Thursday, October 15, 2009

Does Anybody Care...?

--Attendance Nosedives: The Pirate attendance was at its lowest level since the 1998 season, when the "Freak Show" of 1997 was followed by a last place finish.

-- Best Sports City: Last week, The Sporting News ranked the best sports cities, and as USA Today noted, "despite the Pirates, Pittsburgh comes in at No. 1."

-- FSN Ratings: The Nielsen rating for the Pirates on FSN Pittsburgh was 3.25. That was higher than those of 11 other teams, including the Dodgers, Mets, and Angels.

What that means is completely in the air without age breakdowns. But the Bucs do have more of a local following than their record deserves, which we suppose proves that Pittsburghers follow Pittsburgh teams. That gold "P" is a decent brand even when the product isn't so hot.

-- Billy Maz Home Run: Several hundred people were outside the old red brick wall in Oakland yesterday to celebrate October 13th, 1960, just as they've been since 1985, when Saul Finkelstein sat down and played a tape of Game #7 of the 1960 World Series on his beat-up boom box.

A few players always show up; this year it was Roy Face and Bob Friend. The last time I was able to weasel out of work and join the party, Friend, Bobby Del Greco, and Nellie King were there, along with Sangy and Steve Blass.

And at 3:36 PM, the Game Seven Gang's CD played the call of Maz's drive over Yogi Berra's head and the most improbable World Series win ever. The crowd cheered; when I was there, it evoked my dad getting mom and my brothers in the wagon and adding to the Oakland gridlock, the joyful mob, the ripped newspapers flying through the air, and even walking home from St. Wendelin's with the transistor radio stuck to my ear.

And judging by the age of the couple of hundred fans gathered for the 49th anniversary, they must have similar memories. The only guys under 50 are college kids wandering aimlessly, wondering why there's an AARP meeting on campus.

Do these few disparate threads weave into a coherent cloth? Well, maybe.

Except for the 30,000+ that spun the turnstiles on gameday during the PNC inaugural season of 2001, the Bucs haven't drawn over 25,000 since 1990. That's a 24% drop in warm fannies, pretty steep, but considering the streak and payroll dump, probably not all that bad.

The Sporting News, FSN, and The Game Seven Gang all show that the Pirate brand still has its loyalists.

But - you knew there had to be a "but," right? - that support, to the naked eye, is in a demographic that Pittsburgh is a world leader in - golden agers, like me. Take away Skyblasts, concerts, and weekend bobbleheads, and the thing you see at Heinz Field and the Civic Arena, twenty and thirty somethings backing their teams with their wallets and hearts, is sorely lacking at PNC.

And that's the problem the new suits are going to have to solve. While the Steelers and Penguins have been winning Super Bowls and Stanley Cups, the Pirates have been losing at a rate that would embarrass the French military.

They're working on a second generation of Steel City sports fans that don't know Willie Stargell and Roberto Clemente as anything but bronze statues and TV specials. Oh, the old bones are loyal, probably to a fault, but they were raised on Forbes Field and Bob Prince, not PNC Park and Greg Brown.

The Pirates are very near the point of utter irrelevance. If McCutch, Pedro, and whoever can't turn it around, the franchise may never recover; they've lost too much ground to the other local squads.

It can be done. The Black and Gold were loveable losers for decades, and the Pens had a Pirate-like streak between Mario and the Kid. Both play in front of sold out houses now.

And that's why the Pirate suits had better bring their A game to the table now. The other teams, to be sure, used the draft to bring in their stars, much like the current Buccos. But then they spent a buck or two and brought in a couple of guys from outside the organization to make the team competitive, and then championship, quality. The transition from terrible to titlist happened quickly.

Yah, yah, both are in salary-cap leagues. But the point is that they spent their money to the limit, not only bringing guys in but securing their stars, the players the fans identified with, for the long run. Would the Steelers trade Big Ben or the Pens deal Sidney for a handful of prospects?

The Pirates haven't dealt anyone of that magnitude, but admit it, there's still a disquieting little voice in the back of your mind wondering where Andrew McCutchen will be playing after he reaches arbitration.

The old suits tried to prop the team with free-agent signings and trades; the new guys are going the draft and trade for prospects route. It should be obvious by now that the answer lies in the middle.

The Bucs are at the point where they have to build some trust, both among their fans and their players. Keep bringing in young talent. Sign guys and hold on to them. Patch some holes with market players. Quit talking about tomorrow and start working on today. Try to feel the urgency that the fans feel.

Because if Andrew McCutchen and Pedro Alvarez can't lead the team to the promised land and the suits go back to the drawing board for yet another rebuilding phase, baseball in Pittsburgh will be dead.


WilliamJPellas said...

Well, the population demographics in Pittsburgh show an older population, in general. Seems to me I read somewhere that---depending on how you calculate such things---the "city" has lost half its population since 1950. (Again, some of that is due to outmigration to the suburbs, but even so...)

But even allowing for the somewhat debatable age breakdown of the population in the region, I agree with you, Ron, that the current management of the Pirates went somewhat overboard in their approach. I still say that Nate McLouth was the best example of this. Trading him was something that was not necessary and it made the team far less competitive than it could have been and should have been. Mind you, the front office could have opted for a "go for broke" scenario, kept everything intact, brough up McCutchen, traded for a pitcher down the stretch, and there's no question we'd have had a winning season, at least not in my mind. But we wouldn't have made the playoffs, and there were a number of looming arbitration cases that would have made it prohibitively expensive to keep even that mildly interesting team together.

So, I get what they did and why, I just think it was much more extreme than it had to be. Hopefully, Nutting will still spend large dollars on the draft, in which case we should soon have an internal pipeline of prospects that is sustainable for a number of years. We still need the occasional veteran free agent, though, and we'll see if they have the smarts and the greebacks for that.

Ron Ieraci said...

Yah, Will, a lot of gloom and doom, I know.

But I do feel that if the suits miss the opportunity to create some excitement and competition by 2011-12, baseball in Pittsburgh will lose its sporting fan base and become entertainment driven, as in side shows rather than the game drawing people.

Yah, winning will eventually cure that - but if ownership still makes a buck by scrimping on product and spending on the Zambelli Brothers, I'm not sure that winning will ever arrive.