Baseball 2010: McCutchen, Milledge find bond
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BRADENTON, Fla. -- They are not simply at their McKechnie Field lockers each spring day. They are their lockers. Side by side. Linked together. Stronger in tandem.
They constantly stay parallel, one in left field, the other in center field. They stand shoulder to shoulder during most every national anthem and idle dugout moment. They sit together at autograph signings, walk onto and off fields together wearing the same styles of sunglasses and braids, even strolled into the Pirate City clubhouse at the same time Feb. 18 and instantly injected a noticeable buzz, an energy to the room.
They work out together in the offseason. They hang together. They grow together.
Grow because of the other.
TO OPENING DAY
The Post-Gazette's five-day preview of the Pirates' 124th season:
Jack Wilson and Freddy Sanchez were famous around the Pirates for being inseparable, having played alongside one another in southern California infields since, what, birth?
Andrew McCutchen and Lastings Milledge, united July 31 far from their Florida roots, are closer.
"They're kind of the same person," marveled reliever Evan Meek.
Cutch and Clutch, as Milledge's father nicknamed him.
"This is the first time I've seen smiles on his face," Tony Milledge said earlier this spring training, referring to the son who admits he made his own troubled major league path previously, with the New York Mets and Washington Nationals. "Everything now is like he's born, like it's the first time it ever happened. If he's got a smile on his face, he can play."
"I'm glad to see that they finally came together," Lorenzo McCutchen said hours later, standing almost in the same Pirate City spot. "Because when Andrew was coming up, they always called him 'the young Milledge,' that kind of stuff. For them to come together, and here they are playing together, is something."
A 23-year-old rookie taught something to a one-time high school foe two classes ahead of him, a Milledge who turns 25 on opening day Monday.
"Andrew goes about his business the absolute way you want people to," general manager Neal Huntington said. "So, he should be a good influence on anybody."
Milledge taught the kid something in return.
"I think Lastings, knowing his history, he pushes Andrew in a different way," outfield and bench coach Gary Varsho said. "To make sure that half of a season's success -- that's all it was. Understand you can't fall into the cracks, 'Oh, I'm here.' I don't think Andrew's that way. But Lastings reinforces it: 'You know what? It's a whole new year. You got to get after it. You got to work it. Mature.' ... So I think that has helped more than the other way around."
The first time you played one another?
McCutchen: "Eighth grade."
Milledge: "I was in 10th. Whooped their tail, too."
McCutchen: "They killed us. They made us look like a Little League team."
Milledge (when he stopped laughing): "That's all right. You're all grown up now. Can't do that anymore."
Milledge played for St. Petersburg Northside Christian High, which was stocked with future major leaguers. McCutchen was the star for Fort Meade of nearby Polk County. Their teams collided in the 2001 Florida regional baseball playoffs. It wasn't pretty.
And what was an eighth-grader doing on the Fort Meade varsity?
McCutchen: "Led the county in hitting that year, my eighth-grade year. [The coach] had seen me in middle school."
Milledge: "I started in eighth grade, too."
McCutchen: "The coach used to pick me up at middle school to take me to practice. The first day of tryouts, I went over to the JV side. He said, 'Unh-unh.'"
Milledge (mimicking the barking coach): " 'Varsity.' "
McCutchen: " 'Varsity.' "
Did Milledge lead Pinellas County in hitting as an eighth grader?
Milledge: "No, actually, I was behind [Boston Red Sox pitcher] Boof Bonser. I had to do a lot of chasing Boof. I was second or third to [Seattle first baseman] Casey Kotchman and all those guys. That's what I had to go up against."
Did folks really call McCutchen "the next Lastings Milledge?"
McCutchen: "They said that at all the showcases I went to."
Milledge: "Now I'm the next Andrew McCutchen. It's flipped now. But I've lost a step. I'm old."
The troubling times he has seen.
Lastings Darnell Milledge was expelled by Northside Christian two days after leading it to the 2002 state Class A baseball championship, almost seven months after the start of an investigation into allegations of inappropriate behavior with a minor girl -- he never was charged. He transferred to Lakewood Ranch, across the Manatee River from his Palmetto home and east of Pirate City, which he visited as a child and later came to savor as a reborn big-leaguer.
