Wednesday, July 16, 2014

McCutchen's star shines brighest in Pittsburgh

In sports, the tragedy of greatness is that it is often not appreciated while it is being achieved. Too often, even the greatest individual talents are swallowed up by a focus on the day-to-day grind.
Fortunately, it seems Pirates fans know what they’re watching in Andrew McCutchen. They are seeing the best years of a possible Hall of Fame career, years that may well yield consecutive MVP awards.
McCutchen’s stock has risen dramatically over the last few years. It wouldn’t be a stretch to say his star is burning brightest in a town packed with luminaries.
That’s right. In a city that Sidney Crosby and Ben Roethlisberger now call home, McCutchen may be the biggest star.
Yes, Crosby and Roethlisberger have delivered championships. They have met and exceeded incredibly high expectations. They have overcome career threatening injuries. Suggesting that McCutchen has currently eclipsed them does not mean that they have diminished at all.
The idea of McCutchen as this city’s preeminent sports star is more about his meteoric rise than anything else.
Major League Baseball draft picks are not sure things. Even first-round picks often fail to make more than a passing appearance in the big leagues. High school players are especially high risk/reward choices.
A realistic hope for McCutchen would have been that he become a steady, solid contributor for the Pirates. In baseball, even five-tool talents are hemmed in with tempered expectations.
The Pirates would have been happy with a good ballplayer, maybe a possible All-Star. They got an earth-scorching beast instead.
McCutchen has every quality fans and management hope for in a star athlete. He has improved steadily on the field every season and currently leads the league in walks, hits and total bases. He can hit for power to all fields and yet has not sacrificed batting average to do so.
His speed makes him dangerous not only on the bases, but allows him to run down almost any fly ball. He appears by all accounts to be the consummate teammate, well-liked and well-respected by his peers.
Perhaps most impressively, he possesses the “it” quality that is mentioned whenever the best of the best are discussed. That was never more on display than this past Saturday in Cincinnati, when his game-tying and game-winning home runs salvaged what could have been a disastrous road trip.
McCutchen seems unfazed by the prospect of carrying the Pirates for long stretches. That is important, because such play has been necessary on a pretty regular basis.
Off the field, McCutchen is never seen doing anything untoward, says all the right things and embraces the attention that his charisma naturally attracts. He’s a great ambassador for the city and seems to actually enjoy playing here.
Perhaps most impressively, McCutchen has made the Pirates cool and relevant again. The cool factor is easy to understand. He has style and swagger and backs up every ounce of it with his play.
Bringing the Pirates back to relevance was a tougher task. In 2009, McCutchen came into a situation that seemed hopeless. He didn’t blink. In 2012, he was borderline herculean in June and July, but the team collapsed in spectacular fashion all around him.
Last season, he was nearly as good statistically and led the Pirates to an unthinkable 94-win season and a postseason berth. Championships are the gold standard for any athlete, but being the primary force that pulled the Pirates out of a two-decade abyss is just as impressive.
The scary thing about McCutchen is that he has room to get better. The even scarier thing for the rest of baseball is that he probably will.
Players of McCutchen’s caliber hardly ever come along. Anyone that can elevate himself on or above the level of Crosby and Roethlisberger in this town is special.
Pirates fans, make sure to occasionally stop and appreciate what you’re seeing. It is a career that as of now seems destined for Cooperstown.
Chris Mueller is the co-host of The Starkey & Mueller Show weekdays from 2-6 p.m. on 93.7 The Fan.

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