Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Kevin McClatchy: Savior and Pariah

Well, the guy that saved and scavenged Pirate baseball in the same fell swoop has finally called it quits.

Kevin McClatchy, face, principal owner, and CEO of the Pirates for a decade, sold his remaining shares in the team and gave up his seat on the board. For better or worse, an era has ended.

You could see it coming last year, after Bob Nutting became the new boss man and named Frank Coonelly as CEO.

You have to go back to the dark days of the early 1990s to put McClatchy in perspective.

John Galbreath had sold the Bucs in 1985 to a group of civic and institutional suits formed as the Pittsburgh Associates solely to keep the franchise here, and they were chafing to get out from under the business of baseball after a decade of baby-sitting the club.

John Rigas, the owner of Adelphia Cable, was poised to buy the team. But in an almost comical turn of events, he missed a series of deadlines and never did come up with the promised loot. That's a good thing, as he ended up nailed on security fraud charges, and Adelphia was eventually disbanded.

Meanwhile, the franchise looked like it was headed out of town. There were no local heroes with deep enough pockets to keep it in the City. Then media scion and owner of the Modesta A's Kevin McClatchy took a roll of the dice on Pittsburgh, and Pittsburgh on him.

McClatchy was undercapitalized, but managed to cobble together a band of investors that met, by a gnats eyelash, the approval of MLB.

Oh, he had a couple of close shaves - Pittsburghers by and large thought he was a carpetbagger that planned to spirit the team away to Sacramento, his home, and the Galbreath's had $6M due them from the original sale to the PA that had to be paid upfront.

Finally, the Pirates became his toy in 1996. McClatchy and his investors purchased the team with the one condition of building a baseball-only ballpark within five years. Ceremonial groundbreaking for PNC Park took place on April 7, 1999 and the Park opened for business just two years later on April 9, 2001, right on schedule.

Getting the Field of Dreams built was, to put it mildly, a challenge. The Regional Renaissance Initiative went on the ballot to build a ballyard and Convention Center and was voted down.

Then-mayor Tom Murphy went to Harrisburg to tub-thump for some help and managed to alienate everyone there, and it looked like time to turn out the lights. But the energizer bunny McClatchy hung in there, worked the aisles, and the state came through.

Alas, the team didn't. He and Cam Bonifay tried to build a sad sack franchise up the traditional way, but after a disastrous 1998 season that saw the team lose 93 games, 20 of their last 25 matches, and draw just barely over 19,000 warm bodies per game to TRS, they changed course.

McClatchy and gang didn't have the wherewithal to ride out bad seasons, and decided on a two-pronged attack to stay competitive enough to hold the fans' interest and tough it out until PNC provided him with the revenues he needed to play with the big boys.

The new plan was to bring in a steady stream of relatively low-cost veterans, and keep them in good times and turn them into trade bait during the bad.

Part two was to invest heavily in pitchers and middle infielders in the draft, even if they were stretches, because their feeling was that those positions were the most difficult commodities to find when stocking a baseball team. Latino talent was ignored; it was too hit-and-miss and took too long to develop.

Bonifay would last three more seasons sticking his finger in the dam without success, and then Dave Littlefield took his spot in 2001 to carry out the McClatchy directive.

Well, we all know how that worked out. The team watched Pat Meares, Derrick Bell, Joe Randa and Kenny Lofton come and go, and as the money ran out, the few stars in the Bucco organization were systematically traded for cheaper and usually much less talented players. His competitive plan ended up a recipe for failure.

The net result? Sixteen straight losing seasons, a farm system that was a standing joke, and a dwindling base of fans. It ultimately cost McClatchy and Littlefield their heads.

Kevin McClatchy embodied both the best and worst of times for the Pirates. He kept the team here, a very iffy thing before he rode in on his white charger, and through sheer willpower and some arm-twisting, he got a new stadium, still considered state of the art, for Pittsburgh and an All-Star game in 2006.

But in the end, his pocketbook and team-building skills weren't nearly equal to the task at hand.

Bob Nutting, whose family has been a member of the McClatchy group from the get-go, has now made it his team. He reversed the philosophy of McClatchy when he brought in Coonelly and Neal Huntington to handle baseball operations.

But he and the familia didn't grouse much when McClatchy was penny-pinching and certainly didn't open the purse strings very wide over the years for the hired hands to dig into.

So for now, the great majority of Bucco fans consider things to be the same old, same old, McClatchy or not. And that's a perception Bob Nutting will have to change to right the Pirate corsair.

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