Hurdle can look back to help Bucs move forward
New skipper eventually met expectations, but in a different way
PITTSBURGH -- Inside the manager's office at Thomas J. White Stadium, a 30-year-old Clint Hurdle devised his plan.
His first stop was to the trainers' room, where he requested some vitamin pills. Generic, over-the-counter types would do, Hurdle said. The trainer found a bottle, which Hurdle carried out into a clubhouse full of Class A players of whom most in the Mets' organization believed would max out in Double-A.
That's why it had surprised no one when the bunch struggled through the season's first half.
But Hurdle, who had learned precious lessons about external expectations years earlier, didn't really care that his team was built to be mediocre. The first-year manager passed out the vitamin pills, one to each player.
"This is the magic pill right here," Hurdle told the group. "From this point on, you're going to be the player you want to be."
Everybody swallowed their capsules.
Then they followed their young manager outside, where a circle was formed around home plate. Hurdle asked each of his players to take his turn stepping on it.
"Feel what this is like," Hurdle said. "Because I want you to step on this more often."
Pitching coach Bob Apodaca, who, like Hurdle, was in his first season with the club in 1988, tells the story in vivid detail all these years later. That's not the end of it, though. The end didn't come for weeks, in fact.
Not until that Port St. Lucie Mets team hoisted the Florida State League's second-half championship trophy.
"I think from that point I could see that this man was that meteor and his future was right in front of him," Apodaca said. "I saw immediately that this guy was a tremendous teacher."
For Hurdle, it wasn't always as it turned out to be in Port St. Lucie. Rather, Hurdle's baseball success came largely by way of failure.
His is a story highlighted by flaws and hubris and unfulfilled expectations. He was the can't-miss prospect who missed, the one destined for greatness who had to settle for mediocrity.
Years before Hurdle began coaching, he was a Sports Illustrated cover boy just 26 at-bats into his Major League playing career. The word "THIS YEAR'S PHENOM" appeared above his name. His demonstrative smile in the magazine cover photo told you all you needed to know about where Hurdle believed he was headed.
Larry Keith, who penned that 1978 SI piece, described in it a 20-year-old rookie who had an affinity for alcohol, cruised around Spring Training in his fully-equipped, new Dodge van and had the brashness to request his own hotel room on the road.
Coupled with his hitting ability, the outfielder out of Merritt Island (Fla.) High School had the makings of a star.
|"He was kind of victimized by being the next George Brett. ... Clint was a young kid that came here with people having unreasonable expectations. He just wasn't allowed to get into baseball on his own."|
-- Fred White,|
former Royals broadcaster
"When he hit the ball, it went further than everyone else," said Fischer, who would throw batting practice to the teenager. "He hit more than everyone else. And he hit them all harder."
Hurdle truly seemed to have it all. He was offered an academic scholarship by Harvard and an athletic scholarship by the University of Miami, which recruited the teenager as a quarterback. Hurdle passed up both opportunities to join the Royals, who followed Fischer's recommendation to take Hurdle with the No. 9 overall pick in the 1975 amateur Draft.
Hurdle's initial ceiling was high, though that only made his eventual fall longer. The root of that fall is still debated, as opinions differ on just what went wrong.
Some believe that the downfall was due to Hurdle being burdened by potential, of high expectations that a precocious young man never should have been forced to shoulder.
"He was kind of victimized by being the next George Brett," asserted Fred White, a longtime Royals broadcaster. "What other people expect of you is something that you can't control. Clint was a young kid that came here with people having unreasonable expectations. He just wasn't allowed to get into baseball on his own."
Or maybe it was something more fundamental than that, Fischer countered. He pointed to the organization's attempts to make Hurdle a first baseman before letting him get acclimated to Major League competition as a critical mistake.
The same spring when photographer Heinz Kluetmeier snapped that SI cover shot, Hurdle was in the middle of a defensive crash course. Not only would he have to enter the '78 season trying to learn how to survive in the big leagues, but Hurdle had to do it at a position he had never played.
Sure, Hurdle went on to start more games as an outfielder (68) than as a first baseman (49) that season. But Fischer still saw the damage done.
"There was a lot of pressure on him just to be an outfielder in the Major Leagues, nonetheless to learn a new position," Fischer said. "I think that caused a lot of his problems. I'm not saying he's a weak individual. He's a very strong individual. But at 19 or 20, you don't know what the hell is going on. When it didn't happen right away, I think he took it personally that he was a failure or couldn't do it."
Or maybe, as Jim Frey will contest, the measuring stick was so high that it has clouded everyone's judgment of success.
Frey, who managed the Royals in 1980-81, didn't see a player who was affected by others' expectations. Rather, he encountered a solid everyday right fielder with some power, a strong throwing arm and a defined role on a division-winning club. He remembers Hurdle fondly.
