Monday, January 15 will not be a day that’s fondly remembered for the Pittsburgh Pirates organization after they traded outfielder Andrew McCutchen.
These past few days haven’t been a banner weekend for Pittsburgh sports fans. Not only did the Steelers get upset by the Jacksonville Jaguars in the NFL playoffs, but Pirates fans had to deal with the team trading away starting pitcher Gerrit Cole to the Houston Astros.
If that wasn’t enough, the Pirates continued to deal franchise cornerstones when they traded Andrew McCutchen to the San Francisco Giants. A rebuilding effort appears to be underway and fans are left with memories and wondering what type of legacy McCutchen leaves behind.
Many fans didn’t know what it was like to see good baseball being played by the Pirates. Some weren’t born when Barry Bonds and Andy Van Slyke patrolled the outfield. They didn’t get to see how Doug Drabek was the ace of a playoff team. When Sid Bream slid into home plate during the 1992 NLCS, nobody figured he would send the Pirates into 20 years of baseball hell.
The Pirates had long been an afterthought and a laughingstock in Major League Baseball before McCutchen arrived. They suffered through 20 consecutive losing seasons, many not even sniffing respectability. There were terrible trades (Aramis Ramirez), even worse draft picks (Daniel Moskos) and seemingly no hope on the horizon. One player more than any other would turn into the engine that returned the Pirates to baseball relevance. That player was Andrew McCutchen.
In Pittsburgh, McCutchen should always be held in higher regard than his career stats could ever convey. He will always be more than his slash line of .291/.379/.866. His 203 home runs and 725 RBI don’t quite give the man his due for what he did in a Pirates uniform. McCutchen carried the weight of the franchise on his shoulders. He certainly wasn’t the first player to do it and he’ll be far from the last. Still, very few franchise players have faced the task of resurrecting a franchise as far away from being any good like McCutchen did.
After his major league debut in 2009, it took the Pirates five seasons to break the streak of losing seasons and make the playoffs. During that span, McCutchen evolved from a rookie who had some promise to a player that carried the team. Indeed, 2013 saw the Pirates win 94 games and McCutchen capture the National League MVP award.
The Pirates defeated the Cincinnati Reds in the Wild Card game that will always be a unique event in Pittsburgh sports lore. It’s hard to explain how electric that park was that October night. The anguish of 20 years of losing was let loose that night and demons were exercised. McCutchen went 2-of-3 that night with two walks , giving those in PNC Park a reason to thank their hero.
Pittsburgh was never quite able to get over the hump and win a World Series with McCutchen. That will always remain as a failure, but it can’t be totally pinned on the player. Players like Gerrit Cole, second baseman Neil Walker, and starting pitcher A. J. Burnett also deserve plenty of credit for the Pirates turnaround. Even though general manager Neil Huntington takes plenty of flak, he and manager Clint Hurdle played a huge role as well. Baseball is a team game and more than any other sport, it’s hard for one player to take over a game. McCutchen was that player for the Pirates more often than not. There were many times that the Pirates went as he went.
Many Pittsburgh fans are upset with this trade. It’s easy to understand why. From a team standpoint, it can be argued this was the right move. McCutchen is entering his age-31 season and has seen some decline in his all-around game. His contract is up after the 2018 season and small market teams like the Pirates will never be in the business of handing out legacy contracts. That’s an unfortunate reality of baseball without a salary cap.
There will always be the haves and the have-nots. McCutchen always carried himself with class, even when he found out he had been traded.
Pittsburgh may have turned into a home for him, but to many fans he was family. He represented the end of the long and hard road they had to suffer through since 1992. He breathed life into a franchise that many had given up on. He is responsible for a new generation of fans who fell in love with the game because McCutchen was a Pirate.
There will be many fans that will wear his jersey with pride for years to come. During the best stretch of his career, fans could see McCutchen and his famous dreadlocks flying around the field in every way possible.
In the end, it’s hard to put into words what legacy McCutchen has in the city of Pittsburgh. Most franchises don’t have to go through that type of extended losing, and the fans that stuck through all those long summers view “Cutch” as one of the most important players to ever wear the black and gold. From prospect to MVP to a lesser version of himself, Andrew McCutchen is Pittsburgh Pirates baseball.
Perhaps the highest compliment that could be paid to him is he was an even better person off the field than he was on the field by all accounts. McCutchen may never play for the franchise again but he’ll always have a home in Pittsburgh.