Mark Madden: Half-empty PNC Park tells real tale of Pirates this season
Pirates fans are going ga-ga over rookie shortstop Cole Tucker, and they should.
Tucker marked his big league debut Saturday with a home run and a curtain call. Fellow call-up Bryan Reynolds got lost in the shuffle, and understandably so: Reynolds’ hair isn’t as cool as Tucker’s. But Reynolds went 4 for 6 on the weekend.
The Pirates’ stooge media and the true believers among the citizens overreact badly to every sliver of hope.
That goes for starting 12-7. It’s only been 19 games.
That goes for Tucker. He just got here.
Tucker does have charisma. He’s the proverbial cool dude.
But baseball is the longest of long runs.
Let’s see what the Pirates decide with Tucker when shortstops Erik Gonzalez and Kevin Newman return from injury. Can Tucker earn the shortstop job for keeps, or will management manipulate Tucker’s service time? (The same applies with Reynolds, though options in the outfield are better.)
It’s never too early to realize that if Tucker does become a star, he eventually goes elsewhere for more money.
The realest thing about the Pirates is their rotation. It is as advertised. Even Jordan Lyles is 2-0 with a 0.53 ERA. Do they give a Cy Young Award for April?
But the Pirates may be good enough to stay in contention for a wild card and at least finish over .500 for a second straight campaign. Given payroll, that would be amazing.
But, despite the early results and accompanying hype, the weekend’s attendance was indifferent. The series with San Francisco drew crowds of 15,049, 17,663, and 12,396. The Pirates are playing to just 47 percent of capacity despite leading the NL Central.
The usual excuses get used: Bad weather, “wait til school’s out,” etc.
But that’s all they are, is excuses.
Perhaps some customers have been permanently turned off by ownership emphasizing profit over winning to such a greedy, penny-pinching degree.
Winning creates a bandwagon effect. (Duh.) But after last season’s winning record and a good start to this campaign, it might take more than a good April to get those disenfranchised to jump back on said bandwagon.
Attendance figures listed for the weekend are tickets sold. Walk-up sales are minimal for every game and every sport. Advance purchases tell the tale. The weather has little impact.
It’s about interest. It’s about trust. Enthusiasm can be tempered by skepticism. Good results can be diluted by bad recent memories.
Attendance at PNC Park dropped by over a million from 2015 to ’18. That’s after the Pirates dismantled 2015’s 98-win team in the name of increased profit.
The Pirates can undo that damage. But better than a 12-7 start might be required. What happens in the interim when owner Bob Nutting sees revenue shrinking? Nutting loves an excuse to further curtail expenditures.
The situation got summed up via a striking visual in the fourth inning of Sunday’s 3-2 loss to San Francisco: Josh Bell hit a mammoth home run. As the ball left the park, the nearly empty right-field grandstand couldn’t help but be noticed.
The Steelers missed the playoffs. The Penguins were eliminated in the post-season’s first round. The Pirates’ more radical boosters proclaim there’s a new sheriff in town.
But the Steelers sell out every game. The Penguins sell out every game. Paying customers is the primary measure of a team’s popularity, especially in the context of that market. Baseball plays a lot more games, true. But admission costs less money. Playing to 47 percent of capacity despite a 12-7 start is not a good look.
As for that “new sheriff” talk, try winning something first. Until then, nobody should dare compare the picayune Pirates to Pittsburgh’s championship franchises.