Leading off and playing center field for the National League …

Andrew McCutchen’s history with the Pittsburgh Pirates coincides nearly perfectly with the genesis of this blog. I started writing in April of 2005, and McCutchen was drafted two months later in June. Actually, I was not terrible impressed with the Pirates’ selection:

[McCutchen] put up some amazing numbers in his senior year of high school, but it was unfortunately just that, his senior year of high school. Picking kids straight out of high school always scares me.

I will chalk most of my skepticism up to my skepticism of Dave Littlefield and his scouting staff at the time. I’m also horrified that I was referring to someone just out of high school as a “kid” when I was only 20 years old, but that’s neither here nor there. If you go back to the old WHYGAVS site (which, for the sake of my own personal pride, I’d recommend you don’t do, because sheesh, I was an idiot back then and am unclear how I ever gained an audience), the one that existed before my move to Bloguin in December of 2008, you’ll find three or four pages worth of posts about McCutchen. Simply put, McCutchen was all Pirate fans had for a long time. I can still remember the hope that came with his power surge with Low-A Hickory (the equivalent level of West Virginia now), and how he skipped High-A and stuggle a bit in Altoona, how no one was ever sure that his power would develop.

Our paths continued to sort-of-overlap when I moved to North Carolina; shortly after I moved down here, he was promoted to Indianapolis and the day that my cable was hooked up, he played against the Durham Bulls and I was able to see him on TV. One of the first Bulls games I went to in person came the next summer, when Indianapolis came to town and he faced off with the recently drafted David Price. I’ve talked about this many times, but watching him in the batter’s box that night, seeing how quick his hands were and how powerful his swing was for such a small guy, that was the first time I was really convinced that he was a player worth building around. I can keep going with the memories with eerie accuracy. I was wandering the Franklin Street in Chapel Hill when he got what I’m pretty sure was his first walkoff hit against Indians. I was at a game in Durham watching Indianapolis play when he hit three homers against the Nationals. I remember shutting this game off after the Pirates blew a ninth inning lead, then turning it right back on, which was good because it meant I got to see ‘Cutch’s first walk-off home run and the ensuing leap into home plate that will be an iconic McCutchen moment for forever.

Both at Bucs Dugout and in Dry Land (and geez, if you haven’t read Dry Land yet you really should, because it’s excellent and I feel like a total heel for never having written up a full review/recommendation here on the site) Charlie has written quite a bit about how he doesn’t really have favorite players anymore, because that’s a thing that wears off as you grow up and you get older while baseball players stay the same age. If we’re being perfectly honest, I think that’s why the name of this site resonates with people and that’s why I’ve stuck with it, even though it’s unwieldy and makes an odd acronym. There’s something about watching your favorite player as a little kid that sticks with you for the rest of your life, and you can’t ever really experience that thrill again.

Watching McCutchen’s career has been a different sort of experience for me; it’s been much more of an intellectual thing. When the Pirates drafted him in 2005, I was smart enough to know that the Pirates’ minor league system was more or less empty and that McCutchen represented a beacon of hope for an uncertain future in which maybe he’d lead the Pirates to better days. As he matured through the minors and in his early career, my image of what an ideal Andrew McCutchen and what an ideal Andrew McCutchen lead Pirate team might look like would change from year-to-year, but McCutchen was pretty much always in the middle of it.

Now take a step back. I’m really not one to spend much time thinking about the All-Star Game these days, but you’d have to be a stone-hearted jackass to not be able to admit that Andrew McCutchen batting leadoff and playing center field for the National League All-Star Team is one hell of a cool moment for him and for Pirate fans. McCutchen is the reining MVP, a starter on the All-Star team, and arguably the best position player in the National League right now (I will accept arguments in favor of Troy Tulowitzki or Yasiel Puig, but that’s pretty much it). On top of it all, the Pirates made the playoffs last year, and are in contention at the All-Star Break for the fourth consecutive season.

When the Pirates drafted Andrew McCutchen in 2005, I was so suspicious of the Pirates’ front office that I couldn’t even be excited about a first round draft pick. A few weeks later, I wrote a post about potential Pirate All-Stars that included Daryle Ward near the top of the list. When I watched Andrew McCutchen play for the first time in 2008 and noticed his quick wrists and compact swing, I compared him to Craig Wilson because that was literally the only Pirate I could think of that had those sorts of positive features at the plate. Through all those years, I had this picture in my head of what McCutchen was going to be like and how he would help the Pirates contend, and now it’s 2014, the Pirates are contenders, and McCutchen is even better than I would’ve thought possible in 2008.

I hope that Andrew McCutchen’s MVP isn’t his career highlight in Pittsburgh. I hope his batting leadoff in an All-Star Game isn’t his career highlight in Pittsburgh. I hope that his final Pirate highlight reel includes games like last Saturday’s, only with much higher stakes. I hope he has weeks like he did in June in October. For today, though, it’s worth noting that all of that seems possible from here, after seeming impossible for so very long.

Image: Dan Gaken, Flickr

Pat Lackey

About Pat Lackey

In 2005, I started a WHYGAVS instead of working on organic chemistry homework. Many years later, I've written about baseball and the Pirates for a number of sites all across the internet, but WHYGAVS is still my home. I still haven't finished that O-Chem homework, though.