As Andrew McCutchen moves on, he can’t help but take Pittsburgh with him

Andrew McCutchen watches from the dugout during his first spring training game with the San Francisco Giants on Friday, Feb. 23 in Scottsdale, Ariz. (Steph Chambers/Post-Gazette)

His nine seasons with the Pirates are finished. Now the Giants outfielder is embracing change — on the field, in the clubhouse and at home

A cup of coffee is waiting in Andrew McCutchen’s locker when he walks into the clubhouse. “I think you’ll like it,” says Austin Jackson, the other 31-year-old offseason addition to the San Francisco Giants outfield, from five seats away. “Surprisingly smooth.” He spied McCutchen drinking the clubhouse stuff a few days earlier and figured the new dad could use some higher-grade fuel, so he stopped by a coffee shop on his drive to the ballpark.

The clock in the corner of the room blinks 8:04 a.m., five hours before the Giants’ spring training opener here at Scottsdale Stadium. It feels a little like the first day of the rest of McCutchen’s baseball life. The orange is the only part he’ll have to get used to, McCutchen reasons, since he already wore black in Pittsburgh. But the adjustments go far beyond jersey colors.

McCutchen thanks Jackson and sits, taking his place at the end of a row of lockers representing the 2018 Giants’ version of a murderers’ row. The next stall over belongs to Evan Longoria, followed by Buster Posey, Madison Bumgarner, Hunter Pence and the club’s lost-and-found cubby, which apparently is not meant metaphorically following the Giants’ 98-loss season last year.

Andrew McCutchen (Steph Chambers/Post-Gazette)

Andrew McCutchen (Steph Chambers/Post-Gazette)

Now McCutchen is part of what is, on paper, the most star-studded roster he’s been on in the majors, a team constructed in a way the Pirates never would, never could with him. In this clubhouse, McCutchen isn’t the center of attention. Some days that’s Posey or Bumgarner or Mark Melancon or Johnny Cueto, and other days it’s the greatest legend the Giants ever had.

There’s a small table about 5 feet from McCutchen’s seat. When he walked in after workouts the previous day, he found an old man in a puffy Giants jacket holding court. The man was Willie Mays. The Hall of Famer recognized McCutchen in a heartbeat. Mays, 86, asked McCutchen where the Giants plan to play him. Right field, McCutchen said. Mays preferred him in center, his own former position. McCutchen beamed. It was powerful, he says, to meet a man like that.

“Willie Mays was — and is — the guy,” McCutchen marvels the next morning. “He’s the man. He’s been through it all. I can’t wait to be able to actually sit down for a little longer and pick his brain, ask him all types of questions, questions I’ve always wanted to ask an all-time great like him.”

Meeting Mays is one of the snippets McCutchen says he’s storing away to tell his son one day. For now, 3-month-old Steel, whose name McCutchen swears has nothing to do with Pittsburgh, doesn’t retain many memories. He won’t remember this debut, this chilly Friday in February when his father first played in a Giants uniform. He won’t remember this chapter of his father’s career, a contract year in San Francisco wedged in front of free agency.

He won’t remember his father’s nine seasons with the Pirates. They ended before Steel arrived.


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Andrew McCutchen makes his way to the outfield during his first spring training game with the Giants. (Steph Chambers/Post-Gazette)

Across the room, where relievers are parked, Derek Law is telling the story of a dark day this winter. It was Jan. 15, and Law awoke hungover and rankled. He decided it would be the worst Monday in recent history. “I was like, this day [stinks],” recalls Law, a Seton-La Salle Catholic High School grad who still resides in Pittsburgh. “There’s nothing to look forward to this week.”

Law had spent the previous day at Heinz Field, frozen by arctic winds and tortured by the Steelers in their playoff loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars. He still seethed the next morning. Pittsburgh sports fans were reeling after a rough weekend. The Pirates traded Gerrit Cole on Saturday. The Steelers collapsed Sunday. And Monday? The answer came when Law paused mid-workout at his Mt. Lebanon gym and fished for his phone. He found a flurry of texts from friends asking about a McCutchen trade. Law opened Twitter and started to see headlines.

McCutchen and his wife, Maria, were putting their newborn down for a nap at their home north of the city. The trade wasn’t officially executed for another few hours, but the ax already was in motion. The McCutchens had braced for a trade for over a year. Now they finally knew their next destination. “Once it happened, it happened,” McCutchen says, “That was that.”

McCutchen won’t dive too deeply into his thoughts about his Pirates career. Not yet. He was one of the last to go from a core that turned around a losing team and took it to the playoffs three times. From his perspective, McCutchen says, perhaps there were times when the front office failed to make moves that would have put the team over the top. Production plummeted these past two years, as did win totals, and at times McCutchen’s bat was part of the problem. He says he never requested a trade, even when it was clear the front office had changed its course.

