Pittsburgh's star center fielder talks about choosing baseball over football, turning around the Pirates franchise, and carrying on Jackie Robinson's legacy.
Written by Jose Martinez (@ZayMarty)
The outskirts of downtown Pittsburgh seem like a ghost town on a gloomy Tuesday afternoon in April. Aside from the occasional speeding car or a random passerby appearing every so often, the sidewalk along the 10th Street Bypass is practically empty. Then, a familiar face appears in the distance—and not just any face. It's Andrew McCutchen, the 25-year-old center fielder who's widely known as "the face of the Pittsburgh Pirates." And the man nicknamed "Cutch" will remain that face for at least the next six seasons since the team signed him to the second-largest contract in franchise history.
He isn't incredibly tall—a little under six feet—but it's hard to miss McCutchen, even from a distance. It may have something to do with his signature brown-to-burnt-orange dreadlocks, undisturbed by scissors for the past six years—and his impeccable sense of style. Today he's paired dark wash jeans with a black tie and a shiny charcoal dress shirt that reflects the rays of sunlight peeking through the clouds. Cutch himself represents a glimmer of hope to the city's dedicated fan base that hasn't seen a winning record from their MLB franchise in 20 years.
In five short seasons, McCutchen has become a fan favorite in Pittsburgh, and emerged as one of the league's brightest young black stars during a time when baseball has seen a decline in the number of African-American players. It's been 66 years since Jackie Robinson broke major league baseball's color barrier, and last year African-Americans made up just over seven percent of players in the league, down from over 18 percent in the mid 1980s. Earlier this year baseball commission Bud Selig announced the formation of a special diversity committee to help reverse that trend. The league's initiative includes the RBI program, which stands for "reviving baseball in inner cities."
At a very early age my dad taught me about Jackie Robinson, who he was and what he did. It was Martin Luther King and Jackie Robinson—two very big guys. He instilled what they did in me so I could know why I am where I'm at now.
McCutchen didn't grow up in the inner city. He was raised in Fort Meade, a smallish city in central Florida. But as he describes his upbringing, "it wasn't always rainbows and butterflies." His parents couldn't always afford to send him to play baseball. "It's expensive: you've got cleats, gloves, bats, balls, uniforms—so many things that you have to be set financially to pay for. It's tough. Another thing is finding a place to play. In Florida, it's a lot easier versus coming to a place like Pittsburgh where it's cold. There's also the upkeep for fields. It's a lot easier to go to an open area and put concrete down and put basketball goals up and shoot around."
And then there are economic and social factors. "In the African-American community, you can shy away from there being poverty and single family homes," says McCutchen. "It's tough when single moms and dads have to work and can't always take [their kids] here and there. So many things have changed from the '80s to now. Things have gotten tougher. That's why you have the MLB team that's committed to change things and make a difference. I'm all for it. They have my support and any way I can help, I'm here to help."
On April 15—the anniversary of Jackie Robinson's historic first game in the major leagues—every player in the league wore his No. 42 jersey as part of Jackie Robinson Day commemorations. The day held special significance for Cutch, who knew about Robinson long before he watched the movie 42. "At a very early age my dad taught me about Jackie Robinson, who he was and what he did," says McCutchen. "It was Martin Luther King and Jackie Robinson—two very big guys. He instilled what they did in me so I could know why I am where I'm at now. It's something that comes over you when you actually put that jersey on. It's amazing just to be able to put a uniform on and play the game of baseball and go out to show my talents—to win a championship. Back then, it wasn't like that. He opened a lot of doors for people like myself."
As a child, McCutchen looked up to athletes like Ken Griffey Jr., Michael Jordan, and Deion Sanders. He sometimes wore their jerseys. Now, he is the player kids are looking up to. "Last year, I was riding down, and I see a couple people walking—a man and a little boy, and they had on McCutchen shirts. I thought that was the coolest thing ever," he recalls. "I still don't know how to react to it but it's great to get that opportunity. It shows that I'm doing something right." Andrew is also a rising MLB star, which is evident in the way he utilized Twitter to get his 171,000+ followers to vote him as the cover athlete of MLB 13: The Show, beating out second-place finisher, Yankees pitcher CC Sabathia, by 19,093 votes.
All of this might never have happened. But Cutch's father Lorenzo wasn't going to allow his son's dreams to die. Lorenzo's own dad abandoned him as a child, so he was determined to be there for his son to guide him, teach him and help him succeed on the playing field and in life.