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March 19, 2013

McCutchen becomes Pirates’ star attraction

BRADENTON, Fla. — Andrew McCutchen walked to the podium, brushed back his trademark dreadlocks, unfolded a sheet of paper and took a deep breath.

The Pittsburgh Pirates All-Star centerfielder looked across the massive ballroom at the Dapper Dan Awards – think Pittsburgh’s version of the ESPYs – while accepting the 2012 Sportsman of the Year honor in January and cleared his throat.

“I don’t do this a lot,” McCutchen said.

Maybe, but he better get used to it. It kind of comes with the territory when you become the face of a franchise, particularly one in desperate need of a karmic turnaround.

It wasn’t always this way. Some of the greatest players in the history of the game have worn Pittsburgh’s black-and-gold. Roberto Clemente. Honus Wagner. Willie Stargell. Barry Bonds.

There have been a few potential successors since Bonds abandoned Pittsburgh following the 1992 season, though things have never quite worked out.

Jason Kendall made three National League All-Star teams but couldn’t lift the Pirates out of mediocrity in nine dutiful years.

Jason Bay came next, winning Rookie of the Year in 2004. He seemed to be the cornerstone the team needed to build around. There’s even a parking level named for Bay at a garage a block from PNC Park.

In both cases, the always bottom-line conscious Pirates traded away their most valuable assets before losing them on the open market. Ditto Nate McLouth, Aramis Ramirez and Freddy Sanchez and a host of others who have found greater success – not to mention a bigger paycheck – away from the Steel City.

Pittsburgh management insists the days of being a farm system for teams with deeper pockets are over.

Perhaps more importantly, McCutchen does too. That’s why he agreed to a six-year $51-million contract extension last spring,  a deal that looks like a bargain after the dazzling McCutchen put together one of the finest seasons in recent memory.

He hit .327 with 31 homers and 96 RBIs in 2012, finished third in NL MVP voting, made his second straight All-Star team and won both a Silver Slugger and a Gold Glove. He also helped Pittsburgh to tie its best record since Bonds left town.

His greatest feat, however, may be the way he’s made the Pirates relevant.

McCutchen’s No. 22 jersey was the sixth-most popular in all of baseball last year, ahead of guys like Chipper Jones and Justin Verlander. His face graces the cover of a popular video game series and the commercials promoting the game feature everything about McCutchen that makes him an advertiser’s dream. There’s the brilliant smile, the comic timing and the demeanor of a guy who is at ease with his own success.

That sense of self, McCutchen insists, will not change no matter how high his Q-rating climbs.

“I’m going to be me,” McCutchen said shortly after spring training opened last month. “That’s what got me here. I’m not going to start changing now.”

There’s no need. Don’t get him wrong, he certainly enjoys the trappings of success. His paycheck will climb from $500,000 to $4.5 million this season. The video game – and his ease in the commercials – makes him a household name for a demographic that has struggled making a connection with the national pastime.

McCutchen could help change that. Maybe because he’s a gamer too. It wasn’t uncommon a couple years ago for McCutchen to turn on the Playstation3 in his locker after batting practice and go online to play a little “Call of Duty” to clear his mind 90 minutes before the first pitch.

Don’t mistake that method of relaxation for a lack of passion. He loves playing. Though he played football and ran track as a kid growing up in Fort Meade, Fla., baseball took hold early and has not let go.

The proof lay in McCutchen’s first at-bat this spring. While manager Clint Hurdle massaged the lineup and gave a few of Pittsburgh’s expected regulars the day off during the home opener at McKechnie on Feb. 24, McCutchen was in his familiar spot in the three-hole. When he bounced a chopper to shortstop that was fielded cleanly, McCutchen unleashed the speed that has seen him clocked at 6.2 seconds in the 60-yard dash.

“The guy just flat out flies,” Philadelphia Phillies centerfielder Ben Revere said. “You can’t help but like watching a guy that plays like that.”

There are few things in baseball quite as breathtaking as McCutchen – dreadlocks seeming to create a black vapor trail behind him – trying to stretch a hit for extra bases or chase down a ball in the quirky outfield at his home park.

McCutchen understands his importance on a franchise trying to end two decades of losing. He doesn’t feel, however, that his role has to change to help make that happen. He’s not one to throw things or call a team meeting. He never has been. That’s not going to change no matter how many zeroes are on his paycheck.

“I’m not a real rah-rah guy that’s going to raise my voice,” McCutchen said. “However, it something needs to be said, I’m willing to stand up and say it. I feel I’ve reached the point in my career where I can do that. But I’m never going to make a big scene or make a big deal out of it. I say what I have to say and that’s it.”

That’s more than fine by his teammates and his manager. Clint Hurdle has been on teams with superstars who demand the spotlight and ones who would prefer to just go do their job. In a way, McCutchen is both.

“You look at the way Andrew plays, the way he prepares and there’s no question he has the respect of the players in that room,” Hurdle said. “When he says something, his teammates know to take it seriously.”

And make no mistake, McCutchen is serious about returning Pittsburgh to the postseason. He was as disgusted as anyone in last summer’s swoon. And he’s just as committed to making sure it’s not going to happen again.

“He’s going to do everything in his power to make this franchise as successful as it can be,” owner Bob Nutting said.

That includes sticking around. The contract extension offers tangible proof McCutchen believes in the direction the Pirates are heading. If he continues to develop – he won’t turn 27 until October – he may be one of the best values in baseball even as his salary escalates.

The only certainty around the Pirates for most of the last 20 years has been uncertainty. McCutchen is trying to change that one at bat, one smile, one “is that him?” stare at a time.

“The way I look at it, people are going to notice you for one of two reasons, if you do something good or you do something bad,” he said. “At least, they’re noticing me for doing something good.”

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