Pittsburgh Pirates Get Creative With Money

Jul 15, 2013
Originally published on July 15, 2013 4:02 pm

Fans of baseball’s Pittsburgh Pirates have endured 20 straight losing seasons, the longest stretch of futility among the four professional sports teams.

But as they head into the All-Star break, the Pirates have one of the best records of all the Major League Baseball teams. And the case can be made they did it by smart investing.


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And these stories about doping are so depressing, Robin, but we've got something now a little more uplifting from the world of Major League Baseball. The Pittsburgh Pirates, who have had losing seasons for 20 straight years, now have one of the best records in baseball at the season's halfway point. And one reason for their success is they've been using money from baseball's revenue sharing program to pay for a lot of young talent, like outfielder Andrew McCutchen, who's on the National League roster for tomorrow's game, the All-Star game in New York. Allen Barra writes about all this for The Atlantic, and he joins us now. Allen, welcome.

ALLEN BARRA: Nice to be here.

HOBSON: Well, so, first of all, just for people who aren't familiar with the revenue-sharing program in Major League Baseball, explain how it works.

BARRA: Essentially it's this. The teams that are supposed to be large revenue or big market - and generally that means the New York Yankees, sometimes only the New York Yankees, but at least them - they have to put aside a certain amount of money for the smaller programs, the smaller teams in lesser markets. And a few years ago that included the Florida Marlins, Tampa Bay Rays, Pittsburgh Pirates. There was a scandal three years ago - three seasons ago. They said that these teams were not using the money to compete on the free agent market. But as it turned out, the Pittsburgh Pirates, if they were not competing for free agents, they were at least putting the money back in their system. They'd put 48 million at least into their Minor League system, scouting and signing amateur draft picks, and the results are sensational.

HOBSON: They have gone - instead of going after the high-level players, they are using their money wisely, you write, and going after this new talent.

BARRA: Yes. Absolutely. They're producing their own stars. And not only had these guys been putting up great numbers, they have produced one of the most youthful teams in baseball. They're one of the best.

HOBSON: Will they be able to keep that talent though? There is always the worry that when teams start doing well, this young talent might leave.

BARRA: Yes. There is that problem, keeping those players once they become full-fledged stars. On the other hand, the more you win, the more revenue you produce and the more money you have to sign those stars. There is a practice among intelligent front offices, which the Pirates seem to have, of signing young players to long-term contracts, which even though you're shelling out a lot of money upfront, it saves you cash over the long haul. And my guess is that's exactly what they're going to do.

And plus, I think there's something else there. I think a lot of players are understanding the value of staying with a really good franchise, a really good fan base. And they're probably going to want to stay in Pittsburgh, at least some of them, when they do become free agents.

HOBSON: OK. So how about a prediction, Allen? What's going to happen?

BARRA: Let's put it this way. The Pirates are showing that when you've got a young team that is just approaching its peak years, there's no reason to believe that the Pirates are anything but for real.

HOBSON: Allen Barra of The Atlantic, and you can read his article about the Pittsburgh Pirates at hereandnow.org. His latest book is "Mickey and Willie: Mantle and Mays, the Parallel Lives of Baseball's Golden Age." Allen, thanks.

BARRA: Thank you.


HOBSON: Believe it or not, "We Are Family" by Sister Sledge was the theme song of the 1979 Pittsburgh Pirates, the last Pirates to win the World Series. Up next, if you're someone who likes to weigh yourself in the morning first thing, Robert Krulwich, co-host of the WNYC's RadioLab, will join us to explain why that is probably a good idea. That's next. HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.