Watching Andrew McCutchen Come Home

Andrew McCutchen’s homecoming was an emotional one. (via Ian D’Andrea)

Pittsburgh gets on its feet for him, and Andrew McCutchen listens with a little smile that feels almost private, even with 34,720 people roaring around him. It’s a heck of a moment. If you’ve felt anything for the Pittsburgh Pirates in the last decade, you likely fall somewhere between “choked up” and “weeping openly” as you watch McCutchen stand there, embodying everything you love about baseball and everything you hate about its economic realities.

Jameson Taillon does not get choked up. He goes right at McCutchen, ultimately freezing him on a pitch on the outside corner at the knees. McCutchen gets that wince-smile that means he wants to fight, and you remember how much of his last two years in Pittsburgh he spent fighting. Fighting himself, as his body committed a shocking act of betrayal in 2016; fighting the very idea that his struggles on the field were concerning; and, even as his game regained its familiar excellence, fighting with umpires. By June of 2016, the heat of a frustrating season began to boil over; he was ejected for arguing balls and strikes for the first time in his career.

And I wonder what we’ll remember about Andrew McCutchen in 20 years. How many of those increasingly embarrassing umpire tiffs will come to mind? Will anyone recall what some saw as his unseemly pride at regaining his old spot in center field when Starling Marte got suspended? The months Neal Huntington spent trying, and failing, to trade him ahead of 2017, so that by the time the deal came a year later, we had already imagined that day a hundred times over?

Maybe the official narrative will nod to “struggles” or, worse, “adversity,” that catch-all for anything from a sprained ankle to the death of a family member to criminal charges. Those words are wide open for interpretation, so vague you could hardly guess what really happened: that by the winter of 2016, the feeling around McCutchen had transitioned to wistful at best, sour at worst.

Many Pirates fans had long been resigned to the fact that McCutchen would be gone by 2018, but some seemed eager to see him go. Not much about the 2017 Pirates season felt good, but McCutchen becoming a respectable hitter again was a relief. But that relief brought with it a bitter conclusion. He seemed resigned to leaving, and of course his leaving was inevitable. He would be traded, and it would sting. At least the majority of the fan base wouldn’t be scrambling to slam the door behind him.

Does any of that really matter, though? McCutchen’s legacy was not written in 2017, or even in that incomprehensible 2016. By the time the Pirates went home in 2015, McCutchen already had the irrepressible combination of individual success and centrality to a playoff team needed to cement him as a franchise great. He’s likely to be remembered as one of the stars of his generation, especially if he remains a valuable contributor through his 30s.

In the blurbs on top-players-of-the-decade lists, hardly anyone’s graceless moments get mentioned – though neither do their delightful Tim Kurkjian impressions or their drawing abilities. Maybe, if they’re lucky, we remember their efforts to make baseball accessible to kids who can’t afford the expensive tournament circuit, their heartfelt commitment to reversing an insidious trend throughout youth sports.

Andrew McCutchen is an entire human being who played an entire nine years in Pittsburgh. What this means, with regard to his legacy, is that there are as many Andrew McCutchens as there are people who watched him. I have mine, you may have yours, your aunt Cindy in the North Hills has hers. It all depends on when you first saw him, which games you watched, whether you followed the 2016 offseason on Twitter or Pittsburgh sports radio or managed to avoid it entirely. It’s a function of where you came in and what else falls inside the frame where you place him.

That Friday night in the first inning, Taillon set McCutchen and his new side down in order. Then a Gregory Polanco double and a Marte home run put the Pirates up, 2-0. The two men meant to succeed McCutchen made a perfectly timed show of doing so; you could almost hear columnists typing frantically.

The Giants tied the game in the fourth, erasing Marte and Polanco from immediate narrative relevance. But it was not to last; the Pirates clobbered Andrew Suarez, taking the lead for good in the bottom of the inning. Later on, with his team down four runs, McCutchen doubled down the line, earning his fifth ovation of the night. The ovations diminished appropriately after that first one, but you got the sense that, had the game gone on, both teams would have run out of relief pitchers before the fans stopped acknowledging McCutchen entirely. We would be there in the eighteenth, Sean Rodriguez and Pablo Sandoval locked in a pitcher’s duel, and the fifty people left in PNC Park would rouse themselves to applaud at the sight of number 22.

I suspect my favorite Andrew McCutchen moment is a common one, maybe even the most common. It came on July 11, 2015, a date Google suggests once you type “pirates cardinals July” into the search bar. I was supposed to meet friends at a bar that night, and if the game hadn’t been such a circus from the start, I may have skipped out around the seventh inning. Thank goodness for A.J. Burnett, who – still seething after Mark Reynolds took him deep in the second, one pitch after cleanly whiffing on strike three and somehow passing it off as a foul ball – hit the fourth and final home run of his big-league career, off John Lackey.

The Pirates tied it, and the Cardinals pulled ahead, and the Pirates tied it again. My friends gathered at my house instead, so that when McCutchen came to the plate in the bottom of the fourteenth, with the Pirates down 5-4, we had a full living room. When McCutchen ended that game with a resounding blast, the only way a game like that could ever end, we all screamed so loudly that I had no idea what the announcers said until I watched and rewatched the highlight the next day. (“The Pittsburgh guy has such a great call, that ‘Raise the Jolly Roger,’” a Red Sox fan said to me the day after that game.)

