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Diamond in the Bluff

Old excuses in a new ballpark

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Over the past few years, I've found myself mostly ignoring the Pirates unless they were losing. It wasn't out of spite, even though their home, PNC Park, was built with public tax money over the public's objections. At least it wasn't only out of spite. It was also because teams are interesting both when they are very, very good and when they are very, very bad. A team that really stinks can make the history books as surely as a team that is truly great. Watching them sink into ignominy, you at least know that some day you can tell the grandkids, "You think this team is bad..."

It is in that sense that the Pirates took a step toward legendary greatness last week.

The team, as you've probably heard, just engaged in a fire sale of some of its best talent. Relief pitcher Scott Sauerbeck, one of the more consistent relievers in the bullpen, was traded to Boston for a guy with a bum elbow. Kenny Lofton, a veteran who is one of the few players to have lived up to expectations since the beginning of the season, was traded to Chicago, as was Aramis Ramirez, the team's most promising young slugger.

The first warning sign of what was coming was a July 22 article by Post-Gazette sports columnist Ron Cook, in which Pirates owner Kevin McClatchy claimed the team was losing $10 million a year. And dumping salaries was the answer. "You're sick about it? How do you think I feel?" McClatchy asked.

It won't help McClatchy's stomach to compare these remarks to what he was telling the P-G in April of 1999: "I got into this business to win a championship," he pledged. And thanks to the new ballpark, "We'll be able to compete. I'm certain of that."

McClatchy isn't the only one eating his words. So are a lot of politicians who used public money to get PNC Park built to help his team compete. Consider this piece of 1999 bullpen wisdom from U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum, also in the Post-Gazette: "We built this ballpark with the promise of spending more money on players and having a more competitive team. We didn't build it to see all of our star players go to Anaheim. If we don't sign Jason Kendall for the rest of his career, we're doing a disservice to baseball in Pittsburgh."

Santorum wasn't all wrong: We didn't build PNC Park just to see all of our star players go to Anaheim; they're going to Chicago instead. But the real disservice that's been done to baseball is the fact that the disappointing Kendall, who indeed got a $60 million salary, hasn't gone with them.

Of all the trades, the loss of Ramirez is the hardest to countenance, especially because Littlefield has said the trades were necessary to develop young, promising talent. Given that Ramirez is but 25 years old, it seems we're trading away young, promising players so we can develop & young, promising players.

Of course, earlier this year, many Pirates fans wanted to see Ramirez go: His stewardship of third base was error-prone, and after a torrid year at the plate two seasons ago, his hitting was anemic. But Pirates General Manager Dave Littlefield and Coach Lloyd McClendon counseled patience: He's young, they cautioned, he'll turn it around. And sure enough, he did: His fielding still stunk, but it was easier to tolerate when he started hitting like he did in 2001.

So naturally that's when the team got rid of him. The Pirates reportedly hoped to get rid of starting pitcher Kris Benson, but other teams have been scared off by word of lingering injury. We can't actually afford to keep players that are any good, see. Once they play well, we've got to cash them in so we can get some that aren't. Littlefield held out against fan complaints about Ramirez until they no longer had anything to complain about -- and then he got rid of him. The Pirates are wrong even when they are right.

We were told that the new ballpark would become a symbol for the region, that "if we build it, they will come."

But they haven't come & not to the games, and not to Pittsburgh.

In fact, according to a survey by the American City Business Journals, the Pittsburgh metro area lost more people since 2000 than any other metropolitan area in the country. The Pirates might be a symbol for the region in much the same way they might turn out to be historic: for all the wrong reasons. Pittsburgh, like its baseball team, keeps looking to young people to rescue it, and it's a great place to live cheap and pay your dues. Yet there's always a lingering sense that, when you're ready for the big leagues and the big money, the smart thing to do is get the hell out of town. Just like Aramis Ramirez did. In fact, there's a lurking suspicion that if you are still here, there must be something wrong with you. Just like Kris Benson.

It was unrealistic to expect a baseball park would do much to change the city's fortunes, but even I thought it would do more for the team. Today, Kevin McClatchy complains about the difficulties of being trapped in a small market just like he did in 1996. He and his apologists complain about the disparities of competing with big-market teams who can afford to make bad gambles on players like Kendall just like they did in 1996. PNC Park didn't change much of that, and neither did the 2002 collective bargaining agreement with the players' union, which allowed some revenue sharing between teams.

What this all means is that there are two investments that Pittsburgh sports fans would be very unwise to make. One is 2004 season tickets for the Pirates. The other is a new hockey arena for the Penguins.

If the Pirates' plight teaches us anything, it's that a new facility will fail if the foundation of its sport is shaky. And hockey's finances are even shakier than those of baseball. The Penguins, too, have been dumping star talent for payroll purposes. They too have all but written off next season before it even begins. They are victims of the same disparities between large and small markets that plagued baseball, and the National Hockey League is gearing up to renegotiate its own collective bargaining agreement with players. Expectations are that the talks will be protracted and painful.

Mario Lemieux has said he doesn't want to wait until that agreement is negotiated before getting a new arena. If I were him, I wouldn't want to wait either. But I'm just a taxpayer and sports fan who's had to learn to enjoy disappointment. And in that sense, this winter is shaping up to be as enjoyable as the summer.

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