The Times West Virginian

Pirates

April 1, 2014

HERTZEL COLUMN- McCutchen not satisfied with just an MVP award

PITTSBURGH — They stood there at home plate, the Pirates past and the Pirates present, two of the brightest stars in the baseball galaxy on hand for opening day.

Snow? Long gone, replaced by the sunshine of spring, the stands at PNC Park, which former Pirates and Detroit Tigers manager Jim Leyland would call “the best in baseball,” filled to capacity, finally eager about a baseball team.

Andrew McCutchen stood there, having just received his Silver Slugger Award from former shortstop Jack Wilson, about to receive his Most Valuable Player award from a pair of very valuable players, 1960 winner Dick Groat and Barry Bonds.

Controversy swirled when the Pirates invited Bonds back, for even though he was the greatest baseball player of all time — and that point isn’t really debatable — he remains an outcast for his involvement in the steroid controversy of the 1990s.

He was never proven to take steroids, convicted only in the court of public opinion, but everyone wondered if Bonds would be cheered or jeered,

and it turned out he was both, loud boos and as many cheers, cheers that outlasted the booing and that, in the end, turned to chants of “BAR-REE, BAR-REE.”

And as McCutchen received the MVP award from Groat and Bonds, holding it aloft, the fans chanted again, “MVP, MVP,” just as they had when Bonds won his first of seven MVP awards.

Now, he and McCutchen were drawn together as Pirates MVP winners, and so it was that early on Monday morning, as he arrived at PNC Park, I cornered him and asked him if winning the award might have changed him.

Carrying around the title of MVP can often be a heavy burden and has been known to change some players, not always for the better.

“Not really,” McCutchen replied.

Not that he would ever let it change him. Some players have to go to a bigger cap — and that is no subtle reference to Barry Bonds on the day he presented McCutchen his MVP Award — as success overtakes them.

McCutchen is as down-to-earth as the day he signed his first Pirates’ contract — about $35 million richer, yes, but still well-grounded.

Sometimes, of course, the expanded ego that comes with success is thrust upon athletes by an adoring public, offering such adulation that only the strongest can realize that just because they were blessed with certain skills they are not yet capable of healing the ill and creating world peace.

People make them change in the way they approach their heroes, but McCutchen isn’t buying into it.

“That’s the people,” he said. “I have not changed myself. I remain the same guy … yesterday, today and tomorrow. I will not let an object (like the MVP Award) change me.”

With that established, you press forward, talking about this being a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately world and that reality says that there will be bad mixed in with the good and that while McCutchen has no reason to think he will slip backwards, he has established at an early age himself as an MVP and you cannot win the MVP Award every year.

Almost before the words reach McCutchen’s ears, he turns his head and looks you in the eyes.

It is not a hard look, not a mad look, but it is a challenging look.

“Who says you can’t?” he asks.

This certainly is not the expected answer, so you stop and think for a moment before replying, “Well, so far no one has won it every year.”

That, of course, is fact.

McCutchen isn’t buying into it.

“Anything is possible in life,” he said. “I don’t believe you should ever sell yourself short. I don’t think you can’t do this or do that.”

This, you would think, is something of a unique philosophy, but a couple of hours later, unprompted, it came up again, only this time it wasn’t McCutchen speaking. It was someone who knew something about stringing MVP Awards together — Bonds.

There to present McCutchen with his MVP Award along with the first Pirates to ever win the award, Dick Groat, Bonds asked what he thought about McCutchen in a press conference.

“He’s got the formula,” Bonds replied. “Once you do it once, man, you hope you do it again. That’s the formula.”

Amazingly, the seven-time MVP winner — who darn near almost did win it every year, stringing four in a row together — was saying essentially the same thing McCutchen had said.

As much as McCutchen wants to accomplish and believes he can accomplish, he wants to set the record straight.

Winning an MVP Award is nice, but it is not what he is about.

“My mindset isn’t to win MVP Awards,” he said. “What I want to do is play hard and help the team get better every day.”

This is a mantra that Manager Clint Hurdle has imbedded in the minds of his players, even as they come off their first winning season in two decades and a trip to the playoffs.

“We view ourselves as still chasing,” he would say a half hour after McCutchen spoke about playing hard and team-first objectives.

“One team took home the trophy last year. We were just one of eight in the playoffs.”

That could be termed a success, but Hurdle says success is not what they seek.

“We’re looking for excellence, not success,” he said. “Success comes when you compare yourself to someone else. Excellence is being as good as you can be.”

Reaching potential is what it is really about, maybe even extending yourself beyond that potential.

And that is why McCutchen expects that even coming off an MVP year, even when he just may be the best player in the National League, maybe in baseball, there is more inside him that he must bring out.

“In the game of baseball you can improve every year,” McCutchen said. “I always aim to get better. There are things that I can do better than I did them the year before.”

As if to prove his point, McCutcheon hit the first pitch he saw during the 2014 season for a single to left field.

But it was the last pitch of the game that made the difference, Neil Walker hitting one into the right-field bleachers for his first walkoff hit in the major leagues, giving the Pirates a 1-0 victory over the Cubs.

Follow Bob Hertzel on Twitter @bhertzel

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