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Tuesday, September 16 2014 @ 12:54 AM EDT
Littlefield's Ghost   
By Wilbur Miller

In the January 6 entry on his blog at the Post-Gazette, Dejan Kovacevic reprints a letter from a season ticket holder to the Pirates explaining why he’s decided not to renew for 2009. The fan’s primary stated reason is the trades of Jason Bay and Xavier Nady. Kovacevic then adds:

“All I will add to this is that anyone who fails to see the importance of winning in 2009 -- or some of the intangible impact of the Jason Bay trade -- also fails to understand that the true lifeblood of any sports franchise is its season-ticket base. That is not hyperbole. Nor is it pandering to those among you readers who might fit this category. It is cold, hard fact. Without the people who care the most being on board, nothing else matters.”

The most obvious problem with this statement is that it necessarily implies that the Pirates themselves—they’re the ones who actually made the trades, after all—don’t understand the importance of their own season-ticket base. On the one hand, the Pirates care more about money than about winning. On the other, they’re oblivious to one of their primary sources of money. With all due respect, my response is, “Huh????” Personally, I have no doubt they made a reasoned decision to risk short-term financial setbacks in order to try to build a contending team in the longer term. That decision may not work out, but to say that the team, or fans like me who support the strategy, fails to appreciate the importance of season ticket holders is neither reasonable nor logical.

It’s also difficult to understand the life-or-death significance of “winning in 2009.” Why is the sky going to fall this year? Why didn't it in 2008, or 2007, or 2004, or 2000? Why, for example, didn’t “nothing else matter” besides winning in 2008, in order to avoid tying the record losing streak for a US professional sports franchise? The fact is, the Pirates have been in a long, slow death spiral for sixteen years. The opening of PNC gave them a bump for a while, but it’s just a fact that fan interest will continue to decline as long as the team continues to be unsuccessful in a broad sense. A few thrills here and there, including a run at that “magical” .500 season, isn’t going to stop the spiral, either. Attendance was down despite the handful of late-inning comebacks prior to the Bay and Nady trades. A contending season, as opposed to the run at .500 that the "build around Bay" strategy contemplates, might help, but it won’t achieve any lasting impact if it’s not followed by sustained success. Just look at the 2003 Royals. They had a winning, and contending, season after years of futility. They got a modest, two-year attendance boost, from 1.3 million in 2002 to 1.7 and 1.6, but by 2005 it was back to 1.3. Even if “winning in 2009,” as opposed to contending, shores up season ticket sales briefly, it won’t have any long-term impact if it's simply the product of the Pirates putting all their resources into one, big run at .500, and not into building a strong organization. There is no make-or-break, one-shot cure for their problems.

The single most surprising aspect, however, of the notion that the Pirates should make winning in 2009 their top priority is the fact that it’s precisely the strategy that Dave Littlefield and Kevin McClatchy followed. It’s amazing to me that the further Neal Huntington and Frank Coonelly depart from their incompetent predecessors’ strategies, the more they get pounded for it. Littlefield and McClatchy religiously avoided any moves that created the faintest appearance of rebuilding, with the lone, misbegotten exception of 2003 when Littlefield was ordered to cut payroll--and which isn't the same as rebuilding. They clung to their more visible players out of fear that any bold move might cause season ticket cancellations. They put all their effort into cobbling together that one .500 ball club, yet the end result was that the team not only kept losing in the short term, but laid waste to its own chances for long term success.

A lot of fans fail to recognize the true genius of Dave Littlefield. Although the continued losing ultimately undermined him, he was a master at doing things that looked good to the fans. He realized that most fans—including those vital season ticket holders—aren’t interested in prospects, so he didn’t bother with them. Instead, he clung to his few marketable faces and, when he acquired players from the outside, emphasized name recognition. Littlefield didn’t know how to build a baseball team, but he knew what the fans wanted to see and hear. I don’t know of any data to support this, but my impression was that most Pirate fans (average fans, not just the online fanatics) were pleased at the acquisitions of Jeromy Burnitz and Matt Morris. Without a doubt the fan base was ecstatic about the acquisitions of Joe Randa and Sean Casey. Littlefield went for moves that looked like improvements because moves that really are improvements for a struggling franchise are nearly always painful. He would have agreed enthusiastically with Kovacevic’s statement about winning in 2009. Littlefield’s and McClatchy’s single biggest failing was that they lacked the fortitude to make tough decisions, but now Huntington and Coonelly are being raked over the coals whenever they make one.

