Lemieux's offer the buzz of PirateFest
Share with others:
A smattering of long-suffering Pirates fans Saturday afternoon made the floor of the David L. Lawrence Convention Center sound a bit like a stock exchange: Sell, sell, sell.
Yet team president Frank Coonelly, seated on the podium in front of them for one of the customary question-and-answer sessions at PirateFest, opened the 59-minute discussion with a statement aimed at quelling such calls.
Mr. Coonelly offered the crowd of 500-plus a pre-emptive response to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette report Saturday morning that Penguins co-owners Mario Lemieux and Ron Burkle made what sources on their side called a "very serious" offer to buy the baseball club from controlling owner Bob Nutting of Wheeling, W.Va.
"No formal, substantive offer had been made at a meeting four months ago with Bob and Mario and Ron Burkle," he told the crowd, repeating Mr. Nutting's remarks to the Post-Gazette. "But what I can confirm for you is, at that time, today, tomorrow, next week, the Pirates are not for sale. Bob Nutting is committed ...," upon which handfuls of fans booed, " ... to making this organization a winner again. He's got a fierce determination."
A small number applauded.
"He believes we have a good plan and is going forward with that plan."
"Your next question may be, 'Are you surprised that Mario and Ron were interested in purchasing the Pirates?' And my answer to that is, I'm not surprised at all. Mario and Ron are very smart business people. They've been very successful with the Penguins and have done a great job with them.
"What they see in the Pirates, I would think, that they're interested in purchasing the team, is a team much like the Penguins earlier this decade: A team on the rise. A team that has a plan. A team that has financial stability ..." he said.
"But I can tell you, Bob is not interested in selling. The team is not for sale. The team is not positioning itself to sell. Bob is determined to bring a championship back to Pittsburgh and see this process through."
Several fans at the session framed questions with their support of the club's build-with-youth approach. Still, as such management Q&As go at PirateFests, Friday night's session and this one were more acrimonious.
Fans asked Mr. Coonelly to defend how the team used the $36 million in revenue sharing it received late last year from Major League Baseball. ("We spend far in excess of what we receive," he replied.) They also poked and prodded general manager Neal Huntington about modest free-agent signings that leave the team with the smallest projected opening-day payroll in the majors, at $35.6 million.
"Bob Nutting has taken abuse for the decisions Frank and I have made that caused the payroll to drop because we've traded veteran players," Mr. Huntington said.
As those prospects mature, he added, they'll cost more to keep, but there's no need to pay for costly veterans to block their progression.
Nonetheless, fans hear that the co-owners of the Stanley Cup champions Penguins are interested in buying a baseball team with a North American pro sports record of 17 consecutive losing seasons, and they can hardly help but wish for change.
"Probably the best thing that could happen to the Pirates would be for someone to buy them," said Todd Koontz of Vandergrift. "At least there would be hope. New hope."
"He knows what it takes to make a winner," Bonnie Matthews of Murrysville said of Mr. Lemieux, who rescued the Penguins from bankruptcy in 1999. "And I'd much rather it be someone who already has a stake in Pittsburgh."
"I'm 23; I can't not remember Barry Bonds not throwing out Sid Bream at home," added Chris Hendrick of Latrobe, referring to the final play of the 1992 National League Championship Series that marked the beginning of the Pirates' 17-season fall.
Mr. Hendrick, a Penguins season-ticket holder attending PirateFest with 20-game Pirates season-ticket holder Dan Roble of Kittanning, said a potential purchase by Mr. Lemieux and Mr. Burkle might even get him interested in watching the Pirates again.
"What's going on with the Pirates is not acceptable," said Bev Farbarik of Pitcairn.
Mr. Coonelly said he is aware "there's a tremendous amount of frustration, understandably so, from the fan base." His administration, entering its third season together, is attempting to rebuild the franchise from what he described as years of off-field errors. Previous management relied on "washed-up veteran players" such as Joe Randa and Jeromy Burnitz, he said, while also failing to invest money in the draft.
"The Pirates for too long didn't take the best player available," he said.
Pine-Richland High School graduate Neil Walker, a 2004 first-round draft selection, empathizes with fans who view Mr. Lemieux as dressed in shining armor, though he wasn't endorsing him as a prospective boss.
"After all that happened and him taking control of the team and reviving it, he's the type of guy who wants to win and do all he can to win," said Mr. Walker, a third baseman among the dozen Pirates players appearing elsewhere at PirateFest.
"Playing in Pittsburgh and being a Pittsburgh native, that's pretty neat" to see.
First Published January 31, 2010 12:00 am