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Pirates

Tim Benz: Pirates' Clint Hurdle dealing with his own Stockdale paradox

| Monday, July 9, 2018, 8:47 p.m.

Clint Hurdle enjoys a good philosophical discussion. My gosh, early this season he dropped a Ralph Waldo Emerson quote in reference to Gerrit Cole’s pitching approach once he got to Houston.

“We cannot see things that stare us in the face until the hour comes that the mind is ripened.”

If Hurdle’s mind is ripe enough to have a quote like that ready to go in response to a query about a pitcher’s spin rate, it shouldn’t surprise you how the Pirates’ manager responded to a line of questioning regarding general manager Neal Huntington’s decree on Sunday that the team needs to do better than 4-4 over these upcoming eight games against Milwaukee and Washington to make him believe this season is salvageable.

In Huntington’s words from Sunday, “Sometimes, reality sets in. The optimism has turned to realism.”

On Monday Hurdle was asked if he considers himself more of an optimist than a realist.

“I try to maintain both,” Hurdle responded. “If you want to Google up something, Google up the Stockdale paradox.”

I did. I Googled it up.

It comes from a business book by James Collins entitled “Good to Great.” In it, Collins interviewed James Stockdale. The former vice presidential candidate and Navy Vice Admiral said, “You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end — which you can never afford to lose — with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.”

Stockdale was referring to his eight years spent in an Vietnamese prison camp. Hurdle is just trying to find a few starting pitchers with ERAs under 4.00.

But you get the drift.

As the book was implying in business terms, the premise of the paradox is universal: How do you best maintain optimism in the face of a current, bleak situation but at the same time address the reality of your circumstances so as to best escape it?

That’s where the Pirates are right now.

“You need to be a realist. You need to honor the numbers and the reality of what’s going on,” said Hurdle. “However I really believe that a first thought can create momentum and change things. I believe optimism is contagious as I believe cynicism is contagious. When you squeeze me, you are going to get optimism and reality.”

I don’t feel comfortable “squeezing” Clint Hurdle. But I will look at the numbers, and I will remember the Pirates’ first thought.

After the trades of Cole and Andrew McCutchen, the Pirates’ “first thought” was that this rag-tag roster was similar enough to last year’s Minnesota Twins. Huntington made that comparison after the deals. That Twins team made the playoffs with 85 wins.

To Hurdle’s point about the numbers, though, this year’s team in Pittsburgh is seven games below .500 with nine games and seven teams separating them from a wild-card spot.

By the way, the Twins entered play Monday night nine games under .500. So less than a year removed from the postseason, they might read up on Admiral Stockdale, as well.

What is this reality we keep referencing? Well, it’s the trade deadline. It’s coming at the end of the month. It’s looming as the club looks at itself being just a few games removed from last place in the NL Central. Huntington’s “gotta be better than 4-4” edict may still not be enough.

Another part of this reality is that between Jordy Mercer, Corey Dickerson, Francisco Cervelli, David Freese, Ivan Nova and Josh Harrison, the Pirates can unload the remaining portions of a combined $46.86 million that they would have to pay out the rest of this year and the remaining $48.66 million in future money owed on contracts to those players.

A third reality is that perceived franchise building blocks in Jameson Taillon, Starling Marte and Gregory Polanco simply may not ever become what the Pirates hoped they’d be.

So if reality is dictating optimism, expect a lot of these players to be moved. And expect that cashed-out 2018 optimism to be “reinvested” for 2019. If Hurdle still has it now, he’s probably going to have to wait to enjoy it until spring training.

All this leads me to ask, would even Admiral Stockdale have been optimistic enough to root for the Pirates these days?

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