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Gorman: New skipper faces high Hurdle

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Tuesday, Nov. 16, 2010
 

There's a perception that the Pirates naming a new manager is inconsequential, that even with Danny Murtaugh, the club still would find a way to finish in last place under this ownership and management group.

Nevertheless, the Pirates announced Monday the hiring of Clint Hurdle as their 39th skipper with the hope that his leadership would help end an 18-year streak of losing seasons that has made them the punch line of baseball.

Pirates president Frank Coonelly heralded Hurdle's "positive energy, enthusiasm and passion that he brings to the game," as well as his prior managerial experience with the Colorado Rockies.

If that line sounds familiar, it's because general manager Neal Huntington used the following words Nov. 5, 2007, upon hiring John Russell: "His positive energy, intense passion for the game and strong managerial experience set him apart from every other candidate we considered."

Russell promised that the Pirates wouldn't be "outworked or outprepared." Unfortunately, he didn't say anything about being outmanned or outplayed, and the Beat Us Bucs proceeded to lose 95, 99 and 105 games.

So, does it really matter who manages the Pirates?

They took so long to replace Russell that it made me wonder whether the Pirates would wait until Opening Day to announce that they hired a new manager back in October.

Hiring someone from the American League champion Texas Rangers is promising, but replacing owner Bob Nutting with Upper St. Clair native Chuck Greenberg or signing free-agent left-hander Cliff Lee to serve as staff ace would have been more encouraging.

Let's not get carried away.

Instead, the Pirates hired the hitting coach of a team with a Major League Baseball-best .276 batting average. Hurdle doesn't have Michael Young, Josh Hamilton, Vladimir Guerrero and Nelson Cruz anymore, but rather a young core of promising position players who need guidance.

A major league pitching staff wouldn't hurt, either.

What makes Hurdle an important hire is that Huntington has staked his job on it.

Hurdle received a three-year contract believed to be worth more than $1 million annually. Huntington is in the final year of his deal, one that hasn't been secretly extended like it was last October. Or so we've been told.

This is Huntington's make-or-break call, and he knows it.

He put Hurdle in charge of developing Alvarez, center fielder Andrew McCutchen, left fielder Jose Tabata and second baseman Neil Walker, as well as top minor league pitching prospects Brad Lincoln and Bryan Morris -- until they price themselves off the Pirates.

Huntington is banking on the Hurdle who helped mold the Rockies from a team that lost 94 and 95 games in 2004 and '05 into one that reached the World Series in '07.

What's confounding is the Pirates hired Hurdle to replace the guy who replaced Jim Tracy, who replaced Hurdle in Colorado 46 games into the 2009 season and led the Rockies to the playoffs.

And get this: Tracy was fired by Coonelly and Huntington in 2007 after posting 95- and 94-loss seasons. The Pirates continued their losing ways under Russell, whose bland persona only made it worse.

Hurdle has a pulse and a voice that carries clout, and he appears charismatic and comfortable in his new role.

Where Russell rarely left the bench to argue an umpire's call, Hurdle looks ready to kick dirt on someone's shoes -- even if it's the owner, president or general manager -- until the Pirates reverse their clubhouse culture and recapture their now-distant tradition.

"I can have appreciation for the fan base and what they have experienced. Their emotions are real and they're raw, and I honor that," Hurdle said. "That gives me more motivation and energy to be a small part of something that turns it back the other way, so we can see them on the other end of that emotional scale -- because they're not afraid to come to a game, they're not afraid to spend their hard-earned dollars and show up.

"To give them a baseball club they can be in tune with, energized by and proud of again is going to be huge."

What would be huge is if Hurdle is here to see it.

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Clint Hurdle named Pirates manager

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The Pirates hire Clint Hurdle as the 39th manager in team history.

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