The Mets drafted him with the 12th-overall pick in 2003, then launched their own probe into his past. He rankled teammates with a high-five victory lap along a Shea Stadium rail after a key home run. He rankled a New York City councilman with a rap song. He was traded at the end of 2007, his second season to Washington for an outfielder who now is a Pirates teammate, Ryan Church. He lasted one season and seven games in D.C.
"What year was that, '08?" began Joel Hanrahan, who came to the Pirates with Milledge in the June trade for Nyjer Morgan and Sean Burnett.
"He was hitting in the 3-hole, and the homers were coming. You could tell he wasn't really trying [for them]. He was in a tight spot last year, [miscast] being a leadoff hitter and playing center field. When I played with him in Washington, he took a lot of heat. A lot of guys gave him a hard time."
Andrew Stefan McCutchen gave him hope, direction.
"He sees how hard Cutch works and the respect he gets," Hanrahan continued. "He grew up and matured a little bit. You can see the change that he made."
Huntington credits the Pirates' environment -- they, in effect, re-educated Milledge, starting from Pirate City and the rookie Gulf Coast League to Class A Lynchburg and then to Class AAA Indianapolis -- and Varsho's daily work for prodding Milledge.
Manager John Russell also credits Milledge himself.
"We heard the things," Russell said. "I think everybody saw it last year, it wasn't an issue. We put that behind us. I think he was on a mission. He's still on a mission. I expect him to do very good things for us."
"I wanted to be in better shape and more prepared than I've ever been," Milledge said of the work he -- often alongside McCutchen -- did for 2010. "Because this is probably the biggest year I'm going to have."
First thing you thought when Milledge first walked through the PNC Park clubhouse door?
McCutchen: "Man, he needs to get his hair done."
Milledge: "Whaaaaaat?" (Both laughing) "That job was horrible, wasn't it?"
McCutchen: "It looked baaad."
Milledge: "Yeah, my hair was bad. Terrible hairdo."
Your friendship start right away?
McCutchen: "Pretty much."
Milledge: "I guess he had no choice because Nyjer was gone."
The eldest McCutchen, a youth pastor, also served as his son's coach and guiding light growing up in Fort Meade, amid marshes and lonely back roads east between Lakeland and Bradenton.
"Andrew always has been mature for his age," said the father, who brought his wife, Petrina, to the June 4 debut game and celebrated their wedding anniversary in PNC Park on their son's three-homer night. "He knows that this is his destiny. We tried to prepare for it as much as we could. He's walking in it right now."
Prepare him? "For one thing, I had a cousin who was a professional football player, and he didn't do all the right things. Matter of fact, he ended up on drugs and all that stuff. So we always told Andrew: 'Make sure you don't end up this way. Do right and stay humble.' ... So far, he's doing that."
The Pirates drafted him with the 11th pick of the 2005 draft. He wound up hiring the same financial advisor as Milledge. As a result, their parents got together to meet one day at spring training, barely a 10-minute drive from the Milledge home but more than an hour from the McCutchen's.
Their boys -- after Northside Christian-Fort Meade, after Syracuse-Indianapolis, after McCutchen's gradual minor league rise and Milledge's minor league re-education -- came together late last summer.
McCutchen, who arrived the morning after Nate McLouth was traded, compiled a first hit in his first at-bat, a first steal and a first RBI in his June 4 debut victory against the Mets, whereupon Morgan noted: "Cutch is the future around here."
Before the opener Monday, he officially will receive Baseball America's Rookie of the Year award for his 12 homers, 54 RBIs, 22 steals and .286 average in 108 games.
Milledge, in his July 31 debut in a victory against the Nationals, went 2 for 4 with two RBIs ... batting behind McCutchen. It is a position he relishes, even if it is not side by side for once. He finished his first Pirates season with four homers, 20RBIs, a career-high .291 average after 58 games and a mission
What was the one thing you learned from the other?
McCutchen: "Lighten up. Learn to take it easy. Take the game serious, but know how to lighten up."
Other folks around here say Milledge learned his work ethic from McCutchen, and McCutchen learned to keep pushing forward from Milledge.
Milledge: (Nodding) "Yeah."
McCutchen: "It works both ways."
First Published April 2, 2010 12:13 am