BRADENTON — Andrew McCutchen was hanging out at home one afternoon with one of his cousins when a friend they knew from high school called. McCutchen wanted to say hi, so his cousin passed him the phone.
McCutchen wanted to shoot the breeze about the old days, but the conversation took an unexpected turn.
“He started talking to me as if he’d never met me before and he was just this huge fan,” McCutchen recalled, grinning. “I was like, ‘Hey, I went to school with you. We played football together.’ It’s funny sometimes, the reactions you get from different people, different fans.”
Celebrity changes things, usually dramatically, for those it graces. Since McCutchen went from being just another ballplayer to a two-time All-Star and the face of the Pirates franchise, people interact with him in new and unusual ways.
Strangers stop him on the street and beg for a handshake. His Twitter followers voted him onto the cover of a video game. During a Pirates winter caravan stop in Indiana, Pa., a fan proposed to his girlfriend by having McCutchen hand her the ring.
“I’ve had little girls come up to me crying because they’re so excited,” McCutchen said. “I’d never had anything like that happen to me before. It’s definitely cool.”
As a first-round pick in the talent-rich 2005 draft, McCutchen seemed destined for more than just an ordinary career. A year ago, he signed a six-year, $51.5 million contract during spring training, then put together an MVP-caliber season — setting personal bests in nearly every offensive category, including batting average (.327), home runs (31) and RBI (96).
Still, the accolades apparently have not altered McCutchen’s personality. Sometimes when he thinks no one is watching, McCutchen will let his mouth drop open in surprise when he sees himself on the ESPN “SportsCenter” highlights. He’s like a giddy kid who cannot believe how far he’s come.
“The work ethic, the way I carry myself and the things I do on the field — none of those things have changed,” McCutchen said. “I’m the same person I was when I first got here. I believe that’s gotten me to where I am now, so I don’t try to change it. I’ll be myself, and everything else will take care of itself.”
A lot of players are like that … for a while. But, jaded by notoriety, many superstars eventually become aloof from fans and even teammates. How can McCutchen avoid the trap?
“There’s no perfect way of doing life when there are people who always want to get your autograph, sit down and have dinner with you or whatever,” former Cy Young winner John Smoltz said.
A standout pitcher for 21 seasons, Smoltz once faced McCutchen on the field and now studies him as an analyst for MLB Network. Smoltz has simple advice for McCutchen about dealing with celebrity.
“You can’t make everybody happy,” Smoltz said. “You do the best you can. You try to have the same character you had before you became a bigger name. Fame is a complicated thing. Everybody wishes they had it — but if they were to get just a taste of it, they’d find it isn’t the most glorious thing.”
Small town, big dreams
McCutchen remembers a conversation with his father when he was about 6 years old, not long after his family moved into a small house in Fort Meade. It was not an easy time for the McCutchens. His parents, both barely out of high school, were struggling to make ends meet.
“Dad asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up,” McCutchen said. “Every kid wants to be something huge — a firefighter, a doctor, a professional (athlete). Something big. I didn’t tell him I wanted to be a baseball player. I told him I wanted to be on TV like those guys and do what they do. He told me, ‘Go after it. Stick with it. It’s not going to be easy, but we’ll help you along the way.’ He always gave me the willpower to do whatever I wanted to do.”
Fort Meade is a close-knit community of about 5,600 people, hunkered down on a plot of five square miles. The typical household income is $37,000, which is a bit below the state average. Along with links to the police, fire department and utilities, the town’s website advertised the annual Sweethearts Dinner Dance on Saturday night at the community center.
Alongside a road leading into Fort Meade, city leaders recently posted a sign that lets travelers know they’re entering the hometown of Andrew McCutchen.
“He wanted to stop and take a picture of it one day, but we were headed to church,” laughed Fort Meade resident Kenneth Eldell. “He gets excited still about that kind of stuff.”
Born 20 days apart in October 1986, Eldell and McCutchen have been best friends since preschool. They see each other often. McCutchen has a house in nearby Lakeland and visits his old neighborhood almost every weekend in the offseason.
“We don’t look at him as a celebrity,” Eldell said. “We still look at him as Andrew. We don’t want to overwhelm him with the same (reactions) he gets when he’s away from home.”
Still, Fort Meade is justifiably proud of McCutchen. And some of his influence has rubbed off on the town.
“Everybody around here wants to be Andrew McCutchen,” Eldell said. “You see a lot of kids playing baseball, more so than when we were growing up. To our town, Andrew is the hometown legend, our hometown hero. Nobody from Fort Meade has ever done what Andrew’s done.”
Giving back, speaking up
Celebrities can get folks to open their wallets for a good cause, which is why Pirates owner Bob Nutting insists that every player in the organization, from rookie ball to the big leagues, spends time during the season giving back to the community. Each player’s bio in the media guide includes a color photo of him engaged in charity work.
“Being blessed with what I’ve got, it’s good to be able to lend a helping hand,” said McCutchen, whose father is a minister at a nondenominational church.
On Feb. 2, McCutchen held a one-day Raising the Standard baseball camp for kids. The proceeds went to Fort Meade’s Dixie Lesague youth teams.
McCutchen also quietly has begun to perform more work in the Pittsburgh area. In April, he’ll sponsor Team Cutch for the Pirates Charities 5K Home Run on the North Shore.
McCutchen began working with Habitat for Humanity last year. He hosted families at PirateFest in December and plans to swing a hammer at work sites this summer.
“His smile is just so infectious,” said Maggie Withrow, executive director for Habitat for Humanity of Greater Pittsburgh. “You know it’s coming from the heart. We gain a lot from his credibility and his positive attitude.”
Celebrity status also leads to increased responsibilities in the clubhouse, Smoltz said.
“Your name becomes a little more powerful because of what you’ve done,” Smoltz said. “There’s a respect factor within the league. Some superstars don’t necessarily make great leaders, but the ones that do have an effect that can be pretty powerful.”
McCutchen is not a natural rah-rah guy around teammates. He always has preferred to go about his business and let others pick up on it if they choose.
But as he reported to spring training camp last week in Bradenton, McCutchen knows he must expand his role. He’s a veteran with a big-money contract. It’s his team now, so he must set the tone in the clubhouse and on the field.
Last September, after the Pirates were swept in a three-game set in Cincinnati, McCutchen addressed his teammates inside the team bus. They had lost their focus, he said, because they had fallen out of the chase for a playoff spot. He insisted they start playing hard again.
“He’s a leader,” said reliever Jared Hughes, who has played with McCutchen in the majors and minors. “He can be quiet, but when he talks, everybody listens. Even guys who have 10 years of experience listen to him because everybody respects him.”
That’s what happens when everybody knows your name.
Rob Biertempfel is a reporter for the Pittsburgh Tribune Review.