Tim Benz: Marc-Andre Fleury's return was a lovefest; how will Andrew McCutchen's go?
That was quite an emotional display at PPG Paints Arena on Tuesday night. Former Penguins goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury returned as a Vegas Golden Knight.
It was more tear-jerking than binge watching "This Is Us," "Brian's Song" and "Terms of Endearment."
Did you miss it? Too bad. As "The Struts" sang in the background music to Fleury's first period video tribute, his return was for "One Night Only."
But don't worry. You'll get to see it three more times when Andrew McCutchen comes back to PNC Park with the San Francisco Giants on May 11-13.
If you caught any of Fleury's comments before and after the game, you understand the emotion he displayed throughout the video was every bit as genuine as the enthusiasm with which he patrolled the goalie crease here for 13 years.
Following the Penguins' 5-4 win over the Golden Knights, Fleury was asked if it was easier to settle in and play once the game started.
"No, it wasn't," Fleury laughed.
Fleury acknowledged he was more emotionally drained than the average regular season contest.
"There was just a lot going on. A lot happening. Lots of emotions. A little bit of stress. But it was worth it," he said with a smile.
So imagine doing that three days in a row as McCutchen will do this spring.
Good luck, Cutch. Ask Neil Walker. He probably knows how tough that will be for you.
The Pirates said they already have their eyes on that series.
"Andrew will be forever appreciated and celebrated by the Pirates organization and our fans," Brian Warecki, the vice president of communications and broadcasting for the Pirates, told me via an emailed statement Wednesday. "We very much look forward to welcoming him back 'home' to PNC Park in May when the organization, and our fans, will have an opportunity to express our appreciation to him."
Beyond that, the Pirates wouldn't reveal any plans for McCutchen's comeback. Whatever designs that have taken place are clearly in the initial stages.
Given the prospects for the Pirates this season, a year in which general manager Neal Huntington's "projection models" have already forecasted a dip in win total from last season's nonplayoff campaign, they better stage a splashy show.
After all, those might be the three biggest crowds all season.
Seeing as how McCutchen was the best Pirate since Barry Bonds, a similar welcome back to Fleury's is warranted.
Even if McCutchen doesn't have the championship hardware Fleury does.
What can't be controlled, however, is the tone of the event. The Pirates already cast that die.
Fleury's return was a lovefest because his departure was so clean.
The Penguins had to expose a goalie in the expansion draft. It wasn't going to be the younger, cheaper option of Matt Murray after he had just won two Stanley Cups.
Fleury got to go somewhere with the same salary and be a full-time starter again on the heels of helping his team win a third ring.
The team cleared cap space and got roster flexibility.
The fans didn't have to see an all-time franchise favorite put on a sweater of a hated rival and can have a collective second-favorite team to root for just because of his presence.
Good vibes all around. As player-team divorces go, especially after 13 years, that's as amiable as it can get.
Meanwhile, McCutchen was sold off in a salary dump for a return deemed less than satisfactory by the fan base.
The reaction in Pittsburgh toward the Pirates after McCutchen's trade was the opposite of how Fleury's departure was viewed.
How will that manifest when McCutchen comes back six weeks into the season? It will help if the Buccos get off to a shockingly good start.
Don't count on that, though.
To be honest, it's unlikely any difference will be obvious to the player himself. Or to the average fan watching on TV. There will be a lengthy standing ovation before his first at-bat. A video montage might play before the game. A few eyes will well up in the crowd, and maybe even in the batter's box.
But the grumbling in the stands before and after the cheers will be there. The angst will be heard on the pregame and postgame talk shows for three days. It'll be obvious all over social media.
The raucous welcome back for Fleury was a way for the fans to say: "Thank you for having played in Pittsburgh."
The raucous welcome back for McCutchen will be a way for the fans to says: "You should still be playing in Pittsburgh."
There's a big difference.
Tim Benz hosts the Steelers pregame show on WDVE and ESPN Pittsburgh. He is a regular host/contributor on KDKA-TV and 105.9 FM.