Cook: A tale of hurdles and Hurdle

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CLEVELAND -- At 20, Clint Hurdle was on the cover of Sports Illustrated. "This Year's Phenom," the magazine anointed him. That was 33 years ago. Hurdle hadn't played a month in the big leagues for the Kansas City Royals. Talk about a crushing burden.

You think Hurdle is going to be intimidated by the adulation he's receiving in Pittsburgh as Pirates manager? You think he's going to lose sleep because of the expectations that go with it?

You are wrong.

"There were days in Colorado when I could have run for mayor and won there, too," a grinning Hurdle said Saturday afternoon. "Then, they threw a parade when I left. Things can change quickly ...

"We've still got a lot of work to do."

Everyone knows that. The All-Star break is more than three weeks away. But that hasn't stopped Pirates fans -- desperate for a winner -- from embracing Hurdle. Hell, they've turned it into a lovefest.

Going into the game here Saturday night against the Indians, the Pirates were 35-34. This after losing 105 games last season, their 18th consecutive losing season.

Mayor Hurdle?

Much more of this, they'll want to build a statue of the man outside PNC Park.

It's not just that Hurdle looks like Casey Stengel compared to the Pirates previous manager, John Russell. He's energetic. He's passionate. He motivates. Many believe Russell slept through most of his three seasons.

But there are other reasons Hurdle is the right man at the right time for the Pirates. "I truly believe we're all prepared for our future by our past -- if we paid attention to it," he said.

Hurdle did.

Go back to that Sports Illustrated cover. It didn't play well in the Royals' clubhouse where the vets wondered what the kid had done to get such treatment. It didn't play well with opposing pitchers, either. "Phenom? We'll see about that."

"It was a lot bigger deal than I even realized at the time," Hurdle said. "I was always outgoing, but I think I was outgoing half the time back then to fend off my insecurities and anxieties. I was trying to act like nothing was bothering me. You talk about having butterflies? I had dragons in my belly. It got to the point I had to do everything I could just to keep my head above water."

When you start at the top, there's only one way to go. Hurdle's descent was swift. "I went from phenom to goat to erstwhile phenom to has-been to never-was." He quit as a player in 1987 with a .259 career average and 32 home runs to take a Class A managing job in the New York Mets organization. Along the way, there were valuable lessons. "By trying to please everybody, you end up pleasing nobody," Hurdle said. As for that unwieldy adulation? "It means nothing."

The lessons Hurdle learned as a big league manager in Colorado were just as important. He took over the Rockies in 2002 and virtually built the team from scratch. He showed amazing patience, never taking short cuts that might have meant a few more wins at the cost of long-term development. Management showed amazing patience with him, keeping him through five consecutive losing seasons. All the patience paid off when the team won 21 of 22 games on its way to the '07 World Series, where it was swept by the Boston Red Sox.

"I'm very aware here of how much hard work it takes," Hurdle said. "I don't think I was fully aware of that in Colorado. I just know it was hard, the daily scrutiny that goes with the job. For a long time, we were the dumbest group of men in the world. But we just took our beating, stayed focused and kept going."

Hurdle was fired by the Rockies after another losing season in '08 and an 18-28 start in '09. He made it one of the easiest dismissals in baseball history. "I knew I had become a distraction," he said. He was in the final year of his contract. "It enabled the players to get a clean chalkboard ... In my final meeting with them, I told them, 'I'll take the walk of shame, but, if anybody in here doesn't believe this team can win the division, shame on you.' "

The '09 Rockies went on to win the National League wild card under manager Jim Tracy.

There were no guarantees Hurdle would manage again. "Of course, I thought about that. But I had my one shot. We raised a flag in Colorado. If I had a dollar for every time someone told me we couldn't win there, I'd be a rich man ...

"Me getting fired wasn't something to cry about. I had spent seven years there preaching accountability, responsibility, integrity and selflessness. If I had gone out kicking and screaming, all of that would have been flushed down the toilet. It just was time. It was a seamless transition."

Hurdle went to the Texas Rangers as hitting coach last season and ended up in the World Series, losing to the San Francisco Giants. There were job interviews after the season with the Mets and the Pirates. The Mets weren't sure they wanted Hurdle. The Pirates had no doubts.

"The sense I got from [management] was, 'We would really like you to help us,' " he said. So Hurdle jumped at the Pirates' offer. "I truly believe I was brought here to make a difference."

So far, so good.

It's been fun to watch Hurdle's motivational tricks. When the Pirates lost six games in a row in mid-May to fall to 18-23, he gathered the players and told them, "Focus on the day at hand. There's no looking back. Take a shower, wash that day away, make your adjustments and get ready for the next day."

Two weeks ago, Hurdle asked the players what it would take to move the team forward. "I could see them thinking about this thing or that thing," he said. "I told them, 'It's not going to take one thing. It's going to take everything we've got.' "

Friday, Hurdle had the players take a piece of paper and grade their pregame preparation. "After they each wrote down a number [from 1 to 10] and folded their paper in half, I told them to look at the number again," he said. " 'Any man who doesn't have a 10 written down is cheating every other man in here.' "

Hey, whatever works.

"I've got to keep pushing them forward," Hurdle said.

Since that six-game losing streak, the Pirates were 17-11 going into Saturday night. They won two games in Cincinnati to make it five out of six against the Reds. They took two of three from the Detroit Tigers. They took two of three from the Philadelphia Phillies, the National League's best team.

"You've got to have faith. You've got to believe in what you can't see," Hurdle said not just of his players, but of the fans.

"It's going to happen here. We've got a lot of work in front of us, but we're in the right lane."

It's too soon to build that statue of Hurdle, but maybe it's not too soon to hang the label on him again.

Why not? He's not 20 anymore. He'll be 54 on July 30. He can handle it.

In terms of big league managers, Hurdle is ...

Everybody with me now.

This Year's Phenom.



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