Stealing Hope

Andrew McCutchen is the Pirates’ newest last great hope.

The savior of the Pittsburgh Pirates is huddled over a television monitor at the foot of his locker. Wearing giant headphones, he has tuned out the commotion of the clubhouse—teammates playing cards, watching SportsCenter and wisecracking before the morning warm-up. The man some fans compare with the late Pirates legend Roberto Clemente is in a state of intense concentration, staring hard at the flickering screen as if it’s a trigonometry test.

Andrew McCutchen is not watching game film or scouting opponents. He finished that homework hours before when he first arrived at PNC Park. He is doing what nearly every other 23-year-old does to pass the time—playing the video game Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 on Xbox.

“This is my pre-game routine,” McCutchen explains. “This is what I do to relax and get in the right frame of mind.” The center fielder’s reflexes on the sticks are nearly as impressive as his preposterous agility on the diamond, where he stole 22 bases last season in only 108 games, good for 15th in the National League.

Yet despite winning the Baseball America Rookie of the Year Award and shouldering the hopes of thousands of downtrodden Pirates fans, McCutchen is still a kid. He thinks the savior talk is nonsense. “That’s the Lord’s work,” he smiles.

The one teammates call “Cutch” is a quiet soul who nearly speaks in a whisper. Watch him round the bases, kicking up a Tasmanian dust cloud, and it’s easy to conjure memories of Clemente’s furious grace, his symmetrical poetry in motion. McCutchen, like Clemente, doesn’t run in the shambling, violent way mortals do. He floats.

Growing up in Fort Meade, Fla., a small, swampy town with one red light, McCutchen wasn’t very familiar with Clemente. Truth be told, he wasn’t even a huge baseball fan as a kid. He had no sports idols or posters on the wall. His only hero was his father, Lorenzo, a youth minister and former running back for Carson-Newman College in Tennessee. “My parents taught me morals and about life—especially not taking anything for granted,” says McCutchen, who sung in the church choir while in high school and often signs autographs with Bible verses.

Those lessons would serve McCutchen well during his sophomore season at Fort Meade High School when he blew out two ligaments in his knee, ending his baseball season and shattering his major-league dreams. “I wasn’t betting on making a living off of baseball. My injury showed me that the dream can be taken away that quickly,” he says.

Fortunately, the undersized, small-town slugger returned from his injury stronger than ever, posting an incredible .703 batting average during his senior season in 2004. His gaudy numbers, blinding speed and good grades earned him a scholarship to the University of Florida, but after being selected by the Pirates in the first round of the 2005 draft, McCutchen faced a dilemma: He could go to college and re-enter the draft after graduation, or he could join the club where so many bright prospects before him have wilted into obscurity.

Thankfully for Pittsburgh, McCutchen has little regard for history. He signed with the Pirates with two simple goals: “Win a roster spot and win ball games.”

Because he’s now knee-deep in his first full season in the big leagues, reporters love to ask him about Game 7 of the 1992 National League Championship Series—the ill-fated loss to the Atlanta Braves that sent the Pirates franchise into a 17-year tailspin. McCutchen just smiles. When Atlanta’s Sid Bream slid into home plate in the bottom of the ninth inning, breaking the hearts of Pirates Nation, McCutchen wasn’t watching. He was six.

“That past is not our past,” he says of the team’s storied mediocrity. “We’re just focused on the next game, on fighting and turning some heads.”

Watching McCutchen rag on teammate Lastings Milledge for the virtual beating he just gave him on the Xbox, there’s a fleeting feeling Pirates fans have been afraid to acknowledge for the past decade: Hope.

Forget the potential. Forget “up-side,” prospects, five-year plans and all the marketing buzzwords that make weatherworn Pirates fans groan. Maybe the future really is here. Maybe the secret to changing the culture at PNC Park is to substitute videotape sessions for video-game sessions. To steal bases as if there is nothing to lose (because there isn’t). To throw small-ball out the window and embrace Sandlot-ball.

When McCutchen flashes an easy smile and repeats the cliché that he’s “just going to take it one game at a time,” it’s hard not to believe him. It is time that management shared his humble optimism. A league-low $35-million payroll may have the club in the black, but losing has a way of making even choir boys see red. The Pirates spend as much in 2010 as the New York Yankees did in 1991. Just as unfair comparisons of McCutchen to Clemente need to be adjusted for inflation, so too does the Pirates’ budget.

Categories: Sports