Hurdle made the Bucs believe they could win again
Now in his fourth season with club, skipper has turned Pirates into contender
Don't tell Ryne Sandberg that managers don't matter.
"For me, I think the leadership starts with the manager," said Sandberg, the former Hall of Fame player who is now in his first full season managing the Phillies. "That's what I always felt. The managers on my [winning Cubs] teams -- Don Zimmer and Jim Frey -- they were the leaders, I felt. We took on the characteristics of them, and just took care of business.
"First and foremost, I think that's where the leadership starts. You get the players believing in what you're doing, you get on the same page, and they start doing a lot of the work. Then it's just about baseball, concentrating on winning games."
Sandberg's right. The most critical thing a manager has to do is to get players to believe. There are places where it's a lot easier for them to do that, but Texas isn't one them. Yet Ron Washington got it done.
Before he could be second-guessed for this or that, the long-time coach -- hugely popular with players when he worked for the A's and the Twins -- Washington had to convince the Rangers that they could overcome the Angels and win in the American League West.
Jim Leyland had to make the Tigers believe they could win when he arrived in Detroit, just as he had done when he jumped from Pittsburgh to the Florida Marlins in 1997. Joe Maddon worked wonders on the minds of players when he took over in Tampa Bay.
Before they were perennial contenders, of course, the Tigers and Rays struggled immensely. But Dave Dombrowski and Andrew Friedman imported the right managers at the right time, just as Jon Daniels had done when he took a chance on Washington.
But how about Clint Hurdle and the Pirates, huh?
Outside of perhaps Wrigley Field, there probably wasn't anyplace in Major League Baseball with more institutional skepticism than PNC Park when Neal Huntington hired Hurdle to step in three and a half years ago.
Facing a losing streak that dated to 1993, Huntington turned to Hurdle as the Pirates were starting to produce players from their run of strong drafts and international signings. Huntington, who was hired to replace Dave Littlefield as general manager late in the 2007 season, had run a bold operation, spending heavily on drafts and international free agents while turning over stones all around the globe to try to accumulate talent.
Huntington needed a manager he could trust to nurture his players, to free them up to let their talent flow. He needed a manager with as much presence as baseball knowledge, and he got lucky when Hurdle jumped at a chance to try to win where nobody had since Barry Bonds left town.
Huntington and his assistants, like Kyle Stark and Greg Smith, built a roster capable of competing against the powerful Cardinals and Reds. That was no easy trick. But it was the arrival of Hurdle that turned a potential playoff team into a real one, and it took everything Adam Wainwright had for the Cards to outlast the Pirates last October.
Owner Bob Nutting and president Frank Coonelly rewarded Huntington and Hurdle with contract extensions over the weekend. The deals take them through 2017, with club options for '18, and more importantly validate the significance both of them have played in helping create a baseball renaissance in Pittsburgh, which through the years had been a great baseball town.
Hurdle, like the Athletics' Bob Melvin, is the classic modern manager. He's an old-school baseball guy, but he is always thirsty for knowledge. He values the information that comes his way, which is a good thing, because these days it flows down from front-office databases like water over Niagara Falls.
If a manager tries to ignore it, he'll drown. Hurdle listens and learns -- the best example being the shifts and unconventional defensive alignments that the Pirates began employing frequently last season.
But before Hurdle could turn Neil Walker into a right fielder/second baseman with some shifts, he had to convince the homegrown Pittsburgher that he knew what he was talking about. More importantly, he had to convince everyone on the roster that the team could be more than the Andrew McCutchen Appreciation Society.
It starts with talent, sure. But that talent isn't anything without belief.
When Hurdle arrived, all anyone could talk about was the Pirates' 18 consecutive losing seasons. And why not? The streak would reach 20 before it finally stopped last year, making it the longest for any team in one of America's four top team sports.
But Hurdle never talked about the streak. He talked about the Pirates getting back to the World Series for the first time since 1979.
"We're not printing T-shirts for the players to wear that say, 'Hey, how about winning 82 [games]," Hurdle told me in spring 2011. "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 managed the Rockies when they went to the World Series in 2007, and he was Washington's hitting coach when the Rangers went their first Fall Classic three years later. His experience gave him the vision that would have been fuzzy when seen through others' eyes, and he convinced his players it could happen.
The next time someone tries to tell you the modern manager doesn't matter, remind them about guys like Hurdle, Melvin, Washington, Terry Francona and John Farrell.