The Pittsburgh Pirates thought they were interviewing Clint Hurdle. Turns out he was interviewing them as well.
As the Pirates asked him about his managerial style, Hurdle quizzed ownership and management about their plans to turn around one of the least-successful franchises in the four major pro sports. He liked the answers and, despite some of his close friends' misgivings, he liked a job that some in baseball would be hesitant to take.
Hurdle, hired Monday as the Pirates' sixth manager since their last winning season in 1992, insists he's not intimidated at taking over a team that lost 105 games last season and has averaged 97 losses over the last six seasons.
"This wasn't about taking a job because it was a sure thing," Hurdle said. "This was about taking an opportunity that felt sure and fit right. I felt comfortable with the people I was going to get after the job with. ... I'm proud to be a Pirate, and we're not going to back down from anybody."
Hurdle, who managed the Colorado Rockies to the 2007 NL pennant, is convinced owner Bob Nutting, president Frank Coonelly and general manager Neal Huntington are determined to win, despite the Pirates' record run of 18 consecutive losing seasons, the accompanying low payrolls and frequent roster turnovers.
"I looked them in the eyes and asked them, 'Are you in?' " Hurdle said. "And to a man they looked me in the eye and said, 'We're in.' ... I was extremely appreciate of the way the men defended the fort."
The 53-year-old Hurdle knows he repeated some of what predecessors Jim Leyland, Gene Lamont, Lloyd McClendon, Jim Tracy and John Russell promised when they also said they could work with young talent and make it better, and win despite severe fiscal restraints.
"I've been at the front end of these news conferences, and the back end," said Hurdle, who was hired as Colorado's manager in 2002 and fired in 2009. "A guy comes in and he says, 'We're going to do this, we're going to do that.' If you replay the tape, the guy before him said the same thing. I'm well aware of the history, the road traveled. But I know where I want to go."
Hurdle, the hitting coach for the AL champion Texas Rangers last season, replaces John Russell, who was fired the day after completing a 105-loss season — the Pirates' worst in 58 years. Russell's teams, thinned by the trades of nearly every productive everyday player, lost 299 games in three seasons.
The Pirates brought up promising center fielder Andrew McCutchen, third baseman Pedro Alvarez, second baseman Neil Walker and left fielder Jose Tabata over the last 1½ seasons. But with little talent to complement them, the Pirates were last in pitching, second from the bottom in hitting and tied for the major league lead in errors last season.
To finish .500 next season, the Pirates must win 24 more games than they did in 2010. And much of the promising talent they've drafted since 2008 remains years away.
"It's like how do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time," Hurdle said. "We're going to fix one thing at a time."
Improving a pitching staff that had a major league-worst 5.00 ERA last season is the top priority, and Hurdle said it will require outside help.
The Pirates identified Hurdle as a candidate from the start, but could not talk to him until Texas' season ended with a Game 5 loss to San Francisco in the World Series. He also was being considered for the Mets' job, but was hired by Pittsburgh before having a second interview in New York, where he once played.
"I had friends question my thought process," Hurdle said. "I did spend nine years of my career in New York, so there was a passion there that was unique and real. ... But I had a process to follow, too. When I got all the information I felt I needed, it felt right in my mind, it felt right in my heart, it felt right professionally and felt right personally."
Hurdle, who cites former Pirates managers Danny Murtaugh, Bill Virdon and Chuck Tanner as influences, managed in Triple-A, Double-A and Single A before going 534-625 as the Rockies' manager from 2002-09.
Hurdle's upbeat attitude and enthusiasm contrast to the more stoic personality of predecessor Russell, whose players sometimes were unhappy when he stayed in the dugout and refused to argue close calls.
"Clint can reach young players, he can reach veteran players, Huntington said. "He does have a great personality, he's got a big presence and he's very charismatic, which allows him to be a tremendous leader."
Hurdle didn't demand the right to hire his entire coaching staff, and will consider candidates who currently work in the organization. Longtime Pirates minor league field coordinator Jeff Banister, the bench coach during the final two months of last season, was the other finalist.