Pirates manager Clint Hurdle instills winning attitude

Hurdle has seen it all in baseball

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It has been 35 years since Clint Hurdle's smiling mug beamed off the front of a March 1978 Sports Illustrated cover, face lit in sunlight, hair parted down the middle, that thousand-watt smile framed by a square jaw.

The story portrayed Mr. Hurdle as a phenom in the making -- a tale that never exactly played out for him as a ballplayer.

But buried deep among the paragraphs is a description of a Dodge van he tooled around in at age 20 -- it was fitted with a foldaway bed, refrigerator, spittoon and a harmonica on the padded dashboard. You can almost hear Lynyrd Skynard crowing from the tape deck. Or was it an eight-track?

A lifetime later, Mr. Hurdle -- the gum-chewing, belly-laughing, bear-hugging man who danced in champagne Tuesday night -- has led the Pirates to the National League Division Series.

Asked if this is why he came to town three years ago, Mr. Hurdle recently replied, "Abso-BUCN-lutely," to coin a new phrase in the lexicon of Pittsburgh sport. Looks like the kid with the sweet 1970s ride is very much alive and well in the Pirates seasoned manager, who this afternoon returns to baseball's national stage.

"Oh yes, absolutely. There's still a guy who wants to play the harmonica. Never learned. Dabbled on one for a long time," said Mr. Hurdle, now 56. "Still like classic rock. Still play classic rock. I'm past the customized van stage. It was as close to a hippie VW bus as I could get."

He has, at times this season, endured cursing fans for his in-game management style. Managing a team that has provided 20 years of heartache will do that. But the roar of a sellout at PNC Park greeted him Tuesday and from where general manager Neal Huntington sits, Mr. Hurdle is unquestionably the man he wants in charge every day.

"He's been the hyped prospect. He's been the failed prospect. He's been the guy that's battled back. He's been a role player. He's been a minor league manager. He's been a minor league coach. A major league coach. He's done just about everything," Mr. Huntington said.

"He's seen, and lived and experienced, so has an ability to keep things in perspective. He's confident in what he can do. He's confident what this group can do and shows up every day with the single goal of winning that game. Today's a new day. Let's get after it."

Mr. Hurdle, a born motivator who instinctually sees the bright side, is an occasional ball of fury who has been tossed six times this season for arguing with an umpire, most recently against the Reds two weeks ago.

He always has a Hurdleism at the ready: "Meet the demands of the game," he'll say. "Honestly self-evaluate," or "Adapt, improvise, and overcome," perhaps with "duct tape, chicken wire, and spit."

When one of his top pitchers struggled in his first start at altitude in Denver, Mr. Hurdle found him in the dugout, wrapped two-arms around him in a bear hug, wearing a wide smile and a cheek full of bubble gum.

When his 11-year-old daughter called in agony after a series of losses in August, he whipped out a story of Pirates ships lacking rearview mirrors, twisted around a Dr. Seuss metaphor, and made her happy again.

"Clint is very a happy-go-lucky guy. He never looks at a glass as half empty. He always looks at it as half full," said his father, Clint Hurdle Sr. "When he was playing ball in Little League and he'd come home, be upset from a bad game, I'd always point out good things along with the bad things. It's where I think it has come from. He can be very serious but he's got a lot of that joking, playful guy in him."

Mr. Hurdle was hired by the Pirates in 2010 -- long after his playing career (most of it with Kansas City) ended and after a seven-year stint as manager for Colorado -- his first major league managing gig.

The Pirates were 18 years into what would become a streak of 20-straight losing seasons.

In his introductory news conference, Mr. Hurdle likened turning the franchise around to how he would eat an elephant: one bite at a time.

"He definitely has his own style. He's like a mix between having a parent, that typical coach, and just like a buddy you'd go have a couple beers with and hang out," catcher Russell Martin said. "He makes it work."

The first two seasons did not end well. But a patient follower could see the building blocks were there.

"There's a lot of my personality I hope never impacts the clubhouse," Mr. Hurdle said with a laugh this week. "I do know as a father, a parent, a coach and manager I do try and model the behavior I'd like to instill in others. A pat on the back, a smack on the backside can both be teaching tools. Presentation is critical. Timing is just as critical."

Shortstop Clint Barmes, who played for Mr. Hurdle in Colorado, said his boss still has that intelligent baseball mind -- but made one important distinction: "He's given the players the clubhouse."

"I want them to know I've got their back. I always try to revisit the emotions, the feelings, the facts that came my way as a player and honor those from this office," Mr. Hurdle said. "I try and earn their trust. If they don't trust you, you'll never be able to coach 'em up. And that takes time. So they know you care about them outside of being a switch hitting second baseman, a fourth outfielder, your fourth starter, your closer."

This season, his mantra has been steadfast since spring training: Good or bad, it's only Game No. X of 162. Lose? Shower off and go home.

By July 1, the Pirates were in first place with the best record in baseball.

By Sept. 1, they were locked in a tie atop the National League Central Division with rival St. Louis.

"The one thing that he is, he's consistent with how he treats people. There's no real favoritism," Mr. Martin said. "You can still talk to him about whatever you want. You don't feel like you're going to be judged by him. He wants the best for you and he cares about each individual on the team and that's important to me."

On Sept. 2, the team reached 80 wins with another fine start by Charlie Morton.

No. 82 came in Arlington, Texas.

By Sept. 23, in Chicago, it was No. 90 and a long awaited playoff berth.

"This has been one of the most enjoyable seasons I've had in baseball," Mr. Hurdle said. "Watching this clubhouse take on its own identity, where the players know they own it. They own the dugout. They own the bullpen. And actually watch them take ownership of things now? The leadership. I've seen the leadership growth in some of our own guys. Then externally [A.J.] Burnett, like [Jason]Grilli, like Martin, like Barmes. Their roots have networked off throughout the clubhouse.

"I love the way they continue to play the game regardless of the last three or next three. It's a bunch of boys playing out in the backyard. They've been good at that all year."

And on Tuesday, it was a backyard game in front of a city that had waited 21 years.

"He's seen, and lived and experienced, so has an ability to keep things in perspective. ... He's confident what this group can do and shows up every day with the single goal of winning that game."

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Jenn Menendez: jmenendez@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1959 or on Twitter @JennMenendez.


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