Tuesday, March 20, 2007, a date on which Pittsburgh Pirates manager Jim Tracy has scheduled himself to awaken with a toothache.
Shortly before 8 a.m., clad in golf shirt and slacks, Tracy climbs to the fourth row of a small bleacher standing at the hub of several practice fields that sprawl across the Pirates' spring-training site. He exchanges good-mornings with general manager Dave Littlefield.
TRACY: Why a meeting out here?
LITTLEFIELD: Privacy. At the office you never can tell. Those two grounds-crew guys hosing that infield gotta be at least a hundred yards away.
TRACY: OK. By the way, I'm leaving word at the clubhouse that I woke up with a terrible toothache and the dentist can't squeeze me in until 11, so I may not show up in the dugout before this afternoon's game is underway. My teeth are fine, Dave, but lemme explain later. What's the hush-hush stuff about?
LITTLEFIELD: Our bonuses. We're not going to get the hundred grand this year. Neither of us. The Nuttings canceled it.
TRACY: Whaddaya mean, canceled it? A deal's a deal.
LITTLEFIELD: Now look, Jim. I laid it all out for you when I hired you last year. An extra hundred thou if you manage us to another losing season. Finish under .500, we each get $100,000.
TRACY: Multi-year. You gave me your word.
LITTLEFIELD: But not in writing. Geez, if it got out, it'd be bigger than when Pete Rose got caught betting. As it happens, the owners have changed their minds. The Nuttings decided while you were home in California for the off-season that now they want to win.
TRACY: Really? I don't get it. Oh, before I forget, I gotta tell you about this retiree who stops me coming out of the clubhouse yesterday. Says he's an etymologist. I surprise him by saying, "I know what that is. I went to college. You're an expert on words, right?" He's impressed. Anyhow, he tells me, "All us Pirate fans know you fellows are looking at the team's 15th straight losing season. But do you know that in a sort of perverted way, it would mark a quindecennial?" He sees he's got me there, so he explains it's like a centennial, when a hundred years are celebrated. This other thing's 15.
LITTLEFIELD: How do you celebrate losing?
TRACY: Have you taken a hard look at our division? Before long, people are liable to be calling it Comedy Central. It's possible a team could finish under .500 yet win this division. We'd have something to celebrate. But why do the Nuttings suddenly want to go over .500? Everything's been working out perfectly.
LITTLEFIELD: Almost. Sure, the club's made a sweet profit ever since they started calling the shots for the franchise, which is longer ago than people think. Did it real quiet. Then the taxpayers pitched in to give the club the best ballpark in baseball. Fans come from all over just to be able to say they've been in the place. Who needs to win? Old Man Nutting and his kids -- the boys are named Bob and Bill -- took an old family business in Wheeling, West Virginia, and built it into a money factory. They own maybe 40 small-town daily newspapers, plus weeklies and shoppers and even telephone books. You don't do that without having an appreciation for the bottom line.
TRACY: Dave, you explained all that to me a year ago. And I'm not blind -- Bobblehead Nights and Fireworks Nights pack 'em in. I'd sort of like to see more fans in the park who know the infield-fly rule, but we both know it takes at least semi-serious money to have enough players who can play this game. Don't tell me the Nuttings are willing to start shelling it out.
LITTLEFIELD: You forgot to mention revenue-sharing and the luxury tax on payrolls Steinbrenner and the other wild spenders take on. The Nuttings probably rake in enough to cover our player payroll before we sell a ticket. Speaking of tickets, do you know how much it meant to be able to tell the fans last season that season-ticket holders get first crack at All-Star tickets? Our season-tickets went up about 2,500. But see, Jim, the cat got out of the bag.
TRACY: Now, you're losing me.
LITTLEFIELD: Last July I got curious. I told an intern, "Go out and walk the streets. Stop exactly 200 adults and ask this question: Who owns the Pirates?" The intern came back and told me 187 said they didn't know. Twelve said Kevin McClatchy. One said, "That family down in West Virginia -- the Nuttings, right?"
TRACY: I'd have said McClatchy myself. He's the CEO. He's the guy the reporters interview. Most nights, I see him sitting right behind home plate with the fans.
