Pirates: Hurdle rises up again
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In 1974, Travis Akin had the entire town of Merritt Island, Fla., mad at him. Akin, who was the offensive coordinator for the Merritt Island High football team, had the audacity to lose a game during the Mustangs' 10-1 season. Through some bizarre mathematics, 10-1 wasn't good enough to reach the playoffs, and in the eyes of the fans it was Akin's fault.
At the end-of-the-season banquet, 17-year-old quarterback Clint Hurdle gave a speech to 250 members of the community and defended Akin, lecturing the audience on how they should behave.
"Just blasts them for the way they treated his offensive coordinator," said Chuck Goldfarb, Hurdle's high school baseball coach. "That really stands out to me."
Hurdle the quarterback is now Hurdle the managerial candidate, who has the Pirates and the Mets interested in his services. The Pirates interviewed Hurdle for the vacant manager's spot Nov. 4 and narrowed their list of candidates to him and Jeff Banister, most recently the Pirates' bench coach. The Mets interviewed Hurdle on Wednesday. Hurdle could not be reached for comment.
Older and wiser, able to learn from the problems in his life, Hurdle, now the Texas Rangers' hitting coach, retained the core of what made him valuable, said those who know him.
He's still, for example, the kid who defends his offensive coordinator.
"I don't think he can do enough for you," said Bill Fischer, who signed Hurdle to the Kansas City Royals in 1975. "I think he'd go out of his way to help anybody."
In high school, Hurdle was a stud who could hit the ball into the Atlantic. He hit .565 as a senior at Merritt Island, and earned it.
"A lot of kids in this area were headed to the beach on the weekends," said Goldfarb, now the director of athletics at nearby Cocoa High School. "Clint was taking BP."
The Royals took Hurdle, who passed on a football scholarship to play quarterback at Miami, with the ninth pick of the 1975 draft. He jumped from A ball to Class AAA and announced his arrival to the majors on Sept. 18, 1977, with a bomb of a home run. He was 20.
"I have a flair for the extraordinary," Hurdle told Sports Illustrated that year. "I know I have a lot to learn but I'd rather do it here."
Hurdle appeared on the cover of that issue, a young man with wild hair and the carefree smile of a major leaguer with gobs of potential. The 20-year-old didn't know it yet, but much later in life he would receive in the mail a passage from Australian author Morris West's book "The Clowns of God." It read, in part, "To me she is flawless, like the bud that died unopened." Although the passage was intended to address other struggles he would face, Hurdle's major league career resembled that unopened bud, something potentially beautiful that died before it had a chance to live.
Hurdle was primarily an outfielder, but Royals manager Whitey Herzog asked him to learn first base, a position he had never played, after John Mayberry was traded. Then he got caught between hitting coach Charlie Lau, who wanted him to hit to all fields like George Brett, and Herzog, who had other ideas. He reached the World Series with the Royals in 1980 and hit. 329 in '81, but a back injury and the strike ended a promising season.
The Royals traded Hurdle to Cincinnati, but after hitting .206 in 34 at-bats in '82 the Reds sent him to the minors.
Hurdle played in parts of four more seasons and finished his 10-year playing career with a .259 average and 32 home runs. But no matter what he faced, he never lost what made him who he was, Hurdle the personality. Clint Sr. said his son once discussed hitting with Reggie Jackson, who told him, "Do what got you here."
What got Hurdle there was his work ethic, his intelligence -- "He made one B in his high school career and that was in driver's ed," Goldfarb said of Hurdle, who had been offered a scholarship to Harvard -- and his communication skills. Soon after retiring, Hurdle became a manager in the Mets' minor-league organization.
"I think that he enjoys being the manager more than he did when he was playing," Clint Sr. said.
Hurdle speaks Spanish, a key for Latin American players. He carries a pad with him in the dugout where he scribbles notes about opposing teams. He has a great memory and retains everything. Most importantly, he knows firsthand how it feels to fall short of expectations, something many minor leaguers experience.
"He understands what it is to scuffle because he scuffled," Fischer said.
In 1988, Hurdle directed the Class A St. Lucie Mets to a Florida State League title. He had success with Class AA Jackson and Class AAA Tidewater/Norfolk as well.
"The way he carried himself, it was the total package," said Mike Maddux, a Mets pitcher at the time who this season worked with Hurdle in Texas as the Rangers' pitching coach. "That guy personifies leader right there."
Maddux met Hurdle in 1993, the year Hurdle married his wife, Karla, and his last year in New York before he joined the Rockies as a minor league hitting coordinator and later major league hitting coach. In 2002, he took over as manager.
The scuffling returned. Hurdle's Rockies never won more than 76 games in his first five seasons. In '07, his team was in fourth place in the National League West on Sept. 16. Then they won 13 of their last 14 games to force an extra game, a playoff for the NL wild card. Colorado beat the Padres on a 13th-inning walk-off hit, then swept the Phillies and the Diamondbacks to reach the franchise's first World Series. The Rockies lost to Boston in four games, but father and son squeezed every bit of enjoyment out of it.
"We took time, talked about it, kidded about it because if you stop and think, in your life you take a lot for granted," Clint Sr. said.
The Rockies fired Hurdle after an 18-28 start in '09, but the impact he left in Colorado remained.
"We know we messed up, we basically got Hurdle fired, and we have to turn this thing around," Rockies shortstop Troy Tulowitzki told the Los Angeles Times in June 2009.
By now, baseball had long been secondary. In '02, Hurdle and Karla had a daughter, Madison, who was born with Prader-Willi syndrome, a genetic disorder that delays development and affects the appetite. It was after this that Hurdle received that passage in the mail regarding Madison. He still doesn't know who sent it. Hurdle is a national spokesperson for the Prader-Willi Syndrome Association and holds a fundraiser in Cocoa Beach, Fla., every year.
Hurdle joined the Rangers in the '09 offseason and helped them to the World Series this fall. He brought with him postseason knowledge, which the Rangers lacked.
"He's a true professional. He's a bright guy," Maddux said. "He's got baseball smarts. He's not confined to one box. He's willing to go outside the box."
Now he waits. For the Mets, for the Pirates, for the next stage of his life, the next chance to employ the skills he worked for and the lessons he learned. This bud has the chance to bloom.
First Published November 12, 2010 12:00 am