Since it’s high school graduation time, I thought that I’d lead with this sobering fact: There are kids graduating from high schools in Pittsburgh who, during their entire lives, have never known a Pittsburgh Pirate team with a winning record.
Pretty pathetic, isn’t it? And probably a big reason why almost nobody gives the Pirates a second thought in Pittsburgh.
Here’s another sobering fact: Pittsburgh is a football town.
As such, the Pirates will never rule the city. But they can become relevant again in the ‘Burgh.
I’ve seen it happen in New England. When I moved here in 1998, the Patriots were an afterthought. Boston is many things, but in 1998, it was definitely not a football town.
Enter Bill Belichick and Tom Brady. Three Super Bowl wins later, the Patriots are arguably the best team of the past decade and definitely part of the Boston sports conversation.
It can happen to the Pirates, too. Granted, they will never overtake the Steelers as darlings of the city, but they don’t have to. Like the Penguins, the Pirates can be a part-time lover for the city, providing an alternative in the summer to Steeler training camp and preseason games. Plus, if they win, people around town might actually follow baseball in October.
The formula may seem painfully elementary, but apparently, the Pirates’ past and present ownership hasn’t figured it out, so it can’t be that simple. Therefore, I’ll spell it out for them here.
Just Win, Baby!
As much as I can’t stand Al Davis, his trademark statement applies. Everyone loves a winner, unless you play in Tampa.
But Pittsburgh isn’t Tampa. People in Pittsburgh appreciate a good sports team and will support it. Right now, the Pirates don’t have to do much to stir excitement. The team is hovering around .500 and people in town are cautiously optimistic.
If the team starts to win, the fans will eat it up because they are starving for a successful baseball team. Ownership needs to understand that because Pittsburghers aren’t fools. Keep putting out a mediocre product and the fans will vote with their feet.
Sounds easy—but how do they accomplish it?
To be a winner, one must study a winner. One caveat: The winner must be in your income bracket. So, studying the New York Yankees is an exercise in frustration and futility; however, studying the Minnesota Twins or Tampa Bay Rays is not.
The Pirates need to reverse engineer what is working for those franchises. Break it down to its essence. Beg, steal and/or borrow if necessary.
Or, go with the "Moneyball" way by hiring an Ivy League prodigy who majored in quantum mechanics, but analyzes baseball stats for fun. Perhaps, he can create a new metric that will give the Pirates an edge.
But they need to change their model because what they're doing now isn't working. As the saying goes, insanity is doing the same thing over again, yet expecting different results.
Sell! Sell! Sell!
No, I don’t mean actually sell the team to new ownership (although that may not be a bad idea), but rather the team needs to sell its brand, not only in Pittsburgh, but also nationally.
What's its brand? I have no idea, but apparently they have one. I see people wearing Pirate paraphernalia everywhere I go. I even saw a guy wearing a Pirate hat in North Dakota. He’s either a true fan or has ulterior motives. Fearing the latter, I never asked why he wore a Pirate hat.
The point here is that even though the Pirates stink, people are wearing their apparel. The team needs to tap into that reason. If it’s due to some celebrity or hip-hop artist, so be it. They don’t have to condone the person; they just need to capitalize on the star power.
Also, play into the whole “Pittsburgh is a blue-collar town” belief. Pittsburgh is no longer a smoky hell littered with steel mills, but this is no time to deal in particulars. Perception is reality. Play on the persona.
To put it another way, the Oakland Raiders (I can’t believe that I’m evoking them again) emanate a certain persona that attracts people. The team has been lousy for years, yet they have one of the largest fans bases in the country because of that persona.
Maybe the Pirates can sell themselves as a bunch of scrappy, young, underpaid lunch-pail guys. That appeals to people throughout the country and in different parts of the world.
I’ve met many Steeler fans in different parts of the country that have never set foot in Pennsylvania, yet love the Steelers because of the blue-collar mentality of the franchise. The Pirates can create a baseball version of that.
Holding out for a Hero
Pittsburghers love their sports icons.
So much so that fans will wash their Jaromir Jagr-like mullet with Head & Shoulders shampoo because of Troy Polamalu, eat at the "Jerome Bettis Grille 36" before the game, take only the Roberto Clemente Bridge to the game, drink in the parking lot a "Steelers 50 Seasons" commemorative Iron City beer that they’ve been saving for 30 years for good luck, wave their Myron Cope Terrible Towels and prostrate themselves before a statue of Art Rooney, Sr. in thanks for a Steeler victory in a meaningless preseason game
The Pirates need to capture Pittsburgh’s (somewhat psychotic) reverence for its sports heroes. A good way is for them to draw on the strong ethnic flavor of the city.
If the team could find a player with German-Irish-Italian-Polish roots, they’d be golden. I’m only half-joking here.
Look at Ichiro Suzuki in Seattle. The Mariners were able to attract the city’s large Japanese base with his signing.
Another example is Milwaukee Brewer Ryan Braun (aka, “The Hebrew Hammer”), who is a source of pride in the Jewish community.
The Pirates can do the same. Hell, start a minor league affiliate in Warsaw, if that’s what it takes to find the “Polish Kill-basa”. (I’m thinking 6’6” closer with a three-pitch repertoire—a blazing fastball, wicked slider and a disc-rupturing off-speed pitch. Work with me here.)
Indeed, all of these ways of improving the Pirates are fail-proof. Now, getting the Pirates to take my advice is an entirely different matter. Although genius is never appreciated in its lifetime, I’m in pretty good health; therefore, it could be long time before my ideas are recognized.
However, it’s imperative that Nutting et al., take notice now. After all, a generation of Pirate fans is a terrible thing to waste.