Kovacevic: Hurdle is Pirates' heartbeat
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.