Commentary

Former 'phenom' Hurdle finds true calling as manager

Originally Published: October 23, 2007
By Jorge Arangure Jr. | ESPN The Magazine

DENVER -- For so long, a magazine cover photo defined Clint Hurdle. Here was Hurdle, frolicking on a spring afternoon in Florida, his thick black hair tousled in all directions, his clean, white Kansas City Royals uniform pulled over a blue Windbreaker, rippling in the breeze. And in his right hand he clutched a dirtied batting glove.

Clint Hurdle
Sports IllustratedClint Hurdle was the top prospect for the Royals back in 1978.

The most striking part of the Sports Illustrated photo, taken in March 1978, is Hurdle's smile. His mouth is so agape, his bright, white teeth so predominant, that his eyes are squinting simply because his smiling muscles are giving them no other choice. This is the photo of a happy, young, carefree ballplayer; a 20-year-old whose promising career lay ahead of him. To emphasize the point, Sports Illustrated, next to Hurdle's face, placed the headline in bright yellow letters -- "This Year's Phenom."

The photo seems a bit cruel now since Hurdle never became a phenom. He became a journeyman ballplayer, and then a coach, and then a manager of a last-place franchise tucked away in the mountains of Colorado, forgotten by most of the baseball world. Slowly, in Hurdle's sixth season as manager, that franchise has transformed into a World Series team, one full of phenoms, players who, unlike their manager, lived up to their potential.

In this accomplishment, a new photo of Hurdle has emerged, one of a hardened former ballplayer, his skin now darkly tanned and leathery, his hair close cropped and gray.

The difference between the Sports Illustrated Hurdle and the present-day Hurdle is not just age, though the lessons he's learned about life, humility and transformation, could have come only through time. He will never escape that famous magazine cover, which is jokingly pasted on several of his players' lockers. A shipment of almost 50 copies sits at Todd Helton's locker, and several more copies exist at the homes of his father and sister, though he himself won't keep a copy because he has no desire for the magazine photo to define his life.

"I've had many demons I've had to run from," Hurdle said in a news conference. "That [magazine cover] isn't a demon."

*****

"I remembered that he smiled a lot, like he was really happy to be there. That shot wasn't posed at all. It was a cinema vérité shot. He was a forthright and nice guy. That's what I remember about him."
--Sports Illustrated photographer Heinz Kluetmeier, who shot Hurdle for the March 20, 1978, cover.
*****

Hurdle, born July 30, 1957, was named after his father Clinton, referred to by some as "Big Clint." A 5-foot-8-inch man, Big Clint was much smaller than his strapping son, who was 6-foot-3 by the time he became a pro prospect in high school. Like his son, Clint Sr. grew up with dreams of playing in the big leagues. He was once a star shortstop for Ferris State University in his home state of Michigan and was scouted by the Chicago Cubs. But by the time he graduated in 1956, Big Clint decided to enroll in the service.

Once he was out of the service, Big Clint returned to Grand Rapids, Mich., and worked several jobs, none of which he enjoyed. One day a friend called from Florida and asked Big Clint if he would be interested in working at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral. Well, yes he was. In 1961, Big Clint moved his family to Florida, a decision that forever changed the fortunes of the Hurdles.

Big Clint had grown up playing baseball in Michigan, where a blizzard or a snowstorm could curtail an entire week of games. This would not happen in Florida. Although the move was meant as an opportunity for Big Clint, Little Clint would benefit too.

"I don't think things would have worked out for Clint if we would have stayed in Michigan," said Big Clint, now 73.

By Hurdle's junior season at Merritt Island High School, he had become a prospect in football and baseball, though Big Clint did not realize it until one afternoon at one of his son's baseball games. Big Clint sat in front of several scouts, who had come to see a prospect on the other team. By the end of the game, Hurdle had hit a double and a booming home run. Big Clint overheard the scouts say, "Looks like we came to see the wrong guy."

The Royals immediately became enamored with Hurdle. During his senior season, scout Bill Fischer invited Hurdle to the team's spring training complex in Sarasota, Fla. Hurdle arrived wearing flip-flops, shorts and a T-shirt.

