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Times change, but Bucs' love for Cutch remains

Pirates plan welcome tribute, reflect on time with franchise icon as Giants hit town
MLB.com @adamdberry

PITTSBURGH -- Andrew McCutchen needs no introduction in this city. He was the face of the Pirates' franchise for nine seasons, its best player since Barry Bonds and perhaps its most beloved star since Willie Stargell. He was productive and popular. He helped end the franchise's 20-year losing streak and brought postseason baseball back to Pittsburgh.

On Friday, he'll be reintroduced as a San Francisco Giant.

PITTSBURGH -- Andrew McCutchen needs no introduction in this city. He was the face of the Pirates' franchise for nine seasons, its best player since Barry Bonds and perhaps its most beloved star since Willie Stargell. He was productive and popular. He helped end the franchise's 20-year losing streak and brought postseason baseball back to Pittsburgh.

On Friday, he'll be reintroduced as a San Francisco Giant.

The Pirates are set to open a three-game series against McCutchen and the Giants at PNC Park on Friday night. It will be McCutchen's first game in Pittsburgh as anything other than a Pirate. There will be a video tribute and standing ovations in the first inning. There will be talk of his legacy and the January trade that sent him to San Francisco. And there will be many memories shared.

Tweet from @Pirates: Many are asking: Yes. We will welcome back @TheCutch22 tomorrow night with a video tribute. Be in your seats by the first inning and during the first inning break! pic.twitter.com/7QpRjgYNJx

Everyone has a McCutchen story. Before the Pirates' first official meeting against McCutchen, here are a few of theirs about their introduction to -- or first impression of -- their former teammate.

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Neal Huntington wasn't the Pirates' general manager when they drafted McCutchen 11th overall in 2005. His first impression of McCutchen came when he was assigned to evaluate the Pirates' organization in Spring Training of 2007, when he was scouting for the Indians.

"Andrew's bat speed and explosive athleticism capture your attention immediately," Huntington said. "Watching him compete that spring was like watching a seasoned veteran, as he never seemed anxious or rattled in the box, on the bases or in the field."

When Huntington became Pittsburgh's GM in September 2007, he said he knew that, "Andrew was the key to the future." They met for the first time in the spring of 2008 during the players' entrance interviews.

"Andrew's intelligence, poise and presence were obvious," Huntington said. "The meeting with Andrew exceeded all of the expectations resulting from those that had worked with him and all the positive things they had to say about Andrew. Andrew was genuinely self-confident yet genuinely humble, which is a rare combination for elite athletes at a young age.

"His bat speed, athleticism, poise and presence are what stood out to me as a competitor and evaluator. Once I became a Pirate, his humility and character were added to the mix."

***

Jordy Mercer was in the Florida Instructional League in Bradenton, Fla., after his first professional season. McCutchen didn't have to be there, Mercer said, as he was nearing the Majors and the shortstop was just starting his climb to Pittsburgh after being drafted in 2008.

Even then, before his 2009 debut, McCutchen stood out.

Video: McCutchen on his time with Pirates

"I don't know what he was doing there, but he came over and practiced with us. That was the first time I met him," Mercer said. "I was just like, 'It's Andrew McCutchen!' We were all like, 'What the hell's he doing here?' I remember being kind of star-struck that he was there and practicing with us, and he was there in general."

***

The Pirates played the Rangers in Arlington in 2010, when Clint Hurdle was Texas' hitting coach. He took notes on the entire Pittsburgh roster, including McCutchen, throughout the series and reviewed them before interviewing for the Bucs' managerial job later that year. The first two Pirates players he met were Joel Hanrahan and Neil Walker, but he met with McCutchen before his first Spring Training.

"I remember walking away feeling like there was a lot of thought involved. He's a smart guy. He articulated his thoughts clearly, communicated very well," Hurdle said. "Had a passion for the game of baseball, which you could feel. Also morphed into talking about his family. He talked about respect for the game and the desire to play the game hard."

