Watch that clip up there. It says all there is to say about what Andrew McCutchen meant to Pirates fans in general, and to Pittsburgh in particular. For a long time, it was damn near impossible to imagine a Pirates player who possessed enough star power to affect young fans like that. Now that McCutchen is gone, it’s fair to wonder if it can ever happen again.
McCutchen arrived in Pittsburgh in June 2009, five years after he was taken 11th overall in the draft. The Steelers had just won the Super Bowl, and the Penguins were about to win the Stanley Cup. The Pirates, by contrast, were the neighbors who never mowed the lawn and who always left bags of trash to rot on the front porch. They were closing in on a record of their own: a 17th consecutive losing season, the longest in the history of North American sports—a mark that would eventually reach 20 before it finally, mercifully came to an end. In large part thanks to Andrew McCutchen.
McCutchen came to Pittsburgh offering the rarest sort of promise. The Pirates from 1993 until McCutchen certainly had their share of talented players—Jason Kendall, Brian Giles, Jason Bay, Aramis Ramirez—but here was an honest-to-goodness prospect whose ascent through the minors merited attention. For all the solid players the team had developed and invariably lost, McCutchen was something different—a talent who inspired questions like Could Andrew McCutchen be The One who would Change Everything? in absolute earnest, from fans who had learned to take no for an answer.
It might have been possible to think happy thoughts like that, but it was impossible to say such a thing out loud. Two decades of cartoonish organizational ineptitude had robbed even the most romantic optimists of any illusions. An entire generation of young people had come of age thinking Pirates games were a dull opening act for the ballpark fireworks display that followed. That’s what’s so revealing about the pure elation in the faces of those young fans in that clip up there. They didn’t exist until Andrew McCutchen came along. Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Jerome Bettis, Troy Polamalu—they’re all contemporaries of McCutchen, and they’re all civic treasures in Pittsburgh, largely because they all delivered championships. McCutchen didn’t do that, but he did make baseball relevant in that town again. It might be the more extraordinary feat.
McCutchen went 2-for-4 with a walk and three runs scored in his big-league debut. Two months later, he hit a walkoff homer to beat Brad Lidge and the Phillies, the defending World Series champions. He punctuated the moment with an iconic leap into the crowd of teammates gathered at home plate.
That joie de vivre was an enormous part of the appeal. McCutchen played with an uncommon flair that turned routine moments into entertaining bursts of happiness. That kind of joy, that fun, was infectious and inviting. Especially when it was an appetizer to actual winning. As McCutchen’s star steadily rose, it did the added work of dragging the Pirates right out of the gutter. There were cruel teases in 2011 and 2012, but by 2013, he was the National League MVP, the losing streak stopped, and the Pirates even hosted a wild-card game. The guttural roar that famously filled the ballpark that night had been pent up for 20 years. I just watched that clip of Johnny Cueto dropping the ball again. I still can’t believe anything about that night ever happened.
Management never built on the Pirates’ narrow, three-year window of winning—a run that of course coincided with the success of in-division rivals like the Cubs and Cardinals. McCutchen regressed badly in 2016 and was the constant subject of trade rumors last offseason; his departure was only a matter of time. He bounced back somewhat last year, but the ball was juiced and the team stunk anyway. The tear-down began with Saturday’s Gerrit Cole trade. Two days later, McCutchen would be gone, too.
Now what? The Pirates are a middling, boring-ass team again. They have some promising prospects, but no Andrew McCutchen of the future, let alone the present. There isn’t much to look forward to, and as long as owner Bob Nutting is around, things will likely stay that way for a long time. Again, watch that clip up there of those children. It sure was fun while it lasted.