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An accidental Pittsburgher

Rob Biertempfel
| Sunday, May 14, 2006

The sky was so bright and brilliant blue that Kevin McClatchy had to squint behind his natty, designer sunglasses. Standing on the club level of PNC Park, he grinned into the cameras during a press conference about the upcoming Major League Baseball All-Star Game.

"We don't get many days like this in April," McClatchy said. "I wish I could take credit for it."

He cannot control the weather, but McClatchy, one of the youngest owners in professional sports, can affect which way the wind blows at MLB headquarters. In 2004, when McClatchy approached Bud Selig about bringing the All-Star Game to Pittsburgh for the second time in 12 years, the commissioner tried to laugh him off. It's too soon, Selig said. Give some other town a chance to play host. But McClatchy wanted to show off PNC Park, with its breathtaking vista of the downtown cityscape, so he kept calling until Selig relented.

"One thing about folks from this area -- we're fairly persistent," McClatchy said. "The All-Star Game will let people around the country take a fresh look at our city."

He chose the words "we" and "our city" for a reason. For the first 30-odd years of his life, McClatchy was a bit of a vagabond -- he was born in California, went to a prep school in New York and began his career in Florida. Finally, a decade after buying the Pirates, McClatchy has set down roots.

"I've lived in Pittsburgh longer than I've lived in any one city," said McClatchy, who has a residence in Shadyside and recently bought a house in Ligonier. "It definitely feels like home.

"People ask me, 'Are you a Pittsburgher?' and I say, 'I don't know.' This area can be a little provincial. It's not for me to decide. I guess that's for the 'official' Pittsburghers to decide."

This accidental Pittsburgher saved one of the town's most cherished legacies and erected a new landmark on the North Shore. A former athlete, McClatchy's competitive nature fueled his longshot bid to buy the Bucs. His supreme self-confidence enabled him to ride out the storm of controversy around the funding plan for PNC Park.

Most people view McClatchy's role in this town as being simply the owner of the Pirates. And, to a large degree, it does define his life.

"He never gets too far away from the baseball part of it," said Patty Paytas, the Pirates' vice president for communications. Yet McClatchy is more than a baron of big-time sports.

McClatchy is a millionaire man-about-town, more at ease in a polo shirt and jeans than a suit and tie. His demeanor says California cool, but he prefers a cold Penn Pilsner over a glass of Chardonnay at the ballgame. And he didn't need a translator when Mayor Bob O'Connor talked about "redding up Dahntahn" before the all-stars arrive in mid-July.

After the press conference wrapped up, McClatchy took a winding route back to his office. Everyone he met along the way -- stadium workers in the elevator, first baseman Craig Wilson outside the clubhouse, first-year interns and senior execs in the front office -- greeted him with a casual "Hi, Kevin." His approachability is a big reason McClatchy's employees are so fiercely loyal to him.

McClatchy is a guy who champions countless charities, who plays a mean game of shuffleboard and, along the way, has even set in motion the marriages of two of his closest friends.

"Did it take him long to feel comfortable here• I don't think so," said John Dick, a local businessman and McClatchy confidant. "Has it taken the community a long time to accept him• Probably longer than it should have."

A few weeks ago, McClatchy sat talking with Tim Tassone, CEO of the American Red Cross of Southwestern Pennsylvania. They had met to discuss details of the annual Red Tie Affair fundraiser, at which McClatchy would receive the Red Cross' distinguished leadership award.

Inevitably, the conversation drifted off in other directions. Tassone mentioned his son, who is friends with one of McClatchy's employees in the Pirates' front office. Tassone's son recently took a job as a mortgage loan officer after working three years as a graphic designer.

"Wow, that's quite a career change," McClatchy said.

"Sometimes, destiny's there. You just have to face it," Tassone replied with a shrug.

McClatchy chuckled.

