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Tim Benz

Tim Benz: Clint Hurdle's message: 'It's about proving yourselves right.'

| Monday, May 14, 2018, 8:02 p.m.
Pirates manager Clint Hurdle watches pitcher Jameson Taillon work the ninth inning of a one-hitter against the Reds on Sunday, April 8, 2018, at PNC Park.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Pirates manager Clint Hurdle watches pitcher Jameson Taillon work the ninth inning of a one-hitter against the Reds on Sunday, April 8, 2018, at PNC Park.

It was something Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said after a Sunday afternoon game at Wrigley Field earlier this season.

His team had just won a game — and a series — to improve to 9-3. Buzz was starting to build that this Pirates club perhaps would avoid becoming the wayward, rudderless group we expected coming off a winter that saw sales of Andrew McCutchen and Gerrit Cole.

Maybe they were going to be better than we expected. Maybe Hurdle's talk of competing for a championship and general manager Neal Huntington's assertion they could be this year's edition of the 2017 Twins was more prophecy than propaganda.

Perhaps these Pirates were going to prove baseball prognosticators wrong.

“It's not about proving everyone wrong,” Hurdle said. “It's about proving yourselves right.”

Hurdle loves those sayings. Those tear-away calendar, daily affirmation turns of phrase. He works them into sound bites frequently. That one resonated with me because it seemed to make a lot sense for this year's team.

It seemed to resonate with the players as well. When the team returned from that road trip a few days later, I asked if that “Hurdle-ism” had become a staple.

“No, I don't think I heard that one before,” pitcher Jameson Taillon said with a smile. “But I like it. Six months of trying to just prove everybody wrong all the time, that's going to get exhausting. That's a lot to carry around.”

Taillon's right. I think everyone would get sick of six months' worth of, “How do you like me now?”

Except Hines Ward. Somewhere, someone is still “not giving him a chance.”

That worked for Ward, however. And this approach Hurdle is laying out seems to be working for these Pirates. Like Taillon, other players I spoke to in the clubhouse hadn't heard that pearl from Hurdle at the time.

Maybe it has spread since, because the Pirates continue to win more than they lose, and you aren't getting a lot of chest thumping. There isn't a ton of taunting media win-predictions from February or forecasts of doom in the standings.

Rather, most of the chatter you hear from the players in the wake of their good play at the quarter pole is of positive reinforcement, gaining traction and convincing people to buy in and join the ride.

“Not everybody is out to prove somebody wrong,” Hurdle said. “There's a sense of accomplishment when you may have been the last one standing to believe in what you were doing. Then, when you did it, you didn't need a posse behind you to tell you that you did well. The personal satisfaction you get from that can be very energizing.”

Corey Dickerson has embodied that approach since coming to the Pirates this preseason, on and off the field.

The outfielder has every reason to be ticked off about why he is here and how he was received once he got here.

After a 27-homer, All-Star season, Dickerson was dismissively designated for assignment by Tampa Bay. When he was acquired by the Pirates via trade, the reaction in town was more or less: “He's OK. But he's no ‘Cutch!' ”

Speaking on the same day McCutchen made his much-ballyhooed return to PNC Park, Dickerson made it clear he chooses to leave that baggage at the door.

“I didn't think of it as being McCutchen,” he said. “He brought a lot of great things to this clubhouse. I can just bring my own tools.”

So far, those tools have Dickerson leading the team in batting average among qualified players (.319) and RBIs (27).

“I came here just trying to be the best ‘me' possible. To be a light in the clubhouse,” he said.

Winning humbly and enjoying success without an odor of “we told you so” at this juncture is important for a few reasons. First of all, it still is early. Sitting a half game out of first place at 23-17 is a fine start, although three-quarters of a season remains.

Recall the 2012 Pirates. They also were exceeding expectations to the tune of being 16 games above .500 on Aug. 8 only to wind up four games under .500 for the season.

Secondly, media doubt and fan scrutiny wasn't entirely about on-field projections in spring training. It was about the shedding of payroll. That's not something that goes away after a decent 40 games.

That said, no one in the stands or the press box really expressed venom toward the remaining players. It mainly was directed toward the front office. So if the players stay on point in terms of how often they win and how they present themselves in the wake of winning, this could be an unexpectedly enjoyable summer.

Let's check back on both fronts after the next 40 games.

Tim Benz is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at tbenz@tribweb.com or via Twitter @TimBenzPGH.

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