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Kovacevic: Clint Hurdle's purple reign

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By Dejan Kovacevic
Thursday, July 25, 2013, 11:03 p.m.

WASHINGTON — As manager-player blowups go, Clint Hurdle barking at A.J. Burnett in the Pirates' dugout Thursday afternoon has zero chance of rivaling, say, Jim Leyland upbraiding a skinny, snotty Barry Bonds in Bradenton many springs ago.

Mostly because this wasn't that big a deal in and of itself.

Hurdle was visibly displeased that Burnett, upon working out of a bases-loaded jam in the fifth inning of what wound up a 9-7 loss to the Nationals, motioned toward the visitors' bullpen ­— where relievers had begun to stir — to sit back down.

Just A.J. being A.J., right?

You know, like when he famously shouted an R-rated version of that same sentiment to Hanley Ramirez after striking him out last summer, then saw the quote blossom into a T-shirt brand.

Well, whether this sit-down command was supposed to be cute or charismatic or drop-dead serious, Hurdle wasn't laughing. It's the manager's job and no one else's to decide who gets up in his pen and when.

So once Burnett had made his way off the grass, Hurdle rose to the top step and began popping off at his starter. He then followed Burnett for the length of the dugout, trademark angry purple complexion in tow, to continue what looked to be mostly a one-way conversation albeit with a bit of backtalk from Burnett.

What was said?

Come on, you didn't think they'd divulge that.

“We were strategizing,” Hurdle said, somehow stifling a grin.

“He was just letting me know I wasn't going to hit if we scored,” Burnett said, somehow equally stoic. “I guess I was under the impression I was done, so I just had to turn the switch back on.”

Um, OK.

To his credit, Burnett then added this about Hurdle, unsolicited: “He deals with me pretty good.”

That task, as I reminded Burnett, can't be easy.

“Not with me, no,” he replied, finally smiling. “But he's a good people manager, man. He knows his players. He knows how to react to them. And he knows I'm in the middle of a battle, as well.”

Like I said, it was no big deal in and of itself. The very next inning, Hurdle and Burnett were joking by the bat rack. At the same time, don't underestimate the underlying message here: This is Clint Hurdle's team.

Burnett's the leader in the clubhouse. He has been since his arrival, and the Pirates are the better for it. But I remember how Lloyd McClendon used to answer anytime a reporter would ask him to identify the Pirates' leader: “You're looking at him.”

Exactly. Ultimately, it has to be the manager in the baseball culture, or nothing works.

And I'm not so sure, to be blunt, that it was working as well as it should during Epic Collapses I and II.

Yes, if you rewind to his hiring, Hurdle offered immediate gratification after the look-at-me Jim Tracy era and the don't-wake-me John Russell era. He was a breath of fresh air, funny, friendly, even something of a father figure in his dealings with people.

At the same time, no one ever should have absolved Hurdle of blame for how the last two editions of the Pirates fell apart, especially when so much of it was psychological. They lacked talent and depth, but they also choked, and the latter reflects worst on the man in charge. He needed to do more than crack a few one-liners and express regret. He needed to fight. He needed to take control.

The pattern wasn't much different when he managed the Rockies, I've been told. The veterans in the Colorado clubhouse loved him at first, started to figure out how to take advantage of his good nature and eventually ran him out.

Maybe Hurdle, a cerebral sort, has learned. Maybe he's found a new volume, a new temperament. Sure looks like it from this view.

I've heard from players that Hurdle has been more assertive from the first day of spring training this year, even as he's become more available to Burnett and other clubhouse leaders to hear their concerns. He's communicated what he wants in clear terms, and those terms are resonating. It's not uncommon now to hear players cite Hurdle-isms the same way the Steelers long have repeated Tomlin-isms, as if gospel.

Last summer, most of what you heard from players was second-guessing.

It's one of many reasons, and an underappreciated one, that the Pirates have made it through their first 100 games with 60 wins and show no signs of decline. Everyone will complain about a manager's moves, no matter how minute, but it's the bigger scope that counts. It's having players buy what you're selling. It's having them believe.

It's having them shrug off a losing streak and the loss of their All-Star closer to take three of four here while nearly pulling off a sweep before Bryce Harper's dagger of a walkoff home run in the ninth.

Still have questions about whether this team is mentally tough enough?

Take it up with the purple-faced gentleman at the top step.

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