***

Jameson Taillon will be the first Pirates pitcher to face McCutchen on Friday. He's joked around the clubhouse that he might quick-pitch to pre-empt the inevitable ovation, but in reality, he'll let McCutchen have his moment.

"He deserves it," Taillon said. "I hope it's packed for him."

When Taillon was a prospect, he used to sit in the stands to watch big league Spring Training games. Even now, he remembers the generosity that Pedro Alvarez, Walker and McCutchen -- all former first-round Draft picks like Taillon -- extended to Minor Leaguers.

"I remember when we did the player panels at Pirate City. Big leaguers come over and offer any sort of insight they have," Taillon said. "I remember people just lining up for pictures with Cutch after. He had professional baseball players wanting to get pictures with him. That's the ultimate honor, and that tells you how big of a star he was and how highly regarded he was.

"Man, he had that superstar status. Then I got to become teammates with him, and that was cool."

Video: McCutchen's powerful legacy in Pittsburgh

***

Chad Kuhl, who will face McCutchen on Saturday, was drafted in 2013, McCutchen's National League MVP Award campaign. Kuhl showed up early for Minor League Spring Training in '14, and the big leaguers were already populating the Pirate City clubhouse. While passing through the big league side of the room to get to his locker, Kuhl brushed shoulders with McCutchen, still sporting his signature dreadlocks at that point.

"He might have said, 'Hey,' and I was just kind of star-struck," Kuhl said. "I walked right by him and almost froze. I was just star-struck. I was like, 'Holy crap, that was Andrew McCutchen.' I had that star-struck moment first time seeing him."

Trevor Williams, acquired in October 2015, used the same term, "star-struck," to describe his first interaction with McCutchen. Their conversation in the spring of 2016 wasn't all that memorable -- "It wasn't anything profound," Williams said -- but the moment was.

"I was especially star-struck by him because he encapsulated the Pirates. Like, he was the Pirates," Williams said. "Once I came over, once I got to meet him, it was like I'm officially a Pirate now, I guess you could say."

***

Sean Rodriguez quickly developed a relationship with McCutchen in 2015, Rodriguez's first season with the Pirates, and they remain close friends. It all began with a song by the Christian rapper Lecrae.

"When I first came into the clubhouse, my first Spring Training, I was always big on having a little speaker and putting music on," Rodriguez said. "I put some music on and he was sitting not too far away and he started singing to the song that came on. I was like, 'Man, I didn't think there were too many people out there who knew this.' Just got to talking then. We had a lot of similarities. Similar taste in music. Similar faith. We just hit it off."

Video: PIT@WSH: Cutch doubles for his final hit as a Pirate

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The Pirates played a pair of exhibition games in Philadelphia before Opening Day in 2015, and then-prospect Josh Bell got to make the trip. After one of the games, Bell said, he went out to dinner with McCutchen, Rodriguez and Josh Harrison. McCutchen's star power was on display, as fans followed their group from the hotel to the restaurant and back in pursuit of an autograph.

"That's unlike anything I've seen to this day, that celebrity status away from the field," Bell said. "Just seeing that, people almost begging and pleading for an autograph, kind of opened my eyes to who he was and what he did on the field and what he meant to the game. That was my first real impression where I was like, 'Oh my God, I get it, but jeez!'"

***

When Pittsburgh traded McCutchen, Harrison became the Pirates' longest-tenured player. He made his MLB debut on May 31, 2011, a little more than two years after McCutchen's first big league game. They became fast friends, probably as close as any two people in the Pirates' clubhouse. Harrison and McCutchen still talk on the phone and via text message, and their wives also keep in touch.

The former teammates' conversations are different now than they were back in 2011, when Harrison was 23 and McCutchen was 24. Now, they might be exchanging parenting advice or asking about Harrison's daughters, Mia Jade and Kinsli Rose, or the McCutchens' 5-month-old son, Steel.

"Times are changing," Harrison said. "We're not babies anymore. We've got babies."

Adam Berry has covered the Pirates for MLB.com since 2015. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook and read his blog.

Pittsburgh Pirates, Andrew McCutchen