McClatchy enjoys not being in front row

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They can take the Pirates away from Kevin McClatchy, but they can't take Kevin McClatchy away from the Pirates. If you look closely at the home opener today at PNC Park, you'll see him in the primo seats behind home plate. No, not in the front row. Those days are gone. Back a bit, mixed in among the people, just another face in the big, festive crowd that's out for a wonderful afternoon at the ballpark after the long, cold winter.

Just the way McClatchy likes it.

"Being a fan, drinking a beer, eating popcorn and enjoying the game," he said.

And here's the best part:

If the Pirates lose to the Houston Astros, no one will call McClatchy an idiot.

"I sure don't miss being the lightning rod," he said last week. "I like not being in the limelight. I like being out of the media."

That's why it took some arm-twisting to get McClatchy to do his first interview since the end of the 2007 season when he gave up his title of Pirates chief executive officer and was replaced by Frank Coonelly. He hung around last season as a minority owner but was rarely seen and never heard. Then, in January, he quietly sold his remaining shares to owner Bob Nutting and, at 46, moved on with his life.

"People see me now and say, 'Welcome back to Pittsburgh!' " McClatchy said. "But I never left. I guess folks never expected me to stay."

McClatchy is used to that. As far back as 1996, when, against all odds, he put together a consortium to buy the Pirates for $90 million, he was seen widely as a carpetbagger, who was looking to move the team, perhaps to Sacramento, Calif., his hometown. But here it is, 13 years later, and the team's long-term future is secure in Pittsburgh thanks, in large part, to his efforts to arrange public funding for PNC Park. "I take a sense of pride from that," he said. "It means at least some good came out of our ownership group." McClatchy is just as set here. He still lives in the same house in Shadyside and has another in Ligonier. "I find myself spending more time there. Going up there, your blood pressure just drops."

McClatchy said he is "staying busy, not just sitting around watching Oprah." He has invested in a couple of Pittsburgh-based start-up companies and owns a small share of the Red Room Café and 2Red Lounge in East Liberty. He also sits on the board of directors of his family-owned McClatchy Newspapers, the country's third-largest newspaper chain.

"After those meetings, you want to go to Ligonier," McClatchy said.

These are not good times for the newspaper business.

"We're trying to become more of an Internet-based business at the same time the economy has hit rock bottom," McClatchy said. "It's challenging, but we've got to survive. I don't think a lot of people realize how important newspapers are to this country. If you turn on the radio or television, any information they give you comes from newspapers. It's just an invaluable resource we can't afford to lose.

"We're not just in a fight to save a company. It's a fight for our democracy."

It's funny, the newspapers McClatchy is fighting so hard to save haven't always been kind to him. At least this one wasn't. He was an easy target as the Pirates' principal owner because the team never had a winning season during his watch. Idiot might have been among the gentler things we called him.

McClatchy doesn't try to defend himself. "Our record is what it was. That's not going to change. I have to live with that." But he did take offense to the suggestion that he and the other small-market owners sold their souls to the big-market owners, giving up any realistic chance to compete in order to make a profit. "That's something I don't lose sleep over," he said. "I know what I did to try to change the system. I took some aggressive stances and was fairly vocal about it."

It was only a matter of time until McClatchy walked away from the game after Nutting became the Pirates' controlling owner in January 2007. Once you're used to calling the shots, it's hard to work for someone else. "I think you'll see with the CEOs of any company that, when they leave, they leave," McClatchy said. "I didn't want to linger around."

Now, the losing will be on Nutting's and Coonelly's record.

Or the winning, as McClatchy said, perhaps dreaming.

"Yes, I do think the Pirates can win," he said. "I think Frank and [general manager] Neal Huntington have done some good things. The draft last year and the players they got, that was important. If they keep doing those things, the team can be successful.

"Will it be easy? No. The margin of error is close to zero. But it can be done. Just look at Tampa Bay."

Like many of us, McClatchy will be watching closely. "I'll always be a Pirates fan," he said. The view from his seat today might not be as good as the one from his old front-row seat, but that's OK with him. It comes with a nice tradeoff. It comes with a lot less stress.

Let someone else be the idiot.

McClatchy did his time.

Ron Cook can be reached at .


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