“I don’t play GM,” McCutchen says. “That ain’t my job.”

For Law, the split was bittersweet. He was born Sept. 14, 1990, near the end of Barry Bonds’ first MVP season in Pittsburgh. Law was in high school before the Pirates produced another franchise player, and in rookie ball before they produced another winning season. The first jersey Law owned was McCutchen’s No. 22. He still has it stashed in his closet.

“He was that superstar we never had,” Law says. “That’s why the city gravitated toward him. He was so likable. It was like, finally, we have that guy.”

Now that guy is in Giants camp, gone the way of Bonds.

“All my friends are [angry],” Law says, and he doesn’t blame them. A few days after the trade, Law started noticing more Pittsburgh people walking past wearing Giants gear. He suspected it wasn’t because they’d just found out a local kid is in San Francisco’s bullpen.

Andrew McCutchen mans right field during his first spring training game with the Giants. (Steph Chambers/Post-Gazette)

Andrew McCutchen mans right field during his first spring training game with the Giants. (Steph Chambers/Post-Gazette)

Andrew McCutchen exits the clubhouse. (Steph Chambers/Post-Gazette)

McCutchen is sitting cross-legged in the center-field grass at Scottsdale Stadium, pretending to warm his hands over a fire. Hunter Pence and Austin Slater sit on either side of him doing the same. The fly-ball drill, designed to stress communication, involves a coach standing at the foul line with a modified pitching machine and shooting three balls into the air in rapid succession. The outfielders got the hang of it fast, so now they’ve upped the ante. They sit and wait for the sound — pfft … pfft … pfft — then jump to their feet, turn and locate the balls midair.

The friendly banter continues during batting practice, which begins with a grouping of Posey, Pence, McCutchen and Longoria. Between the four they have two rookie of the year awards, two MVPs and 16 All-Star seasons. Posey has three World Series rings, Pence two. After a 64-98 record last year, the Giants fetched Longoria and McCutchen to plug leaks in their lineup. Their front office, unlike many around the majors, determined a rebuild wasn’t its best option.

“It’s pretty apparent what this team is trying to do,” McCutchen says. “That’s why I’m over here. It could easily have gone a different route. I could easily have [been traded] to a team that wasn’t trying to win either.” He pauses and corrects himself. “I won’t say ‘either,’ because that means the Pirates aren’t trying to win. They say they are, so we’ll leave it at that.

“This is great. A team picked me up. A team wanted me here. That’s a great feeling, to be able to come somewhere you’re wanted. They’re trying to win.”

There’s an air of confidence in the quiet of the Giants clubhouse, where McCutchen is again sitting with Mays. Some of it stems from familiarity. McCutchen is teammates again with Melancon and Tony Watson. He saw Cueto often, including in the 2013 National League wild-card game — a zenith of McCutchen’s Pirates career. He played Bumgarner, Posey, Pence, Brandon Belt, Brandon Crawford and others in the Pirates’ 2014 wild-card loss.

Posey has known McCutchen since they were teammates on the U.S. Junior Olympic team in 2004 for a tournament in Taiwan. Also on that roster were Justin Upton, Ike Davis, Jon Niese and Tyson Ross. “I remember watching [McCutchen] and Justin Upton and feeling like they were just a tick above everybody else,” Posey recalls. “I’m excited to be on his team again for a few more games than we got to play together back in 2004.”

During live batting practice three days earlier, McCutchen planted a pitch from Bumgarner halfway up the berm beyond the left-field wall. McCutchen played it cool, barely breaking a smile, so Posey emerged from his crouch behind the plate and gave McCutchen a shove. “You’re getting a guy who loves to play baseball,” Posey says. “A game-changer.”

McCutchen and Jackson were in high school showcases together. The fraternity of center fielders is a small one, Jackson says, so he has always had an eye on McCutchen.

“Seeing the highlight-reel plays. Seeing the bat speed. Seeing the lightning-quick hands,” Jackson says. “I could keep going. I told him that the other day. I said, ‘Hey, man, I’m going to stop gassing you up.’ ” Jackson continues anyway. “He is that rare talent that you see. Everybody knows it when he walks in the room. He’s a special talent.”

McCutchen expects he’ll benefit from a new role in San Francisco. He won’t need to worry about lineup protection here, and there will be fewer media obligations, fewer demands for his time and attention. It’ll be different. Some good, some bad. The biggest downsides may be distance and time zones removed from family. His lives in Fort Meade, Fla.; Maria’s is from DuBois, Pa.

“I’d be lying if I say I didn’t feel pressure out there in Pittsburgh feeling like I needed to be the dude, needed to be the guy on a consistent basis,” McCutchen says. “I felt like I dealt with it fairly well. But to be able to come here and just be myself, relax and play the game and that’s it? That’s something I’m looking forward to.”

