Collier: No. 13 is still No. 1, and that's good
At least for now, Pirates manager Clint Hurdle has proven he is deserving of his one-year contract extension.
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Over the past 20 years, managing the Pirates never has been an occupation that would tempt anyone to consider himself the luckiest man on the face of the earth, but that has nothing to do with the reason Clint Hurdle wears uniform No. 13.
"Someone just reminded me about that story again the other day, and it always tickles me," Hurdle bellowed into a cell phone through some Florida gulf breezes bent on splintering his syntax. "The first time I was traded it was in spring training [from Kansas City to Cincinnati] and I walked into the clubhouse and the equipment guy says, 'What number do you want?'
"I said, 'I wore 10 in Kansas City.' Well, that guy worked me over, like eight minutes, about how 10 was a hallowed number around here and Sparky Anderson this and Sparky Anderson that. I said, 'Fine, whatever.'
"When I got traded to the [New York] Mets, the same thing happened. I asked for 10, and I got beat up again about Rusty Staub and Le Grande Orange, and finally I said, 'Look, what number does nobody want?' The guy said 'Nobody wants 13.'
"I've been wearing it ever since."
So, on the day the Pirates gave you old No. 13 to kick around for two or three more years, picking up the option on his contract through 2014 and adding a club option for 2015, it's useful to note how comfortable Hurdle is in his Pirates' skin. As a manager, he's no Anderson, just as he was no Staub as a first baseman and slugger, but, as both ambassador and field general for a still wobbly franchise, he actually means it when he says, "there is no place I'd rather be than in a Pirates uniform."
This is no small matter, given the depressing nature of competitive landscape over these past two decades on the men who had to make a lineup card into a science fiction novel night after night after night.
Jim Leyland chaffed in the position after the departure of Barry Bonds and Doug Drabek and others of similar pedigree; Gene Lamont tired of it after being dealt the same hand for four consecutive years, the one without any face cards; Lloyd McClendon wound up with it after Kevin McClatchy bridled at candidate Ken Macha's candid assessment of everything the organization lacked; Jim Tracy did what he could in the difficult adjustment from a moneyed franchise in Los Angeles; John Russell essentially inhabited the manager's office as if it were a cell on death row.
Until Neal Huntington hired Clinton Merrick Hurdle two years ago, the gold standard for managing the Pirates over the previous two decades was Pete Mackanin, who went 12-14 mopping up for McClendon in 2005, a blazing success rate of .462. Herewith your black-and-gold managerial winning percentages for the past two black-and-blue decades: Hurdle (.466), Mackanin (.462), Lamont (.450), Leyland (.445), McClendon (.430), Tracy (.417) and Russell (.384).
Hurdle's two seasons pushing the Pirates' buttons somehow produced the best baseball (such as it is) around here since 1996 and 1997, and the 22-win improvement he has enabled represents only the ninth time since 1900 that the Pirates have improved by 20 or more wins within two years.
It's little short of miraculous that, in both seasons, the Pirates sailed into first place in July, if little short of predictable that they almost immediately sailed off the edge of the earth both times.
Anyone who'd consider the Pirates a club without plenty of holes isn't in touch with reality, but Hurdle, despite the ready vitriol of his hordes of critics, is the least of this franchise's problems.
I asked the manager for his general vision of what the 2013 edition needs to sustain itself through a full competitive summer.
"The things we've identified are more depth in the rotation so we can get more innings out of our starters, better control of the [opponent's] running game, better awareness of what [our pitchers] need to do in the strike zone both away and inside, where we can create discomfort," Hurdle said.
"Offensively we have to have better discipline in the batter's box. We've got to make better outs, as silly as that sounds, but, if you continue to have eight or nine strikeouts a night, you're just watching the other team play catch for three innings. And we've got to be better on the bases from a tactical standpoint, the better to perform throughout the entire course of a season."
The manager's voice was fissuring a bit in those capricious Bradenton breezes, but it sounded as if he was indicating that the Pirates have to be better.
As it happens, Hurdle has some components that could launch a winning season. For only the second time in the past 22 years, the Pirates are in spring training with two players who hit 30 homers for them in the previous season, Andrew McCutchen (31) and Pedro Alvarez (30). (Brian Giles had 37, Aramis Ramirez 34 in 2001).
Hurdle's pitching at least has a bell cow in A.J. Burnett, and his young nucleus presumably has another year of acquired baseball intelligence. All of them seem to know, as well as everyone up and down the corporate roster, that Hurdle has their best interests at heart.
"I explained to [the front office] that I wanted everyone to be comfortable [with this extension]," Hurdle said.
"I wanted it to work for everyone. It's not about anyone leveraging anything. It has to make sense for the players, the owners, and the front office. I haven't been in a conversation in the last two years where I ever got the idea that I wasn't the right fit for this organization."
That's good to hear. It sounds sort of like competence.
First Published February 20, 2013 12:00 am