FORT MEADE, Fla. -- Four men look at an 18-year-old baseball player, and they see a blessing.
The young man sitting in front of them has been picked by the Pittsburgh Pirates in the first round of the 2005 draft, and his life is already changing, to the tune of a $1.9 million signing bonus. The men are here, at a Red Lobster in Lakeland, Fla., a half-hour's drive from home in the small town of Fort Meade, to pass along some wisdom before the long journey begins.
In a matter of days, Andrew McCutchen's professional career will set sail with the Gulf Coast League Pirates. A team scout has told him that he is special, that he could be Pittsburgh's baseball savior, the next Barry Bonds. It's a lot for a teenager to handle, so Lorenzo McCutchen asked three trusted men of God to help lay a foundation for his son to fall back on when the world gets crazy around him.
They are attempting to speak directly into Andrew's heart, about staying true to himself, about keeping God first, about the pitfalls of the fame that could come his way.
"We were giving him his wings," Lorenzo recalls.
As the conversation moves around the table, Andrew is mostly silent.
He does not show his emotions easily, but the men eventually break through. Pastor Pernell Cornelius of Fort Meade, Pastor Dexter Howard of Fayetteville, Ark., and Pastor Robert Dowell of Lawton, Okla., have noticed Andrew's deep appreciation for the impromptu rite of passage.
By the end of the dinner, tears will gather in Andrew's eyes, and the men will cry together over their seafood.
McCutchen sits at his locker in the Pirates' clubhouse at McKechnie Field in Bradenton, Fla., getting ready to play another spring training game.
It is March 2013, and the prophecy of eight years ago is true. He is the Pirates' star center fielder, a two-time All-Star who finished third in last year's voting for National League Most Valuable Player. He is the face -- and the hair -- of the franchise, his long locks having become a symbol of hope for a fan base that has had to take loyalty to new levels over two decades.
He's trying to embrace the role, and some days are better than others. The days when he implored his Twitter followers to vote him onto the cover of the popular baseball video game "MLB THE SHOW 2013" and they actually pulled it off? They were good ones. The days when ESPN joined him in Fort Meade to film a TV feature story to be broadcast for millions? They were OK, too.
McCutchen, known more frequently today as "Cutch," is in the process of going from a good player few recognize to a household name for baseball fans across the country, and he has hired a publicist to manage his image and public appearances. Time has become more valuable, and so too has the need to have control over his privacy.
When a reporter approaches him at his locker and mentions an upcoming visit to Fort Meade, McCutchen is suddenly uncomfortable.
"Everybody wants to know the life story of Andrew McCutchen," he mumbles.
Moments later, an ad plays on the flat-screen TV mounted on the wall of the clubhouse. It features McCutchen on the cover of a video game, along with a fitting marketing slogan for his existence as a 26-year-old:
So real. It's unreal.
What's real and what's not are judgments Andrew McCutchen now has to make on a daily basis. Another reporter wants to go to Fort Meade?
"There's nothing there," he says.
Lorenzo McCutchen is a star running back at Fort Meade High School, a young man who is popular around town because of his charisma, but none of that matters as he walks with his girlfriend, Petrina Swan, into the home of Pastor Pernell Cornelius.
Petrina is like a daughter to "Pastor C," one of the most active teenagers at Peaceful Believers Church. She plays volleyball, and Pastor Cornelius hopes that she will earn a college scholarship one day.
Lorenzo and Petrina have some news they'd like to share, and when Petrina says she's pregnant, Pastor Cornelius is taken aback. It's a game-changer for both of them, their paths now interlocked.
Cornelius asks if Petrina has told her mother yet. She says no.
"He's going with you," Cornelius recalls saying.
Lorenzo will need to be groomed into a man quickly. When the baby is born, he will be just a junior in high school. He'll possibly have a chance to play football in college, but where will that take him, other than away from the child? Many young men are unable to shoulder their responsibility, and there is no way of knowing at this point what Lorenzo is made of.
Pastor Cornelius lets them leave, knowing he will find out soon enough.
Lorenzo McCutchen has a very important job for his roommate, David Needs. They are freshmen in the fall of 1988 at Carson-Newman College in Jefferson City, Tenn., a running back and quarterback, respectively, who are redshirting during their first year on campus.
The phone has rung in their dorm room. It's for Lorenzo. David answers and must keep the caller on the line for as long as it takes Lorenzo to return.
"Where's my daddy?" the 2-year-old boy says.
