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Under Hurdle, Pirates on cusp of winning season

| Saturday, Aug. 31, 2013, 11:00 p.m.
Pirates manager Clint Hurdle watches action from the dugout during the first inning against the Brewers on Friday, June 28, 2013, at PNC Park.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Pirates manager Clint Hurdle watches action from the dugout during the first inning against the Brewers on Friday, June 28, 2013, at PNC Park.
Pirates manager Clint Hurdle talks with pitcher A.J. Burnett in the dugout during a game against the Cardinals at PNC Park.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Pirates manager Clint Hurdle talks with pitcher A.J. Burnett in the dugout during a game against the Cardinals at PNC Park.
Pirates center fielder Andrew McCutchen reacts next to third base coach Nick Leyva after his triple during the first inning against the Brewers Thursday, Aug. 29, 2013 at PNC Park.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Pirates center fielder Andrew McCutchen reacts next to third base coach Nick Leyva after his triple during the first inning against the Brewers Thursday, Aug. 29, 2013 at PNC Park.

The daily email from Clint Hurdle delivered at 12:48 a.m. Aug. 15 was taken from Bill Cosby's commencement speech at the University of San Francisco's College of Arts & Sciences.

Cosby, the email read, bombed in his first big headlining stand-up gig in Chicago. No one laughed. Cosby offered to return money that club owners gave him in between shows, but they said no. Get back in there and try again. One doesn't have to guess how the story ended.

Every day, the Pirates' manager drops some sort of inspirational story, motivational quote or even spiritual reflection into the inboxes of more than 1,000 people. Hurdle says they are apropos of nothing, nor are they directed at one person or one situation. He keeps a folder of material and just picks something daily to share with the vast collection of people he has met over the years.

Yet even if this particular day's email wasn't intended to be timely, it certainly applied to the Pirates' situation.

About two hours earlier, Francisco Liriano pitched a complete game and nearly shut out the St. Louis Cardinals one night after a ninth-inning gaffe set up a 14-inning loss. It had been an awful way to lose, followed by a dominating way to win. It also was Liriano's first game since a career-worst performance a week earlier in Colorado.

Get back in there and try again.

Now that Hurdle has the Pirates on the verge of clinching a winning season and ending the longest streak of failure in North American professional sports, .500 will be met with only a nod and a smile by the responsible parties. Having a winning season for the first time since 1992 is a necessary step along the way, but isn't everything.

The motivation isn't No. 82.

The Pirates' magic number will be whatever digit allows them to still be playing after Sept. 29, the last day of the regular season.

Must be crazy

Hurdle was hired Nov. 15, 2010. The Pirates lost 105 games that year, and he became the seventh skipper to manage the team since it last had a winning season.

Managing the Pirates might have seemed like a job one would take only if there were no other options, but Hurdle had choices.

He could have stayed with the Texas Rangers as hitting coach. He had interviewed to manage the New York Mets. And if he was ready to get out of that side of the game, he said, he had offers for “show and go” TV gigs in which the workday ends 10 minutes after the game.

Cushy didn't interest Hurdle, however.

“I was looking for another challenge,” he said.

What better challenge than taking over a once-proud franchise well into its second decade of disappointment and failure?

Hurdle didn't think there was a better opportunity in all of pro sports.

“I had the opportunity to be part of something that's got a chance to be tremendously significant,” Hurdle said. “There's the manager's part, but there are so many other parts that have to come together to get the finish that you want. You have to have transparency, trust, direction and everybody working together for a common goal where at the end nobody cares who gets the credit. That's what I felt this situation was all about. Nobody cares who gets the credit. We all just want to get it right.”

Some of his friends told him he was crazy. Many of them, Hurdle said, now hang on the Pirates' every inning.

Rod Olson, a motivational speaker and former college football coach who met Hurdle in Colorado, remembers when his friend mentioned the Pirates over coffee one morning.

“I'll never forget, he looked at me said, ‘I think the world is going to think I'm crazy, but I feel like it's the right place for me at the time, and I think I'm going to go there,' ” Olson said. “Clint is very wise, very mature, and he's been in baseball a long time. He knew what a good fit it was.”

A good motivator

Hurdle's daily dose of email inspiration started when he was with the Rockies and included his players and staff. Hurdle spent 15 years in the Colorado organization as a minor league hitting coordinator, major league hitting coach and manager.

One of Hurdle's strengths as Rockies manager — particularly in 2007, when the team won 11 straight games in September and 21 of 22 leading up to the World Series — was motivating young players.

“Clint was a guy who knew what a team is trying to do with young players, throwing them out there, giving them a chance, letting them struggle, letting them learn from their mistakes,” Rockies pitcher Jeff Francis said. “He was a good motivator for young players with just the personality he has.”

