Pirates center fielder Andrew McCutchen may appear to be on top of the baseball world, but his path to the Majors wasn't without its setbacks. His family and his faith kept him on track.
- Posted on May 27, 2016
If you follow Major League Baseball you know me as the all-star center fielder for the Pittsburgh Pirates (or as “Cutch”). People sometimes say my style of play looks effortless, as in smooth and easy. I’m on the small side for a major leaguer—and that probably adds to the perception.
One thing I can promise you, though— no one gets to the big leagues without a ton of effort and more than a few setbacks. Especially me.
March 30, 2007, was probably my worst day in baseball. The last game of spring training. McKechnie Field, Bradenton, Florida. A 90-minute drive from my hometown, Fort Meade. Growing up, family, friends, practically everyone in town, told me I was a natural. Of course I believed it. I trusted these folks.
I wasn’t cocky, just confident. Eventually, I was picked by the Pirates in the first round of the 2005 draft. Since then, I’d wound my way through the Pirates’ farm system.
On this final day of spring training for the big club, a few of us were invited to play with the starters who would go north—big hitters like Jose Bautista and Jason Bay. In the top of the seventh I hit a wicked line drive into the right-field seats. I rounded the bases. My feet barely touched ground.
At the end of the game, I was called into the manager’s office. This was it. I was going to go north with the big club. I was going to be a major leaguer. I sat across from the manager, Jim Tracy.
“Andrew, you’re a very talented player,” he said.
This is awesome, I thought. I’d dreamed of this moment my whole life.
“But...we just don’t feel you’re ready for the big leagues. You still need some seasoning.”
Not ready? I walked out of his office, stunned. To me “not ready” meant one thing: not good enough. I wasn’t just letting myself down, I was letting down everyone who’d believed in me. Especially my parents.
Mom and Dad had me when they were 17-year-olds, in high school. She was a volleyball player and he was the school’s star running back. Mom was a year ahead of Dad, and when she graduated, she accepted a scholarship to play volleyball at Polk Community College in Winter Haven.
Dad graduated and took a football scholarship to Carson-Newman University in Tennessee, hoping to make it to the NFL. Mom supported him, believing he should better himself for my sake.
They tried to make it work long distance. But after a year, Dad left his dreams behind. He and Mom moved into a trailer just outside Fort Meade. Mom got a job as a data-entry clerk at the sheriff’s department. Dad juggled three jobs.
He juggled more than that, though. He was partying in what little spare time he had. Mom wasn’t having it. She was afraid that one night he might decide not to come back.
“I’m not going anywhere,” Dad promised. His father had abandoned him and he swore he’d never do that to her, or to me. But Mom wanted more than that. “We have a child. Unless you become a man of God, you’ll never be my husband,” she told him.
Her words sank in...hard. Dad straightened out his act and became a youth counselor for the Peaceful Believers’ Church, where Mom sang in the choir. They married when I was five, after he’d proven himself a man of God.
That was around the age I started skipping rocks with Dad at a lake near our house. Dad noticed that I had a good arm and signed me up to play tee ball. I tried to waggle my bat the way Ken Griffey, Jr., my favorite player, did.
At 11, I joined a youth baseball league. To help me practice, Dad led me out to an open field by the trailer. He gave me a broomstick handle and tossed Wiffle balls or corks wrapped in electrical tape.
“If you can hit these, you can hit anything,” he told me.
Maybe it was because of working so closely with me—on my faith as well as my playing—that Dad eventually became a minister. He and Mom disciplined me and made sure I hit the books. No hanging out late.
“We don’t want you to end up in a situation where you start a family before you’re ready,” Mom said. And Dad had his own advice. “Keep the main thing the main thing, son,” he told me one day.
“Baseball?” I said.
“No. God is the main thing. It’s good to have other interests, but know that no matter what happens, God is all you need. All your gifts are gifts from him.”
I believed God had a plan for us all. But how would I ever get noticed as a ballplayer? My parents couldn’t afford to send me to travel games. There was the motel room, gas money, tournament fees. “It will work out just as the Lord said in Romans 8:28,” Dad reminded me. “‘All things work together for good to those who love God.’”
That year, an Amateur Athletic Union coach, Jimmy Rutland, noticed me during an all-star game. He asked Dad if I’d ever been on a travel team. Dad just shook his head. Coach Rutland took me in as if I were another son. He helped pay for my jerseys and travel expenses. A teammate’s parents helped too.
By the time I started playing at Fort Meade High, I had a lot of people in my corner. Some of them said I was the best they’d ever seen come through the school. That made me work even harder. Senior year I got the news that changed everything.
“The Pittsburgh Pirates are looking at you,” Dad said. “They want you to go to their stadium for a workout.”
Dad and I flew to Pennsylvania. The park looked so much bigger than I expected. So did the players! I was 5 foot 10, weighed 160 pounds soaking wet. Some of these dudes were huge.
That was the year the Pirates drafted me as the eleventh pick in the first round. I was named the Pirates’ Minor League Player of the Year my first year as a pro. I was on my way to the bigs.
And then came that brief conversation with Jim Tracy. He said I needed more seasoning. I felt like I was cooked.
I was assigned to the Triple-A ballclub, the highest minor-league level. But my play wasn’t at that level. I let my setback eat away at me, consuming my self-confidence. The fact was, I’d never really had a knock like that before. I didn’t know how to handle it.
One hot summer night I stood in center field, replaying the whole scene in my mind. Maybe Jim Tracy is right, I suddenly thought. Maybe it wasn’t over for me. No matter how talented I was told I was, there was room to grow, to learn, to improve. Maybe I could turn struggle into progress.
After all, we were talking about the majors. At that level the sport is teeming with talent! I had to man up and fight on. Another voice rose louder than my doubts. “Keep the main thing the main thing,” I could hear Dad say. God had this. I just had to show up...and do the work.
Over the next two years I hustled. Big time. I listened and I worked. In 2009, I got the news: I was called up to the majors!
In my rookie season, at just 22 years old, I hit .286 and got on base over a third of the time. I was named Baseball America magazine’s Major League Rookie of the Year.
I had found my place on the team, but that team had had 20 straight losing seasons by 2013. Ouch! It was tough showing up at the park with a losing record, knowing that you’re trying your best, and letting down your fans.
I got on my knees. Lord, I love this game, but even if I didn’t have it, I know what can never be taken away, and that’s my love for you and your love for me. I want to do my best to help this team win. For the fans. For my family. For Coach Rutland. For Fort Meade and all the people who helped me and prayed for me.
That year I won the National League’s Most Valuable Player award and we made the playoffs. We’ve made the cut every year since.
But like life itself, baseball is a game of ups and downs. Last year I faced the worst slump of my career. Hitless in 12 of my first 25 games. I was rebounding from a knee injury. Still, it was pretty bad. A slump is the worst feeling a hitter can have. It’s as though you’re helpless, and every time you’re at bat, the world is watching.
Earlier in my career it would have been totally demoralizing. The fans were nervous. I was nervous. Again I prayed...but not for God to help me get a hit. I prayed for understanding. What was I supposed to learn from this experience?
I thought about the adversity my parents had faced, the challenges they’d overcome and helped me overcome. God had equipped me for this moment. If I never broke out of the slump, he still loved me.
May 7, 2015. We were up against the Reds. I got three hits with a run batted in, two runs scored, a walk, a double and a steal. The slump was over. And after losing five games in a row, we won, 7–2. This time it wasn’t a setback. It was a lesson. Trust in time. Trust in yourself. Trust in God.
No matter what the stats and scores say, or what hits I take in life, I walk out on that field with one certainty: Struggles can be our greatest blessings.
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