Nutting becomes Pirates' principal owner

His family takes board majority; McClatchy staying as CEO

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By Dejan Kovacevic, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Acknowledging that the Nutting newspaper-publishing family has acquired a majority interest in the Pirates, the team announced yesterday that Bob Nutting will be the new head of its ownership group.

Mr. Nutting, already chairman of the Pirates' board of directors, will take over as principal owner from Kevin McClatchy, who filled the role for 11 years. The change is pending a vote of Major League Baseball's other 29 owners at their quarterly meeting next Thursday in Phoenix, but ratification is expected.

For Mr. McClatchy, 44, the move alters little. He will remain chief executive officer, dropping only the title of managing general partner, which will be vacated. He still will answer to Mr. Nutting and oversee all daily operations, and general manager Dave Littlefield still will report directly to him. Mr. McClatchy also will keep his places on MLB's executive council and labor and international committees.

"There's really no change in how we're doing business," Mr. Nutting said.

For Mr. Nutting, the 44-year-old head of the West Virginia-based Ogden Newspapers chain, the move will make him the sixth principal owner in the franchise's 121-year history. It also will represent the culmination of his family's gradual buildup in shares of the Pirates' ownership to more than 50 percent. Mr. Nutting will remain board chairman and add to his duties the official representation of the Pirates in all MLB matters.

The move was made, Mr. Nutting and Mr. McClatchy said, to eliminate confusion about their roles.

"We wanted to have absolute clarity for everyone, including our fans," Mr. Nutting said.

In what might prove to be the most palpable development, Mr. Nutting vowed yesterday he will be much more visible to the public. Since becoming a board member in 2002 and chairman a year later, interviews and appearances have been rare, drawing intense criticism from the team's fan base and a widely held perception that he and his family care more about profits than winning.

The Pirates have had 14 consecutive losing seasons, the longest drought in the four major professional sports. Last season, they were 67-95.

"I can't stress to you strongly enough how seriously I'm going to take this role," Mr. Nutting said. "I'm proud of my association with this franchise. I'm not hiding from it. And I'm going to take that to the fans and the community. I'm deadly serious about this."

MLB commissioner Bud Selig praised the move.

"Bob and his family provide strong, stable ownership for the Pirates," he said. "He has a great passion for the Pirates and a tremendous desire for the team to succeed."

Mr. Nutting said he will continue to commute to PNC Park only occasionally from his home in Wheeling, W.Va., and that he will continue to draw no salary from the team while Mr. McClatchy will continue to get his.

"Kevin still will be the one coming in here and running things on a day-to-day basis," Mr. Nutting said. "And I'm very, very happy to have him. I think what he's done as the owner of this team, frankly, has been under-appreciated."

He singled out Mr. McClatchy's push to build PNC Park and the landing of the All-Star Game last season.

Mr. Selig also lauded Mr. McClatchy, for those achievements as well as his participation in MLB committees.

"Kevin has been a tremendous asset to the Pirates and the Pittsburgh community," Mr. Selig said. "His vision and tenacity kept the team in Pittsburgh, built one of the country's best ballparks and hosted a tremendous All-Star Game last July."

The glaring negative on Mr. McClatchy's resume, of course, is the Pirates' record. Under his control, they had a cumulative record of 783-996 and 11 losing seasons.

That, Mr. McClatchy indicated, might have played a part in his decision to stay in the slightly reduced role.

"I hope to stick around for a lot of years," he said. "Because what that will mean is that we've turned this thing around."

Mr. McClatchy said he initiated the move by raising the subject with Mr. Selig two months ago, explaining that he hoped to establish "some clarity" about the Pirates' ownership. Mr. Nutting already had the last say on all matters but, because of the Nutting family's seemingly deep and genuine respect for Mr. McClatchy, it was Mr. McClatchy who continued to represent the team in MLB affairs and in public.

But, as it became clear that the Nutting family was gaining a larger percentage of the ownership, there was a push inside the organization, one team source said, to move Mr. Nutting to the top. That culminated yesterday, not only with the change in controlling owners but also with the announcement that the board would have more of a Nutting presence.

Two additional members were identified: Bill Nutting, brother of Bob and vice president of Nutting-owned Ogden Newspapers, and Duane Wittman, Ogden's chief financial officer. They join Bob Nutting; his father, Ogden Nutting, chairman and publisher of Ogden Newspapers; Mr. McClatchy; and North Carolina businessman Don Beaver.


