Kevin Gorman: Pirates fans will be heard at home opener
Pirates fans drove hours to Detroit for opening day because of baseball and their love for the game.
Eli Sertell was wearing the No. 22 jersey of his favorite player, even though Andrew McCutchen was traded by the Pirates to the San Francisco Giants in January.
“He cried when he heard the news,” Matt Sertell said of 9-year-old Eli, who elbowed his dad. “It's OK. I cried, too. I think all of Pittsburgh cried.”
The tears are dried, but some Pirates fans remain furious and have directed their invective toward Bob Nutting. An online petition for MLB to force the Pirates owner to sell collected 60,000 signatures.
Now comes the moment of truth: Will enough fans drive minutes to fill PNC Park for the Pirates' home opener Monday against the Twins?
Some view their attendance at what has been a sure-thing sellout for 14 consecutive years and 20 of the past 21 seasons as an opportunity for Pirates fans to send a message to ownership about their displeasure with the way the ballclub is run.
That's the conflict for this city's baseball fans, battling their love-hate relationship with the Pirates and Nutting.
Do they sit out the home opener, denying themselves a rite of spring to show their displeasure with the owner for reducing payroll by trading away their two best players after a 75-win season?
Which is greater, their love for a player or for team? The Pirates are banking on the latter, but McCutchen was beloved not just for being a five-time All-Star and NL MVP but because he helped bring winning baseball back after a 20-year drought.
Season-ticket holders Corey and Lindsay Grimm left their Green Tree home at 6 a.m. Friday to make it to Comerica Park for the first pitch, and they scoffed at the suggestion skipping the home opener was an option.
Jennifer Grab, a 33-year-old attorney and season-ticket holder from Brookline, was less enthusiastic about her hometown team.
“I'm more than happy to come to Detroit and spend money so the Ilitch family can get it,” Grab said of the Tigers owners. “When it was time to spend money, they spent. I'm a big baseball fan. I go to games to watch baseball. I go to see (Clayton) Kershaw pitch, (Cody) Bellinger hit and (Nolan) Arenado field. It seems like this team doesn't care. It's sad because we have a gorgeous ballpark.”
Nutting is banking on the Bucs being better than expected and believes the fans will be back in droves if and when they start winning.
“The most important piece of that is I personally, and we as an organization, appreciate and respect the passion of the fans,” Nutting said in February. “Understand the frustration and the anger, and just as greatly appreciate when the team is playing well, it's that same passion and commitment and engagement with the club that drove the excitement when the team was playing well.
“I really believe that commitment and passion plays on both sides. We embrace it collectively. I embrace it personally. What we need to do this year is to earn those fans' trust by performing on the field. We need to earn their support as we perform and as we go forward.”
The Pirates certainly have been exciting so far. They won a 5-hour, 27-minute marathon in 13 innings Friday in the opener, then enjoyed six innings of no-hit pitching by Trevor Williams on Sunday afternoon in a 1-0 victory in the first game of a doubleheader in Detroit.
Even so, good seats remain for the home opener and available tickets ranked as the sixth-cheapest among MLB teams, at an average of $63. But the Pirates' passive-aggressive blaming of the fans for sharp attendance dips the past two seasons is a bad look from an organization that can be tone-deaf.
Team president Frank Coonelly attempted to do some damage control in a statement to the Tribune-Review this past week, saying the Pirates are “enormously grateful for the tremendous support that we have received from our fans” while acknowledging the team is “working hard every day to attract new fans and win back fans who may have been with us in the past but are still undecided as we begin the season.”
It's up to fans to find their own conviction of whether they want to pay to watch the Pirates play at PNC Park or stage their own boycott to send a message to the club.
Baseball is back in the 'Burgh, with or without you.