There was a playoff atmosphere at Southpointe Thursday night. And why not?
Frank Coonelly hit it out of the park.
The Pittsburgh Pirates president received the Southpointe CEO Association’s annual World Class CEO award at the Hilton Garden Inn, and during his address, he couldn’t help but invoke that gloriously wild wild-card game in October.
As a baseball executive, Coonelly had been to about 20 World Series, but said that clamorous multitude at PNC Park last fall, roaring its approval of the Pirates’ thumping of Cincinnati and Johnny Cue-to-o-o-o-o, “was THE most passionate sports crowd I’ve ever experienced.”
It may have been the most success-starved sports crowd, as well. The Pirates’ postseason surge followed two consecutive decades of losing.
“As great as that was,” Coonelly added, “I don’t suggest starving our fans for 20 years. Let’s go Bucs.”
He then strode from the microphone to a comparatively smaller, more subdued celebration from a well-dressed audience of about 65. But the applause was healthy, genuine and appreciative, followed by a line of well-wishers and autograph buffs.
Despite his Philadelphia roots, Coonelly, 54, was a hit. He, of course, has been at the forefront of the resurrection of a once-proud team, but he also was honored for spearheading the organization’s many community endeavors, including Pirates Charities and its Diversity Program.
The CEO award tends to go to a chief executive officer from Southpointe, but Coonelly, the 13th winner, was an easy exception.
“We look for someone who has had an impact on business in the region,” said Stephanie Urchick, executive director of the Southpointe CEO Association. “(Coonelly) revitalized the sport of baseball in Pittsburgh, and sport is business. When he revitalized the sport, he revitalized business.”
It wasn’t a quick, or easy, revitalization. Coonelly became Pirates president Sept. 13, 2007, after working as general counsel in the baseball commissioner’s office. Twelve days later, he hired Neal Huntington as general manager, and the two embarked on a quest that was Sisyphean. The team struggled through 2010.
“I knew Pittsburgh was a great sports town, and read and found out it was a great baseball town,” Coonelly said. “We figured if we build it, they will come.
“When Neal and I were selling snake oil to the fans (in those early years), there was no tangible evidence on the major-league level that we were building something.”
A developing Andrew McCutchen came to the majors in 2009, though; Neil Walker and Pedro Alvarez were showing promise; and the minor-league system was building up.
Late-season fades scuttled the Pirates in 2011 and 2012, but – finally – they were gaining a measure of respectability.
They broke through in 2013, winning 94 regular-season games and advancing to the 2013 National League Divisional Series, where they dropped the decisive Game 5 to St. Louis. Center fielder McCutchen was NL Most Valuable Player and Clint Hurdle league Manager of the Year.
Their home attendance, 2.26 million, was second in franchise history to 2.46 million in 2001, the inaugural year at PNC.
They are popular, and improved recent play – fueled largely by McCutchen and rookie standout Gregory Polanco – has lifted postseason aspirations among the fan base. Coonelly is convinced the attendance record will fall this year.
“We will draw at least 2.5 million,” he said. “People talk about a lost generation of fans, but they’re not lost. PNC Park is getting younger and younger.”
But as glorious as 2013 was for the Pirates on the field, Coonelly said, they were not the last team standing.
“We didn’t achieve our ultimate goal of winning a championship. We still have that as a goal.”