Today is the last weekday we have to muddle through without baseball until October. On Monday the long winter and spring training, which somehow seems even longer, finally end. I'm excited about it because I'm always excited. But this is an important year in the rebuilding of the Pirates, and there are a lot of things I'm worried about.
For a few years now, I've been hoping the Pirates' front office would jettison regular season results for a few years to focus on rebuilding the system so that the system could in turn fix what's wrong in Pittsburgh. As far as I can see, that's the best way for a Pirate team to operate and while I might not agree with every little thing that Neal Huntington has done in his seventeen or so months on the job, I think he's looking at the big picture and building towards something that I can get behind. He started laying the foundation last year, but one draft, one good session in Latin America, and a couple decent trades only get a team so far.
What worries me is that now that the Pirates are finally moving in a direction that I feel might possibly be the right one, they've accidentally chosen the season played in the worst economic climate of my life to be the one in which they basically punt on the Major League season in hopes that everything comes together around them. Interest in the Pirates is already generally low; this year I've got a gut feeling that attendance is going to be abysmal.
If you haven't already, you should take some time to read Bill Simmons' fairly recent article about the economic problems the NBA is facing. You can already see a lot of the same things he notes taking place with the Pirates. They have some insanely cheap ticket packages this year. They spread the SkyBlast nights out across the season, I'm guessing because they hope that people come in from out of town for SkyBlast and stay for an extra game or two over the rest of the weekend. In fact, right now on Pirates.com, the headlining story isn't the final roster being set or anything involving the Pirates at all, it's this:
Now, maybe you're remembering back to what Bob Nutting told the press a week or so ago about ticket sales going fine, but you've got to remember what Nutting said. He said that season ticket renewal rate was up. That sounds great, but you've got to remember that the Pirates are coming off of two straight seasons where season ticket holders bailed right and left once the All-Star happened. Of course the renewal rate is up; I doubt it could get lower. That doesn't mean the renewal rate is good and it doesn't mean the season ticket base is bigger this year. Now factor in that walkups are already generally bad for the Pirates and they're not likely to do anything to attract a bigger walkup crowd, then consider the economy's effect on that portion of ticket sales and ... you see where I'm going.
Compounding the issue is that after the year is over, the Pirates won't be able to count on a big check from the league to help off-set the coming losses. The Yankees are exempt from the luxury tax this year with their move to the new Yankee Stadium.
Now, I'm not suggesting the Pirates are going to fold up or threaten to move or anything of that sort. Far from it. I'm not even suggesting that I think Bob Nutting is going to sell the team. I am suggesting that attendance is going to be very bad this year and that I think that the potential is there for the Pirates to lose a lot of money.
So we're heading in to a season where two things are going to happen. One is that attendance is likely going to crash, and revenues will crash with it. The second is that the Pirates are going to set the Major League record for consecutive losing seasons, and the fans, most of whom won't even be attending games, are going to be incredibly vocal about how upset they are over this 17th losing season. These are the fans that either don't pay enough attention to understand what Huntington's doing, don't understand the intricacies of rebuilding a baseball franchise, or simply don't have the patience to wait. Unfortunately, I think we've covered 90% of the fan base in one of those groups.
It's one thing for Bob Nutting to profess his faith in his front office in March when the young players in camp are playing well and people are generally not complaining. It's an entirely different situation when the team is losing, the fans are screaming for blood, and you realize that your attendance is going to drop by a quarter of a million fans. Throw in the uninformed national media, who will be saying things like, "This is a team that lost to a community college in spring training!" and it's easy to see it's going to be a very hard year to be a Pirate fan.
To this point, Nutting seems to more or less trust everything that Coonelly, and by extension Huntington, have done and he's pushed a ton of the right buttons since January 2007. I hope that that faith continues in the front office, no matter how ugly this year gets, because the last thing this team needs right now is to completely shake things up again. I don't think Nutting will do that, but I do think we should all be ready for an incredibly trying season.