Williams: To Improve Their Relationship With Fans, the Pirates Should Consider Making Excuses

BRADENTON, Fla. – I’ve always had a problem with the word “excuses.” It’s the negative connotation that the word carries, and the negative suggestion that comes from the use of the word.

There’s not much difference between the definition of the word reason and the word excuse.

Reason (noun) – “a cause, explanation, or justification for an action or event”

Excuse (noun) – “a reason or explanation put forward to defend or justify a fault or offense”

Yet if someone asks you “What’s your excuse for this?” it comes across much differently than “What’s the reason for this?” Asking someone for their excuse is preemptively unforgiving. It doesn’t matter what they say. You have already decided that what they did isn’t justifiable, no matter the reasons that led to it. If you ask for the reason behind something, it comes across as more open-minded, where the reason might justify the action.

I say all of this because my pet peeve with the word “excuses” works the other way, when people say they won’t make excuses. And that was said a lot last week during Bob Nutting’s press conference with the media.

There wasn’t really much that came from that press conference. There never really is much that comes from those. It’s understandable. A lot of the questions aren’t just relevant to the Pirates, but to the entire league. Nutting isn’t going to give answers that reveal much about the internal workings of the league, which leads to a lot of PR speak.

One common theme that did come from that press conference was that the Pirates weren’t a team that would make excuses.

First up, here’s Nutting’s response to my question about whether small market teams need to address how baseball is unfair in the next CBA (he later addressed that, but started off with this):

Certainly over the next three years and over the past decade, we have and will always focus on what the existing rules are. We have certain fence lines. We’re never going to use them as an excuse. That becomes a really corrosive and dangerous attitude to allow to creep into any organization. We can’t, so we’re never going to let that define us or define our strategy. We’re going to maximize every efficiency and inefficiency we can in the existing system.

Then there’s this response to whether the attendance drop of one million fans from 2015 to 2018 was impacting payroll:

There is no question the attendance was down. There is no question that there were fewer tickets sold. That’s true. There is also no question we will never use it as an excuse, we will never use it as an issue. Whether it’s the collective bargaining agreement, whether there are external challenges, we will embrace and it work as hard as we can to make sure that the fans who do come to have a fantastic experience to watch an exciting game in the best ballpark in America and working like heck to build a team that take a good step forward like last year.

Finally, there’s this long response to the Pirates receiving fewer revenue sharing receipts, which wasn’t answered, but met with a long response about how the organization doesn’t make excuses. The entire response is about not making excuses, so I’m not even going to bold anything here.

Again, probably don’t want to go into specifics, but there’s no question that given the existing dynamic, that’s not an area that we’re getting a lot of additional support. And sort of the same answer I’m going to give, there are a bunch of things that we could whine about as an organization. There are a bunch of things that we could allow to become distractions as an organization, and I could not possibly be more committed that we’re not going to allow those to get us off track of the fundamental core mission that we have, which is putting the best baseball team we possibly can on the field at PNC Park. Internally, externally. I would hope there’s not a single person in the organization who has any glimmer of doubt that we are allowing scapegoating, excusing, ‘not our fault, boy it’s hard.’ These guys embrace hard. You’re going to need to embrace hard, because it’s not easy. It’s not an easy game if you’re a top two payroll club. It’s a hard game. What we’re asking people to do every day in Pittsburgh is hard.

Part of the reason that I am so proud of the work this team does — whether it’s the front office, Clint, or the coaching staff or the players — we’re asking them to do something hard and they’re embracing it. The last thing I’m going to do in any of these areas is to create an excuse. We’re not an excuse driven organization. We’re going to embrace the hard parts of it. We’re going to push forward as effectively as we can, and that’s what’s going to bring us success as an organization. It’s the determination, the focus, the relentless push through some of the obstacles. That’s what’s going to make us better. I really believe that. I’ve probably answered something like that three or four times, because you guys are asking about all of the challenges. We’re not focused on those. We’re focused on how we can achieve.

After thinking about this for a few days, it hit me why this constant theme bothered me so much, beyond my usual disdain for the word “excuse.” In the process of refusing to make excuses, the Pirates are essentially acknowledging the excuses that exist, or raising questions about unspoken excuses.

Let’s start with the “It’s a hard game” portion first. Yes, baseball is a hard game. Even the teams who have the most resources to spend aren’t guaranteed a championship. But it’s undeniable that baseball is harder for small market teams, compared to big market teams. This is probably why only three teams in the bottom half of payroll over the last 25 years have won the World Series.

The Pirates have the right approach. You can’t just throw in the towel because the system is stacked against you. Instead, you try to find ways to gain an edge and beat the system.

But that’s what the Pirates from Neal Huntington on down to the players in the lowest levels of the minors should be focused on. It should be a different view for Bob Nutting.

it’s fair for Nutting to say that the organization embraces the challenges and the hard work. But he’s either downplaying that challenge, or acting like it doesn’t exist when he refuses to make excuses. Nutting is exactly the guy who needs to be making “excuses.” I put that in quotes, because I’m going to switch over to “reasons” now to illustrate this point.

