Andrew McCutchen’s first at-bat in PNC Park as a member of the San Francisco Giants was an emotional experience. 34,720 fans, the Pirates’ largest and loudest home crowd of the season, rose in appreciation as a video of McCutchen’s career highlights played on the big screen.
Francisco Cervelli stood up to stall the game as the roaring crowd chanted “M.V.P.” towards the former local hero, who tipped his cap and stepped into the batter’s box. It was one of those magical moments that rarely happen outside of sports; where an athlete receives the adulation of an entire city in the form of one colossal burst of applause.
“I had my face down and I was just going with the noise,” Cervelli said. “When I took a step towards home plate and [the fans] started screaming, I had to stop. I cannot stop that moment. It was amazing.”
The Welcome Home Tour continued when McCutchen jogged out to right field, his new position on the diamond, to see the words “Thank You Cutch” emblazoned upon the LED scoreboard attached to the right field wall. Another standing ovation, another hat tip.
It was plain to see on Friday night that McCutchen is not your average Pittsburgh sports figure. For nine years, McCutchen was the face of a Pirates franchise that desperately needed an identity. He was the best player on the team that broke the Pirates 20-year run of futility and is a uniquely beloved athlete.
For Cutch, Pittsburgh is literally still his home. He, his wife Maria, and his newborn son Steel still reside in Pittsburgh. When asked what he has done since he returned to town, Cutch said that he went to get pizza, took his kid to the doctor, and slept in his own bed.
“My wife and I got married and made the decision that this is where we want to live regardless of baseball,” McCutchen said. “This is where our house is. That’s not going to change. We love it here.”
Then the game went on. McCutchen went down looking in his first at-bat, struck out swinging in his second. (Jamison Taillon seemed to have his number). His seventh-inning double was met with approval by the Pirates faithful, his walk up to the plate with the bases loaded in the eighth garnered appropriate anticipation.
But, after the first-inning applause, each subsequent at-bat seemed like less of an event. Fewer people stood, the applause ended more quickly. Every time Number 22 came to bat wearing black and orange, it felt more normal.
Josh Harrison fondly recalled the time he spent playing with McCutchen, a close friend of his. Harrison was upset when the Pirates traded his friend in January, but acknowledged that, as time went by, he was able to move on.
“I don’t think there’s any question that Pittsburgh holds a special place in his heart,” Harrison said. “But for you to truly move on and be the best that you can be, you have to focus on the present.”
That advice was directed towards McCutchen, but perhaps the sentiment is more applicable to the Pirates as a whole.
McCutchen has been gone since January, but the specter of his departure has lingered over the Pirates this season. Many embittered fans presumably circled May 11th on their calendars with the idea that they could cheer their exiled hero on while the spendthrift Giants upstaged the cheapskate Pirates.
Of course, that’s not the way that the season has unfolded. One quarter of the way through the season, the Pirates are 22-16 and have already scored 195 runs, more than any team other than the Atlanta Braves (199).
The Buccos lineup, while lacking star power, has proven to be remarkably deep, with different players producing big hits every game. Players who have made changes in their swing, like Cervelli and Corey Dickerson, seem to be born again as different hitters.
Those bats are capable of scoring in bunches and they proved that on Friday night. While the headlines in tomorrow’s sports section are more likely to feature McCutchen’s face than Max Moroff’s, the box score paints an impressive picture for the New Pittsburgh Lumber Company.
The Pirates scored 11 runs on Friday and all of them were driven in with extra-base hits (nine runs on four homers, one run via triple, and one from a double). This was McCutchen’s night, but the Pirates were the ones who put on a show.
Shortstop Jordy Mercer, who went 3-for-4 with a critical RBI triple in the fourth, acknowledged how important Cutch was to the Pirates and how much he deserved the applause he received. But these Pirates aren’t just here to honor a former face of the franchise; they’re here to win ball games.
“He’s on a new team now and it’s time to move on,” Mercer said. “We can’t just dwell n the past and wish that he were here the whole time.”
McCutchen’s first game back in Pittsburgh was a cathartic experience for Pirates fans, who got to properly bid their hero farewell. But it was also a cathartic experience for the Pirates. They were able to perform in front of a large home crowd for the first time this season, something that the people in the dugout noticed and appreciated.
Mercer realizes that this is a team that has to prove itself to an unhappy fan base so that the next time that PNC Park is full, it’s to see the Pirates rather than the competition. And the only way to do that is to keep winning.
“When they were here seeing [McCutchen], we wanted to play well and show the fans that we’re a force to be reckoned with and that we’re a good team, too,” Mercer said. “I think we did that tonight and hopefully they’ll come back for more.”
A recurring analogy, used by both McCutchen and Harrison, was that of viewing life as a book. McCutchen said that he won’t look at anything baseball-related like a closed book because he is still playing baseball.
However, for both McCutchen and the Pirates, tonight represented the conclusion of a chapter. While the McCutchen Era in Pittsburgh officially ended when he was dealt in January, Friday night provided some much needed closure.
Now these 2018 Pirates can freely begin writing their own chapter in Pittsburgh sports lore. Hopefully the fans that showed up on Friday to see Cutch stick around to read it.