The phenomenal Clint Hurdle.

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There are probably fewer than 10 Sports Illustrated covers that, for whatever reason, branded themselves for life on my brain.  The March 20, 1978 cover was one of those.  At age nine, I can’t swear I read the cover story on Clint Hurdle.  But I always remembered the cover photo.

I’m not sure why.  Hurdle didn’t have a baseball card yet so it’s unlikely I had any idea, in the pre-SportsCenter days, who he was.  (I doubt at age 20 he’d been invited yet to steal the Superstars Competition crown from Kyle Rote Jr. or Wayne Grimditch on Wide World of Sports.)  I don’t think in third grade I was quite yet a subscriber to The Sporting News, though if I was I certainly would have learned about Hurdle from Joe Falls or Peter Gammons.

We were about to move in March of 1978 from Farmers Branch to Dallas, where I’d be in a new school with all new friends, and I’m sure there was some anxiety about that.  Maybe I was unusually in tune with the things that stirred my imagination, choosing without realizing it to avoid thinking about the more scary realities laid out in front of me.  

Maybe it was that, apprehensive or not, by mid-March in 1978, like every year since, the onset of spring training (and then, of the Little League season, which for me was about to be my first with Coach Prager’s vaunted Henry S. Miller squad, having graduated from the Metropolitan Mets) had me fired up for baseball of any kind, and the smile on that player’s face, and that Ian Kinsler mop (not a whole lot unlike what I was sporting back then), and those batting gloves, one on and one off, captivated my attention and stuck with me.

The Rangers were training in Pompano Beach that month, coming off a 94-win season in which they finished second in the AL West to the 102-win Royals.  Hurdle had debuted in September 1977, hitting .308/.357/.538 in nine games, but none against Texas.  But again, no SportsCenter, and Hurdle didn’t make Kansas City’s playoff roster, so there’s no chance I’d seen him play.  Still, he played for the team Texas was chasing, and that likely grabbed my attention, too.

If I did flip to the story itself, it was probably to look at photos, maybe of George Brett or John Mayberry or Whitey Herzog.  I doubt this Hurdle quote from the Larry Keith story jumped out:

“I’m not getting any younger.  My career has been like a book and this is the climax.  I’m just going out and deal.  I’ve got my chance and if I don’t make it I won’t have anybody to blame but myself.”  

But it does now.  Hurdle made that comment as a 20-year-old, less than two years after turning down both an academic scholarship to Harvard and a football scholarship to play quarterback at the University of Miami, 26 at-bats into a major league career (with fewer than 1,100 pro at-bats, including in the minors) that seemed destined for greatness.  He wasn’t a Yankee or a Dodger or a Red, but to SI he was still worthy of the label “This Year’s Phenom.”

More than 30 years later, and a couple days after listening to Hurdle’s press conference announcing his arrival as the Rangers’ new hitting coach, those very words he uttered as a kid who was a year younger than Elvis Andrus – or Tommy Mendonca – resonate as something that might be part of the message he has for the hitters, phenoms and veterans and longshots alike, whose offensive game he’s being entrusted to maximize.

When I wrote about the hiring of Mike Maddux as pitching coach a year and four days ago, I said this:

” . . . I had the chance to listen to Mike Maddux for about 20 minutes tonight, talking about the job he just accepted, the challenges he’s eager to take on and how he plans to confront them, the things that made this organization and this opportunity so appealing for him.  And man, my day has come and gone, but I want to pitch for that guy. . . .

I came away with a similar feeling during Hurdle’s Thursday press conference.  He talked about helping players “get to a place they’ve never been” but doing so by keeping things as simple as possible.  He talked about his duty, as he sees it, not to overhaul anything, not to ask players to adapt to his methods, but instead for him to adapt to his players’ strengths.   He doesn’t impose a “my way or the highway” mentality, as he puts it: he’ll challenge his hitters “to paint a picture of themselves and we’ll go from there.”  To come to a two-man consensus about what the player is, and is not, and figure out, through a relationship of trust, what the next step is to be better.

“I’ve got my chance and if I don’t make it I won’t have anybody to blame but myself.”  

Talk is cheap?  Maybe so (though I’d argue otherwise when talking about coaching big league hitters or pitchers or baserunners, where the instructor’s role includes serving as a mind coach), but there’s a track record here, too.  Yes, the Rockies were always markedly better hitters at Coors Field than on the road, but you had to admire the way Colorado hitters performed late in the season, especially in recent years, under Hurdle, who was the Rockies’ minor league hitting instructor from 1994 through 1996, big league hitting coach from 1997 through late April 2002, and manager from that point until his dismissal in May of this year.  

