Q&A: Williams discusses ballpark, young core and more
BRADENTON, Fla. -- The last couple of seasons have provided a unique set of circumstances for Pirates team president Travis Williams to navigate through, but entering his fourth season with the club, Williams remains positive regarding the direction of the team.
“We’ve had a couple of headwinds between COVID-19 and the work stoppage, but that has not stopped us from making progress,” Williams said.
Prior to the Pirates’ 7-4 loss to the Red Sox on Thursday, Williams spoke to MLB.com about the fan experience at PNC Park, the future of PiratesFest and the state of the team.
The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
MLB.com: The Pirates announced their latest enhancements to the fan experience at PNC Park. What are your thoughts on the state of the ballpark?
Williams: When I came on board, one of the things that [owner] Bob [Nutting] and I spoke about was making sure we continue to evolve PNC Park. It’s already the best ballpark in America, in our minds. It’s a great place to start, but we know it’s 20-plus years old and that you need to continue to evolve.
We started last year with the outfield and the Riverwalk project, really improving that foul pole to foul pole experience, whether it was social gathering places, opening sight lines, improving the quality of foods and sprinkling in the history of Pirates baseball and baseball in Pittsburgh -- in particular the Negro Leagues. It was a really important project for us to put that stake in the ground and say, ‘Hey, we’re going to make sure that we continue to evolve this ballpark.’
This year has really been a continuation of that [thinking] with the main concourse and thinking through, ‘How do we improve the speed of service? How do we enhance the quality of foods? How do we really improve the flow and sight lines in and around the main concourse?’ Everything that we did with the main concourse project, starting with either creating walkthrough markets or walkthrough grab-and-go’s, those are really important. They all help alleviate the main concession stands, the belly-up counters and alleviate that pressure and allow people to go do something quickly on their own. Those are the types of things that we really focused on: The use of new concepts and the use of new technology and replacing a lot of the equipment in order to help with that speed of service and ultimately, the quality of the food offering as well.
MLB.com: What is the status of PiratesFest?
Williams: Obviously with COVID-19 and the work stoppage, we had two years where we couldn’t do any kind of interaction between our players and our fans. We acknowledged that going into this offseason, and really wanted to focus on our most loyal and dedicated fans, which are our season-ticket holders. We did events at restaurants or bars throughout the entire region where season-ticket holders who were from that area were invited in to participate in close interactions and hear and listen to a Q&A at those locations. They were met with rave reviews; our season-ticket holders loved it. Then, we ended it with the large signing that we had at the end of the year at PNC Park.
That was not intended to replace a PiratesFest, but it was intended to allow our season-ticket holders to have that interaction with players. We’ve heard, though, that general fans also enjoy that and we know that. So, we’re focused as we go into our planning for next season and starting to think about what does that look like in terms of PiratesFest? We certainly have the fan input in our heads as we’re going to be making those decisions.
MLB.com: When you were initially brought on board, you noted the importance of being patient, knowing that the Pirates were not going to turn things around overnight. What are your thoughts on the state of the ball club?
Williams: We’d be lying to you -- Bob, myself or [general manager] Ben [Cherington] -- if we said we were pleased with the results last year. The results weren’t what we wanted on the field. I think all three of us would tell you that we were very pleased with the progress we’re making behind the scenes, especially in the Minor Leagues. We’ve continued the development of our players throughout the system, both at the Minor League and Major League level. I think it really bubbles up to what we’re seeing this season. This offseason, I was extremely pleased with how we built our team, focusing on winning in ’23, but also making sure that we’re not doing anything to the detriment of ’24 and beyond and [continuing to] build that championship-caliber, playoff-caliber team.
So, you’ve got a really good young core of talent that’s come through our system that’s ready to play at the Major League level, but we surrounded [the young core] in those areas where we maybe don’t have that young talent up here quite yet. We’ve given some veterans some good opportunities to come in and surround that core and provide very, very good quality innings. Beyond what they can provide on the field, I think they’ve got a good veteran presence and I think that will be very helpful as you think about some of the young talent.
So, I’m pleased not only with what we’ve done in the offseason, but I’m pleased also with the excitement and the buzz that’s around that. I think our fans are excited with what we’re going to be coming up to Pittsburgh with to start the season.
MLB.com: What is your level of confidence with Cherington and manager Derek Shelton based on what they’ve done in their time here?
Williams: I’m extremely pleased with the job that Ben and his team have done in terms of the goals and objectives that Bob, myself and Ben set down early on when he got here and plotted out the vision for what we want to accomplish. We want to be a sustainable championship-caliber team. We want to be sniffing the playoffs on a regular basis -- and we should be. There is an opportunity to do that. There is a pathway to do that, even in a small market. So, we can’t use that as an excuse.
I think Ben and his team have been able to improve our farm system and the talent that we have in the system, as well as put the personnel around them to help development. We’ve focused heavily on making sure that development doesn’t stop at the Minor Leagues. You’ve seen a lot of progression at the Major League level, especially on the pitching side. I think you’ll see more of that on the hitting side now that [hitting coach] Andy [Haines] got a full year under his belt and he’s had a full offseason with us.
I think the staff that Shelton has put together [not only] complements his skillset by what the others bring to the table, [but they are also] able to deploy the talent that we have as it’s being developed, [which] is important. They’re all still learning and growing -- growing as managers, as coaches, as strategists. I’m extremely pleased at the fact of where we are today knowing the headwinds that we’ve faced, but at the same time, not using any of that as an excuse for the [win/loss] record because, as I said earlier, I think we were all disappointed that we didn’t have better results at the Major League level.