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Starkey: Nutting no longer a punchline

| Wednesday, July 17, 2013, 10:39 p.m.
Bruce Siskawicz | The Dispatch
Bob Nutting (right), Pirates and Pirates Charities Chairman addresses the crowd. Pirates Broadcaster Greg Brown emceed the event. On July 2, Pirates Charities, the philanthropic arm of the Pittsburgh Pirates, and the Miracle League of Indiana County announced the commitment to the construction of the 'Pirates Charities Miracle League Field of Indiana County.' The new field will be located on the grounds of the Indiana County YMCA.

I wondered, during a conversation Wednesday, if Pirates owner Bob Nutting has allowed himself to envision an on-field celebration at PNC Park, whether it be a division clincher or something much bigger.

“I've envisioned that nearly every day for the past five years,” Nutting said. “That's what we're pushing toward.”

Once upon a time, that kind of Nutting quote would have been sarcastic column fodder for several years. Now it's believable. Now anyone can share the same vision without feeling silly.

The Pirates are competent. More than that, they are contenders.

When did this happen?

Why isn't Nutting getting more credit?

Am I really writing this?

Some will point, with merit, to the hiring of manager Clint Hurdle or general manager Neal Huntington as the moment this franchise took a sharp turn toward competence. Others will cite the signing of A.J. Burnett or the drafting of Pedro Alvarez.

For my money, the turnaround took root Jan. 12, 2007, the day Nutting replaced Kevin McClatchy as the team's principal owner.

That's right: Bob Nutting, arguably the most vilified figure in modern-day Pittsburgh sports, deserves the first Stargell star when doling out credit for the Pirates' rise. It was Nutting, after all, who brought in Frank Coonelly, who hired Huntington, who hired Hurdle — although the latter two were group efforts.

“At the end of the day, the responsibility sits on my desk,” Nutting said. “But my style is to hire great people, make sure they have a crystal-clear mission and give them the space and room to execute it.” (Another quote that might have been laughed off as recently as two years ago but now seems perfectly palatable).

The boss always deserves the most credit in a thriving business, and the Pirates are just that. This is a financially stable franchise sitting 19 games over .500 and playing in front of monster crowds of late. It is widely recognized as having an excellent farm system.

I believe Nutting when he says of the start-from-scratch rebuilding project: “There was nothing about the plan we put in place that was going to have an immediate positive impact.”

Some disastrous moves (drafting Daniel Moskos over Matt Wieters, paying Matt Morris $13.5 million) marked the early days of the Nutting regime. Most of his decisions since then look pretty good at the moment. People still reflexively rip him — probably still call for Mario Lemieux to save the Pirates, too — but, honestly, what is the rational basis for such criticism in July of 2013?

These are the realities of Pirates baseball, even if the major-league payroll remains low:

• They spend real money on real free agents. They even stole an important one from the Yankees — catcher Russell Martin — because they took decisive action and were ready with $17 million while the Yankees stalled.

• They have become annual buyers at the trade deadline and have proven they will take on salary. It's no longer considered a joke or a smokescreen to fool fans when the Pirates are mentioned as suitors for a player such as Cubs pitcher Matt Garza.

“We have a wonderful opportunity right now with this team to push it over the top,” Nutting said. “But we can't handicap the organization to the degree where it was when we started.”

• They were aggressive in signing Andrew McCutchen to a long-term deal before last season. That was a critical litmus test on the credibility of the Nutting regime. It won't be so easy with Alvarez in a few years, but these things can be judged only on a case-by-case basis, and Nutting is 1 for 1 on retaining homegrown young stars.

• The Pirates long-ago shed their deserved label of draft cheapskates and cowards. It once was assumed they would not deal with agent Scott Boras. But a year after the Wieters debacle, they took Alvarez, knowing trouble could arise. It did in the form of Boras' last-minute shenanigans. That didn't stop them from drafting another highly rated Boras client, Mark Appel, and making him a fair offer.

In fact, between 2008-12 the Pirates spent more on the draft than any team in baseball, an absolutely necessary strategy for a franchise that wasn't spending much on major league talent. As it turned out, they outspent everyone at just the right time, too, before the draft rules changed and put everyone on equal footing.

Do I completely trust a Nutting-led regime? No, not completely. But let me go back to something he told me the day he became principal owner.

“The Pirates,” he said, “exist to win baseball games.”

That quote became sarcastic column fodder for years, but it's not a punch line anymore.

Neither is Bob Nutting.

Joe Starkey co-hosts a show 2 to 6 p.m. weekdays on 93.7 FM. Reach him at jraystarkey@gmail.com.

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