Phenom to manager, Hurdle's brain matches brawn

Phenom to manager, Hurdle's brain matches brawn

Phenom to manager, Hurdle's brain matches brawn
PITTSBURGH -- When it comes to Clint Hurdle, one definitely can't judge the managerial book by its cover.

He is a bear of an intimidating man. Six-foot-3, 220 pounds, with a booming voice to match the stature. In the Alps, his laugh would trigger an avalanche. The sort of person you wouldn't want to accost in a dark alley or in a UFC cage.

Yet the Pirates' 55-year-old manager is also a cerebral giant, whose thoughts are definitely deeper than is his bench.

One demonstration of that are the text messages he regularly sends to his inner circle -- players, coaching staff, front-office personnel. Even media.

Imagine the surprise of a reporter new to the Pirates upon opening his phone and seeing this:

"All the adversity I've had in my life, all my troubles and obstacles, have strengthened me. You may not realize it when it happens, but a kick in the teeth may be the best thing in the world for you. Make a difference today -- Love, Clint."

Hurdle has grown up with that jock-brainiac dichotomy. Coming out of Florida's Merritt Island High School in 1975, he had two choices: sign with the Kansas City Royals after they drafted him ninth overall or go to Harvard.

Hurdle took the baseball route, maybe because becoming an Ivy Leaguer doesn't get you a Sports Illustrated cover after your freshman classes (Hurdle got that cover in March 1978 as a 20-year-old, after his first 26 big league at-bats the previous September, with the headline "This Year's Phenom").

But his utterly modest playing career -- 515 games across 10 years with four teams -- didn't live up to the hype. The lessons he learned along the way, however, honed his adult personality.

Hurdle has his own Golden Rule: Do unto players the way you wish you'd been done unto.

He knows what it's like to sit across a manager's desk and be broken down by criticism. He understands players' psyche and is convinced positive reinforcement works better than negative nitpicking.

Mostly, Hurdle gets the value of two-way communication.

"His door is always open. He's made that more than clear," said shortstop Clint Barmes, who has played for Hurdle far more than any other Pirates player, having also been with him from 2003-09 in Colorado. "If you don't like what's going on, he's more than willing to talk to anybody."

And Hurdle will talk out of only one side of his mouth. Whatever the subject, when it comes to his players or his decisions, there aren't different versions. There is only one version: the truth.

There is also only one way for him to make decisions: with consistency, and by standing by them.

Without debate, Hurdle made his most controversial decision on Monday in Cincinnati, when he removed starting pitcher Wandy Rodriguez with two outs in the seventh inning of a game which Rodriguez was dominating and the Bucs led, 3-1. There were two men on at the time, both wound up scoring, and the Pirates wound up losing in extra innings.

Many months earlier, during a generic discussion in Spring Training of managerial responsibilities and accountability, this is what Hurdle said:

"The second-toughest thing is going out there and removing a pitcher, then seeing your decision backfire. But the toughest thing is leaving the guy out there and having to get him after he gives up a home run."

In other words: Better one batter too soon, when it's on me, than one batter too late, when it goes on the pitcher. And that is exactly what Hurdle reiterated months later, when the Rodriguez hook caved in on him.

"He is a person who is going to say what he feels and mean it," Andrew McCutchen said. "He's very positive and keeps you going in the right direction."

Many people would say Hurdle is too positive, especially these days. With the team going through its toughest stretch at the worst time, Hurdle's rose-colored outlook has fans pulling out their hair.

But that's the way he is. During a series of ill-timed close losses -- five in a row by a total of seven runs, meaning any of them could have been turned around by a single moment of execution -- media entering Hurdle's office within minutes of the final outs have frankly been astonished by his composure.

"The encouragement from those tight losses -- that we are this close to clicking -- for me is a stronger force than the frustration of continuing to lose them," Hurdle said in a rare private moment.

There is foundation for that eternal optimism, besides the fact that it is ingrained in Hurdle's nature, one of his most valuable life lessons. He has seen its payoff, the result of his confidence in others being answered by their performance.

What Hurdle calls the 2007 Rockies' perfect storm formed in Game No. 149, when they were 4 1/2 games out of a Wild Card spot, with four teams ahead of them. Colorado nearly won out and wound up in the World Series.

The Pirates on Friday will play Game No. 143, are 2 1/2 games out of a playoff spot, with two teams ahead of them.

So don't try to sell him that the season, and all its promises, are lost.

"The ability to play in the moment increases. Starters step up. The offense sparks," said Hurdle, defining that perfect storm. "We have the people and the personnel here to do it."

More words that will chafe the team's frustrated fan base. It is a snowballing reaction that saddens Hurdle, a people person who considered the community's rekindled baseball euphoria the most rewarding part of the Bucs' midseason surge.

"Fans are special, significant," he said at the time. "We're giving them a reason to come out now. It's so good to see them up, loud and proud. When you can add joy in somebody's life, that's pretty significant. I've gotten pretty emotional e-mails from people saying we've made them feel the way they haven't for 20 years. That's pretty special."

Hurdle, who often speaks of the city's blue-collar ethic and wants his team to mirror that sensibility, had Pittsburgh in him before he arrived in Pittsburgh. He puts in a far longer day than most Major League managers, because that's the way he is wired.

Since Nov. 14, 2010, when he was hired as the Pirates' manager, he has dedicated himself to giving the city a reason to reconnect with the team. He has evaluated virtually everything that the Bucs have done this season through the prism of the fans. When the club committed seven errors in a ghastly Friday night loss, Hurdle rued "stinking up the place in front of 33,000 fans."

Hurdle's mere presence in Pittsburgh challenges the stereotypical view of sports people chasing the highest-profile, biggest-upside situations. In November 2010, he got a call to interview for a second time with the New York Mets, whose nine-figure payroll needed a new leader.

Hurdle passed, instead taking the Pirates' job, largely because of "Maddy," his daughter Madison. Maddy, 8 years old at the time, was born with the genetic disorder Prader-Willi syndrome that, among other symptoms, causes low muscle tone resulting in abnormally small stature. The Children's Institute in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh is among the nation's leading centers for treatment of the condition.

Maddy deserved that. Terry Collins was named the Mets' manager a week after Hurdle took the job with the Pirates.

Tom Singer is a reporter for 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.