No doubt about it, the Pittsburgh Pirates surely found enough ways to endear themselves once again to baseball fans in the region in their 2013 season.
Reaching the playoffs for the first time since 1992, with the first winning record in 21 years and a 15-victory improvement to 94-68 over last year’s record, the Pirates captivated western Pennsylvania almost overnight.
But the Bucs’ turnaround was anything but an instant transition, the team’s principal owner told an audience Friday in Indiana. Robert Nutting said the team’s “magical season” has come from a management style in place for six years now — one that has the team poised for several more years of success.
Nutting, also the chairman of the board of the Pirates organization, was the guest speaker for the Indiana County Chamber of Commerce’s annual luncheon at the Kovalchick Convention and Athletic Complex at Indiana University of Pennsylvania.
And Nutting, 51, had no trouble winning over his audience of more than 400 chamber members and guests, introducing a video of team highlights as soon as he got to the podium.
With Aerosmith’s “Dream On” as the background, and peppered with Pirates broadcaster Greg Brown’s play-by-play clips, the production was packed with A.J. Burnett fist pumps and face pies, sliding catches by league MVP Andrew McCutchen, home run balls splashing down in the Allegheny River, and Manager of the Year Clint Hurdle spraying champagne with his players after a playoff-clinching victory.
The video set a context for the special 2013 season with clips of dramatic, costly plays at the plate against the Atlanta Braves in 2011 and 1992 — moments that came to symbolize the Pirates’ 20 seasons of failure and frustration.
But the production celebrated the team’s glory days with clips of heroes Roberto Clemente and Willie Stargell, and iconic moments from the 1960, 1971 and 1979 World Series championships.
“We didn’t finish what we wanted to do this year,” Nutting said. But the team evenly split its 24 regular-season and playoff games against division rival St. Louis, which went on to the World Series.
“It was tremendously satisfying to get as close as we did, and we have built a foundation that I believe will put us on a track to compete next year and the year after and the year after that.”
As do business members of the chamber of commerce, Nutting said, the Pirates organization has used grit, perseverance and continuity to achieve success. Patiently, the team has developed its structure for signing and developing players over the long term, he said.
“I’m enthusiastic about all the talent we have coming in for 2014, but moreso that we have a future, we have a team, that you all can be proud of in the years going forward,” Nutting said. “It’s a mistake we made in the past and one we won’t make again.”
But just as important as strengthening its own organization has been restoring the team’s relationship with its communities, Nutting said. Over and over, people have stopped and congratulated him on the Pirates’ success this year, but the big reward is when people tell him “thank you,” he said.
“They thank me for building an organization that they’re proud to root for again, and they’re proud to be able to share a memory with a child or grandchild … and they’re thankful for the experience of winning baseball once again,” Nutting said. “I realize that ‘thank you’ is something completely different. Congratulations is for success that you have shown, but ‘thank you’ re-emphasizes for me that … it is for something that we are giving back to the fans of the city of Pittsburgh. It feels better, it’s more meaningful and if there’s anything that will energize the organization, it’s the realization of the importance of what we have with families and communities.”
And so, Nutting said, another hallmark of the Pirates’ organization is a refocused charitable outreach.
“We have begun to find our way back, to find ways to reach to our communities and organizations, and help support the fantastic work that some of the organizations are doing,” he said.
Nutting played another video showing the work of Pirates Charities, the team’s 501(c)(3) philanthropic arm: military veterans and their families are recognized at every game at PNC Park, the players visit senior citizen centers, and the team promotes a variety of cancer awareness programs.
The team awards matching grants to community nonprofits for baseball and softball fields through the “Fields for Kids” program, and the players and coaches run community clinics for children of all ages and abilities.
The Pirates also have launched the Miracle League Field program, helping to build custom-designed baseball fields with safety and accessibility features to allow children and adults with disabilities and special needs to realize the dream of playing baseball.
Five are in operation, and the sixth Miracle League Field is under construction now on the grounds of the YMCA of Indiana County, west of Indiana in White Township.
“I cannot wait to be here with you this spring when this field opens up, and to see the smiles on the faces of the kids, to see the families, to see the interaction,” Nutting said. “It really is a touching and wonderful opportunity. And I thank all of you who have supported this program here, because it really does make a difference in the lives of families.”
Chamber of commerce leaders presented a gift to Nutting, a framed print of artist George Rothacker’s “First Snowfall,” a scene depicting the Indiana Theater along Philadelphia Street in winter.