Pirates take big cuts, but pass on the bucks Pittsburgh playing a game of survival

February 17, 1993|By Bill Modoono | Bill Modoono,Contributing Writer

PITTSBURGH -- The Pittsburgh Pirates have embraced the concept that less is more. This season, they will have fewer stars and fewer veterans in their starting lineup. They'll even have 10,000 fewer seats at Three Rivers Stadium.

No team in baseball has won more games in the 1990s than the Pirates, defending three-time National League East champions. And, as the Pirates prepare for their 107th season by opening camp this week in Bradenton, Fla., they are totally in touch with the times. Downsizing, that buzzword of the '90s, is reality here.

The assumption everyone is making is that they'll also cut back considerably on the 96 victories they had in 1992, which enabled them to win the NL East by nine games over the Montreal Expos. But the Pirates, much like IBM or Westinghouse, believe that becoming "lean and mean" is the only way to ensure long-term survival, regardless of the short-term effects.

"We're telling the people the truth," said general manager Ted Simmons, who has had to oversee the club's reduction policy that, in two seasons, has resulted in the loss of top players such as Barry Bonds, Doug Drabek, Bobby Bonilla and John Smiley. "This is where we're going, and this is why.

"How could we afford to pay $43 million for Bonds, $20 million for Drabek, $30 million for Bonilla and $18 million for Smiley? That's $111 million for four players. In contrast, San Francisco paid $100 million to keep the Giants in the city."

Baseball economics long have stopped making sense for the Pirates, a small-market franchise with a history of attendance woes. Last year, the Pirates' third consecutive division-winning team attracted 1.8 million fans, a paltry figure given the game's new financial pressures.

As a result, the Pirates dropped out of bidding wars that resulted in the free-agent departures of two-time National League MVP Bonds (to the Giants) and former Cy Young winner Drabek (to the Houston Astros).

When Gold Glove second baseman Jose Lind became eligible for arbitration, he was traded to the Kansas City Royals for prospects; a prospect the Pirates considered more attractive than paying him $3 million a year.

During the past three years, the Pirates have made at least seven cost-conscious personnel decisions, resulting in the departure of Bonds, Bonilla, Drabek, Lind, Smiley, Sid Bream and Danny Jackson.

L "This club is in transition," Simmons said. "It clearly is."

The job of maintaining the team's competitiveness during the transition belongs to Jim Leyland, a two-time NL Manager of the Year. Leyland has done a masterful job of keeping the team afloat after earlier player defections, a task aided by the NL East's recent lack of competitiveness. But with teams such as Montreal and the Chicago Cubs seemingly on the rise, a fourth consecutive title might be out of even his reach.

"If one of those teams can blow this division open, we're in trouble," Leyland said. "But if nobody can blow it open, by midseason we'll have a good ballclub. Hopefully, no one will have run away with it by then."

The Pirates start spring training intending to have three rookies in their starting lineup -- Carlos Garcia at second, Albert Martin in left field and Kevin Young at third base. Another rookie, Steve Cooke, is Leyland's first choice to replace Drabek in the starting rotation.

Leyland says the starting jobs are there for the rookies to lose, and that newly acquired free agents such as Lonnie Smith (37), John Candelaria (39) and Tom Foley (33) are around "to spell these kids and keep them from getting embarrassed."

"All of these guys have done everything there is to do at the minor-league level," Simmons said.

What they can do at the major-league level is another matter, including their ability to be drawing cards.

If Western Pennsylvania was relatively indifferent to a winning team with star players, how will it react to a rebuilding team loaded with unknowns?

"You hear people on the talk shows all the time, saying they understand why we had to do this because it's what we need to keep the team here," Leyland said. "But are those same fans who support us in December going to be in the stands in June and July?"

One thing is certain: There will be fewer stands for the fans in 1993. The Pirates are closing off 10,000 of their outfield seats to enhance the baseball atmosphere of Three Rivers Stadium, a multipurpose stadium that now will have a capacity for baseball of about 47,000.

"We have a very solid fan base, but we don't have volume," Simmons said. "We have a very small population base, and we can't grow."

Leyland said: "Hopefully, the fans will be with us through thick and thin. Because we're not going to be nearly as good as we've been. The people are going to suffer a little bit."

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