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Cook: Bad management has Pirates bleeding money

Tuesday, July 22, 2003

You think the Pirates are losing money? Would you believe $30 million in the three seasons they have been in PNC Park?

"You're sick about it? How do you think I feel?" Kevin McClatchy asked yesterday.

You think the trade Sunday of Mike Williams was just the first step of a total dismantling of the team?

You have no idea.

Asked if the Pirates could be facing a payroll cut similar to the one they had after the 1996 season, McClatchy didn't hesitate. "It could be ... I'm not saying that will happen because I don't know what moves [General Manager] Dave Littlefield is going to make. We took it back to almost $9 million in '97. I don't think we'll do anything close to that this time. But am I going to continue to blindly write checks for unproductive players? No. We have to get this franchise back to the break-even point. It's going to be painful."

You think only a bumbling ownership group could take the promise of the best new ballpark in America and turn it into such a financial nightmare so quickly?

Of course, you do, but you might be surprised to hear what McClatchy said about that.

"This is our fault. I don't think anyone can say we didn't try to put together a winning team, but we made some bad decisions. I have to take the blame for that."

McClatchy's candor is refreshing and admirable, but it doesn't excuse the colossal blunders the franchise has made during his watch. It also doesn't make it any easier for this city's baseball fans, who, after 11 consecutive seasons of losing, are being asked to endure another blow-it-up-and-start-again rebuilding phase.

It's a depressing thought.

But it's not as if McClatchy has any choice. If he can't afford to pay big-ticket contracts to Brian Giles, Kris Benson and Aramis Ramirez, he has to trade them. If he has to pay a team several million to take Jason Kendall's big contract off his hands, well, that's what he has to do. He can't spend what he doesn't have. Howard Baldwin tried that a few years ago and put the Penguins in bankruptcy. McClatchy would be a fool -- an even bigger fool than he has been -- if he allowed that to happen.

What's sad is it wasn't supposed to be like this in PNC Park. The new palace was supposed to solve many of the Pirates' small-market blues. McClatchy promised as much when he went looking for public money to get the place built.

Talk about a broken promise.

Actually, that's not fair to McClatchy. His word was good. He really did try to win, taking the Pirates' payroll to nearly $57 million this season, far and away the highest in franchise history. It was his execution that was horrible. The team he's spending all of those millions on went into the game last night with a 43-52 record and was 9 1/2 games out of first place.

"I really believed we were going to be a winning team this year," McClatchy said. "For whatever reasons, we came up short. I'm the first to admit it's been an underachieving team."

The players have to take the blame. They always determine wins and loses. All of the Pirates' high-priced players -- with the exception of Giles -- have produced less than expected.

But McClatchy and his baseball operations staff didn't exactly spend their money well. The contracts that former general manager Cam Bonifay gave Kendall, Kevin Young, Pat Meares and Derek Bell set the franchise back years. Kendall's six-year, $60 million deal seems certain to be remembered as the worst in Pittsburgh sports history.

McClatchy and his business people also made devastating mistakes. Everything from not allowing fans to bring bottled water into PNC Park that first season to not allowing the high school teams to play on the park's precious grass to raising ticket prices after a 100-loss season and 9/11. It's no wonder PNC Park attendance dropped from 2.4 million in 2001 to 1.8 million last season. Because of the underachieving team, the lousy economy and some rotten weather, it will drop even more this season.

All McClatchy can do now is try to put his best spin on things.

"I think we've learned that signing certain free agents to big contracts isn't the end-all, beat-all," he said. "I think if you would talk to the folks with the New York Mets and the Texas Rangers about their $100 million payrolls, they'd tell you the same thing ...

"If you look at teams like Kansas City and Oakland and Minnesota, they've become successful by doing it internally through their minor-league system. That's what we're going to do. If Dave is able to move some players to help strengthen us in that area, we'll be a lot better off in the long run."

McClatchy said the Pirates' minor-league system already is significantly better -- especially in terms of pitching prospects -- than it was in '96. "Dave and his people have done a tremendous job in a short period of time."

That's why McClatchy likes to think it won't take five more years for the Pirates to become winners.

He made only one prediction.

"This team will turn it around. There will be a winning team in PNC Park. I'm not talking about a team that gets to .500. I'm talking about something more. Dave will get us there. He's the man. I have no doubts about that."

You've probably heard that one before in one form or another.

It doesn't seem like much, does it?

Unfortunately, that's all you have at the moment.

Ron Cook can be reached at rcook@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1525.

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