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November 23, 2010

On the Beat

He's All In

by John Perrotto

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Being the manager of the Pirates, at the least on the surface, would seem to be one of the worst jobs in baseball. It might not be as difficult as handling bags at the Kabul airport, but it can't be easy joining a franchise that has had 18 consecutive losing seasons.

Yet Clint Hurdle was willing to take the challenge when the Pirates offered the Rangers hitting coach and former Rockies manager the job earlier this month. He is undaunted about the fact that no franchise in major North American sports history has had as many sub-.500 finishes in a row. In fact, Hurdle equates replacing John Russell as the fifth manager who will try to break the string of futility—joining Gene Lamont, Lloyd McClendon, and Jim Tracy—to some of the psychological work he needed to do as a hitting coach.

"Guys would be worried when they were slumping, and it would always come back to me asking them one simple question: 'Can you hit?'" Hurdle said. "They would always say yes and I would answer by saying, 'Then you're just due to get hot.'"

Hurdle truly does believe the Pirates are due to turn things around, even though they seemingly hit bottom in 2010 by going 57-105 for their worst finish since the 1952 team went 42-112. He looks at a young core of players and sees hope in right-handers James McDonald and Ross Ohlendorf, short relievers Joel Hanrahan and Evan Meek, second baseman Neil Walker, third baseman Pedro Alvarez, left fielder Jose Tabata, and center fielder Andrew McCutchen.

"I'm confident in the fact that these young players have a sincere desire," said Hurdle, who spent time with Hanrahan and Walker at the Steelers-Patriots NFL football game on the eve of the official announcement of his hiring. "Their want-to is off the charts. I hope to help them with, and I think one of the things I've been able to help players with the best, is their how-to."

Hurdle managed the Rockies from 2002-09, leading them from the bottom of the National League West to a pennant and the franchise's lone World Series appearance in 2007. That experience wound up being a large part of the Pirates' decision to hire Hurdle over an internal candidate, bench coach Jeff Banister, and six other candidates.

"He stepped into a situation very similar to the one we are in now when he became the manager in Colorado," general manager Neal Huntington said. "He went through the growing pains. He helped that team get better, helped them get through the ups and downs that any young team goes through, and eventually won a pennant there. What he did with the Rockies is exactly what we want to do here."

Hurdle admitted he had some trepidation before interviewing with the Pirates. He knew their bleak recent history and their ownership's reputation for being cheap and more interested in making a profit from the money they receive through Major League Baseball's revenue-sharing program than spending it to make the team better. Thus, Hurdle had some questions of his own to ask during his interview.

"I wanted to look them in the eyes and ask them, 'Are you in?'" he said. "To a man, they looked me in the eye and said 'We're in.'"

Hurdle, at that point, decided he was also in, even though he had also interviewed with the Mets and was still a candidate for their manager's opening that eventually went to Terry Collins.

"When I got all the information I needed, it wasn't about, for me, engaging any further with anybody," Hurdle said. "It felt right in my mind, it felt right in my heart, it felt right professionally, it felt right personally. This wasn't about taking a job because it was a sure thing. This was about taking an opportunity that felt sure and fit right. It felt comfortable with the people I was going to get after the job with."

Hurdle has a lot to get after, though. It took a long time for the Pirates to fall this far and it's going to take time to get back to respectability and beyond. However, Hurdle insists he is not deterred by what is in front of him.

"We're going to roll our sleeves up because we have work to do," Hurdle said. "How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time."

---

Ron Gardenhire was reminded of the Yankees, even during one of the best weeks of his life. Heck, he even brought his nemesis up himself.

The Twins skipper won the American League Manager of the Year award after finishing in second place five times and third once. He received 16 of the 28 first-place votes cast by a panel of Baseball Writers Association of America members, six more the Rangers' Ron Washington. Gardenhire was the only manager to appear on every ballot.

Gardenhire received a two-year contract extension the next day that runs through the 2013 season. It was a reward for being the first manager ever to win six division titles in his first nine seasons.

Yet during his teleconference with reporters after winning the Manager of the Year, he referred to the fact that the Twins were swept in three games by the Yankees in the American League Division Series after going 94-68 in the regular season. The Twins have lost to the Yankees in the ALDS in each of their last five trips to the postseason.

"It's nice not finishing second, I can tell you that," Gardenhire said of winning Manager of the Year, which is voted on before the postseason begins. "So I have that off my back. And (reporters) won't ask me about finishing second anymore, so that's off my back. Now, if we can just go out and whack the Yankees and get that off our back. Maybe this is a start in the right direction."

Gardenhire has a 6-21 record in the postseason, including getting swept by the Yankees each of the past two seasons.

"We obviously have to figure out a way to get past the Yankees. They seem to be our Achilles' heel," Gardenhire said. "They always seem to get it done, and we have to figure out a way to get it done. We're built a certain way and we're going to stick with it. We've been successful."

---

The Reds' Dusty Baker lost out on the NL Manager of the Year award by only one point to the Padres' Bud Black. However, Baker wasn't upset. In fact, he was happy to see one of his former players win.

"Blackie's one of my boys," Baker said.

Baker won the award three times with the Giants, finishing first in 1993, 1997, and 2000. Black was a pitcher on the '93 team.

Black finished 104 in this year's voting and Baker had 103. Ironically, the 1993 Giants won 103 games, but finished one game behind the Braves in the NL West and sat home for the postseason as it was the last season before the inception of the wild card.

"I'm into numbers," Baker said. "It's kind of funny. But I'll take 103 wins anytime."

---

The Angels were big spenders in Arte Moreno's first offseason as owner in 2003-04. They signed Bartolo Colon, Kelvim Escobar, Vladimir Guerrero, and Jose Guillen in free agency and the bill came to $150 million.

There are indications the Angels are ready to spend big again this winter. Various sources have them pegged as the front-runners to sign closer Rafael Soriano, third baseman Adrian Beltre, and outfielder Carl Crawford. It is safe to assume the total cost for that trio would exceed $150 million.

The Angels already have approximately $120 million committed in payroll for 2011 if their eight arbitration-eligible players are factored. While general manager Tony Reagins won't say which free agents the Angels are pursuing or what their projected payroll is, he indicated he has money at his disposal.

"Budget is always a consideration, but budget is an outline, a guideline," Reagins said. "You have a guideline, but when opportunities present themselves, you have to be prepared to take advantage of them. So (budget projection) is based on opportunity. I have a guideline, but it's all about opportunity and what we think will make the ballclub better. The bottom line is winning."

---

MLB Rumors and Rumblings: The Diamondbacks would like to sign free-agent J.J. Putz to be their closer while the Braves, Red Sox, Yankees, and Angels also have interest. The Diamondbacks are also considering Brian Fuentes, Kevin Gregg, and Jon Rauch. … The Pirates want to make a splash this winter and are going hard after left-hander Jorge De La Rosa as a free agent while the Orioles and Nationals are also in the hunt. The Rockies, meanwhile, have pretty much resigned themselves to not re-signing De La Rosa. … The Phillies have interest in left-hander Zach Duke, who was designated for assignment by the Pirates, along with the Astros and Indians. … The Orioles are eyeing shortstops Jason Bartlett of the Rays and J.J. Hardy of the Twins in possible trades. … Owner Drayton McLane is hoping to get $800 million in the sale of the Astros and one of the selling points that will be stressed to potential buyers is that the club is partnering with the NBA's Rockets and Comcast to begin a regional sports network in 2012.

John Perrotto is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see John's other articles. You can contact John by clicking here

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