Cook: Pirates' Hurdle delivers first 'wow' moment

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This wasn't Barry Bonds-Jim Leyland, spring training, 1991. Bonds was a young player, coming off the first of his record-setting seven National League MVP seasons and already well on his way to becoming one of baseball's biggest pains in the butt. Leyland watched Bonds take out his unhappiness over his contract on Pirates coach Bill Virdon and jumped to Virdon's defense. Despite the television cameras rolling under the bright Florida sunshine, Leyland basically told Bonds in an expletive-laced tirade that, if he wasn't happy playing for the Pirates, he could go play for another team and no one would miss him. It was Leyland's finest moment as a manager, aside from his Florida Marlins winning the world championship in 1997.

Andrew McCutchen-Clint Hurdle, Thursday, wasn't nearly so momentous, but there's a good chance it also will be remembered 20 years later, especially if the two go on to help the Pirates defy the odds and become a winning franchise again. McCutchen is no Bonds, but he is the team's best player. By benching him for the game against the Los Angeles Dodgers that ended up being rained out Thursday night and giving him a public spanking for failing to run out what could have been a wild-pitch third strike a night earlier, Hurdle delivered the same message as Leyland: "No one player is bigger than the team." It's hard to imagine Hurdle having a finer moment as manager here.

"I know our players clearly understand what's important to me," Hurdle said. "There are certain things that need to be done ... I think there are certain things that are non-negotiable."

It's one thing to bench shortstop Ronny Cedeno for a game, which Hurdle did in late April after Cedeno failed to run out a ground ball. He doesn't have a long-term future with the Pirates. It's much harder to bench McCutchen, one of the faces of the franchise. The Pirates are counting on him to be a star for years.

Sadly, this is the harsh reality of baseball today, of any professional sport, really: If a manager loses his great players -- if they quit on him for whatever reason -- he is the one who gets fired.

But Hurdle didn't blink.

"If you lose them over this, you never had them in the first place," he said with a dismissive wave of his hand.

Wow.

I wanted to give Hurdle a standing ovation.

A lot of managers aren't so strong. A lot don't have Hurdle's wisdom. He gets it. He understands that he's managing 25 players, not just one. The other 24 would have noticed if he had allowed McCutchen to get away with his inexcusable loafing. Certainly, they noticed that he didn't let McCutchen get away with it.

"This is going to make us better," Hurdle said.

Not just as a team, but as an organization.

"I talked to [director of player development] Kyle Stark about it," Hurdle said. "He can go to his people on every level and say, 'You may or may not have a situation like this, but if you do, this is how they handled it in Pittsburgh.' "

"If you don't play hard, you're not going to play."

Don't you just love that message?

Hurdle did everything right in this case. He discussed the McCutchen situation with general manager Neal Huntington early Thursday afternoon. He met privately with McCutchen about an hour before the clubhouse doors opened. Finally, he answered questions about it honestly after the media discovered McCutchen wasn't in the starting lineup.

The Pirates could have used McCutchen Thursday night. They had lost two games in a row to the Dodgers to fall below .500 again. They were struggling to score runs. McCutchen, finally, had been starting to hit after a slow start and a .235 average.

None of it stopped Hurdle from doing the right thing.

"I learned something very valuable in Colorado from [former Rockies president] Keli McGregor," he said. " 'When it becomes only about winning, it will never last.' We're focused on building something greater and better as we move forward."

It's nice to think McCutchen will be a big part of that future. He explained he was frustrated about striking out when he didn't run to first base. But he also didn't run hard on an infield grounder Tuesday night.

Shame on McCutchen if he loafs again.

"A lesson learned," he called his benching. "I know that's not the type of person I am."

Hurdle is betting on it.

Betting his future as the manager here on it, actually.

"Like I said before, if you lose them over this, you never had them in the first place," he said.

Now it's my turn to repeat myself:

Wow.


Ron Cook: rcook@post-gazette.com . Ron Cook can be heard on the "Vinnie and Cook" show weekdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on 93.7 The Fan.


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