"From my point of view, he was a good big league player," Frey said. "And if someone thought he was going to be the next Babe Ruth or Mickey Mantle, that's their problem. He played hard. I enjoyed being around him. He just seemed to have a love for playing the game."
But even Frey agrees that Hurdle never went on to be great. He batted .276 and hit 26 home runs in parts of five seasons with the Royals. Hurdle appeared in at least 60 games only three times in 10 seasons. Stops with the Reds, Mets (twice) and Cardinals did nothing to foster his potential.
He spent most of his final playing years clinging to what was supposed to have been, while taking those Minor League bus rides. It wasn't until Mets Minor League director Steve Schyver convinced Hurdle that his legacy could be in coaching that the once-young hotshot gave up his playing dreams for good.
Hurdle finished his career having started at five different positions and with a .259 career average.
When Hurdle introduced himself after being named Pittsburgh's new manager on Nov. 15, he evoked a quote he has carried around in his pocket for 12 years. Reading the words of longtime Penn State football coach Joe Paterno, Hurdle said: "You've got to believe deep inside yourself that you're destined to do great things."
Hurdle had already talked about the challenge of taking the reins of a Pirates club that hasn't finished with at least a .500 record since Barry Bonds wore black and gold, and he used the story of the courtship of his wife -- he had to ask her twice before she said yes -- to illustrate his perseverance.
He also talked about how his past has defined his present.
Those who have seen Hurdle evolve from player to manager describe a man who bears many differences to the one who showed up for his first Spring Training in Fort Myers, Fla. The infectious grin and the passion are still there. But so much else -- the pride, the alcohol, the smugness -- is gone.
The evolution of Hurdle's playing career is crucial, though, as it shaped his managerial philosophy. He is a skipper who can relate to being the 25th player on a roster.
Hurdle learned what it was like to struggle. And he grew to understand how those struggles fostered a truer appreciation of success. He can relate to the guy on the bench or the one struggling in a platoon role or the one who faces unreasonable expectations. He knows how it feels to scuffle. And, to some degree, he does know what it's like to be good.
"He's had everything happen to him in baseball that could happen," Fischer said. "If he loses five games in a row, he's not going to jump off a roof. He understands how hard it is to play and how hard it is to succeed. I think he'll be a better manager for it."
Hurdle's managerial climb to the Majors took time. After the stint with Port St. Lucie, Hurdle spent two years managing in Double-A and two more in Triple-A. Differences with Steve Phillips, then the Mets' Minor League director, led to Hurdle's departure after the 1992 season.
|"He believes in his guys. He has a unique ability to have a tough conversation and bring something to a player's attention that he needs to work on, and yet have the player walk away from that meeting with a positive outlook. Not everybody has that ability."|
-- Rangers GM|
Early on, there was a perception that Hurdle was too close to his players, hanging out with them too often outside of the ballpark. That lessened as Hurdle gained more experience.
"He learned to draw that imaginary line between manager and player," Apodaca said. "There needed to be that line drawn, that, 'I'm not a player anymore. I'm not going to invade the players' side. And that we need to have that respect for each other's space.' I think that's the beginning of where he is today."
After Hurdle had served as a Minor League and Major League hitting coach for the Rockies, he became a big league manager in 2002, leading Colorado to the World Series in 2007 and compiling a 534-625 record in his seven-plus seasons at the helm.
He brought Apodaca with him to be the pitching coach, and Apodaca again saw that uncanny ability Hurdle had to relate to players of any ability level.
"They knew about him and the road he traveled," Apodaca said. "Everything that came out of his mouth was gospel. He didn't try to blow smoke up anybody's skirt. He just told people exactly what needed to be said."
That hasn't changed.
"I love the guy," said Rangers general manager Jon Daniels, who hired Hurdle to be Texas' hitting coach prior to the 2010 season. "He believes in his guys. He has a unique ability to have a tough conversation and bring something to a player's attention that he needs to work on, and yet have the player walk away from that meeting with a positive outlook. Not everybody has that ability."
Hurdle complements that affable personality by bringing uncanny preparation to the table. Those who have coached alongside Hurdle laud his intelligence, memory and attention to detail. They insist he won't be outworked.
To those who coached Hurdle decades ago, it all sounds so familiar. The passion, the preparation, the drive to be the best had always existed. And now, another shot at success is, too.
"He's obviously made a lot of changes in his life for the better," White said. "And you have to be very proud of where he's gone."
Jenifer Langosch is a reporter for MLB.com. Read her blog, By Gosh, It's Langosch, and follow her on Twitter @LangoschMLB. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.