Protector of the House

Andrew McCutchen treats every pitch like it's an assault on all that he holds dear, from the Pirates' playoff chances to the parents who helped the perennial MVP candidate get this far. There's still one place to go, though: deep into October
September 08, 2014

IT NEVER mattered that he'd just finished an overnight shift at the mines, that he smelled of phosphate and his arms were caked in mud, and he was so spent he could barely stay awake. The door would swing open, and Lo would call for the boy, and the father would take his son's small hand and lead him into the early-morning central Florida sun, out to the open field behind the trailers.

Lo would carry with him a paper bag filled with Wiffle balls, or sometimes fishing corks wrapped in electrical tape to make them round. The boy carried a long broomstick handle. The way Lo saw it, drills with balls that quivered through the air unpredictably were good for the boy's hand-eye coordination—once he got onto a real field, the baseballs would look as big as cantaloupes. Standing on a patch of yellowing grass, Lo would flick one plastic ball after another to his son, who would attack each pitch with his stick.

Plock!

The boy was blessed with rare gifts, yes, but he needed more than talent. Lo knew that as well as anyone. This was football country, and he'd known many talented young men with dreams of playing for the Gators or 'Noles who ended up working in the mines and the orange groves. Lo was one of those dreamers once, a star running back in high school. Now the dream had been passed to this boy.

Lo takes a stick, and he draws a square in a patch of dirt. He puts his hands on his son's slender shoulders and looks him in the eye.

This square here is the plate, Lo says. Inside the plate is everything you love: It's your father, it's your mother, it's your baby sister, it's everything you've worked for. The plate is your house, yours to protect. Got it?

Plock!

Lo holds up another ball. This here? This is an intruder into the house. It can destroy everything that you love.

Plock!

When you see the ball, you swing as hard as you can, as if everything depends on it.

Plock!

Protect the house, boy. Protect the house!

PNC PARK'S postcard beauty is almost too much to take on this August morning: the Allegheny glistening in the sun, the yellow steel bridges that span the river, the emerald grass of the park. Out here in rightfield, where they're setting up the shoot, the star strolls in at 7:30 sharp. He's on time—he's never late for anything—but not quite awake: Andrew McCutchen is not a morning person. Someone jokes that it's early, and Cutch, dressed in a red T-shirt and gray sweats, lifts his brows as if to say, You think?

The five tents, the crowd of extras decked out in black-and-yellow Pirates gear, the makeup woman, the body double in the white number 22 jersey and the long braids, the crew, the catering, the cameras and the TV monitors—they are all here for McCutchen and the 30-second commercial that will run nationwide during the MLB postseason. Since Pittsburgh's 27-year-old centerfielder won the National League MVP award last year, there's been a push by his reps to raise his profile. Over the last year he's done more gigs outside baseball, such as appearances at the American Music Awards and on Ellen, where he proposed to his longtime girlfriend, Maria Hanslovan. He's comfortable in front of the cameras, but McCutchen is still small town at heart, an outsider who can seem more amused than intrigued by the showbiz world. After he receives his first set of instructions from the director, a short, bald man in big, black-frame glasses, McCutchen quips, "You know how to say F--- you in Hollywood?" A beat. "Trust me."

His baseball persona is of the unflappable, well-mannered and sometimes stoic ballplayer who plays the game the Right Way, but there's another Cutch—bubbly, witty, funny—that comes out off the field. After the Hollywood joke, someone asks McCutchen how you say F--- you in baseball. "Joe Nathan," he says, a reference to the Tigers' closer's unambiguous gesture to Detroit fans a few days earlier.

This is an off day for the Pirates, and McCutchen is relaxed even though the past few weeks have been straight agony. Pittsburgh was tied for the second NL wild card and McCutchen was making a strong bid for a second straight MVP award when, on Aug. 2, Diamondbacks pitcher Randall Delgado drilled him in the back in a game in Arizona. It seemed to be an act of revenge for the Pirates' earlier plunking of Arizona star Paul Goldschmidt, which broke his hand. Soon after, McCutchen landed on the disabled list with a rib injury that the team did not think was connected to the hit by pitch. In any case the injury nearly derailed the Pirates' season: By the time McCutchen returned to the lineup on Aug. 19, Pittsburgh had lost six straight, fallen seven games out of first in the NL Central and two games back of the second wild card.

