Pirates dismiss manager Hurdle

GM Huntington: 'We felt like this was a time to have a new voice'

September 29th, 2019

PITTSBURGH -- Earlier this decade, Clint Hurdle led the Pirates to places they had not been in decades. In 2013, Hurdle was named National League Manager of the Year when the Bucs brought postseason baseball back to Pittsburgh for the first time in 20 years. He was the steady, positive presence behind two more postseason teams after that.

But Hurdle said it himself earlier this week, and general manager Neal Huntington reiterated it on Sunday afternoon: Every manager has a shelf life. The Pirates believed that Hurdle had reached the end of his in Pittsburgh.

On Sunday, an hour and 10 minutes before their final game of the season, the Pirates dismissed Hurdle and ended his nine-year tenure in Pittsburgh’s dugout.

“We felt like this was a time to have a new voice, to have new leadership in that clubhouse,” Huntington said during a press conference at PNC Park. “When you compare it to where we were before him, his tenure here should be celebrated. We didn’t get deep enough. We didn’t win a World Series. But we got back to the postseason.”

Huntington delivered the news to Hurdle before Sunday’s game, because he felt it was appropriate to let Hurdle know he was about to manage his last game for the Pirates. Rather than being told the news in an empty ballpark on Monday, Hurdle got to address the team and say goodbye individually to his former players and coaches.

“It was cool to be able to say goodbye,” first baseman Josh Bell said. “It was tough saying goodbye, tough saying goodbye to the skipper that was putting me in the lineup for all these years. Just hoping for the best for him in the future.”

Hurdle was given the opportunity to manage Pittsburgh’s season finale against the Reds but declined, leaving the ballpark before first pitch. Bench coach Tom Prince served as acting manager in Hurdle’s place. Hurdle is the only Major League manager that many of these Pirates have known, so center fielder Starling Marte said it was “stunning” and “shocking” when he delivered the news.

“Very sad,” Marte said through interpreter Mike Gonzalez, “probably some of the hardest news I’ve received, especially because Clint was a huge part of my career.”

The Pirates will consider internal and external options for their vacant managerial position. Internally, special assistant Jeff Banister and Prince would seem to be the leading candidates. They could look outside the organization for a younger manager who can relate to a Pittsburgh clubhouse full of inexperienced players. Whoever the next manager is, he will have a say in shaping the Pirates’ 2020 coaching staff.

Hurdle, 62, was under contract through the end of the 2021 season, according to the terms of the extension he signed in September 2017. That is also the case for Huntington, who will continue to lead Pittsburgh’s baseball operations department, chairman Bob Nutting announced in a statement.

“While we felt it was time to make a change at the managerial level, I strongly believe that Neal Huntington and the leadership team that he has assembled are the right people to continue to lead our baseball operations department,” Nutting said. “This has easily been the most difficult season of my tenure. Today we announced that we are parting ways with Clint, but make no mistake about it, this is by no means a statement that our shortcomings are solely Clint’s fault. The entire organization is accountable and that begins with me.

“Neal and his leadership team are well into an extensive review of every element of our baseball operations. In addition, as an organization, we need to improve in the ways we connect with our fans. It is very clear that we need to and will be better. There is no quick fix, but we are absolutely committed to the task. I believe we can and will achieve it.”

Huntington repeated that sentiment several times when addressing the decision to relieve Hurdle of his duties, even saying he was “attempting to avoid the feeling of scapegoating.” Throughout the season, even as recently as his Sunday morning meeting with reporters, Hurdle expressed his desire to return to the Pirates for a 10th season and spoke as if he planned to do so.

But Hurdle was also aware that a season like this could lead to changes, and starter Chris Archer agreed with Huntington’s assessment that it was “time for something new.”

The Pirates entered Sunday with a 69-92 record, their worst season under Hurdle. This will be the Bucs’ first last-place finish in the National League Central since their 57-105 campaign in 2010, John Russell’s last year as their manager. Since their postseason run from 2013-15, the Pirates have only had one winning season, and that came last year, when they finished 82-79 despite a post-Trade Deadline collapse in August.

“When you don’t play well, the responsibility falls upon the manager of the team,” Hurdle said before he was dismissed. “I’ve always felt I have a really good grasp on what my accountability and responsibility is. I’ve never shirked away from it or never not owned up to it. So, absolutely not winning enough games falls right here.”

Hurdle ends his tenure as Pirates manager with a 735-720 record, good for fourth on the club's all-time managerial wins list. From the day he was hired, Hurdle made genuine efforts to bond with the city and rebuild the trust that was broken during the club’s 20-year losing streak. After consecutive second-half collapses in 2011-12, Hurdle committed to management’s more data-driven approach and found success the following three years.

“What he means to this organization, what he brought it back from, what he did to rebuild it and as a part of that, tremendous,” Prince said. “What he stands for, how he cares about people more than the game, you don’t find that in this game anymore. And it was an honor to learn some of that stuff from him. He lived it. He modeled it. Not too many people in the game do that anymore.”

He was a perfect fit with the Pirates’ 2013-15 core, “the absolute right man at the right time,” as Huntington said. That group included a handful of spirited veterans who took charge in the clubhouse, like A.J. Burnett and Russell Martin, and a number of younger, homegrown leaders, like Jordy Mercer and Tony Watson – not to mention legitimate stars in Andrew McCutchen and Gerrit Cole.

“I hope, the further we get away from this day, the more we remember Clint Hurdle and that larger-than-life personality and the good that he did in that dugout, the good that he did in that clubhouse, the good that he did in this community,” Huntington said.

The past few years were not good enough, however, and Hurdle seemed to lose his command of the clubhouse. The discontent became evident in the spring of 2018, when veteran infielder Josh Harrison publicly requested a trade and David Freese was openly critical of their clubhouse culture.

This season was especially tough, on and off the field. The club lost a handful of key players to injuries, was involved in several benches-clearing incidents on the field and at least three fights in the clubhouse and, most recently, saw closer Felipe Vazquez arrested. After the All-Star break, they lost 24 of their first 28 games.

“We are all shouldering blame in this. It’s a fair question: Why am I sitting in front of you and we’re getting a new manager?” Huntington said. “It’s a very fair question, and one that I wish I had a better answer for. We’re working to get this right again. We’re working to get the Pirates back into the postseason. And we’ll continue to show up every day to get better and to put this club back into October baseball.”