The father and son talk most nights. Lorenzo pays the phone bill, scrounging up the money just as he would back home, grabbing weekend shifts picking fruit in the fields on top of his steady work as a cook so he could buy Andrew diapers.
"You could tell that the separation was tough," Needs recalls.
Lorenzo's father had abandoned him as a child, and he'd promised his mother that he would not do the same to Andrew. But, still, as a burly and powerful fullback, he was willing to chase his NFL dream 700 miles away.
Petrina, who is playing volleyball at Polk County (Fla.) Community College, supports him, believing that he should better himself for Andrew's sake.
Lorenzo returns to the room and happily takes the phone. He'll do anything to connect with his son, and, knowing that, Needs isn't be too surprised when Lorenzo never plays a down of football for Carson-Newman.
As a 5-year-old, Andrew McCutchen doesn't quite comprehend the significance of what's happening at Peaceful Believers Church on Aug. 1, 1992. His parents, Lorenzo and Petrina, are getting married.
If Lorenzo had stayed in Tennessee, he'd be a redshirt junior fullback, possibly closer to one dream but then much further from the other. Lorenzo gave up his pursuit of a football career to be near Andrew, coming home after one year to work in the same phosphate mines that once provided shifts to his mother as she raised him.
Upon his return, Lorenzo didn't show himself to be husband material for Petrina, living the party life. Petrina made it clear that she wouldn't marry him unless he became a man of God, and she meant it.
On this Saturday afternoon, as Cornelius opens the doors of his church, he has the full view, knowing how far Lorenzo has come since that sobering meeting at his house. Whether leaving school was a wise choice or not, Lorenzo has shown a commitment to family.
"I was very proud," Cornelius recalls. "He hung in there with her through it all. He really stood up as a man, and he would be really good for Trina."
For the town of about 6,000, the bonding of two of their own is a joyous occasion, and now, the McCutchens can begin their life together. Lorenzo has purchased a trailer home in nearby Bartow, closer to the mines but still an easy drive to the Fort Meade baseball diamonds.
Toward a Pirate's life
Lorenzo and his son arrive at Field B of the Fort Meade Dixie Youth facility. Lorenzo may be a football player at heart, but his son loves baseball, and so he teaches him the game the only way he knows how.
With a little extra force behind it.
"I used to tell him to swing hard and protect his house!" Lorenzo recalls.
The house, in this instance, is home plate. And when Andrew McCutchen steps into the batter's box and leans over the white, irregularly shaped pentagon, his orders are to think of it as a representation of something bigger.
"His mother and father and sister was inside the house, so he protected his house!" Lorenzo recalls.
Andrew, built slender unlike his father, sprays balls all over the field using his natural bat speed. When they run out, they collect the balls in the outfield and start again. This scene plays out day after day, month after month, year after year, Andrew protecting his house with each fierce swing of the bat.
He will become the best young player in Fort Meade, and some of the townspeople will collect money to help send him to Puerto Rico for Roberto Clemente's baseball camp. Then, Fort Meade High coach Jeff Toffanelli will get his eyes on Andrew and decide he needs him on the varsity as an eighth-grader. He will lead the county high schools in hitting that year, batting over .500, and one of his best attributes as a hitter will go all the way back to the first practice session with his father.
"Just his plate presence," Toffanelli recalls.
As a teenager, Andrew McCutchen is not perfect. There are the usual parent-teen entanglements and boundary pushing, and one battle comes to a head after Andrew begins driving a Dodge Dakota truck.
His parents have told him that he is not to listen to any music with curse words.
Lorenzo gets in Andrew's truck, turns on the ignition and hears a hip-hop track laced with bad language. Lorenzo takes the CD out of the player and finds his son.
"You know we don't listen to this type of music," Lorenzo recalls saying. "That isn't tolerated around here."
Andrew says that the CD is not his, but that doesn't stop Lorenzo from breaking it in half.
The Pirates want to see Andrew in a pressure situation, so they invite the potential draft pick to come to Pirate City in Bradenton to take batting practice during the spring of his senior year.
There are questions about his "Mayberry" upbringing and whether he can shine on the big stage. He is going to alternate in the cage with Raja Davis, who plays for Double-A Altoona, to give the Pirates a direct comparison.
Rob Sidwell is the Pirates scout who first saw Andrew play, years ago. He is sure about the kid being a potential five-tool talent but isn't quite sold on his self-confidence.
Sidwell is pitching batting practice to Andrew and is startled by what he's seeing.
