Interview: Nutting, Williams on accountability, transparency


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Travis Williams and Bob Nutting address DK Pittsburgh Sports staff. - MATT SUNDAY / DKPS

The Pirates formally introduced Travis Williams as their next team president Monday afternoon at PNC Park.

Williams comes to the Pirates from the NHL. He spent eight seasons as the Penguins chief operating officer from 2011-2018 and left the Penguins last November to become president of business operations with the Islanders.

On Monday, Williams and Pirates owner/chairman of the board Bob Nutting sat down with DKPittsburghSports.com's Dejan Kovacevic, Matt Sunday and me, as well as independent magazine writer Jim Lachimia, to discuss the current state of the franchise. It was one of a series of media sessions both men did throughout the day.

Below is a full transcript of our session, starting with an opening statement from Nutting:

Bob Nutting: I think recognizing how we got to this point is important. There's no question that throughout the course of last season, in the second half, it became increasingly clear to everyone, even an occasional writer [motions toward DK], that changes need to be made. And whether it was the performance on the field, or it was the performance off the field, whether it was the issues in the clubhouse, whether it was watching some of our players perform at an elite level with other clubs throughout the season. We can come up with the list, which you have done [motions again toward DK], which you all know, but the level of frustration that built up in all of our fans and, frankly, the level of frustration that I felt, simply drove to a decision that we have to make significant change. Not just a change.

And as you know, I am somewhat systematic and I'm going to be somewhat careful, and so I really began discussions back in August.

Dejan Kovacevic: You are so slow, Bob, with this stuff. It's amazing.

Nutting: But we want to be right. And I think we are right.

DK: You did this in 2007. You did the same thing. I remember it.

Nutting: And so, we began a process, and did really work around the Commissioner's office, people I respect in the game, around the game. Really did not the proverbial deep dive, but really rounding out where are we falling short. What are doing, where are the areas where we need to really drive change.

DK: You were talking to people on the outside, basically?

Nutting: Oh, yeah.

DK: I mean, that's the only way it really can be done. That's why I'm asking. OK.

Nutting: And, frankly, we have good people inside that I listen to, as well. People within the company, within the family. But I think I always like to get outside perspective and, in our view, I think multiple lenses will always have the best result on any solution. There is no question that moving forward with dramatic change was due. I think in terms of the sequence in the timeline of the process, we needed to make a move at the end of the season. With Clint Hurdle, I really expected us to, we gave him the opportunity to manage the last game on the field, and it didn't work out exactly the way we had hoped. It was meant to be a respectful offer to him, and it came across as him moving out, being moved out before the last game. And I really like and respect Clint, Neal Huntington and Frank Coonelly. And we will be positive and respectful and honor the contributions that all three of them made. They came into an organization that was extremely challenged, they led us to the playoffs three years. We made real progress, and it's time for us to move forward and have that next chapter, which is, most importantly, where we are here today.

It was critically important to me to have Travis physically in place before we began a general manager search. And I think having that position open for a week or two weeks or some length of time, really, would have put everyone in a difficult and untenable position. So having that search process start today, as soon as Travis was here, made sense.

DK: There's a difference there between now and 2007, because in 2007, you made the decision that you did related to Dave Littlefield at the time for a specific reason. This was more of a case of you just want to make sure you had your guy in place.

Nutting: No question. I need to take responsibility for the decision with Neal. I worked with him for more than a decade. I have nothing but appreciation and respect. I needed to have the conversation one-on-one with him yesterday, and I think that is just purely out of respect for him.

DK: I've never presumed it's anybody other than you that made the Neal move.

Nutting: Correct. Going forward, I think it is critically important that Travis is available and here to build the team going forward. The relationship with the general manager and the president will be critically important. I think we've done a good job getting the manager search started. Travis has already been on the phone with many of those managers to begin to build a bridge. We have the introduction. We have the baseline. We're going to put a short pause on this process and restart it in a few weeks when we have the GM in place, because that will also be a critical relationship. But I think the flow and the timeline really is going to work out very well for us.

And so, we have the right guy in Pittsburgh. We have the right guy at the right time. Someone with a deep passion for and commitment to understanding of the city, of our fan base and our community. Someone who has a deep history of success with a very well-run organization and will bring both ideas and history, knowledge and real success along with him. And the right leader to drive us forward in both the baseball side and on the business side.

