Twelve weeks and counting in uniform as the manager of the Pirates, Clint Hurdle already is seeing more scarecrows and lions than latter-day Ralph Kiners and Roberto Clementes.
This is Pittsburgh, you know.
"It's the Wizard of Oz," Hurdle says. "We're on the yellow brick road. There are going to be distractions, there are going to be challenges, but we're on the road."
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Spotted any Willie Stargells or Bill Mazeroskis?
"We have enough pressure just playing complete ballgames," Hurdle says. "We have good talent here. We have growing talent. And when you're starting the number of people we're starting with less than two and a half years of major league experience, it's like starting four freshmen in the NCAA.
"There's games you go, wow. And there's games you go, WOW!"
Purveyors of poor play in Pittsburgh since 1993, the Pirates plow onward with a new pilot. Again.
Hurdle has participated in two recent World Series, managing the Rockies to one in 2007 and serving as the hitting coach for last year's Texas bombers. While the 39th manager in the Pirates' 124-year history, Hurdle also is the sixth skipper in the last 15 years.
Oh, his predecessors have seen fire, and they've seen rain. Hurdle is looking for the sunny days Pittsburgh thinks will never end again.
It's early, but there are small cracks in the clouds of a North American professional sports record 19 consecutive losing seasons that signify maybe they're coming.
|Hurdle managed the Rockies to the World Series in 2007 and was the Rangers' hitting coach last season. (Getty Images)|
You read correctly: The Pirates, into Tuesday night's game in San Diego, were 10-7 on the road. Last summer, the Pirates won a pathetic total of 17 road games (17-64).
So yes, whatever road the Pirates are on, it is significant if Hurdle thinks it's paved with yellow bricks.
"As I told them in spring training, I want to be easy to please and hard to satisfy," Hurdle says. "And that's where they've got me right now. We've done some things I'm real happy with. It's not all record-related. That's how we're measured up here. We've played good teams. We've had an incredibly challenging schedule."
He's right, which is another positive sign: The one-under .500 Bucs have faced teams currently in first place in 13 of 29 games so far (Colorado, St. Louis and Florida, which is off to the best start in franchise history). They've also played six others against legitimate contenders (Cincinnati and Milwaukee) and three more against the defending world champions (San Francisco).
The road success has not been lost on the players, who say there's a different feeling. Part of it seems to be a more relaxed atmosphere under Hurdle, whose rules and manner are maybe less rigid than those of his predecessor, John Russell.
For one thing, center fielder Andrew McCutchen says, it's nice "not having to show up at 1 o'clock and feel like you have to be here all day. We're taking our time. Clint's made it known to everyone that you're not going to win a trophy for showing up early to the clubhouse."
That isn't to encourage laziness. Hurdle tells his Bucs to get up and get out while on the road, take a walk during the day, get the body going, eat something before going to the ballpark.
"We know it's going to turn around for us at home, too," McCutchen says. "It's home. It's where we like to play. We're going to win some games there and start surprising some people."
McCutchen, third baseman Pedro Alvarez, center fielder Jose Tabata and second baseman Neal Walker are those of whom Hurdle speaks having little major league experience. Summoned to the bigs on Saturday was right-hander Daniel Moskos, Pittsburgh's first-round pick (fourth overall) in the '07 draft.
Moskos is the fifth first-round pick now on the active roster, following pitcher Paul Maholm ('03), Walker ('04), McCutchen ('05) and Alvarez ('08).
The plan is for the pipeline to keep flowing. The Pirates in recent years have tripled their international scouting budget. They've spent $30.7 million over the past three amateur drafts, more than any other team in the majors.
"That tells you where we've been, and where we're going is up," Hurdle vows. "The players and coaching staff are holding ourselves to a championship level of execution every night. That's what's driving this bus."
Key difference in Hurdle's comparison of the Bucs and a four-freshman NCAA hoops team is, theoretically, the current nucleus won't be one-and-done in Pittsburgh.
"Without a doubt," Hurdle says. "They've all scratched and had a taste of it. Now the league's counter-punching and they're trying to figure out how to throw the next punch."
Hurdle? When not pulling the levers, he and wife Karla are shopping for a house in Pittsburgh. After a run in which the Pirates have averaged a new manager every 2 ½ years since the departure of Jim Leyland following the 1996 season -- a stunning average of one manager per 149 victories -- Hurdle really thinks time and place are meeting opportunity.
Oz or Pittsburgh, Hurdle really likes it here.
"The ballpark is one of the crown jewels of major league baseball," he says. "The city of Pittsburgh, the roll up your sleeves and get some dirt in your spikes mentality, is right up my alley.
"And there's not a better coaching opportunity, or an opportunity for the players to re-bond the city with the team ... there's not a better one in all of sports. You can't find in the NHL, the NFL, the NBA ... we have an opportunity to be the group that puts a foot down and re-bonds with the city."