PITTSBURGH—Clint Hurdle certainly earned his Major League Manager of the Year award in 2013.
The third-year Pirates skipper led Pittsburgh to the postseason for the first time since 1992, while snapping a streak of 20 consecutive losing seasons—the longest stretch of futility in major North American professional team sports history.
However, the way Andrew McCutchen sees it, Hurdle’s award is for his body of work over three years in Pittsburgh, not just the 2013 campaign.
Hurdle inherited a team that went 57-105 under John Russell in 2010 and led the way as the Pirates improved to 72-90 in 2011 and 79-83 in 2012.
The Pirates then broke through in 2013 by going 94-68 and beating the Reds in the National League wild-card game before pushing the eventual pennant-winning Cardinals a full five games before falling in a National League Division Series.
“He came here and said he wanted to put a competitive team on the field, a team that the city of Pittsburgh and our fans could be proud of,” said McCutchen, the National League MVP. “He’s done exactly what he said he was going to do. He got us all to believe we could be winners and now we are.”
While general manager Neal Huntington put together a winning roster, he gives plenty of credit to Hurdle for the way he handled those players.
“Clint led our club in every sense of the word,” Huntington said. “His passion, knowledge, intelligence, ability to communicate, ability to connect, willingness to make the tough decision and give direction while delegating put our club individually and collectively in position to be successful.”
It was easy for Pirates’ fans to roll their eyes when Hurdle came to town talking about turning the franchise around and “completing the triangle” of bringing the Pirates back up to the level of the city’s other two major professional sports franchises: the NFL’s Steelers and the NHL’s Penguins.
The Pirates’ streak of losing seasons was 17 when Hurdle was hired after spending one season as the Rangers’ hitting coach and helping them win their first American League pennant. Before that, he spent just over seven full seasons as the Rockies’ manager and led that franchise to its first NL pennant.
Yet many other respected baseball men had served as manager during the losing streak and none could stem the tide, including Jim Leyland, Gene Lamont, Lloyd McClendon, Jim Tracy and Russell.
Furthermore, Hurdle had the opportunity to become manager of the Mets at the same time the Pirates were pursuing him.
So why did he think he could succeed in Pittsburgh?
“The very first time I sat down with (owner) Bob Nutting and (club president) Frank Coonelly and (general manager) Neal Huntington, I had a really good feeling about this situation,” Hurdle said. “I could tell they were committed to winning and they had the same ideas about what it would take to make the Pirates a winner that I had. I knew it was the right fit.”
It has indeed been the perfect fit in every way.
Hurdle bought a house in Pittsburgh’s North Hills suburbs and has become involved in various charities throughout the Pittsburgh area. Gregarious and friendly, Hurdle is popular with Pirates fans as seemingly everyone living within a 50-mile radius of the city has a story about having a conversation with him at the supermarket, bank, coffee shop or retail outlet.
“He just has a great personality. I call him a beaut,” McCutchen said with a laugh. “He always has a smile on his face and with that distinctive booming voice, you know he is in the room. He always has a joke or something positive to say to keep things upbeat. He does a good job of keeping the mood loose.”
Of course, what would you expect from a 56-year-old man who dressed as the cat from Dr. Seuss’ The Cat in The Hat for Halloween?
Though it is hard to believe in light of what the Pirates accomplished in 2013, there were a number of media members and fans who were critical when Hurdle received a one-year contract extension during spring training that carries through the 2014 season.
The thought was that perhaps Hurdle wasn’t the right guy after the Pirates were contenders at the end of July in both 2011 and 2012 then collapsed by going a combined 37-78 in August and September in those two seasons.
“A lot of what happened in 2011 and 2012 came from the result of youth and inexperience,” Hurdle said. “Our guys grew from those experiences and matured and it showed this year.
“It’s like when you’re a kid. Somebody can hit you in the mouth on the playground and you can either go home and tell your dad or make yourself stronger and go back and hit that guy in the mouth. Our guys decided to hit back this year.”