Clint Hurdle wonders if maybe one day he should write a letter to his younger self. He read one the other day written by Dwight Gooden, a guy who once knocked Hurdle unconscious with a heater to the helmet, and it got him thinking.
There’s a lot Hurdle should probably say to his brazen 17-year-old self about what happened between 1975, when the Kansas City Royals drafted him ninth overall, and now. About making the majors and making mistakes. About booze and baseball and becoming a man.
So, he’ll begin: Dear Clint.
See, Hurdle at 58 is a curious character study: father to Ashley (30), Maddie (13) and Christian (11); major-league manager; spokesman for Prader-Willi Syndrome Association; 17 years sober. It’s the portrait of a good man, and a flawed one. Former teammates say he’s a perfect example of learning the hard way.
He often tells players, “Anything you’ve done wrong, I’ve done worse, and I’ve done twice.”
Hurdle seems to have a saying for every situation, so maybe that’s how he’ll start the letter. Here’s one: “I believe you’re prepared for your future through your past — if you paid attention to it.” And another: “If you have a foot in yesterday and a foot in tomorrow, you take a crap on today.”
Which reminds him of a story. Have you heard this one? If you thought the mess Hurdle had to clean up when he joined the Pirates in 2010 was bad, wait until you hear about his first job.
This was back in high school, and Hurdle wanted a summer job that paid better than the 75 cents he got for mowing lawns. His dad, Clint Sr., knew a contractor who needed a couple extra hands. So, Hurdle showed up and discovered the gig was to retrieve portable toilets from construction sites around his hometown and clean them out. Sometimes the hose jammed, and sometimes it leaked. At the end of the day, Hurdle stormed home and asked his dad, “Why didn’t you tell me what kind of work it was? Why’d you get me this job? ”
“Well, Clint,” he replied. “It’s the only thing you’re qualified to do.”
One Monday morning in February, three old friends squeeze into a corner booth at a cafe in Merritt Island, Fla., and start swapping stories about Clint Hurdle, whom they’ve known for decades. They meet every month, this breakfast club, but they don’t always talk about Hurdle.
Chuck Goldfarb coached Hurdle at the high school down the road, and Ernie Rosseau coached at the local junior college for 29 years. They both coached the third member of the breakfast club, Peter Kerasotis, a longtime local columnist and sports writer who played high school ball with Hurdle.
If you were to head out the door and left on Courtenay Parkway, they explain, there’s Kennedy Space Center, where everyone’s dad used to work. In those days, the island was like a college town centered on Cape Canaveral, back before high-rise hotels lined Cocoa Beach and before the rickety hut with eight surfboards for rent became Ron Jon Surf Shop, the largest of its kind.
Clint Hurdle Sr. brought his family here from Big Rapids, Mich., in 1960, when “Little Clint” was 3. The Apollo program was just taking off and there was work aplenty in the aerospace boom. Clint Sr. was a drafter, by trade, but lucked into a job at Grumman’s computer data systems lab at the space center. He spent 37 years there.
For the Hurdle children, Bobbi and Clint and Robin, launches eventually became routine. They’d watch from the front yard or the school playground and cheer as a rocket rose above the rooftops.
Turn right on Courtenay Parkway and you’ll pass the Hurdles’ old home, the one with a baseball field behind it and another across the street. When almost everyone was headed to the beach, they’d see the flash of Hurdle’s left-handed swing, and there were his mother, Louise, his two sisters and the family dog, Pooh Bear the black poodle, running pell-mell across the outfield, shagging flies for the boy.
“He was the planet,” Kerasotis says, “and they were all satellites.”
Hurdle was a sophomore when scouts came to see his Merritt Island High School teammate Waldo Williams in a game. Hurdle doubled and homered. As they left the ballpark, Clint Sr. and Louise heard a scout remark, “We were here to see the wrong kid.”
Here’s where Hurdle will advise his younger self: Take note of this moment, because you’re in for a wild ride.