Nutting is one of 30 owners in MLB who has a say in the direction of the league. The big market teams are going to have a much bigger say in things, since they have the majority of the revenue, and the majority of the fans and media pull. But the small market owners need to speak out. They need to illustrate the reasons why MLB is so unfair to small markets. They can say “we’ll try our hardest under this system”, but it’s not a bad thing to follow that up by explaining why the system is broken and needs to be improved for those small market teams.

By refusing to acknowledge the unique problems that exist for small market teams, Nutting is tacitly supporting those problems in a public setting.

I talk about these problems often, and I get one of two responses from Pirates fans. I either hear that the Pirates are using this as an excuse, and that there’s no disadvantage for small market teams, or I get questions as to why the Pirates aren’t trying to change this issue in MLB.

The first comment comes from the “no excuses” crowd. Their minds are made up, regardless of what is said. Even though the Pirates don’t actually use the small market status as an excuse, they view any legitimate defense of the Pirates as some kind of spin. Those fans will probably never be convinced of anything, even if Nutting does speak out against the small market disadvantages.

The second comment comes from the “reasons” group. They’re open to explanations for the reasons behind certain issues — in this case, that small market teams are at a disadvantage. These people don’t need to be sold that there is a problem. They want to know what the small market teams are going to do about the proposed issue. Most of the time, the follow-up comment from this group is that Nutting doesn’t care to change the system, or frustration that he won’t speak out against it.

Nutting won’t win over the first group. But he could win over the second group. He could speak out against the issues that limit small market teams, and he could do it while sticking with the “we’re still going to try to compete under the current system, and we won’t let that hold us back” line. By refusing to speak out, he’s not winning points with either group. The first one doesn’t care, and the second one views this in a negative way.

Then there’s the payroll/attendance issue. It’s easy to see the correlation between payroll and attendance, especially in a year where the Pirates have slashed payroll to $72-75 M, all while stating that they intend to compete, and all while Nutting sidesteps the idea that this cut is linked to a massive decline in attendance.

The problem with the “no excuses” line here is that it raises a key question: what is the actual reason? The Pirates are spending $75 M this year. Why? Because attendance was down and made that cut necessary?

Nutting acknowledged that the attendance was down, but said they wouldn’t use that as an excuse. Okay, but the question remains unanswered. Why is the payroll down?

If you’re not going to make an excuse for why a problem exists, or list the reasons for the problem, then it raises doubts about the problem. In this case, if you’re not going to say why payroll is down, then it raises the question of whether it actually needs to be down.

Nutting is plagued in this city by the “Nutting is cheap” mantra. It doesn’t help him to say that they’re not going to make excuses for attendance being down, all while not acknowledging the reason for the lower payroll. If you’re not making excuses for attendance, then the payroll should be the same as it was when you were drawing 2.5 million fans ($100-110 M range). If it can’t be at that level, then you need a reason, or an excuse if you will, as to why it dropped. You can’t just say that you’re not going to make excuses, and then give no reason for the drop.

All of this leads to a big issue with the Pirates, especially surrounding Nutting: a lack of trust. Pirates fans don’t trust the team, and don’t trust Nutting. That’s driving some fans away for good, while driving others away until the team is good again.

It doesn’t help this trust issue to avoid talking about the problems. If you refuse to speak out against the problems that plague you and small market teams, then it just feeds into the narrative that you don’t actually care about winning. If you don’t give a reason for the payroll dropping so much, then it just opens the door for all of the theories about how Nutting is pocketing massive profits.

The Pirates could afford to be more honest with fans, even if that honesty reveals some of the parts of the game that most owners don’t touch. They don’t have the luxury right now of acting like every other team that marches in line with MLB’s broken system, and that gets away without revealing any of their financial information.

They need to start making excuses. Or, more fittingly, they need to start giving reasons why certain things are the way they are, and call out some of the reasons that need to be changed.

Right now this is a team on the rise, capable of winning more games than they did last year, and capable of contending for the playoffs. Yet as the team improves, attendance declines, and so does the fan perception of the team. Attendance was down all around baseball, but no one saw a bigger percentage drop than the Pirates. This is a problem, and it all stems from a perceived lack of honesty.

The Pirates don’t help that situation by refusing to be honest about the things that hold them back. They aren’t getting points for the blue-collar approach of “We’re just going to work hard and not complain about the issues that make this harder for us.” They are looking for ways to repair the relationship with the fans and to improve communication with the fans. The easy solution here would be honesty. Tell it like it is. Because the current approach of refusing to speak out about the issues is only making their problem worse.

Tim started Pirates Prospects in 2009 from his home in Virginia, which was 40 minutes from where Pedro Alvarez made his pro debut in Lynchburg. That year, the Lynchburg Hillcats won the Carolina League championship, and Pirates Prospects was born from Tim's reporting along the way. The site has grown over the years to include many more writers, and Tim has gone on to become a credentialed MLB reporter, producing Pirates Prospects each year, and will publish his 11th Prospect Guide this offseason. He has also served as the Pittsburgh Pirates correspondent for Baseball America since 2019. Behind the scenes, Tim is an avid music lover, and most of the money he gets paid to run this site goes to vinyl records.

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