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Mark Madden

Mark Madden: Blame Pirates, Bob Nutting for empty seats

| Tuesday, May 15, 2018, 7:09 p.m.
A sparse crowd watches, as Pirates first baseman Josh Bell bats against the White Sox during the first inning Tuesday, May 15, 2018, at PNC Park. Bell doubled in two runs.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
A sparse crowd watches, as Pirates first baseman Josh Bell bats against the White Sox during the first inning Tuesday, May 15, 2018, at PNC Park. Bell doubled in two runs.

Pirates attendance is down. But it's not a "boycott." The decline has been gradual and organic, and nobody's fault but the Pirates.

In 2015, the Pirates won 98 games. Their average attendance was 30,000. But by the time the trade deadline had come and gone in 2016, seven key members of that 98-win team were no longer on the roster.

A.J. Burnett and Aramis Ramirez retired. Francisco Liriano, Mark Melancon and Neil Walker got traded. Pedro Alvarez and J.A. Happ left via free agency.

The trades brought little return. None of those leaving were replaced by similar talent. Jon Niese and Ryan Vogelsong were hardly equivalent to Burnett and Happ. Fifty-one of the Pirates' 140 home runs departed.

The Pirates won 78 games in 2016. Attendance dipped to 27,000 per game.

Last season, the Pirates won 75 games. Attendance dropped to 23,000 per.

This year, the Pirates were 23-17 going into last night's home game against the Chicago White Sox. But attendance stands at just 15,000 per. (That's after averaging almost 28,000 over three games this past weekend for Andrew McCutchen's return to PNC Park as a member of the San Francisco Giants.)

Bad weather has something to do with that.

But mostly, it's evidence that trust between the franchise and fan base is broken. Some accept blindly. More and more become discerning consumers.

Owner Bob Nutting is solely responsible for fracturing that trust.

In 2015, the team's payroll was 23rd in MLB at $105 million. It's currently 27th in MLB at $88 million. That is not a formula for winning.

According to Forbes magazine, the Pirates made a profit of $35 million last season, 10th highest in baseball. (They made $51 million in 2016.) The franchise is worth $1.26 billion.

It is undeniable the Pirates could spend more money and still profit, but choose not to. Nutting is about cash, not wins.

How could any Pirates fan look at these facts, which are readily available, and not fall somewhere between disappointed and disenfranchised?

Yet some militantly deny. I'm told I don't know baseball. I'm told to stick to hockey (or wrestling or eating) and then, invariably, an unkind comment is made about the size of my backside.

But this isn't a baseball issue.

It's a financial issue.

It's an approach issue.

This is about slamming your own window shut instead of taking full advantage. This is about going from 98 wins to 78 to 75 in two seasons when reasonable and logical investment would have led to continued contention.

It's about doing all that for the sake of greed, while ignoring potential glory.

A sizable number of people think I'm right: About 15,000 per game.

Perhaps attendance will go up in good weather. Perhaps it will increase if the Pirates keep winning.

Or maybe trust won't be so easily restored.

Or maybe the Pirates will dump Josh Harrison's $10 million salary at the trade deadline and remove all doubt.

You might hate that I keep writing this column. I certainly hate having to.

But the idea attendance is down because of a "boycott" — as put forth by stooge fanboy bloggers — is an obvious case of attacking a straw man.

There has been no campaign. No hashtags. Nothing organized. The drop in attendance is organic. Some have stopped going. Others just go less.

It's still a nice night out at the ballpark. Some argue attending is part of being a Pittsburgher.

But others are tired of feeling fooled, and it's going to take more than a decent quarter-season and a nice tribute video for McCutchen to change that.

Mark Madden hosts a radio show 3-6 p.m. weekdays at WXDX-FM (105.9).

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