Pirates Andrew McCutchen makes his way to the field on the first day of full squad workouts Feb. 17 in Bradenton, Fla.
Andrew McCutchen battled trade rumors all winter but eventually returned to the Pirates.
By Stephen J. Nesbitt / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Four months ago, Michael McKenry nearly flattened Andrew McCutchen in an Orlando hotel. It was around midday just after a conference for Christian athletes wrapped up when McKenry, the former Pirates catcher, and his wife, Jaclyn, turned a corner and hit the brakes to avoid crashing into two of their closest friends, McCutchen and his wife, Maria.
McKenry says he sensed something was the matter.
“I think I just got traded to the Nationals,” McCutchen said.
McKenry blinked and sputtered back, “Well, holy schnikes.”
The four friends stood silently in the hallway, stunned, until Jaclyn suggested they pray. So they prayed, asking for answers and for acceptance of what was next. The news was hard to believe. The McKenrys were in the McCutchens’ wedding two years earlier at St. Paul’s Cathedral in Pittsburgh, witnesses to one of the happier days in Oakland since Bill Mazeroski’s walk-off homer Oct. 13, 1960. This day — Dec. 1, 2016 — felt like an abrupt and improper goodbye.
The specter of a trade had lingered for weeks, and speculation exploded once Washington was identified as the Pirates’ potential trade partner. McCutchen’s cell phone buzzed incessantly. He heard from about everyone except the decision-makers in the front office.
A week later, general manager Neal Huntington called. He explained what he could and cautioned there was more smoke than fire in the rumors that blazed before and during baseball’s winter meetings. McCutchen said he appreciated the call. Publicly, he repeated he wants to remain a “Pirate for life,” to win a World Series, maybe more, and to retire in Pittsburgh.
Pirates executives say the same. They too want McCutchen to stay, if the price is right.
But to those close to McCutchen, the ones who knew the charmed story of this kid from the Florida sticks long before he led the rebirth of baseball in Pittsburgh, it’s increasingly evident this is the final chapter. As another baseball season dawns, they wonder when the ending will arrive.
In a hotel hallway in Orlando, in McCutchen’s mind, it already had.
* * * * *
McCutchen’s agonizing offseason began, in a way, at the Aug. 1 trade deadline. A report surfaced later saying the Pirates and Nationals discussed including McCutchen in the Mark Melancon trade. It did not transpire, but McCutchen’s season was shaken in another way.
The previous night, after striking out three times in four at-bats, McCutchen was informed by manager Clint Hurdle he’d be benched for the next series, in Atlanta. It was an order, not an ask. McCutchen had never been benched before. He also had never batted .241 through July.
Andrew McCutchen is a career .292 hitter and five-time All-Star. (Matt Freed/Post-Gazette)
Since the Pirates drafted McCutchen 11th overall in 2005, his parents, Lorenzo and Petrina, have spent their Aug. 1 wedding anniversary with their son. In past years, the date typically fell during a long home stand, so they’d travel to Pittsburgh. Their 24th anniversary, however, coincided with the Atlanta trip. McCutchen sat on the bench. They sat in the stands and remembered how seven years earlier he had hit them three home runs.
“That was the high,” Petrina McCutchen recalled. “Last year was the low.”
McCutchen rebounded, batting .284 with an .852 OPS the rest of the way, but the Pirates missed the playoffs by 8½ games. For McCutchen, speculation began hours after the season ended. On the Pirates’ return flight from St. Louis, he saw on TV he was a top trade candidate.
McCutchen tried ignoring it, but everyone around him wanted answers, and he had none. Over the next three months, he often typed his name into the search bar on Google and read.
“Just didn’t want to get surprised by it,” McCutchen said, “if something like that were to happen.”
* * * * *
“I probably should have called …”
The general manager stopped before the sentence did. He restarted.
“I should have called Andrew the first day of the winter meetings when the rumors blew up,” Huntington explained in March. “I waited until Thursday, and that was three days too late.”
It may have been five days too late — five days since McCutchen’s chance meeting with McKenry.
“Everything that needed to be said, was,” McCutchen remembers.
Either way, it is not uncommon for front offices to have little communication with players during the offseason. It is uncommon, however, for a team to peddle its star, the face of its franchise, while maintaining World Series-sized aspirations.
Andrew McCutchen shakes hands with Pirates chairman Bob Nutting as general manager Neal Huntington looks on in 2012 after McCutchen signed a five-year, $51.5 million contract. (Peter Diana/Post-Gazette)
McCutchen’s case is complex, a battle between sentimentality and smart business. In an age when almost no player spends his career with one team, why couldn’t McCutchen be the exception? He was worth the price of admission when the Pirates weren’t. When they were, when their 20-year playoff drought ended and a better streak began, he was the main reason why.
