PITTSBURGH – On the last Saturday night home game of the Pirates' wild-card season, the phone rang in the Florida home of Andrew McCutchen's parents.
It was Roberto Clemente, Jr.
He was calling McCutchen's, father, Lorenzo, from PNC Park. There was someone with Clemente who wanted to say hi and let Lorenzo know how much she wanted to meet his star centerfielder son.
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It was the sister of Margaret Stargell, Willie's widow.
Margaret Stargell, her sister Frances, and Clemente, Jr. were spending the evening at the ballpark, soaking in an excitement their adopted city hasn't known for more than 20 years. A large part of the reason for the Pirates' return to the playoffs is "Cutch," the current face of the franchise. He and Stargell met up after the game to exchange smiles and stories.
"Meeting his wife makes me feel like I'm meeting Willie," McCutchen said the next morning in the clubhouse. "She's a strong woman."For younger fans who don't remember Roberto Clemente or Willie Stargell, and choose not to celebrate the Pirates career of Barry Bonds, McCutchen is the link to past greatness. "Cutch is one of the greatest Pirates ever," said Wes Edmunds, a 21-year-old fan who doesn't remember a winning season before this one. "He turned the franchise around. Without him, there'd be 3,000 people here."
For older fans who do remember the greats of the 1970s, McCutchen's MVP-caliber season in 2013 is a welcome callback of the glory that was once expected here. "He is the hope," Clemente, Jr. said. "To watch him play is to have hope."
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McCutchen and his teammates have finally washed away some of the scourge of the infamous Sid Bream slide that eliminated the Pirates from the 1992 National League playoffs.
"The feeling never gets better until you have a winning season," said Clemente, who just finished a family book about his father. "I was packing my bags when Sid Bream scored the winning run. I didn't speak for three days."
McCutchen isn't just a callback to stellar baseball, though. He's a reminder of what Roberto Clemente did for this city as an ambassador. He was deeply proud to play here, and a quote from him about what it means to wear the Pirates jersey is placed over the corridor the team uses to walk from the clubhouse to the field. Clemente, Jr. tells of how his father would not only read and reply to fan mail, he would keep his letters for road trips and hand-deliver some of them.
"He would show up at children's hospitals," Clemente, Jr. said. "He would take a cab and show up. That's who he was as a human being. The respect he showed the fans – he felt they were paying his salary. He owed them."
McCutchen, a finalist for the 2013 Roberto Clemente Award, is also mindful of the community around him and his place as something more than a great baseball player. He could have planned his exit as free agency neared, and many would not have blamed him. Instead, he signed a $51.5 million extension last year, a deal that runs through at least 2017. He says he never seriously considered it, though, even during the seasons when late summer was silent and sad.
"I always had the thought of being here," he said. "It would be weird being anywhere else."
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All the losing helped McCutchen lead. It gave him the equanimity all good franchise players have. He gave this interview the morning after a rousing victory against the Reds, and he appeared nonchalant even though he was on the verge of the first playoff berth as a major leaguer and about to play one of the biggest games of his career. The Pirates ended up losing that afternoon, disappointing fans who hoped to see the team clinch a playoff spot on its home field. After the game, though, McCutchen looked just the same as before.
"We've lost a lot of games we should have won," he said. "It's about not giving up. It's knowing how to handle situations and coming back. You find the fun in it, and try not to let success or failure dictate your response."
McCutchen, wise veteran, will be a rookie again on Tuesday night. After so many games that didn't matter, he and the Pirates will play the Reds again, this time in an elimination game at home. McCutchen has spent time thinking about all the teammates who tried to get to this point and never made it. He's been in touch with one of them, Jack Wilson, who endured eight seasons of the losing and now watches from his home in California. Wilson is a fan now, much like the Stargell family and Clemente, Jr., who proudly proclaims, "I was born with an eyepatch."
There are thousands, maybe millions of Pirates fans who are just happy the long losing streak is over and they can finally wake up and fully enjoy the day of a playoff game. They are also happy McCutchen is there, acting as a link between the special history, the ugly history, and whatever history is made this October.
"The generations are coming together," Clemente, Jr. said, "and to be able to connect the Stargells to the McCutchens – it's a beautiful thing."
There will never be another Roberto Clemente, on the field or off, but for many in this city it's reassuring knowing that No. 21 is so close to No. 22.