"I'm telling you, I don't want to take anything away from Raja, but Andrew made him look like the 18-year-old high school kid," Sidwell recalls. "With 10-12 of the big guys, the upper brass standing right on top of them, that's not easy to do. He handled it like a pro, a seasoned veteran."
Sidwell will help persuade the Pirates to forget their reservations about Andrew and take him with the No. 11 overall pick in the draft.
"I was so impressed with his family," Sidwell recalls. "Especially with a high school kid, the family background is so important."
Rising up, staying grounded
The Indianapolis Indians, the Pirates' Triple-A affiliate, are playing the Durham Bulls, the Tampa Bay Rays' affiliate, in Durham, N.C. It is 2008, and Andrew McCutchen will start in center field for the Indians.
On the mound for the Bulls is big left-hander David Price, the No. 1 overall draft pick by the Rays in 2007. The bright futures of two franchises will soon clash.
Pat Lackey, who runs the Pirates fan blog "Where Have You Gone, Andy Van Slyke?", is in the stands. Lackey, a native of Sharon, Pa., was a boy in the early 1990s when the Pirates were the class of the National League. He was sold at a young age on a winner and has now been stuck with a loser for two-thirds of his life. He lives in Chapel Hill, N.C., so he thought he'd come check out McCutchen, the latest player to receive the billing of the next Pirates star.
When Lackey sees McCutchen in person, he becomes skeptical. It's not that he looks smaller even than his listed height of 5 foot 10, or that his biceps don't bulge quite enough. It's just that ... this is the guy who is going to salvage the unsalvageable?
McCutchen steps to the plate in the top of the first inning, and Price looks in for the sign. Fastball. Price rears back and delivers, trying to blow one by McCutchen, and ...
"Cutch flicked his wrists through the zone and sent a fly ball out to the warning track in left center," Lackey recalls. "I'm like, 'Oh, I get it! I see it now!' It was just a fly out, but now I understand why we're excited about this guy."
McCutchen represents a major victory for the Pirates. The franchise drafted him, groomed him and, basically, didn't mess up a good thing.
McCutchen is a big leaguer now. The offseason has just begun, so he can do whatever he wants.
Pirates pitcher Jeff Karstens and his wife have invited him out to dinner to celebrate his birthday in Tampa, about an hour from McCutchen's house in Lakeland. The night goes pretty late, and the group comes back to the Karstens' home.
For McCutchen, that means the night is over.
"He's like, 'I've gotta get my clothes for church tomorrow. I gotta meet my parents,' " Karstens recalls.
McCutchen hangs up his Sunday best and goes to sleep. He'll be at Peaceful Believers Church in Fort Meade in the morning.
"I got up," Karstens recalls, "and he was gone."
Lorenzo and Petrina McCutchen are soaking up everything at their first game at PNC Park. That's their son, wearing No. 22 and running out to center field for the first pitch with the Pittsburgh skyline as a backdrop, a sure sign their little one is long gone from Fort Meade.
As if this day isn't special enough, it's Lorenzo and Petrina's 17th wedding anniversary. Turns out, Andrew, now 22, has something in store for them.
His first at-bat, he homers down the left field line off Washington Nationals pitcher Craig Stammen, and his parents listen to the crowd roar as he rounds the bases. In his third at-bat, after a bunt single in his second at-bat, he homers to left off the Nationals' Tyler Clippard. This is getting crazy. His next at-bat, he finds the left field seats again off the Nationals' Logan Kensing.
"I was in awe," Petrina recalls.
So is the crowd. What he's doing in his first season in the big leagues is remarkable. After McCutchen enters the dugout, the crowd demands a curtain call, and he obliges, however briefly.
He has one more trip to the plate, and the fans give him a standing ovation. Everybody in the park wants No. 4. But he grounds into a double play.
Lorenzo and Petrina McCutchen don't feel remotely shortchanged.
"He gave us an awesome anniversary present," Lorenzo recalls.
In postgame interviews, McCutchen doesn't reveal that his magical night occurred on such a significant day for his family.
"It's a day I know I won't forget," he offers.
Life as 'the face'
The offseason used to be spent at his leisure. There were weekly Sundays with the family, and those lazy afternoons in Fort Meade were the best way to refuel for another season.
This winter has not been McCutchen's as much as he would like, and, on Feb. 6, instead of going through his all-day workout regimen at IMG in Bradenton, he walks into the David L. Lawrence Convention Center in Downtown Pittsburgh to receive the Dapper Dan Sportsman of the Year award and give an acceptance speech to a room full of admirers.
