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Andrew McCutchen Is Going From MLB's "Saigon" Straight To The Top

In Pittsburgh, expectations are low. Regardless, Andrew McCutchen remains undaunted by the task of making the Pirates relevant again.

By J.R. Gamble April 15, 2013, 10:56 AM EST

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Pittsburgh Pirates outfielder Andrew McCutchen gets general–baller status in the MLB.

Problem is he plays in baseball’s Saigon, where players are forgotten, “playoffs” is a curse word, and being referred to as “perennial laughing stocks” is considered a diplomatic description.

McCutchen is like the super-nice rapper in a room full of sucker MCs. The fifth-year stud did everything but roll the infield grass for the Pirates in ’12. He led the NL in hits (194) and slugged 31 homers to accompany his robust .327 batting average. He’s got a souped-up engine on the base paths and runs with bad intentions.

The diamond rock in his ear is the size of a jaw breaker and glistens under the PNC Park lights as he breezes towards home plate. 

If Pittsburgh’s franchise wasn’t such a plague on baseball’s good name, it might get more national TV burn and more people would undoubtedly be rocking McCutchen jerseys.

The dread-headed, five-tool basher from Fort Meade, Florida is doing all he can to flip the script. He already made hell freeze over when he signed a six-year $51 million extension last March rather than escaping “The Pitt of Hell” as other stars have done in the past.

It was a bold statement and a watershed moment in Pittsburgh’s snail-paced return to respectability.

With a little luck, the Pirates may actually be good this year. Some analysts say, “winning-record good.” More optimistic souls say “playoff good.”

Either way, it’s sad that the Pirates ever got to this point. Their loyal fan base deserves better.

The Pirates haven’t had a winning season since Barry Bonds led them to three straight NL East crowns from ’90-’92 playing in Three Rivers Stadium.   

Pittsburg was once a flagship MLB franchise with legendary players such as Roberto Clemente and Willie Stargell.

Clemente and Stargell built Hall of Fame careers as integral parts of World Series-winning Pirates squads. 

Clemente is a .317 career hitter with arguably the best right field cannon in history. The Puerto Rican legend led the Pirates to three straight NL East crowns (’70-’72) and World Series titles in ’60 and ’71, before tragically dying in a plane crash  while transporting relief supplies to the victims of an earthquake in Nicaragua.

Stargell stood a menacing 6´4˝ and hit tape-measure bombs with frequency. He was an inspirational member of the Pirates’ ’71 title team and validated his HOF worthiness by hitting .400 in the playoffs and leading the “We Are Family” Pirates to an improbable chip in ’79. 

A 12-foot bronze statue of Stargell sits at the leftfield entrance to PNC Park, as a reminder of a time when the Pirates were top dogs in the MLB rat race.

Historically, this is no chump franchise. The tradition-rich Pirates played in the first World Series in 1903 and own five World Championships and nine pennants.

In the last two decades, Pittsburgh’s baseball mojo has slowly faded into oblivion. The Pirates became an organization that no free-agent all-star would consider signing with. 

They spiraled downward as casualties of the numbers game and a prime example of how franchises who field teams led by “short arms and deep-pocket” owners – the type of shifty characters WuTang’s GZA warns about on “Protect Ya Neck” – end up letting all of their studs go, to keep the payroll low.

Instead of securing their high-priced vets, acquiring competent free-agent cats and making legitimate attempts to compete – certain MLB clubs endure years of brutal losing in hopes of eventually developing home-grown, cost effective, championship talent. 

It’s an incremental, painful, unfulfilling journey, as Pirates fans know.

In their case, the waiting turned into more waiting and Pittsburgh now holds the current MLB record for consecutive losing seasons with 20…and counting (they’re 5-6 so far in ’13).

Pittsburgh’s futility makes McCutchen’s accomplishments even more remarkable. He’s mentioned among the best in the game just like his HOF predecessors of yester-year.

McCutchen’s goals are admirable and almost Joan of Arc-ish. He plays like he believes his team has a shot. Unfortunately, he’s fighting the reality of being a Pirate, which includes knowing before the season starts that you will be out of playoff contention by the All-Star break.

Favorable preseason press and fast starts in recent seasons have made losing all the more painful for dedicated and distraught Pirates’ fans.

A winning record has been elusive, but don’t expect McCutchen to fluster easily and become a malcontent. He already acknowledges Pittsburgh’s front office hustle of the last few seasons, and it’s undeniable that the team is blazing a new path.

McCutchen’s rise to elite status coincides with the arrival of manager Clint Hurdle in ’11 and GM Neal Huntington’s savvy in transforming the Pirates into buyers instead of sellers, while sticking to the philosophy of developing the farm system. 

Under “Big Clint,” the Pirates have increased their win total each season from 57 wins in ’10 to 72 wins in ’11 and 79 last season. In fact, the Pirates have been amongst division leaders and had a winning record at the midway point the past two seasons.

Huntington’s been doing his part to get them over the playoff hump.

The signings of free-agent veterans prior to last season, including ex-Yankee A.J. Burnett, signified the Pirates’ new commitment to dropping coin.

It wasn’t enough to get them to the playoffs, but the moves earned credit with McCutchen, who says this off-season’s acquisitions of Mark Melancon, Francisco Liriano, Jonathan Sanchez and ex-Yankee Russell Martin are further proof of a commitment to change the losing culture in the ’Burgh. 

“It used to be that people didn’t want to get traded to the Pirates and people didn’t want to come here unless they were trying to redeem their careers,” McCutchen told S.I.com in March. “Now we’ve got guys who come here and want to be here. They see what we have and they want to be a part of it.”

McCutchen’s got to know something we don’t. Why else would he pledge his allegiance to a muddy pile of black and yellow gunk unless he was sure it was going to sprout oil?

Sports are cyclical and no team stays bad forever.

The Pirates tested our belief in that philosophy to the fullest until McCutchen came on the scene like Shaft and turned the operation upside down.

If a Pittsburgh Pirate can get the cover of the MLB 2013 video game, then it’s totally possible for that same Pirate to keep reinventing a new winning civilization for lost fans of a “baseball town” that forgot what it’s like to play meaningful baseball in September. 

Jr_gamble

J.R. Gamble writes for The Shadow League. He's been covering pro sports as a radio host and journalist since 1996. He's written for The Raleigh News & Observer, Newsday and SLAM Magazine. He has co-hosted Sportsrap Radio with A Tribe Called Quest legend Phife Dawg. Follow him @fanalyst1 & find him on Facebook.

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