Pirates a major hurdle

In this photo taken Friday, March 4, Pittsburgh Pirates manager Clint Hurdle stands behind the batting cage before a spring training baseball game against the Philadelphia Phillies in Bradenton, Fla. The Pirates haven’t posted a winning record since Barry Bonds carried them in 1992, and their enthusiastic new manager doesn’t pretend to have all the answers. Eighteen consecutive losing seasons, 299 losses over the past three years, a major league-low 57 wins in 2010. A major hurdle, indeed, for Clint Hurdle.

BRADENTON, Fla. — Clint Hurdle shrugged his shoulders and kept talking.

The Pittsburgh Pirates haven’t posted a winning record since Barry Bonds carried them in 1992, and their enthusiastic new manager doesn’t pretend to have all the answers for ending the longest stretch of futility in North American sports.

Eighteen consecutive losing seasons, 299 losses over the past three years, a major league-low 57 wins in 2010.

A major hurdle, indeed.

But this Hurdle is nothing if not optimistic. That’s his trademark, and he says brighter days are ahead. Even if he can’t promise when.

“Every man that’s come in here before me for the last 18 years, I have no doubt in my mind was coming with great intentions, trying to make a difference,” said Hurdle, the former Colorado skipper who left a comfortable job as hitting coach with the AL champion Texas Rangers to take over the Pirates.

“Sometimes it’s timing. A lot of times it is talent. ... Right now, I think we’ve got a good combination of a lot of things coming together at the right time,” the 53-year-old manager said.

The Pirates have averaged 97 losses per season since 2005, yet a strong nucleus of young talent that includes center fielder Andrew McCutchen, second baseman Neil Walker and third baseman Pedro Alvarez is a basis for real hope.

“If I was a guy just looking for a check, all I’d do is mess this thing up,” said Hurdle, who guided the Rockies to their only World Series appearance in 2007.

“They needed somebody to come in and be committed, roll their sleeves up, get some dirt in their spikes and put in a full day’s effort. Pittsburgh’s a blue-collar town, and it needs somebody with a blue-collar mentality. At least I know I have that. I’m not afraid to work, and I’m not afraid of a challenge.”

And what a challenge it is — the Pirates were last in the NL in hitting, pitching and defense last season.

Not since Jim Leyland guided Pittsburgh within one out of the 1992 World Series have the Pirates been a major factor in their own city. Since then, John Russell, Jim Tracy, Lloyd McClendon and Gene Lamont have occupied the dugout without success.

Sure, PNC Park remains one of the prettiest places to play in the majors, far more cozy than old Three Rivers Stadium. Yet right down the road is Heinz Field, where the Steelers seem to make a Super Bowl charge every year. Even the Pitt Panthers are creating more interest, with local hoops fans thinking their team is poised for a Final Four run.

Put it this way: The biggest postseason noise the Pirates have made in nearly two decades came last fall when a thought-to-be-lost film of their Game 7 win over the New York Yankees in the 1960 World Series was found in Bing Crosby’s old wine cellar.

So it made sense that when the entire Pirates roster assembled for the first full-squad of spring training, Hurdle didn’t start out by talking about bats, balls and gloves. He instead spoke about trust, accountability and the type of dedication it would take to change a culture of losing.

The players liked what they heard.

“His attitude and the passion for the game that he’s brought to this clubhouse has definitely uplifted it. There’s no doubt about that,” said Walker, who hit .296 in 110 games last season.

“His ability to instill confidence in his players, especially as a younger team, it’s something that’s very important for this organization. I think him doing that is going to affect us — not down the road, but right now and moving forward.”

Labeled a phenom when he was only 20, Hurdle played parts of 10 seasons with the Kansas City Royals, Cincinnati Reds, New York Mets and St. Louis Cardinals before retiring in 1987, never having reached that top billing. He managed six years in the Mets’ minor league system before getting his first managerial shot in the big leagues with Colorado in 2002.

The job he did to help transform a young Rockies team into a contender was one of the reasons Pittsburgh was drawn to him.

Still, the Pirates’ brain trust had to sell themselves to Hurdle as much as he had to convince owner Bob Nutting, team president Frank Coonelly and general manager Neal Huntington that he was right for Pittsburgh.

After all, he liked his job in Texas. And, the Rangers were coming off a World Series appearance.

“I told them my DNA challenges me every day. I’m looking for challenges at 53, I’m not looking for comfort. Frank’s wired that way. Bob’s wired that way, I know Neal is wired that way,” Hurdle said.

“Realistically, I don’t need the money. The job I had last year, 15 minutes after the game I’m out the door and with my family down the road. And, it’s a good team. Well, that was an honor to work there. ... It’s the same honor here. They’re just asking a different role out of me.”

The 24-year-old McCutchen is embracing Hurdle, too.

He hit .286 with 16 homers, 56 RBIs and 33 stolen bases as a leadoff man last season, but the new manager is searching for ways to create more offense. One possibility is dropping McCutchen in the third spot in the batting order.

The budding star said Hurdle has a commanding presence in the clubhouse and is easy to talk to. Just as importantly, McCutchen said, the manager listens.

“He’s definitely going to keep you on your toes, he’s going to push you, and at the same time he’s going let you know that he’s behind you in every step you take,” McCutchen said.

“He doesn’t big league you in any way. He’s able to pinpoint certain things that we’re going through. ... He’s able to just say, ’I’ve been there before, I know how you feel.’ ... He’s an all-around great guy. We have a lot of fun, but at the same time we know when to get serious with him.”

Walker, like McCutchen, believes despite losing 105 games last season that the Pirates are headed in the right direction.

“There’s no doubt. A lot of us younger guys had a half or close to a full season last year in the big leagues and kind of got our feet wet,” the 25-year-old second baseman said.

“The glitz and glamour of the big league kind of faded away and we started to get into a routine where we knew what we needed to do to continue to improve and continue to get better, and that’s in all aspects — pitching, defense, hitting and baserunning. ... There’s more of a confidence and swagger if you will, about this team going into spring training this year.”

On the opening day of camp, Hurdle implored the players to “set our bar on a championship level” and work each day toward the goal of becoming winners.

“There will be a group of men that turns us around here. It’ll happen. So why can’t we? Why can’t we be the start?” the manager said.

After all, once-downtrodden teams such as Cleveland, Detroit, Tampa Bay and Cincinnati built themselves up.

“How long will it take? That’s the one thing I’m not going to get caught up in. The people who judge the job I do, I can’t control that. But what I can push forward is the message, I can push forward practice, I can push forward the intent and the focus, and I believe my doing that will get the results.”

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