When a big news story breaks, there are two ways to digest it. One way is to try and digest the news and use it to enhance an overall understanding of a bigger picture. The other way is to use it to support an already-existing conclusion whether the evidence fits or not. As fans (root: fanatic), I think we’re often guilty of the second without every much realizing it. Baseball (and football and basketball and hockey and soccer) is a business that’s run to create a product (Entertainment). As fans we see the entertainment as the be-all/end-all of the business and tend to not worry about the back end, but the people that run the teams can’t see it that way. As a result, a lot of things happen that we never hear or see or think about until a stories like this financial document leak break.
Not so long ago, I used to get really angry about the Pirates’ finances. I was one of the Irate Fans that publicly protested the team around the time of the 2006 All-Star Game, which grew into the 2007 walkout and then mostly fizzled out as the Pirates kept losing. By the time of the walkout, though, I was starting to change my opinion about some things. I was more upset with the way the Pirates were spending money than the amount of money the had to spend. All small market teams exist on a budget, but not all small market clubs were blowing money on Jeromy Burnitz or Joe Randa or Matt Morris while neglecting international scouting and not drafting the best players available in the draft.
Maybe Bob Nutting is a devious, evil jerk who makes his underpaid, poor, starving assistant work on Christmas day while his sickly son slowly dies and maybe he’s not. I don’t really care. What I do care about is that the way this franchise has been run and the way it spends its money has changed drastically since Nutting told Kevin McClatchy and Dave Littlefield to not let the door hit them on the way out in 2007, and almost all of the changes have been for the better. The Pirates have spent more on the draft than anyone since the 2008 draft. They’ve opened up a huge, beautiful academy in the Dominican Republic and are currently one of the only teams that provides real schooling for the international teenagers they sign. They’ve been right in on the top international free agent in each of the last two seasons and while it’s true they got burned by Sano, they didn’t get burned again this year. When I toured Pirate City this spring and asked a question about getting this or that if the staff needed it and was told without hesitation, “We can have anything we want or need here; all we have to do is ask.” Maybe that was a line to placate a naive blogger, but having seen the whole place from top to bottom it sure didn’t feel like it.
This is how money should be spent by a team that was in the situation the Pirates were in in 2007. But this narrative exists that Nutting is bad and evil and stealing money from the team and no matter what facts come out, people don’t change their mind. What was revealed yesterday isn’t substantially different than what Frank Coonelly claimed this spring: the club hasn’t made a ton of money in the last two years and most of what they have made went back into the club or went to pay down debt (I could be wrong, but I think the reason that Coonelly’s numbers from March are lower than numbers revealed yesterday is because they don’t include payments against debt the club has accrued). Nutting explained the one thing that stood out, the $20 million payout to the ownership group in 2007 to cover taxes and pay the Nutting family back for a loan back when the club’s finances were really bad in 2003; if he’s lying about it, we’ll find out now that the information is partially out there. It’s that simple.
For years and years, fans have clamored for the Pirates to “open the books.” They’ve done it now and in doing so shown hat no one’s getting rich from owning this team, and people still aren’t happy. That’s the reason this whole conversation wears me down so much; yesterday’s release gives us a ton of good questions to ask (Example: If the club’s payroll is only about $35 million and you’re only showing $5-15 million profit margins, how can you raise the pay to $70-90 million when the time is right? Is that based on an expectation of increased attendance? Does the draft and international signing budget get slashed to pay the big league team? And so on.), but the focus is still on the bottom line and only the bottom line.
It’s easy to villianize the owner, but it’s much harder to accept the truths of small-market baseball. The revenue streams just aren’t the same as they are for the bigger clubs, and that wouldn’t change with Mark Cuban or Lemieux/Burkle in charge. Last year, I used a couple posts asking questions like, “How good does Nyjer Morgan have to be to be good,” and “How good does Andy LaRoche have to be to be good.” The point was to try and determine just how offense and defense mix for good defensive players at traditionally offensive positions. The Pirates’ front office has to be very good in order for this team to be good. They have to be better than all their small-market counterparts and better than their large-market counterparts to tip the playing field back in their favor. If the Pirates can’t do that, they’re not going to be very good. It sucks, but it’s baseball reality in 2010. The problem the club has had for nearly fifteen years now is that Kevin McClatchy, Cam Bonifay, and Dave Littlefield weren’t just bad, but significantly worse than most other people in their jobs around the league. It doesn’t take an evil owner to have a poorly run team, and it doesn’t take a rich owner to have a well-run team. The Pirates, like most other clubs outside of New York and Boston, have to find their way through that middle.