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Back in black; McCutchen mixes nostalgia and hope in return

  • By Will Graves/The Associated Press
Pittsburgh Pirates' Andrew McCutchen waits his turn in the batting cage before the Pirates home opener baseball game against the Chicago White Sox in Pittsburgh, Friday, April, 7, 2023. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

Pittsburgh Pirates' Andrew McCutchen waits his turn in the batting cage before the Pirates home opener baseball game against the Chicago White Sox in Pittsburgh, Friday, April, 7, 2023. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

The echoes of that electric October night nearly a decade ago when PNC Park shook and the Pittsburgh Pirates exorcised a generation of futility remain fresh to Andrew McCutchen.

Johnny Cueto dropped the ballRussell Martin homered and McCutchen and the Pirates celebrated a 2013 wild-card victory that rekindled a city’s love affair with a franchise that spent decades in Major League Baseball’s wilderness.

The veteran outfielder still holds the moment close. Just not too close. He’s wary of getting too steeped in nostalgia, one of the reasons he’s repeatedly stressed his second stint with the club that drafted him in 2005 and helped mold him into a five-time All-Star is not a farewell tour.

So consider the way McCutchen approached Friday’s home opener against the Chicago White Sox — his first appearance at PNC Park as a member of the Pirates since Sept. 27, 2017 — as more of a history lesson.

There was McCutchen’s mother Petrina singing the national anthem, just as she did before home playoff games nearly a decade ago.

There were Martin and A.J. Burnett — linchpins of the organization’s brilliant if brief rebirth in the early 2010s — connecting on the first pitch.

There were thousands of fans clad in black at McCutchen’s urging looking to recapture a feeling that’s largely been gone since the cold January day in 2018 when McCutchen was traded to San Francisco. There were chants of “MVP!” when he stepped into the batter’s box and a loud roar when his first at-bat ended with a sharp single up the middle.

The vibe provided a needed reminder of what once was. And a taste of what McCutchen believes can be once again.

“I just want to have some kind of hope,” McCutchen said. “Even if it is something that happened 10 years ago. That’s a moment in history that will forever be painted in my memory bank. Why not bring it back to life, even if it is back for a day?”

The goal of the organization and McCutchen — who signed a one-year deal worth $5 million in mid-January — is to find a way to put together a compelling product like the one the Pirates produced regularly from 2013-15 when they reached the playoffs three times with the then-dreadlocked McCutchen as the unquestioned charismatic leader.

The dreadlocks are long gone. And a decade removed from his 2013 NL MVP Award, McCutchen is more elder statesman than budding young star.

It’s a role he’s embracing, in part because he knows he doesn’t have much choice. It comes with the territory when the stands are dotted with your familiar No. 22 jersey and your name is synonymous with the last period of success for a franchise that’s coming off four straight last-place finishes in the NL Central.

Yes, McCutchen knows his primary job is to produce at the plate and occasionally on the field. Yet he’s well aware that what he says and does off it could be just as important for a team that believes it is in the nascent stages of building a contender.

“I have an understanding of who I am as a person and a player and know the way I go about my business,” he said. “I understand the weight that it carries behind.”

Pirates second-year shortstop Oneil Cruz — all of 24 years old and every bit of 6-feet-7 — is the new face of the franchise, a StatCast-breaking phenom still trying to harness his considerable talent. If he needs help navigating the early stages of potential stardom, Cruz need only look across the clubhouse.

“Cruz is able to watch a guy that started his career here and how we transition,” Pittsburgh manager Derek Shelton said. “Cutch is able to answer questions about what we need to do, how we need to go about it.”

The early returns are encouraging. The Pirates went 4-2 on a season-opening six-game road trip that included a sweep in Boston, tangible proof of the potential McCutchen saw when he was weighing whether to come back to Pittsburgh.

Still, it’s early. McCutchen knows building from the ground up is a process. It took him eight years to go from first-round draft pick to National League Most Valuable Player. He’s not in a hurry. If anything, he plans on appreciating his second go-round with the Pirates more than he did the first.

There was a palpable sense of relief when he breezed past the visitor’s clubhouse shortly after getting to work on Friday. A welcome return to normalcy when he settled into the same locker hard against the entrance to the shower and the training room. A broad smile when the sellout crowd rose to its feet to celebrate a reunion once considered unthinkable.

Perhaps most of all, a peace that came with knowing he would drive home after the game to the house he shares with his wife Maria and their three children. No more explaining to them why Dad has to go away for work for long stretches. No more wondering about the connection he forged with a city well before they came along, a connection that could be entering a vibrant new chapter.

“There’s no better feeling,” McCutchen said. “It’s cool. I have been here with no kids and I’ve been here with three. We’re all in newfound territory for all of us. It’s gonna be fun.”

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