We have a lot of work to get done, but I think we are positioned exactly where we need to be, and I couldn't be more enthusiastic.

DK: Real candor here: How'd you get him? How'd you hook up? How'd you get his number?

Nutting: I've known Travis for a long time.

DK: You have? From over there at the Penguins?

Travis Williams: I was with Reed Smith for 12 years, and as outside counsel. So through those years, I actually knew Bob's dad, Ogden, before I knew Bob. And then through the transition from Kevin McClatchy to the Nutting family. So I've known Bob a long time. And even separate from that, we actually had a deal that we worked on where I was representing somebody selling a business to Bob. And so we've dealt with each other in that capacity. So we've known each other a long, long time.

DK: You got your recommendations and everything from across the river, I presume? They all kind of like him.

Nutting: Everybody that I know likes him, and I think that we also have known each other, liked each other for a long time. I've gone to hockey games, and I know that I made a point each time of turning to my wife, Leslie, and saying, "Leslie, this is someone who has to be in our organization at some point going forward." And that was half a decade ago. It was an individual who I have absolute trust, faith and belief in, and who has the trust, faith and belief of Pittsburgh. And the combination of those two really is what we need because trust, faith and belief are areas where we're light. We have real work to do, and this is a beginning of rebuilding all of those with the city of Pittsburgh.

DK: You know, you stole my first question. This is for both of you, because it's in that regard. The trust/faith thing, it has to begin with as much transparency as you can possibly offer. Because as you know, Bob, better than anyone else, the narrative of Bob Nutting, the evil billionaire who is hoarding gazillions of dollars of cash, there are only X number of ways you can address that. And you guys know that's going to be the number one thing that still has to be addressed. How do you achieve that? I don't have the answer to that.

Nutting: And I'm sure we don't have the perfect answer to that either, but there is no question that the existing narrative is incorrect. It's false. The idea that we are not investing appropriately in the team simply is not true. Dejan, you, 10 years ago, went through the numbers. We went through it.

DK: I remember it.

Nutting: And your reaction then was, "This is worse than I thought it was."

DK: Worse than I'd thought, yeah. And the same thing goes for the books whenever it was a few years before that, too. And that's the Forbes stuff, where a lot of this emits.

Nutting: And so, we need to find, today is actually not the day to do this, but that is something that we need to rebuild the faith and trust because I know it's not an accurate narrative.

I know that the economic circumstances of baseball really are creating some limitations for us, and I believe that we are investing not effectively enough. What we need to do is be more effective in draft, more effective in development, make sure we continue the development at the major league level. There are other teams in similar markets that have continued to show success, and we showed success in '13, '14 and '15. We are never going to use it as an excuse, but we have to be more transparent, we have to be more open, and we have to convince ourselves and our fans and you how much we care about moving this forward. And that, Travis, is going to fall on you. That falls on me. We need to do that together.

Williams: Absolutely.

Nutting: Because I fundamentally believe it's true.

DK: And Travis, you come from an environment in the NHL where nobody over there ever had to explain these things because you were in a cap league.

Williams: It's a different environment, for sure. And that'll be a challenge. I don't say that to make excuses. That's something we need to figure out, collectively. Bringing the right people around the table and put them in the right places to help us figure that out, and the first step in that is going to be the search for the GM.

DK: You've also been part of a labor issue that turned out to be very successful for the NHL's owners. Here, it's always felt like the Pirates have just fallen in line with whatever it is Bud Selig or Rob Manfred wanted. Can the Pirates be one of these teams that say, 'Hey, this isn't fair. This isn't right?' Can the Pirates fight a little?

Nutting: I think we need to find that find that balance. Yes, I need to be a more effective advocate for Pittsburgh and the Pirates as we head into labor negotiations. I need to be a more effective advocate for small markets as we head in, because the playing field not only is not level, but got worse in the last Collective Bargaining Agreement. We took a significant step back. We need to do that.

At the same time, I believe that we have excellent, competent leadership at the commissioner's office. I think Rob really does a good job. I think Dan Halem really does a good job, and they do their best to represent the totality of the game. Finding that balance as well is one that won't be done publicly, but needs to be done effectively. Again, as we're heading into this next era of Pittsburgh Pirates baseball and next era of labor negotiations at the commissioners office, we need to make some progress because we will never use market size as an excuse. We will never use payroll as an excuse.

