– By FRED GOODALL

The Associated Press

BRADENTON, Fla. – 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 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.

So it made sense that when the entire Pirates roster assembled for the first full-squad workout 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.

The players liked what they heard.

“His attitude and the passion for the game that he’s brought to this clubhouse has definitely uplifted it. There’s no doubt about that,” said Walker, who hit .296 in 110 games last season.

“His ability to instill confidence in his players, especially as a younger team, it’s something that’s very important for this organization.”

Labeled a phenom when he was only 20, Hurdle played parts of 10 seasons with the Kansas City Royals, Cincinnati Reds, New York Mets and St. Louis Cardinals before retiring in 1987, never having reached that top billing. He managed six years in the Mets’ minor league system before getting his first managerial shot in the big leagues with Colorado in 2002.

The job he did to help transform a young Rockies team into a contender was one of the reasons Pittsburgh was drawn to him.

Still, the Pirates’ brain trust had to sell themselves to Hurdle as much as he had to convince them.

After all, he liked his job in Texas. And, the Rangers were coming off a World Series appearance.

“I told them my DNA challenges me every day. I’m looking for challenges at 53, I’m not looking for comfort,” Hurdle said.

On the opening day of camp, Hurdle implored the players to “set our bar on a championship level” and work each day toward the goal of becoming winners.

“There will be a group of men that turns us around here. It’ll happen. So why can’t we? Why can’t we be the start?” the manager said.

After all, once-downtrodden teams such as Cleveland, Detroit, Tampa Bay and Cincinnati built themselves up.

“How long will it take? That’s the one thing I’m not going to get caught up in. The people who judge the job I do, I can’t control that,” Hurdle said. “But what I can push forward is the message, I can push forward practice, I can push forward the intent and the focus, and I believe my doing that will get the results.”