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Kovacevic: There's Nutting like winning

| Friday, July 8, 2011

The public cast Bob Nutting as a B-movie villain from the day he became the Pirates' controlling owner four years ago. He was called a tightwad; a recluse; a dispassionate, disinterested profiteer with no interest in baseball but the bottom line. And those were the kinder sentiments.

Funny, I haven't heard his name much lately.

Except for this: I was talking the other day with Rene Gayo, the Pirates' Latin American scouting director and a man I trust as much as anyone in 25 years in this business, and he vocally volunteered of the current team's surprising status, "Bob Nutting saved the Pirates! This was all because of him."

Sorry, but that's way too much way too soon for me.

Let's see how Nutting handles this modest success, whether he rises up or shrinks from it. Let's see not only whether he authorizes general manager Neal Huntington to add significantly to the payroll via trade but also whether he pushes for it.

There's a difference. A couple of years ago, when Gayo and the Pirates were chasing hotshot Dominican prospect Miguel Sano, Nutting told me he "hoped" the team would land the player. A month later, in part because the front office fretted over whether they were bidding against themselves, they lost their guy. Hope wasn't enough. A bold owner would have ensured that deal got done.

Hope won't cut it this summer, either, unless hope can bat cleanup.

I interviewed Nutting on Wednesday at PNC Park, shortly after he took part in the front office's meeting to plan the team's immediate future, and liked much of what I heard:

›› He sounded not just willing but also eager to add to the team's still-too-low $47 million payroll via trade, viewing this group as being genuinely capable of taking the Central Division.

"That's what we're talking about: How do you make that run?" Nutting said. "We're just a couple games out, close to the All-Star break. It's a great opportunity. And we aren't going to make decisions based on restrictions of financing. We're absolutely in that position where Neal can, right now, be out there aggressively looking at options. He needs to do that."

›› He all but instructed his baseball men not to part with any of the team's handful of elite prospects, even though it would be the cheapest route. Outfielder Starling Marte, for example, cost only an $85,000 signing bonus but could net quite the return.

"One thing we won't do is mortgage the future of the club ever again," Nutting said. "Neal's going to need to make decisions that are good for the long term of the Pittsburgh Pirates and be able to make sure we're playing important games this September but also next September and the year after that."

›› He shrugged off money altogether.

"The easy decisions are the dollars. We've built in that flexibility. We only need to make decisions based on the interests of the Pittsburgh Pirates."

Now pause here for a second, and choose which of the above statements sounds anything like the B-movie villain version of Bob Nutting.

Yes, he has to put his money where his mouth is. And, no, that hasn't happened yet in his tenure at the major league level. But it's still worth considering the merit of Gayo's assessment of his boss, if only because Nutting has been consistent in sticking to the Pirates' long-term plan, including taking bullets for it.

Take the case of Tony Sanchez. The team drafted the catcher No. 4 overall in 2009 — well ahead of most forecasts — and paid him the slot minimum as a result. It looked terrible at the time, especially two years after the Matt Wieters fiasco. But Nutting stood behind Huntington's scouts, then attended the news conference to face the questions himself.

Nutting now might soon be able to take some told-you-so jabs on several fronts.

"That's really not my mindset, to look back," he said with a small smile. "I said last year that fans deserved to be angry. I was angry, too. There's nothing wrong with that. But I also can say that I believed from the beginning in the steps we were taking to restore championship-caliber baseball to Pittsburgh. Some of those have taken longer. Some are starting to bear fruit. And many of them aren't even here yet."

Well, maybe he's at least enjoying these three months on a personal level?

"I'm thrilled, happy, ecstatic ... proud of what Clint Hurdle's done, what the organization has done and what the players have accomplished so far," Nutting said. "Most of all, I'm humbled by the response of the fans: the attendance, the ratings, seeing people walking around town wearing Pirates gear ... that's what really feels good. They deserve this. We're just beginning to deliver back to them."

Earlier this week, Nutting recalled, a fan shouted to him from across the street on the North Shore. That might have been a profanity just a few months ago, but this time it was, "Hey, Bob! Congratulations! We're with you!"

Nutting could hear a lot more of that soon, but he needs to hold up his end.

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