Neal Huntington opened his press conference with a mini-monologue on this seismic Sunday afternoon at PNC Park, addressing that the Pirates had just fired Clint Hurdle.
“Where do we go now?" Huntington began one segment. "Honor Clint. Appreciate Clint."
As God is my guide, that happened. A grown bleeping man spoke those four words. About someone who, an hour earlier, he'd basically shoved out of the building forever. About someone he and others in the front office had been burying as a way to save their own jobs.
Yeah, imagine that meeting agenda the next morning at 115 Federal:
• Honor Clint
• Appreciate Clint
• Undo a dozen years of damage
They think you're stupid. They think I'm stupid. They think we're all stupid.
And you know what?
We are. We have been for a very long time.
Maybe that needs to change.
I took a long walk away from the ballpark after this news. We journalists are conditioned to be objective, to observe and even opine but never to cross the line into outright caring. I'd like to think that in a lifetime of doing this, that's a line I walk as well as anyone.
Not this time.
I'd been in Hurdle's office early in the morning, just the two of us. I thanked him for his professionalism through a trying year for all concerned. He thanked me back, then asked about the business and the family. That's how he is. Good man.
I'd been chatting with Starling Marte, as he rode up on his scooter. I was remarking at what a solid, consistent season he'd had. Ray Searage, pretending to be peeved that we were blocking the hallway, playfully barked out, "Hey, you two want to move it along?" Searage thanked me for my coverage of his work way back in 2010, the year he became pitching coach full-time. He'd always given me some credit for that, though it wasn't at all deserved. Another good man.
Both of their firings -- and Searage will be next -- will have been on merit. It was a bad, bad year. That costs good people jobs.
But to hear the National League's most tenured general manager speak those four words up there ... with such insulting ease ... with such disregard for how they could only be taken seriously by a complete moron ... man, that brought it all rushing back.
This is who they are. It's who Huntington is. It's who Frank Coonelly is. And you'd damned well better believe it's who Bob Nutting is.
I've never been more convinced of that than on this day.
Because it was the controlling owner of the franchise who, after 12 years that have wrought eight losing seasons, nine non-playoff seasons, zero division titles, the documented lousiest drafting and developing of any team in Major League Baseball, maybe the worst trade anyone's made in the past decade, the smallest crowds this gorgeous ballpark's ever seen and the lowest ebb of public faith in our lifetime ... that guy spoke these words: “I strongly believe that Neal Huntington and the leadership team that he has assembled are the right people to continue to lead our baseball operations department.”
He 'strongly believes' that.
I didn't come close to scratching the surface of this front office's deficiencies, or that Nutting himself had weighed firing Huntington back in 2011 ... but he 'strongly believes' that.
Or so he says to us. Because he thinks we're stupid. They all do.
And again, that's because we are. We really, really are.
The Pirates have been so bad for so long -- no World Series since 1979, no division title since 1992, not a single new pennant added to PNC Park since its opening in 2001 -- that we're victimized. Even with the three-year respite, we've become so conditioned to baseball failure that it's accepted that this is just how it is.
Woe is us, you know?
We think the Pirates can't ever succeed because, unlike the NFL and NHL, where we routinely watch our teams win, there's no salary cap in baseball. Never mind that the Rays have the majors' fourth-lowest payroll and the Brewers are based in the majors' smallest market, and both are headed to the playoffs.
We think the Pirates can't ever succeed because they'll never get the TV, gate and other revenues to meaningfully build up a payroll because they're trapped in poor, pitiful Pittsburgh — the way Nutting, Coonelly and Huntington always portray the market. Never mind that, if talking pure market size, Pittsburgh and St. Louis are an identical match except that Pittsburgh has a far healthier economy, and the Cardinals just drew 3 million. Again. Never mind that the Brewers, in a market two-thirds the size of Pittsburgh, nearly achieved 3 million themselves. Never mind that the Steelers and Penguins overcome their own limitations by generally being good at what they do.
We think the Pirates can't ever succeed because the one-and-done wild cards weren't enough, that they didn't have "the ace" that every team needs to win one of those. Never mind that Charlie Morton, Tyler Glasnow and the current version of Gerrit Cole all would fit anyone's definition of that role, but they were all given away for next to nothing.
We think all of this, and we can't get it out of our heads.
Woe is us.
We also think it's hopeless that the Pirates can succeed under Nutting. And on this one we're dead-on.