Yet when McCutchen signed a five-year, $51.5 million contract extension in 2012, it became almost inevitable the Pirates would one day, around now, arrive at this intersection. Even if McCutchen played out his contract with the Pirates, he would reach free agency at age 32.
The contract extension hadn’t made McCutchen a Pirate for life, just for his prime.
The Pirates could reach the same crossroads with Starling Marte in three years, and Gregory Polanco in five. That’s no accident. It’s the way the Pirates operate, developing prospects and attempting to secure them through their most productive years. McCutchen represents something different, Huntington admitted. He’s been an icon, a household name, for a franchise that needed one.
For a front office more focused on numbers than narrative, McCutchen’s down season upped the urgency to gauge his trade value. Was it a four-month slump or a sign of swift decline? Projections are unkind to players in their 30s. Another bad start in 2017, and McCutchen’s trade value craters. A good year and his worth is restored, and a trade could fortify the farm system.
When publicly discussing McCutchen this winter, Huntington spoke primarily about the contract situation, not the player. He said he heard offers for McCutchen but did not initiate them. Huntington’s policy is to not dispute specific rumors, unless malicious, because those left undisputed would be assumed true. So as rumors raged, Huntington didn’t play defense.
“Could I have handled things differently?” Huntington said. “Absolutely, as we look back, but I’m not sure it would have impacted the narrative all that much unless we just lied, unless we said we just weren’t talking about him and every rumor that came out we called a lie.”
The script for a harmonious resolution to the McCutchen-Pirates dilemma demands a second contract extension. Financially, it makes sense for neither side. Around the league, Miguel Cabrera is guaranteed $40 million at age 40, Joey Votto $25 million at 40, Giancarlo Stanton $25 million at 38 and Evan Longoria $19.5 million at 37. They will sit on a team’s payroll well beyond their primes, as injury and ineffectiveness increase. McCutchen’s salary, well below market value, already occupies nearly 15 percent of the Pirates payroll. To remain in Pittsburgh, McCutchen likely would need to agree to a discounted deal, a fraction of his free-agent value.
Huntington didn’t say all that, not exactly, when he phoned McCutchen. He didn’t need to.
“We have nothing but respect for how hard it must be for a player to read his name in trade rumors consistently,” Huntington said, “but we can’t control that, and that’s a challenge. There is no win-win in this scenario, unfortunately. Our hope and belief is that Andrew McCutchen will be a great player again. Our hope and belief is that we will be a great team again.
“For however long that lasts is however long that lasts.”
* * * * *
There’s a side to McCutchen his friends wish everyone saw. Start with this small detail: It’s really hard to surprise him. So they were delighted McCutchen was blindsided when Maria rented out a bowling alley and arcade for his 30th birthday, Oct. 10, and flew in family and friends to Pittsburgh.
In the crowd were Pedro Alvarez, Sean Rodriguez, Josh Harrison and McKenry, and then there were the childhood friends from Fort Meade, Fla., the ones who still call McCutchen “Drew” — Kenny Eldell came from Florida, Corey Moore from Kentucky, and Marine Corps Staff Sgt. Jerrod Tisko from his station in Hawaii. These are the sort of friends who, as Tisko said, have known McCutchen “since we were knee-high to a grasshopper.” They can talk for hours about how McCutchen was way back when, and how their friendships haven’t changed since.
The McCutchen they know is a spectacular bowler. He learned during a lonely season of Class A baseball in Hickory, N.C. Not much else to do there, he said. He came home and asked his mother for a bowling ball and shoes. At the lanes, she said, “you cannot tell him he's not on the pro circuit.” On his birthday, they bowled, played bumper cars and hot shot in the arcade “just like a bunch of 30-year-old 12-year-olds,” Moore said.
The McCutchen they know is an artist, an observer. He carries around a sketch pad, a hobby started in grade school when he drew “Dragon Ball Z” characters. He consumes poetry and music, particularly Christian rap. His offseason anthem was “Get It” by 18-year-old Kaleb Mitchell. He used to go home after Pirates games and break out his beat-boxing machine.
Andrew McCutchen walks toward the fields at the Pirates' spring training headquarters after an offseason in which the team tried to trade him. (Peter Diana/Post-Gazette)
And the McCutchen they know is quieter than you think, and almost invisible when he wants to be. He learned to operate in the limelight on his rise to celebrity, but it never truly suited him. He has this ability to “be one guy off the field and then put on his cape on the field,” McKenry said.
