Cutch and The Kid: A uniform number saga

March 18th, 2022

PHOENIX -- It’s just before 8:30 a.m. in Maryvale and Ken Griffey Jr. is on the phone.

Andrew McCutchen was in the middle of telling the story of his multiday uniform number saga, a winding road from all those years in No. 22 with the Pirates to a brief but memorable stint as No. 5 with the Brewers. Now, McCutchen is No. 24, digits made popular across the sport by Griffey -- the Hall of Famer, “The Kid” -- who was McCutchen’s hero growing up in Florida. Ever since McCutchen broke into pro ball, he’d coveted that number. But it never was available.

Now, it’s his. More on how that happened in a moment. First, the phone call.

Brewers senior director of media relations Mike Vassallo is friendly with Griffey from their days together in Cincinnati, so he placed a call. The Kid picked up. Vassallo handed his phone to McCutchen.

“Hey, so, we had a quick number change,” McCutchen said. “I was No. 5 and No. 24 opened up, so I had to grab that for obvious reasons.”

“I appreciate that,” Griffey replied.

They chatted for a few minutes and made plans to grab dinner in several weeks when Griffey, who works as a youth ambassador for both MLB and the MLB Players Association, has a planned trip to Phoenix.

McCutchen is a five-time All-Star and a former National League MVP, but it’s still a thrill to talk to his favorite player. Like everyone else of that era, McCutchen idolized Griffey’s style and “flash.” They first met in McCutchen’s first big league Spring Training, when Griffey was playing for Cincinnati and McCutchen was a 20-year-old, starry-eyed Pittsburgh prospect.

“Hopefully the spirit of The Kid can pump through this body and make some things happen,” McCutchen said.

So, how did this quick change happen?

McCutchen signed a one-year deal with the Brewers earlier this week. His usual No. 22 was taken by star outfielder Christian Yelich, and pitcher Aaron Ashby has the No. 26 that McCutchen briefly wore as a Yankee in 2018. No. 24, meanwhile, was already taken by another new Brewers outfielder, Hunter Renfroe.

Equipment manager Jason Shawger offered McCutchen the choice of three available numbers: 5, 12 or 32.

Since McCutchen wore No. 2 in the Minor Leagues and No. 22 throughout his time with the Pirates, Giants and Phillies, one might have expected him to select one of the numbers with a deuce. But he instead chose No. 5, explaining it’s what his father, Lorenzo, wore during a high school and college career as a running back. Lorenzo McCutchen played at Carson-Newman University.

“I was like, ‘Yeah, I could rock that,’” Andrew McCutchen said on Thursday.

Then came a stroke of good luck, courtesy of the player at the neighboring locker: Renfroe. He hadn’t been aware that 12 was available.

“We didn’t really talk about it. I just said, ‘I want to change numbers and be something closer to 10 or 11,” Renfroe said. “Being 12, that works great. It was perfect. Let’s do it.”

Renfroe was once assigned No. 11 as a kid and wore it until he reached pro ball and took No. 10 because it was close enough. He’s worn either No. 10 or 11 during most of his big league tenure with the Padres, Rays and Red Sox.

“I don’t think it has anything to do with anything but superstition, really. It just kind of feels right writing a one before something on autographs,” Renfroe said.

Chalk it up as one of the easiest uniform number swaps in baseball history. No money changed hands, no gifts, no promises of dinner. Just a clean trade.

It made McCutchen’s day.

“I have loved that number for a very long time,” he said. “Obvious reasons, Ken Griffey Jr. was my idol growing up as a kid. In high school, 24 was the number I wore. And then once I got drafted, it was always taken. I could never wear that number, ever, because someone was always wearing it for the same reasons, of course. All the way to the big leagues.”

When he got to Pittsburgh, No. 24 belonged to pitcher Tom Gorzelanny. In 2010, Gorzelanny was gone, and No. 24 was available. But McCutchen looked around PNC Park and saw so many fans wearing No. 22 jerseys. He felt sheepish about making a change and rendering those investments outdated.

More than a decade later, it’s finally his.

“So, that’s the quick story of the 22, 24, No. 5 debacle that we have going on here,” McCutchen said. “I love 24 and now I finally get to wear it. I’m happy about that. I’m excited about that. Now I have to tell Dad, ‘Sorry.’”