Pirates' new owner embraces life in the open

Nutting's bold personality in board rooms, passion for the outdoors bely a reclusive image brought by years of silence about baseball

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By all accounts, the personality of Barney Dreyfuss, the Pirates' first owner, was a fine fit for his team's nickname.

Every bit a swashbuckler, he once engineered a bold 14-player trade that netted the legendary Honus Wagner. He was brash in his spending, too, turning over all gate receipts from the 1903 World Series to his players -- $1,316 each -- to make sure they were paid better than the Boston players who beat them. And he paid a then-record $22,500 in 1911 to pry a pitcher named Marty O'Toole from a St. Paul minor-league club.

Had Bob Nutting worked for the Pirates a century ago?

He might have been Mr. Dreyfuss' accountant.

"Bob is all business," said Dr. Kenneth Nanners, an anesthesiologist in Mr. Nutting's native Wheeling, W.Va., and decade-long friend. "Nobody can look at a spreadsheet and dissect it in about 10 seconds the way he can, and nobody can put the information to better use. He thinks everything through. And because of that, when he makes his point, everybody listens."

That much was evident Friday, when reporters filed into his PNC Park office to find out something, anything, about the Pirates' new principal owner. When he made a point, it was emphatic and supported with the best evidence he was willing to offer. When he was not fully certain that the point had resonated, he would cut off the interviewer's next question with, "Are we clear on what we just talked about?"

Mr. Nutting's view about staying out of the red is clear as day: He and his family long have run their publishing business in a diligent, disciplined -- some might say tight-fisted -- manner. And he makes no apology for that, nor for the prudent fiscal approach he expects to continue taking with the Pirates.

"The business of running a Major League Baseball team is still running a business," Mr. Nutting said. "At the same time, I believe that winning is the most important thing. A baseball team has to win baseball games."

Out in the open

The worst term anyone could use to describe Mr. Nutting is a recluse.

Still living the high life at age 44, he is a licensed commercial pilot, flight instructor, fisherman, skier, hunter, trap shooter and conservationist, a board member of several charitable and other organizations and -- deep breath here -- chief executive officer of the Nutting family's Ogden Newspapers chain.

Mr. Nutting did keep a conspicuously low profile with the Pirates, issuing comments no more than once or twice a year and, even then, only through written statements. Reporters who covered the team for years never had seen him, much less interviewed him, until Friday.

Even so, he is no Howard Hughes.

"This whole reclusive thing ... I hear that, but it just doesn't fit," said Kevin McClatchy, the principal owner Mr. Nutting will supplant and still the Pirates' chief executive officer. "All you have to do is look at the way he lives his life."

He lives it by air, sea and land.

"I love the outdoors," Mr. Nutting said. "And I try to enjoy it every way I can."

Start with the air: He has owned his pilot's license since 1983 and operates a twin-engine Beechcraft Baron that he flies across the country, usually for business.

How does flying make him feel?

"It's a useful tool," Mr. Nutting said, ever the pragmatist. "It makes travel easy and flexible."

His favorite pastime, friends say, is fly-fishing. He does some of that on a pond near his Wheeling home that is stocked with bluegill and, more recently, he has taken to some of the 60 lakes that surround the Seven Springs Mountain Resort, which he bought in July.

One day last summer, on a lake in Ohio, he caught more than 100 trout.

"He counted every one of them, too," Dr. Nanners said. "Nobody fishes like this fellow."

Mr. Nutting's skiing, observers say, is nearly on par with his fishing.

Among his board credentials are the Carnegie Natural History Museum, the Linsly School, Wheeling Country Day School, West Virginia Independent Colleges & Universities, United Bank, West Virginia's Nature Conservancy, the Newspaper Association of America, Wheeling Hospital and ...

Suffice it to say this is not someone who needed baseball to fill out the summer.

Mr. Nutting's primary responsibility remains Ogden Newspapers, a fourth-generation family operation founded in Wheeling in 1890. It now employs more than 5,000 and publishes newspapers, magazines, phone directories and shopping guides in 11 states. Mr. Nutting has been CEO since 1990 and in that time, the company has doubled the number of its newspapers -- the company's primary business -- from 19 to 40.

The drive is a reflection of his father, Ogden Nutting, people close to him say.

"That acorn didn't fall too far," said Dr. Don Hofreuter, retired CEO of Wheeling Hospital and lifelong physician to the Nutting family. "I don't want to give the idea he didn't have fun as a child -- he did -- but he was always serious-minded, even as a youngster. Very hard-working. And knowing his father, I'm not surprised."

