Time Magazine just named me (and you?!) the ‘Person of the Year’! That’s right, ‘The Protester’ was recognized as the most important and influential person of 2011. We can add Patrick Hruby to that list, too. The Occupy MLB movement got another boost into the public conscience thanks to his recent article on The Post Game . Hruby’s not-so-shocking account of rich bastards screwing the working class is a well-resourced and important piece of work in this age of professional sports. He details how the Marlins cried poor to help make the case for public funding of their new stadium in the face of documented multi-million dollar profits and a history of miniscule payroll numbers. And now that Miami has secured their new ballpark, you may have noticed a change in their approach to free agency. The New Marlins have already spent nearly $200M on three players with another failed $200M offer for a fourth. That would have almost been a half-a-billion dollar off-season for a team with a payroll history not dissimilar to the Pittsburgh Pirates. The ‘poor’ case the Marlins made to win nearly $400M (coincidence?) from the City of Miami and Dade County seems disingenuous at best.
Public funding of sports venues is not unique to the Miami Marlins. In fact, PNC Park was largely funded by the public (in part through a regressive sales tax, I believe) back in 1998. While this was characterized as ‘corporate welfare’ (and I have no argument with that characterization) the Pirates behaviors before and after the construction were in striking contrast with the Marlins of this off-season.
From 1991, when the initial proposal was made for a new stadium, to 1998, when the plans and funding were agreed upon, the Pirates average player salary dropped precipitously. So the argument could be made that the Pirates were systematically making the ‘poor’ case. However, the Kevin McClatchy and David Littlefield reign was marked by as much incompetence as I can possibly comprehend from my geographic and historical distance – I did not follow the Pirates during this time (at all…) and yet I am dumbstruck by their decision making.
In any case, there was about a 100% jump in Pirates payroll between the groundbreaking ceremony and the first opening day at the new park in 2001. Then in 2001, the team methodically cut payroll per instructions from ownership. While this type of practice may be disrespectful to Pirates fans, it doesn’t sound like the fleecing of the City of Pittsburgh to me – at least, not in pure financial terms. The Pirates may have been incompetent fools, but they aren’t out to have the City of Pittsburgh fund their fantasy games (as Hruby nicely described it…).
Today, the Pirates are struggling to become relevant again. The team seems to have a solid (yet risky) approach to dumping money on the best amateurs they can find. They are clearly a fan-friendly team with interesting promotional events (Piratefest would be unheard of in Boston- at best you might get to meet a back-up catcher and the Pawtucket strength trainer) and their ticket prices are the lowest in baseball at about $15 a pop. (In contrast, it’ll cost your average family of four about $215 for face-value tickets at Fenway – the priciest, most uncomfortable seats facing left field in baseball. And if you venture into Ace Ticket, the ‘official’ secondary marketeer [read: scalper] of the Boston Red Sox, that family of four may be paying as much as $500 – $1,000 depending on the opponent. No kidding. The Red Sox don’t cater to the family of four anymore. Not this group of owners.)
When will it stop? When will the average fan be funding the first billion-dollar contract? We’ve got to do something! So go ahead, Miami – occupy the Marlins. But I doubt you’ve got enough fans to make a point. A better plan might be to abandon the crooked big-market thievery and put your cash into the small market teams that still respect their fans.
Occupy MLB! Go Pirates!