Baseball 2011: Hurdle lights Pirates' fire
BRADENTON, Fla. -- The slugger and the skipper stood beneath the sinking sun.
The skipper instructed, one hand on the slugger's shoulder, the other hand guiding an imaginary baseball bat briskly through the hitting zone.
The slugger nodded, listened and got an approving slap on the backside from the skipper before he returned to the batting cage.
"Don't make things too hard," the skipper, watching from outside the cage, said as the slugger bashed a breaking ball to the opposite field. "You know what you're doing up there. Thaaaaat a way, Petey!"
These are the moments, away from the crowds in spring training, when first-year Pirates manager Clint Hurdle, many say, does his best work.
The scene was a Monday afternoon, more than an hour after the Pirates lost an exhibition game against the Minnesota Twins at McKechnie Field. In the loss, third baseman Pedro Alvarez looked offensively out of sorts, striking out twice and chasing balls in the dirt.
So, after the game, the batting cage was rolled back onto the field, and, for more than hour, Hurdle played hitting coach -- a position he held with Colorado and Texas -- and Alvarez soaked in the instruction and immediately applied it in a shirt-drenching, overtime session.
For a while, Hurdle went to the mound and threw pitches, shouting advice between right-handed offerings from 60 feet away.
"There you go, Petey," Hurdle said approvingly as Alvarez slashed a pitch back up the middle and the skipper ducked behind the safety screen.
Such scenes have been commonplace as Hurdle begins his tenure as the 39th manager in the 124-year history of this club.
As Hurdle sat recently in his McKechnie office -- just after speaking to a group of Pirates fans -- a figure appeared in the doorway.
"Excuse me for a minute, skipper," said Bob Walk, the Pirates color analyst who pitched for the team from 1985-93. "I'll tell you, skipper, that's the first time I've seen you speak to a group. And, you know what, I'm ready to go suit up again. I'd play for you. You know how to motivate people."
During infield practice, Hurdle, 53, often stands at first base, receiving throws from the infielders, who don't relent -- nor does he want them to -- as they wing it across the diamond to him.
"Says a lot about him," said second baseman Neil Walker. "Says a lot that he's out there doing that kind of stuff."
Just like the previous Pirates manager -- John Russell, who guided the club from 2008-10 -- Hurdle was a first-round pick as a player, selected by the Kansas City Royals with the ninth overall selection out of Merritt Island (Fla.) High School in 1975.
Also just like Russell, Hurdle spent 10 seasons in the major leagues at the same positions: Catcher, left field, right field, first base and third base.
Those similarities, however striking, are where the comparisons between the two managers diverge: The extroverted Hurdle commands attention when he enters a room, while Russell often spoke quietly and never embraced the spotlight that came with the job.
"I'm just who I am," Hurdle said, when asked about his personality.
He was chosen in November over Eric Wedge, John Gibbons, Ken Macha, Bo Porter, Carlos Tosca and Dale Sveum -- all of whom were interviewed in the offseason -- as the man to lead this club.
The elementary question is, "why?"
Why did the Pirates select Hurdle, who managed the Rockies for parts of eight seasons, to lead this team at this time?
Why did Pirates' brass decide on the man who has a 534-625 record (.461 winning percentage) and had one winning season out of eight in Colorado, the famed "Rocktober" Rockies who went 90-73 in 2007?
"Why? Because he has the complete package in what we were looking for," general manager Neal Huntington said.
That package has at least two components.
"You can have a great knowledge of the game, but, if you can't motivate, you probably aren't going to be successful," Huntington said. "On the other hand, if you are a motivator, but don't have a great understanding of the game, that didn't lend itself to what we were looking for.
"With Clint, when the people in the organization who were involved with hiring a manager considered him, we saw a person with a strong ability to motivate and to manage a club from day to day."
Even the day he was formally introduced, in mid-November inside PNC Park, Hurdle couldn't escape the questions that hang over this franchise:
What about those 18 consecutive losing seasons?
What about that dreadful march through last summer when the franchise lost 105 games?