Ogden Nutting, 71, remains publisher of Ogden Newspapers, and he, too, was involved in all sorts of extracurricular activity until scaling back recently. He had his sporting fix, as well, having been known to compete furiously in ski races and tennis.

Bob Nutting graduated from the same college as his father, Williams College in Williamstown, Mass. -- also with a degree in history -- and he immediately moved into the family business in 1983. He learned by silently yet closely following his father's example, those close to him say.

Once in charge, he built up the family's businesses, but only in the most cautious manner. Books were scrutinized, projections were laid out in exhaustive detail, and, once the purchases were made, policies were put in place that ensured -- rather than hope for -- profitability.

Every penny was counted, or it was pinched.

"He runs a business the way it's supposed to be run," said Dr. Hofreuter, who serves on two boards with Mr. Nutting. "When Bob is in a board meeting, he asks the critical questions. I know the rest of us always felt like we had to be on our toes in any meeting with Bob because his attention to detail is extraordinary."

For all Mr. Nutting's many ventures, he still spends time with wife Leslie and his three daughters -- who are 17, 15 and 10 years old but whom Mr. Nutting declined to name -- at their Wheeling home.

"For everything else he does, he'll still show up with the family at church on Sunday," Dr. Nanners said. "I have no idea how he does it."

"My daughters are the reason I love baseball, to be honest with you," Mr. Nutting said. "Baseball is a family game for so many people, and the greatest enjoyment I get is out of sharing the experience with them."

Open for business

By 2002, Ogden Nutting had multiplied his share of the Pirates from the initial $2 million loan to Mr. McClatchy in 1996 to the point where he added Bob Nutting to the board of directors. Soon, Mr. Nutting was chairman of the board.

And then?

It was as if he had vanished, at least where the Pirates were concerned.

Although Mr. McClatchy was answering to Mr. Nutting, he remained the front man in every way, representing the team on all Major League Baseball votes and committees, overseeing all operations and doing all the public speaking. Given the team's poor performance on the field, he also functioned as the lightning rod for criticism.

Mr. McClatchy takes no issue with the Nuttings' approach in that span.

"When you're the CEO of a company, you should take the heat. I never had a problem with that," he said. "The Nuttings weren't staying out of the way to avoid the heat. They were doing it because they didn't want to send mixed messages."

Eventually, though, that criticism spread to include the Nutting family, and Bob Nutting became increasingly displeased with reading and hearing how his family was doing nothing more than profiting from the Pirates, how it had no genuine interest in winning.

"As far as questioning my commitment or my family's commitment to winning, I think that's completely inappropriate," he said in a sharp tone during one of those interviews Friday. And, when he said it, the room filled with staffers stayed silent for an uncomfortable moment.

The follow-up questions came:

Why stay quiet?

Why wait so long to reveal that he was not paying himself a salary?

Why wait to state definitively that no member of ownership has kept profits?

"This is the right time," Mr. Nutting said, simply. "We're doing this now."

The likely explanation is that he and his family seem to have such a high level of respect for Mr. McClatchy that they wished not to intrude on his being the face of the franchise. Just as Bob Nutting was satisfied to stay in his father's shadow after coming out of college, so was he fine with waiting his turn with the Pirates.

What will Mr. Nutting's ascent mean to the Pirates?

Maybe more of the same, maybe not.

It could be that, because Mr. Nutting and Mr. McClatchy each will retain his previous role -- Mr. Nutting still has the last word, and Mr. McClatchy still runs the business day to day -- nothing will change. The Pirates will continue to be tight with money and unaccountable for the seemingly endless losing.

Or it could be that Mr. Nutting's rise will embolden him, as it appeared to do Friday. It could be that whatever motivated him to speak so forcefully against those who have criticized him and his family will push him to take equally firm action to address the Pirates' problems. He could add money to the payroll, perhaps, or change some names and faces under him.

The betting line, as always with the Nuttings, should be on the bottom line. But those who know Bob Nutting best predict that his view of success with the franchise will be incomplete without winning.

"This is someone who's so competitive, who has such a passion to succeed at whatever he does," Dr. Nanners said. "That's just his personality, and I have no doubt that's going to carry over to how he runs the Pittsburgh Pirates."

"Before Bob is through, you'll have a winner in Pittsburgh," Dr. Hofreuter said. "Plain and simple, he's not the type of person who wants to be attached to anything that is less than excellent. You'll see that."

Robin Rombach, Post-Gazette

Pirates Chairman of the Board Robert (Bob) Nutting and CEO Kevin McClatchy discuss the "change of control" within the Pirates ownership Friday.

Click photo for larger image.

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Dejan Kovacevic can be reached at dkovacevic@post-gazette.com .


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