Angels In The Outfield For The Pirates

You'd think it was Mudville on the Monongahela. As the Pittsburgh Pirates tumbled deeper into the cellar, fans deserted. By September, cavernous Three Rivers Stadium was so empty you could hear the umpires shout and the players swear.

The corporate owners, who had saved the team for the city a decade earlier, grumbled about losses and looked to sell. But talk about onerous conditions: They wanted $85 million and a pledge from any new owner to keep the team in small, baseball-weary Pittsburgh. A few would-be buyers trooped to town but came up short on financing. Baseball's future in Pittsburgh looked grim.

Enter Kevin McClatchy, a 32-year-old newspaper heir and sports fan from Sacramento, Calif. Fifteen years earlier, he had spent Thanksgiving in Pittsburgh with his prep school roommate, Dan Rooney Jr., whose family owned the Steelers football team. Now, on his first return visit, McClatchy brought $10 million--half his fortune--and the Rooney connection. From that slim start, he had to build a team of investors to back a bid for the Pirates. The owners--including such Pittsburgh corporate giants as USX Corp. and Aluminum Co. of America--weren't impressed. They gave him two weeks.

In 14 hectic days, McClatchy saved major-league ball in Pittsburgh. Racing around town, selling his vision for baseball to the city's monied class, he put together $85 million. By Thanksgiving, he was back in Sacramento to sell his house. A final O.K. of his bid from Major League Baseball comes in January.

NEW PARK? When McClatchy hit town, he needed political support fast. So after he finished checking into his hotel, he crossed Grant Street to see Mayor Tom Murphy. For the mayor, McClatchy was the last chance to hang on to the 109-year-old franchise and avoid being known as the mayor who lost the Pirates. McClatchy, in turn, needed help from City Hall. "For the Pirates to be financially viable," he says, "you have to have a new stadium, like Cleveland's or Baltimore's," with hundreds of lucrative corporate skyboxes.

When the stocky, six-foot-tall McClatchy started negotiating, Pittsburghers had reason to doubt his allegiance to the Steel City. A year earlier, he lost a bid for the Oakland A's, partly because of suspicion that he planned to move the team to Sacramento. But in a 48-hour marathon session, McClatchy convinced Murphy that he planned to stay put. Murphy promised McClatchy $9 million in concessions at Three Rivers Stadium and committed the debt-ridden city to a new stadium.

Working from a spare office in a local law firm, McClatchy started courting investors. He began with his host--Reed, Smith, Shaw, & McClay--which he coaxed into kicking in $1 million. With help from the Rooneys, he landed Miami Dolphins quarterback Dan Marino, a Pitt alumnus, for a million. Chip Ganassi, who owns a car-racing team, signed up for twice that. McClatchy persuaded Integra Bank to finance up to $45 million, and he managed to entice a number of current owners, including Westinghouse Electric, Mellon, and PNC banks, to keep their stakes. "He seemed like a young man who was in earnest," says investor Eugene Litman, who has agreed to keep his $1 million stake.

Even with such support, McClatchy was short of pledges as the deadline approached. His big hope was to land H.J. Heinz Co. Chairman Anthony J.F. O'Reilly. A month earlier, during a weekend at O'Reilly's castle in Ireland, Murphy had given his host an earful about the importance of baseball to Pittsburgh. But O'Reilly appeared unmoved. "After 20-some years in the United States, I still don't understand what a double play is," he declared.

McClatchy, however, had a special connection. O'Reilly, who owns several newspapers, knew McClatchy's father, C.K., and recalled a warm conversation with him in 1989, just days before the publisher died of a heart attack. "He was immensely charming," O'Reilly recalls. "And when his son came...Well, apples don't fall far from the tree." O'Reilly pitched in $4 million from Heinz and $1 million of his own. Others followed, and McClatchy had his $85 million before the time ran out. The next day, he and Murphy were posing happily next to a statue of Roberto Clemente, and the mayor was calling the young Californian "a Pittsburgh hero."

Owning a big-league team fulfills a dream McClatchy has had since his days at Trinity-Pawling School in Pawling, N.Y., where he played wide receiver and caught passes from Rooney. He went on to the University of California at Santa Barbara, where he majored in political science and played defensive back. He could have gone straight into the family business, which includes the Sacramento, Fresno, and Modesto Bees. Instead, he worked elsewhere, in newspapers, advertising, and TV. "It was important to get away to gauge my true performance," he says. After his father died, he joined the ad staff of the Sacramento Bee. But he kept thinking sports. Last year, he bought a single-A minor-league team in Modesto and applied for a triple-A team for Sacramento.

NO TEARS. Now, he stands to be the youngest owner in the majors--younger than several Pirate players. But he has little time to celebrate. He got the Pirates cheap for a reason: The club lost $16 million last year. And Pittsburgh is at heart a football town, even when the Pirates are winning. Current owners say they could have fetched twice the price by selling the team out of town. While McClatchy intends to follow Cleveland's successful model, centered on good farm teams and the prospect of a new park, he has far to go: Unlike Cleveland, there's little sign of a slugger like Albert Belle or a gazelle like Kenny Lofton in Pittsburgh's pipeline.

But don't cry for Kevin McClatchy. His deal includes an escape clause that allows him to move the Pirates if he loses $15 million in three years and financing for the new stadium is not in line. Right now, though, McClatchy insists that relocating is the furthest thing from his mind. Already, he's planning splashy promotions, hoping to lift attendance from last year's 900,000 to 1.4 million. And he's searching the free-agent market for a power hitter. He's so busy with baseball, he isn't even sure where he has rented a house. "I think," he says, "it's some place called Point...Breeze?" To Pittsburgh's beleaguered fans, that uncertainty suggests an owner who has his priorities straight.

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