Everyone has seen McCutchen's impact on Pittsburgh, but those close to him have also seen Pittsburgh's impact on him. For years, he wore the Pittsburgh superstar persona in public. Charities received his time, money and attention, and then his dreadlocks, which were auctioned on the internet. More recently, he consciously uncoupled. The business side took a toll, his mother said. He parted ways with his publicist and tried to step more into the shadows, to still give generously, to still playing the leading role, but on his terms.
Years ago, teammates teased him about his walks to the ballpark. Not the route, which crossed the Roberto Clemente Bridge, but the way he walked, hunched over, backpack on, headphones in, hood up, a silent plea for privacy. The way McKenry, now with the Tampa Bay Rays, put it, “Cutch is very good with being in the spotlight. But, at the same time, he’s very good at being incognito.”
It happens elsewhere, too. When McKenry hosted McCutchen’s bachelor party in Nashville, Tenn., the group went out after dinner. At first, a few strangers only tipped their cowboy hats, then someone blurted, “Is that Cutch?” A crush of curious drinkers closed in. “It’s like the dominoes start falling,” said McKenry, who turned into McCutchen’s bodyguard. The group ducked into a small bar and spent the rest of the night playing ping-pong. McCutchen was back in his element.
“When he’s with them, he doesn’t have to be Cutch,” his mother said. “He’s just Drew.”
* * * * *
Seated side-by-side in their living room in Fort Meade, Lorenzo and Petrina McCutchen retraced their relationship with the Pirates. Best they can remember, it began when they sent their son, who was about 12, to a baseball camp in San Juan, Puerto Rico, Clemente’s hometown. The next week, they received a report card signed by Manny Sanguillen, the ex-Pirates catcher.
McCutchen’s parents, like the rest of his inner circle, thought the relationship was over Dec. 1. That’s when Lorenzo phoned his brother and uncle, who live near Washington, D.C. Lorenzo texted Eldell, and they agreed it was a relief McCutchen’s new team had spring training in Florida, close to home. At work in a citrus grove, Eldell told his boss, “Man, it looks like my boy is gone.”
“It was almost like a slow death,” Petrina said. “Our heads on the chopping block.”
The market for McCutchen quieted once Washington acquired Adam Eaton Dec. 7. The next morning, Huntington clarified the door wasn’t closed on a trade, but he wouldn’t be making calls, except that one he placed to McCutchen. He took their relationship to the point of no return, and now, he had to return.
“I think he was hurt by it,” Lorenzo said of his son. “I think he still is kind of a little hurt by it. He's trying to figure out some stuff. I think he'll do fine this year, but I don't think the relationship will be the same as it was before this offseason.”
As the rumors subsided, McCutchen and Maria escaped to Europe — his first time there. They went to Rome, Florence, Venice and Paris. They needed to get away from everything, McCutchen said, “away from baseball, away from the talk of trades, away from all that.”
The second gut-punch of the offseason, maybe more unexpected than the first, arrived shortly after they returned. This call was from Hurdle, informing McCutchen he would move from center field to right. Another order, not an ask. The numbers had made the choice clear. McCutchen was disheartened and displeased, but he did not put up a fight. He instead posted on Twitter a picture of Clemente, the right fielder, tipping his cap to the crowd.
“That’s Andrew,” his father said. “He’s going to see the good in it.”
Lorenzo, a youth pastor, divides life into seasons. His son’s season in Pittsburgh may soon end, he said, and that’s all right. He’s considered the Pirates’ side, and, frankly, a trade makes sense.
“To me,” Lorenzo began, “it’s wise to say, ‘OK, Andrew, you have done us a great job. But this year we possibly could get two or three or four players for one player.’ That’s wise. I'm just being honest. ‘You're 30. We’ve got Polanco. We’ve got Marte. We’ve got [Austin] Meadows at AAA, who is knocking at the door to come in. We love you, but it's a business.’ ”
Some doors close, Petrina added, and you have to try the next one. “It’s dangerous to stay in a season when things are dried up,” she said. “Not good for Andrew. Not good for the Pirates.” Things could have been handled better this offseason, she continued, but there’s no animosity.
It has been a good marriage.
* * * * *
This year, Aug. 1 is the first game of an eight-game home stand at PNC Park, the kind Lorenzo and Petrina always seemed to enjoy in Pittsburgh. Will they be there? Will their son be there? They decided not to wait for answers. They booked flights going in a different direction.
Lorenzo looked at his wife, as if asking for permission to share their secret, and then smiled.
“This is our 25th anniversary,” he said, “and we’re going to Hawaii.”
Stephen J. Nesbitt: firstname.lastname@example.org and Twitter @stephenjnesbitt.
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