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Andrew McCutchen’s Return to Pittsburgh

Brett Barnett

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This piece is part of SB Nation’s “Sports Moments That Made You Cry” week

Andrew McCutchen is a staple in Pittsburgh Pirates history. He spent the first nine years of his career in Pittsburgh, pulling the franchise from the depths of the National League Central. On McCutchen’s watch, the Pirates captured their first winning record and playoff appearance since 1992.

He was a five time All-Star in Pittsburgh, in addition to his four silver slugger awards and one gold glove. In 2013, he was the Most Valuable Player in the National League, and that wasn’t even his best season. He finished with the bronze in MVP voting twice, and fifth once. He was the cover athlete of MLB The Show 13, a simulation video game on PlayStation. He became the most prominent Pirate figure for the new generation of fans.

On January 13, 2018, when Gerrit Cole got traded to the Houston Astros for a package of players, I was disappointed but not surprised — a sentiment common among Pirates’ fans. I knew that he was being used inefficiently and that was the reason for some of his woes, and why he never reached his potential in Pittsburgh. The Pirates were overlooking something. It turns out that I was right, as well as a host of other Pirates’ fans and pundits. Cole was being used poorly. The Astros validated that.

But when Cole was traded, I knew it was a possibility that McCutchen might be next. Two days later, it happened. He was on the move to San Francisco.

I was disappointed and hurt. I knew it might be the pragmatic decision because McCutchen wasn’t performing as well as he once had. But I was pessimistic about what the Huntington regime could get in return, given McCutchen’s dwindling value and how they prioritized quantity over quality just two days earlier. For those reasons, I assumed holding onto McCutchen might be the better decision. (Yes, I was wrong and that trade turned out to actually be a very good one.)

I realize that a lot of Pirates’ fans had soured on McCutchen by that point. For example, after the trade, in a now defunct Point of Pittsburgh article, the author attributed clubhouse problems to McCutchen, citing things like “pre-game dance routines.” Insane.

In another article at SB Nation, Grant Brisbee wrote how the Pirates mismanaged McCutchen’s exit. I shared that post, among many others, and expressed my dissatisfaction with the front office, something I’d been relatively unwilling to do so unabashedly in the past, but I just couldn’t help myself.

After all, I was 13 when McCutchen debuted in 2009, so I had largely grown up with him as a Pirate. It was a big challenge for me to accept this new Pirate reality.

On January 16, 2018, I was sitting in the Old Navy parking lot before work. I was part of the shipping team, so it was well before sunrise. I was scrolling through my phone looking for tweets, posts, and articles validating my feelings. I strolled angrily into work and performed my duties quietly and without much interaction with those around me.

The only thing I knew at the time was that whenever McCutchen returned for his first game back in Pittsburgh, I wanted to be there.

That’s what I did.

I don’t live in or around Pittsburgh. I had to drive nearly seven hours to be at PNC Park on May 11 of the 2018 baseball season. It’s a drive I’d made or been a part of plenty of times before, but this one carried more weight for me.

For starters, this trip was to serve as a celebration for my wife’s and my one year wedding anniversary. Secondly, it was to serve as the bookend to McCutchen’s time in Pittsburgh. As dramatic as it sounds, it was the closure I needed. It was the experience I needed in order to move on.

Prior to the first pitch, while the players warmed up, I kept an eye closely on Cutch, trying to watch his every movement. I watched him interact with other players and warm up. I listened as fans in right field would cheer to him, and everything in between.

Then came his first at-bat. There were 34,720 fans on hand to witness his return, and I am happy that I was one of them. As the video tribute played on the videoboard overshadowing left field, my attention was split: half on McCutchen as he tipped his helmet and tried to remain in the moment as a baseball player who had a job to do, and half on the video and audio playing throughout the ballpark.

It was strange. It was almost surreal. There he was, the player I’d grown up watching in black and gold, standing down on the field in black and orange. I clapped the whole time, with my scorecard tucked underneath my seat. I was proud of Pittsburgh and of the Pirates’ fanbase. I expected that reaction. I think everyone did. But the “welcome back” was so warm and inviting, I was glad to see that he had clearly meant as much to the city as he did to me.

Then, in the bottom of the first inning, while he was in right field, another tribute played. There was video of him tossing in the outfield also being projected, and I watched as he would occasionally glance up at these images of him flashing his greatest Pirate moments.

That was the only time I ever “cried” in a ballpark. My tears were obscured by my sunglasses, so nobody was any the wiser. But what made me cry was more than “just a game.” Prior to 2013, I had only ever known losing. I watched McCutchen play a significant role in bringing the Pirates out of what I’d grown accustomed to: being in the cellar. What made me cry was the truthfulness of the moment and a culmination of years of fanhood. I was happy to be a Pirate fan. I was happy to be in Pittsburgh and at PNC Park.

I was just happy. Just happy to be there and to have experienced McCutchen and to be able to see his return. Those are the moments that make rational and intelligent adults cry over a children’s game. Outsiders fail to realize that it isn’t just a game. It’s an entity which stretches and touches the vast reaches of our lives, that connects us to one another, and that introduces us to people we never would’ve otherwise known, like Andrew McCutchen.