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Hurdle has had big dreams since first day on the job

While most focused on just winning season, Bucs manager's goals were loftier @philgrogers

ST. LOUIS -- Shortly after firing Dale Sveum, Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein laid out the qualifications for his ideal manager. Epstein said he wants someone who can win while developing young players and overcoming "unique elements" that complicate the job.

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"We need that spark of a winning culture," Epstein said. "We need certain things that, in my opinion, we're more likely to find from someone outside the organization at this point."

Unfortunately for the Cubs, Clint Hurdle is not available.

The Pirates hired him three years ago, in the wake of a 57-105 season, and it was a stroke of executive genius by general manager Neal Huntington. Hurdle was the right guy arriving at the right time. He breathed a sense of belief into a franchise that had long since lost the swagger it got from men like Roberto Clemente and Willie Stargell.

In what seems like the blink of an eye, Hurdle has given his team a chance to play against the best teams in the National League, separated from the World Series by seven wins. And if you don't believe the Bucs are a serious threat to knock off the top-seeded Cardinals and the Braves-Dodgers survivor, you've never listened to Hurdle preach his brand of baseball gospel.

In the spring of 2011, when Hurdle was still learning his way around Bradenton, Fla., when everyone else was obsessed with the task of ending a run of 18 consecutive losing seasons, he said he took the job because he felt the Pirates could win the World Series.

"We're not printing T-shirts for the players to wear that say, 'Hey, how about winning 82 [games]?'" Hurdle said then. "I didn't come here to have a winning season. I came here to be a small part of something that's both very special and significant."

Hurdle continued to think big even when strong first halves were followed by second-half thuds his first two seasons in Pittsburgh. He seemed indifferent to the streak of losing seasons reaching 20.

"Well, that's the thing," said A.J. Burnett, the former Yankees righty who will start Game 1 of the NL Division Series against the Cards on Thursday at 5 p.m. ET on TBS. "The big thing early was us being .500, and the first thing out of his mouth was, 'Is that really our goal? Is that really what we're here for, to be the team that played .500?'"

Hurdle told his players that they were no different than those on 29 other teams, including ones like the Cardinals, Giants, Yankees and Red Sox. Burnett said the manager told them the goal was "to get to the World Series like every other team, to be the guys that don't walk off the field, that celebrate on the field."

Hurdle knows something about traveling unexpected paths. He managed the Rockies in 2007, when a 21-1 run carried them from fourth place in the NL West to the World Series. Hurdle served as Ron Washington's hitting coach with the Rangers in 2010, when they won the American League pennant, quite a feat for a franchise that hadn't won a playoff series in any of its 49 previous seasons.

It would delight Pittsburgh fans if the Bucs can build off their NL Wild Card Game victory over the Reds to last throughout October. But that will not surprise Hurdle. He said on Wednesday that this team is cut from the cloth as the '07 Rockies and '10 Rangers.

"Our guys have been able to really find a good place where they've all attached themselves to a common goal, and nobody cares who gets the credit," Hurdle said. "The ['07 Rockies and '10 Rangers] both had that same mindset. It sounds simple, it sounds easy. [But] I've been in this game getting close to 40 years, and I haven't been on 40 teams that all had that mindset, where truthfully everybody has the same goal in mind. Nobody cares who gets the credit. You're going to show up that day, ready to play, ready to do whatever is asked of you, and that's it. If you're not in the lineup, you're not in the lineup and you move on.

"So many times you hear in this game that guys are all in until they're not in. What I've seen this club really develop into is an all-in mentality and a next-man-up mentality. ... At the end of the day, are you truly vested in what's best for your ballclub, even if it affects you personally or individually? That's what I've seen these men grow to get to that place. It's provided the biggest benefit for us in the long run."

Adam Wainwright, who watched the Pirates flounder for five years before Hurdle arrived, says the manager is only a part of what has changed in Pittsburgh. The Cards' ace points to the talent level of players like Andrew McCutchen and Neil Walker -- "that second baseman is a stud" -- but says you can't miss how much Hurdle gets out of his team.