As you've seen in the past, there's not a huge amount of room that we can simply turn the faucet back on raw payroll dollars. We can reallocate and maybe need to really rethink how we're allocating internally. All of those issues are on the table. All of those need to be a collaborative, forward look with, hopefully, the commissioner's office, other smaller markets and doing what's in the best interest of the Pittsburgh Pirates.

DK: Right, like when the Red Sox were mad at you over Josh Bell. Blew up the whole system. But that's why. They complained and they fought.

Jim Lachimia: What aspects of this particular job appeal to you, and how do you believe that you can help the organization move forward?

Williams: Well, there are a number of things.

On a personal level, the ability to come home was certainly a really important factor. My family and I, this is our city, and the Pirates are our team. I've always been a baseball fan, As I told Bob, I rooted for the Big Red Machine in the 70s because I grew up in the eastern side of Indiana, but when I came to western Pennsylvania in the late 80s, Bobby Bonilla, Barry Bonds and Jim Leyland were my guys. Fell in love with the Pirates.

Obviously, getting the chance to work with them as outside counsel. The ability to come home, both personally and professionally, was a real big part of it. Getting the ability, when Bob gave me the call, the ability to come back to Pittsburgh and have an impact, because I do believe I can have a positive impact on this organization, in a meaningful way, was really important. I like challenges. I went to New York to chase a challenge, and in one year, we did a lot of great things there. We built a staff from scratch, went from 20 people to 95 people in one year of building a business operation. We doubled the season ticket holder base. And we've got a building out of the ground.

DK: Was that mostly arena-based, with the Islanders' new building?

Williams: Performance and arena-based. We had no business operations when I joined because the Barclays Center ran the business. So we ramped up the entire business operations side. I like challenges. That's why I went there. But the opportunity to come home, have this challenge, work here. Most importantly, though, and Bob when he first called me, the call actually started with, "what do you think our challenges are and how do you think you can overcome them? You've got some Pittsburgh experience and you know us." And I said, "do you want the honest truth?" And he said yes, so I gave him the honest truth, and then we turned around to "Can you come here and help me fix it?"

And I said the first question, which we went back to, was, "Are you committed to winning?"

DK: Who said that?

Williams: I said it to Bob. I said, "Are you committed to winning?" And Bob said, "Absolutely committed to winning." And I said, "If you're committed to winning, and you're going to provide the support and the resources necessary to do that?" And that does not necessarily mean payroll. "If you're able to provide those, and support me in making the changes we need to make and doing the things we need to do to in order to get to where you want to be, I'm all in." My family was literally moving here before I'm even going to get here because that's how excited we were to get back.

I think the ability to come back and bring back a winning tradition, a culture of success, translating from what we did across the river to here, is something that I think is going to be a lot of fun to work on. I was here in '13 -- I was sharing this with Bob -- I brought my boys to the game, and we were all chanting "Cue-to!" I think we honestly believe we were the ones who made him drop the ball."

DK: Yeah, that was you!

Williams: Me and 35,000 others. I can tell you honestly, and I don't say this lightly, because I went through three Stanley Cup championships and parades and celebrations, that is probably, in my opinion, one of the top five professional sports moments in Pittsburgh history. And I want to catch that lightning in a bottle.

DK: I thought you were going to say top five recently. It's No. 1 recently.

Williams: Absolutely. I want to capture that lightning in a bottle, and not just for those who have worked in this organization for years and years, towards that goal, but most importantly, for our fans. That's what we're in this business for, is to entertain and let people share in our joy and success. That's what I'm looking forward to.

Alex Stumpf: Travis, you talked about that relationship with the fans in the press release. We heard Bob's take on it, but rebuilding that relationship, what do you personally feel your job is in that?

Williams: I think you have to break it down this way: At the end of the day, our fans are the lifeblood of our business. We don't survive without them. If they don't show up, we don't have any revenues. And it's not just a transactional sense, because these people invest, not just with their time, not just with their money ... they invest with their hearts. And that's one thing we always remembered across the river, and we believed it. They were stakeholders in our business. The key is that you have to treat them with a passion that they deliver back to the team.