LITTLEFIELD: Expensive seats. Well-to-do fans. Is genteel the word? Let Kevin try sitting upstairs in right field, and he'll hear some auto mechanic hollering at him, "McClatchy, you stink!" His role's been to be the public punching bag while old man Nutting sits there in Wheeling anonymous. Kevin bought the franchise in '96, no PNC Park yet. No luxury tax. Players' salaries skyrocketing. He loves baseball, but he can't keep up. The way I get it, it was about six years ago that the Nuttings and a guy in North Carolina who held a chunk of the franchise started teaming up to have enough say-so to make Kevin pay attention. I know for a fact that the Nuttings started gradually upping their stake to where last year it's official: They're the big dogs in control. Really, they've been for a long while, but G. Ogden names his kid Bob chairman, and tells him to spend time in Pittsburgh and keep an eye on the bottom line. Oh, the media soon enough found out who controlled the franchise, but Oggie's never allowed so much as a single interview. It's amazing, but it took till last August -- less than a month after I had the intern do that survey -- that the writers got so fed up with us losing that they started hammering on the Nuttings. I couldn't help chuckling when Gene Collier put in his column, "Nutting ventured, nutting gained."
TRACY: Nothing but profits. Say, is Bob the tall guy I've seen around the front office -- maybe mid-40s?
LITTLEFIELD: That's him. Which brings me to my theory. See, Bob's got daughters in school in Wheeling. Once the cat got out about who really owns the team, I'm betting the other kids in school started yelling at Bob's daughters, "Why's your dad's team always stink?" Or, "Why are your dad and grandpa cheapskates?" Jim, you know many grandparents who don't dote on their grandchildren?
TRACY: Sometimes, simple explanations are the best. So dad and grandpa are human? They can't handle those snots yelling at the girls? Still, the Nuttings have to know that starting to win ball games means signing expensive free agents and stuff.
LITTLEFIELD: And once you finish above .500, the fans want you to make the playoffs. A farm system that's better suited for growing soybeans won't cut it. Anyhow, Bob pops into my office in January, looking like he sat on a thorn. He says, "That fellow who runs our media-relations staff, what's his name? Truh-something, right?" I tell him Trdinich pronounces his name Truh-dinich, like in "spinach," and Bob says, "Well, tell Spinach to get over here. I want him to call a news conference." OK, he then tells the both of us it's time to set the media straight. He says, "If any of those reporters hints I don't care about winning, I'll tell him, 'I'll bet you don't even know I've broken three world records in fly fishing!'"
TRACY: My God.
LITTLEFIELD: Luckily, Trdnich is one sharp media-relations guy. He says, "With all due respect, Mr. Nutting, I don't think those fine accomplishments will go over in that setting."
TRACY: How'd the news conference go?
LITTLEFIELD: Let's just say it could have gone better. We announce that Bob's title is now Principal Owner. Bob tells the media -- and I remember every word -- "Questioning my commitment or my family's commitment to winning, I think that's completely inappropriate." Bob also says, "A baseball team has to win baseball games."
TRACY: Goodbye to our bonuses.
LITTLEFIELD (nodding): Besides which, he practically barked at the media that all profits have been plowed back into the organization. No owner's getting a nickel. My work's on the baseball side, so I don't know where all the dollars go. But my financial planner tells me the more they use profits to pay down the organization's debt, the more the franchise is liable to bring if they put up a "For Sale" sign.
TRACY: All I know is they give me low-paid bums to put on the field, but the club's bottom line stays healthy. My favorite Collier line was that the team's ad slogan ought to be "They Don't Call Us Pirates for Nothing."
LITTLEFIELD: I really believed the Nuttings would take a shot at winning. Next thing I know, Bob pops into my office again and says, "Do the LaRoche deal!" I'm stunned. But I have to see if he's serious. I tell him, "I can do it with a five-minute phone call. The Braves missed the playoffs last season because of their bullpen, plus they have a top prospect in Triple A they think looks ready to take LaRoche's place at first base." I say to Bob, "I give 'em Mike González, it's a deal. But Adam LaRoche, Bob? Only his second full season in the bigs last year, and he slugs 32 home runs. You've got to pay him 3-point-2 mil this year, and his next contract, he might be demanding an even bigger fortune." And Bob says to me, "Was I talking to the wall? I said, 'Do the LaRoche deal.'" OK, done.
TRACY: And now I learn the Nuttings expect me to win, which isn't possible unless the umps allow LaRoche to hit third, cleanup and fifth in the same lineup. So for sure, I'm out a hundred thou. Maybe it's easy for you to kiss off a hundred grand, Dave. Going into last year, the owners gave you an extension.
