By Joe Catullo Jr.
Snowflakes trickling, temperature around 20 degrees and cars driving in slush made for a typical January day in Youngstown on Saturday.
But inside McMenamy’s Restaurant and Banquet Center, looking at Pittsburgh Pirates manager Clint Hurdle made one feel they were in Florida.
“I’ve actually snuck down to Florida a couple times this offseason,” he said. “I’m down there as of now getting ready for spring training. I have an excuse for being tan. It’s not a tanning salon.”
Hurdle flew from Florida to Youngstown as a guest speaker for the Youngstown State Baseball Program’s First Pitch Breakfast, auctioning off memorabilia to help raise money.
It was also an opportunity for Hurdle to reconnect with MLB umpire Wally Bell. Hurdle said Bell has never run him out of a game, but he will this season.
“You know that’s going to happen now that we spent an evening and a day together here,” Hurdle said. “If I was a betting man, which I’m not because that would keep me out of the Hall of Fame — and I’m still waiting for my first vote — I would bet that there will be an altercation between Wally and I this year that might not end up well.”
Bell, a Youngstown native, flew home after baseball meetings concluded in Arizona and will stay until spring training begins. His reasoning for returning was simple.
“Being from the area, I think it’s great for the Mahoning Valley,” Bell said. “Any time they call and ask me to help, I enjoy doing it. You get up a little earlier than usual on a Saturday, but it’s worth it. People think Youngstown’s dead, and it’s not. You see the people here show it.”
Not only were they guest speakers, but Hurdle and Bell also connected with the Penguins. First-year head coach Steve Gillispie couldn’t be more excited.
“Those guys have a real passion for the game or they wouldn’t be doing what they do professionally, let alone coming to events like this and giving up their time to help us accomplish things we want to do,” Gillispie said.
Experiencing his first offseason in Youngstown, Gillispie said things are going slow, but Saturday picked up the pace.
“The school seems to be very much behind what we’re doing,” he said. “Today’s a good evidence how the community is curious with what we might have going on with the new program. [I] just couldn’t be any more excited or think of a better place to be in my career.”
The Penguins 11-44 under Rich Pasquale last season. Ron Strollo, YSU’s Executive Director of Intercollegiate Athletics, said he can sense a change in the right direction under Gillispie.
“So far he’s undefeated, so everybody’s happy,” Strollo said laughing. “There’s a great amount of energy and excitement about what they’re trying to do.”
The Penguins are scheduled to start practicing Monday. Gillispie said the biggest thing is getting the players to enjoy what they do every day in the ballpark.
“The chance to compete in college runs out at some point,” Gillespie said. “Let’s cherish the time that we have, let’s play as hard as we can, and we’ll add it up at the end of the day and see whether it’s a win or a loss. But if we can give our best effort, compete hard and pull out as a team, we’ll be just fine.”