The Free Agent

I realize that things change with time because there are constant reminders. Potato chip bags don’t open with  a bite, or even with my hands . The same hands that used to open any jar with ease now require assistance. That penny on the sidewalk can stay there now. Everybody, it seemed, used to play baseball and youngsters identified with and dreamed of being like the best players in the game. These days, it seems like not so many people are playing the game and the heroes are the owners and general managers. Yuck.

Dan Topping and George Weiss were never heroes to me. Augie Busch, Charles Comiskey, forget it. Don’t get me started about George Steinbrenner or David Glass. No, I can’t gush the way that Alex Rodriguez does about all those shrewd rich guys who get Shohei Ohtani at a low price or know when to send an aging star packing before he costs more than he’s worth.  The people that inspire me and make me smile are people like Andrew McCutchen. However, the thought of seeing him in pinstripes, even if it is only for a few weeks, does not have me chuckling.

The Pittsburgh Pirates never should have traded McCutchen. When they did, I was happy that he went to San Francisco, but only selfishly because the Giants needed a good outfielder and I would be able to see him play more frequently. He said all the right things at the time but it had to be tough on Steel’s dad to leave the place where, thanks in large part to him, baseball became fun again after years and years of losing. He got off to a slow start with the bat this season, but Cutch is a steadying influence on the field and in the dugout  and everyone knew that he would eventually come around . His adjustment to playing right field full time rather than his accustomed center field also was  less than smooth at times, partly because right field in San Francisco is windy and difficult. Again, his demeanor and professionalism were reassuring. Still, beyond that professionalism and stoicism, it was possible to detect a bit of sadness and discomfort in McCutchen, who had to be missing his role as The Guy in Pittsburgh.

Andrew McCutchen was a first round draft choice of the Pirates in 2005. When he was 22 years old, in 2009, he played 108 games for the Pirates and was one of the best rookies in the National League. He batted .286 with 12 home runs, 54 runs batted in, and 22 stolen bases. Pittsburgh won only 62 games that first season and only 57 the next but it was obvious to all that they had a good one in center field. In 2011, they got up to 72 victories and in 2012 the Buccos flirted with .500 before finishing 79-83. The big breakthrough for Cutch and the Pirates was in 2013. The years and years of losing ended as Pittsburgh finished with 94 wins, two games behind St. Louis in the Central Division. They beat Cincinnati in the wild card game but then lost to the Cardinals in the Divisional Series. Andrew McCutchen was the National League Most Valuable Player with  superb center field coverage, a .317 batting average and a .911 OPS. In the next two exciting seasons, the Pirates would again finish two games behind the Cardinals. They lost the wild card game in 2014 to eventual champion San Francisco, and the 2015 wild card game to the Cubs.Respectability had indeed returned to Pittsburgh. At the core of the rejuvenation was McCutchen. When he signed the six year contract that expires after this season, McCuthen said, “I will remain the same, show up every day and give it 100 per cent for my team, do everything I can to help my team win.”  And he did.

The Pirates fortunes slid back in 2016 and ’17 as McCutchen’s performance went from great to merely very good. They had good young outfielders available and were in the mood to save money. McCutchen went to San Francisco. That’s not the kind of move that  a team with a solid, winning tradition makes. It’s not the kind of move that a team with a loyal fan base makes, either, because this is a player who is a shining example for young fans and players of how to conduct yourself on and off the field. You ought to keep him aboard as he ages and begins to lose some of the skills that made him so great and helped your team finally succeed. Give him some days off and keep him around to do his thing as younger players develop. So there he was, a bit lonesome in San Francisco, and the Giants did the “smart” thing on the last day of August. They, too, should not have traded him.  A player of high skills, still just 31, treated like excess baggage while a temperamental loser like Hunter Strickland, who should have been released a year ago, takes up space in the bullpen.

McCutchen will soon become a free agent. The Yankees will have no use for him but can be proud that they forced the once proudly dreadlocked warrior to shave his face. Some lucky team will sign him. I hope that whoever does sign him will show the respect for him that Cutch always has for the game.

 

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