LITTLEFIELD: You're out of line with that crack. The job I've done has been practically perfect.
TRACY: Tone it down, Dave. Those grounds-crew guys will hear you.
LITTLEFIELD: I earned that extension! I've given the Nuttings one hitter after another who looks like he's swinging a dozen long-stemmed roses! Pitchers who'd have trouble getting the side out in Walla Walla! I unloaded just about everybody who threatened to be in line for serious money. I hear that in San Diego they're starting to call Chris Young "Cy." I knew what he could do. His fast ball doesn't travel over 90 often, but he's 6-foot-10 and every inch deception. Right away, only two years in our farm system and I swapped him in dead winter for a reliever named -- wait, I have a mental block -- yeh, Herges. I released Herges before we got finished with spring training.
TRACY: Dave, I never said you didn't earn your extension. OK?
LITTLEFIELD: Damn right I did. I covered every base. Till lately, hardly anyone noticed how slick I've handled the draft. It hasn't been easy. When you finish under .500 every year, you're always stuck with a high first-round pick. Don't think I haven't had a strategy when I avoid the prospects who have those super-agents who demand signing bonuses bigger than the total salaries we pay half-a-dozen big-leaguers. And don't think the Nuttings don't appreciate my picking a pitcher in the first round in three of my five drafts here. I explained to them that pitchers have the best chance of getting hurt. All three of mine went to arm surgery. By now, the Nuttings listen to me like I'm Svengali himself.
TRACY: Who's Svengali? Ah, never mind.
LITTLEFIELD: Let's not forget I hired you off the street when you'd come off 91 losses. How's a manager lose 91 with the Dodgers? The only reason I hired you was I knew you had enough savvy that one look at our roster would tell you we were a lock to keep losing, no matter how much you tried to win. You'd realize, "What's the harm in making sure of the bonus?" I don't question your integrity. I simply knew you'd be realistic.
TRACY: Certainly. I figured Jim Leyland himself couldn't get those guys above .500.
LITTLEFIELD: Need I remind you that if I got green lights most of the way, I could make it from my office to Leyland's home across from Chartiers Country Club in 15 minutes? And if he was out on the course, I could have stopped him at the turn and low-balled him with a contract he might sign without even phoning an agent? Everyone knew he was golfed out. He was 61 but dying to manage again. He loves the town -- married a Pittsburgh girl who worked in our offices when he managed the Pirates. He practically put up a billboard saying the Pirates would suit him perfect for a comeback.
TRACY: Frankly, I've wondered -- weren't the Nuttings at least tempted to grab Jimmy to see if they'd enjoy winning?
LITTLEFIELD: Bob brought up his name just once. I was curious, so I laid out the possible consequences if we went that way. For one thing, if he was tempted to have a go at winning and Leyland somehow got us to so much as .501, the fans for sure would demand more, and then it's a given that costs shoot up. Could Bob and his father take the grief? Or if Bob simply was thinking Leyland not only might come cheap but that his track record would help sell tickets, I told him forget it. I told him that if I offered Leyland the bonus for losing, he might slug me in the face with a five-iron.
TRACY: Jimmy sure knew how to win.
LITTLEFIELD: Won three divisional titles with our franchise. In case you don't know, he left when McClatchy was still running things -- on fumes -- and told him the ball club was going to have to cut the players' payroll to 9 million. Leyland knew he'd be managing sandlotters. That's when he went to Miami and took those miserable Florida Fish to a World Series championship. But I told Bob, "Look, even if you hired the guy to win, you'll be getting a public-relations disaster."
TRACY: That part, I don't follow.
LITTLEFIELD: Try getting beyond the sports pages sometime. See, a fellow in the family that owns the Post-Gazette has it in for cigarette smokers big-time. The paper says secondhand smoke's killing kids. An old-timer told me that in the 85 years the Block family's owned the paper, they never carried on a crusade the equal of what they've been laying on smokers. So if we signed Leyland, the first time he would have gone into a corner of the dugout to sneak a few puffs, there'd be a P-G cameraman clicking away. Page one, above the fold: "Some Role Model for Kids!" When we didn't so much as ask Leyland to come in to be interviewed, he took the Detroit job.
TRACY: I haven't heard the Detroit papers roughed him up when he was managing the Tigers to the World Series.
