Cook: Pirates manager's goal is to make a difference every day
September 25, 2013 8:00 AM
Manager Clint Hurdle, who went 72-90 in his first season with the Pirates, has been integral to the team's transformation.
By Ron Cook Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Late Monday night, Pirates manager Clint Hurdle was where he usually is, right in the middle of his players and coaches, laughing, backslapping, pouring champagne and beer on each of 'em and loving every second when they doused him right back.
"I wanted to embrace the moment," Hurdle was saying Tuesday before the Pirates played the Chicago Cubs at Wrigley Field. "I wanted to be a part of all of it. I wanted to get wet. I wanted to be soaked. I wanted it dripping down my face. I wanted my eyes to sting."
Ordinarily, this would have been perfectly normal. The Pirates had just done what so many of us thought was impossible by ending two-plus decades of losing and clinching their first playoff spot since 1992. Hurdle's fingerprints were on everything. No matter what he does the rest of his time with the Pirates, he will be remembered as a sporting hero in our town because of the magical 2013 season.
But this wasn't an ordinary baseball celebration for Hurdle. He is a recovering alcoholic.
"[Been sober] going on 15 years," he said.
Hurdle has never kept his past a secret. His players know. A few went to him a few days ago when it became clear the team was headed toward a party unlike any it has had in 21 years. They asked if he minded champagne and beer in the clubhouse.
"I told them it didn't bother me," Hurdle said. "I wasn't going to lick my lips. I'm way past that. I'm a grown man ...
"I know what I can't do. I could be a drunk tomorrow if I had one beer. Like I always say, one is too many and a million aren't enough."
It's easy to believe Hurdle when he says he's in the best spot of his life.
The Pirates are a big part of it. A lot of baseball people said they wouldn't touch the Pirates job before Hurdle took it in November 2010. He had heard the same warnings, that the Pirates never would win under owner Bob Nutting. But he believed Nutting, president Frank Coonelly and general manager Neal Huntington when they promised their commitment.
"They've done exactly what they said they would do," Hurdle said.
Hurdle made friends quickly because of his energy and enthusiasm. He wanted to be with the Pirates. He wasn't just there for a check. "I remember saying at the time, 'It's fixxin' to get good here real soon,' " he said. "I knew the sledding had been so hard for so long. But I thought this job was the greatest opportunity in sports.
"It wasn't about coming in and being a hero. It was about coming in and helping to make a difference. At that point in my life, I was 53. I was looking for a challenge. I wasn't looking for comfort."
The Pirates won 57 games in 2010, John Russell's final year as manager. They improved to 72 in 2011 under Hurdle and to 79 in 2012, although they folded badly down the stretch each summer. It was so bad at the end of each of those two seasons that Hurdle talked of "getting beat up and tasting our own blood."
But there has been no collapse this season. The Pirates took 90 wins into the game Tuesday night and weren't far off from Hurdle's stunning spring-training prediction of 95. Many on the outside had predicted another 90-loss season.
"You've got to be able to look people in the eye and tell them what you believe," he said. "You don't drop your head and you don't give a flip about whether people laugh or not."
The success has been wonderful, but the team isn't the No. 1 priority in Hurdle's life. He hit a home run with his third wife, Karla. He has three children, including Madison, 11, who has Prader-Willi syndrome.
"When you have a special-needs child, it puts a different spin on everything. There are many times when I go home and the game isn't the most important thing. I don't know if I could have gotten to that point by myself."
That doesn't mean Hurdle isn't all about winning. Even as he wiped champagne and beer out of his reddened eyes Monday night, he talked about the Pirates' goals. "We still want to win the division. We're certainly not going to shut it down."
The celebration was "feel-good" for the players, Hurdle said, and much-deserved. "That being said, they want more of that feel-good. They still have a chance to get it."
As for Hurdle being in the middle of all of it?
"I've gotten to the point in my life that I can enjoy the moments along the way," he said. "I don't know if I could have done that 15 or 20 years ago. But life is way too short not to embrace the good times. I've seen a lot of people, sometimes, who work so hard that they run right through them. I didn't want that to be me."
It's no wonder that Pittsburgh has wrapped both arms around Hurdle. His attitude is consistent, always positive, always uplifting. And, yes, those 90 wins don't hurt.
"Someone sent me a text the other day that mentioned a sausage company with a funny name, Iron City Beer and the Incline," Hurdle said. "They said I fit right in."
You should have seen Hurdle laugh, probably because of the irony of him being linked to a beer.
But Hurdle really has tried hard to fit in. He always talks about his encounters at his local Starbucks, Giant Eagle and barber shop. Don't worry if you see him and are afraid to say hello or shake his hand. He's just as likely to approach you.
"Fifteen years ago, I made a decision that I was going to become a servant from here on in," Hurdle said. "Before then, I wanted to be served."
Each day, Hurdle sends out an inspirational message to a long list of family, friends and acquaintances. Monday's came from college football coaching legend Paul "Bear" Bryant. "Show class, have pride and display character. If you do, winning takes care of itself."
Hurdle signs each post at the end the same way.
"Make a difference today. Love, Clint."
That's not the sort of thing you see every day in the manly world of professional sports.
"I'm not afraid to tell people I love them," Hurdle said. "I want them to know I'm there if they need a hand."
Many are reaching back.
"A lot of people are happy," Hurdle said. "That's what it's about for me. It gives you a sense of joy and accomplishment."
Hurdle said he received nearly 300 texts, emails and telephone calls Tuesday. Mario Lemieux sent his congratulations. Dan Bylsma reached out. Mike Tomlin said he sent Hurdle a note wishing him and the Pirates well in the postseason.