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Saturday, June 6, 2009

Do the Pirates Still Belong in Pittsburgh?

The trade by the Pittsburgh Pirates of All-Star outfielder Nate McLouth is another reminder that the great tradition and history of the Prates is now just that, history.

It has been 17 years since the Pittsburgh Pirates last posted a winning record and for most of that run they haven’t even been close.

Since last winning the National League East in 1992, the Pirates have posted a record of 1129-1447 (.438). Despite annually having one of the first picks in the amateur player draft, the team has been getting consistently worse in recent years.

Pittsburgh has lost at least 87 games every year since 2000 and has lost either 94 or 95 games in each of the last four seasons.

It wasn’t always like this for one of baseball’s oldest franchises.

Even with all their losing of the last two decades, the Pirates still have an all-time winning record. Since the franchise began in 1882 as the Pittsburgh Alleghenys, their all-time record is 9,716-9,508 (.505).

Led by Hall of Fame shortstop Honus Wagner, the Pirates played in the first World Series of the modern era, losing to Boston in eight games following the 1903 season. They won the World Series title in 1909 and again in 1925.

Few World Series Championships have been as improbable, or as dramatic, as Pittsburgh’s seven-game victory over the New York Yankees following the 1960 season.

Pittsburgh lost games by the scores of 16-3, 12-0 and 10-0, but claimed the championship with a dramatic 10-9 victory in the seventh game of the series. Bill Mazeroski’s home run in the bottom of the ninth was the first walk-off home run to win a World Series and remains one of the most memorable moments in series history.

Between 1970 and 1979, the Pirates reached the National League Championship Series six times and won the World Series in 1971 and 1979.

Led by young superstar Barry Bonds, the Pirates reached three straight National League Championship Series from 1990-1992. They lost in six games to Cincinnati in 1990 and then dropped dramatic seven game series to the Atlanta Braves in both 1991 and 1992.

Bonds left for San Francisco after the 1992 season and the Pirates have never been able to recover.

Instead of legendary figures such as Wagner, Roberto Clemente, Willie Stargell, Pie Traynor and the Waner brothers, the Pirates of the last 17 years have included a steady stream of forgettable players who have done little to maintain the great Pirate tradition.

Pittsburgh and the Western portion of Pennsylvania is a proud area with a great history for supporting their sports franchises.

Growing up, my family annually made at least one summer trip to Western Pennsylvania, where my mother grew up, to visit relatives. No matter what kind of season the Pirates were having, you could always count on the nightly broadcast of their games to be what people were watching all over the region.

However, fan devotion hasn’t always translated into steady attendance for the club.

The only time in team history that Pittsburgh led the National League in attendance was during their World Series season of 1925. Since 1950, Pittsburgh has never ranked higher than third in the league in attendance and, as you might expect, the numbers in recent years has been quite dismal.

In 1979, when the “We Are Family” Pirates won a seven-game World Series against Baltimore, Pittsburgh ranked only 10th in the National League with an average nightly attendance of 17,722. During their playoff seasons from 1990-1992 they never ranked better than sixth in the league in attendance with an average just below 25,000 per game.

In fact, when they faced Cincinnati in the 1990 National League Championship Series, Reds fans willing to make the trek into Pennsylvania purchased many of the tickets for the games in Pittsburgh.

Since 1993, Pittsburgh has finished near the league bottom in attendance every season and only once has averaged more than 23,000 fans per game.

That came in 2001 when the Pirates opened their new publicly funded baseball-only stadium–PNC Park–after years of sharing Three Rivers Stadium with the Steelers.

After gutting the roster and fielding a team that consistently had one of baseball’s lowest payrolls (less than $11 million in 1997), ownership claimed they HAD TO HAVE the new ballpark if they wanted to get back to being competitive.

In 2001, more people watched a baseball game in Pittsburgh than in any other season in franchise history. Total attendance of 2,464,870 was nearly 400,000 better than in the previous high season of 1991.

However, the record crowds were greeted by one of the worst teams in franchise history as the Pirates went 62-100 to finish in last place in their division.

Once the allure of the new stadium wore off, attendance went back to normal and the Pirates have not averaged more than 23,000 fans in a season since. So far in 2009, a cold spring has helped contribute to an attendance average of less than 17,000 fans per game.

It is easy to blame the fans and lack of ticket revenue for why the Pirates haven’t been competitive for 17 years, but I think it is more accurate to place the blame squarely on the front office. While other teams with similar annual revenue have made obvious efforts to try and be competitive, the Pirates’ front office seems more interested in turning a profit than in making the moves needed to put a quality product on the field.

While the Pirates may not annually generate the amount of revenue earned by teams such as Boston and New York, they also spend a far smaller percentage of their total revenue on payroll than most other teams.

When looking at 2005 revenue and total team payroll for 2006, the Pirates ranked 28th in the league in the amount of total revenue spent on payroll at 43%. Comparably, the Yankees ranked third at 74% and the Red Sox were tied with Houston for eighth at 60%.

Thanks in part to revenue sharing money received from teams like the Yankees and Red Sox; the Pirates were reportedly among the most successful teams in the league on the balance sheet with a profit of around $34 million during 2005-2006. However, on the field the team posted a 134-190 (.413) record.

In 2001, the Pirates had a team payroll of $57 million. In 2008, the payroll was $48 million, after being just $38 million in 2005.

Teams such as the Florida Marlins and Oakland A’s have proven that even without having a high team payroll you can have periods of competitiveness if you build a sound foundation through the minor league system.

Part of the problem for the Pirates has been an inability to convert high draft choices into productive major league players.

Pittsburgh has chosen in the top 10 in the amateur draft 10 times since 1995, yet only two of those players –Kris Benson and Paul Maholm–have had even limited success at the major league level.

In addition, due to the front office mentality that profits trump success, the team has become the de-facto farm team for winning franchises. Every time an All-Star caliber player like McLouth, Benson, Jason Kendall, Aramis Ramirez, Brian Giles, Xavier Nady and Jason Bay starts to show promise, the Pirates quickly trade the player for additional prospects.

The standard line is that they are building for the future, but the reality is that the player had become too expensive for the Pirates’ small salary budget.

In 2009, the Pirates posted a winning record in April (11-10) for the first time since 2002 and hopes were high that this might be the season when they finally started playing for today, instead of tomorrow. However, the trade of McLouth, who was hitting .256 with nine home runs and 34 RBI at the time of the trade, illustrates the reality that for anyone waiting for the Pirates to again be competitive tomorrow will likely never come.

With the Steelers having claimed the most recent Super Bowl title and the Penguins in the NHL Finals for the second straight season, it is clear that professional sports teams can enjoy success in Pittsburgh. However, Pittsburgh has an economy that even in good economic times does not compare with most other cities that house three or more professional sports teams.

There is little question that unless the Pirates front office is forced to increase the percentage of revenue spent on building the on-the-field product the team will continue to flounder. If that is the case, it is likely that attendance will continue to decline as fans choose to spend their limited sports entertainment budgets on teams that actually care about winning.

It is doubtful that Major League Baseball would ever actually move one of its original franchises, but if attendance continues to fall and ownership continues to show little interest in building a winner, you have to wonder if one day there will be no other choice.

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