Hurdle wants to make difference on, off field
The first time Clint Hurdle asked his wife, Karla, to marry him, she said no.
Not one to give up, Hurdle waited a while then asked again. The couple just celebrated their 11th wedding anniversary Nov. 13, two days before he was announced as the Pirates' new manager.
That if-at-first-you-don't-succeed mentality could come in handy given Hurdle's task of leading the Pirates back to relevancy after 18 consecutive losing seasons, the longest streak in North American pro sports history.
Delve a little further into the man behind the wide smile and sense of humor that led him to thank reporters for “that smattering of applause” at his first Pirates news conference and a shaper image emerges.
The 53-year-old former manager of the Colorado Rockies is often described as being focused and organized. He's not known to play favorites, and he doesn't suffer fools gladly. Yet, he's also known for his charisma and gregarious nature, a big difference from the far more quiet and reserved John Russell, whom he replaced.
Hurdle also doesn't shy away from anything, whether it's taking responsibility for a baseball decision or something much more profound, such as learning that his daughter was born with a genetic abnormality believed to affect approximately one in 15,000 each year.
Janalee Heinemann, director of research and medical affairs for Prader-Willi Syndrome Association USA, said that the Hurdles were like any other parents of newly-diagnosed children when they first called the Sarasota, Fla.-based organization. They were looking for guidance, support and education about a rare condition that, if untreated, can lead to severe and life-threatening obesity.
It's characterized by low metabolism and unrelenting hunger that lasts throughout a person's life. It also affects muscle tone and stature, can lead to difficulties learning, motor development delays and behavioral issues.
It wasn't long after that initial phone call that Hurdle became the association's national spokesman.
“I was really impressed with how open he was willing to be about his daughter's diagnosis so early on,” Heinemann said. “For a lot of people, it takes time to regroup and think through things, but from the time she was a newborn, he was willing to be honest and say what she had and spread awareness.
“A lot of people in his position would just say, ‘I'm going to the best doctors and am doing this all privately,' because they can, but it wasn't enough to just help his kid. He wanted to help all kids.”
Madison is now in second grade and is growing up strong and holding her own, Karla said, with the assistance of an aide while she's at school.
And while it wasn't the primary reason for Hurdle taking the job with the Pirates, having one of the leading facilities in the treatment of Prader-Willi nationwide in the Squirrel Hill-based Children's Institute certainly made the decision easier.
“Initially, taking some points from (general manager Neal Huntington) and (president Frank Coonelly) and Clint's previous meetings with one of the gentlemen who runs the hospital here, we knew that it was available to us,” Karla Hurdle said. “There were just a lot of things that made it so that we didn't have to make a big decision. That was one of them.”
Understandably, Hurdle was more interested in talking baseball than Prader-Willi on his first day as the Pirates' manager. But he and his wife both mentioned an eagerness to get involved in the community here as they were in Colorado, whether it's using a celebrity golf tournament to raise funds or awareness or making an impromptu, unpublicized visit to a hospital.
Even before Hurdle was married and could ever know he'd need their services, he was involved with Children's Hospital of Denver. And his two-year friendship with a teenager suffering from a rare and deadly form of kidney cancer became news during the Rockies' 2007 playoff run after Hurdle began writing the boy's football jersey number — 67 — on each day's lineup card. The slumping team started winning, kept winning, and eventually landed in the World Series.
Even during that remarkable run, PWSA USA president Evan Farrar said, Hurdle used the opportunity to talk about the disorder and the association. As a result, they saw an uptick in visits to their website and phone calls from parents who thought their children might have undiagnosed Prader-Willi Syndrome.
“A lot of new parents find real hope in hearing his story and seeing how well his daughter's doing because there is that publicity around them,” Heinemann said. “It gives other parents encouragement and brings awareness to people who otherwise wouldn't hear about the disorder.”
Having a winning team is the No. 1 key to engaging with the community, Huntington knows. But the Pirates also believe he should be the type of guy that Pittsburgh welcomes with open arms.
“He's a blue-collar guy, he's a grinder, he's been through some tough times and had a lot of success, dealt with adversity and battled through it,” Huntington said. “We hope that they'll love him, and they'll give him a chance because he is a tremendous person.”