Pirates manager feels right at home at Clint Hurdle Field


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MERRITT ISLAND, Fla. -- In the mid-1970s, after everyone else had gone home, Clint Hurdle would stand at the plate of Merritt Island High School's baseball field. His father, Clint Sr., would pitch to him so Hurdle could put on a show for the major league scouts who came to town to watch.

"Clint's hitting bombs, man, just bombs," said Joe Smitelli, a former teammate and longtime friend of Hurdle's who sometimes would shag balls for those sessions.

"I remember one of the scouts saying, 'OK, OK, that's enough.' Clint would turn around and say, 'Just a couple more.' He had that kind of confidence."

That field at Hurdle's alma mater now bears his name. Merritt Island held a dedication ceremony Friday to christen "Clint Hurdle Field" after this former Mustangs star who went on to become a first-round draft pick and major league manager.

"Very humbling, very surreal," Hurdle told a mostly full set of bleachers in the school's gym Friday, surrounded by his family, old coaches and former teammates.

Smitelli first proposed the idea to Hurdle a few years ago after some parents of current Mustangs players approached Smitelli with the notion.

"I was like, 'Why?' " Hurdle joked. "Are you sure?"

"I said, Joe, if you think you can do something with it, if you think you can help the program, if you think we can help the community, yes, I'm all in."

Hurdle played in the majors for parts of 10 seasons, three of which resulted in playoff appearances, a successful career by any definition. In high school, though, he was a bona fide stud, a first-team All-American his senior year. Neither he nor his coach at Merritt Island, Chuck Goldfarb, remembered any specific play -- a long home run, a diving catch -- that exemplified his career. The possible reason?

"People didn't really pitch to him," Goldfarb said Friday before the ceremony. "He didn't put up great numbers. When they did pitch to him, he hit .565."

The baseball program was relatively average at the time, Hurdle said before the dedication.

"We did not have a fence nor lights my sophomore year," Hurdle said. "I don't think I used an aluminum bat until possibly senior year. We were still using wood."

Scouts came to Merritt Island to see Waldo Williams, a catcher, when Hurdle was a sophomore, and Hurdle gained more exposure as a result. The Kansas City Royals eventually chose Hurdle ninth overall in the 1975 draft.

The Mustangs football team, though, was a powerhouse. They won a state championship in 1972 and went 8-0-2 in 1974, when Hurdle was named a first-team all-conference quarterback.

Hurdle had a scholarship to play football and baseball at Miami as well as a scholarship to Harvard -- he received one 'B' in high school, and that came in driver's ed -- but the first-round selection sent him to baseball. And, as he told the crowd Friday night, "The baseball field was the one spot I was most comfortable in."

Hurdle's connection to Merritt Island extended off the field. Hurdle's sisters used to baby-sit for Goldfarb's children. Two different billboards, Merritt Island's main sign and the Triangle Auto sign down the street from the school, advertised the dedication. Smitelli worked for years at the nearby Kennedy Space Center with Hurdle's parents. Peter Kerasotis, a friend of Hurdle's who spoke at the ceremony, referred to the Hurdles as the "first family of baseball" on Merritt Island.

"He has been over the years and continues to be an enormous influence in my life and in the lives of many others," Smitelli said.

After Hurdle entered pro baseball, he came back to the school field to work out in the offseason before reporting to spring training. Sometimes, he brought fellow pro players with him -- including, Smitelli said, current Pirates first-base coach Rick Sofield -- and they offered advice to the high school players.

"I could sort of sit back and giggle and let these minor league and major league guys work with my kids," Goldfarb said. "They made these guys better, and I got all the credit for it."

At the dedication, Hurdle received a plaque and a jersey bearing the inscription: "Clint, thank you for making a difference every day," a nod to the way Hurdle signs off on his inspirational emails. Behind him in the gym hung a large banner reading "Clint Hurdle Field" that will eventually hang over the outfield fence.

"Manager of the year? Pretty cool," Hurdle said. "They get fired."

He pointed behind him at the sign. "That's only going to happen once."


Bill Brink: bbrink@post-gazette.com and on Twitter @BrinkPG.

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