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Fast Hands In Fort Meade

By Alan Matthews
June 2, 2005

With a population of less than 5,000, it's easy to miss Fort Meade, Fla. But baseball scouts have gone out of their way to find it this spring, in search of the righthanded-hitting center fielder who has shot up the draft charts.

Fort Meade is right in the center of the state, about 70 miles east of St. Petersburg. Phosphate mines employ many of the town's residents, including most of Andrew McCutchen's living and past relatives. It's the kind of place where high school athletes are icons and everyone knows everyone.

"We only have one working stoplight in the whole town," McCutchen said. "I can go out to the main highway, stand in the middle of it and see one side of the town on the left and the rest of it on the other.

"It's the kind of place where if you get into trouble, by the next day it's guaranteed the whole town's going to know about it."

Which has never been much of a concern for McCutchen's father Lorenzo. As a youth minister at the nondenominational church where Andrew sings in the choir, Lorenzo has served as the consummate role model for his son. He grew up in Fort Meade, played college football at Carson-Newman (Tenn.) College, married his high school sweetheart (who played volleyball just down the road at Polk Community College) and settled in his hometown.

Andrew credits his father for instilling in him the character and determination that have not only helped him seize his potential, but also serve as the foundation of a makeup that scouts universally grade as above-average.

With plus makeup to go with outstanding tools, it's no wonder McCutchen is regarded as a likely first-round pick.

"The family has been unbelievable, always willing to talk and they don't care whether you pick first or 100th," an American League scouting director said of the righthanded hitting center fielder. "His personality around his teammates is outstanding. We're talking about really an engaging young man."

Meeting Expectations

As the only Florida player with first-round potential north of Palm Beach County, McCutchen's early-season outings were more popular than the Fort Meade tackle shop on Saturday mornings. Throngs of scouts attended his games and came away impressed.

"There were probably 40 guys in there (at the first game) and he met every expectation," an AL scout said. "And that seldom happens when you have that type of hype surrounding you.

"It just lit me up. He takes an amazing batting practice with wood, then he turns around and hits lefthanded for you. Next he goes to center field and throws strikes to every base. He'll come in and play shortstop if you want him to. He's not afraid to show you what he can do."

That night, McCutchen sent the first of 16 home runs he hit this season sailing over a bank of lights and off a greenhouse some 30 yards beyond the left-field fence.

McCutchen, who committed to Florida but is expected to sign if he's drafted in the first round, has two above-average tools in his bat and his speed. His arm is solid and he's shown the aptitude for learning the nuances of center field. At 5-foot-10, his size might keep him out of the top half of the first round for some teams, but others don't see it as a concern.

"Not when you've walked by Hank Aaron and he's 5-10," an AL scouting director said. "You don't want to compare a guy to Hank, but we get fooled into thinking that these Hall of Famers are bigger than they really are.

"He's got the fastest hands and bat in the draft and . . . I don't see the power lacking. With the flexibility he has and the athleticism, he's not going to be around long (on draft day). I'll put a 70 on the bat (on the 20-80 scouting scale), a 70 on the speed and once you get by the little guy stuff, he can shoot the ball out of the ballpark."

Baseball Takes Priority

Fort Meade High didn't make the high school playoffs, going 8-14 with a schedule that saw the team struggle against teams from higher classifications. But McCutchen managed to bat .709-16-42 with eight doubles, three triples, 23 walks and six strikeouts.

It capped a remarkable career at a school that is best known for its football tradition. Fort Meade captured its first state football title this year, finally taking the prize in its fifth trip to the state finals in the last six years. McCutchen was a standout wide receiver before he injured his knee in the open field on a rainy night his sophomore season. It was an injury that made him reflect on his priorities. This was, after all, a player who led the county in batting with a .507 average--as an eighth grader.

McCutchen decided the risk of playing football wasn't worth sacrificing his baseball ambition. While he was recovering from knee surgery, he filled the downtime exploring hobbies he picked up in middle school: drawing and writing poetry.

"It's pretty much a way I can express the way I feel. Just writing or drawing, it calms me. It's something I really love doing," he says.

In one of his favorite poems, "Step Up To The Plate", McCutchen describes a dream he once had, a dream that could soon come true; many times over.

"I'm in my first game in the pros. It's on TV and I'm starting in center field," he says. "And of course it ended with a home run."