There were a number of factors – struggles – to which Hurdle’s disappointing career as a player gets attributed.  A 10-year career that was celebrated before it really ever got started produced 32 home runs, a .259 batting average, and just two seasons with as many as 80 games played.

The “All-American boy,” so dubbed by venerable Royals scout Art Stewart, responded to the celebrity pedestal, by all accounts, by living the life of a rock star.  There were late nights.  At some point there was evidently a battle with alcoholism.

There was a serious, lengthy back injury.

There was a conclusion that he’d been rushed to the big leagues.

There were the pressures of failing to meet boundless expectations, to live up to the hype thrust upon him that he’d embraced himself.

Each of those experiences that Hurdle lived through as a player ought to resonate, in some cases more than others, with a number of the Rangers hitters whose productivity in this game, to some extent, now lies in Hurdle’s hands.

“We’re prepared for our future through our paths,” Hurdle has said.  “I’ve been given a lot of preparation for different situations.”

Hurdle admitted he has no direct past relationships with any Rangers hitters, other than from across the field.  He does have ties to Jon Daniels (2001) and Thad Levine (2000-2005), who were in the Rockies baseball operations department while Hurdle was there, and to Rangers director of player development Scott Servais, who played for the Rockies in 2000 and scouted for the club in 2005.  Hurdle was on Don Baylor’s Colorado coaching staff with Jackie Moore in 1997 and 1998.  (He’s never teamed up with Nolan Ryan, though he did single, double, and triple in nine at-bats against Ryan, adding a sac fly.)

And although Hurdle and Ron Washington were both Kansas City minor leaguers in 1975 and 1976, they never wore the same uniform.  That wouldn’t happen until 1992, when the 40-year-old Washington served as a coach on the 34-year-old Hurdle’s AAA Tidewater staff in the Mets system.  

Ron Washington’s managerial career b
egan the following year, in 1993, when he skippered the Mets’ Low A club, the Capital City Bombers.  But not really.

It was just before the 1992 Tidewater season ended that the Mets decided that Washington would manage the Bombers in 1993.  Hurdle let Washington manage the final two games of the Tides’ season, to get a little head start.  It’s something Washington never forgot.

Hurdle is apparently fond of saying, “It takes courage to have patience” (one in a series of self-help-esque Hurdle aphorisms that includes “They never care how much you know until they know how much you care”).  While he’s probably talking about a larger message, those words also tie in to the ideas of pitch recognition and command of the strike zone that Texas hopes Hurdle (here on a one-year contract with a club option for a second) can help instill in the Rangers offense.  

More than once during his press conference, his job as hitting coach was rebranded as “offensive coordinator.”  Hurdle reduced strikeouts as Rockies hitting coach, increased walk totals, and brought the team’s road batting average up (though it remained below the median).  All of those things would be quite welcome here.  Hurdle talks about utilizing all 27 outs, about taking this club’s “usable speed and power” and improving its “hittability,” at-bat to at-bat.

Among the things Texas raved about when Maddux arrived was his proficiency as a communicator and motivator, as important if not more so than his abilities as a technician.  The same goes for Hurdle, who calls this career decision (which he apparently chose over an offer to return to the Rockies in a front office position) “the right move at the right time with the right people for all the right reasons.”

The Rangers believe it, too.  They feel they’ve got the right guy to coordinate this offense, to make a team-first concept and lengthier at-bats and lengthier innings as contagious as last season’s lineup malaise was.

Hurdle’s way of doing that will vary from player to player, as he tries to make Rangers hitters better at what they do, rather than better at what he wants.  If you heard him talk on Thursday, the former star prospect who never became a star player, you know how motivated he is to motivate again.  As a player and as a coach, he’s seen what works, and what doesn’t.

Eager to get his tenure as Rangers hitting coach underway, Hurdle is gathering video and scouting reports and data, preparing to get a job done here, which will start with the 52-year-old connecting with Michael Young, with Ian Kinsler and Josh Hamilton, with Chris Davis, and, season to season, with whoever this year’s phenom happens to be.

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(c) Jamey Newberg
http://www.newbergreport.com
Twitter  @newbergreport

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