Bill Fischer had two eyes on Hurdle from that day forward. The Royals scout lived nearby and spent the next three years watching games, tossing batting practice and filing reports. Hurdle was brash and cocky, but a hard worker. He had everything but speed; teammates called him “Hurdle the Turtle.” As the 1975 draft approached, Fischer threw Hurdle batting practice in front of Royals front-office executives in Fort Myers, Fla.
Hurdle put on a show.
“All right, I’ve seen enough,” a Royals national scout said.
“Don’t you want to see him run and throw?” Fischer asked.
The scout replied, “If he can hit like that, I don’t care if he can run or throw.”
After the draft, 17-year-old Hurdle wanted to play right away. So rather than wait for Royals brass, Fischer wrote up a contract and met the Hurdles at a local diner. He sat on one side of a booth, and they on the other. Each party took a napkin, wrote down a number, then slid it across the table. They did this a few times before settling on a number around $50,000.
“All these years later,” Fischer says, “I didn’t know I was signing a manager.”
There is a room in the home of Clint Hurdle’s parents that his mother calls “the doghouse.” Its walls are covered top to bottom, end to end, by an intricate labyrinth of photos and memorabilia. Clint Sr. swears he has that napkin in here somewhere.
The tour begins in a corner, across the room from where Hurdle’s 2013 National League Manager of the Year award sits by the window. There’s a black-and-white snapshot of Edward Hurdle, the grandfather, a left-handed pitcher who was offered a baseball contract at 16 — the day before his father died. He worked instead at an automotive factory for 50 years.
Below the photo, Edward’s leather mitt lies in state in a zippered plastic bag. Clint Sr. is trying to preserve it, but it’s starting to tear at the seams. Clint Sr. was offered a contract, too, but was drafted into military service and never played pro ball.
On the near wall is a large painting of a March 1978 Sports Illustrated cover, the one that has shadowed Hurdle. The family knew Hurdle was going to be in the magazine, but not on the cover, his shaggy hair and big smile beside the headline “This Year’s Phenom.”
“My career has been like a book, and this is the climax,” 20-year-old Hurdle said in the story. A few lines later, George Brett explained his plan to take Hurdle under his wing, since the organization would want one golden boy to look after the next.
In the end, Hurdle was more flameout than phenom. Once the youngest Royals player in team history, he played only two full seasons in the majors and bounced between four teams.
Why didn’t he pan out? Every answer sounds a little different, but each begins in the same place: “The transition was just too fast,” Clint Sr. says. “You’re 20 years old, but you’re in a man’s world now.” The boy wonder got too much, too soon. He ran with the Royals, the kings of Kansas City nightlife.
“He was in fast-motion all the time,” says Jamie Quirk, a Royals teammate. “He lived fast. He lived hard. Like most of us at 20, he thought he was invincible.”
Quirk now manages Class A Wilmington in the Royals organization. He tells players they have it a thousand times harder today, in the social-media age. The baseball culture was different then.
“I don’t want to say we got away with a lot, because that’s not a good thing to be proud of,” Quirk says, “but we did.”
Signing with the Royals meant giving up a football and baseball scholarship at the University of Miami, and maybe that’s one thing Hurdle would write in this letter to his younger self: Go to Miami. Rosseau remembers Hurdle, a quarterback, saying he should have played freshman football and gotten the tar kicked out of him, to help him grow up quicker.
“I think he’s gotten a better education with his hard knocks,” Clint Sr. says.
Hurdle isn’t shy about his alcohol abuse then, nor his sobriety now. But there’s more to the story, he says, than a guy drinking away his career. He has always been a thinker, a tinker, and at times it was too much. He was in his head. “I was trying to connect the dots one through 100 before I even hit the ball.”
And while alcohol addiction certainly contributed to his decline, Hurdle says, it became an excuse, too, “a defense mechanism for not living up to the expectations of other people.”
On Jan. 28, 1986, Clint Hurdle, in the twilight of his playing days, stood in his front yard in Palm City, Fla., and waited again for a rocket to rise. At the space center, his father stepped outside his office and looked east toward Cape Canaveral, where the space shuttle Challenger counted down to its 10th mission.
