The steel mills may be near death, but a new kind of darkness covers the skies of Western Pennsylvania. The demons of sports in America have gathered here all at once.
In the city where Harry Greb and Billy Conn became pug champions around the time of the first and second world wars and where Bill Mazeroski hit his homer in 1960 and where Franco Harris made his Immaculate Reception in 1972, sports observers are wondering what, in the name of Honus Wagner, is going on.
Even Art Rooney Sr., the 84-year-old chairman of the board of the Pittsburgh Steelers who played minor league ball against Wagner, says he has never seen the city's sports industry in such a depressed state. "With the mills closing, the population of the city decreasing," Rooney says, "I'm alarmed about the future of the whole city."
The owners of three of the city's four professional teams -- the baseball Pirates, the hockey Penguins and the soccer Spirit, all last-place teams -- have said that their clubs might be sold and/or relocated. The Pirates' owners have said they might file for bankruptcy. The fourth professional team, the revered Steelers, is suing the city over what the Steelers feel is a violation of their lease with the city-owned Three Rivers Stadium.
The headlines in the local papers holler about four Duquesne basketball players being charged with rape. Although they later were cleared of the charges, two were expelled from school and had their athletic scholarships revoked and two others were suspended from the team for engaging in "physical abuse and lewd behavior."
And, oh yeah, there's the matter of that drug probe in which seven men, six from Pittsburgh, have been indicted in an investigation of alleged cocaine sales involving major league baseball players. At least a dozen major league players were questioned by the federal grand jury, after receiving immunity from prosecution. Trials are scheduled to start in July and players may be called to testify.
The Pirates have taken the brunt of the drug investigation. Three of the major league players questioned were Pirates (pitchers Rod Scurry and Al Holland, outfielder Lee Mazzilli) and two were former Pirates (the Orioles' Lee Lacy, the Yankees' Dale Berra). One defendant, Dale M. Schiffman, is accused of selling cocaine on each of the 79 days that the Pirates played at home in 1983.
"Sure we had guys involved," says Pirates Manager Chuck Tanner, who calls this "the most difficult year I've ever had as a manager." Still, Tanner adds, "But a lot of other teams had guys involved, too."
"In other cities, people think all 25 of us are involved. People are screaming things like 'last-place drug addicts' and, 'We know what you guys are doing after the games!' " says third baseman Bill Madlock, the Pirates' player representative.
"In San Diego once, we got off the plane at 1 a.m. and there was a TV crew filming us. Then we go to the hotel and, if you can believe it, there was another camera crew there when we got off the bus. I wanted to put my hands up and hide my face like the guys who wear handcuffs and don't want to be seen on TV, but I guess some other people might not have thought it was funny."
"Pittsburgh is by no means unique with these problems," Mayor Richard Caliguiri says in his downtown office. "Seattle has had problems with their lease. Philadelphia almost lost its football team. Baltimore did lose its football team. Three-quarters of major league baseball teams are losing money. Pittsburgh is just being highlighted because this all happened at the same time."
Some people now are wondering aloud if Pittsburgh is even a good sports town, only six years after that magical 1979. That's when the Steelers won their fourth Super Bowl title, when the Pirates' wives danced on the dugout to Sister Sledge's "We Are Family" during their World Series triumph over the Baltimore Orioles, when the University of Pittsburgh football team finished 11-1 and when a Pittsburgh monsignor stopped his Sunday sermon to ask his congregation to pause and applaud linebacker Jack Ham, who just happened to be sitting in the church.
Ham, now working for Neville Coal Sales, says, "1979 gave the whole city a reason to puff their chests out a little farther." And Stargell says, "We had a feeling in this city back then that we could do anything. You know, the city of champions."
Many sports officials in Pittsburgh today feel that the problem of shrinking revenues and attendance totals are caused, in part, by the city's struggling economy. The problem is compounded, they say, by a declining population (less than 500,000 within the city) and tightening strings on the entertainment dollar. Some officials feel these problems are common today in mid-sized cities struggling to keep pace with the massive television revenues and fans available in the bigger major league markets.
