Welcome to the Pittsburgh Pirates' clubhouse at Three Rivers
Stadium, a rarity among big league haunts because you'll find no
inflated egos, no competition among teammates (except when
they're clipping newspaper coupons) and no stereo system. "Can't
afford one," pitcher Jason Schmidt says. "They don't run the air
conditioning in here either. It was the same way in spring
training. In Florida!"
Even the most thrilling of victories, such as a 10-inning, 5-4
win over the Philadelphia Phillies last Friday, is celebrated in
silence that would please a librarian. Looking for the requisite
plush lounge or big-screen TV? You won't find those in here
either--not in a place that ranks below Wal-Mart in cachet
quotient. This is home to a team on which the highest-paid
active player at week's end pulled down $350,000 (chart, page
56) and on which, with the exception of journeyman Dale Sveum,
every player was in his 20s and hadn't played more than two full
seasons in the majors.
Are the Pirates a hungry team? Put it this way: If they could
hit National League pitching the way they do the postgame
buffet--the free clubhouse spread that enables them to pocket
their meal money--they'd be the '27 Yankees. The logo that
accompanies the team's Let's Go to Work marketing slogan is a
metal lunch box, though a better choice might have been a doggie
"On most teams guys will take a few bites and go home or go out
to eat," says outfielder Al Martin, who is sidelined with a
sprained right hand and, having come up to the majors in '92,
has the longest continuous service of any Pirate. "On this ball
club we have guys loading up two and three plates and then
wrapping some up for leftovers. I'm not kidding. You see guys
carrying food out of here."
If you're searching for an antidote to the privileged, corporate
coolness that permeates professional sports, you've come to the
right place. The entire Pittsburgh team makes less money than
Chicago White Sox outfielder Albert Belle--and has more fun
doing it. The Pirates are unspoiled, unknown and, thanks to a
budget without room for clubhouse amenities, unplugged. At
week's end they also happened to be unsurpassed in the National
League Central standings after playing 61 games, the first time
since Barry Bonds left town after the 1992 season that they've
held first place that far into a season. Talk about getting a
bang for your Bucs. What in the name of Bud Selig are the
small-market, low-revenue Pirates doing in first place?
Actually most of them are just trying to survive another day
without getting shipped to Triple A. "The guys in here live one
day at a time, trying to prove they belong," infielder Joe Randa
says. "I can honestly say the last thing on our minds is being
in first place."
Says Martin, "How can we worry about who we're leading or
chasing when a lot of guys here haven't even been to every
National League city? We've got guys who don't know what the
Astrodome looks like. Every time we go to a park, I get
questions like, 'Where's the bathroom?' and 'Where's the
trainer's room?' I feel like I've got a lot of little brothers
Of course, only in the National League Central, the losers'
bracket of major league baseball, could a team one game better
than .500 call itself a first-place outfit. The Pirates have
benefited from injuries to the St. Louis Cardinals and the
Cincinnati Reds, a 16-23 slide by the Houston Astros after a
14-8 beginning and the worst start in league history (0-14) by
the Chicago Cubs.
Even with those disclaimers, though, Pittsburgh is the most
unlikely No. 1 team since Milli Vanilli. The Pirates rank among
the three lowest-revenue-producing teams in baseball. Their
owner, Kevin McClatchy, inherited $20 million in debt when he
purchased the club on Feb. 14, 1996. It took him six months to
begin ordering general manager Cam Bonifay to cut the payroll
drastically. What was a $21 million payroll at the start of last
season had shrunk to $9 million on Opening Day this year.
Not only have the Pirates been outspent by their opponents this
year, but they have also been outscored, outhit and outpitched.
Moreover, they haven't had their starting centerfielder
(Jermaine Allensworth), leftfielder (Martin) and shortstop
(Kevin Elster), all of whom were injured within six days
beginning on May 16. What they do have is a shortstop nicknamed
Rocky (because he looks like Balboa), a solid rotation anchored
by two pitchers signed out of Mexican leagues, a knack for not
letting games slip away (28-1 when they have a lead or tie after
seven innings) and probably the only players' parking lot in
baseball that could be mistaken for the press lot. "Here you
don't have to feel like you're driving the crummiest car on the
team," says Schmidt, the owner of a Mitsubishi sport utility
vehicle. "It's kind of nice. In Atlanta, it can be intimidating
around all those Mercedes."
