Commentary

Clint Hurdle positive on the Pirates

Pittsburgh's gone through struggles, but the new manager is looking on the bright side

Updated: March 24, 2011, 11:21 AM ET
By Jayson Stark | ESPN.com

CLEARWATER, Fla. -- Nearly every night, the emails arrive in the inboxes of dozens of employees of the Pittsburgh Pirates.

Amazingly, they aren't written by any Nigerian princes, telemarketers or online poker champs. They are written by the new manager in town, a fellow named Clint Hurdle. And they all have the same purpose:

Inspiration.

His players get them. His bosses get them. Employees who have barely laid eyes on him get them. These must-read pearls of wisdom may not guarantee the Pirates a single win this season. But they do guarantee that everyone who reads these words will have something to think about -- until the next email arrives.

[+] EnlargeClint Hurdle & Jeff Bannister
AP Photo/Gene J. PuskarNew Pirates manager Clint Hurdle is getting everyone to listen to his positive message.

The messages Clint Hurdle delivers via email are the same sorts of messages that come pouring out of his soul -- not to mention his vocal cords -- just about every minute of every day:

Why not us? Why not now?
You have to eat the elephant one bite at a time.
To win a ball game, you only have to be better than the team you play that night.

This is how Clint Hurdle talks. This is how Clint Hurdle thinks. This is how Clint Hurdle lives life -- and leads people.

Which explains what he's doing in this job in the first place.

The Pirates have run across many hurdles over the past 18½ years, since Sid Bream crossed home plate, and Barry Bonds fled for the West Coast, and all the winning stopped. But this is one Hurdle they have no trouble embracing, because it would be hard to find a franchise in professional sports in more need of inspiration than this one.

Think of all that's transpired since the last time the Pirates had a winning season: 27 of the other 29 teams have played at least one postseason series. … The Yankees have played 152 postseason games. … Ninety space shuttle missions have circled the planet. … The Steelers and Penguins have gone to the finals of their sport a half-dozen times. …

And six different managers have tried, and failed, to lead the Pirates to the summit of Mount .500.

Yet 22 months after his firing by the Rockies, Clint Hurdle has come bursting through his new team's door with no trepidation over the challenge, with no fear of the moment. And he's obviously not faking it -- because in his case, the Pirates didn't just choose him. He chose them.

"I think in life, you come to crossroads," he said, in his ever-booming baritone. "And you have opportunities. And you choose the one that fits you the best, the one where you can have a chance to make a difference."

So he passed on the chance to return as the hitting coach for a World Series team in Texas. He declined a second interview for the Mets' managerial job. Instead, he zeroed in on the Pirates, grilling both his friends around the sport and the people who were supposed to be interviewing him about where this franchise was headed.

"They asked tough questions of me, sitting across the desk," he said. "And I asked tough questions of [them]."

And enough of the right answers came back that here he is, because "these opportunities don't come along very often," he said. "There's not a greater opportunity in all of sports."

We can't tell you -- and neither can he -- whether this is the man who will finally end the Pirates' unprecedented streak of 18 straight losing seasons. But we can promise you this:

"

Pearce He's a big man, with a big voice. He's a loud guy. But when he talks, people listen.

" -- Pirates Steve Pearce on Clint Hurdle

Clint Hurdle WILL make a difference.

For one thing, he couldn't possibly represent more of a difference from the manager who preceded him -- the relentlessly low-key John Russell.

For all his baseball smarts, Russell was a man who took the term "soft-spoken" to a whole new level of quietude. So not only were the people of Pittsburgh never too sure of what he was all about, they were barely even sure what his voice sounded like.

But let's just say lack of volume won't be an issue for the new manager.

"He's a big man, with a big voice," said outfielder-first baseman Steve Pearce. "He's a loud guy. But when he talks, people listen."

And in this case, the Pirates WANT people to listen -- hope, in fact, that they can't stop listening. When it came time to hire this manager, says team president Frank Coonelly, "the force of his personality was very important to us."

At this point in their history, the Pirates needed a manager who could do a lot more than write out a lineup and flash a squeeze sign. They needed a face, a voice, a presence. They needed a manager who could sell their team and their vision of the future to a fan base that, in Hurdle's words, has been "so beat down for so many years … they don't even care who the manager is."

The idea, of course, is not to make them care who this manager is, either. The idea is to charge toward a brighter tomorrow, behind Andrew McCutchen, Pedro Alvarez, Jose Tabata and a core group this team is trying its best to dream on. But until that dream comes true, Hurdle's innate magnetism will just have to do.

"We all look forward to the time when the players become our face," said general manager Neal Huntington. "But until then, if Clint is out front, that's great."