"Because of the nature of pro sports today," says Paul Martha, vice president/general counsel of the Spirit and the Penguins, "you see a trend of player costs and all costs exceeding gross revenue. If a city like Pittsburgh wants sports, it must figure a way to support it or endow it, like the ballet or symphony. How? Through things like rent relief or tax abatement from the city and county. Ultimately, I think you'll see things like the salary cap in the NFL and in baseball that you have now in the NBA. But the city and county must support the sports franchises in a city like Pittsburgh as well as Joe Fan."
The fact that victories have come so infrequently recently in Pittsburgh hasn't helped. Only the Steelers -- who finished about 500 Dan Marino passing yards short of the Super Bowl last year -- have escaped last place. No wonder the Steelers have stopped their season ticket level at between 52,000-53,000 and have a season-ticket waiting list of 8,000 people, according to team president Dan Rooney.
But the Pirates' troubles could affect the Steelers. As Art Rooney Sr. says, "If we lose this baseball club, I don't know what would happen to us. I doubt they could keep this stadium up for us."
Marvin Fein, deputy city solicitor, says the loss of the Pirates would mean the loss of $1 million to $1.5 million in direct revenue to the stadium each year.
"But given what the Steelers mean to this community, the demise of the Pirates would not mean the demise of the Steelers. It would just mean that the city would have to pay a lot for 10 games a year," Fein says.
The Pirates have been in last place for virtually the past year and a half. Two years ago, the Pirates parted with outfielder Dave Parker, infielder Richie Hebner and outfielder Mike Easler, and now the team doesn't hit many home runs.
"Right there with those three, you're talking about maybe 50 home runs and 200 RBI," Madlock says, aware that last year the Pirates became the first team to lead the league in earned run average and still finish last.
The Pirates have been criticized for criticizing each other for a lack of hustle this year ("That's the worst thing that we ever did," Madlock says). The attendance last year was less than 775,000 (second-worst in baseball) and is running behind that pace this year.
Willie Stargell, the former Pirates star who is now a team coach, says, "A lot of people are saying that the Pirates have a lot of players making a lot of money. It doesn't rest well with the guy sitting at home with his family of four and his unemployment check."
Joe L. Brown, the interim general manager, says, "It has almost become fashionable in Pittsburgh not to support the Pirates . . . To be critical of the Rooneys in this town is a sin. To be critical of the Galbreaths is commonplace."
To categorically examine sports in Pittsburgh today is to revive a characterization made more than a century ago by a gentleman named James Parton, who described Pittsburgh as "hell with the lid taken off."
The Galbreath family, which owns a majority interest in the Pirates, has given the lone local group attempting to buy the team one more month to make a qualified offer. Meanwhile, team president Dan Galbreath has mentioned filing for baseball bankruptcy as one possible way to escape from a lease that commits the Pirates to Three Rivers Stadium through the 2010 season and, at the same time, frightens off out-of-town buyers who would pay big bucks to buy the team and try to move it.
"We haven't told anybody we will go bankrupt," says Doug McCormick, Pirates treasurer. "It's an option we've had for many years. It's an option that our shareholders might have to consider."
"We have never said that we wanted to break the lease with the stadium," says Brown. "It's just not our wish to get backed into a corner where (local) people can get this team for a ridiculous price."
Fein, the deputy city solicitor, counters by saying, "If the Pirates go into (financial) reorganization, the city will become their No. 1 creditor. They think they could get a lot more money from the sale of the team (if they escape the lease), but (the city) could buy the team then at a distressed price."
Asked if a bankruptcy judge would have the power to break the Pirates' lease, Fein said, "I don't think it's in the best interests of Mr. Galbreath, Warner Communications (which owns 48 percent of the Pirates) or major league baseball to allow one of the game's oldest franchises to be auctioned off by a judge."
There have been plenty of out-of-town interests talking about trying to purchase the Pirates despite the lease problems. One of them, Redskins owner Jack Kent Cooke, who has been trying to bring a baseball team to Washington, has indicated he would not try to break the lease.
