I’m not gonna lie. I Googled my own name more than a few times this off-season to see if there was any news. It was hard not to when just about every conversation I had with friends, family and even strangers started with them asking me, “So, what’s the latest?”
Truth was, I didn’t know any more than anybody else. But there were times when the rumors got so intense and the stove got so hot that I would look down at my phone, almost expecting it to ring.
Cutch, you’ve been traded.
It’s always the things that haven’t happened yet that scare us the most. The fear of the unknown. And I honestly didn’t know where I was going to play baseball in 2017. There was no communication between the front office and me during the off-season … but that’s normal. Players aren’t consulted in trade talks. That’s not how the business works.
All I knew was that I wanted to keep playing in Pittsburgh. I wanted to finish what I had started here. I knew that I hadn’t played up to my capability last season, and that I had to use this off-season to get better. And I wasn’t going to let rumors distract me from doing that. I wasn’t going to get caught up in all the noise. As far as I’m concerned, until that phone rings and I’m told otherwise, I’m a Pittsburgh Pirate for life.
I dreaded that phone call for weeks — months, really.
Thankfully, it never came.
From the time I got called up in 2009, I’ve never pictured myself wearing anything but a Pirates uniform — even during those early years that were so tough on everybody, including the fans. We were mired in that streak of 20 consecutive losing seasons, and the mentality each year was, Hey, let’s not lose 100 games. You never want to think like that, but that was our reality. We were a young team, and we just weren’t very good.
The Pirate fans, bless their hearts, were amazing during those years because they still showed up to support us, always reminding us what we were playing for — that it was something bigger than us.
In a city that is so used to winning championships, I can’t tell you how much their patience and positivity helped me in my first few seasons.
And slowly, you could see things starting to turn. We went from the team you played your backups against to the team nobody wanted to play. Instead of going into games hoping we didn’t lose, we went into them expecting to win. You could just feel that something was happening. And then in 2013, when we finally reached the postseason for the first time in 21 years and we had that wild-card game at home in Pittsburgh, that’s when you knew something was happening.
I could feel it every day, because I lived in it.
For most of my career, I lived in downtown Pittsburgh, right across the river from PNC Park. I could see the stadium from my balcony. That was my million-dollar view. Sometimes I’d walk to work — like for Sunday day games, or fireworks night — I’d walk right over the Roberto Clemente Bridge, among my fellow Yinzers.
It’s funny … when I first got called up, my best friend and I would go to Ross Park Mall, and we’d be eating at the food court and I’d joke around with him, like, “If I play my cards right in this city, I won’t be able to eat out in public like this anymore.” I just knew how much Pittsburgh fans love and appreciate their athletes. So sometimes, when I walked to work, I’d have to wear a hoodie — especially back when I had the dreads — so people wouldn’t notice me. I mean, I love talking to the fans on the street. They just give so much … love. But even pros run late sometimes, and I had to get to work.
It’s really incredible being part of such a vibrant city that’s so passionate about sports. We’re just connected. Pittsburgh is as big a part of who I am as anything.
While we weren’t able to get over the wild-card hump in 2014 and ’15, we were slowly becoming a team that was always right there — one that was a threat to make the playoffs every year and compete for a championship.
Last season, we took a step backward. And I was a part of that. I’ll be the first to admit that I didn’t play very well last season. The only way I can explain it is that, for me, it was … a grind. There were times when I would step into the box and I just didn’t feel right. Something was off, and I couldn’t put my finger on it. So this off-season, I got back to basics. I tore my swing apart and rebuilt it from the ground up. I got comfortable again. Hitting started to come more naturally — the way it had when I was at my best.
And yeah, there were days this off-season when I woke up tired, or sore, or not really in the mood to work out. On those days, I’d think about my performance last season. I’d think about the trade rumors. And that was all the motivation I needed to get up and go to work. I’d get in the cage and hit until my hands bled.
I wanted to get back to being the player I knew I could be. The player the Pirates need me to be. And, as it turns out, what they need me to be is the best rightfielder in Major League Baseball.
I have always told myself that one day I was going to move from centerfield. I would play there until I was older and wanted to move to less demanding position to to save my body and extend my career a couple more years.
Did I feel like it was already that time?
I have to be honest with you, Pittsburgh … No, I did not think it was that time.
So it was definitely a shock when I spoke with upper management a few weeks ago and they told me that they were shaking things up in the outfield and that they would be moving me to right.
And they weren’t asking me. They were telling me.
I wasn’t ready for that. I mean, the same way I know that I struggled at the plate last season, I also understand that my defense wasn’t at the level it needed to be at, either. And I’ve always been the kind of guy who would do anything for his team. Anything I was asked to do in the name of winning, I would do it. But this time, my first reaction was, I don’t want to do this. I had just spent much of the 2016 season playing 10 feet shallower in centerfield because that’s what I had been asked to do. And I paid for it … big time.
I’m a competitor, and I was naturally skeptical about moving to rightfield. I mean, in my mind, centerfield is my spot. I’m the centerfielder. I always have been. And I was proud of that.
But then we talked it out. I mean … it wasn’t pretty. There was grit, honesty — all of that. But at the end of the day, I was able to see the bigger picture. And the bigger picture is that we have a really talented, athletic outfielder in Starling Marte who can no doubt handle himself in centerfield.
And also, I’m not the boss. Remember, this is a business. And if upper management thinks putting me in rightfield gives this team the best chance to win — or if the front office still entertains the idea of trading me — that’s just business. It’s not personal. It comes with the territory.
At the end of the day, nobody at this level has ever been worse off for being challenged. So that’s how I started to view the move. My father, one of my biggest supporters and greatest mentors, always preached: Be an athlete. Don’t be boxed in by a position or a particular skill set. An athlete can play anywhere and do anything. So be an athlete.
So, you know what, Dad? I’m going to go out there and be the best rightfielder I can possibly be. I’m going to do everything in my power to give my team the best chance to win every time we step onto the field. I want to finish what we started in that wild-card game back in 2013 game and help us take the next step toward bringing a World Series title to the city of Pittsburgh. And if I have to do that playing rightfield, is that really so bad?
Also, after I thought about it, I realized….
Who wouldn’t want to follow in those footsteps?
I think the main thing I would want anybody to know about this off-season, or about where I am in my career, is that I’m still the same guy I’ve always been. Things may change — positions, stats, rumors, whatever — but I’ve always felt that it was important to stay true to myself and just be me.
And the city of Pittsburgh and wearing a Pirates uniform is just a part of who I am. If you think I’m going to give up or back down, then you better talk to my wife, Maria.
I’m a Pirate. I don’t want to be anything else.