McCutchen hoping to serve as an inspiration
NL MVP is using his celebrity to encourage more black youth to play baseball
For most, Thanksgiving is a holiday.
For Andrew McCutchen, giving thanks is a way of life.
The National League's newly crowned Most Valuable Player Award winner feels he now has the pedestal for giving back to an entire race.
McCutchen feels a responsibility to give young African-American athletes a model to follow and an accessible dream to chase -- just the way he himself had been inspired by the hip baseball icon of an earlier era.
McCutchen was a young, impressionable teen when Ken Griffey Jr.'s star shined brightest.
"He's someone I wanted to emulate, someone I wanted to be like," McCutchen said. "He was definitely a big influence on myself when it came to playing the game and choosing baseball. I feel like I can be an influence in that."
McCutchen sensed the importance of that even without awareness of a sobering fact: The most recent World Series between the Cardinals and the Red Sox was the first without a black player at bat or on the mound since 1950 (Boston's Quintin Berry, the only African-American player on either team's roster, did make one appearance as a pinch-runner).
African-Americans comprised 8.5 percent of 2013 Opening Day rosters. That demographic peak was 19 percent in 1986 -- the year McCutchen was born.
An exceptional multi-sport athlete at Fort Meade High School, McCutchen followed Griffey's example when he came to the fork in his career road. He hopes to give black youth the same swerve away from football or basketball.
"I definitely think I can be a big influence on letting kids, not only African-American kids, know that you can go out, you can have fun, you can be yourself. You don't have to be a certain weight, you don't have to be a certain height [to play baseball]," McCutchen said. "You can go out and you can play the game. If you can pick up a bat and you can swing it, you have a chance. I think I can be a big part of that.
"Baseball and the players' union [Major League Baseball Players Association], they're doing things to try to expand the game and give knowledge to kids and show them that baseball is fun, baseball is a great sport to play, and they're doing everything they can to spread that word. I'm going to do everything that I can to spread it with them."
McCutchen should be able to do a lot, as the first African-American to be the MVP in the NL since Jimmy Rollins won in 2007. The last in the American League was Griffey in 1997.
"I think it's huge that McCutchen is one of the faces of Major League Baseball," Cliff Floyd, a former player who now works for MLB Network, told the New York Times. "I think that's going to help. When you look at this game, we know the percentages. In my opinion, the only way to change that is to have guys like McCutchen step up and win MVPs. That's the only way you're going to see this game get back to the point where African-Americans believe this is a great game."
McCutchen can be influential just by being himself: Garrulous, personable, playing the game with an obvious exuberance and joy. It's infectious. There is a lot there to emulate. And to an extent that blows up the self-serving image of the modern athlete, he is a giving person.
To his parents, McCutchen gives gratitude for the encouragement and support to rise above his humble beginnings in a modest Fort Meade, Fla., shack.
To the less fortunate, McCutchen gives help, through his committed work with Habitat for Humanity and various branches of Pirates Charities. McCutchen has been Habitat's Greater Pittsburgh spokesman for two years, and recently hosted a fundraiser at the Roberto Clemente Museum in Lawrenceville that netted $90,000.
To rudder-less inner city youth, he gives direction, through his signature "Cutch's Crew" mentoring program.
To Pirates fans, he long ago gave hope, on which he and his teammates began delivering in 2013.
This summer, he gave funds through Pirates Charities to pay for a musical education trip to Prague, Czech Republic, by a Homewood-Brushton YMCA group. In October, he gave the cut from his NIKE equipment deal to outfit a Florida softball team after the 12-year-old girls had reportedly been ripped off by a uniform supplier.
At last weekend's American Music Awards, McCutchen and actress Jaime Alexander presented the award for Favorite Male Country Music Artist.
The celebrity of the face of the Bucs keeps spreading at viral speed. For months, he was also the face of the MLB 13 The Show video game. Now he reigns as NL MVP. In the near future, he will co-produce an edgy joint MLB-MTV venture.
Rather than pull back as the increased exposure compounds demands on him, McCutchen complies. He always appears to be hosting groups of kids at PNC Park events, or stepping up for various meet-and-greet functions which compel teammates to follow.
He has always led by example. Now he hopes his lead will be followed by a generation.
Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog Change for a Nickel. He can also be found on Twitter @Tom_Singer. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.