Pittsburgh Pirates | Turnaround artist Clint Hurdle vows to 'live it on the edge'

jlembo@bradenton.comMarch 16, 2014 

BRADENTON -- There's a picture of manager Clint Hurdle hanging in the Pittsburgh Pirates' clubhouse at McKechnie Field.

Hurdle is smiling in the picture. He's clapping.

And he's standing in the middle of a champagne shower.

It's a fitting photo: When you talk about the Pirates' successful 2013 campaign, you have to center it around Hurdle, who became the first Pittsburgh skipper to be named National League Manager of the Year since Jim Leyland in 1992.

During the spring of 2011, Hurdle's first, he spoke about molding the Pirates into champions.

It sounded like crazy talk. The Pirates hadn't had a winning season since '92 and reached a nadir in 2010 by losing 105 games, their most since the '52 team lost 112.

But Hurdle's "why-not-us?" mantra has permeated the Pirates clubhouse, home to players fresh off a 94-win season that included a trip to the National League Division Series.

"He tells us pretty much what he expects and what he wants," said infielder Clint Barmes, who played under Hurdle for seven years in Colorado before signing with the Pirates prior to last season. "The guys here have bought into that everything he's basically been telling us, and it's been a lot of fun. The biggest thing is we're all playing together. He can't talk enough about picking each other up."

The highlight of Hurdle's run in Colorado came during the tail end of the '07 season, when the Rockies won 21 of their final 22 games to reach the World Series for the first, and thus far only, time in franchise history. Not a bad run considering Hurdle remembered people telling him the Rockies couldn't build a winner in Denver's thin air and homer-friendly Coors Field.

Three years later, Hurdle was the Texas Rangers' hitting coach when the team that couldn't survive the rigors of a pennant race under Arlington's oppressive heat made its first World Series.

While there is no doubting each team had its share of talent, Barmes said it isn't coincidence that where Hurdle goes, unprecedented success follows.

"He talks about (winning) non-stop," Barmes said "Guys start to believe in what we're doing and guys start to believe that good things definitely happen. I saw first-hand in Colorado and I've seen it here. ... (Hurdle) is a big part of all that."

No stranger to revitalizing baseball cities, Hurdle said he got a kick out of watching Pittsburgh get a kick out of the Pirates last summer and fall.

"The joy I get from the game of baseball is seeing others have success," said Hurdle, a first-round pick of the Kansas City Royals in 1975 who made his professional debut that year with the Royals' Gulf Coast League team in Sarasota. "The fan base, that in and of itself is electric. ... All of it comes into play if you have some awareness and to see what you're able to bring for others and to see the accountability and responsibility that comes with playing the game that we love playing."

Hurdle tries bringing some of that fun into the Pirates' clubhouse, too.

"That's a big word. You have to have fun in this game," shortstop Jordy Mercer said. "And he knows it, and he tells us all the time, 'Do your work the right way, but have fun doing it.' We kind of take that approach. We like to joke around and kid around out there, and it leads into us playing loose and having fun."

A manager's arrival is often accompanied by some initial uneasiness. Players are hoping to impress rather than irritate their new boss and often play it a little safe, hesitant to take chances that may cost them a spot on the team.

Hurdle said those days are over in Pittsburgh. And he's pleased to be right in the middle of it.

"There's no growth in comfort. Growth comes through adversity, growth comes through challenges," Hurdle said. "Our challenge as coaches is to get these guys outside their comfort zones and get them to where their palms are a little sweaty. ... Everything we do, from Bob (Nutting, owner) to Frank (Coonelly, team president) to Neal (Huntington, general manager) to myself, to these players, to these coaches, it's about trust, it's about encouragement. It's about, 'Hey, let's live it on the edge, let's live it on the slippery slope, let's see what we can get done.'

"You can always pull the plug out of the wall. Let's stick the plug in the wall and see how much electricity we can get. They've bought into it."

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