MLB.com Columnist

Marty Noble

Hurdle using past to improve Pirates' future

Noble: Hurdle using past to improve Bucs' future

Hurdle using past to improve Pirates' future
BRADENTON, Fla. -- Neither Pittsburgh nor the Pirates had been parts of the past of Clint Hurdle when, in November, he accepted the challenge of restoring one of the game's oldest franchises. He knew of the Pirates only what he had gleaned from observation during what he termed his "Wonder Bread years" -- ages 13 to 23 -- and what he had seen as an opposing player, coach and manager in the National League. He knew from Three Rivers Stadium. But could he distinguish the Ohio from the Allegheny or the Monongahela? And which Waner was Big Poison and which one was Little?

Hurdle knew Clemente from Kiner, that Leyland and the Lumber Company represented different generations of Bucs and that the Face of the franchise pitched in relief in the '60s. A relentless reader and a storehouse of information, he knew enough to get by, maybe enough to whip Watson in a game of "Pittsburgh Jeopardy!" if such a competition existed. But he was neither a Pirate nor a Pittsburgh person.

Now he is the Pirates' manager, No. 13 in your program. And come April 7 when his team plays its first home game -- against the Rockies, his former team, of course -- Hurdle will be both, officially. He will dress in the black and gold of a team that hasn't produced a winning record since Barry Bonds fled 18 years ago. At the same time, he will wear the blue collar that defines the city. And he will try to broker a reconciliation between his team and a market that all but ignores baseball these days.

"We need to revisit the pride and the passion," he says.

Toward that reunion, Hurdle has immersed himself in Pirates history and lore. And he has put himself in it as much as an outsider can in 94 days. Early Thursday afternoon when he made mention of the 2010 Pirates, he spoke in the first-person plural, as if he had participated in the 105-loss season: "We didn't ..." and "We did."

Interesting exercise, but he hadn't planned to do so. It was a natural part of immersing himself. Hurdle had no role in what had stained another Pirates summer, he was directing the Rangers' hitters toward the World Series last year. But he subconsciously concluded he couldn't effectively Scotch-Gard 2011 and what follows if he distanced himself from what had preceded his arrival. After he considered his motivation, he explained it: "I had to have ownership of the whole deal."

His immersion class has included reading, of course -- the Clemente book, a Mazeroski book. And he requested the Pirates' video producers create what must be identified as a documentary about the franchise to show his players. "We've been around for 125 years, not 18," he said. "I want my players to know we used to be great."

And he wants them to know that Kiner led the league in home runs in his first seven seasons, that Mazeroski could turn a double play without catching the ball and that Bonds was a great player before he became an issue. He wants them to know that the name Pirates became attached to the franchise because the club stole players from the Phillies. They could have been the Pittsburgh Stealers if not for early political correctness.

He's not hiding from the distant or recent Pirates past -- 18 successive summers without reward, the 105 losses or the challenge that awaits him and his staff. Candor is a wonderful thing. Euphemisms will not be heard coming from Clint Hurdle and that 53-year-old voice that never requires amplification. (He is incapable of confidential conversation.)

A framed photo of Clemente hangs behind the desk in his office here. And the complex now has hints of history hanging in conspicuous spots -- signs for Pie Traynor Field, Bob Friend Bullpen and the Ralph Kiner Cages.

Left on the manager's desk Thursday morning was a DVD of the Mazeroski game, Game 7 of the 1960 World Series. Hurdle already had watched its presentation by MLB Network. He wants to watch it again. It wouldn't be a bad idea for the 2011 Pirates to watch it. The Buccos of '60 hit cutoff men, took extra bases and knew when to hit a bad-hop grounder. "I can tell them we were a good team," Bill Virdon said. He was the center fielder then, he's a camp instructor now.

And if Hurdle wants more, he can pick the brains of Virdon, in his 62nd spring -- most of them with the Pirates, and Mazeroski, who's due to arrive Saturday. He already has picked others. He was the Rockies' hitting coach in 1999 when Jim Leyland, the Pirates manager from '86-96, was in his lone season in Colorado. So Hurdle consulted with Leyland at length in December to learn about the good times in what was then America's Most Livable City. Kent Tekulve, the closer when Stargell's Fam-a-lee won the World Series in '79, can fill in other blanks. And Manny Sanguillen is the happy historian -- insights and anecdotes delivered with a smile.

Moreover, the Pirates' Double-A manager is P.J. Forbes, and the would-be understudy to highly regarded Pedro Alvarez at third is Josh Fields. When they stand shoulder to shoulder (as they did upon request Thursday), they are a contrived reference to Three Rivers' predecessor, Forbes Field. More Pirates' history. Hurdle approved. "You can't make this stuff up," he said.

And this wasn't a set-up either, but outside the clubhouse weight room is an area for exercise and stretching. And leaning against a wall is equipment for previous camps, including -- honest to (Jim) Gott -- 10 hurdles, the lower-case variety. "They must have known I was coming," the manager said.

The Pirates had him in their sites. They liked Hurdle's track record. He has intellect -- in baseball and in human relations. He gained experience in restoration with the Rockies. He can polish a player at the big league level.

That aspect of his skills ought to becomes more important. Hurdle enjoys pointing out that the smaller-market Pirates have spent more money on scouting and player development than the Yankees and Red Sox in recent years. It's gratifying to him that he was chosen to direct the coming talent.

It pleases him that his bosses have endorsed patience. "It takes courage to be patient," Hurdle said.

Other clubs were intrigued by him, and the Rangers' World Series appearance didn't hurt his appeal. He says he didn't need to manage. But he listened when the Pirates and Mets contacted him. He was flattered that the search by Sandy Alderson for a new Mets manager included interviewing him. He has a Mets past -- nine of his 36 years in the game were connected to the club that gave him his first managing assignment.

"I felt moved by the Mets," he said, "but not to the same degree [as the Pirates]." Each situation represented a challenge. Ninety-four days after his appointment, one challenge has potentially daunting new complications. The challenge in Pittsburgh is unchanged since November, it is to reconnect the city and the Pirates. And that appeals to Hurdle.

"It's almost a necessity," Virdon said. "Pittsburgh is a great city. But it needs the Pirates."

Marty Noble is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.