the problem," says Mets outfielder Jason Bay, who played for the Pirates from 2003 to '08 until he was, predictably, traded for prospects before he became eligible for free agency. "Everyone thinks it's about payroll. It's not. You can't field a team of 25 with guys mixed and matched. You have to have guys continuously develop."

As the Pirates struggled in the standings and their precarious financial health became plain to the naked eye, problems perpetuated. Aware of the franchise's desperation, other teams seldom offered them fair value for trades. Pressured to preserve their jobs, executives put short-term gains over the long-term health of the organization. In July 2007 Pittsburgh acquired Matt Morris, a former 20-game winner, from the Giants for two prospects. It was the rare case of the Pirates taking on salary, not dumping it: Morris was making $10 million a year, more than 25% of his new team's payroll at the time. It was a popular move with some restless fans but backfired spectacularly when the aging Morris won just three games in 16 starts before being released the following year. When, say, the Yankees lavish $40 million on a pitcher like Carl Pavano and he fails miserably, they can cover their tracks with more spending and replace him in the rotation with another high-priced free agent. When the Pirates lose a $10 million bet, it can set the team back years. "Short-term fixes don't work in life, and they certainly don't work in baseball," says Frank Coonelly, the team's president since late 2007. "In fact, they're a big part of the reason we're in this situation."

One way to end the vicious cycle might be to spend more freely, even if it means taking on debt. But as the team has fallen further out of contention, "big spends" have been harder to justify. The 2009 Pirates won only 62 games. According to the metric Win Shares, a measurement of a player's impact on his team's record, the team would have won 69 games with the addition of a star pitcher, say, Roy Halladay, to the rotation. Committing more than $10 million to a player who, statistically, will only take your win total from 62 to 69? That's a tough sell with the board of directors. On the other hand, how does a team improve when every roster move fails a basic return-on-investment analysis? "We're not [averse to spending money]," says Huntington. "But we're going to be smart about it."

Raising more revenue would help. But how? It's the rare losing team that can increase ticket prices and not adversely affect demand; or attract more sponsors; or renegotiate its local television deals, currently worth roughly $15 million a year, among the lowest in the majors. While it's clearly the franchise's great asset, PNC Park is a complicating factor as well. The intimate stadium, opened in 2001 and constructed at a cost of $262 million, was built mostly with public funds. This eased the Pirates' financial burden but has added to fan disenchantment. The common lament goes like this: We gave this team a new home with money that could have been spent on parks or public fields or schools. When the Pirates don't field a competitive team as the Steelers and the Penguins do, they're not holding up their end of the bargain.

Father Bill Schwartz, a Roman Catholic priest, has been attending games since he was a kid, sitting in the $1 seats at Forbes Field. Now 67, he wears a Pirates shirt under his vestment, Pirates shoelaces on his loafers and wraps his toy poodle, Rusty, in a yellow-and-black Afghan. Instead of going on vacations, he leaves his parish in Beaver, Pa., and goes to games at PNC Park. "I have never lost faith in my home team, and I call myself a resilient fan," he says. "But this, as a topic, makes me cry. The people of Pittsburgh have been cheated." Then he launches into a rousing sermon about misspent dollars, bad personnel moves and the absence of starting pitching on the current team. "We're promoting bobbleheads and fireworks," he says forlornly. "Why not just promote a better team?"

In part to address discontent among fans like Schwartz, the Pirates took the unusual step of disclosing some of their finances to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in December. It became clear that the team all but owes its existence to revenue sharing, the de facto welfare policy whereby major league baseball's haves contribute money that is pooled and distributed to the have-nots in the hope of making the sport more competitive. The paper reported that the Pirates received $36 million from revenue sharing last season and an additional $30 million from a central revenue fund (generated by merchandise licensing and national television and advanced media money) divvied up equally among teams. For perspective, the Pirates reportedly will earn $24 million in gate receipts for this entire season. (For further perspective, the Yankees can earn that much in ticket sales for a seven-game homestand.) When the team reported a profit of roughly $5.5 million last year, it provoked spit takes in some corners. Fans, agents and some of baseball's big-market owners wondered aloud whether the Pirates weren't baseball's equivalent of The Producers, an outfit that has figured out a way to earn more money with a flop than with a hit.