Before a road trip to Milwaukee to face the Central-leading Brewers, McCutchen must film this commercial. The first shot of the morning is a straightforward one of him running about 10 yards toward the centerfield wall. He may not be thrilled to be here, but he wants this to look right. When the director suggests that he start his dash with his head down and then glance up at the ball, McCutchen interjects, "But by then I'm already looking at the ball." Then there's his route. The player is running in a straight line, but the director wants him to run in an arc—"a banana," he says. McCutchen does what he's told, but after a few takes the director still wants a bigger turn. The set tenses a little.

McCutchen starts to do the take, then turns back and says, "So really it would be more of a question mark than a banana." Everyone laughs, and even the hard-ass director cracks a smile.

TRINA WAS 16 when she found out she was pregnant. It was crushing. When she told her parents the news, she could see the disappointment on her mother's face. Lo, 17, was by her side, just as scared as Trina. He was the star running back at Fort Meade High and hoped to play in college; Trina was a volleyball star who already had a scholarship to play at Polk Community College. After Andrew was born, Trina went to Polk, and the baby was left with Trina's mom and sister during the day. After two years Trina's time at Polk was up, and while her friends and teammates moved on to bigger schools, she "hit a low point.... It was like, what could I do next? I couldn't afford college with a child. I had to grow up really fast."

Lo went to Carson-Newman College in Jefferson City, Tenn., and redshirted his freshman year. Football was his love, but deep down he knew what he had to do: Lo's father had abandoned him when he was young, and he had told himself he wouldn't do the same. "I had to grow up, make some decisions," he says. "And the decision was to come home."

Lo and Trina had been on hiatus since high school—Trina was always the one who balked at commitment—but when they both found themselves back in Fort Meade, Trina decided that there was no one better to teach Andrew to be a man than his father. And so Lorenzo McCutchen and Petrina Swan were married on Aug. 1, 1992. That day they made a pact: They were going to raise this child right, with all the work and all the love that would be required.

They moved into a trailer park in Bartow, 10 miles north of Fort Meade, and Trina got a job as a data entry clerk at the Fort Meade sheriff's department for about $7 an hour. Lo juggled three jobs: He was the assistant manager at Fort Meade's grocery store, he fried the chicken at Junior Foods down the street, and at night he bounced from one phosphate mine to another.

Lo cherished the mornings he could spend with his son on the field behind the trailer park, feeding him Wiffle balls. Baseball was Andrew's first sport, and from the moment he joined Little League, he could always hit the ball harder and run faster than anyone else. After a game in a youth tournament in Lakeland, a coach named Jimmy Rutland walked up to the McCutchens.

"Your boy has to play AAU ball," he said.

"We can't afford that," Trina said.

Rutland told them that if they could get Andrew out to Lakeland, a 20-minute drive from Bartow, he would take care of the rest. "This boy has something," Rutland said. "He deserves a shot."

There was a reason travel baseball was unheard of in Fort Meade—the game was too expensive, with bats running $300, cleats and a decent glove costing another couple of hundred. But Lo and Trina saw Andrew's love for the game, they saw this man willing to give them a hand, they remembered the pact they'd made. They decided, O.K., let's make this work.

ACTION!" They've rehearsed this about 50 times now, but every take, something is off. The boy in the front row is leaning over too far, the redheaded woman is looking at her phone wrong. Now they're rolling video, and as the crowd in the outfield stands rises to its feet, McCutchen runs toward the wall and jumps, his left arm extended above the yellow line. Everything is flowing perfectly, a baseball floats into the shot from off-camera and ... it nearly nails the Face of the Pirates in the chin.

The most relaxed guy on-set is the star trying to keep things loose. "I saw a stat that the average game is three hours, and for me, as an outfielder, the actual time you're moving is nine minutes," McCutchen is saying. "Nine minutes of actual movement. It's a tricky game, your head has to be into it. That's why you gotta make it fun." While he's standing out in the outfield, he says, he tries to predict the pitches, and when he's bored with that, he sings to himself. "Yesterday it was 'N Sync," McCutchen says. "I woke up and had it in my head. I had no idea why." And then he starts singing, in a falsetto that would make Justin Timberlake proud, "It's tearin' up my heart when I'm with you...."

