Former Pirates owner Kevin McClatchy throws out ceremonial first pitch

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Opposing pitchers aren't the only ones experiencing butterflies when they walk to the mound at PNC Park.

Kevin McClatchy, who threw out the ceremonial first pitch Sunday before a National League Division Series game against the St. Louis Cardinals, knows how they feel.

"I was nervous," said McClatchy, who headed the ownership of the Pirates from 1996 until 2007 -- a dismal string of losing seasons that made up the majority of a record-setting 20 in a row.

McClatchy was chosen for the honor by his successor, owner Bob Nutting.

"I called him personally, and he very much wanted to be here," said Nutting, who -- along with team president Frank Coonelly -- accompanied McClatchy onto the field before the game. "He and I worked closely together, and I have tremendous respect for what he has done and continues to do for Pittsburgh."

McClatchy said he was "surprised and thrilled" by the offer.

"I about fell out of my chair," he said.

When McClatchy, 50, heir to a family that had made its millions in newspaper publishing, assembled a group of investors to purchase the floundering Pirates franchise in the mid-1990s, fans were vocal in their expectations that he only bought the team in order to move it to a more lucrative city. McClatchy said he didn't want to move the team, but warned that he would need a new ballpark, replacing Three Rivers Stadium, in order to stay.

In 1997, after residents rejected a tax increase that would have helped finance McClatchy's field of dreams, then-mayor Tom Murphy called him to propose a "Plan B," finding other ways of siphoning public funds for the project. The next year, the Allegheny Regional Asset District approved $809 million for a baseball stadium, a football stadium and renovations to the David L. Lawrence Convention Center. The check for what would become PNC Park amounted to $228 million.

McClatchy then signed a contract saying the Pirates would stay in Pittsburgh until at least 2031.

He was on hand in April 1999 for the ceremonial ground-breaking on what would become known as "the North Shore." And when the first official game was played April 9, 2001, it was McClatchy who threw out the first pitch.

But as bright as the promise of the new ballpark was -- season attendance set a franchise record that still stands -- it was a bittersweet day for McClatchy and the Pirates family as it also was the day Hall of Fame player Willie Stargell died.

McClatchy, who spoke to Stargell's widow, Margaret, that day, wore a No. 8 Pirates jersey in his honor for the first pitch in 2001.

Sunday, McClatchy kept that tradition alive. He called Margaret to tell her he was thinking of Stargell, and he again wore No. 8.

"I remember when I talked to Willie about coming back into the organization," McClatchy said afterward, his voice momentarily faltering. "He got really emotional. And now I sort of understand what that emotion is. You feel kind of like you're away from your family."

When he was owner of the team, McClatchy could invariably be spotted on television sitting in the first row of seats behind home plate, cheering on a team for which he was ultimately responsible. It was a team that couldn't stop the cycle of losing.

After 11 years in charge, McClatchy agreed to turn over the role of managing partner to Nutting in 2007.

"I was becoming ... the expression might be burnt out," he later said. "It was the right time for a handoff, and it wasn't at all one-sided."

While Nutting and his partners set about restoring the team's minor league system and rebuilding for the future, McClatchy returned to Ligonier and embraced his role as chairman of the board of the McClatchy Co., his family-owned media group.

"I did put a lot of my heart and soul into this place, and now it's like seeing your child grow up," McClatchy said after throwing out the first pitch -- wearing an old, worn glove from his high school playing days -- to Pirates catcher Tony Sanchez. The sellout crowd gave him a rousing cheer.

"I felt like I was a little bit estranged from the team," he said afterward. "Just a teeny bit, and it was mostly my doing, because I didn't want to get in people's way when they came in.

"Now, it feels like coming home. ... It's a big relief.

"That moment out there was everything we worked for. A lot of hard work on a lot of people's part, and to be able to see this city electrified. ... The fans deserve this more than anybody. They've stuck with us through tough times and we have the best fans in baseball. It's going to send a message to the rest of the country what a great city we have.

"I think it is a great baseball town. They went through some pain and suffering, to the point where they deserve hazard pay. But you can tell the energy out there, they've had this bottled up. Pittsburgh is a great sports town."

While he lauded the fans, McClatchy received his share of praise from his successor.

"Kevin did so much for this franchise, so much to keep baseball in Pittsburgh, to build the most beautiful ballpark in America," Nutting said after watching the moment from the top of the Pirates dugout steps. "To be able to welcome him back, to celebrate with him this playoff game. ... Personally, I'm grateful he came out and I'm grateful that the fans gave him the round of applause he deserved."

McClatchy said he saw a number of familiar faces in his return to the ballpark -- some in the stands, some in the suites and some in the dugout.

"We drafted [Andrew] McCutchen and [Neil] Walker," he reminded reporters. "We have some guys on the team who I think are pretty important. But the Pirates deserve all the credit. Bob and his team have taken this thing to the next level. ... I had something, and they took it to the next level. And I'm thrilled for them."

The fans showed there were no hard feelings.

"It was great to get a good reaction, a great reaction from the fans," McClatchy said. "I'm one of them now, and I'm going to go have a cold beer and watch the game and have some fun. That's what this is all about."

But he would watch the game from a luxury box in the ballpark's upper level, rather than the front-row spot he occupied for so many years.

"I couldn't get my seats," he said. "It's a tough ticket right now."


First Published October 6, 2013 10:00 PM


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