Hurdle eager to clear obstacles in Pirates' way
Pittsburgh manager Clint Hurdle likes to look ahead.
"We can do something about the future," he said.
So as Hurdle prepares for next week's start of his third Spring Training as the manager of the Pirates, it's not the North American professional sports record of 20 consecutive losing seasons that the Pirates are carrying with him that is his focus.
"We are aware of it," Hurdle said, "but they look at it as an opportunity to be the team that is going to [end the streak] and the fan base is going to hold [the team] in a passionate place for what it accomplishes.''
Just another challenge for Hurdle. He embraces them.
When he took over as manager of the Colorado Rockies early in the 2002 season, he constantly dealt with questions about being able to win at high altitude. He answered in 2007, when he took the Rockies to the first World Series in franchise history.
Now it's the anxiety in Pittsburgh, where the Pirates had advanced to the postseason in nine of 23 seasons prior to 1993, winning two World Series in the process.
Since then? Well, there has been little to celebrate in a 20-year drought that began with the final four years of Jim Leyland's managerial term, and then saw Gene Lamont (four years), Lloyd McClendon (five years), Jim Tracy (two years) and John Russell (three years) all try but fail to regain that winning feeling in the Steel City.
Now Hurdle is in charge.
His first two years on the job the Pirates at least created second-half excitement.
The Pirates finished with a 72-90 record in 2011, their 10th season of at least 90 losses in the last two decades, but they were seven games better than .500 on July 19, and as late as July 28 were 54-49, just 1 1/2 games out of first place in the National League Central. The next day, however, they started a 10-game losing streak that was the foundation of an 18-41 finish to the season.
Last year, the Pirates took another step forward. Their 79 wins equaled their most in the last 20 years. They were 63-47 and 2 1/2 games out of first place as late as Aug. 8, remaining in the NL Wild Card race until mid-September and keeping the hope for that winning season alive until losing their 81st game in the 157th game of the season.
And the fans began to respond. The Pirates sold 1,940,429 tickets in 2011, their third highest total in 21 years, and a year ago the attendance was 2,091,918, the second largest ticket-sales figure in franchise history, and only the second time the franchise reached 2 million in 21 years.
The Pirates set a franchise attendance record of 2,435,867 in 2001, the year they moved into PNC Park.
"Last year was the players' first taste of just how passionate the fan base is to end that losing streak," Hurdle said. "We were in such a good place in early August [in terms of postseason possibilities], and there was more hype and talk about good things that could happen."
The good things didn't happen. The Pirates lost 36 of the final 52 games.
Seeds, however, were planted.
And Hurdle's hope is the harvesting of a winning crop will happen in 2013.
The Pirates certainly haven't sat back and waited for things to get better.
"Ownership stepped up," Hurdle said. "The payroll was increased. We were more proactive in trading, looking to add players, not move players."
Only 10 members of the team's 40-man roster appeared in a game in 2011.
Prior to last season, the Pirates signed free-agent shortstop Clint Barmes and left-handed pitcher Erik Bedard. Then, in the final week of July, they worked deals to acquire lefty Wandy Rodriguez from Houston; outfielder Travis Snider from Toronto; first baseman Gaby Sanchez from Miami; and right-handed reliever Chad Qualls from the New York Yankees.
And among the moves this offseason were the signing of free-agent catcher Russell Martin and left-handed pitcher Jonathan Sanchez and a six-player trade with Boston that included sending closer Joel Hanrahan for a package that included right-handers Mark Melancon and Stolmy Pimentel, and outfielder Jerry Sands.
"The biggest thing is we have developed depth," Hurdle said. "The starting pitching is probably the biggest weapon we have developed. We now have depth if something happens where we have options."
And the Pirates have expectations of success.
"The challenge in front of us is to finish the season strong and win more games than we lose," Hurdle said.
Tracy Ringolsby is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.