Nutting excited about Pirates moving forward
Chairman unveils $10M renovation of McKechnie Field, club's spring home
BRADENTON, Fla. -- Following a $10 million renovation of historic McKechnie Field, the Pirates now have two showplaces. All that remains is to fill them with appropriate showpieces.
"We've changed the landscape. We're in an incredible position to take another step forward," club chairman Bob Nutting said Wednesday in Pirate City, a couple of hours after having participated in the unveiling of the dramatically improved 90-year-old ballpark where the Bucs have made their Spring Training home for 45 years.
"We've rebuilt the facilities, we've rebuilt the leadership, we've rebuilt the approach that we are taking to create a championship organization for Pittsburgh," Nutting said. "I could not be more excited for the 2013 campaign, and where we're headed -- and we'll get started in just a few days."
Nutting will be back in camp Thursday to address Pirates players and coaches, and will deliver a direct message: It's winning time.
"I'll set our level of expectations, which needs to be to win a championship," Nutting previewed. "To be playing exciting games throughout the summer, meaningful games in September, and compete to put ourselves in position to bring a sixth World Series championship to Pittsburgh. They need to understand that is our organizational goal, and the target we're focused on."
The day after Clint Hurdle's contract had been extended through 2014 with an option for another season, Nutting also had a direct message for the manager: The pact did not come with a safety net.
"We must take a step forward," Nutting said with rare firmness, alluding to the move from 57 to 70 to 79 wins in Hurdle's first two campaigns at the helm. "We expect to win. I expect to win, Frank [club president Frank Coonelly] expects to win. Neal [general manager Neal Huntington] expects to win. And the idea that an extension is a free pass is exactly the message that I would not want to send, and exactly the message that Clint would not want to hear.
"We've absolutely shown that we're willing to make a change if we need to, irrespective of contract terms," added Nutting, who signed off on the post-2010 dismissal of manager John Russell with a year remaining on his contract. "So Clint and everyone in the organization knows that."
Forward steps can come in different sizes. For a club that has endured 20 consecutive losing seasons, a winning record could be viewed as a significant stride. Nutting, however, would not low-ball his expectations.
"At some point, we'll need to pass through 82 [wins, the number that would secure a winning season] and when we do, I will appropriately celebrate," Nutting said. "But that would be an inappropriate target. Had that been the goal, Neal would've gone about his work the last five years very differently."
That was an obvious reference to invitations by other teams over the years for the Pirates to empty the farm system for high-profile "rentals" who might have put them over the .500 wall.
"We could've patched in pieces for a short-term blip," Nutting said. "I'm glad we didn't. What we did was responsible and correct for the long-term health of the franchise."
So Nutting was able to stroll through Pirate City's diamonds and see a solid core to the big club, and the prospects who have fueled the farm system to a high ranking among the Majors' 30 organizations.
"The way the fans have embraced us, the team's multi-generational appeal, puts responsibility on me to put a team on the field that is exciting, one that they understand can legitimately compete throughout the year," the chairman said. "I believe [the Pirates] are headed back into a great cycle."
The Pirates team hoping to be the first to pedal that cycle will not be formally unveiled for seven weeks, until its April 1 season opener in the summer showplace, PNC Park. But their spring cathedral took a bow on Wednesday, headlined by the addition of 2,000 seats that expands capacity to 8,500, the Grapefruit League's fourth-largest, and the addition of outfield seats and a 15,000-square foot center-field boardwalk that expands the game experience to 360 degrees.
Wednesday morning's ceremonial unveiling was a chance for Nutting to express his appreciation for the continuing support of the Bradenton community, and for the local movers-and-shakers who spearheaded McKechnie Field's transformation to bask in the results.
"I can't stop smiling," said Bradenton mayor Wayne Poston. "I believe this is the most fan-friendly place anywhere in Florida -- probably in all of Major League Baseball. This is great stuff."
Manatee County Commissioner Michael Gallen called the new McKechnie Field "the crown jewel of the city" and personified the long history of the yard.
"I grew up in this park," said Gallen, 38. "I can remember chasing fly balls and autographs here, so this is very nostalgic. I love being here."
So, too, will fans who can begin their pilgrimage on Friday, when the Pirates inaugurate the place with their only intrasquad game of the spring -- to be followed two afternoons later with the home exhibition opener, against the Braves.
"It will be exciting to open the gates on a brand new McKechnie Field experience," Nutting summarized. "Fans will walk away feeling this is the place to celebrate baseball and Spring Training."
Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog Change for a Nickel. He can also be found on Twitter @Tom_Singer. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.