I mean, they have a passion for our team. It's clear. I think you just have to look at social media. Anger's not bad. Anger's not bad. If there's no anger, then there's apathy. Apathy is much worse than anger.

DK: I've heard that for years from the Penguins.

Williams: I know Bob doesn't like to hear that, but that's because people care. And if they care, all you have to do is listen to them. And if you listen to them, you take what they're saying, and then you develop a plan in order to be able to deliver something to them that is meaningful and you deliver on that promise at the end of the day. You're not going to just tell them, "We're going to make changes, and we demand your respect. We demand that you show up." We have to earn that. We have to earn that.

And listen, it's not going to be an overnight change. We're not going to flip a switch and all of a sudden we're going to be in the World Series tomorrow. It's going to be a journey. But what we need to do, is an honest, open, transparent communication with the fans of getting a GM in place, developing a plan, saying, 'Here's our plan. Here's our road map. Come on the journey with us. Come with us. Because it's going to be all that much more rewarding and exciting when we get to where we're going to get, when we deliver that championship, when we deliver that success. It's going to be all that much rewarding. So come on the journey with us."

AJS: This may be looking a little too far ahead since there isn't a GM in place, whenever you say journey, does that indicate more of a rebuild in your eyes, or is this way too far ahead?

Williams: Way too far ahead for me to comment specifically on if this a reboot or rebuild or refresh. There's lots of words you can use. I think at the end of the day, for me, first and most important is the baseball side, and there's lots to do on the business side that we're going to be doing in parallel. But first and foremost, we've got to get a solid GM in place.

That's no disrespect to Neal. Listen, I have all the upmost respect for Frank, for Neal and Clint. I knew them all very well -- Frank and Clint more so than Neal -- but respected them for what they stood for. There was nobody more passionate or committed to this organization than those three individuals. Call who you want. Just had a couple years here where recently there hasn't been a lot of success. But we're not going to look back and place blame and point fingers. We're going to build on the good things that they've done and continue to move forward. Whether that's a reboot, refresh, whatever it may be. A new GM coming in, a great baseball mind, who knows within the system that we're in and this market place that we're in and can figure out and crack the code together with all of us.

It's not just going to be on him, either. It's going to be on all of us to figure out and crack that code and deliver a winning tradition. That's what we're going to need to do.

DK: Is part of the code, you brought up, Bob, the reallocation from within. One thing that I've heard, as hilarious as this will sound to some people who don't pay as close attention to your organization as I have, is that you actually grossly over-spend in the minor leagues. And there's other ways to allocate from within. Like there's ... I'll say this if you won't, but there's weird stuff that went on in the minor leagues for a really long time. I'm sure it was pretty expensive, in addition to that. Can funding like that make its way into major-league payroll or into some other area?

Nutting: Without commenting anything on specific areas, Major League Baseball does a comparison outlier report of where are you significantly overspending, underspending. Where do you sit in the spectrum? And there are areas where we are way out on the aggressive edge. I think that's been intentional. I think it will be getting a fresh review. But there are certainly areas in development overall.

We've been third or fourth in spending in development throughout the minor leagues. If we move to a midpoint to the league or move to the midpoint between Tampa Bay and Oakland, for example, there are meaningful dollars that could be reallocated. Is that the right thing to do? I don't know. Do we look at all of those, absolutely. Is that the kind of discussion Travis and the new general manager need to have, thinking about how do we maximize opportunity? We are not going to back away from bringing talent in. We're not going to back away from a commitment to developing and then continuing to develop at the major-league level. Do we need to rethink how it's done, how efficiently it's done, where it's done? How we're giving direction to young pitchers and how we're developing so they're giving their very best performances at PNC Park while they're playing in a Pirate uniform as opposed to someone else?

Yes, all of the above. And I think that's where the broad range demanded broad change of direction.

DK: OK, you bring in a GM. GM takes a hard look, obviously he's going to need some time, at the organizational roster even beyond the 40. And the GM approaches you and you have, arguably, two directions in which you can go. One is the hard sell, which is the, "Man, we just need to blow this up. Trade Starling Marte, trade whoever." We've seen teams do that. There's a negative terms for it, too -- tanking -- that teams have been accused of. But we've also seen examples around baseball, regardless of whatever euphemistic term is applied to it, not least of which is Houston. There's seemingly two directions that you can go. Both require some boldness. Are you prepared to do either one?

