By buying in, Pirates return to hallowed ground
Following lead of Hurdle and McCutchen, Pittsburgh has a winner again
One of the first things Clint Hurdle did when the Pirates hired him to be their manager almost three years ago was buy a home in Pittsburgh.
"I was going to be all in," he said.
Hurdle wasn't going to just manage the baseball team. He was going to be part of the community. When times were tough, Hurdle would know what people were saying, because he wanted to listen. He's a big man with a booming voice. He's a people person, too.
In fact, beyond the respect Hurdle holds around the game as someone who knows hitting and can teach it better than almost anyone, beyond the terrific work he has done organizing his pitching staff and running a game -- in short, doing all the things that make the best managers -- it's his ability to unite a group of men and convince them to work together for one goal that's almost certainly at the top of the list.
So when Hurdle became a Pittsburgh resident, he knew there was some work to do. Seeing how the club hadn't had so much as a winning season since 1992, plenty of casual fans had lost interest.
But that wasn't the worst of it. Some of Hurdle's players no longer believed, either. Things had been down for so long that there seemed to be an acceptance of losing. In those first conversations with players -- which began the day he got the job -- he made them tell him they believed that with hard work and a few changes, the Pirates would again play October baseball.
In some cases, Hurdle didn't like the answers he heard, and those players were not around for Monday night's celebration. Because Hurdle knew where this deal was headed. He knew it from the beginning. He wanted to make sure everyone else knew, too. And when Hurdle, with that big voice and all those inspirational sayings and that hard handshake, tells you that he believes, you'd better believe, too.
And now, others believe. Maybe that's the coolest part of this entire story, with the Pirates clinching their first playoff berth in 21 years on Monday night. Hurdle sees people wearing Bucs gear all over the place.
Hurdle sees it when he's in the carpool line at school -- yep, that's the Pirates' manager -- he sees it when he's in the supermarket and he sees it on the streets on his drive to PNC Park.
Let's not make this whole thing sound easy. It didn't happen just because Clint Hurdle believed it would happen, and it didn't happen just because from the beginning, he mandated that the things that had been acceptable yesterday would no longer be acceptable tomorrow.
Pirates chairman of the board Bob Nutting put his management team in place in the fall of 2007 with the hiring of Frank Coonelly as team president and Neal Huntington as general manager. In the six years since, that team has worked relentlessly to get it right.
Because the Bucs spend less than most other teams, they can't bid for big-ticket free agents. When they spend, they must spend wisely. They must search for bargains, and when a general manager does that, he's going to make some mistakes.
Regardless, there are not shortcuts. The Pirates are back in the playoffs because Huntington put together a terrific baseball staff, one that made smart decisions on Draft day and in free agency.
Center fielder Andrew McCutchen, the cornerstone of everything this club has done, was already in the farm system when Huntington arrived. But it was Huntington who convinced him to sign a long-term contract.
Plenty of players contributed to Monday night's sweet, sweet moment, but it all begins with McCutchen believing as much as Huntington and Hurdle did. Second baseman Neil Walker was already in the system, too. He's important in part because he's a Pittsburgh kid, and because he believes in the black and gold as much as those guys do.
And then third baseman Pedro Alvarez came in the 2008 First-Year Player Draft, along with shortstop Jordy Mercer in '08 and right-hander Gerrit Cole in '11. Left fielder Starling Marte was signed in '07 and arrived in the big leagues in '12.
Huntington took a flyer on right-hander A.J. Burnett, getting both a top-of-the-rotation guy and a clubhouse leader. He got Jason Grilli, Mark Melancon, Jeff Locke and others at just the right time.
Huntington signed catcher Russell Martin and left-hander Francisco Liriano last offseason, and both have been huge parts of this season. And then after the non-waiver Trade Deadline, he did extraordinary work to add a pair of middle-of-the-order hitters in outfielder Marlon Byrd and first baseman Justin Morneau.
Things still haven't been easy for these Bucs. Their pitching was very good early, but it has stumbled some in the second half. Pittsburgh has been offensively challenged the entire year.
But the starters have rebounded nicely, compiling a 2.93 ERA over the past 12 games. So even with the offense scoring three runs or fewer 13 times in September, the Pirates have a place to start as they fight for a division championship or home-field advantage in the National League Wild Card Game in these final days.
The Bucs will tell you this is just one step forward. But it's a big one. In the past 21 years, plenty of us have wondered if they would ever be relevant again. Thanks to the hard work of the front office and this group of players, a group which buys into Hurdle and follows McCutchen, the Pirates are going to be playing October baseball again. And that's a very cool thing.
Richard Justice is a columnist for MLB.com. Read his blog, Justice4U. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.