For some, 2016 Spring Training marks the start of a brand new Major League Baseball season. For others, this time of year marks the height of the presidential primary elections. While many pontificate over who is best suited to lead the country, The Sports Fan Journal fam decided to take a look at which player, manager, or front office member is the best candidate to lead their team to the top of the baseball mountain.
On May 30, 2015, Andrew McCutchen had a typical Andrew McCutchen night. He went 2-3 with a double, walked twice, drove in one run and scored another as his Pittsburgh Pirates beat the San Diego Padres 5-2. It was the Pirates’ eighth win in nine games, a streak that jump-started Pittsburgh to a 98-64 record, the club’s best season since 1991.
The lasting image from that otherwise mundane contest, though, came after the final out. Following Derek Morris’s swinging third strike, McCutchen turned from his centerfield position and ran to the fence. There he met three Pirates fans, two young boys and, presumably, their father who was wearing a “Cutch” shirt. McCutchen handed the more eager of the brothers his batting gloves, fist-bumped the group then returned to his teammates with the routineness of catching a pop-up in shallow center. He didn’t smile.
The boys did and more. The one who took the gloves immediately pointed to his favorite superstar. In an over-sized jersey and a tilted hat, everything in the boy’s being shook with excitement. He fought a grin and lost, while his brother and father went crazy next to him.
The highlight made the rounds on social media. Vine captured it perfectly—it should be watched into infinity. McCutchen gave those kids the memory of a lifetime and whoever clicked play a mesmerizing display of positivity.
We need more of those in this world. We could use more Andrew McCutchen’s, too.
To the Pirates, McCutchen means everything. He’s a bona fide five-tool player, a perennial MVP candidate (four top-five finishes in the last four seasons including the 2013 award), a Gold Glove winner and the driving force behind the sport’s greatest rebirth of the past 30 years. Pittsburgh endured 20 consecutive losing seasons after the departure of Barry Bonds in 1992. Now the Bucco’s, behind McCutchen, are aiming for their fourth postseason berth in a row. A ticket to the beautiful PNC Park, once the game’s best bargain, has become a coveted item.
To baseball, McCutchen means even more. In 2012, TSFJ’s Matt Whitener wrote about the star’s rise and impact in a sport that was quickly declining in the black community:
(McCutchen) is what the face, the very image of the game, has been missing. He is a shining representative of a fading dynamic in the game: the Black ballplayer. When you look at McCutchen, you see a very common image of the times but perhaps not baseball. With his dreads flying behind him, he’s not the norm of what baseball showcases, ever. But when he takes his place at bat or in the field, it all becomes both very familiar and very rare at the same time.
And McCutchen—like contemporaries Adam Jones, Jimmy Rollins and the recently retired Torii Hunter among others—takes pride in that role. After the Jackie Robinson West Little League scandal hit the news last winter, McCutchen penned an article for The Players Tribune titled “Left Out,” in which he lamented the financial burdens of the sport. He argued that the high costs of equipment, travel, team fees and year-round training kept poor families—many of them inner-city black families—out of baseball. McCutchen was widely praised for the piece.
Then he went about setting an example on the field. He made his fifth consecutive All-Star Game, put together a .292/.401/.488 slash line, finished fifth in National League MVP voting and played full effort every night.
As Whitener alluded to almost four years ago, McCutchen is a throwback to the sport’s great black players in a city where they’ve thrived. Pittsburgh has long been a center of African-American baseball, from Josh Gibson with the Homestead Grays to Willie “Pops” Stargell and the “We Are Family” Pirates of the 1970’s. The latter group fielded the majors’ first all-minority lineup in 1971, a year the Pirates upset the Baltimore Orioles in the World Series. They would add a second championship in 1979.
McCutchen hopes to lead this iteration of Pirates to those heights and more. There’s young talent on the pitching staff and rising stars around the diamond. In fact, it was second baseman Starling Marte, and not McCutchen, who led Pittsburgh with 5.4 WAR in 2015.
But there’s no mutiny to be had. McCutchen represents the past, present and future of both the Pirates and baseball as a whole. His grace in the field recalls Roberto Clemente, his poise at the plate Ralph Kiner and Honus Wagner. If it weren’t for phenoms like Mike Trout and Bryce Harper, he’d have a hold on the title of best all-around player in the game.
Pirates fans, starved for their first World Series in 37 years, would likely take McCutchen over his younger counterparts in a heartbeat. For them, he evokes the same emotions we saw from those boys in San Diego: hope, joy.
Philadelphia born. Raised in God’s country aka Duluth, Minnesota. Give me a frozen pond and an open pitch and I’ll be happy. Follow me on twitter @noclassfriday