Monday, August 23, 2010

As Long Suspected, Pittsburgh Pirates Make Profit with Perpetual Cellar Dweller

For the last 10 years or so, I've been hollering, howling into the void of pain and ignominy that has become the lot of Pirates fans, clambering to see the Pirates' financials. Well, not for me personally to see them, but for somebody who can actually parse the ledgers of a Major League Baseball team to have a look-see. I believed that would never, ever happen and that, in fact, the Pirates were more likely to win a World Series than open their books.

'The Pirates made nearly $29.4 million in 2007 and 2008, according to team financial documents, years that were part of a streak of futility that has now reached 18 straight losing seasons. The team's ownership also paid its partners $20.4 million in 2008.

The documents offer a rare peek inside a team that made money by getting slightly less than half its income (about $70 million) from MLB sources -- including revenue sharing, network TV, major league merchandise sales and MLB's website. The team also held down costs, keeping player salaries near the bottom of the National League, shedding pricier talent and hoping that untested prospects would blossom.

"The numbers indicate why people are suspecting they're taking money from baseball and keeping it -- they don't spend it on the players," said David Berri, president of the North American Association of Sports Economists and the author of two books detailing the relationship between finances and winning. "Teams have a choice. They can seek to maximize winning, what the Yankees do, or you can be the Pirates and make as much money as you can in your market. The Pirates aren't trying to win."'

The full story at ESPN here.

The Pirates claim there is nothing nefarious in their financial practices. Nefarious? No. That's the wrong word. Indifferent is the word. Indifferent to the fans. And indifferent to even the mere notion of winning.

ESPN reports that the Pirates 2010 opening day payroll was just $2 million more than their opening day payroll in 1992. An increase of only two million dollars in 18 years would be bad enough, particularly given that baseball inflation is to regular inflation as dog years are to people years.

But according to the Baseball Archive database, the Pirates 1992 outlay was $36,228,647.00 and according to CBS Sports, the 2010 payroll was $34,943,000.00, actually about $1.3 million less than it was in 1992.

The 1992 Pirates were right in step with MLB. I've taken a look at the salaries of all the teams currently in first place (except Tampa Bay, which franchise didn't exist the last time the Pirates posted a winning record, so I substituted the second place New York Yankees for them in the AL East.) Read 'em and weep:

Yankees 1992 Payroll = $ 34,902,292.00
Yankees 2010 Payroll = $206,333,389.00

Minnesota Twins 1992 Payroll = $27,272,834.00
Minnesota Twins 2010 Payroll = $97,559,167.00

Texas Rangers 1992 Payroll = $26,228,500.00
Texas Rangers 2010 Payroll = $55,250,545.00

Atlanta Braves 1992 Payroll = $35,853,321.00
Atlanta Braves 2010 Payroll = $84,423,667.00

Cincinnati Reds 1992 Payroll = $35,429,559.00
Cincinnati Reds 2010 Payroll = $72,386,544.00

San Diego Padres 1992 Payroll = $27,689,604.00
San Diego Padres 2010 Payroll = $37,799,300.00

Except for the Padres, every one of those teams at least doubled their 1992 salary outlay. As to the Padres, every couple of seasons, some freak accident of a team with a tiny payroll and with a rabbit's foot up their collective butts comes along and contends. Meet the 2010 Padres. Sames as the 2003 Marlins. Or the 2008 Tampa Bay Rays. And every time it happens, it sends the Pirates talking heads into a frenzy of denial. Denial that good players come at a price and, most of the time, the teams willing to pay that price end up playing meaningful games in September.

Beyond which, the Pirates never are the Marlins or Rays or Padres.

In baseball, as in life, most of the time you get what you pay for. And what fans get is what the Nuttings want to pay for. A team that, even if they were to win every game remaining on their schedule, would post their 18th consecutive losing record, an organization that is unmoved by years of losing and impervious to ridicule, so long as the money rolls in.

Update for all the late comers. Here's the NPR story on this.