The Pittsburgh Pirates broke our hearts, again. By now, we should accept it, but a little piece of all of us wanted to believe Pirates owner Bob Nutting would reinvest his cash windfall into a winning team and a franchise cornerstone, Andrew McCutchen. Or, front-line starting pitcher Gerrit Cole. Or, Both.
We never had such doubts about Mario Lemieux and the Pittsburgh Penguins. Not even in the darkest times. This is why the Penguins are beloved and the Pirates…are despised.
In the time before the salary cap, the Penguins were outspent by the New York Rangers and Detroit Red Wings by a nearly four-to-one margin. But, no one doubted the Penguins desire to win or to spend every nickel they had. And, spend a few nickels they didn’t have.
The Penguins did everything they could to ice a winning product. Fans loved them, and their owner, for fighting the good fight. The 10,000-12,000 fans who visited the old Mellon Arena during the X Generation days were the loudest, hockey-crazed fans Pittsburgh has produced.
Many nights, the owner was also on the ice, bleeding for his team and his fans. Including February 6, 2003. Mario had enough, hours after a new arena deal was rejected by politicians.
It was the Penguins ownership and those crazy fans against the world. And they won.
On the other side, 17 years after being given a new stadium, and 11 years since he became the principal owner, Pirates owner Bob Nutting’s franchise is worth five times what he paid, yet he is still hoarding dollars like a squirrel with chubby cheeks hides winter forage.
THIS is why Pittsburgh loves the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Formerly in the Penguins world, star players were dealt for tomato cans and duffle bags of cash. The Penguins traded future Hall of Famer Jaromir Jagr to the Washington Capitals in the summer of 2001 for three players struggling to make the NHL and a sizable cash infusion. There have long been rumors that a second, secret, briefcase full of cash was included in the deal, as well.
Even if the rumors were true, assuredly none of it reached the owner’s pockets except in the form of the minimal salary Lemieux took as a player.
It Was Survival
No one harshly criticized the Penguins for selling players. Everyone knew–that was survival. Penguins fans had been through the uncertainty and fear of bankruptcy. Penguins fans saw their hero ride in as a white knight, again, and they followed.
After the Jagr deal, the Penguins allowed star players like Alexei Kovalev to skate away. It was frustrating. Penguins fans groaned. Some cried. But none blamed ownership for betraying the fan base. It was understood; the Penguins were in an old arena in a small market and doing everything they could not just to compete but survive.
In the Pirates world, star players are dealt for prospects and magic beans when the players are due market-value contracts. On field success matters not. Financial flexibility isn’t just a saying, it’s the law.
The Pirates have a luxurious taxpayer-funded baseball park which by its very existence draws a million fans a year. The Pirates annually receive tens of millions in revenue sharing to offset their market disadvantage, and despite a giant $50 million cash windfall from the sale of MLB’s BAM website, Pirates fans must say goodbye to cornerstone talents, Andrew McCutchen and Gerrit Cole.
Not only must Pirates fans suffer the indignity of saying goodbye to a statue worthy pillar of the organization, but they must also suffer through the indignity of having their intelligence insulted by a team which claims it can’t afford to pay those players and the return, middling prospects, are ready to compete.
The Penguins were dirt poor. The Pirates are not.
Small market NHL owners stood firm in the face of unprecedented action: the 2004-05 lockout. The NHL, led by small owners, dug in their heels against big market owners and players, simultaneously.
A luxury tax idea was floated but got nowhere.
Owners like Mario Lemieux stood up for hockey. It was a broken system. Hockey owners were not bought off in back alley transactions by big money teams. That was Mario.
Meanwhile, the Pirates ownership softly mentions MLB’s disparity as they ask for more rubber bands to stack the cash they refuse to spend on the on-field product.
THIS is why Pittsburgh loves the Penguins.
If, If If…
The Penguins would have been forced to part with Sidney Crosby and, or, Evgeni Malkin long ago if the NHL economics remained unchanged. Pittsburgh fans would have been as heartbroken to say goodbye to them as Pirates fans are to say au revoir to former NL MVP Andrew McCutchen.
The big difference is–Penguins fans would never doubt ownership spent every dollar it had.
That’s the difference between winners…and the Pirates.
And THIS is why Pittsburgh loves the Pittsburgh Penguins.