Scouts were not the only ones flocking to Fort Meade in 2005 when Andrew McCutchen’s massive baseball talents were on display.
High School baseball coach Jon Spradlin remembers when a private investigator checked in to see if he could dig up any dirt on the Miners’ most famous athlete.
“That’s the biggest kind of gamble in it,” Spradlin said. “You could look out on the baseball field and tell he was a player, but what kind of person is he?”
He said it wasn’t unusual, as his coach, to answer that same question many times over.
“We all had to sit down, we all answered questions for them. There was even a time when a private investigator came. When he called me, he said, ‘Tell me something bad. There’s no way he’s this good of a kid or this quality of a person.’ And I said, ‘If I could, I would.’ But I didn’t have one of those stories.”
He recalled that during his senior season, Fort Meade baseball games were attracting big crowds, although many in attendance didn’t have local ties.
“Sometimes there would be as many scouts there before the game as there would be fans at the game,” Spradlin said.
Spradlin said McCutchen’s talents were obvious the first year he played for the Miners varsity team.
“He started, and led the county in batting,” Spradlin recalled. “He was in eighth grade. Honestly, when you saw him play and saw him do stuff, you were kind of like ‘wow’. He was one of those who just had to keep doing exactly what he was doing, working on the things that came natural to him. There wasn’t a whole lot to fix. My job was to make sure I threw him some good batting practice so he would look good.”
He did recall there was at least one concern.
“You were like, is he ever going to be big enough?,” he added.
“Apparently so,” he laughed.
The center fielder received 28 of 30 first-place votes from a Baseball Writers Association of America panel to finish far ahead of Arizona first baseman Paul Goldschmidt and St. Louis catcher Yadier Molina in a race that many thought would be tight.
“I’m floating right now,” McCutchen said in Pittsburgh when the announcement came Thursday night. “But I definitely didn’t expect it to be a landslide with those other guys — Goldschmidt and Molina. They were great candidates and I didn’t know what to expect.”
Seated in a sweater and tie, a smiling McCutchen juked a sort of stationary shimmy when he was announced as the winner on MLB Network.
“If I could get up and dance right now I would, but I don’t have much room to do that,” he said. “When I get off camera, I probably will.”
McCutchen ranked among the NL leaders by hitting .317 with 21 home runs and 84 RBIs. He also scored 97 runs, stole 27 bases and had a .404 on-base percentage.
The 27-year-old with the long, flowing dreadlocks helped the Pirates stop a record streak of 20 losing seasons and make the playoffs for the first time since 1992.
Drafted 11th overall in 2005 out of Fort Meade Middle Senior High School — the landmark moment in turning around the moribund Pirates — McCutchen didn’t pay much attention to all the losing that was going on in Pittsburgh as he worked his way through the minors.
“Honestly, being a first round draft pick, he’s probably going to make it to the big leagues,” Spradlin added. “Is there anybody around her thought he would make it that quick, and have this big an impact the first few years? Heck no.”
Little did McCutchen know what a challenge awaited him when he arrived in the majors four years ago.
“I never put that on myself,” McCutchen said. “It didn’t really sink in until I was actually in Pittsburgh in 2009 to where winning meant a lot more. That’s what it was all about. That’s when I started to feel the losing and the years of it. I started to really be a part of that and feel it. I definitely felt I could be a big part of it (a turnaround) and I definitely felt we had the guys and the tools to be a winning team. It was going to take some time, but I knew eventually it was going to happen.”
McCutchen, third in MVP balloting last year, got 409 points this time. Goldschmidt finished second with 242, while Molina received the other two first-place votes and came in third.
“In a sense, yes, I was surprised. I thought it would be closer than it was,” McCutchen said. “I thought there was a chance of it being a really, really close race.”
The Pirates went 94-68 this year, a season after going 79-83. Along the way, McCutchen became the face of the franchise and heard loud “MVP!” chants when he would step to the plate at PNC Park this summer.
“I’d lie to you if I said it didn’t enter my mind ever,” he said. “It’s awesome to hear something like that.”
Pittsburgh beat Cincinnati in the NL wild-card game, then lost to St. Louis in a division series that went the full five games.
McCutchen is sure the team’s success played a major role in his MVP award, which earned him a $125,000 bonus.
“Especially considering the numbers I had all-around definitely were down from last year when I ended up being in third place,” he said. “I wouldn’t have been able to do it without those guys. It’s most valuable player, but I feel like you’ve got to make that ‘player’ plural. It’s most valuable players. That’s what it means to me. It’s not only my award, it’s a team award.”
Team management also chipped in with their congratulations.
“This is a tremendous honor, not only for Andrew and his family, but for the Pittsburgh Pirates,” general manager Neal Huntington said in a statement. “Since making his major league debut in 2009, he has been a great ambassador for the game of baseball. The Pirates organization is extremely proud of his focus and commitment, not just to the team, but to the entire Pittsburgh community.”
The one-time Miner joins an impressive list of former Pirates who have been honored as MVP, although it hasn’t happened since 1992 when Barry Bonds won the title.
He joined Bonds, who won it in 1990 and 1992, Willie Stargell in 1979, Dave Parker in 1978, Roberto Clemente in 1966 and Dick Groat in 1960 as Pirates who have won the MVP. Stargell shared the 1979 award with Keith Hernandez when the voting ended in a tie. Paul Waner won in 1927, before the BBWAA started issuing the award in 1931.
“That’s unbelievable to be even mentioned in that,” McCutchen told the Pittsburgh Post Gazette. “To be a part of that elite group, it’s going to go in the history books and be there for years to come for people to look back at.”
During the 2013 campaign, McCutchen became the sixth player in the 127-year history of the team to hit at least 100 home runs and steal at least 100 bases in his career, joining Bonds, Al Martin, Andy Van Slyke, Parker and Waner. He also became the first Pirates player since Bonds (1990-92) to hit at least 20 home runs and steal at least 20 bases in three consecutive seasons.
“I’m proud of, and happy for, Andrew and the entire Pirates organization,” said Pirates Manager Clint Hurdle, who was tabbed the National League Manager-of-the-Year last week. “I’ve said all along that he was my vote for MVP and I’m thrilled to see that all his hard work and dedication to the game, and to the Pirates, has resulted in this award.”
(AP Sports Writer Mike Fitzpatrick as well as AP Baseball Writer Ben Walker and AP freelance writer Jim Lachimia in Pittsburgh contributed to this report.)