Hurdle sets team goal of winning National League Central
Clint Hurdle has been to the World Series once as a player, once as manager of the Colorado Rockies and last fall as hitting coach for the Texas Rangers. In mid-November, he was hired as the 39th manager of the Pirates. Last week, as the team prepared to open its minicamp in Bradenton, Fla., Hurdle sat down in his office at Pirate City to chat with Tribune-Review beat writer Rob Biertempfel:
• What are your expectations for this season• Have they changed or expanded over the past month, as you've settled into the job?
They haven't expanded. I think we're better now than when I took the job. (General manager) Neal (Huntington) is working diligently. He's been aggressive and creative and is trying to spend our money wisely. What people sometimes don't realize is sometimes it's not about paying more money. Some players don't want to come to Pittsburgh right now. There have been times when we put more money on the table (than other teams), but we still haven't gotten the guys. That's the state we're in right now, and I understand that. We're not the best dancer at the prom, but we can dance. We've got to win some more games so we get a little more attractive as this thing moves forward. It's not about setting a number of wins. We'll talk about winning the National League Central. People can laugh, but we're going to start with that thought. We're going to set some standards, the biggest one being to perform at a championship level. That's going to be one of the mandates we throw at them at the beginning of spring training. If you're going to be a champion, you've got to start that right now and hold yourself to championship standards. It's not important to me what anyone outside of this room thinks. They're not a part of what needs to get done here. Opinions are wonderful. I actually listen to them once in a while. But not from people who are just about criticism or cynicism. That can't permeate in here. We've got guys who have been here one year, three years — but not 18.
• Many fans expect you to be a difference-maker right away. Do you welcome that challenge?
One of the best lessons I've learned in this game is I can't control what other people say, think or do. I can control my preparation, my energy. My goal is to make a difference in a positive way. My goal is to re-bond the city of Pittsburgh with the Pirates. When we do that, you'll hear the roar from the four corners of the United States. It's a tradition-rich organization. One of the things that's galvanized me to this job is it's the greatest coaching opportunity in all of sport. I got the information from Neal, (president) Frank (Coonelly) and (owner) Bob (Nutting) that I needed to hear. I didn't need to manage. I left a very good job, a very comfortable job, in Texas. But it's never been about comfort for me. I'm looking for challenges. And this is a very unique and good challenge, a heck of a challenge. One thing I hear from fans is, 'My Dad's got one foot in the grave, and he wants to see the Pirates win ...' I've heard that more than anything. That's our goal.
• What are the biggest challenges you're facing at this point, with spring training a month away?
Biggest challenge• Names. There's a large volume of people I'm meeting for the first time. I'm big with names. I think it's important you learn people's names. Eye contact is critical when you're talking to people. You can't call everyone 'buddy' or 'pal.' You've got to find a way to connect. Another challenge from a personnel side is just getting eyes-on more than hands-on. Just getting these guys out on the field, running around. One of the benefits of minicamp is the entire staff can get its eyes on these guys. We want them to move around, show us some technique, swing the bats, field some balls. We want to find out where they are from a physical standpoint. And logistically I have to find my way around Bradenton. It's been 23 years since I've been in Florida for spring training. And finally, I'm getting to know our player development staff. One of the things I'm most impressed with is all the work that's been done in a three-year period with our scouting and player development programs. Everybody's aware of the fact that we've spend more money the past three years than anybody else on scouting. We've made a transfer over — we've got a good group of young men coming up who we sought out and got. We have big hopes for them. There's a lot of first-time stuff going on for me. But as far as anything daunting or overwhelming ... no. It's baseball.
• How is this situation with the Pirates, a young team trying to re-establish itself, similar to what you had when you took over as Rockies manager in 2002?
I've got experience with the situation the Pirates are in now. It has a lot in common with 2005 when I was with Colorado. We had some guys who had some success in the minor leagues who were coming up, trying to figure out things at the major league level. We had a handful of veterans who were brought in to provide some clubhouse stability and on-field stability and leadership. But the challenges have been real. One thing you can't control in this game is the pace and when players are actually going to pop. You want them all to pop at the same time, but that's not the way it always happens. But I think there's tangible evidence at the major league level of things that have been accomplished in the farm system. I'm probably as optimistic about our pitching as anything. Neal made a very gutsy call last season. Instead of dabbling in the free agent market and getting some guys who are banging the drum toward the back ends of their careers, he decided to let the young men pitch. Unfortunately it didn't go as well as anybody wanted. The young men gained experience. Now it's up to them to take that experience and the humility the game can bring you from time to time and use it as a positive and take it into this year. I think we're in a good place right now with those young guys and the commitment Neal made to them. Although the numbers didn't work out last year from a won-loss standpoint, benefits will be reaped this year.
• Other teams in the NL Central have strong starting rotations. Can the Pirates compete in that regard?
They've probably got better names than we do, but you play the game on the field. Good pitching will beat good hitting. There are teams with more experience on the mound. I spent a lot of time in the National League West, where there always was pretty solid pitching. Last year in the American League West, Oakland threw four (good) arms at you every time you went in. The Angels threw three or four arms at you every time. Against Seattle you caught the King (Felix Hernandez), the left-hander (Jason) Vargas and (Doug) Fister. This is the big leagues.
• With spring training still a month away, is it too early for you to tinker with possible lineups and such?
Tinker, yes. Am I writing in pen, no. I saw this team play three games (last year). I've already had a lot of questions about this, that and the other thing. But as far as I'm concerned, we don't have to make those decisions now. I do want to let some people play. I'm not a big fan of evaluations based on spring training numbers. But I think there's things you can see during spring training that can help you make those decisions when things happen during the season. We've formulated some ideas, and I'm relying on some people internally for advice they have about the starting rotation, the back end of the bullpen, lineup possibilities. I'm open-minded, but I do have some thoughts in place.
• You've had so much success as a hitting coach. What's the secret?
I'll never take full credit. You're not going to be a successful hitting coach unless you have good hitters. When I was a player — this has been in the back of my mind since high school — when a new coach or manager came in, I always had three questions: Can I trust him• Will he make me better• Does he care about me• What's helped me develop a relationship with hitters and get them in a comfortable place so they can play up to their skill set is that I try to answer those questions for them sooner than later. When you capture a player's heart, and it's not easy, their skill set will follow. I've been in a lot of situations where I was a skill set: left-handed bat, corner infielder/outfielder, blah blah blah. They didn't know me because they thought it wasn't necessary to get to know people. It's a different society we live in now. When you can get a guy engaged a little bit, have him open up and get out of himself and plug him into a team concept ... one of the things we talked long and hard about in Colorado and Texas is making good outs. Most coaches talk about getting hits. At this level I don't think the mental side of the game in many cases is developed to the extent it can be. Not every kid out there is going to say, 'Yeah, I want to spend time with a mental skills coach.' I spent time with a mental skills coach, and I want to find ways to open that package. You can't open every package the same way. Some kids need a pat on the back, others need a smack on the backside. You need to know the difference. Timing is everything, as well as presentation. So developing a relationship that is real, professional and personal is the first thing to do. Then we can work on the skill set.