What about the fact that this club has spent just 82 days in first place since 1993?
"This is eventually going to turn," Hurdle said that day. "There is not a doubt in my mind that this is eventually going to turn."
In his efforts to make that turn, Hurdle's aim has been simple all spring: He has lived by an "all in" motto and wants everyone in the organization to do their part to pitch in.
No one is above doing anything, however menial.
The proof came one morning early in spring training, before the start of games, and major league camp was based at Pirate City before moving to McKechnie.
As the Pirates began a base-running drill, a netted safety screen mistakenly had been left near third base -- near where Hurdle was standing. The grounds crew, realizing the mistake, hurriedly started out to the field as Hurdle took hold of the cumbersome screen and was repositioning it into foul territory.
The men approached Hurdle and, apologetically, attempted to finish the job.
"Fellas, we're all on the same team here," Hurdle said. "It's OK. I got it. No big deal."
Hurdle hopes it is an attitude that is transcendent.
"The one thing these players can control every day is their attitude and their effort, I tell them that all the time, you pitch in, you do what you can," Hurdle said. "And, to a man in that clubhouse, the attitude and effort has been put forth positively every day since I have been here. We are aware we need to get better, everyone is. We aren't hiding from that, we are tackling that head on. We are doing the things we have control of to get better, and it starts with the little things."
The publications that make prognostications on Major League Baseball don't necessarily agree on everything, but they do agree on this: The Pirates won't be anywhere near contending. Most believe there will be many more losses than wins again in 2011.
"Sure, I've seen those kinds of things written and heard them said," Hurdle said, sitting at his desk in his McKechnie Field office, his reading glasses dangling from his neck.
He shrugged and smiled before continuing: "Really, what am I going to do? How can I control that? The answer is that I can't. People are going to say and write what they say and write. I cannot control that."
The outside influences and messages cannot be controlled. The inside messages can.
And Hurdle has a calculated way of going about that. He has taken to text messaging motivational quotes to his players and staff, and such quotes are also regularly included on the bulletin board where the lineup card and other team announcements are made.
"I like that, I notice it," first baseman Lyle Overbay said. "It might seem like a little thing to some people, but those messages get me going. It shows me Clint cares. It shows me he pays attention to details, shows me he wants to connect with us."
Hurdle's intent is to remove the negative as an option.
"All I can do is encourage these men to understand they can never control what other people say, think or do," Hurdle said. "And I know there are a lot of prognostications at this time of year that end up being wrong."
There also is some uncertainty in the front office, with Huntington's contract expiring at the end of the season.
Could there be friction when the first-year manager looking to mold young players into winners, and a general manager whose contract status is uncertain, gather for baseball decisions?
"I'll say it right now, I don't want to be the GM, I don't need to have the final vote on everything, I don't want to have the final vote on everything and I don't," Hurdle said. "I let Neal know of certain things that are important to me, and Neal lets me know of certain things that are important to him. We work together. That's the way it is."
The Pirates season starts Friday with a jump into the deep end.
A trip to Chicago and St. Louis to play the Cubs and Cardinals starts the year, followed by Colorado and Milwaukee at PNC Park before the team hits the road again, for Cincinnati and three games with the Florida Marlins.
That 20-game stretch to start the season demands focus.
"Yeah, it gets your attention," Hurdle said. "But the schedule is what it is, and this is the big leagues. You get what you get and you don't throw a fit. That's what I've been telling these guys."
Hurdle also has been wondering about something he hasn't shared with his team. Certainly, everyone can rejoice when things go well, and the clubhouse can be a splendid place after a win. But what happens after a string of losses?
When the pitchers can't pitch for a few games, when the bats go silent, when the gloves can't catch anything, how will the team handle that?
"No one wants to lose, but the first time we struggle just a little, I am looking forward to seeing what happens," Hurdle said. "Will we put a foot down and say, 'let's stop this right now' or will it be the same old thing?
"Will we take a stand and end things when it gets tough, or will we revert back to something that, maybe, too many of these guys are accustomed to?
"We will see."
First Published March 27, 2011 12:00 am