Andrew McCutchen walked to the podium, brushed back his trademark dreadlocks, unfolded a sheet of paper and took a deep breath.
The Pittsburgh Pirates All-Star centerfielder looked across the massive ballroom at the Dapper Dan Awards — think Pittsburgh’s version of the ESPYs — while accepting the 2012 Sportsman of the Year honor in January and cleared his throat.
“I don’t do this a lot,” McCutchen said.
Maybe, but he better get used to it. It kind of comes with the territory when you become the face of a franchise, particularly one in desperate need of a karmic turnaround.
It wasn’t always this way. Some of the greatest players in the history of the game have worn Pittsburgh’s black-and-gold. Roberto Clemente. Honus Wagner. Willie Stargell. Barry Bonds.
There have been a few potential successors since Bonds abandoned Pittsburgh following the 1992 season, though things have never quite worked out.
The always bottom-line conscious Pirates traded away Jason Bay and Jason Kendall — their most valuable assets — before losing them on the open market. Ditto Nate McLouth, Aramis Ramirez and Freddy Sanchez and a host of others who have found greater success — not to mention a bigger paycheck — away from the Steel City.
Pittsburgh management insists the days of being a farm system for teams with deeper pockets are over.
Perhaps more importantly, McCutchen does too. That’s why he agreed to a six-year $51-million contract extension last spring, a deal that looks like a bargain after the dazzling McCutchen put together one of the finest seasons in recent memory.
He hit .327 with 31 homers and 96 RBIs in 2012, finished third in NL MVP voting, made his second straight All-Star team and won both a Silver Slugger and a Gold Glove. He also helped Pittsburgh to tie its best record since Bonds left town.
His greatest feat, however, may be the way he’s made the Pirates relevant.
McCutchen’s No. 22 jersey was the sixth-most popular in all of baseball last year, ahead of guys like Chipper Jones and Justin Verlander. His face graces the cover of a popular video game series and the commercials promoting the game feature everything about McCutchen that makes him an advertiser’s dream. There’s the brilliant smile, the comic timing and the demeanor of a guy who is at ease with his own success.
That sense of self, McCutchen insists, will not change no matter how high his Q-rating climbs.
“I’m going to be me,” McCutchen said shortly after spring training opened last month. “That’s what got me here. I’m not going to start changing now.”