Nutting: I think that final comment is maybe the most helpful because a middle path, whether it's a middle path of trying to bring in players who are pretty good, or whether a middle path is not making a firm commitment to a strategy or a plan. And perhaps there are times when a middle path intentionally chosen is exactly the right path to take.

But I agree that all of those are issues that we need to have on the table, and those are issues, frankly, that our new general manager, Travis and me need to review as we move forward. Those are the pieces that we need to spend the next three to six months. That review period has to be on how do we build that plan going forward, not spending it on evaluation of where we are. And I think that's the reason for, among others, the acceleration for the announcement today with Neal. We need to be building, going forward. Your first six months need to be building the next chapter, not simply evaluating the next one.

DK: But it's hard, man. Because they believe, the players do. I was talking with Bell the other day. The group that's in there -- you know this, Bob -- that group through July, they weren't just winning hearts and minds, they were ...

Nutting: They felt it.

DK: Oh, yeah. That stuff wasn't happening by accident. It's like when you see the youngish age of the group, particularly, Kevin Newman, Bryan Reynolds and these guys. You know what I'm saying?

Nutting: But I think that's why it's not at all obvious to me that blowing it up now is the right path as opposed to building around this core. I think both are legitimate alternatives. We need to pick a lane. We need to pick a lane, move forward full speed ahead. I think that, as usual, you are identifying exactly the right issues, and you and I both will look forward to Travis' answers.

Brian Warecki: Before we wrap up, Bob, do you want to share with Jim, being the features writer, the story of the picture of Travis and the Stanley Cup and the kids? It's a good one.

Nutting: No, that's OK.

Warecki: You have to do it. Not the fact that it's your screensaver, but in general.

Nutting: Well, it actually is a good story because we think about the reasons why Travis is an ideal -- not just good but ideal -- candidate.

We talked about the connection to Pittsburgh. We talked about the connection to Penguins. The connection to success, and frankly, I like that he has half a dozen kids, all of whom are here, as well. And so the picture that I threatened to put on my screensaver, but I'm a new grandfather, so my daughter would be upset with me if I bumped my grandson off the page, but it's a picture of Travis and his wife and five and a half of his kids -- one's a cellphone -- with the Stanley Cup. And in terms of a Pittsburgh family, who is committed to excellence, a world championship, celebrating it. The only thing I can imagine that would be more fun to have, Travis, is when you all pose with the World Series trophy, as a family, together here in Pittsburgh. And I will put that on my screensaver.

DK: This is it for me: I've have done some writing in the past month, and it's gotten a little bit of a reaction from the city about the Pirates as civic institution. And I want to get both of your thoughts on that. Because you mentioned earlier that whether it's anger or whatever it is, even if they're criticizing you or they're trying to exhort some kind of action from you, how uplifting is it to see what the Pirates mean to this city? The way the Pirates run through this city's veins, really, honestly, more than any other team? And I'd say the same thing if I was talking to Mario right now.

Nutting: And I think that it is really important that we understand it, we see it, we honor it. As you and I have talked for a long time, I really do take seriously the responsibility of stewardship of an organization that's been in Pittsburgh since 1887. I have a little slice of it, a little portion, but it was here well before me, and it'll be here long after I'm gone. And I need to honor and respect that tradition.

I believe we're doing everything we can to drive this organization forward with the connection to the fans, with the connection to performance, on baseball and honoring that connection to the city. Today is an enormous step forward to get us down that path. We're not there yet. You're right, it's going to be a journey. But there's no question in my mind that we're committed to doing it, to doing it well. Frankly, we've done it before. We've fallen off the path. We need to get back on a path, and bring families like yours, Travis, back in for another playoff game. That was one of the great moments in all of our lives. We want to be there again. We need to be there again, and I think we're starting down that path to put us there.

DK: You're not going to top that, Travis, so want to just let him close there?

Williams (laughing): OK.


[caption id="attachment_908228" align="aligncenter" width="1000"] Bob Nutting, Travis Williams meet with DKPittsburghSports.com, PNC Park, Oct. 28, 2019 -- MATT SUNDAY / DKPS[/caption]

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