I loved that game because it was bizarre and hilarious and ended, after much extra-inning consternation, in my team’s favor. It no longer felt like an arrival; the Pirates had reached the postseason the last two years by then. It was the kind of game that defines a rivalry between two teams at the height of their powers – the sort which, when the best player on either team hits a walk-off home run, becomes an instant classic. What it felt like was a pinnacle, and it must have been, because it hasn’t felt quite that way again since that weekend.

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

When you survey that game’s box score on now, it’s a bit disorienting. Because MLB’s new player headshots update in old boxes, it looks like you’re watching the All-Star Game, with fifteen different hats to a dugout. In the fifth, Chicago Cub Jason Heyward reaches on an error for St. Louis. In the fourteenth, New York Yankee Neil Walker singles for Pittsburgh to set up McCutchen’s two-run shot. The game was less than three years ago, but in the scoring summary, the only guys still wearing the right hats are Yadier Molina, Matt Carpenter, Jung Ho Kang, and I suppose Burnett, who wears a Pirates hat in my mental Hall of Fame.

The one-team superstar has gone the way of the complete game – not dead yet, but rarer every year – and so Giants fans will have their own Andrew McCutchens, too. Their McCutchen made an immediate impression (again in the 14th, again facing a bitter rival). He might walk after this season and play for four more teams before he’s done. He might retire a Giant and win the World Series he never got in Pittsburgh. Of course I want that to happen, because McCutchen deserves it, and I also absolutely do not, because there’s still an entire team in Pittsburgh, and everyone else is my second choice.

Ask me again in 2038, but I think a few things will define my version of McCutchen. Above all, that late night in July of 2015, and the slow, purposeful strut he made into his mob of waiting teammates at home plate. The PNC Park video board feature in 2010 where various players were asked to sing. McCutchen regaled us with The Four Tops’ “I Can’t Help Myself.” Perhaps unsurprisingly, the dude can sing, too. It seemed like he could do anything.

The Sports Illustrated cover story in 2013, which led all my friends in Boston – Red Sox and Mets and Orioles fans – to suddenly drop McCutchen’s name to me because there was, at last, a Pirate worth knowing. The displeasure he made clear upon his move to right field and how uncomfortable it was to watch. Uncomfortable in part because we loved the sunny, skinny kid we’d known, not this surly 30-year-old, but maybe also because we feared we’d be just as petty in his shoes. Because we were used to Andrew McCutchen being better than us. And the fact that after all that, the story he wanted to tell us all was still the good one, the one brimming with affection for Pittsburgh and the too-brief heyday he had there.

In his return to PNC Park as a San Francisco Giant, McCutchen went 1-for-5 with a double and two strikeouts. He winced at the first called strikeout, and some of the Pittsburgh fans even booed, but he walked away. In his last at-bat, he grounded out with the bases loaded. Every time he became the focus of the action, the crowd cheered and cheered while he stood there – sometimes allowing himself a little smile, sometimes tipping his cap with a straight face, thinking heaven only knows what. All of these things are true.

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Las Vegas Wildcards
5 years ago

Andrew McCutchen’s legacy in Pittsburgh is secure, any great player would have been frustrated by a season-long slump in 2016, or disagreed with a position change in 2017.
Fans understand players are under the microscope today, the 24/7 news cycle must be fed, one way or another. McCutchen will always be linked with the resurrection of a storied franchise, and did not ask to be traded.

This wasn’t a Barry Bonds situation, a surly player who was difficult to deal with inside the organization.

5 years ago

I don’t think any Pirates fan begrudges Cutch in any way, and further, I think many fans understood that it didn’t make much sense to commit to him long term. Dickerson’s performance so far has also really lessened the blow, and while it’s extremely early, Austin Meadows has impressed as well.

5 years ago

The opening photo appears to be in Philadelphia, despite the caption mentioning his homecoming 🙂

5 years ago

I am a die-hard Cubs fan, but I always liked McCutchen. One of my favorite memories of him is in a game at Wrigley Field in 2017 when Joe Maddon gave a rare at bat to relief pitcher, Pedro Strop. Strop got a first pitch fastball and he crushed a line drive to left center. McCutchen has to run full speed into the gap where he puts up his glove and snares the ball. The camera caught the look on his face. His eyes popped out and he kind of tilted his head as if to say: “You’re a relief pitcher, you’re not supposed to be able to do that.” It was priceless.

5 years ago

I was at the game as well- I’m 32 and a lifelong Pirates fan. I went to a majority of home games from 2009-2014. I saw McCutchen’s debut, his three HR game, and so many other moments, but what I’ll always remember is the moment in San Diego where he gave his batting gloves to the little boys in the stands. It was a perfect encapsulation of who he was a person- he seemed to genuinely enjoy playing the game, and in a city that was dying for a baseball rejuvenation, he was simply a perfect fit. I’ll always remember the good times and based on his statement that he and his wife are retiring here, I look forward to hopefully running into him someday.

Pirates Hurdles
5 years ago
Reply to  dcweber99

I was also there, my 2nd favorite game I ever saw at PNC Park, behind the 2013 WC game. People were just elated walking out after midnight chanting Lets Go Bucs! The next night they pulled off a comeback again to tighten the race at the AS break.