Kovacevic: Busting 10 myths, baseball edition


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Roberto Clemente statue, yesterday. - DEJAN KOVACEVIC / DKPS

No one likes learning that they're wrong.

I don't like it myself. It's unsettling. I'll find myself pausing awkwardly, trying to contort a way out of it, no matter how compelling the new evidence in front of me.

Once in 2018 and another time in 2019, I wrote myth-busting columns, aimed entirely at things that were commonly expressed regarding the Steelers but weren't at all accurate. Some of those entries were just for fun, but most were rooted in hard fact, and almost all of them drew a negative, even nasty general reaction from the readership. Undoubtedly for the very reason cited above.

On that note, then, you might hate this column, which will derail 10 commonly expressed myths regarding the Pirates and Major League Baseball.

MYTH: Bob Nutting's a billionaire.

REALITY: He isn't. He almost certainly would be if he were to sell his dominant share of the franchise, given that David Glass just sold the Royals for $1 billion last August. But he hasn't done that yet, and he's got no evident intention of doing so.

The billionaire thing began -- and really took off -- after a 2017 article in Forbes paraphrased one in the New York Times that had mentioned Nutting in the same paragraph as owners who are billionaires but didn't actually cite him as one. Forbes was then cited as being definitive on the matter, which was hilarious since they acknowledged fully attributing to the Times. Because that's all it takes now, with everyone pilfering everyone else's material in journalism, to mess up something like that.

Anyway, again, Nutting isn't a billionaire. Wasn't then. Isn't now.

Doesn't mean he shouldn't be spending a lot more on the franchise. The team was worth an estimated $247 million when he took controlling ownership in 2007, and it's obviously quadrupled in the interim while payroll hasn't increased anywhere near that degree.

My point with this is singular: He isn't a billionaire. People in the industry who aren't exactly his friends will attest to that. And there are some who say his greatest problem is that he's among baseball's most under-capitalized owners.

MYTH: No one cares about the Pirates.

REALITY: Wow, no.

This often is spoken out of spite, but it can also be serious. It's wrong in any context.

Sure, attendance at PNC Park has been down, with the 2019 average crowd of 18,412 ranking 27th among Major League Baseball's teams. But that figure in 2013, the year of Johnny Cueto and the Blackout game, was 28,210 for a ranking of 19th, and they haven't ranked higher than 15th in four decades. So that's not the best barometer.

TV ratings are much more powerful, and the Pirates still kill it on those: Their 4.95 Nielsen rating in 2019 was the eighth-highest in baseball, this despite one of the ugliest second-half collapses in franchise history. Even if going by the total number of viewers -- which would figure to be an unfair fight against far larger markets -- they ranked 17th.

For further perspective, the Penguins' average local rating on the same network, AT&T SportsNet, was 6.38 for the 2018-19 season. That was second-best among all of the NHL's U.S. -based teams ... and not much higher than that of the Pirates, even though the Pirates are on TV twice as often and at odder times such as weekday matinees.

MYTH: The Pirates' previous front office was good at acquiring amateur talent, but not developing it.


The worst thing about the maturation of Tyler Glasnow and Austin Meadows with the Rays has been that they gave birth to this completely incorrect concept.

Yes, both were talented. Yes, both were good draft picks. Yes, both of them -- and they'd both concur with this -- were handled well enough through the minors. And yes, both blossomed in St. Petersburg rather than Pittsburgh.

But the greatest flaw that should've been exposed in both cases was that there weren't nearly enough of them who'd made it even this far.

Go ahead, give it a try: Name anyone beyond Glasnow, Meadows, Gerrit Cole and Jameson Taillon -- the latter two having been a No. 1 and No. 2 overall draft pick, respectively -- who fit this category.



That was the real problem Neal Huntington and Kyle Stark had in overseeing such a miserable system. To the extreme that, once one or two of these players finally did arrive on shore, how those prospects would get handled would put them under the harshest of microscopes. Meaning management. And of course, they failed.

[caption id="attachment_972782" align="aligncenter" width="640"] Andrew McCutchen. - AP[/caption]

MYTH: The Pirates never keep their good players.

REALITY: I probably should've opened with this one, it's repeated so frequently and yet so blindly.