At a news conference this week in the U.S. Steel building to announce that a group of potential Pirates buyers does exist in Pittsburgh (led by Douglas Danforth, chairman of Westinghouse Electric Corp.), attorney Carl Barger, the group spokesman, said, "We cannot continue to bleed forever, not at the rate the Pirates are losing money. There has to come a time when, if the fan support is not there, then maybe Pittsburgh is not a big-league community.
"It's tough to get people to invest in a club that could lose up to $9 million (this season). This could well be a football city and not a baseball city . . . We're not sure of anything. We're dealing in a different sports economic situation today. We're not dealing with the salaries that Paul Waner made."
The clouds get dark. Edward DeBartolo Sr., owner of the Spirit and Penguins, has set a July 15 deadline for several demands to be met. He wants to increase season-ticket sales to 10,000 for each team (the Penguins had 4,200 last year, the Spirit had 1,800) and he wants tax relief, primarily the abolishment of the state's 10 percent amusement tax. Martha, the general counsel of both teams, says DeBartolo has lost nearly $25 million with these two teams.
"Basically, (DeBartolo's) question is, 'Can Pittsburgh support these franchises?' " Martha says, aware that it is unlikely the 10,000 mark will be reached in either case. "'Is the disposable income still here?'"
And the clouds get darker. The Steelers filed suit against the city because they feel that, by allowing the now defunct Pittsburgh Maulers of the U.S. Football League to play at Three Rivers last year, their football exclusivity clause was violated.
"We're not seeking damages," says Dan Rooney. "We're seeking a clarification of where we stand. We want to know what is going to happen if another football team comes along in five years."
The Pirates have also joined in the suit as an "interested third party." McCormick says that since the Maulers played in the spring, the Pirates were equally affected by the Maulers' presence. Some say the Pirates are trying any way possible to break their lease. McCormick says that's not true, adding, "This is more a legal issue than a real issue."
And the clouds grow darkest. Most ominously, the drug trials begin in July. "It's over. That's history as far as we're concerned," says Brown. But how can it be when, later that night, the Pirates announced that Scurry -- not implicated in the trials but who admitted a cocaine dependence in April 1984 and spent 28 days in a rehabilitation center -- had been suspended for missing a game and for failure to follow his "after-care program."
This city is in transition. High technology has brought white-collar workers in to replace so many third-generation steelworkers. The Duquesne Works laid off 3,200 steelworkers last May. LTV Steel Corp. banked the fire at its last coke battery at the Aliquippa Works last week and will slice a payroll that reached 10,000 in 1981 down to 700 by August. On April 15, Wheeling-Pittsburgh Steel, the nation's seventh-largest steel producer, filed for bankruptcy and now 8,500 more steelworkers sit on the brink of who knows what.
Russ Gibbons, a spokesman for the United Steelworkers Union in Pittsburgh, said this week that there are 50,000 steelworkers in Western Pennsylvania still paying dues and another 50,000 who have been laid off.
"The steelworkers are either out scrounging or they've left town," says Rich Vallecorsa, president of the USW Local 1211, "or they are in the bars."
The faces of the athletes have changed in Pittsburgh, too, for who are the heroes still playing today? Jack Lambert's busted toe hasn't healed a year later and he seems about to retire. Mean Joe Greene, L.C. Greenwood, Terry Bradshaw, Stargell and Roberto Clemente have been lapped by the 1980s. A new generation has arrived with catcher Tony Pena, wide receiver Louis Lipps, linebacker Mike Merriweather and the Penguins' 19-year-old Canadian scoring savant, Mario Lemiuex.
Through it all the mayor tries to steady the teetering sports ship. "Pittsburghers don't give up," Caliguiri says. "Pittsburgh will stabilize itself with major league sports in the near future."
Madlock got to the crux of Pittsburgh's current troubles with sports when he said, "It would be a tragedy if all three teams left. The Steelers would be the only professional team in town and they only play eight home games a year."