PITTSBURGH -- After a breakout year with the Pirates, Francisco Cervelli found himself on the verge of free agency, contemplating his future. "I would love to retire with this team," he said this offseason, "because I don't think it's good to be jumping around too much."
Cervelli won't be jumping anywhere for the next four years, and he's a step closer to retiring in Pittsburgh. The Pirates agreed to a three-year, $31 million contract extension with Cervelli on Tuesday, keeping their fan-favorite catcher on board and off the market.
Cervelli signed with the Yankees in 2003 and remained in their organization until November 2014, when New York traded him to Pittsburgh for reliever Justin Wilson. Cervelli instantly came to love the Pirates, and Pittsburgh's fans adored him for his boundless energy, charming personality and tough at-bats.
"If you go back 14 years ago, I never thought I'd have an opportunity to be sitting here," Cervelli said at a news conference Tuesday afternoon at PNC Park. "This is one of the best days of my life."
Cervelli is as popular in the clubhouse as he is in the stands of PNC Park. The Italian-Venezuelan is uniquely tied in Pittsburgh to the phrase "That's Amore," the title of his walk-up song (by Dean Martin) and the quirky in-game video segment at PNC Park in which he offers relationship advice to fans.
"The atmosphere here is unique. When you go outside, when you go play, the love you receive from the fans is just amazing," Cervelli said. "But the most important thing is what we have in the clubhouse. Coaches, teammates, it's just special. If you come to work at a place where you are happy every day, I think that's the place you should be."
Cervelli, 30, is making $3.5 million this season, his final year of arbitration-eligibility. He would have become a free agent at the end of the season. Instead, the Pirates will pay him $9 million in 2017, $10.5 million in '18 and $11.5 million in '19.
"A catcher is a cornerstone to a club," general manager Neal Huntington said. "To have a really good one is important to most championship clubs."
Cervelli has posted the highest on-base percentage (.374) among Major League catchers since the start of last season. He is regarded as an elite pitch-framer, and pitchers constantly praise his game-calling behind the plate. With the Pirates' pitchers stepping up to control their part of the running game, Cervelli has thrown out eight would-be basestealers this season, tied for the second most in the National League.
Cervelli hit .295/.370/.401 in 2015 to help the Pirates advance to the postseason for the third straight season. He started 124 games behind the plate, a career high and most by a Bucs catcher since Jason Kendall started 145 in '04.
"He's one of a handful of catchers in the game that are elite on both sides of the ball," said Pirates manager Clint Hurdle, who attended Cervelli's news conference. "It's a real good add for us, and it's a good opportunity for him."
It's an opportunity Cervelli never expected. He was held back in New York by injuries and acquisitions, relegated to a backup role and often on the disabled list. But the Pirates have long believed in him. Hurdle recommended him to the front office in 2011, and the Bucs' scouts pushed for Cervelli again before the 2013 season.
Unable to re-sign Russell Martin after the 2014 season, the Pirates sought a capable replacement. They turned their eyes again to Cervelli, impressed by his ability and intrigued by his intangibles. A year and a half later, he's met all their lofty expectations.
"To get to know the man, to have our staff get to know the man, and what makes him tick and why that energy is there, that helps. There's no question," Huntington said. "You get to know the person in your clubhouse, in your culture. He's one of our culture drivers now, and that's a good thing."
Inside Cervelli's locker in the home clubhouse at PNC Park, above the boxed bottle of Dom Perignon given to him as a gift by reliever Ryan Vogelsong, hangs a blue sign. The white letters spell out: "Work like a captain. Play like a pirate."
In this case, like a Pirate.
"I'm really happy today to be a part of this organization. They want me to be the best player I can be," Cervelli said. "I feel I'm very far from that, but I'm going to do the best I can to represent the jersey the best way I can and, of course, win a championship."