"That's pretty much what happened to me," he said. "I never thought in my wildest dreams I'd own a baseball club in Pittsburgh and be so proud of it, but it happened."

After picking up a political science degree from the University of California at Santa Barbara, McClatchy worked as a sports producer at a Miami television station. He then moved on to jobs in the family business: newspapers. He was advertising director at the Amador (Calif.) Ledger-Dispatch and a sales rep for the Sacramento Bee.

From 1994 to '95, McClatchy operated the Modesto A's, which at the time was a minor-league affiliate of the Oakland Athletics.

"I didn't have a plan," McClatchy said. "I got into baseball because I made a phone call that probably not a lot of other people would make."

The fellow on the other end of the line was Fred Anderson, a 69-year-old businessman who had just bought the Modesto team. McClatchy had never met Anderson, but he figured the A's new owner was mismanaging the ballclub. Anderson laughed at that news and told McClatchy, "Why don't you come in tomorrow and tell me all the mistakes I'm making?"

The next morning, McClatchy walked into Anderson's office. Three months later, Anderson named McClatchy team president.

"I would not be in this business now if not for Fred Anderson," McClatchy said. "He was willing to take a call from someone he didn't know. He was willing to listen to me."

McClatchy is not like George Steinbrenner, the dour, autocratic owner of the New York Yankees. In fact, McClatchy is not like most other owners, who watch their ballclubs perform from the cozy, catered refuge of private suites. Most nights, McClatchy is stationed in a seat behind home plate -- a high-rent district, sure, but one that's accessible, visible and close to the field.

"The people who sit in those boxes ..." McClatchy grumbled. "Everybody socializes and doesn't tune into the game."

McClatchy tunes in -- locks in, really -- from the first pitch to the last out. And when the Pirates don't win (the franchise is riding a streak of 13 losing seasons), McClatchy goes into a funk.

"Time spent with Kevin at a baseball game is not quality friend time," Dick said, with a laugh. "It's more like take-your-friend-to-work day. I don't like calling him the morning after a game when they lose, because he takes losing so hard."

It's not just losing baseball games that gets under McClatchy's skin. It is not unusual for him to goad his pals into staying around a pool table for four, five or six hours, playing until he gains bragging rights.

"He's very, very competitive," said Curtis Aiken, a former Pitt basketball player. "I don't care if it's baseball or shuffleboard, he wants to win. Kevin's got this 15-foot shuffleboard table at his house, and we play until the wee hours of the morning -- pretty intense games. I mean, you've got guys screaming."

Many of McClatchy's closest relationships have been forged on the golf course. He befriended Aiken at a charity golf outing about five years ago. Dick first met McClatchy during a fundraiser at the Allegheny Club at Three Rivers Stadium, and McClatchy invited Dick to join a foursome the next day at Diamond Run Golf Club.

After their round, McClatchy suggested they drop by one of his hangouts in Shadyside bistro for a beer and a bite to eat. "He introduced me to this girl, who shot pool with us," Dick said. "Seven years later, we're married and she's the mother of my child."

Unwittingly, McClatchy also was a romantic go-between for his longtime pal Mossie Murphy. Murphy, the son of the legendary Pittsburgh rainmaker and political consultant, first met McClatchy through a mutual friend at Lehigh University in the late 1980s. They crossed paths again in Pittsburgh in 1994.

"Kevin met my wife, who wasn't my wife at the time, at the mayor's office when he was putting the (Pirates ownership) deal together," Murphy said. "She was a friend of mine, he was a friend of mine, and she and I ended up getting married. So, yeah, he's a matchmaker."

Not only does he get husbands and wives together, McClatchy connects his friends with charitable causes. He donates his time and money to several groups, including the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute, Childrens' Hospital, the Muscular Dystrophy Association, the United Way, Animal Friends, the Western Pennsylvania School for the Deaf.

"When I think of Kevin McClatchy, that's what I think of," Aiken said. "I'm on the board for the UPMC Cancer Institute because of him. He likes to bring people together and organize things."

