NEW YORK -- The Pittsburgh Pirates emerge from the All-Star break as one of the best stories in baseball. They're warmer and fuzzier than Yasiel Puig, every bit as improbable as Chris Davis and a favorite of impartial observers who can empathize with a fan base that has placed its aspirations in cold storage for more than two decades.
Andrew McCutchen can't make any claims about longtime suffering, since he grew up in Fort Meade, Fla., and was only 6 years old when the Pirates lost Barry Bonds to free agency and began their long descent into baseball oblivion in 1993. But he has vivid memories of his rookie year in 2009, when Zach Duke was the Pirates' staff workhorse, Nyjer Morgan was just breaking out his Tony Plush shtick for public consumption and even the fraternal synergy of Andy and Adam LaRoche couldn't put a happy face on the team's ineptitude.
The Pirates posted a 62-99 record that year under manager John Russell to finish 28½ games out of first place in the National League Central, and bottomed out at 57-105 in 2010 before improving to 72 and 79 wins over the next two seasons under Clint Hurdle. All those fits and starts and false alarms can test a young man's patience and give him a crash course in perspective.
"When you don't do so well for so long, you have to eventually get better," McCutchen said. "Drafting high draft picks. Getting key guys. It's the law of physics. Things have to turn around and eventually start going your way. It took a little longer than people wanted. But every year since I was drafted, we've gotten better."
The Pirates resume play Friday against Cincinnati dogged by memories of two straight late-season fades, yet energized by the buzz they've created and emboldened by the example of the 2012 Baltimore Orioles -- who were doubted, derided and maligned all the way to the playoffs. With constant prodding from their dreadlocked, multitalented center fielder, the Pirates will continue to believe until someone convinces them otherwise.
At 26, McCutchen has settled in as the face of the organization and the driving force in what the Pirates hope will be a long-term baseball resurgence in the city. He showed his commitment to Pittsburgh in March 2012 by signing a six-year, $51.5 million extension that includes a $14.5 million club option for 2018. The deal could take him through age 32 and put him one big contract away from retiring as a beloved career Pirate.
McCutchen made his third All-Star team this year and flashed his speed by stealing a base in his bright-yellow spikes before striking out in each of his two at-bats in the National League's 3-0 loss to the AL on Tuesday night. Teammates Pedro Alvarez, Jason Grilli, Mark Melancon and Jeff Locke joined him on the National League roster, giving the Pirates five All-Stars for the first time since Willie Stargell, Steve Blass, Roberto Clemente, Al Oliver and Manny Sanguillen represented the Buccos at the 1972 All-Star Game in Atlanta.
The Pirates have come a long way from their fallow years, when Tony Womack, Mike Williams, Jack Wilson, Evan Meek and others played the role of the team's token All-Star representative. Even though the Pirates are tied for 26th in the majors in runs scored this year, the offense is starting to develop a more collaborative feel with the emergence of some budding wingmen for McCutchen.
Left fielder Starling Marte and McCutchen are the first Pittsburgh teammates to reach the All-Star break with 20 stolen bases each since Bonds and Andy Van Slyke did it in 1987. And Alvarez is on his way to becoming the first Pirate with back-to-back 30-homer seasons since Jason Bay in 2005 and 2006.
McCutchen's stature as The Man in Pittsburgh stems from multiple factors. He subscribes to the concept of leadership by example, yet is willing to speak his mind if the need arises. He also keeps playing despite the physical toll of stealing bases and covering a vast expanse in center field. Since 2010, McCutchen ranks 12th in baseball in plate appearances and 11th in games played (559).
"There aren't too many guys who are leaders right off the bat, as soon as they break into the league," Melancon said. "He's definitely one of those guys you can count on. You know what you're going to get every day. He's the same guy whether we win or lose. Without him, our club is not even close to where it's at right now."
McCutchen's first half has actually been a mixed bag by his standards. He's slugging .471 compared to .553 last season, but the Inside Edge numbers show him with a hard-hit ball ratio in 27 percent of his at-bats, compared to 28 percent a year ago. Although he appears to be more pull-happy at the plate, he has still managed to reduce his strikeouts from 19.6 percent of his at-bats to 14.2 percent this season.
McCutchen limped out of the gate with a .247 batting average in April but kept plugging away and has hit .324, .303 and .372 in the three months since. Slumps and the inevitable bad stretches don't seem to faze him.
"It's funny," Locke said. "A.J. Burnett and I were talking about this Opening Day. Andrew goes up to the plate and A.J. says, 'What do you see right now in this guy?' I said, 'He looks good. He looks ready to go.' A.J. said, 'I see confidence in him. When he goes up to the plate, he's not biggest guy in the world. He's fast, but he's probably not the fastest guy in the world. But he's one of the most confident men in the world. It just takes a little success to build your confidence.'
"There's not a ball Andrew can't catch. There's not a play he can't throw someone out on. There's not an inside fastball he can't get his hands in on. There's nothing he can't do on that field. That's why it was so special to see him extend that contract. For him to show he wants to be here and help the team build around him, that's something special."
McCutchen's ultimate value to the Pirates is reflected by his wins above replacement (WAR) totals. He ranked second to National League MVP Buster Posey with a 7.0 WAR a year ago and is tied with Arizona's Paul Goldschmidt for third this season behind Carlos Gomez and David Wright. He stands sixth among center fielders in the Fielding Bible's runs saved listings at plus-11 and has clearly benefited from the freedom Marte has given him by chasing down everything in left.
For want of a better word, McCutchen's teammates find it fun to watch him take off and corral balls in the gap. Especially the pitchers.
"I like watching him run," Grilli said. "He's rather quick. He's made tough balls look routine, and that's something you can't even measure. It's one thing when you see the highlights. But when you're on the field and the game is that much quicker, just to understand and really grasp that from my perspective, you go, 'Wow, that's amazing.'"
Over the long run, the Pirates' onerous bullpen workload might catch up to the relievers, and general manager Neal Huntington could be challenged to find an impact bat to upgrade the offense. But the simple act of avoiding questions about another late-season collapse gives the Pittsburgh players lots of incentive to keep winning. When McCutchen and his teammates go out in public, they have plenty of people reminding them what that 56-37 record means for civic pride.
"It's a sports town, Pittsburgh," McCutchen said. "They're all about their sports. They've always been supportive, and it's not just to the Pirates. It's the Pens and the Steelers, as well. They're hungry to see a winner, and it's great that they're seeing one right now. It doesn't matter if we start the game at 10 p.m. They're gonna hang around, because they want to see us go out and play and win. It's awesome to be a part of that."
From Opening Day to the All-Star Game, the Pirates have been a wonderfully heartening story for fans of the underdog. As McCutchen and his teammates emerge from the break, they're all hungry to finish what they started.