SAVED FROM SHAQTIN’ By Arthur George-Special to BASN JaVale McGee is reclaiming...
Lifting expectations in Pittsburgh
First, he insists that when the No. 22 jersey comes off, he’s really not all that different than you are. He plays Guitar Hero, as well as indulges in practical jokes. He wrote poetry in high school. He draws as a hobby now.
He can be a bit timid around strangers, but that wall will come down pretty quickly after a few meetings. His parents — one a youth pastor, the other a juvenile case manager — are his best friends.
McCutchen stands an inconspicuous (and media-guide generous) 5-foot-10, though the dreadlocks will surely grab your attention. He’s a workaholic when it comes to his gym regimen. He consistently seeks perfection.
However, the expectations stacked on McCutchen’s shoulders are anything but normal, even if he insists that the rest of his life is. They reflect the frustrations and disappointment, the anger and optimism, the passion and cynicism of a fan base yearning for Pittsburgh to once again have winning baseball on the banks of the Allegheny.
To many, McCutchen is the savior, or at least one of the main catalysts for change. Welcome to the big leagues, kid.
With four months of Major League experience now in his back pocket, McCutchen is embracing those external expectations, even though he’s never been one to set tangible personal goals.
“The reason behind that is just because you put a lot of pressure on yourself when you say you want to hit .300 or you want to hit 20 home runs,” he explained. “You start thinking about numbers when you really need to be focused on helping the team win games.”
Team goals, though, are an entirely different matter. As much as fans crave it, a .500 season isn’t going to cut it for the former first-round Draft pick. Neither is playing meaningful baseball in August and September. McCutchen has playoff baseball in mind.
Call him naÃ¯ve if you want. Or extremely optimistic. Or downright delusional, given the Pirates’ standing over the past 17 years. But when he looks you in the eyes and talks about postseason aspirations, there’s something in his tone that makes you at least want to believe what he’s saying.
McCutchen is, of course, the poster child for the anything-is-possible mantra. He grew up carrying lofty aspirations in a tiny town that is known more for its place in the Civil War and Native American history than it is producing baseball players. He’s used to watching — well, making — dreams come true.
“That’s what makes people great — by thinking big things,” the Fort Meade, Fla., native said. “I didn’t grow up saying I just wanted to be a regular guy. I wanted to be a Major League Baseball player. I grew up in a small town, and to be where I am now is amazing. I always look at that and say that anything is possible.”
For the first time in his professional career, McCutchen has shed the ‘top prospect’ label. He’s here now, having arrived in front of a crowd of 20,683 at PNC Park on June 4, 2009.
That afternoon featured two hits, three runs scored, a stolen base and one RBI by the budding center fielder. It culminated in a shaving cream pie to the face.
Less than two months later, there would be a three-homer game and curtain call with his parents in attendance. Lorenzo and Petrina McCutchen were in Pittsburgh to celebrate their anniversary.
Then came the walk-off two-run home run that negated McCutchen’s own defensive flub in a late August game against the Phillies. Eventually, a fourth-place finish in the Rookie of the Year balloting recognized McCutchen’s entire four-month body of work.
On the surface, his numbers were certainly as good as could be expected for someone who was the age of most college seniors in ’09. But during the process, McCutchen felt his body slowly breaking down, a revelation that dictated a renewed commitment to his offseason work.
“I never played that many games,” McCutchen said. “I lost a lot of weight. The biggest thing for me is being physically ready this year.
That’s what I’ve been preparing myself for. I’ve put on a few pounds.
I’m trying to keep that weight on so I won’t lose it during the year.”
In addition to putting on the weight, McCutchen has been spending five days a week focusing particularly on the cardio side of his conditioning. He’s been out running stadiums and can regularly be spotted out on the local track or in the sandpits.
“I’m just getting my body ready, doing what I need to do for Spring Training,” he said. “I did a bunch of those things because I’m trying to get my legs back stronger. That’s what’s going to carry me through the season.”
He hasn’t strayed far from home either, still living in his hometown that measures five square miles in area and less than 6,000 people in population. Of course, the location provides weather conducive to winter workouts. It also allows McCutchen the opportunity for more family time.
“My parents are real cool and real young,” he said. “I’m able to talk to them about anything just like I would my friends. I love that. I’m very open with my family. It’s great to be able to have that.”
And for those of you wondering what it would be like to grow up the son of a youth pastor and juvenile case manager, McCutchen insists that his life wasn’t all about rules and boundaries.
“Actually, I didn’t have a strict life,” he said, laughing, well aware that people might not believe him.
Per his set-no-numbers-goal rule, McCutchen isn’t going to predict what lies ahead for him in his first full Major League season. He isn’t going to make a Joe Namath-like prediction for the team either.
He isn’t going to force his way in front of a television camera, though those cameras are bound to gravitate to him regardless.
But he promises to get better. He vows to keep the clubhouse atmosphere light. And, quite frankly, this is a guy who has the prerogative to be confident-borderline-cocky until he starts falling short of expectations.
“I got called up in June, and I was able to do a lot of things,” McCutchen said. “Now I have a full year under my belt and there’s no telling what to expect.”