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Madden: Losing Pirates not out of question

Saturday, July 13, 2002

Every team in Major League Baseball is going to make its next payroll. This time.

But with Commissioner (so to speak) Bud Selig clearly willing to let a franchise go under -- especially if it proves a point in labor negotiations -- it seems fair to assume that at least one team is going to go bankrupt and belly-up in the relatively near future.

And it's hardly outrageous to think that the Pirates could be that team.

There's no hard evidence that the Pirates are in deep financial trouble. Owner Kevin McClatchy is certainly issuing fervent and specific denials, and McClatchy has no history of lying.

Yet there's a wealth of circumstantial evidence suggesting that the Pirates could wind up a few nickels short at some point. I realize that circumstantial evidence wasn't enough to convict O.J., but I bet it keeps people from moving in next door to him.

The circumstantial evidence against the Pirates doesn't guarantee financial trouble today, but it makes severe money problems in the future very probable.

The Pirates are on pace to see attendance decrease by 600,000 this season. I'm sure the Pirates weren't dumb enough to budget for the same attendance as last year. I'm equally sure they weren't pessimistic enough to budget for a drop of 600,000.

Cost overruns for PNC Park reportedly drained much of the profit the Pirates posted last season. That money is already gone.

McClatchy's pockets aren't very deep by Major League Baseball standards, and he has no true big-coin investors. Ergo, bailout money might be hard to muster when the time comes.

The Pirates are talking about trading Jason Kendall to Colorado for aging pitcher Denny Neagle, with the deal's only saving grace being a big payroll chop over the long haul. This trade makes no baseball sense, so the Pirates -- if they make this swap -- seem to be letting money take first priority in personnel decisions.

The evidence is, indeed, circumstantial. But it adds up.

The Pirates, in theory, could get relief from a lot of these problems if collective bargaining produces a settlement favorable to small-market teams. If you believe that's a real possibility, though, I'd like to try to sell you the Clemente Bridge. The players have won every strike. Now -- obviously aligned with big-money owners and with an incompetent commissioner looking on -- they'll win this one, too.

I'm not sure the great unwashed understands -- and I'm not even sure owners like McClatchy understand -- but owners like George Steinbrenner are on the players' side. If the players win, big-money teams continue to win, and make scads of cash, too.

The Pirates seem stuck in an absolutely hopeless situation. Franchises like Cleveland and Baltimore at least got to enrich their coffers with several years of new-ballpark interest. The Pirates got only one year of extra dough via the charisma of PNC Park.

The Pirates are in their second year in a new park, and the wheels are falling off. The team is bad, and attendance is plummeting. If problems exist in the bank vault, too, it would only be logical.

If the Pirates survive this season -- or survive a strike -- the deficit accrued this season logically would be reflected in the payroll next season. Goodbye, good players. Both of 'em. I'm sure the Pirates don't want to spend money they don't have. After all, look what that got the Arizona Diamondbacks: a world championship and a financial bailout by Major League Baseball.

The "baseball stinks" school of thought might be worn out in the minds of some people, but not in mine. Forget about the farcical All-Star Game tie. That was merely a symptom.

Baseball has a geek for a commissioner, a guy who got the job only because he was a small-market owner who sold out and always voted with the big boys by way of smooching posterior. He looked like a confused little boy Tuesday night when he couldn't call Steinbrenner or Jerry Reinsdorf to ask them what to do.

The real battle in collective bargaining isn't owners vs. players, it's small-market owners vs. big-market owners and players. The small-market owners don't get that, so the status quo will remain.

The players don't compete against each other, they're merely "union brothers" who belong to different locals. Most games lack passion, and baseball without passion always is boring.

The Montreal Expos, currently owned by Major League Baseball, are adding star players -- and more payroll -- to make the team more attractive to a potential buyer at season's end. This might enable MLB to turn a profit on the sale, but, in the meantime, it gives the Expos an unfair competitive advantage. Being owned by MLB isn't a bad thing when it comes to having financial resources available.

When I think about big-league baseball leaving Pittsburgh -- which seems inevitable unless the owners win the current labor dispute, which won't happen -- I feel sad. But it would make sense.

Can't win, can't make money, half-empty ballpark ... really, what's the point?

Mark Madden is the host of a sports talk show from 3 to 7 p.m. weekdays on WEAE-AM (1250).

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