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Quick-witted Hurdle brings calming presence to Bucs

Quick-witted Hurdle brings calming presence to Bucs

Quick-witted Hurdle brings calming presence to Bucs

PITTSBURGH -- Clint Hurdle is glib. He can turn a phrase as well as he could turn on a hanging curveball during his playing days.

Hurdle-isms abound. When something extraordinary happens, "I didn't have that." He wants his players to "own that at-bat" and his pitchers to throw "with intent and conviction." Rookies are to "fear nothing, respect everything." Hurdle's players enhance their chances of succeeding in clutch situations by remembering "the game doesn't know that the game is important," meaning it doesn't change with the stakes.

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"Feelings aren't facts." ... "We wash away bad games." ... "You have to meet the demands of the game."

Hallmark could market desk calendars, with a Hurdle-ism-A-Day.

But here is one saw that is not in Hurdle's verbal tool chest:

"I told you so."

NL Wild Card

Hurdle could have been using that one most of this season, and certainly since the Pirates first moved into the National League Central lead in late June, setting course for a postseason berth that has now materialized.

People laughed in November 2010 when Hurdle, 53 years old and 18 months removed from a midseason dismissal in Colorado, grabbed the reins of a Pittsburgh team that had lost 105 games and began talking playoffs. He had an audience of Jim Moras.

But when interviewing for the job, Hurdle had asked more questions than the men interviewing him, club president Frank Coonelly and general manager Neal Huntington. And he liked their answers.

"I thought this was the best upside opportunity in the game," recalled Hurdle, who did his own due diligence before enthusiastically agreeing this was the job, and task, for him. "I asked a lot of people involved in the organization -- and some people who'd left the organization, who will give you a little different perspective. So I felt I had as good an understanding as possible coming in."

Hurdle will now say that Coonelly and Huntington have done everything they said they'd do to fuel the turnaround of a woebegone franchise.

"I didn't have a plan coming in; I had a contract," said Hurdle, citing a three-year deal that got extended this Spring Training. "I figured I'd better get something good done before it expired. As bad as the second year finished on the field, I felt really positive about what was going on. The challenges that came with it ... the adjustments we knew we had to make over the winter."

Following Huntington's design, the Pirates were confident the ingredients for success were already stewing in the Minor Leagues. They needed somebody to stir the pot.

"We weren't able to see any improvement, any tangible evidence of being on the right track, on the Major League level until Clint came aboard in 2011," Coonelly said.

The improvement under Hurdle was immediate, and has continued since. The Bucs went from 57 wins in 2010 to 72 the following year, then to 79 and now to 94 and an NL Wild Card berth.

The rising win totals of the previous two seasons, of course, camouflaged what were agonizing finishes. Yet the way Hurdle dealt with those collapses, remaining supportive and optimistic, has had a lot to do with this season's conversion.

"Day in and day out, he doesn't change," said second baseman Neil Walker, one of only 11 Pirates who has been along the entire three-year ride with Hurdle. "He doesn't get too uptight when things aren't going well and, on the other side, he won't get too excited when things are going good.

"That consistency, in my opinion, resonates throughout the entire clubhouse."

It is the manner Hurdle motivates. A bear of a man, he could stand in the middle of the clubhouse and elicit fire and brimstone. A dynamic speaker, Hurdle could go all Knute Rockne. He is neither, but gentle and caring, the Hoss Cartwright of the clubhouse. Hurdle inspires through a chuckle.

As the Pirates turned into the September stretch, A.J. Burnett heard Hurdle tell him, "I need you to get hot like a hog needs mud." When Starling Marte returned from a month's absence with a hand injury, Hurdle put him back in left field and told him to "run like a broke man, like a man who doesn't have any money."

Hurdle has a reputation around the game -- a reputation he never fails to live up to.

"He's made these guys more accountable," one NL scout said. "And young players need that. This guy doesn't worry about what people think of him. This is a guy you can't walk away from. When he speaks, you have to listen."

When he was dealt from the Mets to the Pirates in late August, catcher John Buck asked around about what he could expect from his new manager. Such curiosity is only natural, and Buck wasn't misled.

"He's a good motivator," Buck said, looking around the clubhouse, "especially with these guys all year. You can see what he has gotten out of these guys."

When it comes to making moves, Hurdle does them the same way he asks his hurlers to make pitches: With conviction. He won't let circumstances sway him from what he had planned, back in the quiet of his office, before the heat and emotions of the game. This has multiple times been to the chagrin of Burnett, a fierce competitor who has been at odds with his manager for getting a hook.

The latest "confrontation" occurred just a couple of days ago, when Burnett walked off the Great American Ball Park mound after an extremely quick eighth inning, only to hear once he got in the dugout that his night was over, after 99 pitches against the Reds.

Burnett and Hurdle went nose to nose briefly. But the manager was committed to bringing closer Jason Grilli into the 4-1 game, and for a profound reason.

"I wanted to re-establish our confidence in our closer," Hurdle said of Grilli, who'd had some shaky outings since returning from a forearm injury, "which I felt was imperative going into the postseason. I know what I believe in. You got to manage the team for 25 men. You give [Burnett] his space and, at the end of the day, you make the decisions that you believe in, and you move on."

Five minutes later, after Grilli had closed out the win, Burnett and Hurdle were hugging in the dugout.

A few days earlier, there was a lot more hugging going on in the visitors' clubhouse at Wrigley Field, after the Pirates had clinched their spot in the postseason. There was more than hugging going on, of course, the obligatory corks popping on champagne bottles, whose contents were flying everywhere.

Even on their manager, who insisted on being in the middle of all the revelry. Nothing unusual about that -- except that Hurdle is a recovering alcoholic, 15 years sober.

Days earlier, before the bubbly had gone on ice, his players had sensitively asked Hurdle whether he'd prefer a "dry" celebration. Hurdle essentially replied, "No. Spray away. Enjoy. You deserve it."

And he stood in the middle of it, champagne running down his face.

"I can wear it," Hurdle said with a broad smile, "I just can't lick it off my lips. I always know how close I am."

As do the Pirates. With Hurdle pointing the way, they are one step closer to their Impossible Dream.

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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