I love baseball. And for the past 20-plus years, I have loved the Pirates. As a kid, I actually grew up as a fan of the Los Angeles Dodgers. But when I left home for college in the late 1980s — and then really left home, for places like Wisconsin and Louisiana — I found myself following the Pirates as a way to stay connected. Yet despite having been a fan for more than half of my life, I've never had a chance to enjoy a winning season.
Every Pirates fan alive can tell some version of this story, of course. But I have a layer of scar tissue many fans don't have. A special reason to feel sympathetic with the hapless players out on the field.
I used to work for the Nuttings, too.
I didn't work directly for Bob Nutting, the current president and majority owner of the Pittsburgh Pirates. But I was the managing editor of a Nutting-owned publication located in an Ohio River town — one of about 40 newspapers owned by the family. In baseball parlance, I was manager of one of the organization's minor minor-league teams, like the Jamestown Jammers or the Gulf Coast Pirates.
Working for the Nuttings, like being a Pirates fan, was full of head-scratching moments. It wasn't just the right-wing opinion-page commentary. Decisions were made based purely on the bottom line, with personnel hired not because they were the most talented people out there, but because they were the cheapest.
But at least saving money was a management strategy I could understand. Other front-office priorities were tougher to figure. One Thanksgiving, I wrote a column that used the phrase "fart jokes." When I returned from the holiday, I was told by my publisher how upsetting such language was, and that it would not be tolerated. I was then presented with a written reprimand I had to sign. I assume it's still sitting in my personnel file, socked away inside a special vault in Wheeling.
A few months later, I found better work elsewhere and left the company. Sort of. Because for the past several years, trying to love this Pirates organization has made me feel like I'm working for the Nuttings all over again.
For starters, there's the franchise's bottom-line approach to staff. The Pirates' 2013 payroll of $62.5 million ranks them 26th out of Major League Baseball's 30 teams. And when they do spend money, it's often for questionable hires. Brandon Inge? Jonathan Sanchez? Casey McGhee for Chad "Fucking" Qualls?!?!
At press time, the Pirates were 1-5, and despite some strong outings from pitchers A.J. Burnett, Wandy Rodriguez and James McDonald, the offense has been nonexistent. So far this year, the Pirates have a league-worst team batting average of .119 — 56 points lower than the next-worst team — and only two players hitting above .200.
Also, it's hard not to be reminded of my reprimand every time the Pirates front office devotes so much energy to knee-jerk responses. Remember Andrew Kurtz, the pierogi racer who was fired — and later reinstated, after a wave of nationwide mockery — for criticizing Pirates management on Facebook? Or Estelle Aveersa, the Kennedy Township bar-owner who earned the wrath of the Pirates front office — and a call from Pirates general manager Frank Coonelly — for offering a drink special for each Pirates loss during a 2011 winless streak?
Despite it all, I will dutifully trudge out to the ballpark a dozen times or so this season. I'll watch every game I can on TV. I'm not a fan of how the Nuttings do business — any business. But in some ways, walking away from a job can be easier than walking away from a team that you are invested in.
I know it sounds crazy. If you're not a sports person, you won't get it. But owners always have us over a barrel. Baseball fans, like too many employees, have only one option if they don't like management decisions: heading for the exit. And even if we did stop attending games, the Pirates would still get our money, thanks to their taxpayer-funded stadium.
Major League Baseball needs a way to punish owners who don't spend enough on their teams, who seem content with mediocrity.
If the Nuttings can reprimand me for mentioning flatulence, Major League Baseball should be able to punish them for stinking up the North Side.