When whispers surfaced in January 2010 that Pittsburgh Penguins co-owner Mario Lemieux and Pirates owner Bob Nutting had a private conversation in which Lemieux and Penguins co-owner Ron Burkle made a "very serious" offer to purchase the Bucs, sentiments around the city couldn't have been more clear.
Sell the team. Dear, dear God, just sell the team.
After all, the Penguins were just a few years into a stretch of playoff appearances that demonstrated how quickly good players and great management can turn a perennial loser (the Penguins experienced four straight seasons of fewer than 30 wins from 2001-2006) into a premier franchise.
Nothing came of the matter, but that hasn't stopped momentum for the deal. After all, the Penguins had everything the Pirates seemed certain never to enjoy—an ownership group genuinely committed to improving the team, a front office group with a tangible, long-term plan and an unconditional organizational commitment to doing right by the fans.
Worse than never enjoying those things, Pirates' management seemed hardwired to avoid such successes like the plague.
The Pirates went on to compile a 57-105 record that year, earning by far the fewest wins in the majors. Manager John Russell was shown the door, next to nothing was spent in the following period of free agency and in spite of everything, the team reported an operating income of nearly $30 million from 2007-2008 while having the fourth-poorest MLB payroll in each of those seasons.
Microscopic payrolls and continued losing kept fans from the park, but didn't stop the Pirates from turning a profit. According to the Pittsburgh Tribune Review's Dejan Kovacevic, the Pirates have been profitable in each of the last six full seasons while posting a record of 389-583—just good enough for a .400 winning percentage.
This is not how a good club caters to its fans.
As Forbes SportsMoney NHL Analyst Mike Colligan said in a recent interview, the Pirates figure to have a harder time winning back fans than the Penguins did just a few years ago.
"...it's the friction between the fan base and various [Pirates] ownership groups over the years that is troublesome to me. There will always be baseball fans who buy tickets based on the success, or lack thereof, of the team. Now, many fans are staying away out of principle. That's not good."
"The Penguins have had their down years, but they've never offended the city like the Pirates have. That can be hard to change."
In spite of the negatives—and diehard Pirates fans have borne the brunt of those—people are coming back to the team.
Which will be most important to sustaining the Pirates turnaround?
The newfound success won't have anyone mistaking PNC Park for Fenway. Management has a long way to go to prove that it is committed to building a winner, and achieving year-over-year success in baseball is supremely difficult.
Still, the progress made this season is creating an energy that was unthinkable at the outset of the year. For the second time in a decade, Pittsburgh is proving itself willing to open its arms to a franchise that had fallen on hard times.
Like this summer's Pirates, the 2006 Penguins were also a revelation of youth, talent and coaching.
By 2007, gone were Craig Patrick, Ed Olczyk and the days of watching the team's best players depart for greener pastures. Lemieux and Burkle brought in first-time general manager Ray Shero, who expedited the development of the young team by hiring head coaches Michael Therrien and Dan Bylsma.
An arena deal was struck. After years of salary dumping and bankruptcy fears, stars Evgeni Malkin, Sidney Crosby and Marc-Andre Fleury were re-signed. The team was fully committed to the city and its fans, and those fans have rewarded the club's efforts with a home sellout streak dating back to the 2006-07 season.
It took just a few years of competent management, smart drafting and good coaching to take the Pens from obscurity to becoming the darling of the city.
The Pirates, seemingly out of nowhere, have a chance to follow suit.
General Manager Neal Huntington's long-term rebuilding plan has shown its first signs of on-field progress this year. Trade acquisitions Charlie Morton, James McDonald, Jeff Karstens, Jose Tabata and Joel Hanrahan have dimmed the memory of the assets fans were angered to see go, while products of the team's own scouting system (Andrew McCutchen, Neil Walker, Alex Presley) have made themselves mainstays with the club.
The team has drafted well under Huntington, astronomically better than under the direction of former GM Dave Littlefield. Pedro Alvarez, Tony Sanchez, Jameson Taillon, Stetson Allie and Gerrit Cole have all been acquired through the draft, an area in which the Pirates were previously infamously stingy.
From 2008-2010, no team spent more on draft pick signing bonuses than the Pittsburgh Pirates ($30.599 million).
And no single signing has been more important to the development of this team than the acquisition of manager Clint Hurdle.
In a multi-part series, a focus will be placed on the similarities between the development of the young Penguins team of five years ago to the development of this Pirates squad—how the Pirates can learn from the Penguins, how they've already mirrored some of their successes and how differences between Major League Baseball and the National Hockey League might make a worst-to-first turnaround more difficult for the Pirates.
Part Two will look at the team's front offices, as any chance at building a contender must start from within.