- Associated Press - Wednesday, March 16, 2011

BRADENTON, FLA. (AP) - Clint Hurdle shrugged his shoulders and kept talking.

The Pittsburgh Pirates haven’t posted a winning record since Barry Bonds carried them in 1992, and their enthusiastic new manager doesn’t pretend to have all the answers for ending the longest stretch of futility in North American sports.

Eighteen consecutive losing seasons, 299 losses over the past three years, a major league-low 57 wins in 2010.

A major hurdle, indeed.

But this Hurdle is nothing if not optimistic. That’s his trademark, and he says brighter days are ahead. Even if he can’t promise when.

“Every man that’s come in here before me for the last 18 years, I have no doubt in my mind was coming with great intentions, trying to make a difference,” said Hurdle, the former Colorado skipper who left a comfortable job as hitting coach with the AL champion Texas Rangers to take over the Pirates.

“Sometimes it’s timing. A lot of times it is talent. … Right now, I think we’ve got a good combination of a lot of things coming together at the right time,” the 53-year-old manager said.

The Pirates have averaged 97 losses per season since 2005, yet a strong nucleus of young talent that includes center fielder Andrew McCutchen, second baseman Neil Walker and third baseman Pedro Alvarez is a basis for real hope.

“If I was a guy just looking for a check, all I’d do is mess this thing up,” said Hurdle, who guided the Rockies to their only World Series appearance in 2007.

“They needed somebody to come in and be committed, roll their sleeves up, get some dirt in their spikes and put in a full day’s effort. Pittsburgh’s a blue-collar town, and it needs somebody with a blue-collar mentality. At least I know I have that. I’m not afraid to work, and I’m not afraid of a challenge.”

And what a challenge it is _ the Pirates were last in the NL in hitting, pitching and defense last season.

Not since Jim Leyland guided Pittsburgh within one out of the 1992 World Series have the Pirates been a major factor in their own city. Since then, John Russell, Jim Tracy, Lloyd McClendon and Gene Lamont have occupied the dugout without success.

Sure, PNC Park remains one of the prettiest places to play in the majors, far more cozy than old Three Rivers Stadium. Yet right down the road is Heinz Field, where the Steelers seem to make a Super Bowl charge every year. Even the Pitt Panthers are creating more interest, with local hoops fans thinking their team is poised for a Final Four run.

Put it this way: The biggest postseason noise the Pirates have made in nearly two decades came last fall when a thought-to-be-lost film of their Game 7 win over the New York Yankees in the 1960 World Series was found in Bing Crosby’s old wine cellar.

So it made sense that when the entire Pirates roster assembled for the first full-squad of spring training, Hurdle didn’t start out by talking about bats, balls and gloves. He instead spoke about trust, accountability and the type of dedication it would take to change a culture of losing.

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