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Gorman: Destiny of Pirates in fans' hands

Sunday, Jan. 31, 2010

Bob Nutting is known as a bottom-line businessman, as reflected by his dealings as Pirates owner. Ron Burkle has a reputation as a savvy billionaire with political muscle who is no stranger to hostile takeovers.

When word leaked that Burkle and his Penguins co-owner, Mario Lemieux, made an offer to buy the Pirates, it set the stage for what could become a cross-town tug-of-war for control of the non-Steelers sports market.

The Penguins want it, but Nutting isn't budging.

Pirates president Frank Coonelly admitted Saturday that the timing of the leak, four months after the fact, was "odd." Considering that it came the night the Pirates unveiled plans for a statue to honor Bill Mazeroski and amid their feel-good PirateFest weekend, it might have been perfectly timed.

The tete-a-tete is sure to be a topic of conversation on NBC today, when the Penguins play before a national television audience in a rematch of the past two Stanley Cup finals. And it just so happens that Mike Illitch has controlling interest of both the Detroit Red Wings and the Detroit Tigers.

Nice coincidence.

If Nutting isn't willing to sell the Pirates — and he's made it clear that he has no intention of doing so — then this will be played out before the court of public opinion. Pirates fans were teased by a billionaire savior when Mt. Lebanon's Mark Cuban expressed interest in buying the Pirates, but they have come to the conclusion that Nutting is not going to give up control.

"Maybe three, four years ago, I was much more vociferous in wanting him to sell," said Pirates fan Justin Hahn, of Whitehall. "Now, I'm resigned to giving him a chance."

Yet, when Pirates president Frank Coonelly opened a Q&A session yesterday by reassuring fans that Nutting "has a fierce determination to make the Pirates a winner," this was the first question: How can you claim that Bob Nutting is determined to win when the Pirates refuse to even spend half of what they earned in shared revenue on their payroll?

And it drew hollers and hearty applause from an edgy crowd.

"Nutting has hope, and he's asking us to have the same faith," said Charles R. Conway of Murrysville, who gave up his season tickets last year. "Is he just interested in the bottom line and making a profit every year• If Nutting doesn't want to sell the team — this is the United States — you can't make him sell the team.

"The timing (of the leak) is certainly calculated to put pressure on him."

That is where Pirates fans can make a difference. As long as they continue to go to PNC Park for every fireworks night and free giveaway, Nutting has no desire to part with his cash cow. Not until he starts losing money.

Nutting is in a league of his own in his immunity to criticism, as his approval of a fire sale of the starting lineup last summer helped clinch a record-setting 17th consecutive losing season. He is steadfast in trying to convince fans that the Pirates will become a championship-caliber club.

But Nutting might be out of his league when it comes to playing hardball with Burkle. We're talking about a guy who has raised millions for Democrats, counts former President Bill Clinton among his close friends and convinced Gov. Ed Rendell to give the Penguins a sweetheart arena deal. And Burkle has the most popular sports figure in the city's history on his side, to boot.

"Mario Lemieux is an extremely popular individual in town," said Coonelly, the Pirates president. "We can understand fans saying, 'Wouldn't that be exciting to have Mario as part of the Pirates?' He's a great hockey player, and they've done a terrific job with the Penguins. But Bob Nutting is not selling the Pirates, and public pressure to sell won't change that."

This is where the Pirates fans come in:

You can't make Bob Nutting sell the team.

But you don't have to buy what he's selling, either.




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