Field of Dreams
Clint Hurdle’s Pirates tasted success in his first season as manager — but he’s ready to push them to greatness.
Photo courtesy of Pittsburgh Pirates/Dave Arrigo
When the Pittsburgh Pirates set out to find a new manager in winter 2010, few would’ve considered the position a desirable gig.
The team had just completed its 18th consecutive losing season — a record not only for Major League Baseball, but also for all major American sports. The Bucs had lost 105 games — good for a .352 winning percentage, easily the worst in baseball. The previous manager, John Russell, had lasted just three seasons. Yet, when Clint Hurdle came along, he regarded the chance to manage the Pirates as “the greatest opportunity in the world.”
Hurdle, who played outfield for parts of 10 seasons with the Kansas City Royals and Cincinnati Reds, spent more than seven seasons managing the Colorado Rockies. In 2007, he took them to the World Series; they faltered in 2008, and he was relieved of his duties in May 2009. However, he was quick to show he had plenty left to offer — he accepted a position as the hitting coach for the Texas Rangers later that year. One season later, the Rangers were American League champs.
The Pirates wanted someone with that brand of championship experience. Not surprisingly, they weren’t alone; the New York Mets also courted Hurdle after the 2010 season. But Hurdle chose Pittsburgh. He wanted to restore the championship tradition he had seen the Pirates build when he was young, and he wanted the team’s fans to know that he was all in.
A few months into the 2011 season, you led your team to the top of the N.L. Central, and the buzz in Pittsburgh was all about the Pirates. Was it rewarding to see Pittsburghers respond shortly after your arrival?
I think the rewarding part was seeing the people in this organization respond. I mean, there’s no harder job here than selling tickets. They’ve seen it all. And they’re talking about putting people in seats with a renewed interest. That gives me energy. And that’s why we’re going to work as hard as we have to.
In 2010, the Pirates won 57 games. In your first year as manager, they won 72. Obviously, you want to win more than 72 — but that’s still a significant improvement. Can you draw any satisfaction from that?
I try to make sure that my guys understand that I’m easy to please but hard to satisfy. And 15 games, that was a good move in the right direction. Fifteen more games, that’d be another good push. But to win the division? You’re talking [more than 90 wins]. What we need to do to get to that goal is to continue to pitch well, to play good defense and for our offense to show up on a consistent basis.
The first few months of the 2012 season looked a lot like the first few months of 2011 — you struggled a bit early on but righted the ship enough to contend for first place by June. How can the Pirates keep that going through the rest of the season?
We have young, talented players who are still finding their way. The challenge is consistency — and normally, with more reps, with more experience, that will happen. Now, we brought in some [veterans] that we thought would help; they’re having the same challenges as some of the younger players. But it doesn’t mean we’re not going to get it done. We believe we’re going to get it done — it just makes it harder.
What do you do if a veteran player is struggling? How do you help?
No. 1, let them know that we’re in it for the long haul. Try and slow them down, give them a break every now and then and get them out of the lineup against a tough matchup. And there’s nothing harder for a player than to not play and see his team win. Because — you know what? We can win without them. So it’s bittersweet — but that sometimes loosens them up a little bit, too.
A lot of fans are looking for Pedro Alvarez to live up to the hype this year. What are your expectations for him?
The next step is gonna be more consistency. Can he be good four days a week? Well, now, can he be good five days a week? And young players, they get in a hurry — once they taste good, they want to taste great. And usually great is being good for a long time. We lose sight of that.
You moved your family here. How do you feel about being a Pittsburgher?
I like it. I always gravitated to it, just because of the mentality. What the city had been through — the transformation from coal and steel to health care. And I just felt, from a leadership standpoint, if I was really gonna talk about being all in and rally the team up about rebonding a city with a ballclub, how could I not move here?
What have you seen from the Pittsburgh fans in your first two years?
They love the game, they respect the game and they’re passionate about the game. And they’ll let you know how you’re doing, and it’s usually fair. The greatest fans in sports for me are the Pirates fans. It can and will get electric around here. They love black and gold, and they love coming out to the park. You can tell that it’s fixing to get good.
It seems like the city is ready to be at the ballpark, going crazy.
I would agree. And it’s my charge to get it there.