My own first such feeling on that front came after the 2015 season, when his follow-up to a 98-win team was to cut payroll and watch his front office build a rotation of Jon Niese, Ryan Vogelsong, Jeff Locke and Juan Nicasio. That burned a bridge for me. They weren't to be taken seriously as a sports entity, to discard a contender over a few bucks.
My next one was this. All of this.
There was a chance here for Nutting to hit reset. The TV contract and stadium naming rights deals are almost expired, and a new front office could have revived at least some confidence and, in turn, maybe pumped a little more money into payroll. (I know, I know.) The team's performance offered the perfect opportunity to push every plunger in sight, on and off the field.
Nope. Nothing. His response was to agree to scapegoat Hurdle and to stand behind the two men most responsible for assisting him in making untold millions off this venture every year.
But here's one other thing we think: Nutting won't sell. Or Nutting can't be made to sell.
I'll beg to differ.
A brief digression, if I might: The team's official name remains, as ever, the Pittsburgh Baseball Club. It's right there in the fine print.
That's because it's our city's baseball club. Born here in 1882, having joined the National League in 1887, having created the first World Series in 1903, having the legendary Honus Wagner beat Ty Cobb's Tigers for their first championship in 1909, having Wagner elected to the inaugural Hall of Fame class, having Bill Mazeroski hit the greatest home run since the sport's invention, having Roberto Clemente become our gift to the world, having Willie Stargell and others bring five total crowns and, through that, 133 years of lore.
This stuff gets disputed but, by my reckoning, only the Reds are older, as far as being anchored to one city.
The Pirates are a baseball institution. They're a civic institution. And when coupled with our city's unrivaled background in the Negro Leagues, that only multiplies.
I snapped a few photos walking across the Clemente Bridge toward Downtown on this summery Sunday, just to kind of absorb it all on the final day of baseball season:
As Pittsburgh as it gets, huh?
This team is ours. It's not his.
I'm born and raised here, and the Pirates have been mine since my grandpap first played the Gunner's broadcast on a transistor radio for me. They're yours, too. They aren't his.
I once mentioned something along these lines to Nutting himself. It was a morning in Bradenton, as I recall. I motioned over toward Mazeroski and Bill Virdon sitting on a couple of overturned ball buckets, puffing on cigars, and posited in a friendly way that the franchise was merely his on loan, that it really was bigger than anyone who'll ever own it.
It's hard to describe now, but he didn't really seem to get that.
Now I know why: He doesn't care. He's never cared, not even back when I was naively convinced he did.
He's bought out almost all of his minority owners, primarily so that he'd have all deciding votes and so that fewer questions would be asked. My understanding is that he's now at roughly 90 percent. He's invested in the Dominican Republic -- his pet project upon taking control -- but he's begged and borrowed governments for facility upgrades in Bradenton and here in Pittsburgh. He's taken the $50 million bonus check all 30 teams received a couple years ago and converted it into dramatic payroll reductions.
He's watched all of the terrible things that have happened to this once-proud franchise, all the empty seats, all the erosion of trust, and he's done nothing about it.
Nevermind what he says. Those are the actions of a man who doesn't care. Not about the core product. Not about the team being competitive. Only about the money.
I don't know about you, but I'm feeling pretty stupid.
Because the answer's been obvious all along: Force him to sell.
By coming together as Pittsburghers to reclaim a Pittsburgh institution.
Start with this: Where in hell have the government leaders been in this?
My Lord, if there's anything a politician loves more than pandering, it'd be pandering on the most bipartisan of issues. And yet, there's never been a peep. Not out of Bill Peduto, the city's mayor and highly visible sports commentator on every subject but this one. Not out of Rich Fitzgerald, the Allegheny County commissioner. Not out of Tom Wolf, the commonwealth's governor. Not even from members of city or county councils or U.S. and state senators and representatives across all party lines, the kind who were oh-so-vocal at the time of the stadium debate but now seem terrified to be the first to pipe up.
What's remotely intimidating about this?
Which constituents could possibly protest?
The Pirates can't leave Pittsburgh. Anyone with even a rudimentary understanding of the state of professional sports today can attest to this, as such events are almost always tied to a seriously deficient stadium, which this one will probably never be. And that's to say nothing of all the historical pieces I listed above. The Pirates couldn't be moved any more than the Reds could.