Longtime Rockies shortstop Troy Tulowitzki said Hurdle was an ideal guy for a team and city like Pittsburgh because he can get people to believe.

“He's very loud. He takes authority,” Tulowitzki said. “When you walk into a room, he can grab your attention. For a young ballclub, he's great. Last year you saw what (the Pirates) could possibly do. This year you see what they're doing right now. It's pretty special.”

The Rockies were swept in the 2007 World Series. Hurdle was fired two months into the '09 season after the team started 18-28 and was replaced by bench coach Jim Tracy, who managed the Pirates in '06 and '07.

It wasn't long before some of the people on Hurdle's list for daily inspirations mentioned that they missed getting his messages and asked if he would reconsider sending them.

“My first response was, ‘Are you kidding me? I'm out. I've been fired. I'm done. I've got to move on,' ” Hurdle said. “Then I stepped back and thought maybe I've been able to impact those men, and why unplug myself from impacting men or women?”

Different now

In some ways, Hurdle isn't much different than he was while with the Rockies. In some ways, he isn't much different than he was while playing for Whitey Herzog in Kansas City in the late 1970s.

“I think he's always been a very positive guy,” Herzog said. “When I managed him as a player, that's a trait that I saw in him. I don't think he was the type that went 0 for 16 and was moping. It was, ‘tomorrow's another day' attitude then, and that's a great attitude to have. Been like that long as I've known him.”

But Hurdle also has matured and learned from experiences. He was a vocal and frequent presence in the Rockies' clubhouse, and that didn't always go over well. Clint Barmes, who came up with the Rockies, said it was almost as if Hurdle wanted too much to be liked, to be one of the guys.

It's not like that anymore, Barmes said, and he thinks that's one of the biggest differences between Hurdle then and now.

“He still jokes and has fun, but he gives the players control of the clubhouse and lets us do our thing,” Barmes said. “There are a lot of times when it's your boss or someone in that position, it can get uneasy in a clubhouse with guys where you might not say or do some things you'd normally do if they weren't around. Overall, he's handled it very well with the respect of letting the players in here form the chemistry and that bond.”

Hurdle relies now on a five-man leadership council, of which Barmes is a member, that acts as a liaison between him and the players. He still puts his foot down when necessary, like he did earlier this year to end pregame hockey games in the clubhouse. But as long as his players aren't a preventable accident away from a trip to the disabled list, Hurdle generally lets them have their space.

Marcel Lachemann, the Rockies' pitching instructor in the early 2000s and then an assistant to general manager Dan O'Dowd, believes Hurdle's life is more in perspective than ever.

“I think he's got to the point where, not only in his baseball life but also his personal life, he understands what he can control and what he can't,” said Lachemann, now a special assistant to the general manager with the Los Angeles Angels. “If you can get to that point in life, you're in pretty good shape.”

Unfinished business

Hurdle has been asked repeatedly — at home and away — about how to avoid collapses that have doomed the Pirates the past two years.

His answer is always the same and generally involves trying to be a little better than the day before.

So far, the Pirates have staved off another collapse. Win No. 82 is all but inevitable. The playoffs still are not, but it's September and the spot is theirs to lose. Every game this last month of the season will be critical, and that hasn't happened since some of these players were in preschool and kindergarten.

Hurdle has been to the World Series three times in three capacities: as a player, manager and coach. He's never finished on the winning end.

“I won't say it's a bucket list, but obviously everyone playing the game wants to win a ring,” he said. “I mean, I do. Will that define me? No, that won't. In and of itself, I've been fortunate to go three times, and the walkaway has always been second place. The takeaway is how hard it is to get there. The way I'm built, getting there, that was cool, but there's a cooler finish that I'd like to be a part of.”

The topic of another recent email from Hurdle was, simply, “action.” It contained five quotes of, more or less, doing versus saying. Denis Waitley. Ralph Waldo Emerson. Brian Tracy. Anthony Robbins. Margaret Thatcher.

He knows some people may not read them, but he gets enough feedback to know that some people feel like there's someone out there pulling for them when that message flashes across their computer or phone.

As for why it matters to Hurdle, that is easy.

He has had trials and struggles in his personal life and as a player and manager, including a well-documented battle with alcoholism and a daughter born with a rare genetic disorder called Prader-Willi Syndrome. His experiences made him who he is and taught him how much a kind word can help.

“It's just a daily dose of encouragement that might touch you in a positive way, help you through that day, help you through a situation,” he said. “I've been fortunate that every time I've hit a dead end, every time I've run off the road, every time there's been adversity, somebody has popped up or there's been a group or whatever that has found a way to encourage me.”

Hurdle signs every email the same way.

“Make a difference today. Love, Clint.”

Karen Price is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach her at or via Twitter @KarenPrice_Trib.

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