Challenger broke apart after 73 seconds in flight, leaving behind it a corkscrew plume of smoke and an island town trying to pick up the pieces of a fractured industry that had once seemed invincible. For decades, Hurdle and those on Florida’s space coast watched so many manned flights leave the earth that they forgot what an engineering marvel it was. Now, television crews swarmed to document the death of seven American crew members and the failure of the space program.
The space shuttle program shut down for nearly three years, and the local economy spiraled as families began to feel friction over government funding and support. Clint Sr. remembers Rogers Commission investigators always asking for more data, more explanations. “Everything was at a standstill,” he says.
With Merritt Island in a 32-month identity crisis, Hurdle, his own career nearing a standstill, wanted to be close to home. The New York Mets were building a stadium for a new Class A team in nearby Port St. Lucie, where Hurdle had spent a few spring trainings with the Mets. Hurdle thought this could be his segue.
But minor league director Steve Schreiber wasn’t interested in hiring a 30-year-old with character questions and no coaching experience to manage at Class A. Hurdle’s previous job had been as a bartender in Kansas City during the 1981 players strike. “Poor job selection,” he says, in retrospect. Hurdle turned down two lower-level minor league jobs out of state — he says threatening to return to Mets camp as a player was his leverage — before Schreiber caved and named him St. Lucie’s skipper.
It still makes Hurdle laugh, so he’ll write that down: That’s how badly they want you to stop playing.
When Rosseau heard the news, he hollered, “The fox is running the chicken coop?”
“I couldn’t believe it,” Quirk says. “Clint managing? Are you kidding?” To Quirk, the real surprise was Hurdle’s willingness to return to the obscurity of the low minors. “It showed me that Clint really did love the game of baseball. As a player, he used the game rather than loved it.”
While Hurdle started to get right with baseball and climbed in the Mets system, he still hadn’t figured out life off the field. “I was a hamster on a wheel,” he says. He didn’t drink every day, but when he drank, he got drunk.
That’s when Karla Yearick walked into his life — or rather, a Williamsport, Pa., sports bar — in 1993. Hurdle’s second marriage had crumbled, and in his offseason away from managing Class AA Williamsport, the one-time top prospect lived at his parents’ home in Viera, Fla.
“I mean, this was a bad movie,” Hurdle says.
Karla, an accountant from a big family in Muncy, Pa., didn’t know baseball or celebrity, but she could tell this man thought he was a catch. “He was thinking I had won the lottery,” she says.
The first time Hurdle asked Karla to marry him, in 1997, he said, “I’m going to take you on the ride of your life.”
She said no. There’s a really good guy in there, she told Hurdle, but he doesn’t get out enough.
“It had taken me over a year to even get up the courage to even ask,” Hurdle says now. “I’d been divorced twice. I’d had things taken from me that I’d worked hard for. It’s a hard deal. It should be hard, because that’s not the way it’s drawn up to be. For better, for worse, for happily ever after.”
Karla knew the question would come, sooner or later, and she knew her answer.
“I just knew, in my heart, it wouldn’t have been a good road traveled together if we both continued to want different results and kept doing the same thing,” Karla says. “So, he took some notes. I took some notes. And eventually we got to the same page.”
Hurdle was at a crossroads. He needed to quit drinking, but knew he couldn’t do it alone. He committed to church and counseling. He went to Alcoholics Anonymous. He sought help.
Hurdle asked Karla again, and they married in 1999. They still were in for a wild ride. Three years later, the Rockies fired manager Buddy Bell early in the season, and general manager Dan O’Dowd handed the keys to Hurdle.
But four months later, Maddie, the couple’s first child together, was born and sent directly to the neonatal intensive-care unit, where she stayed for three weeks. Doctors diagnosed her with Prader-Willi syndrome, a chromosomal disorder that can lead to a number of developmental and behavioral issues, including short stature and constant hunger. Caring for a child with special needs can draw a couple together or pull them apart, Hurdle explains.
“It galvanized us,” he says.
