Persistent Pirates locking up a bright future
Extensions for Huntington, Hurdle offer a chance to reflect on Bucs' success
The Pirates were putting the finishing touches on their 15th consecutive losing season in 2007, when team owner Bob Nutting put some new guys in charge. At the time, he was criticized for calling it the "the best management team in baseball, maybe in all of sports."
Well, look who's laughing now. That's what Saturday was all about. In announcing contract extensions through at least 2017 for general manager Neal Huntington and manager Clint Hurdle, the Pirates guaranteed themselves the kind of organizational stability they haven't always had.
In doing so, they took a moment to reflect on how far they've come in 6 1/2 years. Back then, the Pirates were about as low as a franchise could get. Not only were they losing at the Major League level; they were losing all the smaller battles as well.
That is, their farm system was in bad shape, and home attendance was poor. Worse than fans being angry about the Pirates, they were apathetic -- and that's a condition that can take years to overcome.
Here's what's really important and what might be a lesson for every team owner: These 6 1/2 years haven't been the smoothest of rides. The Pirates had terrible finishes to both the 2011 and '12 seasons, and Nutting was under enormous pressure to clean house again.
Instead, he stayed the course. He believed in his guys in 2007, and he continued to believe in them when the rebuilding hit some tough speed bumps. So did team president Frank Coonelly.
Coonelly is critical in all of this, because he was the first guy Nutting brought to the organization in Sept. 2007. Coonelly was the guy who stuck by Huntington when virtually no one else in Pittsburgh did.
He understood that the Pirates were going to be doing things a certain way. They could not spend their way back to the postseason. Rather, Huntington had to rebuild the franchise through trades, the First-Year Player Draft and by sorting through the free-agent bargain bin.
Huntington was going to have to take some chances on players who were either coming back from injuries or had worn out their welcome elsewhere -- players like A.J. Burnett, Francisco Liriano, Jason Grilli, Mark Melancon and Gaby Sanchez.
Huntington missed on plenty of guys, too, but that's the nature of the beast when the free-agent marketplace is played at that level. In the end, though, Coonelly believed in his guy, and Huntington believed in himself.
Few things that happened in baseball last season were sweeter than the Pirates winning 94 games and returning to the postseason for the first time since 1992. Nothing -- and I mean nothing -- was more inspiring than the scene before the National League Wild Card Game, when PNC Park was rocking with a packed house and a tidal wave of emotion.
Hopefully, there will be other special days ahead. The Pirates have a good team in 2014, and Baseball America just named their farm system the best in the game. But if you ask any player or coach or team executive, they almost certainly will always go back to that moment before that Wild Card victory over the Reds as the defining moment that announced to the world that the Pirates were back.
Huntington is a process guy, someone who attempts to insulate himself from the back-and-forth nature of public opinion. If there were times he doubted that it would end up like this, he never said so.
For him, there were two finishing touches. One was the hiring of Hurdle after the 2010 season.
Hurdle is a large man with a large presence. He speaks loudly and forcefully and has the ability to make you believe as much as he believes. That's what he has done with the Pirates. He made the players look him in the eye and tell him they believe that a franchise down in the dumps for so long could do great things.
In some cases, he got rid of guys who didn't believe as much as he believed. But he found a core group of guys willing to follow, especially the great Andrew McCutchen, one of the game's three or four most exciting players to watch.
When third baseman Pedro Alvarez struggled, it was Hurdle who took him aside and told him, "You just have to trust your ability as much as I trust it."
He did that up and down the roster -- trusting Grilli to be a reliable closer and Sanchez and Burnett and others to resurrect their careers.
Hurdle also moved to Pittsburgh. If the club was recruiting a free agent, he wanted to look the guy in the eye and tell him it was a great place to live, and he thought so much of it he moved his family to the area.
He began having regular conversations with a homeless man near PNC Park, telling him these new Pirates were not the same old Bucs, and that he needed to get on the bandwagon while there was still time.
Down the stretch last season, Hurdle took note of the changing scene at places like school carpool lanes. Suddenly, there was Pirates gear all over the place. He knew then that the apathy was no more.
On the first day of Spring Training, Hurdle gathered his players and told them the job wasn't finished, that going to Game 5 of an NL Division Series against the Cardinals wasn't the ultimate goal.
He told them that they'd accomplished plenty, that they had reasons to be proud. "But," he said, "there's more there."
"Our guys believe that," he said later. "They believe there's more there. That's what we're focused on."