Kovacevic: Nutting lit this cauldron
Bob Nutting did this.
Anyone passing through PNC Park's gates on yet another balmy Sunday in this blissfully endless summer, whether you're a Streak-scarred season-ticket holder or a newbie staking out room on the rotunda, whether you're the nail-biter who keeps score to stay sane or the nutcase who will leap and roar and Zoltan for your Pirates ... take a good look at the extraordinary, emotional cauldron that will surround the National League Division Series finally coming to our town.
And know that Bob Nutting lit this flame.
A year ago this month, actually.
All by himself.
Flash back to October 2012, and the scene was drastically different, of course: The Pirates had just completed Epic Collapse II on the field and, no doubt because of that, were an even bigger mess off it. There was finger-pointing in all directions, from the front office to the clubhouse. There was bitterness and resentment, fear and outright paranoia. People openly wanted others fired.
Or rather, exit Nutting.
He packed his bags and flew to San Francisco, site of the World Series. There, he'd meet with other baseball executives and seek advice, gather outside impressions of the Pirates. He wasn't searching for replacements, just answers.
When those started flowing, he sought more, so he followed the World Series to Detroit and dug deeper.
And when he returned, he met — intimately, intensely — with everyone from the top of his own structure to players such as Neil Walker, Andrew McCutchen and A.J. Burnett. All meetings were one-on-one, all with an unconditional invitation to speak freely on anything or anyone, including Nutting's own performance.
“The man was serious,” Walker recalls. “For us, that was great to see.”
Nutting also sought to learn more about the Pirates' performance from their advanced stats specialists. Reams of cold, hard data followed, much of it damning.
From all that, Nutting became convinced of this much:
1. He had the right plan.
2. He had the right people.
3. Far too many were on far different paths toward a common goal.
Nutting is far more a delegator than dictator, but he knew what he had to do. As one high-ranking member of the front office described it to me a few days ago, he “blew the doors and walls off the place.”
Meaning 115 Federal.
Meaning bringing everyone to the same table.
Meaning having people who couldn't stand each other look eye to eye and exchange meaningful ideas toward that common goal.
Nutting isn't keen on discussing specifics of that period, but he told me last week at PNC: “It's tremendously satisfying to see where we are. As you know, I've owned and embraced some of the criticism I've gotten because it was borne out of the passion that these fans feel, that this community feels for this ballclub. To see where we are now, I couldn't be more proud of this. And to be able to deliver to this fan base …”
He caught himself.
“I just don't have the right words.”
I know almost nothing about what came next, to be honest. But what followed — and it couldn't have been coincidence — was by far the most successful offseason this management had in its six years. And the most successful any team had over the winter.
Neal Huntington deserves the bulk of the credit for that. In particular, he was the one who “pounded the table,” per Clint Hurdle's recollection, to sign Francisco Liriano. That might just be the best free-agent signing in franchise history.
But other voices were heard, other ideas counted beyond those put forth by Huntington's tight circle with assistant GMs Greg Smith and Kyle Stark, and other major moves were made for Russell Martin (that might just be the second-best free-agent signing in franchise history), Mark Melancon (in the trade of Joel Hanrahan), even a seeming throwaway in Jeanmar Gomez (acquired, no lie, for a prospect who finished the summer with the Washington Wild Things).
It was the offseason of a lifetime.
What's more, by the time I got to Bradenton, I barely recognized the behavior I saw. All the dissent, all the backbiting was buried. The same executives who had gone stone silent through Nutting's deep dive last October, unsure if they'd still be employed, suddenly walked and talked with a swagger. Hurdle was forecasting 95 wins, you'll recall. The coaching staff, challenged by Hurdle to be open toward new ideas that included advanced analysis, were no less confident. The players were pounding their chests, too.
“This,” Burnett said one March day, “is going to be something special.”
It's been that and more.
Just don't forget where — and with whom — it all started.