Two months ago, I wrote a post about how Bob Nutting essentially runs the Ogden newspaper chain and the Pittsburgh Pirates the same way: do it as cheaply as possible and don’t worry about the quality of the product -- the profits will be there.
Here’s an update on how that business plan is working for the Nutting-owned Pittsburgh Pirates.
Shorter Bob Nutting: it’s the players fault if the team doesn’t win
After two of the team’s best players were traded in January, some of remaining players criticized management for a lack of commitment to winning. Two weeks ago, Pittsburgh Trib-Review reporter Bob Gorman asked Nutting about the criticism:
Pirates owner Bob Nutting called the clubhouse criticism of the organization from veteran players “correct and fair.”
When he explained his point, however, it became clear whose fault it would be if the Pirates weren’t competitive this season:
Nutting added he “absolutely” believes the team can win with one of MLB's lowest payrolls — if the players build a championship culture.
“What we need to focus on are the opportunities to optimize our chances to win,” Nutting said Thursday in a 40-minute interview. “What's been really important here over the last couple of days, what's been important over the offseason, is seeing the coaching staff, the leadership team, and, I believe, the players more and more embracing that. That's what's going to drive wins in Pittsburgh.”
Gorman pursued the trading of their best players and Nutting again responded by putting the onus on the players:
The trades of ace pitcher Gerrit Cole to the World Series champion Houston Astros and McCutchen to the San Francisco Giants in a 48-hour window last month brought critical comments from third baseman David Freese and second baseman Josh Harrison last week about top-to-bottom disconnect.
Nutting responded by saying the Pirates need to “make sure that we have the right tone in the clubhouse, that they're focused on the right work.”
Yes, give away the team’s best (and most expensive) players and then blame those who are left if the team doesn’t win.
Sharing the wealth: conservative Ogden newspapers hate the idea, but baseball’s version certainly helps the Pirates make money
Ogden newspapers, as long as I can remember, have editorially been opposed to any redistribution of the nation’s wealth. (Recent readers of Ogden papers don’t need to look very far beyond their editorials against any form of universal health care or in favor of more tax breaks for the rich.) On the other hand, baseball has had a plan in place for over 20 years that takes money from richer teams like the Yankees and the Red Sox and gives to smaller-market teams like the Pittsburgh Pirates. Nutting apparently has no objections to this wealth-sharing. As Pittsburgh Post-Gazette sportswriter Bill Brink explained last week:
The collective bargaining agreement requires income received from revenue sharing — a program instituted in 1996 that redistributes money from high-revenue clubs to low-revenue clubs in the interest of competitive balance — to be used “in an effort to improve its performance on the field.” The definition is intentionally broad. Teams can put the money toward things such as scouting and player development in addition to major league payroll. They cannot use it to pay down debt or as a distribution to ownership, other than to offset tax obligations associated with club operations.
Every team pays a certain percentage of its locally generated revenue into a pool. A complex formula redistributes the money. Teams with a “market score” — a representation of population, income and cable households — of more than 100 (100 is considered average) are disqualified from revenue sharing. The Pirates’ market score is 56, 27th out of 30 MLB teams.
Consequently, the Pirates have been a yearly recipient of revenue sharing. This year, the Pirates did next-to-nothing in the free agent market meaning that most of the money stayed with the club. As a result:
The Major League Baseball Players Association filed a grievance with Major League Baseball regarding the use of revenue-sharing income by the Pirates, Marlins, Tampa Bay Rays and Oakland Athletics. Both MLB and Pirates president Frank Coonelly used strong language to dismiss the grievance, which Coonelly called “patently baseless.”
Despite Coonelly's denial, a case against the Pirates lack of activity could certainly be made. The Boston Globe explains what the Pirates and others may be doing:
Are the Rays, Pirates, Marlins, and A’s tanking? You sure can make a case for at least three of them; the A’s seem to be trying.
Nothing in the CBA [Collective Bargaining Agreement] says a team can’t employ 25 players who make the major league minimum, but if they’re accepting revenue-sharing money, they must show a plan as to what they’re doing with the money. The union really had no choice but to pursue a grievance.
(Note – the Globe’s legal expert believes that the language in the agreement will make it difficult for the union to prove its case.)
Does it matter that the Pirate’s fan base is unhappy?
Pirate fans are certainly expressing their displeasure. In January, the online petition, “For MLB to Force Bob Nutting to sell the Pittsburgh Pirates,” stood at 31,000. Today it’s over 60,000.
In researching this post, I also ran into numerous reactions by Pirate fans. For instance, today’s Pittsburgh Post-Gazette carried a letter to the editor from Barry Pile. He writes:
The Steelers and Penguins are doing their best to provide their fans with championship teams now, not years down the road, and are doing everything possible to retain the championship talent they have. And the Pittsburgh area fans show their appreciation by filling both venues time after time.
I don’t want to disparage our current roster of Pirates, but maybe Bob Nutting should be up front with us and admit that the Pirates are really a developmental organization for the rest of Major League Baseball. He’s evidently more interested in buying newspapers in West Virginia than trying to make the Pirates a championship team.
And what about Nuttings’ “newspapers in West Virginia” and elsewhere?
Charlie Deitch, writing in last week’s Pittsburgh City Paper, supports my thesis that all of this, be it teams or newspapers, is about the organization’s cheapness especially when others will do the paying:
It was a huge gesture*, but again, one I’m sure Bob Nutting doesn’t really care about. How do I know? I worked for the guy. I know what he pays his journalists; he’s not concerned with them taking a hit.
Because at the end of the day, Bob Nutting is reaping the financial benefits of his decisions. It’s the rest of us who will continue to pay the freight until we’ve finally had enough. And from the looks of things, that time may be coming soon.
- Deitch’s “gesture” reference is to Weirton Medical Center's decision to drop all of their Ogden advertising. See here.