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Kevin Gorman: Baseball’s bigger problem is not valuing superstars

Kevin Gorman
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Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Pirates chairman Bob Nutting talks with first baseman Josh Bell during practice at Pirate City in Bradenton, Fla.
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Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Pirates chairman Bob Nutting walks around the practice fields at Pirate City in Bradenton, Fla.

BRADENTON, Fla. — Baseball’s economic system is so broken that we already know the answers to our questions, which makes them loaded.

None were as loaded as this one, asked of Pirates owner Bob Nutting: Do you see yourself as a businessman who runs a baseball team or as a baseball fan who runs a business?

“My biggest challenge is that I have to do both,” Nutting said Feb. 22 at Pirate City. “You talk about the agonizing parts: If I put just a fan hat on, it will not be good to this baseball club. It’s happened to other organizations and has never had a good result.

“If I put a business hat on and take off the fan hat, we’re making a terrible mistake as an organization that we’re going to get disconnected, that we’re going to get cold and we can never allow that to happen, either.”

Pirates fans aren’t alone in believing that Nutting already is disconnected, especially after the team traded ace pitcher Gerrit Cole and five-time All-Star Andrew McCutchen in the offseason.

The clubhouse chorus of criticism from veteran players upon arrival to spring training was followed this past week by the MLB Players Association filing a grievance against the Pirates and three other teams for failing to comply with revenue-sharing expenditures.

Where Nutting can be accused of being a businessman who runs a baseball team, Tony Clark is the opposite — a former player who runs the business affairs of the MLBPA.

Clark didn’t take kindly to another loaded question, this one about whether the MLBPA foresaw owners exploiting loopholes or if the union feels a sense of culpability that the new collective bargaining agreement signed in December 2016 allowed for teams to manipulate the system for profit.

“Allow teams to take advantage of the free-agent market and the language inherent in this CBA and CBAs past? Allow them to take advantage of it in a way that calls into (question) the integrity of the entire system?” Clark asked, with a dismissive look.

“Yeah, we hadn’t necessarily anticipated that, to the extent that it’s playing out and the fashion that it is. We’re 15 months in, but we’re going to have to address that moving forward, assuming that what we’re seeing is the norm and not the exception.”

Where Clark was adamant the MLBPA wouldn’t have filed a grievance if it didn’t have legitimate concerns, the union must prove they are the norm and not the exception.

Clark advocated for neither a salary cap nor salary floor, yet questioned the competitive integrity of the four teams against which the MLBPA field the grievance.

Despite not signing a free agent to a major-league contract this offseason, the Pirates can make a case that Clark’s claims ring hollow after they added salary by trading for All-Star Corey Dickerson to fill the starting spot in the outfield vacated by the McCutchen trade.

What the Pirates, Marlins and Rays have in common is they traded away superstars, respectively, in McCutchen, Giancarlo Stanton and Evan Longoria.

That’s the greater issue in baseball. Teams no longer value their superstars. They are too focused on the bottom line, statistically and financially, and not enough on their value as faces of their franchises and cities.

That leads us to another loaded question: Will the Pirates ever have another superstar spend his entire career with the club?

The last to do so was Willie Stargell, and the Pirates will celebrate the 30th anniversary of his Hall of Fame induction this summer.

“There is a reality of Major League Baseball and I don’t think the Pirates are unique in players that don’t play for an entire lifetime or entire career with any one club,” Nutting said.

“Is there an appeal to that? Of course. That’s a beautiful thing. Does it happen often anywhere in Major League Baseball? I don’t think it’s a lack of Pirate commitment. It’s a systemic reality to that. Yes, absolutely we need to work as hard as we can to make sure that the system is advantageous to Pittsburgh as possible. Flat out, we need to do that. At the same token, we will not, have not, cannot allow the system to become even a glimmer of an excuse inside the organization. I’m never going to use it as an excuse.”

The economic system is always the excuse, one the MLBPA and the players it represents are no longer willing to accept at face value.

Would it help if Nutting made a goodwill gesture by signing budding stars Josh Bell and Jameson Taillon to long-term contract?

Not if they won’t sign.

The players are aware of the bottom line, too, and aren’t going to shortchange their earning power the way Cutch did by giving the Pirates another hometown discount only to be traded when he wasn’t outperforming it.

That’s a problem for baseball fans and businessmen alike, no matter which hat you wear.

Kevin Gorman is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at [email protected] or via Twitter @KGorman_Trib.

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