PITTSBURGH (AP) — Pirates owner Bob Nutting declined to listen to separate proposals to buy the team last year, including a surprise bid from Pittsburgh Penguins co-owner Mario Lemieux, officials with knowledge of the talks told The Associated Press.
The officials spoke Saturday on condition of anonymity because the talks were private. The Pirates confirmed discussions with Lemieux and Penguins co-owner Ron Burkle took place, but said there was no talk about selling.
The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette first reported Saturday that Lemieux and Burkle made an unsolicited proposal for the Pirates four months ago — one that was substantial and serious, a person with knowledge of the offer told The Associated Press.
Previously, Nutting turned aside several sale overtures made by Pittsburgh lawyer Chuck Greenberg, who subsequently teamed with Nolan Ryan to purchase the Texas Rangers in a deal completed last week.
Several years ago, Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban also was rebuffed in efforts to buy the team.
Nutting gave all the interested parties the same answer: The Pirates aren't for sale, and the discussions apparently went no further.
"No formal, substantive offer had been made at a meeting four months ago with Bob and Mario and Ron Burkle," Pirates president Frank Coonelly said Saturday at the team's fan festival. "But what I can confirm for you is, at that time, today, tomorrow, next week, the Pirates are not for sale. Bob Nutting is committed to making this organization a winner again."
While the Pirates acknowledge they are profitable, they aren't successful. They lost 99 games last year during a major league-record 17th consecutive losing season, then raised fans' ire by trimming their payroll below that of the 1992 Pirates, the franchise's last team to make the playoffs.
The Pirates' projected $35 million payroll is only about half of the totals for NL Central rivals Cincinnati and Milwaukee, despite being in a similar-sized market, and is expected to be the lowest in the majors by at least $5 million.
That Nutting wouldn't consider a proposal from the popular Lemieux, a Pittsburgh sports icon who has revived the Penguins twice — once as a player and again as an owner — is likely to generate further fan unhappiness.
The fan unrest was evident Saturday when Coonelly, general manager Neal Huntington and manager John Russell heard boos at times during a fan festival question-and-answer session, especially when queried about the payroll. Most answers were met with only tepid applause, according to bystanders.
The Pirates have said the payroll won't increase substantially until top prospects reach the majors and adding higher-salaried players might make the difference in winning a championship.
All of those interested in the Pirates have lengthy backgrounds in pro sports.
Greenberg has been a successful minor league owner, and his teams included the Pirates' Double-A affiliate in Altoona, Pa., that was partially owned by Lemieux until being sold two years ago. Greenberg also was a finalist for the Pirates' presidency before Coonelly was hired in 2007.
Lemieux, the Hall of Fame player, bought the Penguins in federal bankruptcy court in 1999 — a year later, he came out of retirement became pro sports' first owner-player — and has since seen them become one of the NHL's most successful franchises.
Burkle, a California billionaire investor and supermarket operator who joined Lemieux's group in 1999 by making a $20 million investment, was interested previously in buying the Washington Nationals and Chicago Cubs.
"Mario and Ron are very smart business people. They've been very successful with the Penguins and have done a great job with them," Coonelly said. "What they see in the Pirates, I would think, is that they're interested in purchasing a team much like the Penguins earlier this decade: A team on the rise. A team that has a plan. A team that has financial stability."
Owning two of the Pittsburgh's three major pro sports teams might have allowed Lemieux and Burkle to launch their own TV sports channel. Because they would own the teams, Lemieux and Burkle could have kept all advertising revenues without paying expensive rights fees, once the teams' current rights deals with FSN Pittsburgh expired.
Lemieux and Burkle, according to people with knowledge of their interest, believe the Pirates could substantially hike attendance — recently among the lowest in the majors — with a more aggressive approach to player acquisition.
Nutting's family owns a Wheeling, W.Va.-based newspaper chain and first became involved in the Pirates' ownership group when California newspaper heir Kevin McClatchy bought the team in 1996. The Nuttings subsequently began to increase their shares by buying out partners of the once-large ownership group and now own a substantial portion of the shares.
Last season, Forbes estimated the Pirates' worth at $288 million, less than that of any team except the Florida Marlins, who currently play in an NFL stadium.
Penguins vice president Tom McMillan declined Saturday to confirm Lemieux's interest in the Pirates, saying, "The Penguins don't discuss private business matters."