Of Buc(k)s, Pucks and Schmucks…

Andrew McCutchen

I hate Andrew McCutchen.

Okay, that was harsh. Tantamount, dare I say, to Will Ferrell’s capricious face-slapping of self-deprecating Jay “Scootsie Doubleday” Phillips–and I apologize in the same haste as Jackie Moon.

One of the most important lessons I have learned not just from my time spent in “big boy” radio, but also at other jobs that utilized my skills in communications and customer service, is that sometimes you just need to let people vent. As one of Pittsburgh’s neurotic, bed-wetting baseball fans, I’m just venting.

I know darn well, as should the rest of the Pirates’ alleged “lost generation,” how lucky we have been to have Andrew McCutchen. Cutch has been the face of our franchise and its brief return to respectability, and, even if not the game’s best overall player, arguably, the face of everything “good” about it.

I don’t hate Andrew McCutchen. What I really hate is @TheCUTCH22’s catch-22.

Because the Pirates have as much chance coming out of it smelling like a rose as the Tropics had of attaining NBA membership.

Part of me wishes we had been put out of our misery over the winter, when the business decision seemed inevitable. That would have given us all more time to get over it (not that we ever totally would), and there’s no telling what kind of haul the Pirates could have gotten. McCutchen, by all accounts, was not without interested parties, most notably a Nationals front office that had already been fleeced for Felipe Rivero and highly-touted Taylor Hearn.

The other part of me is grateful the Pirates front office, in true Pirates front office fashion, stumbled awkwardly through that whole situation and was “stuck” with McCutchen, lest Washington stick us with the same washing machine that brought Ed Monix to Flint. For all my closeted fandom, which saw my Bucco Fever plummet toward a pre-Hurdle temperature in concurrence with Cutch’s decline, no one was happier to see an 1,100-watt light bulb go on for the reigning National League Player of the Month than I. Even in his worst times on the field, Cutch has given us nothing but his personal best off it.

That’s the Andrew McCutchen I’ll always know and cherish. But can the Andrew McCutchen we cherish be had for much longer? No matter the name on the back of the jersey, a defensively suspect superstar on the wrong side of 30 who looked lost offensively until that summer surge may never again be as valuable to the name on the front as he is right now.

The Pirates entered the second half down, but not out of the ongoing NL Central rock fight, and if only they were, the decision whether or not to trade him would be cut-and-dry. If they just did the Pirate thing, finished getting their butts kicked and left us looking for what we have to work with in the next decade of the five-year plan, it would be so painfully easy to say, “Thanks for the memories, now time to re-calibrate the franchise [in under two decades, we hope].” Instead, the Pirates, like the emotional state of their fans, are between John Wehner and a hard place.

Even if the Pirates trade Andrew McCutchen in a deal that makes perfect baseball sense, their front office will be eviscerated. That’s what happens when 20 years of historic futility leave scars that never completely heal. If they don’t, their window of opportunity to get the most in return for their most attractive big-league bargaining chip likely closes, and they’re reviled for different reasons.

Intent is one thing, and impact is quite another. No team can ever completely control the paranoia of its own fan base, but the Pirates have brought a lot of that paranoia upon themselves.

Several years ago, when their current front office was still very much in the midst of cleaning up Kevin McClatchy’s mess, it is believed that Ron Burkle, Mario Lemieux’s very rich and very reclusive business partner, offered, on his own volition, to take that mess off Nutting’s hands. Burkle has never admitted to anything of the sort, nor did he when given the chance by Post-Gazette writer Dave Molinari in a one-time-only interview that is a phenomenal read nevertheless.

Around here, night-and-day comparisons between Pirates and Penguins management are like that shady character in your apartment building who keeps pulling the fire alarm; eventually, even if justified, you just start tuning them out. Burkle, like Nutting, tries to be as hands-off as he can, within reason. To distinguish the former from the latter, however, look no further than the eyebrow-raising 2008 trade that brought Marian Hossa to the Pens.

Then-president Ken Sawyer had contrived a five-year plan (sound familiar?) to build the Penguins into a championship-caliber outfit, not to mention a fiscally strong one, by the time they moved across the street and into the building initially known as CONSOL Energy Center–a building that would not have come to fruition without Burkle’s input, politically and financially.

“Didn’t the Soviets have a five-year plan?” Burkle quipped to his fellow decision-makers, according to local author and Tribune-Review reporter Andrew Conte, upon learning this.

All he needed to make up his mind was a simple answer to a simple question:

Can we win now?

When GM Ray Shero answered in the affirmative, Burkle green-lit additional payroll without batting an eye. Neither the Penguins nor the rest of the NHL would ever be the same.

