LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- Much like the Pirates have a tough act to follow, manager Clint Hurdle will be hard-pressed to improve upon the tone he set with the team in a 2013 season that made joyous history in Pittsburgh.
The National League Manager of the Year, Hurdle created an atmosphere of unity and determination that helped the Pirates reach the postseason for the first time since 1992, a ride the Bucs and their fans cherished into October.
Heading into 2014, Hurdle knows he must continue to evolve as a manager for the team to continue to develop as a postseason contender, and take it to the next level. As usual, he has a unique way of looking at that challenge and expressing how it will have to come about.
"You've got to use your eyes and you've got to use your ears," Hurdle said in a media interview session Wednesday at the Winter Meetings. "Most of us at this level have had our ego beaten out of us, so we don't carry that in the forefront of everything we do anymore. For me, it's been critical that I continue to challenge my staff that I don't ever want to be the smartest man in the room. If I'm the smartest man in the room, I need to look for a new room or a new staff."
Hurdle says he'll continue to spread the leadership load, which last year included a five-man leadership council voted by the players and a dearth of micromanaging by the skipper.
"That's seemed to work," said Hurdle, entering his fourth season in Pittsburgh after seven-plus seasons at the helm in Colorado. "To this point in time, it's helped me develop. The players helped me develop.
"The leadership council this year was a big step forward for my team and for myself. We had five men picked by the players in Spring Training meeting twice a month, and we talked about everything. It wasn't just baseball. It could be kids at home. It could be whatever came across, you know, different challenges in other ballparks. So the gloves were off and there was a lot of trust involved."
Last year, the leadership council consisted of Andrew McCutchen, Russell Martin, Jason Grilli, A.J. Burnett and Clint Barmes. The future of Burnett and Barmes as Bucs is still uncertain, but the concept remains in place for Hurdle and the Pirates this coming season.
The Pirates figure to have much the same roster entering 2014 that they had entering '13, so almost all of the players under Hurdle's guidance this season will be known quantities, people who have bought in to the attitude and atmosphere Hurdle establishes.
That said, there will be challenges for Hurdle as a manager, starting in Spring Training. One item that will be hard to ignore, barring any changes in the team's plan this offseason, is that the team will have several players vying for playing time in right field, all knowing that top prospect Gregory Polanco could come on board sometime during the season to take over that spot.
It's the type of challenge Hurdle says he will take on with open communication with each of the players -- currently, Jose Tabata, Travis Snider, Andrew Lambo and Jaff Decker are the ones in line to compete for playing time.
"You have that conversation with each one of them," Hurdle said. "I'm a big believer in getting things off of them that don't need to be on them, eliminating every distraction I can for the player. So we'll go in and we'll explain to Travis, to Lambo, to Tabata where we are and revisit where they were last year, the roles they individually played, the contributions they were able to make, the challenges they had, where their areas of improvements lie. And let's move forward together to get the best deal out of this for all of us."
It's that "us" mentality that Hurdle preached throughout the remarkable 2013 campaign and into the postseason. When he was presented the NL Manager of the Year Award, the first thing he always mentioned was that it was an honor for the organization, not just himself.
Carrying that attitude into 2014 and instilling it into a team that has to be hungry for more is the main priority for Hurdle.
The skipper of the Pirates' ship knows he was part of a sea change in Pittsburgh a year ago, and he knows the ship has to keep churning in the right direction to maintain the momentum that made PNC Park a boisterous venue into October in 2013.
"I don't think it's any secret that as the W's add up ... the place is electric," Hurdle said. "I do think [Pirates fans] have a belief now in place that they haven't been able to hold onto. It's not just hope anymore.
"They saw tangible evidence of a team that could show up, play, complete and they were proud of. We need to give them more of that."
John Schlegel is a national reporter for MLB.com.