Justice Is Served

February 5, 2010 1:48 AM

Local paper urges Nutting to sell Pirates


To outsiders, Pittsburgh might not be a city they understand well. All they can see is blue-collar city tied to a dying industry like "Big Steel" and with an affinity for the Steelers.

The outsiders might misunderstand the deeply-rooted pride and unflagging loyalty that the locals here cling to, but the outsiders would understand if they lived in the city for a year or two.

For all the things Pittsburgh might not be, it has plenty that points to what it is. The locals tend to dwell on the latter while ignoring the former. Because to fret about not being, oh, as urbane or as sophisticated as its bigger brother Philadelphia is to waste a worry.

Hell, the locals can also say their city ain't Cleveland, and they would be right, too.

For Pittsburgh, a city with an intellectual underpinning that seems to get ignored, can boast that it has plenty in common with Philadelphia, which includes a low-tolerance for mediocrity.

The city's residents showed that to the Penguins, the defending Stanley Cup champs, when the hockey team was the laughingstock of the NHL, and they're displaying that same intolerance now toward the Pirates, whose 17 seasons of ineptitude have stretched the city's tolerance to the breaking point.

How deep that city's frustration runs played out Thursday in an open letter The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the city's largest daily, wrote to Pirates owner Bob Nutting.

Essentially calling Nutting a lousy owner, The Post-Gazette advised him to sell the franchise, which has a potential buyer in Mario Lemieux and Ron Burkle, the two men who built the Penguins into a championship team.

Lemieux, a hockey icon, and Burkle have offered to buy the Pirates, although the Nutting family hasn't indicated it has an interest in selling. That's isn't going to please people in Pittsburgh, a city I got to know well while working for The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review a decade ago. They want someone else to run the Pirates - anybody, it seems, but the Nutting family.

They have, critics contend, refused to open their wallets to buy talent or to keep talent, and even the Nutting supporters would be hard-pressed to argue to the contrary after the Pirates dealt Jason Bay, Xavier Nady and Freddy Sanchez in the past two seasons.

And what the Nuttings have done in the offseason promises just one thing: the franchise will push its streak of losing seasons to 18. No team in either league has been as sorry for as long as the Pirates, including the woeful Nationals and the cash-poor Marlins.

Those facts weren't lost on The Post-Gazette, whose letter to the Nuttings reflected the sentiments of the locals.

"The Pirates ownership of the Nutting era has never spent much on players," the newspaper said. "Yet team officials over the years have resisted the notion that this has any bearing on the 17 losing seasons. Even this year, the franchise will be a bottom feeder in terms of total salary in Major League Baseball, with the added twist that ownership is now trying to sell cheapness as a virtue, saying it is necessary to save money for when today's Pirates prospects blossom into the superstars the team will want to keep tomorrow. If only it were so."

The newspaper has it right. An owner can't run a sports franchise on the cheap. To spend nickels instead of dollars dooms his franchise to the kind of futility that has marked the Pirates for nearly two decades. 

With a ballpark to die for and a storied history, fans have been slow to turn their backs on the Pirates altogether. But no sports fan has endless patience, even in cities that revere their teams, and even if the fans in Pittsburgh did, they have reached the end now.

They want change, and it starts with finding an owner who can play in the financial hemisphere that other midmarket teams do. No one expects a Pirates payroll that touches $100 million, but a team that can't touch $60 million in its spending can't win consistently or, in the case of the Pirates, can't win at all.

And if Nutting can't afford to buy talent and keep it, he can't afford to own a Major League team - and certainly not own a team in a market that would dote over a winner.

Lemieux and Burkle proved that fact when they put together a hockey team that was worth watching. If Nutting does sell them the Pirates, Lemieux and Burkle might duplicate their hockey success in baseball. 

Surely, they can't be the abject failures as owners that Nutting and his tight-fisted ownership group have been.

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