At age 53, Hurdle is still a hulking, dominating figure -- a guy you definitely wouldn't want to get into an arm-wrestling duel with. But somehow, it's still that thundering, ring announcer's voice that overpowers you more than his solid, 6-foot-3, tight end's physique. And that's saying something.

"We have a joke in the organization," Huntington said with a laugh, "that we don't ever want to follow him when we have to give speeches."

Now, as Hurdle found out personally by living through five straight losing seasons in Colorado before he finally steered the Rockies into the World Series in 2007, the power of personality can only take any manager so far. So just because he's a forceful man with a forceful message, he doesn't want anybody thinking he can charm his way to October.

"The thing you want to watch out for is trying to be the knight on the white horse," he said, "because that's not reality."

And just to reinforce that point, he's also quick to quote one of the most heroic figures of his lifetime -- the legendary Popeye the Sailor Man.

"I need to be who I am," Hurdle said. "I can't be somebody I'm not. So I shared a quote from Popeye the other day: 'I am what I am, and that's all that I am.' In other words, don't be somebody you're not. Bring YOUR skill set. And bring it every day."

So Hurdle has been serving up his own innovative skill set since the day he showed up beneath the Florida palm trees.

He's given history lessons on Bill Mazeroski and the Lumber Company, to remind the troops that Pirates history began 129 years ago, not 18 years ago. He's brought in "live" baserunners from the minor league camp to add real-life urgency to rundown drills.

He's sent every one of his coaches to that minor league camp for a day to work with kids who once felt forgotten. He logged a day in that camp himself, and allowed 73-year-old minor league coach Woody Huyke to manage the big league team in his place. And Hurdle has charged his entire coaching staff with this mission: Bond with these players. Do whatever it takes to forge a connection that keeps this entire locomotive steaming down the same track.

[+] EnlargeAndrew McCutchen
AP PhotoEventually, the Pirates hope the players -- like Andrew McCutchen -- make the leap and become the faces of the franchise.

"I'm not talking about a Kumbaya campfire thing," Hurdle quipped. "We just want to make sure, from a coaching standpoint, we don't have any 'oh-no' coaches here. And by that I mean, we've all had a coach in our life where, when you saw this guy coming, the first thing you thought was, 'Oh, no. Here we go again.' We want to open up the line of communications where they see us walking up to them and they go, 'I wonder what he's got for me today.'"

And what he's got is an ability to relate to just about anything any of them can possibly experience -- because he's probably experienced it himself, along a 35-year winding road that began with a Sports Illustrated cover spot at age 21, curled through 10 big league seasons and kept spinning until it found its way to this time and place.

"There isn't much that's happened in the game that I haven't faced," he said. "Good. Bad. Sideways. Up. Down. Personal adversity. Professional adversity. All those things. And personal triumph."

And then there was a slice of his history that especially appealed to the Pirates -- namely, defying all the cynics who said NOBODY would ever be able to win anything in the Coors Field ozone. So this wouldn't be his first Mission Impossible.

"In Colorado, we were told we couldn't win at that altitude," he said. "And you know what? The players ended up winning the National League championship. In Texas, you [supposedly] couldn't win because it's so freaking hot. … And we wound up doing something very significant."

But Colorado and Texas were just the warm-up acts for his present assignment. Now he has to try winning with a team that's compiled the longest streak of consecutive losing seasons in North American professional sports history. A team that went 6-32 on the road after June last year. And a team only a few months removed from getting outscored by a terrifying 279 runs last season. Yikes!

Now THAT'S a challenge. But it's one Clint Hurdle can't wait to arm-wrestle.

"I don't know how long this is going to take," he said. "I can't worry about how long. I have to keep pushing us forward one day at a time. I'll use the expression we talked about earlier: How do you eat an elephant? You eat an elephant one bite at a time. If you look at the size of the elephant, it can be overwhelming. But if you just take a bite every day, and you keep these guys believing in themselves, through the rain and the storms and the challenges and the hard times … we can do this together.

"I've told them numerous times," he roared on, "that I'm here because I believe in the players here and what's in place. And I'm not going to get overwhelmed by other people's opinions. I know what's at stake. I know the challenges. I'm also aware [of] the reward. When we get good here, it's gonna be a whole lot of fun. It's gonna be so special and so significant for so many people."

He gets so evangelical about all this, you almost hate to mention how much has to happen for that fun to begin. But there's barely enough room in cyberspace to sum it all up. This team needs many more pieces, a vastly upgraded pitching staff and, to be honest, a lot more time.

But for the first time in years, there's hope, at least. And the new manager has delivered more than his share of it.

In fact, he delivers it nearly every night -- directly to the inboxes of the people who need to cling to that hope most.

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His latest book, "Worth The Wait: Tales of the 2008 Phillies," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores and online. Click here to order a copy.

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Senior Writer, ESPN.com