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Pirates OF McCutchen deals with stardom in stride

Tuesday - 3/19/2013, 4:31pm  ET

FILE - In this March 17, 2013 file photo, Pittsburgh Pirates center fielder Andrew McCutchen smiles after batting practice before an exhibition spring training baseball game against the New York Yankees in Bradenton, Fla. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio, File)

WILL GRAVES
AP Sports Writer

BRADENTON, Fla. (AP) -- Andrew McCutchen walked to the podium, brushed back his trademark dreadlocks, unfolded a sheet of paper and took a deep breath.

The Pittsburgh Pirates All-Star centerfielder looked across the massive ballroom at the Dapper Dan Awards -- think Pittsburgh's version of the ESPYs -- while accepting the 2012 Sportsman of the Year honor in January and cleared his throat.

"I don't do this a lot," McCutchen said.

Maybe, but he better get used to it. It kind of comes with the territory when you become the face of a franchise, particularly one in desperate need of a karmic turnaround.

It wasn't always this way. Some of the greatest players in the history of the game have worn Pittsburgh's black-and-gold. Roberto Clemente. Honus Wagner. Willie Stargell. Barry Bonds.

There have been a few potential successors since Bonds abandoned Pittsburgh following the 1992 season, though things have never quite worked out.

Jason Kendall made three National League All-Star teams but couldn't lift the Pirates out of mediocrity in nine dutiful years.

Jason Bay came next, winning Rookie of the Year in 2004. He seemed to be the cornerstone the team needed to build around. There's even a parking level named for Bay at a garage a block from PNC Park.

In both cases, the always bottom-line conscious Pirates traded away their most valuable assets before losing them on the open market. Ditto Nate McLouth, Aramis Ramirez and Freddy Sanchez and a host of others who have found greater success -- not to mention a bigger paycheck -- away from the Steel City.

Pittsburgh management insists the days of being a farm system for teams with deeper pockets are over.

Perhaps more importantly, McCutchen does too. That's why he agreed to a six-year $51-million contract extension last spring, a deal that looks like a bargain after the dazzling McCutchen put together one of the finest seasons in recent memory.

He hit .327 with 31 homers and 96 RBIs in 2012, finished third in NL MVP voting, made his second straight All-Star team and won both a Silver Slugger and a Gold Glove. He also helped Pittsburgh to tie its best record since Bonds left town.

His greatest feat, however, may be the way he's made the Pirates relevant.

McCutchen's No. 22 jersey was the sixth-most popular in all of baseball last year, ahead of guys like Chipper Jones and Justin Verlander. His face graces the cover of a popular video game series and the commercials promoting the game feature everything about McCutchen that makes him an advertiser's dream. There's the brilliant smile, the comic timing and the demeanor of a guy who is at ease with his own success.

That sense of self, McCutchen insists, will not change no matter how high his Q-rating climbs.

"I'm going to be me," McCutchen said shortly after spring training opened last month. "That's what got me here. I'm not going to start changing now."

There's no need. Don't get him wrong, he certainly enjoys the trappings of success. His paycheck will climb from $500,000 to $4.5 million this season. The video game -- and his ease in the commercials -- makes him a household name for a demographic that has struggled making a connection with the national pastime.

McCutchen could help change that. Maybe because he's a gamer too. It wasn't uncommon a couple years ago for McCutchen to turn on the Playstation3 in his locker after batting practice and go online to play a little "Call of Duty" to clear his mind 90 minutes before the first pitch.

Don't mistake that method of relaxation for a lack of passion. He loves playing. Though he played football and ran track as a kid growing up in Fort Meade, Fla., baseball took hold early and has not let go.

The proof lay in McCutchen's first at-bat this spring. While manager Clint Hurdle massaged the lineup and gave a few of Pittsburgh's expected regulars the day off during the home opener at McKechnie on Feb. 24, McCutchen was in his familiar spot in the three-hole. When he bounced a chopper to shortstop that was fielded cleanly, McCutchen unleashed the speed that has seen him clocked at 6.2 seconds in the 60-yard dash.

"The guy just flat out flies," Philadelphia Phillies centerfielder Ben Revere said. "You can't help but like watching a guy that plays like that."

There are few things in baseball quite as breathtaking as McCutchen -- dreadlocks seeming to create a black vapor trail behind him -- trying to stretch a hit for extra bases or chase down a ball in the quirky outfield at his home park.

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