Bucs must Hurdle complacency trap
Skipper plans to draw on past experiences to help players succeed again next season
LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- After 20 years of failure, the Pirates were able to celebrate again last fall.
The Bucs ended the longest streak of losing seasons in pro sports and reached the postseason for the first time in two decades.
That was a relief.
Now comes the hard part.
Now they are going to try to repeat.
It's not easy.
Pirates manager Clint Hurdle knows that well.
Hurdle was the manager of a Rockies team that found some magic itself in 2007, winning 13 of its final 14 regular-season games to claim the National League Wild Card spot, and then sweeping Philadelphia in the Division Series and Arizona in the NL Championship Series before being swept by Boston in the World Series.
The Rockies were a relatively young team. Among the regulars in their lineup, Todd Helton (32) and Kaz Matsui (31) were the only players on the back side of 30. Josh Fogg, at 30, was the elder statesman among the five most-used starting pitchers. And Manny Corpas, 24, emerged as the closer in the second half of the season.
So, what happened after? The Rockies stumbled to a 74-88 record and a third-place finish, struggled to open the 2009 season, and 17 months after the final out was recorded in the 2007 Fall Classic, Hurdle was let go.
Hurdle thinks he knows what went awry, but he isn't saying. At least not publicly. He is, however, planning to delve into some of the things he believes went wrong in Colorado with the 2014 version of the Pirates come Spring Training.
"I don't want to throw out 18 different thoughts right now, because a lot of them might not be appropriate," Hurdle said during a media session at the Winter Meetings on Wednesday. "I have some thoughts. I'll probably share some experiences from Colorado, things I thought we were able to sustain and do well, and things that challenged us the following year."
Rest assured, Hurdle has relived those moments in 2008 and 2009 many times. He is into detail. He loves history, because it can help prevent the same mistakes being made in the future. Hurdle knows that from his own experiences, ranging from those days as a cover boy on Sports Illustrated, which proclaimed him the next phenom, to a career that never met expectations that he extended because of his willingness to learn and adjust.
An outfielder when he was drafted, Hurdle came to the big leagues as a first baseman, forced into the role in Kansas City after the Royals unloaded John Mayberry, and he wound up learning to catch so that he could extend his career.
After losing his job with Colorado, Hurdle welcomed the chance to be a hitting coach for Texas, which gave him time to reflect on his managerial experiences. He became anxious to get a chance to manage again. The opportunity arrived three years ago.
He savored the rejuvenation of baseball in Pittsburgh, and he knows the challenge belongs to him, and everybody else in the Pirates organization, to ensure that the team builds on that excitement next season.
Pittsburgh's season attendance of 2,256,862 ranked 19th among the 30 Major League teams, but everything is relative. It was only the fourth time in the history of a franchise that dates back to 1882 that the team drew more than two million fans, and it was the second-highest single-season attendance in franchise history. The Pirates set a franchise record of 2,435,867 in 2001, the year they opened PNC Park.
"How crucial is it to get off to a good start?" Hurdle said of building off the fans' support. "It's all crucial. You have to keep it all in perspective and focus on the things that you did to get [the fans] back. They want a team they can be proud of. They want a team that plays the game smart, plays the game hard. Guys that will dig balls out of the dirt, slide and break up double plays, all the stuff that a blue-collar city can relate to."
There doesn't figure to be many new faces for the fans to get to know. First baseman Garrett Jones, who had been displaced late in the season by Justin Morneau, signed with Miami, and Morneau signed with Colorado, creating a vacancy at that position. Shortstop Clint Barmes is also on the free-agent market.
Jordy Mercer, after a year as Barmes' partner at shortstop, will assume that job on a full-time basis, although Barmes could return if he decides a limited role suits him. The Pirates have been in contact with the representatives of free-agent first baseman James Loney, and have Gaby Sanchez as an in-house option at first.
The Pirates also remain uncertain as to whether starting pitcher A.J. Burnett will return or retire.
"Those are areas [general manager] Neal [Huntington] will deal with," Hurdle said.
Hurdle's area of concern is making sure the players he has when Spring Training opens are ready to build off last season's success, and he has worked this offseason to make sure there is no complacency.
"Every spring, we come in and have that same entrance interview that we do leaving the season called the exit interview. 'What did you do well? What challenged you?'" Hurdle said. "I imagine if we get the player that says he doesn't have any challenges, we might be able to help him along the lines of what he might anticipate being challenged by the next season based on X, Y or Z or this player's career.
"What can be the norm of challenges for a young player that has early success? Overconfidence is always at the top of the list. Maybe thinking, 'I've got this.' There are two types of players; really, there are two types of people. But I share with them all the time, there are two types of players in this game, those that are humble and those that are about to be. Which one are you? Because there is a chance that you're going to be both. It only takes you one time on that other side that you realize, 'OK, I need to slow things down.' There is always something to learn and improve upon."
As much as the Pirates enjoyed 2013, Hurdle knows there can be even more joy in avoiding the trap of being satisfied, and then taking another step forward in the postseason.
Tracy Ringolsby is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.