Please make sure you are sitting down as you begin to read this article. After 35 games this season, the Pittsburgh Pirates are over .500! This marks the latest moment in a baseball season where the Buccos have had a winning record since 5/29/2004. While folks in most cities probably do not understand what all the hub-bub is about, if you are a baseball fan in The Burgh, you have taken note.
Why is this a big deal? Ask yourself this: What do you think of the Pittsburgh Pirates? Fine. Do you even think of the Pittsburgh Pirates? Chances are unless you are a resident of the Pittsburgh area, you do not. In fact, judging by some nights' attendance figures, even if you are a resident, you are not thinking of them.
Believe it or not, despite becoming a laughingstock of professional sports at the Los Angeles Cipper-ian level, the Pirates are a once proud franchise. The team has won five World Championships and played in the very first World Series. Looking back through the rosters produces such Hall of Famers as Honus Wagner, Paul and Lloyd Waner, Pie Traynor, Bill Mazeroski, Willie Stargell, Ralph Kiner, and Roberto Clemente.
With all that history, it really is a tragedy that things have gone so bad. The Pirates have not been in a playoff game since the 1992 NLCS. October 14, 1992 to be exact. 6,782 days since a game that meant something for the Pirates franchise.
How did things go so wrong? Well, that is an article for another day. I want to focus on how things can get better. I have five ways that the Battlin' Bucs can help improve their image (besides winning, of course). These will not set the world on fire, but when you're digging out of an 18-plus year hole, every shovel of dirt helps.
-Make Players More Accessible: Yes, the season is long. But having players appear with high school and little league players every now and then will help get kids excited about the team. While they are reaching out to kids, make sure to take full advantage of social media as well. Get Andrew McCutchen and Pedro Alvarez on Twitter. Neil Walker just signed up. Also, use the team's account to promote the minor league prospects. There's no reason to not toot the horns of Jameson Tallion, Stetson Allie, and anybody else that may see time in a Pirate uniform some day. Just make sure they get the proper training from the PR staff. We don't need any Rashard Mendenhall moments.
-Increase Attendance In April and May: Aside from the home opener, there are not very many dates that the locals circle on the calendar as "must see" moments. The weather generally stinks, either too cold or too rainy for most folks. While the team has tried to distance itself from too many gimmicky promotions, I say do more of them early in the season. Fireworks night? Sure. Bobblehead night? Sign me up. Bobblehead fireworks night? Let the lawyers work it out, but I'm not saying no! The point is, baseball is a long season. There is no reason to not try and capitalize on some early momentum and get people used to coming out to the ballpark.
-Find A Way To Hold People's Attention When Steelers Season Starts: Every year, you hear the same joke that Pirates season is just the time between the end of the Penguins' playoffs and the time the Steelers report to Latrobe for camp. Well, it simply does not have to be that way. Listen, I am a realist. The Pirates are a DISTANT third when it comes to importance in the sports landscape. June, July, and August are when the weather is going to be the best (for Pittsburgh). Work with Major League Baseball to gain any favorable matchups in scheduling at home during this time. A great example is the Boston Red Sox series here this June 24-26. Even though Steeler camp would not be in session then, it will be the talk of the town. If the team is competitive then, even better.
-Be Honest With The Fans: We have witnessed a lot of managers since Jim Leyland. All of them have failed to take the team to the playoffs. One of the best qualities in Clint Hurdle's very early tenure has been his inability to "BS" people. He has been questioned about times when Andrew McCutchen was not batting leadoff. His response was something along the lines of the fact that the Pirates lost 100-plus games last season, many of those with Cutch in the No. 1 slot. Recently, he made the distinction of pointing out that Neil Walker was batting fourth, not cleanup, because the Pirates do not have a cleanup hitter. This is perfect. After all these years of promises and "Five-Year Plans", the time has come to be frank about what is or is not in the cupboard. Hurdle has done and excellent job of that so far.
-Establish Bob Nutting As A Friendly Face Of The Franchise: I am pausing for the laughter to die down, but this is a serious point. Nutting has some stiff competition in terms of the owner faces of the other franchises in town. Ownership groups are not just one person, but often, there is one who takes on the "face" of the team. For the Pittsburgh Steelers, it is now Art Rooney II (President, Owner, call it what you will). I need say no more than "Rooney" to establish his credentials. He has already won Super Bowls and signed key players to long contracts. Over near the Hill District, Mario Lemieux is the face of the Penguins ownership group. He has been credited with saving hockey in Pittsburgh on two separate occasions, beat cancer, sent an inspirational text message to his players prior to the team's third Stanley Cup victory, and is widely regarded as a great person in town.
My guess would be if you asked the average person on the street about Bob Nutting, they would say, "who?". If they knew who he was, cheap and untrustworthy would likely be among the themes. Fair or otherwise, Nutting has to beat that rap. He has stated many times that he is committed to winning in Pittsburgh. That alone could make him a hero, but why not also make it a point to get involved strongly in the community like the Rooney's or Lemieux. If he is already doing that, make it known. This man needs the positive PR.
So as you can see, my five step plan will improve the team on the field in zero ways. There will be no marked difference in fundamentals, the talent on the field, or the scouting off of it. But that is not what I am looking to do. First thing is first, get the team to become less of a joke and more of a respectable thing to care about. They say "Rome wasn't built in a day". The same could said of the level of respect for the Pirates. It took 18 years to ruin it, every day you take a step forward will help to erase that until the glorious day where the fans can take to the streets in celebration of a .500 season! What, you wanted a World Series? I'd rather build Rome again instead of taking on that challenge.