Sunday, March 01, 2015

Pirates must pay for Mr. Right

Sunday, March 1, 2015, 12:01 a.m.

Pittsburgh Pirates' Pedro Alvarez, left, and Andrew McCutchen wait in the batting cage during a baseball spring training workout in Bradenton, Fla., Thursday, Feb. 26, 2015. Photo: Gene J. Puskar, AP / AP
Pittsburgh Pirates' Pedro Alvarez, left, and Andrew McCutchen wait in the batting cage during a spring training workout in Bradenton, Fla., Thursday, Feb. 26, 2015. Photo: Gene J. Puskar, AP
There are 12 pictures, all in black and white, that line the wall of a hallway leading from the clubhouse to the fields at Pirate City. The pictures are of Pirates Hall of Famers, beginning with Honus Wagner and ending with Bill Mazeroski.

“We're waiting on some company,” Mazeroski said. “And Andrew… oh, well, Andrew would be great.”

He's absolutely right. Let's not ignore the something that everybody has started thinking.

Andrew McCutchen could be an all-time Pirate. And $25 million a year — the annual salary the Trib's Rob Biertempfel reported last week was possible on a McCutchen extension — would be a small price for the Pirates to pay if it meant making their best player a Pirate for life.

If not McCutchen, a 28-year-old former National League MVP playing on a team coming off consecutive postseason appearances and picked by many to win their division, then who? Who will ever become the next Pirates icon? Who will get the chance to add his picture to that Wall of Fame all Pirates players walk past every spring?

No. 22, that's who becomes picture No. 13. If not McCutchen, maybe nobody ever again will go all the way with the Pirates.

“I think we all reminisce about players dating a team for a long time,” Pirates president Frank Coonelly said. “When it happens — Cal Ripken with the Orioles, Derek Jeter and the Yankees, maybe Sidney Crosby for the Penguins — it's really special.

“We'd like that to be Andrew. He's a generational player for the Pirates.”


On Saturday, after about four hours of hitting, fielding and running drills, McCutchen sat through a filmed interview with the Baseball Hall of Fame and then posed for a photo shoot with ESPN The Magazine. He was tired upon waking up.

Those off-field activities capped what felt like a week of West Coast doubleheaders. On Feb. 21, McCutchen filmed game-night videos that will be shown on PNC Park's video board. The next seven days brought a lot more: “bumpers” (TV promos) for Root Sports Pittsburgh; sit-down conversations with Fox Sports 1, MLB Network, and Pittsburgh- and Florida-based broadcast crews; web videos for; staged pictures for the Pirates and Nike; and a commercial for Sony.

That is a lot of action for a New York Yankee let alone a Pittsburgh Pirate, according to a former Yankee who would know.

“He's Derek Jeter in a different city,” said backup catcher Chris Stewart, who played two seasons with Jeter. “Andrew could do all of this in New York. That's just the type of person he is. He just happens to be in Pittsburgh.”

But he won't finish up in Pittsburgh, right? Barry Bonds didn't, and he was the best Pirate since Roberto Clemente. Money talks, and Pirates walk. We've all read this story. We're all counting down to 2018, which will mark McCutchen's last summer in Pittsburgh.

I'm not so sure.

On Saturday, I caught myself wondering whether McCutchen might be developing a kindred spirit with the greatest Pirate, Roberto Clemente, who appreciated that his stardom could be used for a greater good.

McCutchen and I talked about his contribution to The Players' Tribune, an online site that affords athletes the chance to work with professional writers and tell their own story. McCutchen's “Left Out” dropped in January, and I explained to him my theory that the piece took Pittsburgh's best baseball player and turned him into something much bigger, somebody who was more than a collection of awesome statistics.

“The influence,” McCutchen said.

The best part of superstardom, McCutchen said, are the opportunities it provides “to get my name out there, to get opportunities to give attention” to things he believes in.

He believes baseball can deliver hope and help to poor people.

McCutchen could have written about being a standout black player in a sport that has lost a generation of black athletes to basketball and football. That's what everybody was expecting. But people of all colors are impoverished, he said. Families of all colors face tough choices, he said.
“Left Out” referenced black baseball players once, in the 14th of 18 paragraphs.

We would all do well to remember that what makes McCutchen “Cutch” is his penchant to defy expectations. He's never pigeonholed. He's always becoming something more. The leadoff hitter turns into the middle-of-the-order MVP. The next-Pirate-to-leave turns into the Pirate-who-stayed. The potential voice of black baseball becomes an example for low-income people of any color.

“I feel I have the voice to be able to speak,” McCutchen said, seeming as if he soon will start speaking on a lot more.

“Earlier, I feel like people would have been, like, ‘Who's this guy?' ”

I suspect we're just getting to that answer. And I wonder if the comparison no Pirate player would ever want — the next Clemente ­— is one McCutchen can run down, if only ownership permits him the opportunity.


There are reasonable guesses. McCutchen is close to his representatives, who want him in New York or Los Angeles. He dearly loves his wife, who is from DuBois. There are other possibilities, but there isn't a clear answer to a question that will determine the future of the Pirates on and off the field, not to mention the perception of them in Pittsburgh and around baseball.

Who makes the call on “Cutch”?

If McCutchen isn't the next Clemente, he's at least the next Bonds. And let's hope history doesn't repeat itself.

The lesson to be remembered from Bonds' epic tenure — yeah, it was epic: he won two MVPs and produced three division titles — is to not let the franchise player reach free agency. Bonds did, left for San Francisco, and the Pirates didn't win again for 20 seasons.

The franchise went on life support. The fans went into a collective coma. Only the tax-payer-funded construction of PNC Park prevented the ship from sinking, or at least moving on.

History will show McCutchen pulled the Pirates from the depths, and so will the bank statements (if we ever could get them).

“I don't think you can quantify his value with any hard numbers like jersey sales, tickets, etc.,” Coonelly said.

I don't think anybody can quantify the damage that would be done by McCutchen not forever playing as a Pirate. His departure would devastate every young fan to have found baseball the past three years. His leaving would forever lose the faith of the public and private sectors.

Signing McCutchen to an extension he deserves (at least $22 million annually) would be a huge risk to a franchise with an on-field budget, but it also is the cost of doing business for a franchise that finally found its footing among the other beloved teams in a City of Champions.

The Pirates are nowhere near a high-payroll team, having cracked $90 million for the first time. Their regional TV deal is nowhere near the $75 million the Arizona Diamondbacks reportedly will receive annually. Their attendance was around 2.4 million last season, but that is nowhere near the 3 million that really makes for great baseball towns.

Owner Bob Nutting probably does “love seeing (McCutchen) in a Pirates uniform.” However, even a game-changing, system-bucking, creative contract for McCutchen probably wouldn't allow the Pirates to keep him and still have the means to build a winner around him.

Yet, over the past three days at Pirate City, I keep looking at that wall and those 12 pictures. When my gaze isn't stuck there, it's locked on Mazeroski walking around the four baseball fields and batting cages.

“I see what you're saying,” said Neil Walker, the Pirate from Pine-Richland who like the rest of us has been waiting a long time for a Next One. “There's no next guy.”

McCutchen might just be the last player to have what it takes to become the 13th picture on that wall.
That makes him priceless, and it leaves the Pirates with no choice but to pay him.

Think about the future, Mr. Nutting. Yours. Ours. And all those players who will keep looking to that wall at Pirate City.

Rob Rossi is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at or via Twitter @RobRossi_Trib.

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