Classic Grind: Cutch uncut on Pittsburgh legacy


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Each week during the ongoing apocalypse, I’ll revisit an older column that ran on this site, accompanied by a handful of current observations about it at the bottom.

This one ran July 22, 2017:

DENVER -- Andrew McCutchen is nothing less than Pittsburgh's generational baseball player. He's the best of the era, he's one of the best in franchise history, and he's now performing at a level that just might exceed any previous peak.

He was mired around the Mendoza Line for the better part of the season's first two months. But since May 24, he's leading Major League Baseball with a .483 on-base percentage, he's second with a .385 batting average, and he's third with a 1.139 on-base plus slugging percentage.

And get this: In all that time, a span of exactly 50 games, he's gone without a hit in only nine.

In an extensive, occasionally emotional, interview Saturday at Coors Field, McCutchen talked about his titanic turnaround, his place in franchise history, his feeling on what it would be like to be celebrate a championship in Pittsburgh as he's seen the Penguins and Steelers do, his memories of the 'Blackout' wild card game in 2013 that took on his nickname, the guaranteed portion of his contract expiring after this season, his relationship with the Pirates' front office and more.

What follows is our uncut conversation:

DK: You've always struck me as being someone who's taken pride in representing one franchise, of having a legacy that's linked, at least in part, to your standing within that franchise. How much does it mean to you to still be here, especially after the attempts to trade you last winter and not being certain what the near future might hold?

Cutch: I mean, you know, it's been good for the time I've been here. I've definitely experienced quite a bit, some ups and downs, things that happen you've been here for a while. This is my ninth season now.

DK: And the minors and everything.

Cutch: Yeah. I've come through the organization, and it's been great to be a part of this franchise for this long, to have this kind of opportunity. It's very rare in this game.

DK: It really is. Especially in baseball.

Cutch: There are a lot of great things that have come out of it.

DK: Yeah, even the stuff that now seems kind of routine that gets put into the media notes, like, 'Cutch passed Willie Stargell or Roberto Clemente on such-and-such list,' that's obviously all connected to one franchise. And correct me if I'm wrong, but I've always viewed you as the guy who is mindful of the fact that you have an opportunity in Pittsburgh to be considered one of the great players in a franchise that's 131 years old.

Cutch: It is good. But for me, I want to be known as somebody who was one of the great players in baseball, not just the franchise.  That's how I want to be known. But you know, being mentioned amongst the greats that have come and gone in this franchise ... Stargell, Clemente ... to have my name in the middle of those guys, it's pretty cool. Because I don't feel like I'm near done yet.

So I'm going to keep pushing and keep playing. If I'm able to do that in a Pirates uniform for my whole career, hopefully, I'll have the opportunity to be in the mix with those guys.

DK: Ben Roethlisberger and Sidney Crosby say very similar things. Whenever you ask them about legacy stuff, they're like, 'Hey, I'm not done.' You've seen those guys. You know those guys. You've supported their teams in person, and they've supported you right back.

I've wanted to ask you this for a while, but especially after the Penguins won again in June: When you've see them going on those parades down the Boulevard of the Allies, there's no way you haven't thought to yourself, man, what would that be like if it were the Pirates?

Cutch: Of course, of course. It's always at the front of my brain. You see those teams, the parades, to see the Steelers, to see the Pens, to do what they've done over the years ... it can only be the city of champions if everybody's winning championships.

DK: Across the board.

Cutch: Yeah. So, we've got to do our part here at the Pirates. And I got a glimpse of it. I got a taste of it. That was amazing,

DK: Talking about the Blackout?

Cutch: Yeah, but you want more. You're hungry for that again. That's all I've ever wanted here is to have that opportunity to get there, and to not only get there, but to flourish and to win. You see it happen, you see the people, you see the parades, you see how awesome the city can be when things are going well and you're winning.

DK: The Blackout ... nothing in this town touched that atmosphere. Nothing I've covered. Those were fathers and grandfathers coming together after 20 years of losing. Dude jumping in the river. People crying from joy.

We don't even know what a Pirates parade would look like, do we? Because it would be out of this world.

Cutch: Yeah, it would be. I can't let myself get there too much, because I need to take care of what I need to take care of right in front of me. To even be able to get that opportunity and we have to do that, we have to do that as a whole to experience that. So as a great of a thought as that is, and it is, I don't let my head divert from what's important.

DK: You've got to beat the Rockies.

Cutch: Yeah, you've got to win. That's what it's all about.

DK: You guys have obviously been playing exceptionally well, and the trade deadline is coming up. The fans back home want the Pirates to be buyers. And as I think about that, you've never, in all the years that I've covered you, I don't recall you ever calling out the front office, or calling out anybody that's been involved in anything like, 'Hey, come on. Let's step up, let's buy, let's be buyers.'

I'm sure you know there is always some level of discontent among fans with the front office, whether it's spending more or whatever. Has that ever been tempting for you to speak up? Or is that just not a part of your personality?

Cutch: No, it's not a part of my personality. It's not who I am. Just because it's not my job.

You have guys who step up and say how they feel about certain things, 'The front office didn't do this or didn't do that, need to do this, need to do that.' At the end of the day, you're not a GM. You're not an owner. You don't understand the concept of the bigger picture, the broader picture behind things. A lot of people like to think right now, 'We wanna win right now!' but a lot of times they might be thinking, 'Well, we want to win for the next 10 years' as opposed to right now.

You know, I don't understand that whole thing.  So I'm not going to call somebody out because I feel a certain way. I don't care about that, you know, they aren't going to call me out for something I need to do on the field.

