Brian O'Neill: Bucs get a boost in fans, who now look to payroll


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For the second season since PNC Park opened in 2001, the Pirates should draw more people than live in the Pittsburgh metropolitan area.

Think of that: Enough people through the turnstiles to account for every man, woman and child in seven surrounding counties. To put that in further perspective, the Yankees and Mets could lure in more than 100,000 fans for each of their combined 162 home games and still not match the New York metro population.

I bring this up today because of the threat this could be to our way of life.

Perhaps "our'' is speaking too broadly. Perhaps this not so sudden windfall for the Pittsburgh Baseball Club will not change its frugal ways. But if it does, I fear for the mental health of a certain kind of person hereabouts.

Their outlook, to borrow an old George Carlin line, is that inside every silver lining, there is a dark cloud.

You know the type. Compliment a meal and they'll set you straight on the spice it lacked. Comment on the beauty of the day and they answer, "S'posed to rain later.'' Exalt in the second consecutive winning season for the Pirates after a 20-year drought and you'll hear something like, "Yeah, well, they're never going to keep Alvarez. Or Walker. Or Martin ...''

In the uber-capitalist business of baseball, which doesn't divvy up all its revenue and cap its salaries like those other, socialist, sports, it's a closely held article of faith that Pittsburgh will never be able to truly compete. Never mind that all but two of baseball's 30 franchises (Toronto and Kansas City) have made the playoffs since PNC Park opened. Or that 14 different teams have gone to the past 13 World Series, with nine different champions.

Baseball is so tilted toward the rich you'd think Ayn Rand was the commissioner!

The trouble with that argument has been that the Pirates compete in a division with three similar sized markets -- St. Louis, Cincinnati and Milwaukee -- and the Chicago Cubs. The Cubs last went to the World Series a couple of months after V-J Day and haven't won the World Series since 1908.

The Pirates could hardly ask for a better draw, but it doesn't seem that way because their Midwestern rivals punch above their weight class. St. Louis has only about 450,000 more people in its metro area than Pittsburgh's 2,360,000, but the Cardinals are outdrawing every team except the Los Angeles Dodgers. The Cards long have averaged 3 million-plus in a metro area of 2.8 million.

Milwaukee, with a metro area of less than 1.6 million, also has topped 3 million in attendance three times since its new park opened in 2001. Cincinnati, with 2.1 million in its metro area, has drawn more than that in six of its 12 seasons in its new park. The Cubs, meantime, can't draw fewer than 2.6 million fans to Wrigley Field no matter how badly they play.

The Pirates now are 18th in average attendance, within a stone's throw of Cincinnati and (if Roberto Clemente were throwing) Milwaukee. The surge is partly due to winning and partly due to baseball tourists making the trek to the prettiest park in North America. (Incoming Boston Red Sox fans have helped drive StubHub ticket prices for the September matchup to five times their face value -- on school nights!)

My fear here may be groundless. There's no rule that says just because the money comes into the Pirates front office that it has to go out. The club, as I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, still doesn't kick in anything to subsidize the free subway rides the way the Steelers, Rivers Casino and others do. And that payment would only amount to the revenue from one row, not even a long row.

No one expects Pirates owner Bob Nutting to be a spendthrift, but what happens if the Pirates payroll rises next year from 27th place, where it is now, to roughly its attendance level of 18th?

That would be the hardest thing for some Pirates fans since Bill Mazeroski, at long last, was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 2001. I am speaking, of course, of leaving them one less thing to complain about.

At least a thousand cranky sports talk callers await your next move, Mr. Nutting.

Brian O'Neill: boneill@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1947.


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