LITTLEFIELD: Can you believe it? There's a ball club that'd averaged 100 losses since '01. Incidentally, this very morning we're announcing that smoking will be prohibited in that outfield section where we've been allowing it. Not only that, but nobody will be allowed to smoke anywhere -- not even under the stands. No place that's inside the park.
TRACY: That's bound to cost the Nuttings a few customers.
LITTLEFIELD: Well, the Post-Gazette will run an editorial saluting us like we won a World Series, but here's the thing: Trdinich advised Bob that if we keep allowing people to smoke, the newspaper would hound us and maybe start calling PNC Park "Poisoning the Non-smoking Customers Park." PNC Bank's a huge advertiser we get a ton of revenue from. They'll start yelling at us, "We didn't buy naming rights to get a black eye!"
TRACY: Trdinich knows his stuff.
LITTLEFIELD: Darn right. Our PR strategy actually has talk-show callers saying they're starting to think this is the year we'll get above .500. We've got the media talking about LaRoche so much, you'd think he'll wipe out Bonds' 73 homers in a year in no time. And we've got you telling the writers every other day that the real Pirates team is the one that went 37-35 after the All-Star break last year.
TRACY: Sure, and America's going to win the Iraq war by playoff time.
LITTLEFIELD: That reminds me. You know the main reason for the 37-35 after we went 30-60 was you let Freddy Sanchez get into the starting lineup and then couldn't think of a way to get him out -- even when I told you Sanchez would become eligible in winter for salary arbitration, and if he kept hitting we'd have to offer him a raise in seven figures to head off the process. Otherwise, his agent names a killer number -- higher if Sanchez actually wins the league batting championship. No arbitrator's going to choose our number. Why the hell didn't you pay attention?
TRACY: Now it's you who's out of line! Both of us knew Freddy'd hit .318 over his minor-league career. But you kept him from proving himself up here by doing your big spending in the free-agent market, handing a one-year contract to a third baseman. OK, so you've landed Joe Randa -- four million, which Steinbrenner probably pays his clubhouse manager. Randa's coming off 17 homers, so you can tell the fans, "He can still hit it out, but Freddy can' t." Randa's 36 and been bouncing around, but now Sanchez has no shot at the third-base job. You ask me, how could I write Sanchez into the lineup? Do I have to remind you Randa wasn't hitting it out and hurt his foot after a month? Then in no time, I'm thinking, "Uh-oh. This Sanchez is a manager's dream player. I have a serious problem."
LITTLEFIELD: Which was when I called your attention to arbitration, remember?
TRACY: I tried everything to get him back to the bench, you know it. In case some of the media weren't aware, I had the word leaked that the reason Freddy can't give us a stolen base is he was born with a clubfoot. But he was fielding like he was born with a corner of a third-base bag in his mouth. And if a writer said to me, "How come this guy's 28 before he breaks in as a regular? There's gotta be baggage there," well, I'd sort of confirm the writer's suspicion by giving him the old standby answer: "You're the one who brought up his age. You're going to write whatever you want, so all I'm saying is, no comment."
I tried everything for an excuse to get Sanchez out of the lineup. I played him at shortstop hoping he'll prove the foot surgery failed. He doesn't have much range, but he makes the plays, and his bat stays on fire. I play him at second thinking he might get hurt turning the double play. He answers the bell through every game the rest of the schedule. A manager's dream? He says all the right things when the press crowds his locker. Only four home runs all season, but he rips doubles down the lines or into the gaps, anywhere he sees they can't cover. Who can forget that home stand, our last six games! He goes in .342 but only six points ahead of the guy in Miami, Cabrera, for the title.
LITTLEFIELD: Spare me, already. Where do you think I was, GM'ing bin Laden's soccer team?
TRACY: You told me I didn't pay attention. It's my turn to tell you you're out of line. You saw what Sanchez did the first game of that home stand. Four-for-five! Lines a single over second. Hits a double to the opposite field, soft into the right-field corner like he addressed it. His third hit, he has a runner on first and sees the third baseman laying back, so he lays it down perfect. The third baseman has no play. You watch Freddy walk to the bus, he's not natural. Stiff-like. What could he have hit if he could beat out his share of rollers and high bouncers? His fourth hit, he drilled a double.
