Jay Lustig is a businessman. By trade, he invests in things. But, 17 years ago, when he bought into the Pirates ownership group as a limited partner, he was not thinking about all the money he could make.
Mr. Lustig wanted to keep the team in Pittsburgh. And he made that gesture, mostly, with the motivations of a sports fan. He wanted the team to stay, and he wanted it to win.
One of the owners who joined with Mr. Lustig and others in 1996 was a West Virginia man named Ogden Nutting, who owned a bunch of small newspapers. Ogden had a son named Bob, who didn't have anything to do with the stewardship of the Pirates, until 2003. The Nuttings were starting to buy up the shares of other limited partners, and now Bob was a member of the board of directors.
Who was Bob Nutting? A bespectacled mystery, that's who. It was plenty clear what he was doing on the business end. Beginning in 2007, when he took over for Kevin McClatchy as the franchise's managing partner, he showed he was willing to research and develop a long-term vision for success -- a path Mr. McClatchy wasn't as inclined to take. The Pirates put the structure in place that would theoretically give them a chance to compete -- if everything went just right, of course.
By 2012, seemingly out of nowhere, they were playing like winners. They had signed their star player, Andrew McCutchen, to a bargain long-term deal. Their young talent had blossomed at the same time. Baseball fever gripped the North Shore, and, to Mr. Lustig, that meant one thing:
It was time for Bob Nutting to sell the Pirates.
"From a timing standpoint, everything was looking up," Mr. Lustig said. "That would be the best time to attract an ownership group that would be financially enthusiastic enough to kind of go for it."
Mr. Lustig would not leave Mr. Nutting alone. He admits he was probably driving him mad, but that was because Mr. Nutting didn't see it.
Here was this 51-year-old man, with all of these resources at his disposal, owning a team that was ready to win big. And all he wanted was to stay the course, keep developing those minor leaguers and tossing out a few million here and there toward veteran reclamation projects. Where was the fun in that?
Professional sports owners are rarely in it to make a buck. They've made windfalls elsewhere, and the franchise often becomes a playpen for their ego and pride. But Bob Nutting stayed in the background, content to let the process play out.
When Mr. Lustig would plead with him, Mr. Nutting would offer the same response, a phrase he had learned from his father:
When the Nutting family owns something, our intention is to own it forever.
In 2012, as the Pirates fell apart in the second half and registered a losing season for the 20th straight year, those words were foreboding.
At the end of the season, Mr. Lustig told Mr. Nutting of his intention to sell his share of the team and was met with no resistance. Mr. Lustig believed that the Nuttings wanted to own 100 percent of the Pirates. That way, there would be no opposition to their idea of how to run the business.
It was an emotional moment for Mr. Lustig, but he felt he had no other choice.
"One of the hardest decisions I've ever had to make," he said.
A working philosophy
In September 1890, H.C. Ogden printed and sold the first edition of the Wheeling (W.Va.) News. More than a century later, in 1993, when his grandson and two great-grandsons traveled to Central Pennsylvania to officially acquire the Lewistown Sentinel, they were just taking the next step in moving the family business forward.
The Nuttings were interested only in small-market newspapers. There, they had found the financial sweet spot, with the ability to generate significant advertising revenue and serve a population that didn't have any other source of local news.
In Lewistown, then a community of about 10,000, they met the paper's publisher, Jim Dible, and took him to dinner. A few elements of that meal stuck out to Mr. Dible, who was trying to figure out Ogden, Bob, and Ogden's oldest son, Bill.
"Those three people are on the same page," Mr. Dible said. "They could finish each other's sentences if necessary. They had worked out what their philosophy was, and it didn't matter if you were talking to Ogden, Bill or Bob, the delivery method might be different, but the message was the same."
Ogden, who took over the company in 1956, handled much of the conversation that night. It quickly veered away from the family's time-tested methods of cutting costs in the short term to make their papers more financially viable long-term.
"Ogden in particular was so passionate about baseball, and knowledgeable," Mr. Dible said. "One of the most knowledgeable guys I'd met about baseball. When he found out I was a baseball fan, he tested me on my baseball knowledge."
Mr. Dible didn't get much of a feel for Bob Nutting, but he would in the coming months.
