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The plight of the Pirates, who finished last in the East three times between 1993 and '96, was captured poignantly last spring when pundits noted that the combined salaries of the '97 Pittsburgh roster ($9.1 million) was less than that of new White Sox leftfielder Albert Belle ($11 million). By the end of the season the punch line wasn't quite so amusing, however, especially in Chicago: The White Sox won 80 games, only one more than the Pirates.
For Pittsburgh, the '97 season represented a welcome blip on the team's EKG, a sign of progress for a bunch of guys so young they look as if they'd need fake IDs to get into Boogie Nights. The radical youth movement was mandated in '96 by new owner Kevin McClatchy, who at 35 is younger than eight Orioles. Between July and December '96 general manager Cam Bonifay dutifully shrunk the team's payroll by purging virtually all veteran talent in exchange for 17 younger players. Since then the Pirates have actually outspent most teams on scouting and development and have cultivated one of the best farm systems in the majors. Pittsburgh has three of the top 13 players on Baseball America's Top 100 prospects list.
"When I bought the team, we had the third-worst record and lowest attendance in baseball, and everybody thought we were leaving town," McClatchy says. "By developing young talent, we have given our fans one thing backhope."
Even though the Pirates turned a $2 million profit last season, that barely dented the $59 million debt McClatchy inherited when he bought the team. The team's payroll could jump to as much as $14 million this year, but that would still be among the lowest in baseball. Put it this way: The same week the Red Sox made a $75 million deal with Cy Young winner Pedro Martinez, Pittsburgh signed its most significant new pitcher, Jeff Tabaka, a lefty middle reliever with four career victories, for about $250,000. It's a fact of baseball life that every winning team last season spent at least $33 million.
Therefore, McClatchyas well as many other ownersis convinced that his club's salvation depends on moving into a new, baseball-only ballpark. After Pittsburgh voters soundly rejected a .5% sales tax to finance a stadium, McClatchy met with city and county officials to concoct a new funding plan, which was announced last week. He is cautiously optimistic that his team will have a new home by 2001.
With that in mind, the franchise has tentatively begun to commit to a more costly future. Though they entered '97 with only Martin signed to a multiyear deal, the Pirates now have 10 players under long-term contracts. Pittsburgh still drew the third fewest fans in the National League last year, but attendance has increased by 750,000 from two seasons ago and season-ticket sales for '98 are up 15% since last year. The Pirates faithful are beginning to warm to their pesky team of overachievers. While only Kevin Young (out for 35 games with a thumb injury) had as many as 18 homers or 74 RBIs, and no pitcher won more than 11 games, Pittsburgh held first place for 40 days and wasn't eliminated from the division race until the season's final week.
Still, nobody in the organization is predicting a pennant in this millennium. "There's a fine line between optimism and realism," Bonifay says. "For our strategy to work we need perfect timing. Our young players [Rich Loiselle, Jermaine Allensworth, Freddy Garcia and Jason Kendall] must develop into winners before they become too expensive. Frankly, we really don't know if our plan is going to work."
Martin is intrigued enough by his team's future that he has refused to decorate his house. He harbors a superstition that if he puts anything up on the walls, he might be traded. Imagine thata Pirate who is worried that he might have to leave Pittsburgh. "We're evolving," Martin says. "For years this franchise was crawling on its hands and knees, and now we're walking. There's a chance that someday we may be running, but I'm just happy we're on our feet. "
by Tim Crothers
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