Here's a diabolical game to play with someone who brings this up: Ask them to name one such player the team failed to keep. Then, after they answer Andrew McCutchen, as almost everyone will, ask them which players they received in return. Then, finally, ask them to name the team's current left fielder, even spotting them the B-R-Y-A-N.

The blank stare that follows is priceless.

Here's a fact: On March 16, 2012, Cutch was signed to a six-year, $51.5 million extension. The Pirates were forced to top by $500,000 an extension just signed by the Reds and Jay Bruce and by $250,000 one just signed by Justin Upton and the Diamondbacks.

By the time he left, Cutch had nine full seasons in Pittsburgh, including his lone MVP and all five of his All-Star appearances, and a total of 13 years in the organization.

In all but the most outdated, old-fashioned notions, that's keeping a good player.

As much as everyone, including Cutch himself, would've loved a storybook stay here, it's impossible to discuss this without stressing that he was dealt at exactly the right time and for arguably the best trade return of Huntington's tenure in Bryan Reynolds and Kyle Crick.

All of the above is a model for how to handle such a situation in a non-cap league.

Similar extensions were signed with Starling Marte, Gregory Polanco and Felipe Vazquez, retaining their rights into what would've been their free-agency years. Not one was in a position to walk away.

The big exception, as no one needs to be reminded, was Cole. But Cole, like Josh Bell, is represented by Scott Boras, who authoritatively recommends free agency to all of his most accomplished clients, leaving the teams that employ them little say in the matter. Boras wants to see what money gets flung his way from New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and so forth.

Cole didn't have to go in a terrible trade, but he had to go. So will Bell. It won't skew any of the other stuff I just mentioned.

MYTH: Major League Baseball needs a salary floor.

REALITY: No. It needs a salary cap.

Anytime I breathe the term 'cap' when it comes to baseball, it takes milliseconds for someone to respond with, 'Yeah, but it'll only work if there's a floor.

There's always a floor in every cap system. And revenue sharing. That's how a cap system works. Local monies, even the TV contracts, are fed into the same big pool that's then evenly distributed among all teams, same as happens now with national TV, Internet, merchandise and the like. From there, all teams are required to spend within the same range, meaning a cap and a floor. There are no exceptions to this.

Hockey fans from a couple decades back will recall that a huge portion of every NHL fan's conversation was about payroll. Who was cheap, who had the unfair advantage, the whole deal. Today, since the cap, it almost never comes up. Not at either extreme.

Same thing would happen in baseball. But it's got to be the full cap model used by the NFL, NHL, NBA, MLS and every other league everywhere. There's no need to accentuate 'floor.'

MYTH: The union would never go for it.

REALITY: It's the reflexive rebuttal, but it doesn't mean a blessed thing.

In the NHL, enough owners banded together in 2004 and battled their way through a lost year to get their cap. That union was run back then by hardliner Bob Goodenow, and it's been run since by Donald Fehr, who'd previously run baseball's union and was more responsible than anyone for carving out that reputation that they'd never concede to a cap. They did. They had no choice. At the end of the day, the owners held all the cards, and the players could only stay off the ice and watch their careers expire.

In the NFL, the owners just turned toward football's rank-and-file who, on a 53-man roster, comprise the overwhelming majority of voters, and got themselves a deal that the sport's elite players hated. The cap stayed in place. No guaranteed contracts. Franchise tags. All of it remained.

Don't tell me those two approaches couldn't be merged toward getting it done in baseball.

Heck, if nothing else, stick in the players' faces the compelling math that shows more of them will make more money in a cap system, and not just the Mike Trout types. It'll win in a landslide if it isn't coerced.

[caption id="attachment_972781" align="aligncenter" width="640"] Varying cap sizes. - SPORTS ILLUSTRATED[/caption]

MYTH: There's no proof of Barry Bonds cheating.

REALITY: Come on, you knew I'd get to this.

In fact, there's more proof of Bonds cheating than of any cheater in the history of organized sport. 'Game of Shadows,' the 2006 book by San Francisco Chronicle reporters Mark Fainaru-Wada and Lance Williams, was the result of a two-year investigation involving more than 200 interviews and more than 1,000 documents, including affidavits from federal investigators and leaked grand jury testimony.

To say that what's within is exhaustive, detailed and convincing would be massive understatement. There's never been a book like it.

