Replacing legend not daunting for Hurdle

Replacing legend not daunting for Hurdle

ARLINGTON -- It's never easy replacing a legend, but experience, reputation and a couple of dozen introductory phone calls have made Clint Hurdle's first season as the Rangers' hitting coach a big hit.

The Rangers led the American League in team batting average, won the AL West championship for the first time since 1999 and are one win away from reaching the AL Championship Series for the first time in franchise history.

And that has all been accomplished without Rudy Jaramillo, the Rangers' batting coach from 1995 through last season, the longest stint any Major League hitting coach has spent with one team.

"Rudy is a legend and an institution here," Rangers general manager Jon Daniels said of Jaramillo, who rejected a one-year contract offer last October and later signed on with the Cubs. "One of the things we felt was that the guy coming in after Rudy had to have some credibility. Clint has that."

Hurdle, who has been there and done that, is doing it again.

A first-round Draft choice of the Royals out of Big Rapids, Mich., in 1975, Hurdle entered professional baseball with a sweet swing and can't-miss tag. Hurdle was so highly regarded that Sports Illustrated made him a cover boy in '78, dubbing him that year's "Phenom."

But after 10 years and not nearly as many hits, homers and RBIs as he had hoped for and others had expected, Hurdle retired as a player and became a Minor League manager. His resume would eventually include eight years as a hitting coach in the Rockies organization, the last five with the Major League club, and a five-year stint as the Rockies' skipper, during which he piloted Colorado to the World Series in 2007.

So while Hurdle definitely had the pedigree to be the Rangers' hitting coach, it must still have been daunting to replace someone who had overseen such a prolific offense for so many years.

Talk about some big shoes to fill.

"I didn't give that part of it a lot of thought, other than the respect I have always had for Rudy," Hurdle said. "I was fortunate that Rudy built such a strong work ethic in these guys. The mentality, the perseverance and the swings were already here. There was no real retooling of a lot of swings here. These guys can hit. They can hit coming in the door. It was more just kind of opening their understanding to a more diverse offensive game."

Hurdle sounds like a proud papa when he talks about the Rangers leading the AL in team batting average this season. They also managed to score more runs in what has been called "The Year of the Pitcher."

Hurdle was successful in getting his philosophy across.

"These guys have bought into the idea of making better outs, having more productive at-bats," Hurdle said. "The number of strikeouts dropped dramatically, the number of walks went up and our on-base percentage was better.

"As an industry, runs were down this year, but we added runs when most teams lost runs. And at the end of the day, we ended up winning the American League West."

Hurdle convinced the Rangers hitters that making productive outs is not a bad thing -- that they should leave their egos at home.

"It is very difficult for an offense to be a bunch of independent contractors in the game of baseball and have team success," Hurdle said. "Teams that have success have bought into the concept of seeing pitches, making good outs, being unselfish. These guys were all about that, anyway, but I just heightened awareness going in and actually came up with a program that we were going to [use to] monitor and keep things in perspective.

"I told them, 'Identity is not tied to your batting average all the time."

The Jaramillo-coached Rangers were typically more aggressive than selective, and the numbers produced year after year were impressive.

From 1996 through the end of the 2004 season, the Rangers ranked in the top five in the AL in team batting average, runs scored, slugging percentage, home runs and hits. In '99, they led the Majors in hits, slugging percentage and team batting average with a .293 mark.

The Rangers hit 260 home runs in 2005, the second-highest total in Major League history. In '08, they were first in runs scored (901), hits (1,619) and home runs (194). During Jaramillo's 16 seasons with Texas, Rangers hitters won 17 Silver Slugger Awards, four MVP Awards, three home run titles, two RBI championships and a batting title. Jaramillo also guided the Rangers to 13 consecutive seasons in which the offense scored more than 800 runs, the longest streak by a Major League team since the Yankees accomplished the feat in 17 straight seasons from 1926-42.

That's a tough act to follow,

"I think everyone had a little bit of concern," team leader Michael Young acknowledged. "But the second we got to Spring Training, Clint started bouncing some ideas off of us, and we knew right then that he was really into this and we were excited about it.

"We knew we could trust him."

The trust factor actually came into play several months earlier, soon after Hurdle became the hitting coach.

"The first order of business was to call these guys individually," Hurdle said. "I didn't have a time frame going in, but I spent a minimum of 25 minutes with some and close to an hour with others. I wanted to give them a little bit of information about me and let them ask questions, individual- and team-based, to get a little perspective, so I could hit the ground running when camp opened."

Young, who had never worked with a hitting coach other than Jaramillo during his MLB career, credited the phone calls with making the transition so smooth.

"When we got to Spring Training, we thought we already knew him," Young said.

When he wasn't making phone calls, Hurdle was watching video of his new hitters and the pitchers they'd be facing.

"I went into information-gathering mode," Hurdle said. "The biggest challenge I had was learning the American League. I didn't have a lot of history, just a snapshot through Interleague games. I had a bunch of catching up to do, as far as pitchers' pitching patterns. There was a lot of new personnel to cover.

"The American league game is different than National League game, because you have that big DH in the middle of the lineup, so working on a game plan [from] that angle was a little challenging. Other than that, it's baseball. Like I tell the hitters, 'Keep it simple; it works.'

"They have learned the value of an out and the value of a good at-bat. That's what has made me feel good. It is only one year, but I was impressed with their willingness to commit to something for a reason bigger than themselves."

The basic premise is, as Hurdle puts it, "individual response aimed toward collective gain."

"All of our hitters had a lot of respect for Rudy," Young said, "and if there ever was going to be a guy to come in and pick up the slack, it would be Clint. He has done a great job for us."

Jim Street is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.