Kovacevic: Hurdle aims to fortify players' trust
LAKELAND, Fla. -- The longest distance in baseball, if talking tape measure, is the 436 feet between home plate and the deepest part of Houston's Minute Maid Park, just beyond the flagpole on Tal's Hill.
The longest distance in baseball, if you ask Clint Hurdle, is another one entirely.
“The hardest walk for any player is from out there in that clubhouse to right here in this office,” the Pirates manager was musing over the weekend as part of a long talk we had in that latter location. “No player is comfortable coming in here, and I know I don't like to hover out there.”
Nothing unique there, of course. That divide has been part of the culture from Connie Mack to Casey Stengel to Bobby Cox: Players and managers will interact on the field, even yukking it up, but the threshold seldom gets crossed in the clubhouse.
And it's beyond any one manager to alter that. Truth is, Hurdle could hang a “COME IN WE'RE OPEN” sign on his door, and the only ones who'd even peek inside are the usual assortment of coaches and execs.
Still, Hurdle's about to try.
He has to try.
When a team experiences one epic collapse — check that, Epic Collapse — there's bound to be complaining among the athletes, from food to travel to drills to, yeah, the manager. That's natural.
Thus, when there's an Epic Collapse II, it'll only heighten.
Maybe even to the point of the manager losing the clubhouse.
Did that happen?
“You know, I don't believe so,” Hurdle said without hesitation, looking me dead in the eye. “But you'd have to talk to the players.”
I have. The players like Hurdle. It's impossible not to. He's one of the warmest people you'll ever encounter. He cares about his staff, his players, even little old ladies in line at Giant Eagle who wag fingers at him over the previous night's lineup. To watch and listen to him, Hurdle comes across as a godsend for this woebegone franchise.
But, yeah, there was a handful of players who doubted or became disillusioned late last summer. Nothing major. Nothing remotely resembling a revolt. Just some situational, strategic stuff.
Hurdle's a smart man. He knows this.
The difference now is that he's planning to be proactive.
“We have exit evaluations at the end of every season, a chance for players to tell us what's on their mind,” Hurdle said. “And what I've learned through those is that the best way to suit the group you have is to get them to share thoughts. And I can tell you that's going to happen this year, all year. Well make sure of that.”
Here's how: Near the end of this spring training, Hurdle will ask his players to vote on what he's calling a “leadership group.” It could be a couple of guys but not too many. It almost certainly will be fronted by clear team leader A.J. Burnett — “Obviously, A.J. has a very important role to play,” Hurdle said — but probably not as a hockey-style captain, a la Derek Jeter with the Yankees. That will be up to the players.
Whoever it is, that group will meet with Hurdle twice a month — in his office — with only one charge from the man behind the desk.
“Say whatever you want,” Hurdle said. “You've got something? I want to hear it.”
Even if it's openly critical, such as, oh, pulling Wandy Rodriguez after 6 2⁄3 innings of seriously sharp pitching and costing the club a game in Cincinnati?
“Anything at all,” Hurdle said. “We might be in there five minutes, 15 minutes, all afternoon. Doesn't matter. I want to hear it.”
That should tell you plenty about Hurdle. I can promise you it's a short list of managers and coaches across sports doing anything close to this.
But it also should tell you plenty about how hard Hurdle's been hit by the past two summers.
“Oh, no question,” he said. “Look, there was probably a time in my career, even as a player, where I wasn't concerned with other people's perspective. It was my perspective and whatever I'd hear from like-minded people. That doesn't get you anywhere. And now, here I am, I'm 55, and some of these players are 25. That's a pretty big gap, right? I don't know it all. I'm going to listen to these players. I'm not going to argue. I'm not going to say no, no, no. I want to hear it because that's what you feel.”
At the same time, Hurdle doesn't want his players dwelling on the negative. He even blurted out earlier in the week that the Pirates' goal is 95 wins.
He stands by it, too.
“My focus is the playoffs. If you're going to grab numbers, you take 95 because 95 has a really good chance of getting you in. So we had 79. Where do you find 16 more?”
He's listing for his players five key areas to improve:
1. Controlling opponent's running
2. Pitch inside
3. “Own the batter's box” with better strike-zone awareness
4. No soft spots in the lineup
5. “Play 27 outs” on defense
“I think there are three wins in each of those five categories,” Hurdle said. “That gets us pretty close, right?”
Yeah, I guess. Whatever, really. Say what you want about setting that goal for this wildly uncertain roster, but there's no harm.
Hurdle's saying — and doing — what he feels is right. And he isn't flying blind. He spent much of the offseason reading about rebounding from adversity, and he sought advice from people inside and outside the Pirates “who have been through similar challenges, specifically at the back end of a season.”
The broader lesson that must be learned, as Hurdle described it, is how to cope “when it all goes sideways, how to hold men together, how to keep from falling into survival mode, how to keep them from isolating.”
Inviting a few friends to come on over sounds like a fine start.