Robin Rombach, Post-Gazette
CEO Kevin McClatchy and Chairman of the Board Bob Nutting discuss the "change of control" within Pirates ownership.

Robert "Bob" Nutting

Residence: Wheeling, W.Va.

Age: 44

Place of birth: Wheeling.

Education: Bachelor's degree in history from Williams College, Williamston, Mass.

Business: President and CEO of Ogden Newspapers and Nutting Newspapers, a chain of 38 dailies, 43 weeklies/shoppers, 14 magazines and 51 independent telephone directories. The company, founded in 1890, has grown further since he was appointed CEO in 1990, acquiring outdoors-variety magazines that match his interests, trading a 25,000-circulation paper for a group of dailies totaling 90,000 readers, helping to oversee the conversion of a Wheeling mill site into a $13 million printing plant, paid for by Ohio County and industrial revenue bonds. He has been a member of the Pittsburgh Pirates' board of directors since 2002. He also is chairman of Seven Springs Mountain Resort, which his family purchased in 2006.

Hobbies: A pilot who flies his twin-engine plane to Major League Baseball meetings; an avid fly-fisherman.

Family: Wife Leslie and three daughters, 17, 15 and 10.


Related coverage

Nutting, McClatchy stress development, accountability

Letter from Robert Nutting to Pirates fans

Smizik: Nutting makes himself visible at long last

    
Listen In

In a rare sit down interview, the Post-Gazette's Dejan Kovacevic and Bob Smizik ask Pirates owners Robert Nutting and Kevin McClatchy about their roles with the team and the future of the baseball team:

Kovacevic to both men: What is your commitment to winning?

Smizik to Nutting: Are the owners looting the team's profits?

Smizik to Nutting: Will the team expand its payroll to retain young talent?

Kovacevic to McClatchy: How important is a winning 2007 for Littlefield?

Smizik to McClatchy: Will you remain in Pittsburgh?

   

Each of the six board members has one vote where, previously, Mr. McClatchy was the only member with two votes because of his status as managing general partner. That might give the appearance that Mr. McClatchy was toppled from his role as controlling owner, but he and Bob Nutting each dismissed that as a factor.

"The Nutting family has been stepping up its stake for quite a while, and that's part of what made this the right thing to do," Mr. McClatchy said. "But that's not what led to this move. Fact is, our board never has had a single dissenting vote on any matter, so it's a waste of time to focus on that."

"They're completely separate issues," Mr. Nutting said.

Each man also was adamant that no part of Mr. McClatchy's 15 percent share in the team was bought out.

Mr. McClatchy led a group that bought the Pirates in 1996 for $90 million. Included in that money was a $2 million loan from Ogden Nutting. Since then, the Nuttings have bought up the shares of several minority partners on their way out.

Mr. Nutting and Mr. McClatchy have worked together closely since 2003, with Mr. Nutting often participating in team and MLB meetings. That led many to believe he was being groomed for a day-to-day role, but that is not how it turned out. Instead, Mr. Nutting sees himself as one who, from a reasonable distance, will hold those below him responsible for team results.

"I will say this: I am absolutely committed to having the team win," Mr. Nutting said. "Baseball teams exist to win baseball games, and the Pirates need to have improved on-field performance. That's my expectation, and it's up to Kevin and his people to execute."

The Pirates' ownership has come under increasing scrutiny for its small player payroll. Last season, it spent $43.4 million, 28th out of 30 teams. For next season, it is being projected at $50 million.

The team has been profitable in recent years, Mr. Nutting acknowledged without divulging specifics, but he rejected the notion that ownership is making a living off that money.

"It is absolutely inaccurate," he said. "Ownership is not taking money out of the team and putting it in their pockets. It is going right back into the team. None of the partners took a distribution last year. What we're really trying to do is build a stable financial base so that we don't have some of those challenges that we've had in the past. I think that's critically important in any business."

The Pirates' principal owners before Mr. Nutting and Mr. McClatchy were Barney Dreyfuss (1900-32), Bill Benswanger (1932-46), John Galbreath (1946-85) and a public-private consortium known as Pittsburgh Associates (1985-96).


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


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