"[My first thought was,] 'This is a pretty casual-looking guy to come here to show us what he's got looking like that,'" said Atlanta Braves president John Schuerholz, who was working as an assistant in the Royals' minor league operations at the time.

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Hurdle then went to one of the practice fields and pounded balls deep over the fence, some of them landing in a water filtration center that was adjacent to the baseball complex.

"It was just unbelievable," Schuerholz said. "I've never seen balls hit like that in my 40-something years in baseball."

Shortly thereafter, the Royals selected Hurdle with the ninth pick in the 1975 draft. Three years later he was on the cover of SI, and Hurdle's life was never the same.

*****

"He was certainly confident. He didn't seem like a rookie in that he didn't defer to other people. The cockiness tag probably came from the fact he was so outgoing. I didn't find him to be cocky at all. There was a lot of pressure on him. There were so many expectations on him."
--Kluetmeier
*****

There are certain things a phenom is afforded: a major league job, expectations and fame. Hurdle did not handle any of those well. In that 1978 season Hurdle hit just .264 with seven home runs. He spent most of the next season in Triple-A Omaha. He was up in the majors the next two seasons, hitting .294 in 1980 and .329 during an injury-plagued and strike-shortened 1981 season.

Coaches and teammates liked Hurdle because he was affable and had a good sense of humor. He also become popular because he enjoyed late-night partying. Often, Big Clint visited his son, who always seemed to have somewhere to go or someone to see after games.

"Back off from your drinking," Big Clint said he told Little Clint after games.

Yet Little Clint wouldn't stop. Big Clint knew it was part of the lifestyle, but it didn't mean he had to like it.

"After the games what's open? The bars," Big Clint said. "The opportunity is there. You can fall into that very easily."

Much like they do now, Big Clint and Little Clint spoke almost every day on the phone. Every once in a while, Big Clint would plead with his son.

"We wish you'd stop drinking," said Big Clint, speaking for the entire Hurdle family.

Little Clint didn't listen. He was still young then, still a phenom, still with his career ahead of him, though it was all slowly crashing.

"We were worried about him," Big Clint said. "When you drink things can happen. You don't do things that are normal. Drinking is not a good thing to do."

Hurdle has previously acknowledged his problems with drinking, although, through the Rockies' public relations staff, he declined to be interviewed for this story.

Several of Hurdle's former managers insist they never saw Hurdle's partying affect his play. But for whatever reason, Hurdle's career was stalling. In 1981, Schuerholz who had become the Royals' general manager, traded Hurdle to the Cincinnati Reds.

"Expectations and pressures might not have been allowing him to shine," Schuerholz said.

Less than a year later, the Reds released Hurdle. The Seattle Mariners signed Hurdle in February 1983. They released him two months later. The New York Mets signed him a few days later. Hurdle spent the majority of the 1983 and 1984 seasons in Triple-A Tidewater.

"We soon realized he wasn't going to fill his potential, but it didn't mean he couldn't fit somewhere in baseball," said Frank Cashen, then the Mets' GM.

People kept giving him chances in part because Hurdle was so likable. When the Tidewater Tides took infield practice in 1983, Hurdle was always the one to lead them. Hurdle did whatever Tidewater manager Davey Johnson asked of him.

Sure, Hurdle's bat had slowed down by then, his throwing arm wasn't very good anymore, and he didn't run well, but Johnson noticed his mind was still sharp. Each time the team came off the field after infield practice, Hurdle, unlike the other players, seemed to enjoy the drill.

In 1984, Johnson moved on to manage the Mets, and Bob Schaefer, Tidewater's new manager, also quickly developed an affinity for Hurdle. One time between games of a doubleheader, Schaefer scolded his team, which had been slumping. Schaefer punctuated his lecture by flipping over a table full of food, and telling his players he did not think they had been hungry enough.

In the second game of the doubleheader, Hurdle, batting cleanup, hit a towering drive to the outfield, which bounced off the top of the fence and back onto the field for a game-deciding triple. Schaefer, coaching third base, patted Hurdle on his back after he slid into third base. Hurdle responded, "If I'd have had a sandwich, I'd have hit a home run."