Put another way: There's a Clemente Day now across baseball. There's no Clemente Day with no Pirates. They're linked into eternity.
PNC Park cost $262 million to construct. Of that, only $44 million officially came from the Pirates -- then under Kevin McClatchy's ownership, but with Ogden Nutting, Bob's father, as a dominant investor -- and even then, $30 million of that came from PNC Bank for the naming rights. Total cost to the team: $14 million.
The stadium was built by taxpayers. And in that harried process to fund it, promises were made in public by McClatchy that the Pirates would operate in good faith toward maintaining a competitive payroll within their means.
That hasn't happened. It most definitely isn't happening now. Not when the Brewers are currently at $128.6 million and the Pirates are at $82.9 million, barely above the forever-freeloading Marlins.
That's pathetic. And indefensible. And very much worth serious investigation by our elected leaders, given the massive -- and ongoing -- public investment being made in the team.
Think Nutting will like that?
Think he'll like being dragged before government committees and asked to explain grossly violating, if not outright laws, then at the least the spirit of the agreement struck between the city, the state and the team leading into 2001?
Think he'll like facing the very real possibility of being asked to open his books?
Don't laugh that one off. Sure, the Pirates are a private company, but those lines get blurred big-time when private companies repeatedly have their hands out at the public trough. Besides, there's ample precedent for governments cracking down on irresponsible franchise owners when they aren't holding up their end.
In 2003, the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce, acting in conjunction with the Wisconsin legislature, had become so deeply skeptical of the Brewers slashing payroll shortly after Miller Park had been built -- all with public funds -- that they convened a blue-ribbon group of leaders, both from various governmental entities and even the local corporate community, to approach the Brewers aggressively about proving their word.
Think about that for a second: The Brewers could have said no, but look at everyone they'd have been ticking off. Including potential or existing sponsors. The MMAC alone counted nearly $7 million in season-ticket revenue among its members.
That's how it's done.
And that's how it got done: The MMAC stepped up, 50 state lawmakers signed a resolution demanding to see the Brewers' books, and a committee was created to do precisely that, with the Brewers' reluctant consent.
The punchline: In less than a year, Bud Selig's family, openly sick of being embroiled in endless controversy, sold the franchise to Mark Attanasio, the outgoing, gregarious and richly competitive owner who's since shepherded the team to unprecedented heights.
Who's going to do that here?
Where are the civic servants?
Where's the corporate community?
People routinely fuss over attendance figures as some form of uprising, but that has nearly no impact on Nutting. Low revenue only brings him a bigger shared check from MLB, so it all evens out. But these other things take the discourse to another level, even a national one, as happened in the recent past with the Marlins. That's how real change is affected.
Where are those entities?
Who will lead?
Who's going to assure this fan, around whom Joe Musgrove wrapped his arm on this Sunday, that her favorite team cares even a fraction as much as she does?
Where are all those Pittsburghers, current and former, with the wealth and connections required to make a serious approach?
I'm talking about Chuck Greenberg, a tremendous human who bleeds for the Pirates and has baseball ownership on his resume with the Rangers. I'm talking about the various CEOs and other benefactors in the community, people I won't name but who also care for the institution and are exasperated by how it's disintegrated. And well, as long as I'm on this roll, I might as well cite Ron Burkle and Mario Lemieux, who tried it once -- both told me at the time how much they'd have loved it -- and could easily try again.
Imagine the Penguins and Pirates with the same ownership on the same local TV network with all that shared profit. My goodness.
Where is everyone?
If you care, you've already got the edge over the current guy. Make it matter.
I can't do this. The media can't do this, though enough invective is certainly sent this way to try to prompt more action. I can write a piece like this, and it'll be completely ignored by the Pirates. Because they can't be shamed and, as I've just delineated, they never have cause for concern about action of any kind.
Those figures above can do something.
You can do something.
Don't tell me you don't care. That's a waste of both our breaths. You might not care about this incarnation of the Pirates under Nutting, but the institution — to repeat — is bigger than him. You can care about the Pirates in the same way you'd care if they rode up a wrecking ball to the Point fountain. Or dissolved the Pittsburgh Symphony. Or shuttered one of the Carnegie Museums.
The Pirates are older than all of those. They're a part of all of us. They've been passed down for more generations than just about anything else that exists in our local culture.
Let's wake up. Let's work together. Let's finally all stop being so stupid.
MATT SUNDAY GALLERY
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