If you spend enough time with McCutchen, his artistic side will come out: He sings, he beatboxes, he plays the keyboard, he writes poetry, he draws. He turned a closet in his house in Lakeland, Fla., into a makeshift recording studio, outfitted with a mike and a recorder. In high school he carried around a notebook and sketched comic book characters, professional athletes and sports logos. He still sketches in quiet moments away from the ballpark. The night before the commercial shoot he was up until 1 a.m. working on monograms and the lettering for save-the-date cards for his wedding. "When I'm drawing, I have to force myself to calm down," he says. "To get in that mental mode so I can draw something exactly how I want to draw it—it's important to tap into that mental mode every now and again. To concentrate, to lock in."

McCutchen was locked in on the baseball field last season, when he went from overlooked star to MVP. Unlike the AL MVP race, where the Miguel Cabrera--Mike Trout debate ignited an old-school, new-school holy war, McCutchen, who won with 28 of 30 first-place votes, was the MVP just about everyone could agree on. He had the narrative (homegrown star leading woebegone franchise into the postseason) and the numbers (his 8.2 WAR, according to FanGraphs, was the highest in the NL by a wide margin). Already he is a four-time All-Star, a two-time Silver Slugger winner and the owner of a Gold Glove. Since the start of 2012, McCutchen has the second-highest WAR in the majors—he has been the best player not named Mike Trout. With a big finish this season (through Sunday he was hitting .307/.402/.532 with 20 homers), he could join Albert Pujols, Barry Bonds, Dale Murphy, Ernie Banks, Joe Morgan and Mike Schmidt as the only players to win back-to-back NL MVPs.

Cutch is a superstar. If it wasn't obvious before, perhaps it is now, as he stands in the PNC Park outfield with the makeup woman spraying moisturizer across his face while holding a motorized fan over his head.

WHEN TRINA did the math, it didn't add up. She could go watch her child play for a weekend or use the money to buy two weeks' worth of groceries. Between the hotel rooms, the meals, travel costs and the tournament fees, the McCutchens couldn't afford to follow Andrew everywhere he went. Lo would never forget standing in line to get into tournaments with other parents, "many of them doctors and lawyers, pulling out their wads of cash, and there I am squeezing onto my $10 just to get in for the day," he says.

To pay for tournaments, Trina sold spaghetti-and-meatball dinners for $5.50. Lo and Trina asked for money from local businesses. Their church held fund-raisers. Once, for Andrew to attend a tournament in Puerto Rico when he was 12 years old, the community pooled together $5,000.

By the time he showed up for the first day of tryouts at Fort Meade High as an eighth-grader, Andrew was already known as the most talented young athlete in the area. When he started walking over to the JV team, coach Jon Spradlin stopped him short and told him to head for the varsity. Using an old Wilson glove with a handmade pad, borrowed from one of the coaches, Andrew started at shortstop that season for Fort Meade and led Polk County in hitting. He also joined the high school track team and played wide receiver and kick returner on the varsity football team as a freshman.

Lo and Trina began to see that athletics could pay for Andrew's education. There was another child in the household, Andrew's younger sister, Loren, but Lo and Trina were no longer living paycheck to paycheck. They were even able to buy a three-bedroom house in Fort Meade after selling the trailer.

Andrew never asked his parents for anything that he knew they couldn't afford. When he wanted a pair of Air Jordans, he didn't beg Lo and Trina for the money; he began working odd jobs. It took a few months, but he made the $200. One day he brought the cash to school, and when he went to his locker, the money was gone from his wallet. "It was the angriest I've ever seen him, to this day," says his closest friend, Kenny Eldell. "He knew who took it. He wanted to fight, but instead, he made a statement."

"It's O.K.," he yelled out in the middle of the locker room, "because one day I'm going to have so much that $200 is going to seem like two cents. So take my money now, because one day you're not going to be able to touch any of it."

CUT!" The director is satisfied after some 20 takes at the centerfield wall, and everyone breaks for lunch. McCutchen heads into the clubhouse and the team's regeneration room—a dimly lit space full of oversized chairs for naps and tables for massages—to sign memorabilia for fans.

