Now that Andrew McCutchen is the face of the Pirates and rapidly becoming one of the faces of baseball, it's fascinating to look back on his 2007 season with the Curve and consider just how significant of a role it played in his rise to stardom.
McCutchen was not a great Double-A player. Far from it. In fact, he was lousy for a good bit of his first full season in Altoona.
He failed, really for the first time in his career, for a good bit with the Curve. That failure turned out to be one of the best things that could have happened to McCutchen.
Mirror photo by J.D.?Cavrich
Andrew McCutchen is all smiles during introductions prior to Saturday’s exhibition game at PNG?Field.
He started the 2007 season 0-for-15 with the Curve. At the end of April he was hitting .189. On May 21, after 40 games, he was hitting a woeful .181.
Many players come up to Double-A with a lot of hype and wind up struggling - some even stinking - at this level. It is a very difficult level to adjust to, as countless supposed standout prospects have found out when they got to Altoona.
It was easy to see the great physical ability in the 20-year-old McCutchen back in 2007, but through 40 games, he was a Double-A dud. We've seen a bunch of Curve players struggle over the years, and that kind of prolonged slump has been essentially the end for many of them.
For McCutchen, it was merely the beginning.
He started hitting on May 22, 2007 - going 3-for-5 with two doubles against Akron - and pretty much hasn't stopped.
"For me to have the start I did, it wasn't that great at the time," McCutchen said Saturday during the Pirates' visit to Altoona. "But now, when you look back on it, it definitely is something that helped because if I would ever struggle now, I know how to handle it."
McCutchen learned how to overcome adversity in Double-A, and that's what makes it such a great weeding-out level for prospects. Many players breeze through rookie ball and the Single-A levels, only to get to Double-A and realize, 'Whoa, this game is tougher than it's even been for me.'
The most important thing every professional baseball player has to learn is to take the game one day at a time. McCutchen learned that in Altoona in 2007.
"It helped me just to relax and not worry about my performance, not worry about a week or two weeks from now, who I'm playing and who's getting called up and just focusing on what you have in front of you that day," McCutchen said.
"I try and tell people to have fun, not worry about anything else. Just play this game and have a lot of fun with it and go from there. This game is already stressful enough. If you go 0-for-4, it's OK. You'll get them tomorrow. Just believe in what you can do and it will turn around."
McCutchen's turnaround with the Curve went from hitting .189 in April to .230 in May to .266 in June to .309 in July and .304 in August. He finished up at .258 with 10 homers, 48 RBIs and 17 steals in 118 games, numbers that don't put him anywhere near the best players in Curve history.
Now he's one of the best players in baseball, and at least part of it can be traced back to the lessons he learned during his time in Altoona.
"Everybody that has seen Andrew play extensively, and myself playing with him, knew that as far as talent there wasn't anybody that had more talent than him," said Pirates second baseman Neil Walker, a Curve teammate of McCutchen's in 2007.
"Regardless of his size and how big he was, you knew that he was going to hit home runs and drive the ball because of how strong and how quick his wrists were."
McCutchen became a bona fide star in 2012 when he hit .327 with 31 homers and 96 RBIs and won his first Gold Glove in center field. He's now reaping the rewards of stardom as he's become a recognizable figure throughout Major League Baseball, no small feat when playing for a small-market team like the Pirates, let alone a team that has lost for 20 consecutive years.
"To see him transform in front of my eyes as a teammate for the last four years is really impressive," Walker said. "It's no surprise that he did what he did last year with his talent level. I'm one of his biggest fans, and he deserves every accolade that he's gotten."
To show how big of a star he has become, during ESPN's broadcast of the MLB season opener Sunday night between the Astros and Rangers, McCutchen was featured in his own commercial. Of all the players the network could have shown in that coveted spot, singling out McCutchen is a great show of respect.
Perhaps his best accolade so far was being chosen for the cover of the video game "MLB 13 The Show," which brought with it a funny TV commercial showing McCutchen being interviewed.
"You led your Pirates to their first World Series in over 30 years," the man doing the interview says in the commercial.
"That didn't happen," McCutchen replies with a smile.
Then some video game footage is shown of McCutchen hitting a home run in the World Series.
"That's not real," McCutchen says, again with a smile.
"Oh really," the interviewer says. "Well then, why do I have this championship cake?"
The cake has McCutchen's face on it, wearing a Pirates hat.
It's a great commercial and tremendous national exposure, not only for McCutchen, but also for the Pirates. The Bucs have been an afterthought in the major leagues for so long, but having someone like McCutchen emerge as a star for the team and the league is great for the organization.
"He's one of the crown jewels of the league, let alone Pittsburgh," Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said.
Hurdle answered the questions about McCutchen's rise to stardom with more personal comments about what kind of man he is rather than just the player. The manager then gave his star a funny but fitting dual compliment.
"I'd let him date my daughter, and I hit him third in the lineup, that's how highly I think of the man," Hurdle said. "And there's not many guys that I'd say that about."
McCutchen said the notoriety off the field "definitely has its perks."
"It's without a doubt fun," he said. "I have a lot of fun with it and really enjoy it when the opportunity presents itself. But I don't like to boast about it or anything. I like to have fun with it if it's there."
As long as he keeps playing at a high level, those opportunities probably will continue to come McCutchen's way. He's a great representative for the Pirates, he's a humble guy who doesn't show off and he respects the game by playing it the way it's supposed to be played.
McCutchen is the kind of player and person who should be one of the faces of baseball. And best of all for the Pirates, he's just 26 years old and not even in his prime yet, so we've only seen a glimpse of how good he can be.
Cory Giger can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org