PITTSBURGH -- Travis Williams has seen what the Pirates can mean to this city, how a professional sports team can inspire unbridled joy in Pittsburgh and how a raucous home crowd at PNC Park can affect the game on the field.
The Pirates’ new team president was in attendance for the 2013 National League Wild Card Game, after all, watching with his family along with all the other black-clad fans in the sold-out stands.
“Seeing what happened in 2013 and being among the fans chanting ‘Cue-to!’ leading to [Russell] Martin and [Marlon] Byrd’s ... homers, in my opinion, that was one of the top Pittsburgh sports moments,” Williams said. “I was happy to be part of it with my boys. Now, I’m happy to be part of the next chapter in the history of the Pirates.”
Williams was introduced to the local media during a series of interviews on Monday afternoon at PNC Park, and he will officially begin work in his new role overseeing the Pirates’ day-to-day operations on Friday. Williams, the Pittsburgh Penguins’ former chief operating officer succeeding former Pirates president Frank Coonelly, will play a large part in what chairman Bob Nutting has called “a refresh of our entire operations.”
“I think Travis is going to be great. He’s exactly what we need at the right time,” Nutting said. “He has a deep connection with Pittsburgh. He has a deep history of success in other organizations, driving culture, fan experience and winning. That’s exactly what we need to see, so I am confident that we have exactly the right person at the right time to move this organization forward.”
Most of Williams’ professional sports experience has come in the National Hockey League, though he described himself as a “big baseball fan.” He spent 11 years with the Penguins, primarily leading their business and arena operations. He spent the last 11 months as the president of business operations for the New York Islanders, only to wind up back in Pittsburgh.
“I’m glad to be coming home to my city, to my team,” Williams said. “For my family and I, [my wife] Nikki and my six kids, Pittsburgh’s home. Most people always boomerang back to Pittsburgh. I think we boomeranged a little quicker than we thought we would. But we’re happy to be back among family and friends. Glad to be back with the Pirates.”
Indeed, it is “back” in a way. Before joining the Penguins, Williams was a partner at Reed Smith LLP and served as outside counsel for the Kevin McClatchy-led Pirates. He continued in that role through the transition to Nutting’s ownership group then maintained a relationship with Nutting while working for the Penguins.
“When he called me to offer this opportunity I jumped at the chance. Not just to come back to a city and a team that I love, but based on his commitment, his passion for wanting to bring this team back to a winning tradition,” Williams said. “Quite honestly, if that wasn’t there, I wouldn’t have come back. I can tell you that I’m 100% confident that Bob is not only committed to it, but he’s willing to support it and make it happen.”
Williams’ work will begin immediately. He must find a new general manager after Nutting dismissed Neal Huntington on Monday. He must help that GM build a front-office staff and hire a manager who can turn around a 93-loss team in a challenging division. He must rebuild the trust that fans might have lost as the Pirates struggled through three losing seasons over the past four years.
“Our fans, at the end of the day, spend their time and their money coming to the game. More importantly, they spend with their hearts. They care,” Williams said. “It shows that they want this to be turned around. All they want to feel is they want to be heard. They want to know that we understand they care. They want to know that we’re going to treat them like family.”
What’s more, Williams must do all of that without much experience in a baseball front office as the official start of the offseason draws near.
“At the end of the day, I’m going to bring in great baseball minds around the table. We’re going to build on the great infrastructure that’s already in place, and we’re going to let baseball people make day-to-day baseball decisions,” Williams said. “Much like what we did at the Penguins, they’re going to have the benefit of my non-baseball-specific knowledge and more business/professional sports knowledge providing some oversight and some checks and balances, if you will, along the lines to make sure that we’re making good, sound decisions for the overall organization, maybe not emotionally around certain decisions that would be made.”
The Penguins have been a model organization in the NHL, winning back-to-back Stanley Cups in 2016-17, while also ranking among the top teams in gate receipts, sponsorship revenue, TV ratings and social media interaction. It’s not a perfect comparison, as the Penguins thrive in a salary-capped league, and Williams cautioned that the Pirates won’t re-establish a winning tradition overnight.
But Williams has seen what the Pirates can be, and he said Monday that he won’t accept anything less.
“Today, we turn the page. It’s a fresh start,” Williams said. “We’re going to go through a process. We’re going to develop a plan, a vision for us moving forward. I’ll look forward to leading that, being a part of it.”