The Gang That Couldn't Shoot Straight (I)

I've long been a casual baseball fan. I grew up reading the sports section of the Chronicle, following the exploits of Marichal, McCovey, Fuentes, Mays, and Bonds (Bobby), and I loved listening to Vin Scully on TV (!) on Saturday mornings. But I never played the game, and I never went to a baseball game -- at any level -- until I sat in a box seat at old Memorial Stadium and watched the Orioles play the Angels in the Summer of 1982. I had already finished three years of college.

So I'm in no position to critique anything that the Pittsburgh Pirates organization have done this season, or over the last 15 to 20 years, on baseball grounds. For all I know, some of the team's moves have been or may still be winners. I went to a game a week ago and was captivated by the play on the field. In competitive terms, the youth movement may yet pay off.

Instead, I've titled the post "The Gang That Couldn't Shoot Straight" (delivering in part on a promise made back in July) because the failure of the Pittsburgh Pirates isn't merely a failure to put a winning team on the field. The failure is a failure of leadership, and that failure goes much deeper and cuts more sharply into Pittsburgh's collective soul than that.

I'll make the case in a series of propositions.

Proposition one: Pittsburgh is a great baseball town. It doesn't look like it now, not with more than 15 consecutive losing seasons under its belt, but professional baseball in Pittsburgh has a history and tradition and a legacy of success over a period of many decades that rivals those of the Steelers, the team's only long-standing rival for the city's sports affection. You can feel the heart of that baseball town beating faintly today, usually when certain names are tossed into conversations -- Mazeroski, Clemente, Stargell, Tanner, Leyland. Even Bonds (Barry) gets those juices flowing, precisely because the man so disappointed all of Pittsburgh. The game is designed to break your heart, at Giamatti wrote, and Bonds broke Pittsburgh's.

Proposition two: More than any other professional sport in the US, baseball traditionally has been a community phenomenon. Community in this sense doesn't just or only mean city. Community often means neighborhood; sometimes it means region, or more. (Outside the US, soccer/football often shares this characteristic.) It might be the case the baseball owes its popularity, its history, and its traditions to the fact that more than any other sport, baseball is the people's game. Calling baseball "a community phenomenon" probably doesn't do justice to the way that in the best cases, teams and towns are intertwined. Baseball is a game about place. I'll let better fans than I am play out examples in their own minds. Living in a city or a neighborhood is about place. Fans and residents alike feel like they own a piece of where they live and what they love. It is just short of a spiritual thing. The church of baseball.

And proposition three: The connection between fan and place, between fan and team, has to be reciprocal for it to be sustainable. If the fan gives and gives and gives, and the team or place don't give anything back, then the relationship will wither. It may limp along for a long while and maybe not expire altogether. But the potential richness of that relationship -- the durability of large-scale passion for a team -- will be lost. If the team returns the relationship, not only will the relationship thrive, but it will be passed from generation to generation, young fans listening on the radio or studying the box score while they learn just why their parents won't give up that ragged ball cap.

That is the sin that the ownership of the Pirates today has committed, and I emphasize the ownership because it is a sin of leadership not a sin of player performance. As I look at the Pirates organization, as I read the sports section of the Post Gazette and talk occasionally to people who know a lot more about baseball than I ever have, I see a baseball team that has all but turned its back on the Pittsburgh community. I see an organization that talks intently about its commitment to player development and to working its way back to a winning record -- someday.

But at the leadership level, there is no engagement with the community. No one who represents the team is out there in the spotlight, personifying the team-as-place. One might say, Nutting? Nutting? in the monotonic way that Ben Stein once said Anyone? Anyone?. There is no one out there to make sure that the next generation of Pittsburghers become baseball fans, and Pirates fans. As Doc Brown might have said, it's the kids, Bob, you've gotta do something about your kids! Baseball may know no greater tragedy than a team that turns kids off of the sport.

There is no one right way for the leadership of a sports team to connect with the town. In Pittsburgh, the Rooneys offer one model, Mario Lemieux offers a second. And the relationship between owner and community need not be warm and fuzzy. I was a 49ers fan in the 1980s when Eddie DeBartolo owned the team. San Francisco loved him and loved the Niners, even before The Catch. Eddie was many things (and SF knew only the half of it), but he was not warm and cuddly. Charlie Finley and the Oakland A's. Hardly warm and cuddly. Steinbrenner and the Yankees. Find your own examples. My favorite, from personal experience, is Al Davis and the Raiders. Say what you will about him as a coach or as an owner, but the man has an incredibly strong relationship with Oakland. In fact, I think that most of Oakland hates Al Davis.

Most of Pittsburgh hardly cares about Bob Nutting and the rest of the ownership group.

Winning salves a lot of wounds, so the current mini-winning streak seems like an inopportune time to point out the Pirates' problems. There's no way to get rid of Nutting and his group if they don't want to go. From media reports, Nutting personally seems like a decent guy but not at all the sort of personality who would enjoy being the face of a sports team. And I like to go to PNC Park as much as the next casual fan. Which is not to say that the PNC experience couldn't be improved. In baseball, I'm a traditionalist. If it were up to me, I'd tear down the Jumbotron, put away the fireworks, turn off the music, send the Pierogie racers home, and bring back the organ.

So I have this diagnosis and no prescription. (I have an unrealistic prescription: Impose promotion and relegation on professional baseball. Send the Pirates to the minors.) But if you happen to know Bob Nutting, think about letting him know this: Even in the near term, the community needs to hear that you care.

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Pittsblog 2.0 is written by Mike Madison, a law professor at the University of Pittsburgh. Send email to michael.j.madison[at]gmail.com. Mike also blogs at Madisonian.net, on law and technology. Chris Briem of Null Space drops by from time to time.

All opinions expressed at Pittsblog 2.0 are those of their respective authors and of no one (and no thing) else, least of all the University of Pittsburgh.

Pittsblog 2.0 has a motto: "It's steel good in Pittsburgh." Say it aloud, with a Pittsburgh accent.

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