Column: A trade, a franchise in ruins and what it all means

Charlie Wolfson


Charlie Wolfson

When Andrew McCutchen was promoted to the big leagues by the Pirates on June 4, 2009, he wasn’t an MVP yet. He wasn’t an immediate all-star, and his team certainly didn’t have the look of a contender. In fact, they lost 99 games that year. It was a stinker of a season for a team that had grown accustomed to failure. 2009 marked the 16th consecutive losing season for the club of Honus Wagner and Roberto Clemente, and a seemingly endless series of failed rebuilds was entering the Neal Huntington era.

There was a hint of what was to come, though, when McCutchen made his debut that day against the New York Mets. He knocked two hits, walked once and scored thrice.

From the start, the fleet-footed center fielder, dreads spraying out of his helmet as he sprinted the basepaths, was different. The team had known a number of good players during its unprecedented run of inferiority: Brian Giles, Jason Kendall and Jason Bay are a few. But ‘Cutch was different. He carried himself with a swagger, a positivity and a wholesome enthusiasm that shined of a player capable of lifting a franchise left for dead.

And lift he did. Though the Pirates trudged through a 105-loss season in 2010, McCutchen’s presence added an energy and hope that had been absent for too long. They proceeded to draft Gerrit Cole first overall, and that season also saw Neil Walker and Pedro Alvarez emerge as bona fide MLB stars.

Between 2011 and 2014, McCutchen’s ascent from being a bright young talent to being one of the kings of the sport captured the hearts of a city that had largely given up on its oldest sports franchise. Even before the Pirates broke through and ended the losing streak in 2013, fans filled the navy blue seats at PNC Park to get a glimpse of their centerfielder zooming around second base or sliding in the outfield grass to make a catch.

He didn’t just bring winning back to Pittsburgh baseball: He made Pittsburghers fall back in love with the game. When the team flirted with success in 2011 and 2012, the park buzzed with an excitement unseen by anyone too young to remember Barry Bonds in black and gold. Crowds bubbled over with exuberance at every surprising win by the club they’d never seen succeed before. Nothing garnered a more adoring reception, though, than McCutchen at-bats. Even when he was in a slump, onlookers showered him with appreciation as his number 22 was announced.

When they made the playoffs in 2013 — the Wild Card win at PNC over Cincinnati remains one of the greatest scenes and moments in Pittsburgh sporting history — it felt like a vindication of McCutchen as an all-time great in Pittsburgh lore. They bowed out in the Division Series, but there was nothing but positivity for the future.

As the team around him grew more talented and more legitimate, the city’s bond with him only grew. He went from being a one-man wrecking crew capable of lifting an entire team on his own to the iconic leader of a team chock-full of heroes, a team that seemed capable of anything — capable of things long thought impossible for this franchise.

Perhaps the most quintessential anecdote of McCutchen’s greatness both as a ballplayer and a citizen came from a game in San Diego on June 1, 2015. The Bucs were in the midst of their first 98-win season since the Flying Dutchman was at short and they called Exposition Park their home. More and more, black and gold jerseys would dot ballparks when the Pirates were on the road.

On this night in San Diego, McCutchen took notice of two boys (they couldn’t have been older than 13 or 14) decked out in Pittsburgh gear, sitting above the outfield fence with their father. In a moving, emotional moment, after the final out was recorded in the Pirates win, the outfielder trotted back to the fence and handed his batting gloves to the two boys. The look of pure, stunned adoration and joy on the kids’ faces tells all that needs to be told of McCutchen’s impact and legacy in Pittsburgh.

As McCutchen jogged away to join his teammates, one of the boys pointed and appeared to shout, “I love you!”

That boy spoke for Pittsburgh.

The 2014 Wild Card loss to the Giants stung, but didn’t squash too much hope for the future. It was a setback, but nothing that couldn’t be put in the rearview mirror.

The 2015 Wild Card loss felt like the beginning of the end for those fast, young, gleeful Pirates. The Cubs had overtaken them in their ascendence, and it seemed unlikely to reverse. That held true: The Cubs won the World Series the following year, and the Pirates missed the playoffs the next two.

And here we are: after a 75-win season in 2017, the dreaded day has arrived. Everyone knew it was coming, but it’s still nearly impossible for Pirates fans to reckon with.

Andrew McCutchen is not a Pirate any longer.

The man who breathed life back into Pittsburgh baseball will wear a new set of colors come April.

It’s profoundly sad that this had to happen. And why does it feel like it “had” to happen? Why did it feel inevitable?

The Pirates couldn’t sanely pay a player of McCutchen’s current caliber (he’s not an MVP candidate any longer) the amount it would take to keep him in the steel city long-term. The reality of MLB not having a salary cap means the Pirates can’t afford to pay anyone more than they are worth in a statistical sense, and often they can’t even afford that much. It’s just that tough in a division with the super-spending Cubs and Cardinals.

The fact that this man won’t get a chance to win a World Series with the club he resurrected is as good an indictment of MLB’s economic setup as there’s been in recent years. The Pirates, particularly their fans, and McCutchen deserve better than this unceremonious end to an era. McCutchen will go down as another great player who did his very best to make Pirates baseball work in the big-salary era, and another one who ultimately couldn’t do it — through no fault of his own. It’s a tragedy, plain and simple.

That the man is being ripped away from his fans and his city, against the wishes of all three of those entities, is enough to make a Pittsburgher physically ill. He named his daughter Steel a couple months ago, for crying out loud. He wanted nothing more than to be a Pirate for life, to humbly add to the legacy of Wagner, Mazeroski, Stargell, Clemente and the rest. The fans desperately wanted it to work out that way, too. Maybe management did as well, it’s hard to know. But it couldn’t work.

There’s plenty of blame to assign, and not to any one place. Huntington and his crew deserve credit for constructing low-budget masterpieces in 2013-2015, but they also deserve scathing reviews for how they let things devolve from a 98-win outfit in 2015 to 75 wins and a fire sale in 2017. Even more blame, perhaps, belongs to MLB’s lack of a salary cap, which not only means the Pirates wouldn’t be able to re-sign McCutchen after this season, but allowed the Cardinals (and, later on, the Cubs) to stay a couple steps ahead of the Pirates during their strong years. Economics is removing McCutchen, but economics is also why they couldn’t break through while he was in Pittsburgh.

Questions abound for the Pirates now: Do they blow it all up and trade Josh Harrison, Francisco Cervelli, David Freese and others? Or do they go for a quicker rebuild and hope to be contenders again sooner? It’s hard to say, and it’s also hard to say that this management team has any concrete plan. Huntington announced as much last month, and made some confounding comments on the topic Monday after announcing the trade.

One question looms in the minds of Pirates fans who will stick with the team going forward: If Andrew McCutchen couldn’t do it, can anyone?

Charlie Wolfson is a long-time Pittsburgh Pirates fan and former sports columnist for The News.

He can be reached at [email protected]