It is here that Bob Nutting draws the line. The team's affable, plain-speaking chairman and principal owner, Nutting, 48, made his money in a family-owned newspaper chain. He assumed majority ownership in 2007 when he bought out Kevin McClatchy, the leader of a group that bought the franchise for $95 million in 1996. It's perhaps a fitting metaphor for the Pirates: One magnate of a dying industry taking over for another. McClatchy, the scion of a family-owned publishing company, was a newspaper baron as well. Upon taking over the team he was hailed as the Pirates' savior. He squelched talk that the team would move and was instrumental in pushing through the public-funding plan for the construction of PNC Park. But by the end of his time with the Pirates, McClatchy was railing against the unfairness of baseball's economic system, calling for a salary cap and insisting that teams that spent on expensive free agents must be drinking "funny water."

Nutting makes no excuses for the team's prolonged slump. ("I'm as disappointed as anyone.") He's aware of the various pressures besetting the franchise. ("No question we have slimmer margins for mistakes.") He empathizes with fans. ("We no longer have a right to ask for patience.") But his grin vanishes, and he shifts in his seat when talk turns to money. He asserts emphatically that no one is getting rich from losing games. Nutting claims that he draws no salary and that all profits are reinvested in the team. And the paltry payroll, currently lowest in the majors? "Improving the product is the requirement [for spending revenue-sharing funds]," he says. "Major League Baseball doesn't just believe we're spending the money appropriately, they're actively supportive of our plan." (An MLB spokesman confirms this characterization.)

Rather than lavish money on free agents and payroll, Nutting's plan has been to build—rebuild doesn't even apply here—"the core of the organization from within," investing in scouting, development and flooding the system with prospects. To this end, since January 2008 the Pirates have spent more than $5 million on a new academy in the Dominican Republic and $2 million toward refurbishing the Pirate City facility in Bradenton, Fla., and created an entire baseball analytics department. Undeniably, there have been some recent signs of encouragement. The Pirates' long-neglected farm system is now considered middle tier. Three young players, infielder Pedro Alvarez, outfielder Jose Tabata and pitcher Brad Lincoln, are among the most highly regarded prospects in baseball; all three made their major league debuts last month. Attendance at PNC Park is even up incrementally compared with last season, from an average of 18,486 through the first 39 home dates in '09 to 20,175 this year. "I'm committed to turning this organization around," says Nutting, who also vigorously denies speculation he's preparing for a sale. "And we're taking a different approach [than past ownership]."

The current executives are quick to divorce themselves from the previous regime. And unlike their predecessors, Nutting et al will not blame the economics of baseball for the team's predicament. Any suggestion that it's a suckers' game when teams are expected to compete evenly with opponents capable of generating multiples in revenue is quickly shot down. "The 'Woe is me, look at our market size,' that doesn't play here," says Coonelly, who was a lawyer in the commissioner's office before joining the Pirates. Adds Nutting, "If you do it the right way, you can be successful under this system."

Besides, there are other silver linings. Were this another, flusher team, a full half of the current Pirates might still be in the minors. "It's a great opportunity for a lot of guys," says centerfielder Andrew McCutchen, 23, a minor leaguer a little more than a year ago who was hitting .299 with 20 stolen bases through Sunday. For the few fans armed with vast reserves of patience, there are rewards. Mark Fritzges, an Atlantic Records executive based in Pittsburgh, has been a longtime Pirates season-ticket holder. For $24 per seat—the cost of a bleacher seat in some parks—he and his wife sit a few rows behind home plate. They never worry about parking or fighting traffic. "Hey, I love baseball. Sure I wish the Pirates were better—or even just more consistent—but I get to come here," he says, gesturing around PNC, "and I enjoy seeing the other teams."

But Fritzges is the exception. For all the progress at the franchise's subcutaneous layers—Nutting gushes about the success of the Double A team in Altoona; Coonelly notes the Class A Bradenton Marauders' eight All-Stars—most fans will be skeptical until they see success at the major league level. Even if Alvarez or Tabata or Lincoln is as good as advertised, will the Pirates commit the resources to keeping them? The response of Huntington, while admirably realistic, is unlikely to inspire great waves of confidence. He vows the Pirates' payroll will increase significantly in the coming years but then adds, "If a player wants to chase every last dollar, he's probably not going to be here. If he buys into what we're doing, he'll leave some money on the table and he'll stay."