Even though they didn’t get that elusive championship until the following spring (and, poetically, at job-jumping Hossa’s expense), the trade was nonetheless significant, as Molinari noted. By spending on an impact player who factored into a lengthy playoff run, Ron Burkle showed the same tangible commitment to winning for which Pirate fans have clamored until their fingers are blistered and their vocal chords bloody.

His take on why he endorsed the deal, as told to the P-G, is even more telling:

burkle_quote

Burkle’s commitment wasn’t the only difference, either. Shero’s willingness to live in the moment helped make the Pens a bona fide Stanley Cup challenger.

Giving up high draft picks was one thing, but he really turned heads by trading Colby Armstrong, one of the team’s most popular players and one who meshed well with the face of their own franchise, Sidney Crosby, to complete that trade deadline transaction. Furthermore, his visionary acquisition of Hossa’s teammate, Pascal Dupuis, considered merely ribbon on the package at the time, paid even richer dividends in future seasons.

Meanwhile, the Pirates couldn’t get out of their own way–but, after that third Cup, neither could the Penguins. One team had a GM who would rather die than part with prospects. The other had a GM who would rather die than play them. Each team struggled in the playoffs, with Shero getting fired after a string of premature postseason exits, because neither sought middle ground.

That’s how the Cubs won the World Series. And no, I still can’t believe I’m typing that. It’s the ultimate cosmic joke to wait most of your adult life to see your favorite pro baseball organization finally become a stable one, only to be one-upped by an organization that did it bigger, better and light years faster–and one with an even more historically aggrieved fan base, at least with respect to championships. Theo Epstein built a team that was a perfect mix of young and old.

Jim Rutherford, as Shero’s successor, has done the same for the Penguins (you know, the team that held the 3-1 series lead) en route to back-to-back championships. Since then, Epstein has tried to spark a second-half resurgence toward a second straight title of his own by trading prospects to the neighboring White Sox for promising young pitcher Jose Quintana–a rumored Pirate target for some time.

It is inarguable that Neal Huntington understands the importance of drafting, developing, rinsing and repeating, especially for small-market teams in Major League Baseball. The Pirates, during his tenure, have consistently gone after the consensus best players in the draft regardless of signability, which was not always the case in Pittsburgh. That’s how they got Jameson Taillon and Gerrit Cole. That’s how they “Pirated” Josh Bell out from under the noses of 29 other teams that believed he wouldn’t sign at all.

The problem is, Huntington hasn’t found the magic-bullet prospects his peers have–Bryant, Judge, Harper, and so on. I’d like to be able to say that those closest to it, like Bell, for example, were a little more expendable when the Pirates were a little more relevant, and thus, movable in the kind of trade that could put a pretender on the contenders’ side of the line. But you’d never know by the way the organization has hoarded them. While Epstein wants balance, Huntington wants to have it both ways.

The biggest difference between Pittsburgh and Chicago used to be that, over there, North Siders blamed jinxes, curses, farm animals and ball-hawking nerds with Walkmen, while, on our North Side, we blame a quarter-century of general incompetence. (If you’re a true Pittsburgh sports devotee, you should know by now we do things the hard way.) Now the difference is that the Cubs want to be able to sell more World Series tickets, and the Pirates want to be able to sell more hope.

It wasn’t always like this. wasn’t always like this. When the Pirates finally broke The Streak, I was much readier to keep an open mind about Nutting and his minions. Their hand-picked field manager had re-energized the club and city, their draft classes were bearing fruit and, around that particular trade deadline, they actually made solid, low-risk/high-reward moves for players who were widely deemed upgrades to the team.

But then they ruined it. They killed their momentum faster than a bases-loaded rally with complacency. Their actions–or, more accurately, their inaction–the next two years, both of which ended in embarrassing playoff losses at home, told fans they were perfectly content to treat the postseason like a dice toss, with the unsatisfactory return in the Neil Walker trade being the tip of the pathetic-berg.

Apparently, not even that 98-win squad of 2015, which was elite, fun to watch and closer to being a World Series threat than any Pirate team since–gulp–Barry Bonds’ heyday, was worthy of substantial in-season or off-season improvement. The Battlin’ Bucs became the Just-Happy-to-be-There Bucs and haven’t been close to their optimal on-field selves since, leaving us to wonder when our agony will turn back into ecstasy…a-a-a-a-a-and cue the paranoia!

Championships are rare, anything but a birthright–yes, even in the City of Champions. Winning them isn’t just about having the right talent; it’s also about drawing the right matchups. The Pirates, with characteristic misfortune, ran into a superior St. Louis team, followed by a pair of historically hot pitchers. Plus, in the bigger picture, embarrassing playoff losses at PNC Park are still a notch above every embarrassing Pirate loss 1993-2012.

But isn’t it possible, with the window of opportunity open, that the Pirates front office could have done more? Isn’t it possible that they could have better equipped themselves to offset those bad matchups, had that front office been less wary of losing some kid in Altoona, Bradenton or God knows where else who might be the key ingredient to a 2020 pennant race?