LITTLEFIELD: You think I don't admire a guy who rides the bench for the first month yet finishes only 15 shy of 100 RBI's? Our problem was, Freddy's got the batting title, and the Nuttings know they'll have to pay practically any number his agent names or the agent's liable to go even higher because no arbitrator's going to sneeze at .344 and the title. All three on the panel probably will ask Freddy for his autograph.
TRACY: It's been done. But my point is, if I had benched Sanchez without any excuse, no team's ever going to hire me to manage a Class A farm club. All right, we're back here in Bradenton for another season, and I know he can do another arbitration next winter. So I go all out and put him at second base again, and it works. He bangs up a knee turning a double play. The docs tell me forget him for opening the season, and once he's playing he'll need another month for the knee to work normal. You sure took your time telling me I gotta manage to win. Wonderful! We both know this outfit will have the mob screaming for my head by June. They'd get it if the Nuttings wouldn't have to swallow my salary and another million next year.
LITTLEFIELD: It's almost 9 already. I better get to the office.
TRACY: I'll leave word at the clubhouse about the dentist appointment and get out of here. See, when we opened camp I put a note on my calendar that we have Detroit here today, March 20. It's 3-to-1 the Pittsburgh cameras will be told to grab me during BP to pose congratulating Leyland on his miracle year. Talk about embarrassing pictures! You agree, Dave?
LITTLEFIELD: Totally. If anyone asks me where you're at, I'll tell 'em you woke up with a tooth absolutely killing you.
Satire should, like a polished razor keen,
Wound with a touch that's scarcely felt or seen.
-- Lady Mary Wortley Montagu (1689-1762)
Sorry, Lady Mary. I failed miserably. I beg you, understand. I have been disgusted for years now.
I was 15, the year 1944. Weekends, I would gather at Forbes Field for the early morning shape-ups in the dungeon-like room under the stands, hoping the concessions boss would give me a nod and say, "Ice cream," or hotdogs or whatever. Night baseball had been suspended; World War II dictated brownouts in American cities in the event of bombings, and neighborhood civilian marshals patrolled to make sure our cloth window shades were pulled down completely. Customary Sunday doubleheaders, play to be halted at dusk, drew sizable crowds and thus offered the best hope of work. If I got it, I and a few others would wait at the first-base box-seats railing.
"Here he comes!" one of our knot of vendors would shout.
Here he came, the Pirates coach by then in his early 70s. He was making his way toward the dugout an hour or so before the gates opened. His immense belly hung over his waist, his legs so bowed a small dog could have jumped through them.
Honus Wagner, the Flying Dutchman himself!
"Tell us a story, Mr. Wagner!"
P'tooey! His shot of tobacco juice splattered on the bottom step, and he began yet another baseball tale. A while later, when batting practice ended, fans would sit with their eyes fastened upon the old shortstop, his bat once so phenomenal that he was able to end a 21-year big-league career with a .328 lifetime average. Born just across the city limits in Carnegie, to boot!
Now, the fans would watch him slowly bend over his stomach to scoop scattered baseballs that had struck the thigh-high fence protecting the batting-practice pitcher. Depositing each ball into a brown leather satchel he carried in his left hand, Pittsburgh's icon seemed to know that for the moment, he was still the show. Florence Dreyfuss Benswanger, heiress to her father Barney Dreyfuss's Pirates, was keeping a promise that Wagner would have a lifetime job as a "coach."
Football meant nothing to my father, but I'm sure I was no more than 8 when he began taking me to Pirate games. I've been following the Bucs for at least 70 years. But with the coming of free agency without a salary cap to give small-market teams much hope of contending, my interest in baseball nose-dived.
"Hey, you down there in Wheeling!" I'm tempted to cry out to G. Oggie, my approximate contemporary. "Do you realize how many of Pittsburgh's young may have turned off on a sport that might have given them pleasure through a lifetime?"
Why should any team open a season bereft of hope because a man who attended baseball games only when necessary, for the sake of appearance -- remember Don Fehr, the head of the players' union? -- advised his membership in so many words, "Death before a cap!"
For me, team sports are about competition. When the eventual adoption of revenue-sharing and the so-called "luxury tax" on the payrolls of free-spending teams provided a realistic hope of at least a winning season, I settled for that. But winning seemed no part of Nutting & Sons' strategy. I have no memory of precedents for the depths to which the Pirates sank this year. Namely:
Hitting. Spring turning to summer, Seattle pitcher Jeff Weaver took the mound against the Pirates; he carried an 0-and-6 record and an earned-run average of .03 of a point below -- good Lord! -- 11. Knowledgeable Pirate fans had been searching for hitters who might swing at pitches in the strike zone, instead of taking their cuts against the other kind. As usual, Weaver had difficulty locating the strike zone, and thus breezed to a complete-game, three-hit shutout.