"He's just inspired players that were already very good players to go out and play hard," Wainwright said. "He's a competitive manager. We've seen that over the years. We have a lot of respect for what he does over there. But I think more than anything, those players got sick of losing and wanted to turn it on and go out and win ballgames. You can see that they're excited. They play the game very hard. They play the game with respect, and we'll have our hands full."

This is the month that Hurdle has been waiting for since he signed on to manage the Bucs three years ago. The team he has nurtured has a chance to scale the heights, and he doesn't believe anyone needs a safety net. Hurdle saw this coming long before anyone else.

"It's the challenge, absolutely the challenge," Hurdle said when asked why he had taken a job that had proven to be a dead end for other men. "When I started talking to the Pirates, I had friends calling me to ask what I was doing. They thought I was crazy. But I'm not afraid of a challenge. I know this is going to be hard. I've done hard before. We'll see how it ends up, but to me, it's the right group of people, the right city -- a blue-collar city, a no-nonsense city. Somebody is going to turn it around here. Why not me?"

A talented multisport athlete growing up in Florida, Hurdle got to the big leagues with the Royals as a 19-year-old, but he ended his big league career as a .259 hitter, with 32 home runs and a legacy that screamed "Whatever happened to him?" He had lots of false starts on and off the field, but he had a family that believed in him through thick and thin, and the good fortune to get a second chance as a manager.

Along the way, Hurdle became someone who won't take no for an answer. He credits his third wife, Karla, for opening his eyes after she turned down his initial proposal for marriage, shortly after he had turned 40.

"She told me, 'Until you find a way to make yourself happy, you'll never make me happy,'" Hurdle said to me early in his stay with the Pirates. "That was hard. I went through a lot of self-evaluation. Maybe it was male menopause. But what I came out of it with was this: I'm 40, and my next 40 years, if I get them all given to me, I'm not going to be a grabber, I'm going to be a giver. I want to develop a servant's way to live. I want to help other people. That's going to be the best way to help me."

Hurdle married Karla in 1999, eight years after their first date and two years after his first proposal, and they've since had two children. He managed the Rockies for eight years before being let go two months into the 2009 season, barely more than a year after they had hoisted the NL pennant onto a Coors Field flagpole. Hurdle left in such dignified, respectful fashion that his dismissal might have elevated his standing around the Major Leagues.

"The way I went into that job, the things I had preached to the players -- about commitment, about teammates, about unselfishness -- if I went into the clubhouse kicking and screaming, everything I'd said to them, I'd have been a liar," Hurdle said. "I handed the keys to [new manager] Jim Tracy, thanked the players, thanked the owners and moved on."

As he was settling into the manager's office in Colorado, Hurdle examined the questions he had about men like Whitey Herzog, John McNamara, Russ Nixon, George Bamberger and Davey Johnson, who managed him during his 10 big league seasons. Hurdle said the recurring issues were "Can I trust them? Can they make me better? And do they care about me as a person?" Those are the standards he holds himself to as a manager.

When Burnett was asked to describe his relationship with Hurdle, he twice used the word "wonderful." As with Francisco Liriano, who was incredibly poised during Tuesday's NL Wild Card Game win at PNC Park, the caring manager has gotten results from Burnett when it wasn't clear how much he had to give.

"He's treated me like a horse, like an ace from the get-go," Burnett said. "He's really allowed me to be me. He's really allowed me to do what I want to do on the mound. [He] leaves me out there when he thinks I need to be out there, takes me out when he knows I don't want to come out. He's a good motivator and he's a good people person. And he gets to know his players really well. He's really gotten to know who I am and what I am, especially on game days."

The next one of those game days is here, and since this is big league baseball, no one knows what to expect. But the lesson with Hurdle and his Pirates is that it's never wrong to believe in happy endings.

Phil Rogers is a columnist for

Pittsburgh Pirates