Pittsburgh Pirates President Frank Coonelly has taken his share of the heat for the team's record-breaking 20-year losing streak. No other baseball team — or professional sports franchise on the continent, for that matter — has amassed so many consecutive losing seasons.
But things are looking up for the Pirates. At a press conference last week at the Western Pennsylvania Sports Museum, Coonelly spoke about the organization's first winning season since 1992, flanked by local leaders who touted how much the city and region have grown over the past couple decades as well. After the event, he sat down with City Paper to talk about the effort involved in turning around one of the country's most unsuccessful sports franchises.
Pirates fans have been waiting since '92 for the team to post a winning record. Are you surprised the team had so much success this season?
It's been a long road to get here and it's taken longer than I would have liked. It was long and oftentimes painful. But we showed real tangible evidence of improvement in each of the last two years. We weren't able to finish the job, but we're confident that we could finish the job this year and take another important step.
What are your expectations for the club moving forward? Now that the team has secured a winning season, would anything less than a deep post-season run be satisfying?
Not satisfying, no. We won't be satisfied until we put a sixth championship banner up at PNC Park.
What do you attribute the team's recent success to?
There's been a building process that has been ongoing now — this is the sixth season of it. So we've infused the team with young talent that's worked its way up through the system ― both talent that we've signed internationally and through the draft. Then General Manager Neal Huntington and his team went out to fill holes that we had in the roster this off-season, and made some very strong acquisitions. So he's brought in players that have filled some real needs for us and we've had a core of [young] players who have developed and matured over the last three years.
Are there signs this season isn't a fluke ― that the team is set up for competitive seasons going forward?
We hope this will be the first of many years of not only winning, but [of] championship-caliber baseball in Pittsburgh. Our minor-league system has moved from being ranked at or toward the bottom of all Major League Baseball organizations to certainly a top-five organization that will continue to feed talent to Pittsburgh.
I imagine when you're 10 years into a streak of losing seasons, it can be tough to build morale. What do you say to a team, to an organization, that might feel like things aren't turning around? How do you play that next game so you feel like we've got a shot every time?
Great question, and one of the greatest challenges that any leader has. [It's] a challenge I experienced ... when things aren't going well to continue to exude confidence in the plan, exude confidence in the program and the process, and [to] keep everyone with whom you work focused on the plan and the process. This is my sixth season, so I wasn't here for 10 or 15. But when we came in, the lack of success had already reached heights that were approaching a record. We came in and asked our fan base for patience because it was going to take some time to build the organization the right way. That was a very tough thing to ask for, because our fans had already shown more patience than any fan base should ever be asked to show.
How do you ask that?
With a smile [laughs]. And logic ... we could go in and try to toss some money and sign some short-term deals to some veteran players who might get us over the hump and get us to 82 wins. But we're Pittsburgh: We call ourselves the "City of Champions" for [a] reason. We're not looking to be mediocre and we don't really believe that you want us to be mediocre. We need to be champions again, and in order to do that, we need to build from the ground up, and that takes some time.
As you've rebuilt the team from the ground up, have you also had to rebuild the fan base that way, too?
Fortunately, we have not had to build from the ground up, because our fans can be put into three categories, and fortunately for us, category one are the great fans who have always been with us and never left us for all these 20 years. ... [T]hey believed [each season] we could win the world championship. Now, many of those years prior to the last couple, there was no tangible evidence that would support that belief, but they believed it. Group two are the fans that loved the Pirates but became frustrated and left us and have now come back. And we welcome them back. Group three are the fans who, for whatever set of reasons, were never interested in the Pittsburgh Pirates, but now have understood what's happening and become part of the team. I don't call them bandwagon-jumpers — we have a large bus and there's plenty of room for all three of those groups on our bus.