Cutch is beloved in Pittsburgh, for his play of course but also for his community work. Four days earlier he had shown up at a hospital in the city and spent three hours meeting with patients. In late June his publicist received a text at 2:30 in the morning from McCutchen asking if he could meet some kids at Niketown in Chicago, where the Pirates were playing. At the store the next day, he greeted nine honors students from inner-city Chicago schools, gave them each a shopping bag and told them to fill it up with whatever they wanted. Once, after working on a Habitat for Humanity project, McCutchen was told that the owner of the house had fallen behind on his mortgage payments because he was on disability leave from work. McCutchen covered the payments, anonymously, until the man was able to get back to his job.

"It's not just that no one gets their hands dirty like Andrew," says Maggie Withrow, executive director of the Pittsburgh branch of Habitat for Humanity. "He also wants to know about the families; he wants to know how the program works. It's important to him that it wasn't a giveaway, that the families put in the work. He follows up because he cares."

LO AND TRINA were in the stands watching Fort Meade High play the night Andrew, a sophomore, took a kick return, ran up the field and instead of ducking out-of-bounds, tried to run over a defender. His ACL and MCL were torn with the hit. Lo sobbed like a baby that night, feeling that somehow he'd let the boy down, allowing him to play football even though baseball was his real love and ticket to college.

After the injury, it was all baseball. All through those high school years, Lo and his son would go to the fields every day with the Wiffle balls. It was during those mornings that the boy's swing, with those fast-twitch hands and wrists, evolved into the most talked about swing in the state. Without much of a leg kick or a load in his motion, it can seem like McCutchen, who whips his hands through the hitting zone as fast as anyone in the game, relies on his bat speed alone to generate his power.

By the start of his senior year, Andrew was a star. Lo told him that since he'd be playing kids his age for the first time in his life, "you have to dominate." McCutchen did: At one point stole 52 straight bases and he hit .700 his senior year. Scouts from all over flocked to see the five-tool talent who was on track to graduate with a 3.8 GPA.

The kid was too good to be true. One scout from a major league team asked Spradlin, "I want to know something bad about Andrew McCutchen."

The coach was stumped. "Well, there was this time he missed practice," Spradlin said. Why? "His truck broke down on the highway."

Lo and Trina's boy became a millionaire at age 18, when the Pirates drafted him 11th overall in the 2005 draft. He turned down a scholarship from the University of Florida and signed for a $1.9 million bonus. McCutchen made his major league debut in 2009, and after he hit .259 with 23 home run and 23 stolen bases in his third season, the Pirates locked him up with a six-year, $51.5 million deal. For a small-market organization that couldn't afford mistakes, it seemed like a big bet, wagering that a 25-year-old with one All-Star season on his résumé would be the franchise's cornerstone. But McCutchen rewarded the Pirates with a breakout season in 2012, hitting .327 with 31 home runs and 20 steals. You can already hear the clock ticking toward the expiration of McCutchen's contract after 2018. "Pittsburgh is perfect for him—it's not small like Fort Meade, but it's also not New York," says Eldell. "I don't think he would like New York—even though eventually he might be playing there."

Fort Meade is still a one-caution-light, one-stoplight town. Lo's mother, Hilda Rogers, still runs the grocery store on the main strip and watches almost every Pirates game. The phosphate mines and the orange groves, though hurting badly, are still the main industries, and it still feels as if the city is recovering from Hurricane Charley 10 years after the storm tore through the town.

When he was selected for the All-Star Game's Home Run Derby in 2012, one of McCutchen's first calls was to Spradlin to ask his old coach to pitch to him in the contest. Every off-season Cutch returns to hold a camp in Fort Meade, and all the proceeds go to the local Dixie Youth Baseball League. From time to time he quietly sponsors local kids who want to play travel baseball. As one of the faces for a sport with dwindling African-American participation—this year, just 8.3% of players in the majors—McCutchen is aware that he's a role model for black kids. He embraces that, but he believes baseball's youth issue isn't confined to African-Americans. "I think the game is in a good place, but one thing we need to do a lot better is get more kids into it," he says. "If you're a good athlete, you should definitely look into baseball. There are too many kids where it's just not something that's an option."

Lo and Trina still live in that same three-bedroom house, with a black Pirates flag billowing out on the front porch. Lo spends his days at the church a few blocks down the road—earlier this year he started a mentorship group with 21 boys, and he hopes to expand the program next year. Trina, after 24 years, still works at the sheriff's department; six years away from retirement, she won't stop working until she's put Loren, 18, through college. "It wasn't until this year—as I'm getting married—that I really started thinking about where my parents were at the point they got married," McCutchen says. "They were 22 years old, moving in together for the first time with a five-year-old kid, learning how to live together, wondering how they would have enough money. I don't know how they did it, because that's a lot.

