Column | Andrew McCutchen’s return to Pittsburgh goes beyond wins and losses


David Santiago | El Nuevo Herald, TNS

The Pittsburgh Pirates’ Andrew McCutchen shown on Aug. 26, 2015, at Marlins Park in Miami.

By Zack Gibney, Senior Staff Writer

Why do people watch sports? 

Sure, winning goes a long way toward defining the experience of a fan. Taking pride in your team’s success is certainly a draw, but if winning percentage was all that mattered, many teams would have nothing but thousands of empty seats.

The true appeal of sports lies in the community that surrounds our favorite teams. Whether that’s seeing someone wearing your alma mater’s colors or a jersey of your childhood hero, sports sometimes create an unspoken connection.

For much of the city of Pittsburgh, Andrew McCutchen’s return to Western Pennsylvania feels like reconnecting with an old friend.

For the better part of the last three decades, the Pirates have struggled to compete with many other teams in Major League Baseball. Between the early 1990s and 2010s, there was very little on-field success to speak of regarding baseball in the city of Pittsburgh.

The Penguins and Steelers dominated Pittsburgh’s sports scene prior to McCutchen’s arrival — two of the premiere franchises in their respective sports. The Pirates often served as nothing more than a punchline.

That changed with the arrival of a young outfielder from central Florida.

The Pirates still struggled for the first few years of McCutchen’s presence in Pittsburgh, but he brought life to the North Shore. The team started winning games, and with that, they captured the attention of many younger baseball fans in the area for the first time ever.

In 2013, the Pirates made their first postseason appearance since 1992 — a year in which McCutchen won National League MVP after hitting .317 and was one of the game’s best defensive center fielders. The Bucs made the playoffs again in both 2014 and 2015, but never reached the NLCS.

Despite never capturing a championship in that three-year span, McCutchen and the Pirates inspired a whole new generation of fans in Pittsburgh.

Growing up, McCutchen idolized Western Pennsylvania native and fellow outfielder Ken Griffey Jr. — a player who truly embodied the word “swagger.” Everything Griffey did had an essence of cool that made the remarkable look natural. 

The parallels between McCutchen and his childhood hero are extremely prevalent. McCutchen made the Pirates cool again, much like Griffey did to the Seattle Mariners of the 1990s. Between the iconic dreadlocks, his relaxed presence in the batter’s box and his game-changing talent, the Fort Meade native became a hero. 

In a town that was known for hockey and football, baseball and McCutchen were at Pittsburgh’s forefront for the better part of a half-decade.

After that 2015 season, the Pirates started their regression. McCutchen and his supporting cast got older, and the core that the city fell in love with went their separate ways.

McCutchen was shipped to San Francisco in exchange for a package that included Bryan Reynolds — a former Vanderbilt star and the Bucs’ most promising player since Cutch.

Following his time with the Pirates, McCutchen bounced around to the Bay Area, New York, Philadelphia and even division-rival Milwaukee. He has had a few productive seasons, but hasn’t recaptured his Pittsburgh form.

While other members of the team, such as Gerrit Cole, had more successful careers after their departure from Pittsburgh, McCutchen was the one player who Pittsburgh still had a soft spot for even after he left. 

Even when he came back wearing the visiting colors, the city welcomed him with open arms.

No one has worn the black-and-gold No. 22 in PNC Park since his departure, with the exception of the thousands of fans who still wore McCutchen’s jersey despite his absence. This will change on April 12 when the Pirates play their first home game of the 2023 season, as McCutchen re-signed with the Pirates on a one-year deal.

Will this help the Pirates win more games than their mere 62 from a year ago? The short answer is, probably.

Despite entering his age 36 season, McCutchen is just two years removed from an 80-RBI season with the Phillies. With a team that had a glaring lack of outfield depth, along with the veteran presence McCutchen brings to the locker room, it’s an acquisition that brings clear on-field value.

But it goes deeper than that.

Pirates fans haven’t had much to cheer about in the last several years. Pittsburgh has lost 100 games in back-to-back seasons for the first time since the Eisenhower Administration, and the city needs a reason for optimism from a baseball standpoint.

McCutchen’s first game back in the home whites will be the best moment that the franchise has seen since the playoff appearances and countless other memories that he provided during his first tenure in Pittsburgh.

So, back to the original question — why do people watch sports?

For stories like McCutchen’s return to Pittsburgh. For when a sea of fans wearing their decade-old #22 jerseys on Opening Day erupts as he steps out of the home dugout for the first time in nearly a decade.