[+] EnlargeClint Hurdle
Mark J. Rebilas/US PresswireClint Hurdle is in his sixth season as the Rockies' manager.
Humor seemed to be all that Hurdle had left, though. Schaefer admired that Hurdle was taking care of the younger players -- he often helped rookies check in and out of hotels -- but he was killing the team with his performance. One day, Schaefer sat Hurdle down and told him, "I might be your last manager. You better get yourself together."

Hurdle clung to professional baseball for three more years, but in 1988, he retired and became a minor league manager in the Mets' system. By 1991, Hurdle was still drinking, had been twice divorced and was certainly no longer the phenom from that famous photo years earlier.

"I believe we are prepared for our future through all of our past," Hurdle said. "Fortunately, I got older, [and] I started to pay a lot more attention to my past and what was going on daily. I was just taking things for granted and letting it ride."

*****
"I have nothing but pleasant things to say about him. He was always very photogenic. I always remember him as a great guy and I wished him well. He was not like the guys now where they seem to have the burden of the world on their shoulders."
-- Kluetmeier
*****

Hurdle's salvation came at Rivals Sports Bar in Williamsport, Pa. Over a few beers after a game in May of 1991, Hurdle, then the manager of the Williamsport Bills, met a local woman named Karla, who worked at an accounting firm. Rivals was the Bills' local hangout after games, but Karla was no groupie. She knew Hurdle only as the Bills' manager and had no knowledge of his failed past. The two got along well, but neither seemed inclined at the time to pursue the other. It was only several months later, after the baseball season ended, that Hurdle acquired Karla's number and phoned her at the accounting firm. The two then began dating.

Six years into the relationship, Hurdle proposed. Karla sat Hurdle down and gave him a speech he'd heard many times, but only now did it seem to resonate.

She told him he couldn't continue to live his life based on the expectations of others -- and of himself, really -- since appearing on the Sports Illustrated cover. Even though his teammates, his father and coaches all said Hurdle never lived with regret, Karla knew differently. She knew he had never gotten over the failure, never gotten over what might have been. He was never going to be the phenom, she told him, and it was time he accepted it. That old Clint Hurdle, the one with the wild hair, and the one who always went out drinking with the boys, had to go away.

No, she would not marry him now.

"I just thought there were a lot of things he wasn't quite right with," Karla Hurdle said. "He had to put some of his demons to rest that I couldn't help him with."

Finally, it clicked for Hurdle. He stopped drinking almost cold turkey from that day forward. And he began to notice he had a knack for managing. No, he wasn't going to be a playing phenom, but perhaps he could be a managing phenom. Hurdle also rekindled a relationship with his 23-year-old daughter, Ashley, from one of his previous marriages.

"In his own mind, he needed someone to accept him for what he was," Karla Hurdle said.

Two years after that conversation, in November 1999, Karla and Hurdle married. Three years later, Hurdle was promoted from Colorado's hitting coach to manager in 2002. A few months after that, the two had their first child, a little girl named Madison Reilly, who was born with Prader-Willi Syndrome, a genetic disorder that can cause developmental delays. At first, the two were dismayed. But then they both realized that imperfections are part of life's beauty. Sometimes, even the surest things -- the phenoms -- don't pan out. So perhaps a little girl on the wrong side of luck might turn out all right.

The couple had another child, Christian, in 2004, and then threw themselves into philanthropy. This season Hurdle counseled a local teenager named Kyle Blakeman, who was struck with cancer. The two became close friends -- Hurdle scripted the No. 64, Blakeman's football number, on every Rockies scorecard -- until the boy's death in late August.

"If you have an opportunity to have a position where maybe people will take more notice, I just feel for me personally I have to move upon that," Hurdle said. "That comes with the responsibility of having the job. If you can make a little bit of a difference I think that brings value to everything. It brings value to your life, it brings value to the people you've touched, it brings value to your community."

Hurdle has began pondering a new ending. What if his Rockies win the World Series, and during a raucous celebration, Hurdle is photographed, and that snapshot appears on the cover of another national publication? That's a cover shot he might keep.

Jorge Arangure Jr. is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine.

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