"And I look at where I am, with the amount of help from other people. A lot of things had to happen; a lot of people had to come into your life. It seemed like it was just right at the right time—you meet certain people that paved this road, and you didn't notice it then. Now? I'm so grateful."

IT'S MID-AFTERNOON, and everyone is tired. McCutchen is at the centerfield wall, waiting for the last shot of the day. From out of the home dugout a man the size of a grizzly and dressed in black ambles up the field. He walks straight toward the set, breaks toward McCutchen's body double and says, "What's up, Drew?" Lo pulls back and laughs, and you see where the son gets his goofy sense of humor.

Father and son embrace. Lo has just flown in from Florida and will be with the team through the Brewers series for the Pirates' father's weekend. A crew member calls for McCutchen, and he takes his place. This shot is a close-up of Andrew as he reaches over the outfield wall—the camera is just inches from his face. The director calls action, the crowd roars. Only a few takes are needed. Lo, hands in his pockets, stands on the grass and giggles as he watches. "My son's a superstar," he says.

"Cut!"

Everyone cheers. The shoot will continue, but McCutchen's work here is done. He spends the next few minutes signing hats and gloves, making small talk with the extras and the crew. Then he heads back to the clubhouse, where his teammates are already packing for the road trip; the bus to the airport leaves in an hour. A season-defining stretch awaits: nine straight games against NL Central rivals, then the September cauldron. The following night in Milwaukee, McCutchen will rip his 18th home run of the year, and the Pirates will beat the Brewers. They'll win the next night too. McCutchen will hit his 19th and 20th homers over the next few days and force himself back into the MVP conversation. Last year was big—the NL MVP leading the Pirates to their first playoff appearance in 21 years. But it was just the start.

Cutch, you see, is ready for his real close-up. Inspire the kids? Yes, he will do everything he can to help others the way he was helped. Bring a World Series trophy to Pittsburgh? He believes he can do that too. The plate was once a square drawn into the dirt, but now it's something bigger—the list of things he loves and fights for keeps growing. His father used to say it over and over, but now the swings are bigger and the words resonate more than ever.

Protect the house.

He's comfortable in front of the cameras, but McCutchen is still small town at heart, an outsider who can seem more amused than intrigued by the showbiz world.

"I saw a stat that the average game is three hours, and for me, as an outfielder, the actual time you're moving is nine minutes," McCutchen says. "That's why you gotta make it fun."

QUICK HITS

.402

McCutchen's on-base percentage through Sunday, the best in the National League

17

Stolen bases for McCutchen, out of 18 attempts, the NL's best success rate (94.4%)

35

Years since the Pirates last won a postseason series

PHOTOPhotograph by Fred Vuich for Sports IllustratedPOWERING UP McCutchen won the NL MVP last year with 21 homers, a total he has already matched with a month to go this season. PHOTOCHARLES LECLAIRE/USA TODAY SPORTSQUITE A CUTCH Pittsburgh has embraced McCutchen, whose defense in centerfield is part of the well-rounded package that puts him in MVP contention. PHOTOFRED VUICH FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED[See caption above] PHOTOPITTSBURGH PIRATES (MCCUTCHEN FAMILY)WHERE IT ALL BEGAN In 2012 McCutchen visited the Florida home where he was raised by Lo and Trina (above, with his fiancée Hanslovan). PHOTO@THECUTCH22/TWITTER[See caption above] PHOTOJUSTIN K. ALLER/GETTY IMAGESENJOYING THE RIDE McCutchen's plan for raising his profile has included an appearance on Ellen (left), where he proposed to Hanslovan and on the American Music Awards (with actress Jaimie Alexander). PHOTOMICHAEL ROZMAN/WARNER BROS. (ELLEN)[See caption above] PHOTOMATT BROWN/ABC/GETTY IMAGES (AMAS)[See caption above] PHOTOFRED VUICH FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATEDBIG BUCS Thanks in part to McCutchen, the Pirates have a chance to celebrate a second straight playoff appearance after a run of 20 losing seasons.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)