Mr. Nutting started his newspaper career in the composing room of the Wheeling News as a teenager. After earning a history degree at Williams College in Massachusetts, where all the Nuttings receive their undergraduate education, he took his first job as a general assignment reporter at the Jamestown Post-Journal in western New York.
"It really was one of the most fun jobs I ever had," he said.
With Bill being the oldest son, Bob had no plan that he would take over for his father. But, when Bob was 23, Ogden had quadruple-bypass heart surgery. Bill was still in law school, and so that left Bob to fill in for his father by taking more of a leadership role.
"I think that leapfrogged my expectation and frankly the level of responsibility that I felt," he said, "to step in and begin to take the lead in our important family business."
From that point on, Mr. Nutting was undaunted, which Mr. Dible would learn during the year he spent transitioning the paper into the Ogden Newspapers model.
"This is purely on a personal level," said Mr. Dible, who left the company in 1994 for another job in the industry, "but he and I didn't connect as well as Bill and I connected. I don't know why that was. It wasn't because of animosity or anything. He was much more direct and intense about the business side."
As the years passed and the Nuttings expanded their interests outside of newspapers, Mr. Dible could always think back to that first day when the Nuttings brought the Lewistown newsroom together to give them a forecast of the future.
"They said, 'You will never have to worry about being sold again,' " Mr. Dible said.
A gradual takeover
While Bob Nutting focused on Ogden Newspapers' profit margins, another young man from a newspaper family was trying to save the Pittsburgh Pirates. Kevin McClatchy had big dreams of running a professional baseball team, but, even after bringing in a long list of local investors, he needed more help to reach the $90 million it would take.
Based on the recommendation of a mutual friend, he dialed up Ogden Nutting. The Pirates were not a tough sell in this case.
"I think that he realized what the Pirates meant to this region and wanted to be helpful in trying to keep the team here," Mr. McClatchy said. "It was not just his passion for sports, but understanding at that time how tenuous things were with the Pirates."
For the next seven years, Ogden served as a quiet support to Mr. McClatchy, as the team tried to find the magic touch to bring a winner to small-market Pittsburgh.
Mr. McClatchy's ownership group had fought through constant controversy to build PNC Park, and he felt immense pressure to put a competitive product on the field when the stadium opened in 2001. That led to big contracts for players like catcher Jason Kendall, outfielder Brian Giles and pitcher Kris Benson. The Pirates were banking on immediate success in the new ballpark filling their coffers.
Instead, they lost 100 games that year and couldn't get over the hump the next two years, losing 89 and 87, respectively. In 2003, the Pirates traded Mr. Giles to the Padres. In 2004, they traded Mr. Kendall to the Oakland Athletics and allowed Mr. Benson's contract to terminate.
"Kevin never came out and said, 'We gotta get our house in order,' " Mr. Lustig said. "We took over this franchise, and it was in disarray. You didn't have the depth in the minor-league system or the major-league roster. I would say the biggest mistake that the McClatchy era might have made is we should have come clean and said, hey, we're going to rebuild and do it right."
In short, Mr. McClatchy was running the business in the opposite way that a Nutting would run it, and now he had the family's attention. By 2004, playing their own version of baseball Pacman, the Nuttings had gobbled up enough shares from buying out limited partners that Bob Nutting was suddenly a voting member of the board of directors along with his father.
"That's when I really started looking much more carefully, trying to get an understanding of what the opportunity might be," Mr. Nutting said. "I give Kevin all the credit in the world for saving the club and building PNC Park. But the path that we were [taking] on the baseball side was not a path that was leading to success. It became increasingly clear to me that if the team was going to change the direction that we needed to do things radically different."
Mr. McClatchy, tired after 11 years in charge of a withering operation, agreed to turn the role of managing partner over to Bob Nutting officially in 2007.
"I was becoming ... the expression might be burnt out," Mr. McClatchy said. "It was the right time for a handoff, and it wasn't at all one-sided."
Pittsburgh now had a new baseball owner -- one who believed in one way of doing things and would not be swayed by the siren song of a desperate fan base.
A test in sustainability
During a recent hour-long interview, Bob Nutting didn't spend much time gloating. With the Pirates surging toward their first playoff berth in 21 years, it would have been hard to blame him if he had.