(Steph Chambers/Post-Gazette)

(Steph Chambers/Post-Gazette)


(Steph Chambers/Post-Gazette)

At 12:54 p.m., McCutchen steps into the Giants dugout. He’d told manager Bruce Bochy he hoped to start the spring opener, so here he is. The weather warmed, and the bleachers are bustling. As McCutchen trots to right field, fans along the fence shout after him. Several are wearing Pirates apparel. A young boy in a No. 22 Giants jersey says McCutchen told him it was the first one he’d seen. In the outfield, McCutchen removes his cap, takes a knee and says a short prayer.

On the field, things look the same. What’s changed, McCutchen says, is what awaits when he leaves the stadium. “It’s awesome. You come to the ballpark, and you can’t wait to get home.”

Steel.

The McCutchens picked the name two or three years ago, he says. “We already knew what we wanted to name a boy. We had no clue for a girl.” They were looking for a name that conveyed strength. One day, Maria suggested Steel.

“I’m like, dang, that’s a really strong name,” McCutchen says.

Maybe Maria’s Western Pennsylvania roots influenced her, but the couple says a Steel City connection wasn’t their motivation.

“Everyone is going to say, ‘Well, you’re a Pittsburgh guy,’ ” McCutchen says. “Everyone is going to think that being from Pittsburgh is why we named him that. Not necessarily. I’m from Florida. It’s not like I’m from Pittsburgh. I could have been here in Phoenix, and I would have thought of the name Steel. Well, my wife would have, probably. So that doesn’t have a whole lot to do with it, but it does make it sound a little better with all that’s happening — all that happened.”

After the trade, the McCutchens faced the challenge of moving across the country with a newborn. Leaving Pittsburgh wasn’t easy, emotionally or logistically. Could Steel handle a plane flight? How fast could they find places to live? The pieces eventually fell together. They picked an apartment in Scottsdale, then started looking in San Francisco. They are “definitely” not buying in the Bay Area, according to McCutchen, and they’re also not selling their current home.

“Our place in Pittsburgh is our home,” he says, “That’s where we’re going to be.”


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A fan wearing an Andrew McCutchen jersey watches McCutchen's first spring training game with the Giants. (Steph Chambers/Post-Gazette)

When McCutchen says, “I don’t know what I’m going to do yet when the season starts and I’m gone [from Steel] for seven or 10 days,” he’s not looking at the Giants’ schedule. But he’s aware their first road trip away from the West Coast this season ends in Pittsburgh, which now is McCutchen’s home away from home. Ready or not, his return to PNC Park will be May 11.

Watson, the reliever whom the Pirates traded to Los Angeles last July, grins when he hears the date. He expects an emotional homecoming for McCutchen. The Giants will be on the top step of the dugout watching, he says. “That’ll be Andrew’s moment. That’ll be really, really special.” Watson played alongside McCutchen for seven years in Pittsburgh. They were All-Stars in 2014.

“He’s going to be a Pirate forever, I think,” says Watson. “What he did there, and what he meant to that city and that organization, that’s forever. That’s never going away. A tremendous player. A tremendous guy. They’re going to miss him, obviously. You can’t just eliminate that and keep going. That first year is going to be tough [and] be different.”

Andrew McCutchen catches a fly ball. (Steph Chambers/Post-Gazette)

Andrew McCutchen catches a fly ball. (Steph Chambers/Post-Gazette)

McCutchen claims he hasn’t yet thought about May 11. He’s focused on what’s right in front of him, he says. “I’ll just be ready to show up, ready to play, ready to kick some butt.” That mindset extends to his looming free agency. McCutchen won’t rule out a reunion with the Pirates, as unlikely as him re-signing seems, but it’s not something he’ll discuss either.

“Anything is possible in the game,” he says, “but it’s not fair to the Giants fans for me to be thinking, ‘Oh, I’ll go back to the Pirates.’ That’s out of my control right now. This year is about being in black and orange, representing this organization and team. That’s all I’m thinking about.”

McCutchen’s first day in a Giants uniform ends after three innings. He struck out, grounded out and hit the showers. Back at his locker, he grabs his backpack. It’s 2:58 p.m. Time to see Steel. McCutchen weaves past the table where Mays sat and exits toward the players’ parking lot.

Outside, he walks past a wall of autograph seekers, offering only a smile and a wave today, and climbs into his lifted black Ford F-150. As the truck wheels out of its parking space, onlookers catch a glimpse of a yellow sticker in the rear window. It reads, “Baby on Board.” McCutchen flips on his left turn signal. He pulls out of the lot, blends into traffic and heads for home, for now.

Stephen J. Nesbitt: snesbitt@post-gazette.com and Twitter @stephenjnesbitt.


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