Amid the vehicles parked in the players' lot at Three Rivers
last weekend was a lone imported luxury car: a five-year-old BMW
bought used by one of the pitchers. This is a team whose NCAA
basketball tournament pool made bingo night at the local ladies'
auxiliary look like a game for high rollers. "In the past the
pot has been four digits," Martin says. "This was most
definitely three figures. We had a lot of guys thinking real
hard before putting in $25. They're thinking, Hey, that's two
Coupons are also treasured. Schmidt, who came up with the
Atlanta Braves two years ago, recently aced out some teammates
for a discount from a video store. "Rent two, get one free," he
says proudly. "When I grabbed it, I was thinking, I bet Greg
Maddux and Tom Glavine and those guys wouldn't even have noticed
"Look around this room," Martin says, gesturing at the uniforms
hanging on each locker. "Look at those names. You know what?
With the names on or off it doesn't make much of a difference to
most people--they still don't know us. But what's happening here
is like something out of a movie. It makes you step back and
realize what the game's about. It's a kid's game. Innocence,
that's what we have. It's awesome."
In one corner of the clubhouse, the movie-star looks and
storybook life of rookie shortstop Kevin Polcovich typify the
young Bucs. A 30th-round pick in the '92 draft, Polcovich wanted
to quit this spring when the Pirates didn't invite him to spring
training and then sent him to Double A. "I almost went back to
college," says Polcovich, 26, who is one semester short of a
degree in sports administration at Florida. "I was going to be
the first one in my family to get a degree."
The Pirates, though, persuaded him to report, explaining that
they wanted him to get experience at several infield positions.
They quickly promoted him to Triple A and then, after Elster
broke his wrist on May 16, to the majors. "I've always wanted to
be a big league shortstop," says Polcovich. "My hero was Bucky
Dent. One time I went to go see him at a dinner. I waited an
hour and a half to get his autograph. Then he took off through a
window." At week's end Polcovich was batting .314 with a 10-game
hitting streak and was being serenaded with polka music upon
every at bat in Three Rivers, much to the delight of his
Polish-born wife, Lisa.
Across the back wall of the clubhouse in another corner
locker--one that used to belong to Bonds and then to Orlando
Merced--resides reliever Ricardo Rincon (2-2, 2.67 ERA and four
saves through Sunday), one of the team's three Mexican-born
pitchers. His countrymen, Esteban Loaiza and Francisco Cordova,
have lockers on either side of him and were a combined 9-6 with
a 2.66 ERA at week's end.
Loaiza went undrafted as a high school catcher in Southern
California before converting to pitcher in a Mexican minor
league, where Pittsburgh discovered and signed him in '91.
Loaiza hit 95 mph on the Pirates' radar gun last Thursday in
beating St. Louis 9-3.
Cordova put together a 40-6 record over four seasons with the
Mexico City Red Devils before Pittsburgh signed him last year.
Since breaking into the Pirates' rotation last August, Cordova,
through Sunday, was 6-4 with a 2.93 ERA in 18 starts. His 1.99
ERA this season was better than all National League starters,
except Pedro Martinez's (1.45) of the Montreal Expos.
The clubhouse also includes Randa, the .308 hitter nicknamed the
Joker for his upturned mouth, which appears to give him a
perpetual grin; reliever Marc Wilkins, a 47th-round draft pick
known as the Vulture for racking up the first 5-0 start by a
Pirate in seven years (despite throwing only 30 innings); and
second baseman Tony Womack, the Pittsburgh Stealer who at week's
end had swiped 22 bases without being caught, the longest streak
by a Pirate in 21 years. Gone are 16 players from the 1996
Opening Day roster, including veterans Merced, Jay Bell, Danny
Darwin, Carlos Garcia, Charlie Hayes, Jeff King, Denny Neagle
and Dan Plesac, all of whom were traded in a five-month stretch
beginning last July. Pittsburgh also lost its manager, Jim
Leyland, who left for the glamour and cash of the Florida
Marlins rather than oversee what he figured would be a
lengthy--perhaps perpetual--rebuilding process.
