Pirates look silly in spat over beer promotion

Jeff Passan
Yahoo Sports

He should've just gone in and bought a beer. All of this would've been squashed then and there, and Frank Coonelly knows that. He knows it because he's spent nearly four years trying to rescue the Pittsburgh Pirates from themselves, only for the same old [stuff] to pop up. He can't pluck dandelions fast enough.

Coonelly does not enjoy discussing this, not when he's trying to build a ballclub, but when a bar owner takes to local TV and radio stations and accuses the team president of bullying her, well, them's the breaks. Perhaps when the Pirates start winning consistently, things like this go away. Until then, Coonelly gets to spend his day emailing fans to promise he's not some monster.

View gallery

.
Frank Coonelly brought a no-nonsense reputation to Pittsburgh when he was named team president in 2007.
(AP)

This is two decades of bad baseball's refuse: mistrust, eagerness to indict, four-alarm blazes started by tinder. A bar owner who knocks the price of a pitcher of beer down a nickel every time the Pirates lose. Overeager lower-level Pirates employees who urge their friends not to patronize the place. Anger. Vitriol. Territoriality. Ultimately a conversation between Coonelly and the bar owner, Estelle Aversa, in which she says he tried to intimidate her, and in which he says she misjudged his tone.

Yes, a pint of Yuengling would've done the trick.

"Had I realized we'd still be talking about this," Coonelly admits, "it would've been a great option."

Instead of Charlie Morton(notes) pitching a five-hit shutout against first-place Cincinnati and lowering his ERA to eighth best in the National League and Andrew McCutchen(notes) hitting his eighth home run and Pedro Alvarez(notes) going yard, too, it's the fight between the bourgeoisie and proletariat. Instead of Jameson Taillon making hitters look silly in Class A and the Pirates figuring out who they're taking No. 1 in the draft next month and the team being one of just 10 in the league with better attendance this year than last, it's the guy in the nice suit vs. the woman running the family joint.

Forty-five years ago, George and Tina Floriani opened the Stroll Inn, the first restaurant and bar in Kennedy Township, Pa. They handed it to Estelle, and when her Yuengling distributor approached with the idea to knock a nickel off a pitcher every time the Pirates lost, she loved it. On the marquee outside the bar, she changed the sign to reflect the new promotion.

PIRATES LOSE, YOU WIN

The Pirates, of course, have lost more than any team since 1992 – 1,646 times in all. Were they to drop 105 games like they did last season, pitchers normally $6.75 would've cost about $2 by the end of the season. It wasn't a mean-spirited promotion, per se, but bars in the area would know better than to offer a similar one if the Steelers or Penguins fell on hard times.

Awful personnel moves and even worse ownership torpedoed the Pirates throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, and Coonelly was supposed to change that. He came from the corporate offices of Major League Baseball, where he established a no-nonsense reputation. Coonelly was, in plenty of ways, Bud Selig's enforcer. When teams were negotiating signing bonuses with draft picks, they ran the numbers through Coonelly's office, and he nudged those who tried to pay more than the recommended slot.

"Intimidating," one former colleague said. "Very smart, and very intimidating."

His arrival in Pittsburgh, and his hiring of Neal Huntington as general manager, signaled a drastic change for the Pirates, whose trail of mismanagement stretched to Latrobe. The Pirates started to spend money in the draft, Coonelly now happy to pay over slot. They took the slow-and-steady approach that accompanies all small-market success stories, and among McCutchen, Neil Walker(notes), Alvarez, Morton and Joel Hanrahan(notes), they at least have a core.

Before the six-game losing streak they snapped Wednesday night, the Pirates actually had a winning record. New manager Clint Hurdle infused them with something different than the milquetoast John Russell. The NL Central wasn't theirs for the taking necessarily, but just a sign – any sign – might at least help bring people back to PNC Park, maybe the most gorgeous stadium around.

View gallery

.
The Pirates have a gem of a stadium in PNC Park but their product hasn't been attractive to fans.
(Getty Images)

"A week ago, when we were a game over .500 and people were ecstatic," Coonelly said, "I wasn't dealing with any of these issues."

Such is life with the Pirates. Their financial documents get leaked to Deadspin. Tony Sanchez, one of their top prospects, sends out a stupid tweet about poor umpiring in the minor leagues and draws the ire of MLB. When you aren't winning, you're losing.

And it's why the Pirates, veterans of the absurd, never should have let it get to this point. The ticket-sales folks who sent out the emails shouldn't have such thin skin. It's one bar, one place, one silly promotion. And Connelly, too, should've known how this would look. In Pittsburgh, the ethos remains blue even where the collars don't. Those in ivory towers best not mess with those on a barstool.

"The working class fill those seats at the stadium," Aversa said.

Which Coonelly realizes, and it's why he wants to move past this, and all the other off-the-field nonsense, and focus on the Pirates in uniform. Rebuilding phases aren't supposed to last two decades. If Tampa Bay can lead the toughest division in baseball, and if Kansas City can call up a new difference maker every week, surely the Pirates can compete and contend. When they do, bars might knock a nickel off a pitcher for every Pirates win.

Not the Stroll Inn. Aversa remains angry with Coonelly – though, she noted, business had doubled since the story went public. With the marquee still empty Wednesday after the backlash prompted the bar to stop the promotion, Aversa told her husband to put up some new lettering.

THANKS, FRANK