DENVER—Eighteen years ago, Clint Hurdle was the Mets’ manager-in-waiting, biding his time by filling out the lineup cards for the Mets’ Triple-A affiliate.
The Pirates? They were three-time defending National League East champions, a sign of success for the people of the baseball world.
Boy, how things have changed. Today, Hurdle is being asked to perform a baseball miracle, to raise the Pirates from the ashes of a fallen franchise.
“If they are patient in Pittsburgh, and give Clint time to get the job done, he will get it done,” Rockies general manager Dan O’Dowd said.
That’s a big “if.”
The Rockies had patience, and in Hurdle’s sixth full year as the manager they advanced to the World Series for the first time in franchise history. Hurdle was replaced by Jim Tracy in May 2009, and the Rockies rallied to claim the wild card that year. This year, Colorado is expected to battle the Giants for the NL West title, with a foundation built during Hurdle’s tenure.
Think about it. Every expected primary member of the Rockies’ starting lineup was signed by the Rockies and arrived in the big leagues during the Hurdle era.
In pro sports, however, “patience” can be a four-letter word.
Dusty Baker learned it the hard way in Chicago, where he managed the Cubs for four years but had to carry the burden of a century of the Cubs’ failures.
“Fans don’t look at who the manager is,” Baker said. “They don’t think about who was there two years ago, 50 years ago, 100 years ago or even two weeks ago. What fans know is their team hasn’t won, and they want the team to win.”
Wait Not Over
For Hurdle, it’s not a century-plus of failure he has to deal with, but the past 18 years are a load to carry. Not only have the Pirates set a pro sports record by suffing through those 18 losing seasons, but they are coming off a 57-105 season, the franchise’s worst in 58 years.
They have spent 84 days in first place in the past 18 years, and only once in those 18 years have they been in first place later than April 28.
How long has it been since the Pirates enjoyed success? The last time they had a winning season was the year Bud Selig was appointed interim commissioner. It was the year before the addition of expansion teams in Colorado and Florida. It was two years before the strike that forced the cancellation of the 1994 World Series. It was three years before the wild card was added.
The only other big league teams that have failed to advance to the postseason in the past 18 years are the Royals and Nationals. The four franchises that didn’t exist the last time time the Pirates made a postseason appearance—Marlins and Rockies (1993) and Diamondbacks and Rays (1998)—have a combined 11 postseason appearances and three World Series titles (Arizona in 2001, and Florida in 1997 and ’03).
“There’s a generation of Pirates fans who haven’t seen them win a game,” Hurdle said.
How bad has it been? Well, the Pirates opened the season on the road, taking two out of three from the Cubs and Cardinals. It was the first time the Pirates won back-to-back road series since August 2007, more than 500 games between back-to-back road series wins. The Pirates were a worst-in-baseball 17-64 away from PNC Park a year ago.
The Pirates feel they are further along in the rebuilding than it may seem and like their nucleus with second baseman Neil Walker, third baseman Pedro Alvarez, and outfielders Jose Tabata and Andrew McCutchen.
“Those are the guys who are going to get the Pittsburgh Pirates organization going in the right direction,” said Lyle Overbay, an offseason free agent addition and the team’s elder statesman at 34.
Hurdle sees the Pirates’ current situation being similar to 2005 with the Rockies, the year the organization’s next generation began taking over at the big league level. They weren’t expected to contend, but the experience of that year and 2006 paid dividends in 2007. They won 14 of their final 15 regular season games to claim the NL wild-card, and that included a Game 163 against the Padres to determine the final NL playoff spot.
It did not happen overnight in Colorado. The building process that culminated with the success of 2007 began in 2000. And it won’t happen overnight in Pittsburgh.
Over the past 18 years, Pirates fans have learned that the hard way.