Pirates' black-ink parade fueled by local apathy

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I grew up an ardent and zealous Pirates fan, listening with my grandfather to Bob Prince on the radio and staying up late to watch road games in San Francisco, confused why anyone living in California would be wearing a jacket when it was 80 degrees at midnight in West Virginia.  In October 1992, when former Pirates first baseman Sid Bream and his body by Lego somehow tried to score from second on a routine single and Barry Bonds somehow couldn’t manage to throw him out, I knew that the exodus of Bonds and Bobby Bonilla would plunge the Pirates into mediocrity for an extended period of time.

I never dreamed it would last 18 years.

But it has, and it could last for another 18 years.  And 18 years beyond that.  In an industry where being truly competitive on the field typically requires a very large financial investment and where failure in the standings nevertheless results in a high profit, the Pirates have no incentive to spend the money that it takes to win, especially since there’s no guarantee that spending the money actually will result in winning.

That’s why I’m not surprised at all by the news that the Pirates have done very well in the statistical category that matters most:  average bank deposits.

So will the news that the folks who own the Pirates are digging up plenty of treasure while one of the proudest brands in baseball continues to be synonymous with losing?  Maybe not.

With their thirst for sports relevance satiated by the always-competitive Steelers and Penguins, many Pittsburghers regard the local baseball team as providing an excuse to spend several hours at the open-air restaurant and bar known as PNC Park, with the game merely contributing to the ambiance. 

Take me out to the ballgame, take me out to the crowd.  Buy me a beer and a beer and a beer.  I don’t care if they never win here.  For it’s root-root-root for the home team, if they don’t win . . . well, that’s a shame.

But it’s not a shame.  The Pirates don’t need to win, especially since no one really expects them to.

So if the Pirates truly want to make good use of all that extra money they generate, they should give some of it to the two teams in town that actually have a chance to win a championship or two this decade.  Or century. 

Or millennium.

Red Sox owner: “spending money helps”

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The other day Rob Manfred said, as he and other owners have said often in the past, that there is no correlation between payroll and winning. He said that defensively, in response to criticism of the slow free agent market of the past two offseasons.

As we have noted in the past, Manfred is not being honest about that. While, yes, in any given year there can be wild variation between payroll and win total — the Giants stunk last year, the A’s won 97 games — common sense dictates otherwise. What’s more, a recent study has shown that there is a pretty strong correlation between winning and payroll over time. Yes, you can fluke into a big season with a low payroll — Deadspin compared it to a cold snap occurring during a time of climate change — but if you want that “sustained success” teams claim they want, the best way to ensure it is to spend more money over time.

If you know anything about baseball labor history, though, you know well that the Commissioner and the owners will continue to mischaracterize the dynamics of the business as it suits them. Mostly because — present lefty sportswriters notwithstanding — very few people push back on their narratives. Fans tend to parrot ownership’s line on this stuff and, more often than not, baseball media acts as stenographer for ownership as opposed to critic. That gives owners a far greater ability to shape the narrative about all of this than most institutions.

Which makes this all the more awkward. From David Schoenfield of ESPN:

In apparent contradiction to his own commissioner, Boston Red Sox owner John Henry said Monday that, while there is not a perfect correlation between a bigger payroll and winning, “spending more money helps.”

Which is right. The correlation is not perfect — teams can spend a lot of money on a bad team if given the chance and a low payroll team like the Rays can bullpen their way to 90 wins — but you’re way more likely to win year-in, year-out if you’re spending than if you go cheap all the time and hope for a miracle season.

Which is not to say that Henry is some labor activist owner. He and his fellow front office officials have a long history of backing the league office on just about everything that matters and will no doubt do so with labor matters in the runup to the next CBA negotiation. The owners tend not to have a solidarity problem.

But Henry does seem to draw the line at peddling baloney, which is a shockingly necessary thing when the league and the union’s relationship turns acrimonious.