Baseball’s better run franchises understand that painful decisions have to be made by teams that can’t fill all their needs with money the way the Yankees and Red Sox can. Billy Beane has gutted his roster twice in the span of a few years. The Twins let Torii Hunter walk and traded Johan Santana. Once they had new, competent management, the Rays stuck with their young players, declined to chase after free agents, took their lumps for two more years, and ended up in the World Series with a $44M payroll. They never really even had a season ticket base—even in 2008 they outdrew the Pirates by only 200K—but they didn’t panic and tell themselves that “winning in 2007” was life or death. I’d rather the Pirates look to these teams as examples than continue to follow Littlefield’s and McClatchy’s strategy.

Of course, I’m sure nobody really wants the Pirates to follow Littlefield’s and McClatchy’s strategies. The typical argument—one that Kovacevic has advanced a number of times—is that the Pirates wouldn’t really be doing that if they clung to Bay because they could build around him with free agents and sign him to an extension. That way they could win in the short term and not collapse after 2009 because they’d still have Bay. The problem is that this approach is built on false assumptions. I won’t go into all of them, as Charlie Wilmoth already did a good job of showing why the “build around Bay” formula wouldn’t work. But I want to address a couple.

For one, the Pirates could not have extended Bay. It’s a fantasy. Here’s one of the Immutable Rules of Baseball: Premium players do not sign free agent contracts, or sell out their free agent years by signing extensions, with moderate-income, non-contending teams. Read it. Understand it. Learn to accept it. Contrary to popular belief, it’s not just a matter of ownership “opening the wallets.” The Nationals outbid the Yankees for Mark Teixeira. How’d that work out?

Bay specifically is in a position that would have made it foolish for him to sign an extension with the Pirates. His major league career got going at a later stage than is typical of top players. As a result, he’ll be 31 by the time he first becomes eligible for free agency. He’s going to have one shot at a big contract and he’s going to want to get it right, with both the money and the chance to play on a decent team. His agent would be guilty of malpractice if he didn’t urge Bay to test the market. If the Pirates had approached him about an extension, no doubt Bay would have listened politely and talked about how he loved playing in Pittsburgh—this is Jason Bay we’re talking about, not Manny—but in the end he’d have done what made sense for him, like any other rational player.

For the same reason that the Pirates couldn’t have extended Bay, the idea that they could have turned the team into a winner in the free agent market is misplaced. The sort of players who could have made a difference, particularly to a team with a pitching staff as shallow and untalented as the Pirates, weren’t available. CC and AJ just weren’t coming to Pittsburgh under any scenario. Period. There’s a reason the A’s, Twins, Brewers and other teams that are similar financially to the Pirates haven’t tried to build through free agency. It doesn’t work. I’ve repeatedly challenged people to name a struggling team with modest revenue that turned itself around by signing free agents. I don’t mean teams that built their own cores and then signed free agents to fill the last hole or two, like the Brewers with Jeff Suppan and the Rays with Cliff Floyd. I mean teams that had huge, gaping craters in their rosters, like the Pirates do. I’m still waiting for somebody even to try to meet the challenge.

At best, the Pirates might be able to give somebody like Suppan $10M or so a year over 4-5 years. That would leave them with an expensive placeholder at the expense of payroll flexibility in the future, when a key free agent signing might actually matter. One factor that many fans continually forget with free agent signings is that almost all free agents are already in, or fast approaching, their decline years. Even the signings that work out in the first year or two often become albatrosses in the out years, especially since most long-term contracts are backloaded to at least some extent. The strategy of trying to cobble together a .500 team in 2009 would have consequences further down the road. With Bay and a couple of aging pitchers signed to long term deals, and with the rest of the team rapidly becoming more expensive as the players move through aribitration toward free agency, the Pirates could easily endure losing years in 2009-10 and then find themselves completely unable to make any moves in 2011 and beyond.

Littlefield and McClatchy mortgaged the team’s future by refusing to break with strategies that prioritized attempts to be “pretty good” in the short term. They were so terrified of the short term consequences of an honest rebuilding effort that they clung desperately to anything that remotely resembled a hope of short term success. Even if you don’t agree with how they’re going about it, at least give Huntington and Coonelly credit for having the fortitude to refuse to continue down the wrong path. They chose to break from the cycle of saying, year after year after year, that "nothing else matters" besides making that big run at .500 this year. Personally, I'm ready for a change.

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