DK: And they didn't in April and May, when you were having a hard time.

Cutch: Yeah, they're not going to call me out, and I respect that. I respect their jobs and what they do. So at the end of the day, I'm playing with this team and, if I'm calling the front office out for the team we've got, that means I don't believe in or trust the team that I have around me.

DK: Because of the impact in here.

Cutch: Yeah, that's a shot to the people around me. That's a shot to my teammates more than that's a shot to the front office. I think about that stuff. I do. But there's more that goes along with it. And that comes with growth, just being wise, and it comes with just ... I don't know ... just having respect, having respect for people. That's just the way I look at it. I'd never do that.

DK: This run you guys are on as a group ... I don't get the sense from anybody in here that this is some kind of big shock, like, 'Oh, my God, look at us winning games.' And you've expressed a lot of pride in it, too. So I'll ask this, anyway: Do you feel that this team is worth adding to, in this context given where you are in the standings, how well you're playing, how it's coming together? Do you think it's worth adding to?

Cutch: Honestly, I don't know. We're winning now, so I don't look at what we need more of. I don't think that we need at this position or that position. It's just not in my thought process to think that way.

Do I think we need more?

No, I don't think we need more. We just need to keep doing what we're doing. If we keep doing what we're doing, we don't need anything. We just need to stay healthy. That's all. That's the biggest need.  When everyone is healthy, we're good. When everyone is here, we're good.

I mean, no, it's not a surprise that we're doing what we're doing.  It wasn't a surprise in '13, it wasn't a surprise in '14, it wasn't a surprise in '15.  We're a team that's capable of doing it. We just have to do it together. So no, nothing's a big surprise.

DK: I've got one last thing for you: When I talked to you in Boston before opening day, I could tell you had a little bit of a chip. You had it in Bradenton, too. You wanted to show everybody that Cutch was still Cutch.

Do you feel that you're all the way back to being one of the best players in baseball?

Cutch: No. I'm better than I was.

DK: Ha! OK, I love that!

Cutch: That's what burns me up a little bit, actually. When people go, 'The old Cutch is back, look at the old Cutch.' No. I'm better than the freaking old Cutch. I'm better than him. That old Cutch? Yeah, he's there, and he was pretty good, but this isn't the same.

DK: I hear you. Keep going.

Cutch: That's what gears me to show up! Every single day!

Who hits .200 and gets to where he is now?

Old Cutch ain't doing that. Old Cutch ain't doing that! But this Cutch is going to do it!

And I'm going to keep pushing, keep going, keep fighting, keep getting better. And at the end of the day, at the end of the year when I look back, I may look back and go, 'Yeah, I was better than the old Cutch.'

You know, I do feel I'm in a great spot. I'm in a better spot than I was years ago ... that 2012, '13,'14 Cutch, I'm better than that guy. I feel like I'm going to continue to get better, continue to keep going up. And when people are waiting for me to go down, I'm just going to keep going up. At the end, I'll be able to just sit there and shake my head. 'Yup, that's exactly what I expected to do.'

I didn't expect to start off slow. But I expected to end up on top.


As promised, a few remarks:

• Cutch and I had countless talks over the dozen-plus years he was part of the Pittsburgh organization. And what's most amazing to me about the one above is that he changed so very, very little in all that time.

That's not to suggest he didn't mature. Far from it. But his maturity was through the roof as an 18-year-old, as was his confidence, so his ceiling in that specific regard was never going to match the one he shattered as a baseball player. Always so composed, so in control in every setting. And above all, always believing he'd do what he went on to do.

He's missed, man. A lot. And I'm sure it isn't just by me.

• Sorry, but he looks ridiculous in other uniforms.

That's not to be stupid and complain about maybe the best trade of Neal Huntington's tenure, in securing Bryan Reynolds and Kyle Crick under the greatest pressure he'd faced. It's just to point out the weirdness of seeing him play for anyone other than Pittsburgh, a city he genuinely loved and still loves, as evidenced again by his recent return to perform charity work in the Hill District.

Both things can be true: The trade can be awesome, and the regret can still linger.

• The interview above was done before a 7-3 loss to the Rockies. Right at his stall. He was sitting. I was standing against a stanchion. Just before Cutch was about to head out to the Coors Field cage for batting practice. Normally, that's a lousy time to get someone for a conversation of this scope. But Cutch is different, and I thought this one might hit for two reasons:

1. He loooooooooves Coors. Not for the hitting, like most others, but for the vast center field that allowed him to flex his legs and speed in tracking the ball down. So I kind of figured, between that and the Pirates' 13-5 victory the previous night, he'd be in a prime mood.

2. He's always at his best when talking while intense. Not everyone is. He is. I can guarantee you a lot of what's above was related to precisely that.

• I'll seldom use exclamation points in a quote. Someone's legitimately got to be raising their voice. Just something to bear in mind with a couple of Cutch's answers there near the end. I'd really touched a nerve there regarding his age and the relative stage of his career.

• None of these questions were scripted. I hate scripting anything, much less interviews. They cripple your ability as a reporter to listen and adjust on the fly.

• If anyone hasn't yet picked up on the pattern, my choice for almost all of these Classic Grinds has centered on access, access, access. The only way to do this job is to do this job. And I'm looking forward to the day we can all get back in the clubhouses and locker rooms to do that.

• Flashing forward to today and Philadelphia, here's hoping Cutch can find a way to bounce back in the biggest way from that awful knee injury in 2019. He's got more ball in him, and you'd better believe he'll be eager to show it. Always has been.

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