What if Karla hadn’t said no to the first proposal? Could the relationship have weathered the storm? “I’ve asked myself that question multiple times,” Hurdle says. “I don’t have the answer.” He’s not sure he wants to know.
If Karla showed Clint Hurdle the person he could become, Keli McGregor taught him how to be that man. Hurdle hasn’t met many men larger or louder than he, and McGregor was both. A former Denver Broncos tight end, McGregor was Rockies president from 2001 until his death in 2010 at age 47 after a rare virus infected his heart muscle.
McGregor was Hurdle’s closest confidant in Colorado, and helped Hurdle build a trusted inner circle he now refers to as his “Mount Rushmore of men.” McGregor preached brotherhood and being a better man. As leaders, he told the Rockies staff, the question is never who’s right, but what’s right.
Hurdle looked forward to “Coffee with Keli,” the days they would walk Coors Field, talk and pray. After hearing of McGregor’s death, Hurdle says, he walked beneath the Green Monster at Fenway Park and cried for a half hour. Hurdle delivered the opening prayer at the funeral and thanked McGregor for helping turn his life around.
“In Clint’s life, Keli is probably the one Clint would love to be able to call most and talk to right now,” says Marcel Lachemann, who was on Hurdle’s Rockies staff. “He probably does talk to him, in a different way.”
In 2009, two years after the Rockies rode a 21-1 “Roctober” run to reach the World Series for the only time in franchise history, McGregor, O’Dowd and the Rockies front office decided to fire Hurdle. O’Dowd called it the most difficult day, and the biggest regret, of his career. “If I had to do it all over again, I probably should have left with him,” says O’Dowd, who resigned in 2014.
Here’s another saying Hurdle likes that might find its way into the letter: Failure is an event, not a person.
“I’m an alcoholic,” he says. “I’ve been married three times. I’ve been in a World Series as a manager, coach and player. I’ve lost all three. I’ve been called up. I’ve been sent down. I’ve been the can’t-miss, did-miss.
“There are things there that, sooner or later, can connect with somebody, somehow, someway.”
That’s part of the reason why Texas Rangers general manager Jon Daniels phoned Hurdle in 2009, looking for a hitting coach. He thought Hurdle, given his history, could connect with Josh Hamilton, a former No. 1 pick whose career had already twice been derailed by drug and alcohol addictions.
In Hamilton, Hurdle saw his younger self. They set aside time to speak every day, but they spoke more about the brain than the bat. Hurdle shared his story and his scars — from his rocket-powered rise to the drinking and divorces. Hurdle told of having to lose the game he loved, only to find it again later, to find himself.
In 2010, Hurdle’s lone season in Texas, Hamilton was American League MVP. He hit .359 with 32 home runs — matching Hurdle’s career homer total — in the finest year of his career. That offseason, Hurdle was hired by the Pirates. Hamilton signed a megadeal with the Los Angeles Angels in 2012 but has had two relapses.
“With sobriety, there’s no finish line there ever,” Hurdle says. “I finally stopped looking for one.”
These days, there’s only one bottle of alcohol Hurdle allows himself to keep. Neil Walker gave a bottle of Johnnie Walker Blue to every player and coach in 2013 after the Pirates reached the playoffs for the first time since 1992. Walker approached Hurdle at the time and said: “I obviously don’t expect you to drink this. But if you feel uncomfortable having it, I’ll gladly take it back or hold onto it for you.”
The Scotch sits above Hurdle’s desk at PNC Park.
“It was given to the team to honor the 20-year void, and I’ve got it up there to honor the blood, sweat and tears of so many people, some I don’t even know,” Hurdle says. “And it’s a reminder every day that the cap can never, ever be twisted.”
For years, Clint Hurdle has sent a daily motivational email to hundreds of contacts. Among the recipients are friends from childhood, from his playing days, from this latest chapter with the Rockies, the Rangers, the Pirates.
He ends each note the same way, with four words he has borrowed from McGregor.
That’s probably how he’ll end this letter:
Make a difference today.
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