"Over the winter I read stuff like how we'd lose at least 100
games and we'd have trouble beating a good minor league team,"
Martin says. "I know people in this town were a little anxious
about what we were doing. We got rid of eight established
players and got people they had no clue about. But this is the
perfect example of what a team is. It's not a bunch of guys
thinking, I hope I have a big year because I'll be a free agent.
It's more like, I hope I do good because I want to be here
"It's the best chemistry I've seen here," Martin adds, "and I
was here in '92 with a playoff team. I had veterans tell me
then, 'You better hit, man. You're taking money out of my
pocket.' It was so bad I didn't want to be in the big leagues
anymore. I remember thinking, Get me out of here. Bonds would
get on me constantly. He'd get on me for stretching the wrong
way. Now I get on [rookie outfielder] Jose Guillen all the time,
but I do it in a way to make him comfortable. Barry would get on
me to make me feel like a piece of junk."
These Pirates have a more stripped-down attitude to match their
decor. That includes Leyland's successor and friend, Gene
Lamont, who runs the team with a velvety style from a fittingly
bare-walled manager's office. His patience dovetails well with
the team's youthfulness.
Home games have a cozy, minor league feel, and not just because
of the team's roster full of unknowns and its sparse
season-ticket base (7,000). The average attendance this season,
16,373, was off by 706 from last year's final figure, but ticket
sales for future games are up. The Pirates scheduled 49
promotions over their 81 home dates. Every night the Parrot
mascot shoots hot dogs out of an air gun into the crowd, as if
the high-fat, high-sodium meat products weren't dangerous enough
before being turned into projectiles. The Pirates drew 25,664
for a 9-2 win over Philadelphia last Saturday night, when they
gave away alternate caps that feature red brims. (The official
color of the team's accounting books also happens to be new to
the uniform this year.)
"We took 38,000 orders for the regular black hats last year, and
this year we've taken over 100,000 orders for the new caps,"
says Steve Greenberg, vice president of marketing and public
relations. "In the past you could walk the streets of the city
for a week before you saw a Pirates cap. Now you can't walk
three feet without seeing one. The story of this team is the
The Pirates may be an easy underdog to root for--after all, they
do have a Rocky and an Adrian (Brown, a rookie outfielder)--but
are they a contender? "Let's wait until August before we even
think about that," Schmidt says.
If nothing else, these coupon-clipping, lunch-box-toting major
leaguers may turn out to be persuasive lobbyists. This week the
Pennsylvania legislature will consider placing a referendum on
the November ballot that could result in a 10-county sales-tax
increase to fund major development projects in the Pittsburgh
area, including a new home for the Pirates, which team officials
say is vital to keep the team in town. The ballpark would
include 38,000 seats, a two-tiered retro-style design and, in
the most audible announcement of the franchise's upward
mobility, the extravagance of music in the home team's clubhouse.
COLOR PHOTO: JOHN BIEVER One of two rookies starting in the Pirates outfield, Guillen spent all of the 1996 season playing Class A ball. [Jose Guillen sliding into base]
COLOR PHOTO: DAVID LIAM KYLE Rincon is one third of the Mexican connection. [Ricardo Rincon pitching]
COLOR PHOTO: JOHN BIEVER Womack has been an effective leadoff man, pacing the Pirates with 23 steals and 33 runs. [Tony Womack batting]
THE BENEFITS AREN'T BAD EITHER
At week's end the Pirates (31-30) had almost as many wins as the
Yankees (34-27), but there was a great disparity in cost to
their respective owners. If you add up the 1997 salaries of the
players that each team typically sends onto the field, you'll
get the picture.
YANKEES '97 Salary Pos. PIRATES '97 Salary
Tino Martinez $4,300,000 1B Mark Johnson $237,500
Luis Sojo 400,000 2B Tony Womack 160,000
Wade Boggs 2,000,000 3B Joe Randa 220,000
Derek Jeter 540,000 SS Kevin Polcovich 150,000
Paul O'Neill 5,450,000 OF Adrian Brown 150,000
Bernie Williams 5,250,000 OF Kevin Young 350,000
Mark Whiten 1,000,000 OF Jose Guillen 150,000
Joe Girardi 2,250,000 C Jason Kendall 235,000
David Cone 6,666,667 P Jon Lieber 335,000
Mariano Rivera 550,000 Closer Ricardo Rincon 150,000
Total $28,406,667 Total $2,137,500