By Jayson Stark
February 18, 2014
BRADENTON, Fla. -- This wouldn't be the first spring training in history in which thePittsburgh Pirates found themselves trying to master the art of Turning the Page.
Just this year, it’s a whole different kind of page.
No late-season collapses have to be expunged from their memory banks this year. No more ghosts of Sid Bream, or Derek Bell's Operation Shutdown, or those they-traded-Aramis-Ramirez-for-WHAT? nightmares need to be sifted through. Not anymore.
Here, finally, in the spring of 2014, the Pirates have crossed a threshold many western Pennsylvanians never thought they’d live to see them cross: the Pirates as winners. What a concept.
So for a change, they’re not trying to Turn the Page in spring training because they remember that page as a major migraine waiting to happen.
No, this year they’re Turning the Page because the good times -- the 94 wins and the beautiful trip to October that finally came last year -- are worth zero wins this year. Or at least that’s what they've been told by the proper authorities.
So when their golden-throated poet laureate of a manager, Clint Hurdle, stood before them Tuesday morning, on the day their whole team finally assembled for the first full-squad workout, he had an important word to present to them:
No need for us to try to characterize what Hurdle said, in his momentous First Day of Spring address to the troops. We’ll let him describe it, as only he can.
“We brought closure to the 2013 season today,” Hurdle said, “collectively, as a group. I wanted to wait for everybody to get here to do that. We revisited some things -- together. And then we closed the book -- together.
“NOW, where are we going to go?” he bellowed, his voice soaring, like a modern-day Winston Churchill in uniform. “NOW, how are we going to get there? The importance of NOW. The next step for us, in all the different facets of the game. We've got to nail NOW. We’ve got to take care of NOW.
“And the men are on board. They get the fact that, OK, we've had enough positive experience from the hard work that’s played out. And there’s more there. We've got to go get more. And NOW is the day that we start that next journey. The journey of the 2014 season starts NOW. Today.”
Whoah. Anybody else out there ready to charge across the Fort Pitt Bridge and try to win about 150 games? Clint Hurdle can have that effect on any room he’s in, as soon as his vocal cords start warbling. And on this memorable Tuesday morning, he sold his message masterfully once again.
“Clint’s the ultimate leader and speaker,” said his closer, Jason Grilli. “And I think the point was definitely made. The book has been closed on what it needs to be closed on. We’re all here together, starting a new season. So we’re all on the same page.
“He commands the room when he speaks,” Grilli went on. “And he’s very intelligent. And he drove his point home. He’s getting us all focused. We've got meat left on the bone here. We didn't win the World Series last year. And that’s what we’re out to do.”
But before we -- or the Pirates, for that matter -- completely start placing what they did do in 2013 in the same ancient-history file as, say, the fall of the Roman Empire, let’s remember something:
What they did last year mattered. And it still matters NOW.
What they went through last year -- all of them, players and fans alike -- was special and magical. And it will reverberate through this spring and this season no matter how hard they work at Turning the Page.
“It was pretty common for people to tell me all winter that us, as a team, kind of revived their liking of baseball,” said second baseman Neil Walker, who spent most of that winter living right there in Pittsburgh. “I heard that many, many, many times. It seems like everybody’s a Pirates fan, whether they want to be or not.”
So there you go. Involuntary, mandatory Pirates fandom. Hopefully, there’s no cure for that.
GM Neal Huntington told a story Tuesday of walking through a Home Depot over the winter -- “looking for a snow shovel, probably” -- when a man approached him, with a story to tell.
“He came up to me,” the GM said, “and expressed to me how grateful he was to be able to share that playoff experience with his father and also with his son. They’d kind of come and gone with their love for the Pirates, because we’d put them through some tough years. But the sheer joy that they had last year, and to share the postseason run with his dad and with his son, that’s pretty cool. That hits home. It made me realize this is a lot bigger than wins and losses.”
Which it is. And was. So not everything about last year should be forgotten, or needs to be forgotten for this team to take another step this year. When they all think back on last year, said reliever Mark Melancon, “I don’t want it to be a bad thing.”
It shouldn't be, because it was life-changing. It was psyche-changing. It transformed an entire franchise, in a powerful and meaningful way. So there’s no reason to Turn the Page on that part of 2013.
But when Hurdle was asked what he doesn't want his team to forget about last season, he had other memories in mind. He wants them to remember “how well they took care of 'today,' each and every day,” he said.
“As I shared with them, if you've got one foot in yesterday and you've got one foot in tomorrow, you've got a chance to [make a mess of] today,” Hurdle said. “And we got very professional about taking care of today, taking care of playing in the moment, individually and collectively as a club. When they finished a challenge, then they prepared for the next challenge. So I don’t want them to take that away.
“And I don’t want them to take away the importance of the next man up, how we continue to focus on what we do have, not what we don’t have. I want them to hold on to the fact that their attitude and their effort [is something] they can bring every day.
“We create strategies through probabilities, through statistical analysis,” he said. “But we create attitudes through possibilities. And whatever we think is possible, IS possible.”
What they think is possible, of course, is to go this year where they didn't get to go last year -- to the NLCS, to the World Series, to the parade floats. That won’t be easy, following a winter in which they made minimal additions but had several significant subtractions -- in the loss of their ace, A.J. Burnett, and their October cleanup hitter, Justin Morneau, and a right fielder who hit .364/.391/.591 in the postseason, Marlon Byrd.
But there is so much pitching depth here that it’s not out of the question that a starter who made the All-Star team last year, Jeff Locke, could be challenged to make the rotation this year. And there are big-time prospects with a chance to make a major contribution this season -- especially outfield stud Gregory Polanco and former No. 2 overall pick in the 2010 draft, right-hander Jameson Taillon.
So the future remains picturesque, just as the past remains unforgettably euphoric. But none of that matters on the first full day of spring training.
What matters, Clint Hurdle reminds us one more time, is NOW.
“The light is on,” said baseball’s most eloquent manager. “But we've gotta go play.”