For six years, he had absorbed nearly all of the fans' bursts of anger -- "spears," he called them -- and somehow his way, the slow and steady way, had been vindicated for the moment.
The Pirates had upped their major-league payroll to $80 million, sure. But they were not big spenders, sitting at 19th in baseball. This team, brimming with a special blend of chemistry, had been built through the draft and sage trades and free-agent signings engineered by general manager Neal Huntington, not through the bluster of a domineering owner.
That said, Mr. Nutting has had major influence on the culture of the franchise.
"Whether it's in business or the other things I've gotten passionate about, I try not to do stuff halfway," he said. "When I decided I was going to be a pilot, I got my pilot's license, got commercial rating, became a flight instructor, got my airline certification, my glider certificate. If you're going to do something, you want to do it well. The half-baked approach is certainly something I don't accept from myself, and I don't accept it in any of our organizations."
As pilot of the Pirates, Ogden Newspapers or Seven Springs Mountain Resort, Mr. Nutting is no daredevil. On the surface, his takeoff with the Pirates was incredibly unspectacular. In 2008, the Pirates had the fourth-lowest payroll at $50 million. But, at the same time, he was investing millions in amateur draft picks and new facilities in the Dominican Republic and in Bradenton, Fla., where the franchise bases its minor-league operations and holds spring training.
From 2008-10, the Pirates combined to lose 299 games. To fans, it appeared that nothing was ever going to change under the direction of that Scrooge-like owner who wore glasses that might as well have been blinders.
What Mr. Nutting can say now is that he was always looking further across the horizon than the average fan can see.
"If you're going to put the institution first, you have to make decisions as though you were going to be there forever," he said. "That is an important part of the approach. The decisions to build an academy in the Dominican Republic, to invest in the amateur draft in the U.S., to invest in facilities in Bradenton, none of those decisions impacted the Pirates in '07, '08, '09, but all those things were the right thing to do for the organization if you're committed to being here for the long haul."
No, Bob Nutting is not going anywhere. That's the reality that Pirates fans will have to accept, the same one that Jay Lustig couldn't stomach.
Despite the results of this season, Mr. Lustig's opinion remains the same.
"My nature is to worry," Mr. Lustig said. "As excited as I am about this year, I'm just concerned about keeping this high level of performance for years to come. That has not changed."
In the weeks after Mr. Lustig left the ownership group last year, Mr. Nutting was met with some tough personnel decisions. With a second straight late-season collapse in the books, the public outcry was to clean house at the top. But he determined that there was a lot more right than wrong in his organization, and he kept team president Frank Coonelly, Mr. Huntington and manager Clint Hurdle in their roles.
In 2013, the men Mr. Nutting hired to lead the franchise have made him look pretty smart.
"Bob really believed in that plan they put together," Mr. McClatchy said, "and he deserves a lot of credit for just staying the course."
Mr. Nutting says the Pirates' success is sustainable. He says there will still be hard times mixed in, as with any business.
For now, he has enjoyed sharing the team's success with his wife, Leslie, and three daughters. He watches most games, either in person or on television from his home in Wheeling.
In the newspaper industry, Ogden Newspapers continues to buy outlets, even though it has often meant laying off large percentages of the staff within weeks of the purchase. In the resort industry, he recently bought Hidden Valley Resort to go along with Seven Springs, even though it will mean more downsizing. To Mr. Nutting, those decisions are a means to an end that will benefit everybody: the continuing survival of valued community strongholds.
"Maybe that means you can't do everything for everybody," he said, "but you can be laser-focused on what is absolutely critical and most important."
Mr. Nutting says he wants the organizations he owns to help provide people with opportunities for richer lives. He says, upon reflection, that he is glad Major League Baseball's anti-gambling rules didn't allow him to add a casino to Seven Springs, because that would only be a purely extracting enterprise. He talks about the joy of seeing generations come together at PNC Park, yet acknowledges the Pirates are just another one of his businesses.
Well, maybe they're a little different.
"Nothing has been as much fun," he said, "just raw satisfaction and fun, as watching this team perform. We've been through a lot to get here, and you can't imagine how much fun it's been to see this ballpark rock and come alive with electricity."
J. Brady McCollough: firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @BradyMcCollough. First Published September 29, 2013 4:00 AM