Gerrit Cole on Saturday. That news was a jolt to the system and the harbinger of what became a pretty terrible weekend for Pittsburgh sports.
Andrew McCutchen on Monday. That was a crushing blow to morale.
If the decision to move Cole on Saturday caused a flare-up of frustrated fan reactions, Monday’s news that McCutchen was traded to the San Francisco Giants created a Vesuvius-like eruption of emotions.
Simply put, McCutchen was the face of the Pittsburgh Pirates from Day 1 of his major-league career in 2009. That face saw the depths of the team’s never-ending rebuild and an all-too-short peak of relevance from 2013-15 when the Corsairs made three consecutive trips to the postseason. While many others contributed great things in that run, McCutchen was the Pirates.
Even during McCutchen’s statistical decline – with a productivity resurgence late in 2017 – the Pirates were his team. In an outfield with young talents like Starling Marte and Gregory Polanco, McCutchen was the guy who had been on the ship when it was sitting in the bottom of the ocean and was the biggest cog in its resurfacing.
If you’ve followed the Pirates from 2009-on, there’s likely a favorite Andrew McCutchen moment … Or about 22.
I’ll leave two of mine below. Explanations as to why would only get in the way of the moments.
McCutchen’s contribution to the Pittsburgh Pirates extends beyond his career numbers of a .291 batting average, 203 home runs, 725 RBIs, a WAR of 40.0, the 171 stolen bases, a Gold Glove in 2012, the 1,346 times that McCutchen took the field wearing a Pirates uniform. McCutchen meant more to the Pirates than his 2013 National League MVP, though he meant everything to the club over nine seasons.
He meant everything to Pirates fans as the outlook went from hoping for relevance in his early years to wanting Octobers to never end during his peak.
Those three seasons provided the most electric summers in Pittsburgh during my lifetime. In that span, the Pirates showed the world that Pittsburgh can be the most enthusiastic market in the majors. There are still chills running through me when recalling the Pirates’ wild-card win over the Cincinnati Reds in 2013. It was a night that made every failure from 1993 to 2012 worth it. There were heroes other than McCutchen on that evening. But it was McCutchen’s call to arms on Twitter for PNC Park to be blacked out with the overflow crowd summoned to wear black that created the visuals long burned into the minds of Pirates fans.
When Cutch commanded, fans listened.
McCutchen was the first name linked to the Pirates when the club won 94 games in 2013, 88 in 2014 and 98 in 2015. The kid from Fort Meade, Florida, not only got the significance behind the role of being the face of the team’s return to prominence, he embraced everything about ingraining himself in the community beyond the ballpark overlooking the Allegheny River.
Maybe that’s why the reaction has been what it’s been. Andrew McCutchen was the reason many fans in Pittsburgh – and beyond the world – believed in the Pirates again.
Now … He’s a Giant. It was a move that happened on Jan. 15. With 78 days between the moment of the news breaking and the Pirates’ home opener on April 2.
There was never a chance to properly say goodbye because while a trade involving McCutchen was a possibility in the previous offseason, it never came to fruition.
It happened on Monday, in the cold of winter with no chance to send McCutchen off the grass at PNC Park with the kind of applause where (good) broadcasters get out of the way and let the emotion of the moment tell the story.
In the end, there are few wrong ways to react. Even in the most irrational ways.
There are fans that are enraged, viewing this as another salary dump for a notoriously-frugal franchise. In many cases, the refusal to dump large sums of money into the major-league payroll is a sign that ownership cares more about the bottom line than anything else. A large percentage of the enraged – many who are likely just beaten down from the 20 years of losing – have taken to swearing off trips to PNC Park as a way of sticking it to the franchise and its finances. Those voices will be the loudest in the giant living room created by social media, and that’s fine.
Some are heartbroken. The heart and soul of the Pirates will no longer occupy a spot in the outfield at PNC Park, save a visit in mid-May and any other time that McCutchen makes a trip to Pittsburgh through the remainder of his career. Anything short of a tear-jerking applause when McCutchen steps into the batter’s box in 2unfamiliar colors in May will be stunning. it will also get very dusty in whatever room I happen to be in when that moment happens.
A sect will also point out that the trade doesn’t reduce the Pirates’ chances of winning a World Series in 2018. It’s harder to find a number lower than absolute zero. It’s just the reality when it’s taken into consideration that the club bet on its farm in 2015 en route to maintaining the successes of a 98-win season. It didn’t pan out. The window slammed shut without warning. This move simply boarded that window as the Pirates search for a new one to pry open with different tools.
As the club sheds some of its biggest trade pieces, the returns cannot replace the impact that McCutchen held in the community. It’ll be an impact visually represented by fans still wearing McCutchen jerseys, t-jerseys, shirts emblazoned with his image or kids emulating his mannerisms, stance, and apparel preferences.
Trying to replicate McCutchen’s on- and off-field impact would be foolish. The added swagger from McCutchen was his and his alone.
But like McCutchen and the Pirates will do in their respective ways, it’s time to move on while appreciating what his time with the club meant.
Thank you, Andrew.