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The unique sadness of the Andrew McCutchen trade

Before going the way of every Pirates star, McCutchen led a full-scale baseball revival in Pittsburgh.

MLB: Baltimore Orioles at Pittsburgh Pirates Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

The first time I ever felt convinced my baseball team was good was July 8, 2012. The Pirates beat the Giants at PNC Park that afternoon, 13-2, on the strength of a strong A.J. Burnett start and two home runs from Andrew McCutchen. Pittsburgh entered the day 47-37, and the win sent the Bucs off to the All-Star break in position to end the longest losing-seasons streak in major North American sports history: 19 years.

The Pirates ended that day a game up in the NL Central. Both McCutchen home runs met with thunderous MVP chants from a decent crowd of 30,000. They’d collapse after the break and finish 79-83, a preposterous 18 games out. But McCutchen established himself as a superstar, the best player the Pirates had put on the field since early-’90s Barry Bonds. He’d go on to be the cornerstone player on the first winning Pirates club of my lifetime in 2013 and additional playoff teams the two years after that.

McCutchen’s brilliance during a four-year peak from 2012 to 2015 is obvious to anyone who can read a Baseball-Reference page. He won the National League’s MVP honor in 2013 and made five All-Star Games in five years at one point, with four Silver Sluggers sprinkled in. The list of players more valuable than him in that span: Mike Trout, and that’s it. Everything about McCutchen was a thrill — his wide-receiver speed, his first-baseman power, the personality that still oozes out of him.

The trade of McCutchen to the Giants on Monday isn’t just sad because it means the Pirates are tearing down a core that won 98 games three seasons ago. Tanking rebuilds happen all the time, all around the league. Baseball economics and the Pirates’ stinginess made it obvious for years that this day was coming right about now, one year before the end of a seven-year, $65 million extension McCutchen signed in 2012.

This isn’t just sad because it ends an era. It’s sad because it ends the only somewhat happy era a generation of Pirates fans has ever seen.

The Pirates’ two decades in the wilderness between Sid Bream’s slide in Game 7 of the 1992 NLCS and the McCutchen-led revival in 2013 cost the franchise legions of young fans. The baseball club has become a distant third in the city behind the Steelers and Penguins — a status born from years of losing, aggravated by a sense that ownership’s never really been interested in spending to make the team competitive.

But what the Pirates did from 2013-15 was magical, even though they didn’t get beyond one playoff game in two of the three years. They regularly sold out their jewel of a ballpark on the North Shore. They had a fun cast of young players, some perfect veteran fits like Burnett, Francisco Liriano, and Russell Martin, and, in Clint Hurdle, a manager who’d make you want to run through a wall. McCutchen was the catalyst for everything, an all-world centerpiece in center field.

Their 2013 Wild Card Game win against the Reds will stand as one of the best moments in the city’s modern sports history. That was the night 39,000 people all dressed in black dogged the Reds’ Jonny Cueto by chanting his name in a long, yinzer drawl — “CUEEEEETTOOOOO” — until Cueto literally dropped the ball and then gave up a home run to Martin on the next pitch.

That wasn’t a McCutchen moment, strictly speaking, but it might as well have been. Even as general manager Neal Huntington built a team around him, McCutchen was the Pirates’ pride. (He reached base four times in five plate appearances that night, anyway.)

Pittsburgh is a tribal sports city. The athletes it loves most are the ones who love it back. McCutchen had only played there for four years out of the 20-year losing streak the Pirates ended in 2013, his MVP season. But when the Bucs won their 82nd game on a hot September night in Arlington, Texas, McCutchen looked to the heavens like he’d suffered through all those years of losing just like the rest of us.

The game that clinched the end of the losing streak was a 1-0 win against the Rangers. The starting pitcher was Gerrit Cole, a No. 1 overall pick a few years earlier who struck out nine in seven innings. The Pirates traded Cole to the Astros for an unexciting package two days before dealing McCutchen. (The two relievers who followed Cole that night in Arlington, Tony Watson and Mark Melancon, are long gone.)

The Pirates never did break all the way through. Their Wild Card win in 2013 gave way to a five-game NLDS loss to the Cardinals. They lost one-game playoffs to Peak Madison Bumgarner and Peak Jake Arietta the next two years, and they probably would’ve faced a time-traveling Nolan Ryan if they’d made another.

They didn’t score a run in their 2014 and 2015 Wild Card losses. I have no idea when their next chance to score a run in the postseason will be, but it’s not going to be soon.

The Pirates’ window is shut now.

They were losers in 2016 and 2017, as McCutchen declined from a star to merely pretty good. Now McCutchen’s gone the way of every Pirates star since Bonds. Cutch’s departure will sting a little more than the day Huntington traded Jason Bay.

This happens in baseball, the American sport most tilted toward rich teams. But no other team knew futility as never-ending as the Pirates’, and nobody else had this perfect a superstar at this perfect a moment to vanquish all of that at once.

Pittsburgh sports fans are, on the whole, spoiled. If you were born in 1994 like me, you missed golden eras for all three major professional teams in the city. But you’ve still seen three Stanley Cups since 2009 and two Super Bowl wins since 2006.

At least everyone’s got other things to watch. Continued emotional investment in the Pirates has revealed itself to be a swindle, only worthwhile for fleeting moments during what’s now going to be a third decade of general mediocrity or worse.

Maybe the Pirates will find another Andrew McCutchen one day. That they couldn’t do more with the one they had is one of their worst tragedies yet.

Wild Card Game - Chicago Cubs v Pittsburgh Pirates Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images