A sign should be hung above the entrances at PNC Park: “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.”
Because it’s going to get worse before it gets better.
With attendance down 28 percent since last season and 44 percent since the Pirates won 98 games in 2015, a Pirates fire sale before the July 31 MLB trade deadline seems very likely.
Those reportedly being shopped include four starters — catcher Francisco Cervelli, outfielder Corey Dickerson, infielder Josh Harrison, shortstop Jordy Mercer — as well as backup infielder David Freese.
This isn’t about getting something for a free agent before he bolts for free. Only Dickerson and Mercer are out of contract at season’s end, with Dickerson still due one more year of arbitration. Cervelli and Freese will be free agents after the 2019 season, Harrison in 2020.
No, this is about chopping payroll drastically by way of avenging the dip in attendance. Like GM Neal Huntington recently implied, if more tickets aren’t sold, the roster will be weakened, and it will be the fans’ fault.
(What Huntington actually said was that the Pirates will add at the deadline if more tickets get sold. But Huntington knows what’s really going to happen, and so do you. Read between the lines. It’s not difficult.)
But why stop there?
With the Pirates under .500 and attendance swooning, it’s easy to imagine owner Bob Nutting indulging his insatiable greed and slashing expenses to the bone Chicago White Sox-style. Grind out profit by any means necessary. This year’s .474 winning percentage might ultimately be a relatively pleasant memory.
Any excuse made wouldn’t matter. The company line used to be believed, but not any more.
Remember when Neil Walker got traded to the New York Mets for Jon Niese following the 2015 season? When the Pirates began 2016 with Niese, Juan Nicasio and Ryan Vogelsong in a starting rotation that had included A.J. Burnett, J.A. Happ and Charlie Morton in 2015? When eight key components from a 98-win team were gone by the subsequent trade deadline?
Too many of you thought all that made sense. You believed in the “best management team in baseball.”
Since, it’s become obvious that what the Pirates say is always self-serving horse manure. That everything is executed in the name of profit.
Nutting’s avarice knows no boundaries. He hit a new level of shameless when the Pirates sent a letter to the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board asking for a cut of tax revenue from legalized sports gambling.
Precedent dictates otherwise. The Pirates have no logical claim.
But if there’s free money to be had, Nutting’s hand will be out. The Pirates are worth $1.2 billion and made $86 million profit between 2017 and ’16. But why pay for the “maintenance and capital upkeep of PNC Park” when somebody else might be conned into doing it?
The Pirates get revenue sharing, TV money and cash from MLB’s tech sale. They enjoy a crazy number of revenue streams. Not much of it is truly earned. Most comes Nutting’s way simply because he owns a big league baseball team.
But all Nutting ever wants is more. How much is enough? The level of his rapacity is equal parts distasteful and incredible.
It might be a bit before ticket sales regenerate to the level of 2015, if ever.
The Pirates have lost a certain type of fan. Those who love the ballpark still go. Those indulging a family experience still go.
But those who want to win have stopped going, or go less. Those who sweat the result have had their pride and common sense nailed to the cross far too often. Those who live vicariously through the Pirates have been beaten down. It’s too frustrating. You feel stupid.
You feel cheated and conned, because you have been.
As mentioned, it’s going to get worse before it gets better. It’s probably going to get a lot worse.
The Pirates’ lease at PNC Park expires in 2030. Everything about Nutting suggests he will consider all options.
In Dante’s “Inferno,” there are nine circles of Hell.
PNC Park may yet be the 10th. Every game Sean Rodriguez and his .145 batting average are in the starting lineup, anyway.
Mark Madden hosts a radio show 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WXDX-FM (105.9).