How One City Kept Its Baseball Team From Walking

The Pirates hung by a thread until investors bought the club - a letter From Pittsburgh

IT is one of those evenings neither hot nor cold, summer nor winter, when fall rolls in and baseball comes to an end.As the Pittsburgh Pirates and Montreal Expos warm up on the field, blue-jacketed ushers scurry about the stadium aisles, checking tickets. Martin (Hooks) Donatucci, who first ushered for the Pirates in 1928, is one of them. "Pittsburgh is a hard town," he says. "You have got to have a good team. Otherwise, you're nobody." This year, as everybody in Pittsburgh knows, the Pirates are Somebody. They've already wrapped up the National League East - the only team in 12 years to clinch a division title two years in a row. They are looking to avenge last year's loss to Cincinnati in the National League playoffs. Many fans believe they will. "This is just the greatest thing," says Bill Groucutt, a third-generation Pirates fan. The team has matured. Its star slugger, Barry Bonds, has toned down his off-the-field demeanor and earned the fans' appreciation. At that moment, Mr. Bonds rips a three-run homerun. "Now, you know why they cheer!" Mr. Groucutt says excitedly. It's hard to believe that six years ago the cheering almost died here. The team finished last in its division for the second year running. Attendance fell to half its 1979 peak. There was talk of moving the team to Denver. "It was terrible," recalls Al Jennings, a season-ticket holder. Players didn't perform and Pittsburghers didn't care. "You really had to like baseball to come out and watch them play." "The franchise had one foot in the grave and one foot in Denver," says Steven Greenberg, the team's vice-president of marketing. Fans booed the players and the players underperformed. Just as the situation looked its bleakest, the city saved the franchise in typical Pittsburgh fashion: Thirteen local corporate leaders and individuals agreed to put up $2 million apiece to buy the team, and the then-mayor, the late Richard Caliguiri, added another $25 million and sat on the board of directors. Pittsburgh had already used private-public partnerships to transform the city's skyline and clean up its rivers. Saving the Pirates was a logical step. "The corporations didn't do it out of the goodness of their hearts," says Jake Haulk, a Pirates fan and vice president of Mellon Bank (one of the corporate owners). They saw the team as a valuable city asset. On the field, new general manager Syd Thrift and manager Jim Leyland built an entirely new team of young players including Bonds, Bobby Bonilla, and pitcher Doug Drabek . The turnaround in the stands was also dramatic. Many Pittsburghers took winning for granted in the 1970s. That decade the Pirates won two World Series; the Pittsburgh Steelers, four Super Bowls; the Pitt Panthers college football team, a national championship. Even though the Pirates struggled the next two years, Pirates fans began to come back. Last year, the team topped 2 million in attendance for the first time in its history. By the fourth inning of the game, Hooks (a nickname from his 1931 season as a minor-league pitcher) isn't ushering anymore. He sits in the stands, arms folded, watching. "You say you're from Boston?" he asks after a while, getting up to escort me out of his section. No, from Pittsburgh. I pull out my business card. Hooks reaches into his back pocket, fumbles a moment, then pulls out an official baseball scuffed from use. "It ain't autographed or nothin'," he says, shoving it into my hands. "Bonilla gave it to me."

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