McClatchy does not do it for publicity or personal gain. Often, he seems almost embarrassed to be singled out for praise at events such as the recent Red Tie Affair.

Not all of McClatchy's good deeds are put on public display. Wally Danforth attended Trinity-Pawling High School in Pawling, N.Y., at the same time as McClatchy. They stayed in touch over the years, especially after Danforth moved back home to Pittsburgh in 1994. About a year ago, Danforth asked McClatchy for a favor: Could he stop by and say a kind word to an old friend of the Danforth family, a former minor-league baseball player who was suffering from Alzheimer's disease•

"Kevin spent two hours, just sitting and talking baseball," Danforth said. "(The friend) was so excited. He loved it. Kevin loves baseball. He's a fan first."

Not long after taking over the Pirates, McClatchy received angry letters about the lousy seating arrangements for disabled fans at Three Rivers Stadium. During a game, he went out to the seating area -- a barren, shadowy spot behind heavy wire mesh. He was shocked to discover the location afforded a good view of little more than the right fielder's backside.

The Americans with Disabilities Act went into enforcement in 1992. But it is a federal civil rights law, not a building code; someone with an eye on the bottom line can get away with adhering only to the bare minimum requirements. McClatchy wanted to do better with the Pirates' new home.

Today, fans at PNC Park have free use of assisted-listening devices, and the state-of-the-art scoreboard has a captioning screen. All the general seating sections of the ballpark are accessible to disabled fans. Areas designated for wheelchairs have electrical outlets, which can be used to recharge motorized chairs or plug in equipment such as a ventilator.

"It's the most accessible ballpark in the country," said Joan Stein, CEO of Pittsburgh-based Accessibility Development Associates Inc. "Kevin didn't just comply with the letter of the law, he complied with the spirit of the law."

During the design phase, McClatchy insisted his team of architects work closely with Stein's group. Before the inaugural opening day, Accessibility Development Associates trained every employee about customer service when dealing with disabled fans.

"I'm proud of PNC Park and the Pirates," Stein said. "It comes from the top. If Kevin McClatchy can do it in a small market ... hello, George Steinbrenner?"

Although his family in California has long-standing ties to the Democratic Party, McClatchy tends to take an apolitical approach in Pittsburgh. He has donated money to Gov. Ed Rendell's political war chest for the upcoming election, but once cozied up to former governor Tom Ridge, a Republican, when tax dollars were needed to build PNC Park.

"He's done a very good job making friends on both sides of the aisle," Murphy said.

It is a delicate balance. McClatchy readily admits he continues to reward the loyalty of those who backed his efforts with the Pirates, regardless of whether he agrees with their politics. The reason, he says, is because it's been his goal all along to keep the team in Pittsburgh.

Not everyone believes that, though.

When McClatchy first approached then-Mayor Tom Murphy about buying the Pirates, he was given a stern "Thanks, but no." John Rigas, the cable-television magnate from Coudersport, was given first crack. Who had ever heard of this kid from California, anyway• But when Rigas' deal fell apart, McClatchy stepped in and assembled a solid, diverse group of investors. His reward was more suspicion.

"I wasn't here too long before I first heard the term carpetbagger," McClatchy said. "That's when I first sensed that I could be a lightning rod."

He tries to hide it, but McClatchy still is stung by critics who connect the dots like an Oliver Stone movie plot and insist McClatchy wants the Pirates to lose so he can relocate the team. In the decade he's owned the team, McClatchy has never done anything that would even hint that's the case. But when he dashes into a supermarket or strolls to a bagel shop in Shadyside for his usual Saturday morning breakfast, he can feel people staring.

"He's a target in a city like Pittsburgh that's so obsessive about sports," Dick said.

"There's this weird perception that some people have that he doesn't care," Murphy said. "I guess it's (because) he was from out of town. But he's not from out of town anymore."

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