PITTSBURGH — Friday was a special night at PNC Park.
You could tell from the very beginning of the afternoon, as the Pittsburgh media packed into the press conference room 30 minutes before the home clubhouse opened.
You could tell when the ballpark gates opened to a steady stream of fans and hundreds lined the contours of the field for batting practice.
You could tell when even the top, upper sections of the outfield grandstands filled in and a season-high crowd of 34,720 packed into their seats well before first pitch.
“I knew something was a little bit different when we saw probably 100 people at batting practice,” first baseman Josh Bell said.
The reason that so many eyeballs were on PNC Park on Friday was not because of the 2018 Pirates, it was because of who they were playing — the San Francisco Giants, and more importantly, the first return of superstar Andrew McCutchen to his adoptive home town since he was traded this January.
Chills. Well done, Pittsburgh. pic.twitter.com/UYEKhkxEYg
— Alan Saunders (@ASaunders_PGH) May 11, 2018
McCutchen was feted with an ovation that lasted over a minute before his first at-bat, again as he took the field for the first time and just about every other time he made an appearance. The crowd actually booed when Jameson Taillon caught him looking for a strikeout in the first inning.
There was a palpable emotion being transferred from the crowd to a player that they had spent years loving, and that he had loved back. McCutchen met his wife in Pittsburgh. He’s made the city his permanent home. He named his son Steel. Those are some serious roots, and he was misty-eyed as he tipped his cap to the Pirates dugout and the crowd.
“If you don’t get caught up in that, you can go home,” Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said. “I loved it. I loved to see his look in our dugout and I loved to see him going out into the outfield on the board and looking at the fans. Very special.”
Taillon, who struck out McCutchen twice before leaving the game early with a cut on his finger, called it a moment he’ll never forget.
“Today might’ve been cooler than my debut, honestly,” Taillon said. “That reception, it was just really cool. … That’s something that you’ll tell your kids about. I got to face Cutch the first time he came back to Pittsburgh. How cool is that?”
It was, for all parties involved, an incredible, emotional night and surely not one that any will forget any time soon.
But while it may have been special, the proceedings Friday night aren’t exactly rare. McCutchen played nine seasons in Pittsburgh before being traded to San Francisco. His teammate, Evan Longoria, played for 10 years in Tampa before signing as a free agent. Tony Watson spent seven and a half years in Pittsburgh and is now a Giant. Matt Harvey, who spent six years with the Mets, is now in Cincinnati after being designated for assignment last week.
Average players, good players, great players, it doesn’t seem to matter. The rule of the day is change. The idea that one player, regardless of how good, how special or how impactful they are to a particular franchise, is likely to start and finish his career there, is mostly an anachronism. Of the top 25 active players in the majors in career games played, only four — Yadier Molina, Joe Mauer, Ryan Zimmerman and Adam Jones — have done so with one team.
“The days of flipping over that ball card like I used to do and seeing one team — those are almost dinosaurs,” Hurdle said. “There’s a lot reasons for it. The game pays for specific things. Some teams can pay longer and more than others. There’s a lot of moving pieces.”
Of course, that idea is nothing new. The combination of free agency and other factors have changed the way teams operate, and that’s been the case for quite some time. Players are more than well aware that they’re unlikely to start and finish their career in the same place, but it’s not a subject that comes up very often.
“I don’t think you think about it,” Watson said. “That’s a long time and there’s so many things that can happen — factors that are out of your control that you can’t worry about. I got six and half, seven years here. I played with Jordy (Mercer) and J-Hay (Josh Harrison) since Double-A, so that’s a lot of relationships, a lot of good memories, but eventually, if you’re good enough to play long enough … those things are going to happen.”
In fact, just getting as far with the Pirates that McCutchen did is more than most players will see.
“For him to get drafted, debut, All-Star games, postseason, MVP, all with the same place, guys like that are few and far between,” Bell said. “That’s what made for such a special night for him, and for all us to experience that.”
But for the 25 men currently wearing black and gold in PNC Park’s third-base dugout, that is all that Friday represented — a special evening for a special player, but still a normal part of the game of baseball. Players recalled how David Freese had gotten a similar welcome in St. Louis and Francisco Cervelli referenced games he’d played where other greats had gotten similar welcomes.
While a furious war has been brewing in the crowd and online about what McCutchen’s trade meant and how the fallout of it has shaped the public perception of this team, none of those feelings have permeated the clubhouse. It was just a day to recognize a former Pirates great, and then play baseball.
“We all wanted the fans to respond the way they did, which is great, because we feel the same way,” Mercer said. “But yet, we know he’s in a good spot. That’s part of the business. He has a new team now and it’s time to move on. We get it. It’s part of it. But we can’t just dwell on the past and wish he was here the whole time. We’ve got to play with these guys in here.”
On that note, mission accomplished. The Pirates knocked around rookie lefty Andrew Suarez and the Giants bullpen — including former friend Watson — to the tune of 11 runs while the bullpen backed up Taillon’s shortened start to finish the special evening with an 11-2 victory.
While the Pirates were certainly appreciate of the special response the crowd gave McCutchen, it wasn’t the only thing on their mind as over 22,000 more fans than they’ve averaged packed into PNC Park for the season’s highest-attended game.
“When they were here, seeing him, obviously we wanted to play well and show them that we’re a force to be reckoned with,” Mercer said. “We did that tonight and hopefully, they’ll come back for more. Hopefully, they come back to see us when just anybody is in town. That’s what we wanted, but it’s also in (the clubhouse). That’s the biggest thing. We keep everything in here and feed off each other and whatever happens out there, happens out there.”
The Pirates have turned the page. Their new, post-McCutchen group is playing some pretty good baseball. If the folks that came out to send their well wishes to “Cutch” caught on, that might turn a special moment into a watershed moment.