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Hurdle eager to unwrap another season of baseball

Pirates manager likens Opening Day to receiving presents on Christmas morning

Hurdle eager to unwrap another season of baseball

PITTSBURGH -- Executives leave their offices and employees leave their cubicles. Their kids get a hall pass out of school. Nuns leave the convent -- without leaving the prayer beads behind.

They stream from all directions to come together at a mecca. It could be Great American Ball Park, Target Field or Yankee Stadium. In Pittsburgh, it will be PNC Park, the window to a new season of hope through which they will all peer.

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The overture to a six-month production. Opening Day, the first day of the rest of your baseball life. To Clint Hurdle, who on Monday will experience it for the 24th big league time, the "Opening" does not signify the first of 162.

"It's the opening of a present," says Hurdle, the manager convinced that the Pirates' present will be a gift to the city. "I go back to my first Christmas as a child -- when I first realized you get a present, with the bow and the packaging and then you tear it open. That's like the baseball season. You get to open up a package and start to feel around for what's inside.

"For me, it's another humbling opportunity to be involved in a game that I love. The responsibility you have to the uniform and to the city you're representing ... it's all of that for me. It's special. It's never watered down or incidental. I always embrace that day. It only happens once."

Hurdle's genuine "only once" happened in 1978.

He was that generation's Mike Trout and Bryce Harper, an uber talent taken as a 17-year-old in the first round of the 1975 First-Year Player Draft who adorned the cover of Sports Illustrated's 1978 Spring Training issue. Following a prodigious Major League debut the previous September -- a two-run homer run in his second at-bat, .308 average for nine games -- he was destined for the Opening Day lineup of the defending American League West champion Kansas City Royals.

Spring Training, thus, was a six-week buzz.

"Every day was a rush, with the anticipation of making the team and starting the season on the Major League level," Hurdle recalls. "I'd had my appetite whetted in a significant way the previous season, with the September callup. I had a taste of the venues, the talent, the game. And springtime was the daily realization of getting close to a dream coming true."

One major problem, and it arose only a few days prior to the April 8 opener: John Mayberry, the All-Star first baseman, was dealt to Toronto and the Royals wanted Hurdle, the outfielder, to play first.

"I'd never played there before, so I got a crash course in first base," Hurdle says. "All that rush and comfort zone got rearranged, because now I was playing a position I'd never played before. But when you're 20, you think you're bulletproof and can do anything.

"So I worked at it, did as much practice as I could. I was still a little bit uncomfortable, but ..."

... It all went away when he stood on the top step of the visitors' dugout at Cleveland Stadium and surveyed the 52,000 fans ready to open their presents.

"That's a day that I bounce back to on every Opening Day ... making that trip, getting dressed in the locker room, seeing my name in the lineup, running out of that dugout," Hurdle says.

It is good to remember when you were on top of the world, because Hurdle soon became a face in the crowd. His playing career fell a few orbits shy of the anticipated heights, and he morphed into a journeyman who managed to play more than 78 games in only two of his 10 seasons.

But, oh, what a crowd. Oh, what a journey.

And that first, unexpected step still serves him well. Being thrown into a new position taught Hurdle the value of tolerance, patience and versatility -- lessons he makes good, daily use of in his role as manager. Hurdle did not become the forebear of Harper. Instead, he became a baseball everyman, which now serves him better.

His empathy with the players under his helm is evident at every turn. The Pirates approached the end of Spring Training facing numerous difficult roster decisions that might've been easier to make with a few extra days to make them. But even though they break camp three days before the final roster has to be submitted, Hurdle insisted that it be set before the team departed Florida.

General manager Neal Huntington explained:

"We set the rosters earlier than we'd like to, but we don't want to bring anyone to Pittsburgh, only to tell them they're not making the club. Clint has been through that, and he doesn't want to subject anyone else to it."

Hurdle has seen, felt and dealt with it all. He knows that managers who operate on a totalitarian level may succeed briefly, but rarely have a long run of success. Now, with two seasons in and his contract recently extended, he is comfortable enough, and committed to Pittsburgh enough, to give his players a more vocal role in setting the team's rudder.

He likely is the only one of the 30 Major League managers who will hold twice-monthly meetings with a focus group of players chosen by teammates.

"I do have a pretty good feeling, and understanding of, the club and the personnel involved," Hurdle said. "I've watched these men, and thought this would be another great opportunity for them to take ownership of everything they do in a significant way.

"Some look at a manager as someone who can fix everything, someone who is in charge with all the weapons and tools. One thing I shared with the players is, yes, I need help. It's just another opportunity for our guys to invest themselves more in what we're doing here."

For certain, Leo Durocher and Billy Martin are rolling over in their graves. They probably never considered Opening Day as something with a bow on it, either.

Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog Change for a Nickel. He can also be found on Twitter @Tom_Singer. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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