Full Count is thrilled to share this guest post for Day 22 by Joey Glick.
“A bunch of 12-year-old kids had their hearts broken this week.” So begins Andrew McCutchen’s open letter to America and to the players of the Jackie Robinson West (JRW) Little League team. Days earlier, Little League Baseball had revoked JRW’s 2014 US championship for playing ineligible kids from outside their neighborhood. In the wake of this punishment, the hot takers of the sports world criticized the adults and kids of the predominantly black team from the South Side of Chicago. In his essay in support of JRW, McCutchen squared up against these criticisms with the power and poise familiar to anyone who had seen him in the batter’s box. The Pirates’ star center fielder described growing up as a poor black athlete in rural Florida. He enumerated the barriers that the baseball establishment places in front of poor kids and kids of color. Without sugarcoating these challenges, McCutchen wrote directly to the players of JRW, reminding them that they walk in a lineage of proud black athletes fighting for a fairer game and world.
Today marks the 22nd day of the Omer, the day for hesed that lives within netzach, the loving warmth which dwells within endurance. I can think of no one better than Andrew McCutchen to represent this intersection.
Cutch (McCutchen’s ubiquitous nickname) played the first nine years of his career in the Big Leagues for my hometown Pittsburgh Pirates. He arrived on a Pirates team in the midst of a record-setting 20 consecutive losing seasons. The Pirates were a franchise that good players avoided. Cutch, however, embraced his new home, filling PNC park with his talent, with a love of Pittsburgh, and with a love of the game.
In his fourth and fifth seasons with the Pirates, Cutch went from an above-average player to one of the best in the game, taking home the league MVP in 2013. Cutch’s joy and mastery in those seasons carried the rest of the team to consecutive postseason appearances, their first playoff runs in decades. In the long netzach, the slog and exhaustion of the Pirates’ years in the wilderness, Cutch had become hesed, a city’s embodiment of hope and spunk.
After helping the Pirates to their first winning season in a 20 years, Cutch went on Ellen to propose to his girlfriend, Maria Hansloven.
And then, it fell apart. In 2016, McCutchen experienced one of the steepest declines in baseball history. Without injury, seemingly without reason, McCutchen went from being one of the League’s best outfielders to one of its worst. As goes Cutch, so goes Pittsburgh. The team fell apart around him, missing the playoffs for the first time in three seasons and finishing the year with a losing record. Cutch would spend another year with the Pirates, gaining back some of his power before the unthinkable happened; in the winter of 2017, the Pirates traded away their franchise player for cash and a few middling ballplayers.
Over the past three seasons, McCutchen has fought his way back. He has not returned to his superstar status, but has been a productive player on some good teams. When baseball returns (God willing!), Cutch will be standing in right field in Philadelphia. Meanwhile Pittsburgh has continued to exist on the periphery of baseball, eking out middling seasons with one of the lowest payrolls in the league.
The demands of netzach, endurance, exist without a clear end. Israel wanders in the desert, Pittsburgh wanders in the bottom of the National League, Jackie Robinson West hands back their title, none of us knowing when we will reach our promised land. However, the 22nd day of the Omer reminds us that there are lights beyond the final light, an oasis before Canaan, sparks of hesed, of Andrew McCutchen’s kindness and talent, to hold up weary kids, teams, and cities.
Joey Glick is a third year rabbinical student at Hebrew College. He spent his first 20-years sleeping under an Andy Van-Slyke commemorative throw blanket and rooting for the worst team in Major League Baseball.