And yet, justified as the fans might be in their cynicism, perhaps Pirates executives have justification for their optimism. On that gorgeous June evening, the Pirates trailed the Cubs 2--1 in the eighth inning when Neil Walker came to bat. Walker had recently been summoned from the minors to replace Aki Iwamura, the team's highest-paid position player ($4.9 million), who was hitting .172 before his benching. Yet unlike so many new Pirates, Walker's name resonated with fans. A local kid who'd grown up going to Pittsburgh games—"I was six years old," he volunteers, "the last time we had a winning season"—he came up through the system, precisely the kind of organically harvested player Nutting has been touting.

Walker turned on a Ted Lilly fastball and drove it over the leftfield fence for his first big league home run, a two-run shot that gave Pittsburgh the lead. A few minutes later the Pirates closed out the game, defeating the Cubs (and their $147 million payroll) 3--2. Fans celebrated like it was 1979. Walker was mobbed by his new teammates. Naturally, this triggered still another fireworks display. As the blazes danced in the night sky over the ballpark and the Allegheny, maybe, just maybe, they represented glimmers of hope.

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The Bucs weren't always like this. "Luckily," says Sanguillen, "people are still remembering the good times."

"We're promoting bobbleheads and fireworks," says one rabid fan. "Why not just promote a better team?

Bucco Blues

You don't rack up 17 straight losing seasons without creating some memories along the way. Here are some, ahem, highlights of the Pirates' dismal run.

1992

So it begins: Sid Bream lumbers home from second on Francisco Cabrera's hit to left and the Braves beat the Bucs in the bottom of the ninth in Game 7 of the NLCS.

1993

Barry Bonds (above) wins his second straight MVP award—this one with the Giants, who signed him to a record six-year, $43 million free-agent contract before the season.

1993

After Dodgers pitcher Kevin Gross beans a Pirate, manager Jim Leyland charges him and they wrestle on the mound.

1996

New owner Kevin McClatchy announces he's slashing the '97 payroll. Leyland asks to be released from his contract.

1997

The Pirates, with a $9 million payroll, stay in the NL Central race until the final week. The upstarts' nickname: the Freak Show.

1998

Pitchers Marc Wilkins and Jeff Tabaka bicker over a card game and throw blows. The Bucs take their cards seriously: Wilkins breaks Tabaka's jaw.

2001

Five days after the seventh 100-loss season in franchise history ends, the Pirates thank fans for their support by raising ticket prices for 2002.

2002

After hitting .173 in '01, Derek Bell objects to having to compete for a job in camp by "going into Operation Shutdown." He's soon released.

2006

The Bucs drop 13 straight games in June, the franchise's longest losing streak since 1900.

2007

During a game on July 1, some 1,000 frustrated fans stage a walkout, leaving PNC Park. Says Andy Chomos, the group's leader, "I'm ticked off."

2008

Fans get bobbleheads in honor of Tom Gorzelanny. No one notices before the giveaway that the right middle finger extends from his glove.

2009

The Bucs open their spring training schedule with a 6--4 loss—to a team from Manatee Community College in Bradenton, Fla.

2010

On April 22 the Brewers whip the Pirates 20--0, the worst loss in franchise history. Milwaukee sweeps the three-game series by a combined score of 36--1.

PHOTOPhotograph by KEITH SRAKOCIC/APSKY'S THE LIMIT? With young talents like Milledge and especially Alvarez (right), the Pirates hope the quality of play will soon match the stunning view at PNC Park. PHOTOGARY A. VASQUEZ/US PRESSWIREGOOD THING NO ONE'S WATCHING The few fans who have shown up at PNC Park this season have supported a team that's last in the NL in runs, second to last in pitching and in May suffered the worst loss (20--0) in team history. PHOTOROSS D. FRANKLIN/AP[See caption above] PHOTOPAT SULLIVAN/AP[See caption above] PHOTOAL TIELEMANS[See caption above] PHOTOPETER DIANA/PITTSBURGH POST-GAZETTE/ZUMAPRESS.COM[See caption above] PHOTOWILLIAM R. SMITH (BONDS) PHOTOGENE PUSKAR/AP (FAN) PHOTORONALD C. MODRA (BREAM) PHOTOERIC DRAPER/AP (LEYLAND) PHOTOKEITH SRAKOCIC/AP (MCCLATCHY) PHOTOGENE J. PUSKAR/AP (FREAKS) PHOTOTOM PIGEON/GETTY IMAGES (BELL) PHOTOGENE J. PUSKAR/AP (WALKOUT) PHOTO

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)