In news that’s guaranteed to prompt the most angry phone calls to drive-time radio talk hosts in Pittsburgh, Mario Lemieux and Ron Burkle apparently approached Bob Nutting about buy the Pirates a few months ago and were rebuffed, according to Dejan Kovacevic. My only opinion on this story is this: Bob Nutting has never, ever even remotely hinted (at least not publicly) that he’s interested in selling the Pirates and any discussion about a potential sale is only going to be frustrating for everyone. So let’s not discuss it.
UPDATE: OK, I realize that I owe everyone a lot better than to be all “whatevs” about it, as my friends at the Pensblog put it.
I, like any other Pittsburgh sports fan my age, love Mario Lemieux. I don’t remember a lot about the Pens’ two Stanley Cup runs because there’s only room in my brain for so much and most of my pre-1994 sports memories are Pirate memories. I know they won, I know it was cool, but that’s about it. When baseball went on strike in 1994 and didn’t come right back, I was sports starved and I started watching hockey. I was captivated by Jaromir Jagr and the Pens in their own lockout shortened season. As my dad noticed me watching more and more hockey, he told me, “If you think this is fun to watch, just wait and see what happens if Mario Lemieux comes back.”
He was right. When Mario returned to the ice the next season, I knew I was watching something amazing, even though I hadn’t played or ever really watched much hockey to that point. Even on pre-HDTV, it was like he drew your eyes to him whenever he touched the ice. When he was out there and healthy, it was like everything else slowed down around him.
Like everyone else, I got chills when he scored on a breakaway in what seemed sure to be his last game at Mellon Arena in the 1997 playoffs. The night of his comeback in late December of 2000 is always going to be one of the single best, most inspirational sports memories of my life. When things started going downhill after that season, my friends and I at Duquesne would still Student Rush Penguins games to see him, even if he was a broken shadow of his former self. When he pulled the Penguins out of the fire, first buying the team in 1999 and then striking a deal for a new arena in 2007, he saved a piece of my connection to my city. Seeing the Penguins beat up in the Hurricanes in the RBC Centre with a couple thousand Penguin fans in the Eastern Conference Final last year was an amazing experience. Five hundred miles south of Pittsburgh, we all felt at home in the same building. Mario wasn’t on the ice, but he was the only reason that was possible.
There are several reasons my initial instinct was to brush this story off. The first is that it’s going to get a lot of yinzers fired up, and I honestly just don’t want to deal with that. As much as Mario Lemieux means to me (and to a lot of Pittsburghers) personally, Bob Nutting owes him absolutely nothing when it comes to the Pirates and it’s silly to expect him to want to sell the team just because Lemieux and Ron Burkle have asked him about it. Nutting has said time and time again the team is not for sale and there’s no reason not to take him at his word.
The second reason is that even if Ron Burkle and Mario Lemieux buy the Pirates, Pittsburgh doesn’t get any bigger. The team’s contract with Fox Sports Pittsburgh doesn’t get any more lucrative. The relationship between the Pirates and the city of Pittsburgh doesn’t change. The same fans who will “NEVER GO TO ANOTHER GAME AGAIN” and then continue to go to their one or two games a year and complain about the Pirates will call in to radio shows and write letters to the newspaper about how great this is and how they’re on the phone to buy seasons tickets, and then they’ll keep on going to their one or two games a year until the Pirates actually start to improve. And as much as Mario is a Pittsburgh icon and as rich as Ron Burkle is, neither of them got to where they are in life by being stupid, and so the money that goes into the Pirates will still be tied closely to their revenue streams and that won’t greatly change until the product on the field does. Which means that the Pirates will have to continue to make good decisions to build a farm system to put a good product on the field. To extend an analogy I made earlier this week, if I’m on a road trip from Chapel Hill to San Francisco and I change cars in Tulsa, I’m still in Tulsa.
Which is simply to say that if Bob Nutting were interested in selling the Pirates and the Lemieux/Burkle group were interested, I’d find that news exciting but only with the knowledge that there’s still tons of work to be done and though the ownership group’s net worth and loyalty to Pittsburgh would have improved, the actual situation that the Pirates are in would be largely unchanged. And since Nutting isn’t interested in selling, this is more likely to cause unnecessary wailing and tooth gnashing than anything else.