Pirates manager Clint Hurdle accompanies his star player on the chartered jet from Florida to Pittsburgh, and he knows McCutchen would rather be making his final preparations for spring training than making a public appearance.
"I think his walkaway at the end of this year is going to be that it was a lot," Hurdle says, "and as it moves forward, and he continues to play the type of game he's capable of playing, he's going to find different ways to keep it in context. The ability to say 'No' has got to become a strength as well, knowing when to take a break for himself."
This is not one of those times, though. The Dapper Dan is a big event, and the biggest names in Pittsburgh sports will be there -- Bill Cowher, Art Rooney II, Hines Ward, to name a few. McCutchen's on-field performance and professionalism during three-plus seasons have put him in grand company.
McCutchen, wearing a sleek and shiny suit, takes the dais. He fires off the necessary thank-you's, shaking off the nerves as he goes. He relays a story about playing at the Roberto Clemente baseball camp in Puerto Rico and hitting a home run. Then he goes deeper, encouraging the audience to "chase after your dreams with conviction" because "you don't have to be a great athlete to make a difference in this world."
Hurdle, watching from the podium, is blown away.
"Probably one of the proudest moments I've ever had watching a young man that's been in an organization that I'm in charge of," Hurdle recalls. "He was so well-spoken. He was entertaining. Some was scripted, some was off the cuff. It was awesome, the way he represented our organization, the city of Pittsburgh."
The Pirates trail the Rays 6-2 in the ninth inning of a spring training game, and McCutchen is at bat. He grounds the ball to shortstop and sprints down the first-base line, beating the throw just barely for an infield single.
After the game, reporters don't ask Rays manager Joe Maddon about McCutchen's play, but he takes the conversation there on his own.
"I want to mention their guy, McCutchen," Maddon says. "What he did tonight, that speaks volume for all of Major League Baseball. That guy in the ninth inning of a game that means absolutely nothing hits a routine ground ball to shortstop and beats it out. I can't be more impressed. I know how good he is with everything else that he does, but for that organization to have their best player do something like that is extremely impressive. I'm a big admirer. I was, but even more so right now."
McCutchen sits at his locker at McKechnie Field, looking at a smartphone that features the picture of him on the cover of "MLB The Show 2013" as his home screen.
It is time to do an interview. A reporter wants to ask him questions about his father, about the time Lorenzo spent with him throwing batting practice, about Lorenzo leaving behind a college football career to be a more devoted father. He is reticent to talk about his family, but eventually relents a bit.
"He was always there," McCutchen says. "His father was in and out of his life, and I think he pretty much made a promise to himself that if he had kids he was going to be supportive, and that's what he did. I'm sure that's a lot of the reason I am who I am and I am where I'm at."
If McCutchen is trying to protect his house, it's a worthy cause. Fort Meade today is still mostly unchanged by his growing celebrity.
Other than two signs heralding it as the home of Andrew McCutchen -- one as you enter town and another on the front his grandmother's store -- the place is basically the same as he left it.
Go to the Peaceful Believers Church and knock on the side door, and you'll likely find Lorenzo McCutchen greeting you with a smile. Call the sheriff's department recruitment office, and you'll likely hear the voice of Petrina McCutchen. Go to the L&F Grocery as late as 9 p.m., and you'll likely find Andrew's grandmother working, probably with a Pirates game on the satellite dish if the time is right. Go to the modest tan house where Andrew grew up, and you'll see the sign that says "The McCutchens" in the front yard.
"We are who we are," Petrina says. "We want home to be home. We want it to not be like a hotel or an arena of people. We want it to be comfortable and warm and inviting. I imagine if he has a good season or a better one than he had last year the demands will become more and more frequent, and he probably will need that. He'll need home."
McCutchen may play baseball in Pittsburgh, but his story lives here among the mossy oak trees, with a willing orator in Lorenzo, a man who each day gets to live with the sweet fruits of his sacrifice. Eight years ago, he gave his son wings to fly, and McCutchen has landed in Pittsburgh, where there is plenty of work to be done.
"He feels like he was predestined to be there," Lorenzo says. "He wants to make a difference in Pittsburgh. I think that it's important that you play where your heart is, and I think his heart is in Pittsburgh.
"When we spend time in Pittsburgh, people come up to him. ... 'Andrew, can I have your autograph?' 'Can I take a picture with you?' I realize that's my son, and he's considered famous in Pittsburgh. The people love him there, and it does something to me."
J. Brady McCollough: email@example.com and on Twitter @BradyMcCollough. First Published March 31, 2013 4:00 AM