Lustig: Bucs need an irrational owner
Jay Lustig knows a little bit about being a successful businessman.
After all, the Rostraver Township is a very successful financial money manager who also runs a couple of thriving business corporations.
He also knows a little about winning in sports, as evidenced by his success as the golf coach at Belle Vernon Area.
As a minority owner with the Pittsburgh Pirates for nearly two decades, Lustig long to use both of his senses with the Bucs - to be run right and to win.
But after several heart-to-heart discussions with general partner Bob Nutting the last few years, Lustig said he had decided that his ideas did not mesh with Nutting's vision as an owner and he gave up his share in the team.
However, unlike most Pirates fans who don't have a very good opinion of Nutting in part because of the Pirates two-decade streak of futility, Lustig says that Nutting is a very good, rational businessman.
The difference is, Lustig says, that for a small market team like the Pirates to have a chance to be successful, it takes an irrational owner to be at the helm.
“If you are a small market franchise, if you want to win you have to be willing to lose ... money,” Lustig said. “It's that simple.”
“(Nutting's) problem is he is a rational owner in an irrational business. People say he is a cheap owner, but nothing is further from the truth. He allocates the money properly. He wants to make enough money to keep us from going into the red. He is running the business rationally, trying to make money. No small market teams that win make money.”
Lustig said he rarely saw any profits from his share in the team.
“It's not like the owners were pocketing money, because they weren't,” he said. “A lot of people said (Nutting) was making a fortune, but there is no money going out.”
Lustig, 58. became a minority owner for the Pirates in the spring of 1996 at the encouragment of the father of NASCAR race team owner Chip Ganassi.
“Floyd Ganassi twisted my arm,” Lustig said with a smile. “I've always been a huge baseball fan.
“The reason I got involved back then was the same ones that everybody did.
There was Kevin McClatchy and 32 other guys who all chipped in their money. The sole goal was two-fold: to keep the Pirates in Pittsburgh and to build a new facility.
“Well, we kept the Pirates here and PNC Park is the most beautiful facility in all of baseball.”
Even though the Pirates were losers on the field with McClatchy as owner, Lustig felt that the Sacramento native did the best he could simply because he kept the Pirates in town and built the park.
“But the finances were in a shambles and then the Nuttings came into the picture,” Lustig said. “Bob Nutting, say what you want about him, he cleaned up the finances and put the franchise on solid ground. I have told him that.
“Now did Bob Nutting and I have personality clashes? Absolutely. I've talked to him several times and tried to convince him that now is the time to sell to a multi-billionaire who is willing to come in here and spend more money and see if he can make the Pirates win.
“I told Bob for a number of years he did an outstanding job of shoring up the finances. He restored financial sanity. Now it is time to sell the team to someone who is willing to spend more than he will take in to try to win. Last fall, I finally realized that what I wanted wasn't going to happen. So I got out.”Lustig laughed and said that when he gave up his share that Nutting was probably glad to see him go, but the remaining seven silent partners were not.
Lustig said that, historically, the Nuttings have never had a history of having partners so that they were always looking to obtain shares of minority partners. So, the 32 partners shrunk to seven.
Lustig says that today the Nuttings own approximately 80 percent of the team.
“They've said publicly that they would like to own the whole thing themselves,” Lustig said.
Lustig said he is surprised that he lasted as long as he did, saying that he did not have the personality to be a minority partner.
“I just wasn't very good at being a silent partner,” Lustig said. “I was probably the least silent of his silent partners. And (Nutting) knows that. I've had a long history of giving orders, not taking them. It's amazing I lasted as long as I did.”
He did say that the school of thought that the Nuttings are taking out huge chunks of profit each year is not true.
“Whatever we made in profit went back into the franchise,” he said. “The problem is as a small market franchise, the Yankees have $200 million more in television revenues over what we do. The Dodgers are fielding a team with a $250 million payroll while ours is $50 million.
“It's not a level playing field. The only level playing field is the field, itself.”
Lustig, himself an avid golfer, used the Pirates' situation as a small market franchise in correlation to golf.
“It's like we're all at Augusta playing in the Masters. And the small market guys are teeing it up at the tips (longest tees) and the big market clubs are teeing it up ad the red tees (shortest tees). That's how it is.”
Lustig said that McClatchy did everything he could as an owner and so has Nutting, but Nutting won't sell the franchise to someone willing to take it to the next level.
He said Nutting has cleaned up the franchise to the point where it is attractive for someone to come in and buy it and pump more money into it.
Lustig praised Nutting for the team's current general manager, Neal Huntington, who he calls “the real deal.”
“Neal Huntington is an outstanding baseball guy, very dynamic,” Lustig said.
He claimed that the pieces may never be more in place for a new owner.
“The major league roster is cleaned up. The minor league system is in good shape. The finances are good,” Lustig said. “This franchise is attractive for purchase. I told Bob that.
“But Bob Nutting told me something that his grandfather told his father and his father told him. And that's when the Nuttings own something, they own it forever. That's his line.
“I just felt I'm too old to find out how long that forever is, so I'm out.”
Lustig says that Pirates fans deserve more from an owner.
“It's almost like they deserve an owner who is a little eccentric. Maybe like a 70-year-old guy who is willing to spend the money he made in his lifetime on building a winner in Pittsburgh,” Lustig said. “Bob is too rational a businessman to ever spend more money to build a winner. I just feel he is going to run it rationally and things won't change.”
Jeff Oliver is a sports editor for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-684-2666 or email@example.com.