Kovacevic: Hurdle is Pirates' heartbeat
By Dejan Kovacevic
Published: Friday, June 8, 2012, 12:30 a.m.
Updated: Tuesday, February 19, 2013
CINCINNATI — Clint Hurdle is a difficult man to describe to those who don't deal with him regularly. But I won't lie: I had set out this week to pen what I hoped would be a definitive, detailed, adjective-laced column on the personality of the Pirates' manager.
And I decided against it.
If only because others could do it so, so much better ...
It was June 6, 2008, that Michael McKenry and newlywed wife, Jaclyn, lost Jaclyn's father.
McKenry had been building a bond with his father-in-law, a fervent baseball fan. The couple was devastated. So Colorado's minor league people granted McKenry a two-week break from his Class A Modesto team.
A week later, the phone rang. It was Hurdle, then manager of the Rockies. He offered a kind word and prayer for the deeply spiritual McKenrys.
"I was in A-ball. I was nobody," McKenry recalled during this series with the Reds at Great American Ball Park. "And he takes the time to call us. I can't tell you what that meant."
McKenry's eyes widened.
"That's Clint Hurdle."
A dozen members of the Pirates dined like kings Monday night at a Cincinnati steakhouse. The bill was nearly as hefty as the beef consumed.
Hurdle picked it up. And that's good because it's probably the only way it would have gotten paid.
"There were no players," longtime media relations man Jim Trdinich said. "Clint invited all the rest of us, staff, trainers, equipment guys. ... We're all part of the team to him."
On May 5, late on a Saturday night at PNC Park, the clubhouse was vacated except for Rod Barajas still sitting at his stall. He was doing nothing, really, and the same could be said for his bat. His average had sunk to .133, and he'd somehow played six weeks without an RBI.
Hurdle spotted him from a hallway and pulled up a stool.
"Go home," Hurdle ultimately ordered, per Barajas' telling. "Tomorrow, meet me at the cage. Twenty minutes early."
The next morning, Hurdle eschewed the usual mechanical advice and preached trying a fresh routine. Stand on the other side when waiting. Tap the fence with the bat. Don the cap backward. Anything to change things up.
Barajas hit a walkoff home run in his next game and has batted .365 over the month that's followed.
"I still do it," Barajas said. "Twenty minutes early. Every day."
Andrew McCutchen's stomach hurt, his head was spinning, and his eyes were shot the morning of May 6 at PNC Park. But he approached Hurdle anyway to declare himself ready to play.
He was so persuasive, in fact, that he talked his way ... into an afternoon of watching the TV above the trainer's table.
"I didn't like it," McCutchen said. "But I'll tell you: He cares about you more as a person than a player. Always."
Rene Gayo, the Pirates' Latin American scouting director, typically sees the parent club only when they visit his hometown of Houston. He's so busy bouncing between Dominican sandlots, actually, that his job can seem millions of miles from Pittsburgh.
When Gayo stopped by Minute Maid Park last June, he was summoned onto the field by Hurdle just before batting practice.
"Gentlemen!" Hurdle shouted to players around the cage. "I'd like you to meet Rene Gayo. You won't see him much, but he's a very big part of what we do."
After a little more, the players applauded. Gayo recalled welling up.
"No one had ever done that for me," he said. "That man didn't know me at all. But he knew I was part of the family."
Chris Resop often accompanies Hurdle on the manager's regular visits to the Children's Institute in Squirrel Hill. That's a place for special-needs kids and rehabilitation from major trauma.
"Tough, tough place," Resop said. "But you look at Clint, and he lights up the room. He's got everyone laughing. You can see he loves being there. He loves making those kids smile. It comes from all the way inside."
So does the occasional dagger.
"You'll encounter some situations there that are ... I don't know, I think you go quiet. You don't cry. You just go quiet."
"I've seen Clint go real quiet."
Early in the Pirates' last homestand, a fan seated behind the home dugout was giving Hurdle a vocal beating. Venom, vulgarity and all.
"So Clint's coming back from the mound, he hears all this, and stops on the first step," bench coach Jeff Banister said. "He looks this guy in the eye and yells out, ‘Thank you for your passion! We appreciate it!' "
Banister remembered burying his face in his right sleeve so no one could see him laughing. The players within earshot were cracking up, too.
Until they all saw ...
"Clint wasn't laughing. He was serious. He really did appreciate how that fan felt about the Pirates," Banister said. "We all stopped laughing in a hurry."
I couldn't think of better advice, any more than I could have come up with better adjectives.
Dejan Kovacevic is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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Thanks DK. I just became a Hurdle fan. In all my years of following Pittsburgh teams, the character of the player or coach has always meant as much or more to me than the on field performance. I still well up just thinking of Maz's Hall of Fame speech.
Submitted by: Michael on Friday, June 8, 2012
Another great article by my favorite sports writer. Thank you, Oscar D
Submitted by: Matt on Friday, June 8, 2012
Wow. Just wow. It will definitely be extremely difficult for me to whine about Hurdle's occassional obsession with the sacrifice bunt now (see McHenry's thankfully failed attempt on the first pitch vs. Chapman last night). GREAT story, DK. You typically captivate us with all of your work, but this one stands out near the very top. Ridiculously great job. Sidenote - there used to be part of me that thought there was a piece of Hurdle that loved to hear himself talk. I think I misread him. He's just a great guy that seems to truly want to make an impact in every life he touches.
Submitted by: Paul on Friday, June 8, 2012
Sounds like Clint is a really stand up guy in his personal life. Doesn't change the fact that he's a terrible manager who relies on long ago discredited baseball "wisdom" and is another in a recent string of the same who's illogical, outdated, anti-meritocracy approach on the field is a major stumbling block to the team's success. Buying steaks may be sweet, but it doesn't make up for killing scoring opportunities by running and bunting into outs. Offering prayers to people in need will certainly get his one step closer to heaven but it won't erase the damage of making lineups out where players who make the most outs are given the most opportunities to do so and stifle an inherently weak offense. Loyalty, friendship, being supportive great stuff in a person but when it results in players like Clint Barmes and Jose Tabata getting playing time well beyond the point they've proven they can't do the job their being paid for not very helpful to the team he's working for. Would love to have a guy like Clint Hurdle as a neighbor but the sooner he's gone as manager of the Pirates and replaced with someone who understands the modern game of baseball beyond the cliches, the happier I'll be.
Submitted by: Ryan on Friday, June 8, 2012
I ran into Clint Hurdle during the winter at a Starbucks in Gibsonia. It was mid-season for the Penguins, everyone is wearing Pens gear and here comes a man decked all out in Bucs gear. I noticed him but didn't want to bother him but we made eye contact and he struck up a conversation with my fiancee and I. The man talked to us like we had known each other for years and we discussed all sorts of subjects and most of them not related to baseball. We had mentioned going to high school with Walker and he went into talking about what a great area it was etc. Really an amazing man. Very charismatic. You can't help but smile when you're talking to him, thinking back makes me smile.
Submitted by: Justin on Friday, June 8, 2012
Great story, Dejan. You are a fine writer. As I get older, I seem to tear up easily, and I did as I read your story. Your story was understated but still was very powerful in describing the actions of Clint Hurdle who seems to be willing to allow his innate goodness to shine through. You obviously recognized that. Thanks, Dejan.