By the way, Adam LaFlop finished the season with 21 homers, 11 fewer than he hit for Atlanta last year. ("Buy your tickets now! Come see the next home-run champ!")
Base-running. Who among witnesses has forgotten what happened at PNC Park on the first and second nights of June? In back-to-back games, the Pirates found a way to produce no runs from back-to-back doubles. See, the first hitter to double took his lead off second base, but when the next hitter slugged a pitch to deep center, the runner sashayed back to second base as if it offered a better view from which to see whether the retreating centerfielder would run down the drive.
The centerfielder did not. But with too little time for the runner to race clear home, he and his teammate were left stranded at second and third when the inning ended. Only the actors changed on the second night's virtual replay of this crime against the game.
In written accounts of those goings-on, I found no comment from the Pirates' Mental Skills Coach. Truly, the team's media guide accorded that title to one Geoff Miller. It lavished upon him a half-page bio, complete with photo, and credited him with being "dedicated to helping people improve their abilities to perform under pressure." The Mental Skill Coach, like G. Oggie himself, is based out of town -- he resides in San Diego -- and through his three Pirate seasons has shared Oggie's mastery of invisibility.
Fielding. Alas, the Pirates' defense lacked the brilliance to offset their base-running antics, what with catcher Ronny Paulino cuffing around throws from outfielders or relay men as if trying to stop the ball with a fly-swatter. Mostly for that reason, I had to rank the defense only several notches above, let us say, a certain 1960s Los Angeles Angels defense once described to me by that team's pitching ace, Dean Chance.
A gangling Ohio farmer possessed of entrepreneurial leanings, Chance had spotted me in the lobby of a sold-out Oakland, Calif., motel.
"Hey, Cope," he said, "if you have a room here, can you put me up? I gave mine to one of my fans who's made millions building launching pads at Cape Canaveral. I play it right, I think he'll sink money into a Smucker's jelly franchise I'm buying."
At about 3 a.m., Chance suddenly awoke and screamed into the darkness: "Fer cryin' out loud! That defense they put behind me couldn't catch a cold on Pier Six!"
Pirate fielders can.
I read that a California investment banker, Mark Attanasio, who five years ago purchased the Milwaukee franchise, in the National League's smallest market, concluded that payrolls that afford players who produce winning seasons create profits in the smallest of markets.
"Last year," said Attanasio, his 2007 Brewers leading the division at the time, "every team that had a payroll below $60 million had a losing season."
Invoking once-popular baseball jargon, I therefore fancied $60 million the 2007 Mendoza Line for owners. Mario Mendoza -- a smooth-fielding Mexican shortstop for Pittsburgh, then Milwaukee -- twice hit .198 yet stayed in the majors eight full seasons by realizing he'd better hit better and did so for two years that followed his second .198. In the season just ended, only the Pirates among the six teams in the Comedy -- yes, the National League Central, largest of baseball's half-dozen divisions and commonly called Comedy Central before spring ran out -- stood below the payroll Mendoza Line. Yet only Attanasio's Brewers and the Chicago Cubs finished with winning seasons, and barely.
"Fools!" the Wheeling fisherman perhaps was entitled to exclaim. "Look where spending big money got the rest of them."
Thanks to clever marketing, Pirate average attendance per game fell by only 1,128 from last year's, but the small decline can be viewed as solid improvement if we remember that Pittsburgh hosted the '06 All-Star game, and that tickets to the so-called "annual classic" took enough hostages to goose season-ticket sales by more than twice this year's average per-game decline.
No question Pirates marketing has pulled healthy crowds to PNC (still an attraction seven years after it was opened), to the point where I wonder if the cry rings out from kiddies, "Please, dad. Take me to the Pierogie Races!"
Screams of delight continued to greet the cartoonishly costumed Sauerkraut Saul, Jalapeño Hanna, Oliver Onion and Cheese Chester as they entered PNC through the right-field corner to flounder to the finish-line ribbon. Baseball, of course, has been offered at intervals between Jumbotron scoreboard showings of the pierogies tumbling through our burgh.
