Pirates' Unforced Error | Opinion | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Pirates' Unforced Error

Who dropped the ball? The team's biggest fans

It's too bad owners don't get a slot on the All-Star roster. Because hands down, the choice to represent the National League this year would have been the Pirates' ownership: Kevin McClatchy and Ogden Nutting.

No, I'm serious. The Pirates owners perform much like their third-baseman, All-Star back-up Freddy Sanchez. They don't impress you with their power, but they rack up a lot of singles. And fives, and tens, and twenties.

In fact, if you evaluate owners the way we do players — in terms of bang-for-the-buck — the Pirates are one of the most efficient teams in baseball.

This April, Forbes magazine ranked the Pirates among the league's elite when it comes to "wins-to-player-cost ratio." As Forbes explains, the ratio "compares the number of wins per player payroll [dollar] relative to the rest of the MLB."

The Pirates' wins-to-cost ratio was 137, which means it won 37 percent more victories than the league average for every dollar it spent on players. That tops even the Oakland Athletics, whose numbers-crunching approach was trumpeted in Michael Lewis' Moneyball. The A's wins-to-cost ratio was a mere 116.

Only one other National League team, the Milwaukee Brewers, gets more for its money. And even Milwaukee doesn't compare over the long term: The Pirates had the lowest per-player spending for much the previous decade.

Forbes noted that the Pirates had cut player costs by $10 million over the past four years … while getting a $20 million increase in revenue-sharing money from richer teams: "This business 'strategy' has helped the Pirates turn a total profit of $34 million during the past two years," the magazine contends. (Both the league and the Pirates have taken issue with Forbes' numbers — while naturally declining to open their own books.)

Buying an ownership stake in the team, in other words, has been a pretty smart investment. Buying season tickets, however, has been a poor one. The team stinks and fans, predictably, have taken to complaining about "greedy owners."

The Pirates' $47 million payroll is near the league's bottom, sure. But judging by recent history, refusing to spend more is just smart business.

In 1997, the Pirates flirted with a .500 record with only a $9 million payroll. Four years later, when PNC Park opened, they spent just under $58 million — and lost 100 games. Why would a team invest more in its payroll, when it can't seem to spend the money wisely? When it can draw about 20,000 fans per game, no matter what its record? When it has a guaranteed cash stream from revenue sharing?

Given the circumstances, it's easier to build a profitable team than a winning one. Given the circumstances, asking the Pirates to spend more — with no guarantee of results — is like asking them to be stupid. As stupid as we were when taxpayers built PNC Park.

The angriest fans, in fact, are those who fought to build PNC Park in the first place. Former Allegheny County Commissioner Bob Cranmer, for example, recently poured out his resentments in a Post-Gazette op-ed piece. ("Where is the winning team?" he demanded. "[W]hat's the additional profit actually being used for?") P-G sportswriters and editorials have been grousing too, insisting that we're owed a competitive team.

People like the P-G and Cranmer did put themselves on the line back then, by demanding taxpayers finance the new ballpark. They talked about the virtue of "public/private partnerships" and, apparently, ended up believing their own PR. Now they're shocked to learn that the public wasn't Kevin McClatchy's partner after all. Ogden Nutting was. Who saw that coming?

Well, anyone who was skeptical of building PNC Park, for starters.

Today, it's a cliché to argue that baseball teams are just businesses — but back then, it was treated like heresy. We skeptics were derided as "naysayers," backward yokels who couldn't see past our petty resentments. We couldn't see what a nice guy Kevin McClatchy was. We couldn't see how much a baseball team would boost our region's esteem.

Well, now the yay-sayers have seen for themselves. They took an ill-advised gamble on a marginal ball team. Can they be so surprised the owners haven't follow suit?

It's the pitcher's job to throw, the catcher's job to catch, and an owner's job to make money. If stadium boosters want to blame McClatchy and Co. for that fact, well … they should blame themselves for having forgotten it.

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