Bonds initially sued the two reporters but only because, as his lawyers would acknowledge in court, they objected to the use of the leaked testimony. Two months later, Bonds dropped the suit because, as also was acknowledged, the lawyers had been subpoenaed to try to get them to divulge the source of their leak. (They didn't, of course.)

There was never a legal objection from Bonds or his lawyers to the actual content of the book, which was eternally damning.

If anyone wants more proof than what's in there, I'm afraid I'm all out of tin foil.

MYTH: The Pirates are rebuilding.

REALITY: Ben Cherington's only meaningful move since taking over was to trade Marte, who'd openly declared to a Dominican reporter that he wanted out. Cherington had three prospects he'd sought, two directly from the Diamondbacks, and another if he could acquire additional international bonus cap space. He got all three.

That's some rebuild, huh?

No, really, list all the other moves that've been made as part of this rebuild.

(Tap, tap, tap.)

But if it's stated often enough on social media or talk radio, and then enough repeat it, then it becomes just like the truth.

Look, I'm not saying it won't become one at some stage. The players at hand have to perform to illustrate their value toward the future. If they don't, Cherington would be a dope to cling to the status quo.

But man alive, the dire pronouncements that followed this singular move -- of a player who'd been largely under-appreciated here, I might add -- were mind-blowing. And most of them originating from people who, at the risk of repeating myself, have no idea who Reynolds is, much less Kevin Newman, Mitch Keller and other younger players already in the fold.

Rebuilding in sports begins with players like those.

MYTH: The Pirates never spend.

REALITY: I know, I know. At least hear me out.

In 2007, the first year under Nutting as controlling owner, payroll was $41,444,500. In 2017, payroll was $109,460,508. As I've written a gazillion times, the latter wasn't enough, certainly not after the 2015 team that won 98 games and needed to be buttressed financially after a couple of key pitching losses. That's when the owner needs to step up, and he didn't.

That said, it's not as if there's no precedent for payroll increasing, as I just laid out up there. That's $68 million in the upward direction, to a record high for the franchise, and I'm here to remind that only everyone anticipated back in 2007 that the Pirates would never reach nine figures. They did.

Yet again, it wasn't enough. But I'm emphasizing this -- along with the Pirates having literally broken the draft system by ponying up a $5 million bonus for Bell that had all the big spenders crying -- to at least contribute some perspective.

Nutting told management back then the same thing he's told Cherington and Travis Williams: Payroll isn't a year-by-year declaration. It's about making the most of the funds at hand, even if that means holding them one or two years to raise them when needed. I have zero -- I mean absolute zero -- doubt that neither Cherington nor Williams takes his current job if that weren't in place.

[caption id="attachment_908392" align="aligncenter" width="640"] Bob Nutting meeting with DK Pittsburgh Sports staff. - MATT SUNDAY / DKPS[/caption]

MYTH: I changed my tune on the Pirates.

REALITY: This one's really annoying. Also more off the mark than a Dovydas Neverauskas fastball.

When I spent the final two months of the 2019 season opening every single baseball column with the same two words -- "Fire everyone" -- the meaning couldn't have been clearer, at least to regular readers. The front office had failed over its dozen years at most everything, and the owner, the only person who could fire everyone, needed to fire everyone.

When Nutting didn't do that, firing only Clint Hurdle in what I called scapegoating, I saw it a dereliction of duty. I saw an owner who couldn't possibly have cared about the baseball product. I saw an owner who was either too detached or too timid to make the much bigger moves that needed to be made. And within that, I sounded as loud an alarm as I'd sounded in my career as a columnist, essentially a call to action.

You know, the whole #OurTeamNotHis thing.

Even the mayor piped up about that column.

Three weeks later, Nutting fired everyone. All of them. Huntington, Stark, even Frank Coonelly at the very top.

I neither know nor care if Nutting was influenced by that column or any of the reaction it brought. He's told me he read it, but that's honestly as much as I know or would want to know.

What counted to me was that he did the right thing, regardless of how long he took -- and it's not as if I didn't bring that up with him, as well -- and that, in good talks we've had since, he's relayed reasonable explanations for everything that went into both his decisions and his timetable.

He flipped the script. Not me.

And I'll be damned if, in the face of new information or new circumstances, I'll stay stupidly stubborn rather than always adjusting my stance to reflect ... you know, reality.

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