By JIM ELLIOTT
ST. CLAIRSVILLE - When Pittsburgh Pirates relief pitcher Jared Hughes talks to a young fan, he asks the question - even though he already knows the answer.
Maynard resident and longtime Pittsburgh Pirates fan Helen Mihalic celebrated her 90th birthday Thursday by talking to Pirates players Justin Wilson, left, and Jarod Hughes, right, during the team’s Winter Caravan Stop at the Ohio Valley Mall.
Who is your favorite Pirates player?
''Andrew McCutchen,'' the youngsters tell him. ''I say, 'yeah, mine too buddy, mine too,' " Hughes said.
Hughes, along with McCutchen, pitcher Justin Wilson, broadcasters John Wehner and Greg Brown, and bench coach Jeff Banister made a stop with the team's Winter Caravan at the Ohio Valley Mall on Thursday night, where hundreds of Pirates fans waited for an autograph and, perhaps, a short conversation.
Invariably those conversations and star-crossed eyes turn to McCutchen, one of the game's top young players. Many of those fans can't wait until the Pirates return to their glory days, and they see McCutchen as the man to lead them there.
''It's great,'' McCutchen said. ''I would have never thought I'd be coming to a mall to do a signing and there would be hundreds of people waiting to get an autograph. It's definitely great to be able to come out and be able to experience this and to go to different places outside of Pittsburgh and interact with all the fans.''
For the last two seasons, the Pirates have delivered victories early and faltered down the stretch. The guys on Wednesday's stop think that will change in 2013.
They want to keep the smiles on these fans' faces year-round.
''I definitely hope so,'' said McCutchen, who finished third in the National League Most Valuable Player race after hitting .327 with 31 home runs and 96 RBI.
''I definitely think this is the year we can be able to finish. We have everything we need. I think we're an even stronger team. We have some time under our belts. We've seen a few things and experienced a few things, and we're looking forward to finishing strong.''
To a man, they've had trouble digesting the way things ended last season, but they agree there are plenty of positives that can be drawn from it.
''I wouldn't say it was a successful year, but I'd say it's a year that we're moving into the right direction,'' McCutchen said. ''We're continuing to improve, and that's what we're looking for. But we know we can be a lot better than where we are. We're just looking forward to going into this year, having a real good year, and pushing for the playoffs and not letting down. Just continuing to keep pushing.''
Hughes, a 6-foot-7 right-hander who was 2-2 with a 2.85 ERA in 66 appearances and 75.2 innings in 2012, enjoyed a very successful rookie season. But he came away with mixed feelings about it.
''I trained in the offseason to have a good year,'' he said. ''I trained during the season. I prepare before games, I read the scouting report so I can personally have a good year. But it's all about the team winning. During the season, if we're winning, then I'm happy. If we're not winning, I'm not happy. If I'm doing great, I don't care. ''
Wilson, 25-year old left-handed pitcher, didn't join the club until late August, so he saw most of last season from afar. But he thinks the best is yet to come.
''It was a taste of some success and look how good we got, look how good we can be,'' he said.' 'It's a great group of guys. We all just want to win together.''
If that happens, the lines at the Caravan stops might be even longer.
''I'm really excited to be here, really thrilled with the turnout - we all are,'' Hughes said. ''It's really exciting to see this many fans out here to support us, and we're really thankful for it.''