Meanwhile, dear reader, have you been among the lucky adults to have successfully muscled your way to a hot dog or T-shirt flung by one of the young men or women standing atop the dugouts, outfitted in cheerleader-like attire while hurling freebies from outsized slingshots?
Gone now are Kevin McClatchy and Dave Littlerisk. Nice-guy Kevin, while upon announcing his departure after 12 years of watching defeats, likened himself to an egg left frying unattended in a pan. "You get burned out a little," he explained.
Bottom-Line Bob set right to work sounding out candidates to fill the vacancy. "Loads of people want it," I recall the flycaster saying shortly thereafter.
Forgive a geezer for again reaching into the distant past, this time reminded of a cost-conscious NFL club owner named Charlie Bidwill.
Bidwill owned the St. Louis football Cardinals, year-after-year losers. When a head coach once asked him for a raise, he replied, "I can go to the front door right now and whistle into the street and yell, 'Anyone out there want to be head coach of the Cardinals?' Two dozen guys will come running."
I entertained the notion, however, that Bob Nutting might be temporarily putting profits aside to attract an executive team experienced in winning. Though attendance remained strong, the Pirates' television ratings -- already poor -- were dropping, as they were for other losing teams. Free bobblehead dolls cannot be distributed over the airwaves.
(On second thought, how about persuading advertisers to replace their customary commercials with sponsorships of Sauerkraut Saul, et al., slapping brand names on their costumes as if they were NASCAR drivers, and during commercial breaks show the Pierogie Races in progress? There's the way to get ratings! But no freebies from Cope Concepts, Bob -- I'll bill you on the first of the month.)
Be advised that the flycaster is no lightweight scion fortunate to be born of wealth. He's depicted as a brilliant business mind who happens to be convinced it's a good idea to be careful how you spend your money. In a time of staggering credit-card indebtedness across the country, what's to criticize?
Nothing, except that television money dries up, as does public interest in a time when the Pirates might just as well re-name themselves the Pittsburgh Losers. Who was it who -- upon emerging approximately a normal pregnancy ago in the role of Principal Owner -- spoke as follows: "A baseball team has to win baseball games"?
Cold numbers now tell us how easy it was to do just that, playing in the Comedy. The Cubs took the title by playing .525 ball, worse than any of the teams that finished second in the other five divisions, and in the opening round of the playoffs were swept away by Colorado, three games to none, as effortlessly as putting broom to dustpan. Taking into account that all Comedy teams played one another through virtually half their schedules, was it asking too much of the Pirates to win enough games to avoid finishing last? Well, they finished last, after having sewed up their milestone -- their quindecennial! -- with fully two weeks to spare.
As we go to press, Bob Nutting might accurately point out, "Kindly notice that Colorado and Arizona got by on payrolls below Attanasio's Mendoza Line but remain alive to possibly meet in the World Series."
True, but if losing begets even lower television revenue, is it not worth spending money to attempt winning? Your call, Bottom-Line Bob.
At about the same time Honus Wagner's mint-condition baseball card brought $2.8 million, Nutting finished sifting through the "loads of people" -- all certainly better qualified than those who might have run to Charlie Bidwill's front door -- aspiring to be McClatchy's successor. And to fill McClatchy's chair, he delivered us a lawyer who at Major League Baseball's New York headquarters had specialized in money. Frank Coonelly's role was to advise owners how much (or how little) to pay players. Introduced at a news conference, Coonelly declared that given the Pirates' current supply of relatively young players signed and sealed, or at worst bound to an arbitration panel's verdict, the Bucs can become winners on a payroll of $45-50 million.
"I'm convinced," he said.
Almost forthwith, he introduced the successor to the bounced-out Littlerisk -- a Cleveland Indians scout, who echoed Coonelly's conviction practically word for word.
Through the latter years of my broadcasting career, I made it a point to avoid the trap that causes aging broadcasters to become bores. "Don't start living in the past," I told myself. But here, I have indulged myself on memories and will close with another that G. Oggie himself may recall -- namely, a tune the vocalist Helen Forrest (along with the "golden trumpet" of Harry James) drove to the very top of the charts for a 13-week stay in 1943. I tell you, Oggie, Coonelly's projection of a payroll with which the Bucccos are about to become winners even set me to humming that ditty.
Its title: It Seems to Me I've Heard That Song Before.