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Gajtka: Pirates’ Plight Could’ve Been Penguins’, Too



As someone who’s covered both the Penguins and Pirates extensively over the past three-plus years, it’s amazing to step back and consider how different the atmospheres around the two teams are.

In some respects, I mean that literally.

For instance, in the span of 24 hours in late April, I went from covering Game 5 of Penguins-Flyers at PPG Paints Arena to sitting in the PNC Park press box for Pirates-Tigers. As you might imagine, the shift from the manic energy of Stanley Cup playoff hockey to a comatose Game twentysomething of 162 in front of a barren stadium was jarring, but there were times as I tried to focus on the baseball that I wondered if I was even in the same city.

We don’t need to get into exactly why Pirates fans have largely tuned out during their team’s three-year backslide into mediocrity. I discuss that sort of thing regularly on Twitter if you care enough.

But what shouldn’t be forgotten is how close the Penguins were to being doomed to the Pirates’ fate: Run on a tight budget by profit-first ownership in a free-spending league without a salary cap. In fact, the Penguins were there in the two-season span of 2002-04, when Mario Lemieux‘s body repeatedly failed him and Craig Patrick was ordered to start getting rid of anybody who commanded a decent salary.

I remember those days well because I took flagrant advantage of them as a high-school senior and college freshman. Thanks to the Penguins’ fledgling ‘Student Rush’ program, I was sitting near the glass for $20 on several occasions, watching Dick Tärnström quarterback the power play and Rico Fata try to beat opposing defensemen wide.

We all know the glorious results of those tank-job seasons, but so much of the Penguins’ development from all-time interesting franchise to premier sports organization was out of their hands. Yes, their struggles to balance the checkbook contributed to the owners’ solidarity in pushing for Gary Bettman‘s much-desired ‘cost certainty,’ but in an alternate universe the NHL simply plugs forward and leaves franchises like the Penguins in the dust.

That’s why it’s so difficult for me to kill Bettman on everything. Some laughed at the characterization of the NHL’s only commissioner as a ‘builder’ in his pending Hockey Hall of Fame induction, but securing a salary cap and stubbornly holding the line on keeping the Penguins in Pittsburgh both turned out to be moves greatly beneficial to the sport.

Without the hard cap currently in place, the Penguins would be very much like the Pirates, if they even still existed at all. The details of team-building might be different, but the Penguins in a free-market NHL would be looking for bargains and hoping to squeak into the playoffs and get lucky. Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin would have started their careers here, but in all likelihood would’ve been traded or simply left via free agency by now.

It’s a bleak timeline to consider, for sure. I don’t blame you if you’d rather not, but I’m a believer in the power of gratitude. Not that you have to bow at the altar of Bettman every morning or offer up alms to the almighty NHL, but Penguins fans have a lot less to complain about compared to their peers around the league.

Even though many of you might not follow the Pirates or Major League Baseball in general, you probably know somebody who does. I grew up in a family that supported all three major-league teams equally, so the thought of abandoning one of them seemed blasphemous, but the helpless plight of the Pirates after their three-year playoff run has me reconsidering that. If you’ve jumped off board the Bucco ship, there’s no judgment coming from this corner.

It was reported several years ago that Lemieux and his co-owner Ron Burkle approached Pirates chairman of the board Bob Nutting with a proposal to buy a controlling interest in the Pirates. It’s been speculated that they intended to start their own regional sports network in the process, thus bringing the two franchises under the same roof.

If Nutting would’ve been amenable to such an interesting proposal, it’s entirely possible the Pirates would be swimming in deeper revenue streams by now and thus better able to compete with their bigger-city brethren, both in the NL Central and league-wide. In other words, I’m not claiming that the Pirates couldn’t be better off with different leadership at the top.

At the same time, a baseball team based in Pittsburgh is always going to be operating in a tight spot. Those are the realities of MLB. But that is certainly not the case in the NHL. And the only reason the NHL got to the point of radical economic restructuring was the sorry state of the business for most owners.

All Penguins fans have to do is look across the Allegheny River to see how good they have it. Tough as it may be to admit, the decision-making of Bettman and company in the league office has a lot to do with their continual elevated stature, as does a generous dose of good old-fashioned luck.

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A lifelong hockey addict, Matt has been fortunate enough to make his career in his sport of choice, working in high school, juniors, college and the pros in various multimedia roles. Previous to joining PHN, Matt was a credentialed Penguins/NHL beat reporter from 2016-18, including coverage of the 2017 Stanley Cup Final. He contributes commentary and analysis here in various forms.

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