How cool would Giancarlo Stanton have looked in a Pirate uniform a few years ago, even if just for a few months? How cool would David Price have looked in Seventies Sunday throwbacks on a team chasing a division title?

I’m not even affirming or denying that either scenario was ever remotely possible. I’m merely trying to illustrate that, although the Pirates, under Frank Coonelly’s self-proclaimed BMT (Best Management Team™), have enjoyed their longest period of sustained success since the early ’90s, they, unlike the Penguins, still haven’t been willing enough to occasionally deviate from “the plan” to achieve said plan’s purpose.

Both organizations have promised us, in so many words, that they won’t live in their fears. Guess whose promise has actually been delivered?

Yep, still a Stanley Cup champion–and just over two years removed from his acquisition by Rutherford, at that.

The Phil Kessel trade was controversial not only because he had been such a miscast player in Toronto, but also because among the departed was the Penguins’ top draft pick, Kasperi Kapanen, during a period of intense scrutiny of the Pens’ farm system and its lack of matriculated forwards. It’s immaterial now. If Kapanen has a long career with the Leafs, so be it. GMJR already got what he wanted, and the Penguins got what they wanted while still getting valuable contributions from other rookies.

When they are referred to as a budding dynasty, people smile and nod. (Chicagoans know what that’s like, too.) When Coonelly, not long after the Penguins’ 2009 title, said the Pirates were building one, then tried to backpedal on it like McCutchen tracking a long fly ball, people pointed and giggled. It shouldn’t be a challenge for any of us to surmise why, even though things on 115 Federal Street did, on a smaller scale, get better eventually.

It shouldn’t be a urinating contest between the fan bases, either. We’re all Pittsburghers. Deep down, we should know a rising tide floats all boats, including the rudderless ship the Pirates were on when Bob Nutting got behind the wheel. Pittsburgh benefits, economically and emotionally, when the Steelers do well. It benefits just the same when the Penguins do well. When the Pirates actually sold us substantial hope in 2013, the North Shore was a circus. And it was awesome.

want to love them just as badly as I love the Penguins. The Pens have simply done more to commensurate my faith, starting with Burkle, who, without hesitation, has paid any price, anytime, for anything he is convinced can make his product better.

want to trust Nutting. I’ve stopped thinking he’s the Ebenezer Scrooge everyone else thinks he is. He has presided over some winning baseball, his farm system is in incontrovertibly better shape than it was under McClatchy’s lackeys and he’s locked up key players with lucrative, yet team-friendly contracts. I fiercely agree, however, that he has not done everything he could to make the Pirates competitive.

I want to hear his explanation for two dormant winters, a 20-game drop in the final standings sandwiched between them and why the Pirates, despite constant payroll hikes, still lag in that category behind teams that spend and win. I need to hear straight from the horse, the next time another article about his and/or his franchise’s “real” worth is published, why I shouldn’t believe the narrative that he could do more but chooses not to.

want to believe the Bucs are goin’ all the way, someday. I do believe they want to, but only on their terms. I don’t believe they will with their stubborn consistency of approach, unless the right batch of teams suffers a simultaneous, historic, Penguinesque rash of injuries at the right time, and they accident their way into it.

If Nutting ever did meet Burkle, what would he think? What would it mean to the Pirates, not necessarily to have a new owner, but just to have an additional investor? One who can take pressure off the owner? One who has more money than the Vatican and doesn’t spend it with nearly the same degree of caution? Why wouldn’t Burkle be good enough to join the BMT™?

Maybe, just maybe, with a little help from Burkle, or Mario, or Mark Cuban, or the Rooneys, or, literally, any other person of fortune with Pittsburgh ties who mirrors Burkle’s fondness for sports, his empathy with the little guy and his consider-it-done spirit, things like the Cutch conundrum could be avoided?

Respecting his wish to remain a Pirate for at least the rest of this season seems to be the least damaging course of action on and off the field, even if McCutchen cools off and goes into a late-season swoon. But if he wants another, bigger payday, it won’t happen here. History corroborates me there.

No matter what happens, or doesn’t, when seeking shelter from the smoldering hot takes, head for that middle ground. There isn’t much of it anymore when we talk about the Pirates, which is sad, because that’s where truth is usually found–all the more reason I’ve tried speaking about them with prolonged tact.

The Pirates could conceivably put a winning, contending team on the field without Andrew McCutchen someday, maybe even in the foreseeable future. When McCutchen was league MVP and in his approximate prime, that was unimaginable.

In a sane world, Cutch could be packaged in a deal that makes perfect baseball sense, and Pirate fans would understand. As Pirate fans, our world is not sane.

If it were, next time his phone rang and displayed a Beverly Hills area code, Mr. Nutting would pick up.

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