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Pirates Will a new ballpark mean more wins?

Sunday, April 15, 2001

By Ron Cook, Post-Gazette Sports Columnist

So how many extra wins is a new ballpark worth? It depends on whom you ask.

The Baltimore Orioles will tell you the answer is plenty. They went 67-95 in their final season at Memorial Stadium in 1991, then 89-73 in their first season at Camden Yards in '92.

 

The Houston Astros might tell you not so many. They went 97-65 in the Astrodome in 1999 to win their third consecutive National League Central title, then slipped to 72-90 at Enron Field last season.

You know what the Pirates want to believe.

It's safe to say they will win more games at PNC Park -- and not just because they were a pathetic 69-93 at Three Rivers Stadium last year. Of the nine established teams that have opened new ballparks since 1991, five won more games in the first season at their new park than they did the year before. How many more the Pirates will win depends on if they can get key players Kris Benson, Jason Schmidt and Francisco Cordova healthy and productive. The Astros don't blame Enron Field for their problems last season as much as they do injuries to Craig Biggio, Ken Caminiti and Billy Wagner, a poor year by Jose Lima and the losses of Mike Hampton and Carl Everett, stars on the 1999 team.

Although no one knows how many games the Pirates will win -- thankfully, Kevin McClatchy won't be making a prediction this spring -- we do know they will have a blockbuster year at the box office. Each of those nine teams with new ballparks had a significant attendance increase in its first season at its new place. The Chicago White Sox set a franchise record by drawing 2.9 million fans in 1991. The Orioles' attendance went up by more than one million to 3.5 million in '92. The San Francisco Giants' increase was nearly 1.3 million last season. The Pirates hope to draw 2.6 million fans this season, an average of 33,000 in 38,000-seat PNC Park. That would be nearly 900,000 more than last season and 600,000 more than their record-setting year of '91 at Three Rivers.

What has to be most encouraging to McClatchy and the Pirates is that Pittsburgh fans almost certainly will keep coming to PNC Park as long as there's a competitive team on the field. The Cleveland Indians have not drawn fewer than 3.3 million in any non-strike year since they moved into Jacobs Field in 1994. The Atlanta Braves have played before at least 3.2 million each season since Turner Field opened in '97, the Texas Rangers before at least 2.7 million since the Ballpark in Arlington opened in '94. The Orioles haven't dipped below 3.1 million despite some horrendous front-office management and three consecutive losing records.

Only the White Sox haven't been able to maintain their attendance. They played before 1.3 million in 1998 and '99. Even last season, when they won a division title, their average attendance was 24,000 for a total of 1.8 million. But there are extenuating circumstances. The White Sox always will be the No. 2 team in Chicago behind the Cubs. And new Comiskey Park isn't nearly as cool as Jacobs Field or Camden Yards or the Giants' Pacific Bell Park.

Or PNC Park.

What the Pirates really want to be are the Indians. They're hoping PNC Park does for them and the city what Jacobs Field did for the Indians and Cleveland.

"Cleveland just wasn't the place," Indians General Manager John Hart has said. "The ballpark was a disaster. There was no action downtown. Everyone said Cleveland was a sleeping giant, but who really knew?"

It seems hard to believe now, but the Indians drew only 665,181 fans in 1985 and lost 105 games in '91 at Cleveland Stadium. In their first year at Jacobs Field, they were 66-47 when the players' strike shut down the season. The next year, they won 100 games and went to the World Series. Their streak of five consecutive division titles ended last season when they finished second behind the White Sox despite a 90-72 record. One streak that didn't end was their string of 454 consecutive sellouts.

Jacobs Field allowed the Indians to avoid arbitration with young stars such as Albert Belle, Jim Thome and Manny Ramirez. PNC Park allowed the Pirates to do it with Benson, who signed a four-year, $13.8 million deal last month. The Indians were able to keep their top players, at least until Ramirez left after last season. The Pirates were able to sign Giles and Kendall to long-term contracts. The Indians were able to lure quality free agents such as Roberto Alomar. The Pirates are hoping Derek Bell and Terry Mulholland are just the start.

Now, all the Pirates have to do is match the Indians' success -- on the field and at the ticket windows.

That's the hard part.

"We've had a fabulous run from the middle of 1993 on," Hart said. "I'd wish that on all people who are good. I'd love to see it happen to Pittsburgh, its fans and Kevin McClatchy and Cam Bonifay."

It's a nice thought, isn't it?


Next: Pirates get spacious new home within a home

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