Talk to any Pittsburgh Pirates fan about this upcoming season, and they will tell you: Excitement is in the air.
That's because after 20 straight years of losing records, the Pirates finally broke that unlucky streak and went 94–68 in 2013, their first winning season since 1992. Not only did the Bucs reach the playoffs, they advanced, defeating the Cincinnati Reds in the one-game wild-card round. (The Pirates ultimately lost to the St. Louis Cardinals in the divisional series.) Winning is now a reality in Pittsburgh. And you can give a lot of the credit to its star centerfielder, Andrew McCutchen.
McCutchen will tell you that last year's success was a team effort. "Pitching, offense, defense, we had it all," he says. But it's impossible to ignore how important McCutchen is to the Pirates. His attitude of having fun while working hard set the tone for the team, while his consistency in the batter's box — he hit .317 with 21 home runs — and his showstopping play in center earned him 28 of 30 first-place votes for 2013 NL MVP.
McCutchen is the kind of athlete Pittsburgh fans love: a hardworking winner who puts team first. And after leading the Pirates to such a big 2013 season, he has become the city's first true baseball hero in decades.
Located about 60 miles east of Bradenton is Fort Meade, Florida, where the population is about 6,000. It's surrounded on all sides by farms and phosphate mines. The center of town is a two-block strip comprised of banks, diners and antique stores.
McCutchen was born in Fort Meade in 1986, and at five years old began playing baseball. "It's the first thing I ever did as a kid," he says. He played other sports like football and basketball too, "but baseball was my number one love."
His father, Lorenzo, knew from the start that Andrew had something special. He was a slight kid, but he had a strong arm and hitting came naturally. So, Andrew and his dad set about developing his skills with some unconventional drills. Before he even started playing baseball, Andrew used to pick up rocks from the railroad tracks and bring them to a nearby lake. "He just loved to throw the rocks and see how far he could throw and skip them, and I really believed that developed his arm strength," Lorenzo says.
His dad would wrap a fishing cork in tape and thump it at his son, who would try to whack it with a broom handle. It helped develop the hand-eye coordination Andrew would use to become a star on the diamond. "In order to hit something a lot smaller, you have to concentrate more on it," Andrew says. "Baseball is basically the same thing. It' just downgrading the size of what you have in your hand and what you're hitting."
The training worked. As McCutchen got older, he began to stand out in Fort Meade and around Florida. He was a high school varsity starter as an eighth-grader and in high demand among the AAU travel teams. Soon, major league scouts began attending games. "Bat speed and physical speed were the two amazing things [about him]," says Jon Spradlin, his coach at Fort Meade Middle-Senior High School.
One of the teams with a keen eye on McCutchen was the Pirates, who chose him with the 11th pick in the 2005 MLB draft. McCutchen spent the next four years in the Pirates' farm system. He was called up early in the 2009 season, and in 2010 made the team as its everyday centerfielder.
In McCutchen's first full season, Pittsburgh lost 105 games. But things were about to change. In 2011, the Pirates had a new manager in Clint Hurdle, McCutchen made his first All-Star Game, and he had his first of three consecutive seasons with at least 20 home runs and 20 stolen bases. The team was competitive until a late-season collapse.
For the first time in years, the Pirates were on the verge of success — and McCutchen gave the team a huge boost when he committed for the long haul. In the spring of 2012, he signed a deal that should keep him in Pittsburgh through at least 2017. "I don't see myself being anywhere else," he says. "I enjoy my teammates, I enjoy everything about the city. I love being here."
The feeling is mutual in the clubhouse. Hurdle loves him for his tireless work ethic, and his teammates appreciate how loose he keeps things. "He always has a smile on his face. You can tell he loves interacting with the fans, and he has fun," outfielder Josh Harrison says. "Our teammates, we love him here. So I know the fans love him."
Do they ever. At spring training, the two jerseys most worn were Hall of Famer Roberto Clemente's 21 and McCutchen's 22. And if you stop any fan to talk about the team, all of them will gush about the man who brought baseball back to life in Pittsburgh.
"I feel like his purpose is there in Pittsburgh," his father says. "He was meant to be there, to make a difference, to be in Pittsburgh at this moment and this time."
Twenty years of losing and heartbreak is an eternity for fans. But if the reward for Pirates faithful is that McCutchen landed in Pittsburgh, most would agree: It was worth it.
Photos: FRED VUICH FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED, AL TIELEMANS/SPORTS ILLUSTRATED, JUSTIN K. ALLER/GETTY IMAGES