Friday, April 23, 2010

Too Much of Nutting: Pirates Lose, 20-0

Having lived in Pittsburgh three times in my life, including one particularly great day in the crib listening to the radio when Bill Mazeroski hit his World Series-winning home run (so I'm informed by a reliable source), I remain a fascinated outside observer of the city's major sports franchises.

I stayed up last night to see the defending Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins' well-fought, triple-overtime defeat at the hands of the Ottawa Senators in the first round of the playoffs. Nearly losing the team to bankruptcy and relocation several times in the team's history, Pittsburgh fans have thoroughly enjoyed the Penguins' 21st Century renaissance.

I'm ruefully following the sordid train-wreck of an off-field life of Steelers' quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, with his motorcycle crash, barhopping misconduct, alleged assaults and improprieties, and now, a multiple-game league suspension. But frankly, I'm more interested in the long-term trajectory of the team's fortunes. Big Ben's shoestring tackle following a turnover saved one Super Bowl opportunity for Pittsburgh, and his perfectly placed touchdown pass to Santonio Holmes won another. Never mind that Roethlisberger is a risk-taking lunatic and Holmes is now history; the "Stillers" will always be intriguing.

Then, there's yesterday.

The Pittsburgh Pirates -- home to Honus Wagner, Pie Traynor, Willie Stargell, Dave Parker, and Manny Sanguillen; winner of National League pennants and World Series championships as recently as 1979 -- have now had a losing record in 21 consecutive seasons.

Yesterday, they capped off more than two decades of sub-.500 futility with a historically awful, 20-0 drubbing at the hands of the formerly awful, recently capable Milwaukee Brewers.

The Pirates players are reportedly angry and embarrassed. The front office, manager, and coaching staff are surely embarrassed. Ultimately, however, it's all about the ownership and its commitment, or lack thereof, to providing the financial resources for on-the-field success.

For the Penguins, former NHL superstar Mario Lemieux assumed a leadership role and parlayed an ownership share borne of unpaid back salary, a willingness to partner with moneyed interests, his dogged persistence through health problems and arena issues, and his status as franchise and league icon into a consistently successful, entertaining Stanley Cup winner. Around the NFL, the Rooney family is a highly regarded class act, and its stewardship of the Steelers has brought championships and cause for celebration to Pittsburgh.

In contrast, the Pirates' ownership group, led by the Nutting family, fields a persistently losing team with the lowest player payroll in Major League Baseball while remaining profitable due to large revenue-sharing sums from wealthy teams. That's a stick in the eye to the dwindling core of traditionalist fans that, along with casual scenery-seekers, constitutes the Pirates' fan base. Losing is no disgrace, but not even trying -- in this case, an indictment of the team's cynical, miserly ownership rather than its struggling, overmatched players -- is a travesty.

Supposedly, ownership and the front office have a 5-year plan to invest in minor league talent that will blossom into major league competence. That's a formula that worked recently for the Brewers, as Prince Fielder, Rickie Weeks, Tony Gwynn, Jr., Ryan Braun and J.J. Hardy progressed through the ranks to the major league level. Time will tell whether the Nuttings and their front men in the front office will offer a hot prospect a groundbreaking, millionaire-making contract as the Brewers did with Weeks, but the signs are not promising; at least one recent top prospect, catcher Matt Wieters, was bypassed in the 2007 amateur draft by the Pirates as too expensive to sign. He's now the starting catcher for the Baltimore Orioles. And the beat goes on.

It makes me wonder whether Bud Selig's overriding powers as MLB Commissioner, which reputedly can be invoked at will for the good of the game, can be invoked to effect a much-needed change in the ownership of the Pittsburgh Pirates.

Baseball in Pittsburgh has lost its way, but the solution is simple. It's time for Commissioner Selig and his fellow owners to kick the Nuttings out of the crib. The irony is that if they do, it will be the Pirates that can grow up.

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