Blast from the past
One-time 'phenom' Hurdle finally makes good
Posted: Tuesday October 23, 2007 12:13PM; Updated: Tuesday October 23, 2007 12:13PM
In late March 1978, a few weeks after I had written a Sports Illustrated cover story that billed him as THIS YEAR'S PHENOM, Clint Hurdle came through in a big way: He sent me a thank-you note, hand-written on hotel stationery, from the Kansas City Royals' training camp in Fort Myers, Fla.
If that's not phenomenal, I don't know what is. I certainly never got, nor expected, a thank-you note from any of my other 18 SI cover subjects. Not Reggie Jackson. Not Pete Rose. Not Tom Seaver. Definitely not Billy Martin.
Twenty-six years later, long after his playing career had fizzled out and well into his losing tenure as manager of the Colorado Rockies, Hurdle did something phenomenal again. He remembered me, and the article, in a cordial conversation with a young writer for Sports Illustrated Kids, my son Ted. As Ted tells it, he was introducing himself to Hurdle before the 2004 All-Star Game when Hurdle's face lit up and he exclaimed, "Larry Keith! Your dad did a cover story on me for Sports Illustrated. Nice guy."
You can't help but think well of someone who acts graciously toward you, by writing a thank-you note and praising you to your son. Especially when all I did for him was put a target on his back and a heaping helping of expectations on his shoulders: Phenom. Ouch!
Almost 30 years after his flashy (and often mocked) Sports Illustrated debut, Hurdle has finally (well, sort of) lived up to the billing -- and I couldn't be happier for him. Have you heard? He has managed the once moribund Rockies into the World Series, with the most extraordinary finish in baseball history. Only a managerial phenom could do that, no matter how gutsy or talented or fortunate his team happens to be.
Of course, you might argue that the SI cover story did not anticipate Hurdle's managerial success. And you would be correct. But I would posit that for all the many, many times that people -- fans, writers, critics -- have referenced the piece, they never quite caught the irony of the cover billing (which I didn't write) or the text (which, I submit, carried a whiff of mockery.)
History might have been a little kinder if SI had featured a different rookie that year, such as future Hall of Famer Paul Molitor of the Milwaukee Brewers. In that case, ESPN.com probably would not have recently included Hurdle as one of the 10 Most Hyped Phenoms of all time. And the magazine could not have cited the story, my story, as an example of its purported "cover jinx" 24 years later. On the other hand, the personable Hurdle toted some very impressive credentials to spring training 29 years ago, including a 450-foot homer in his September '77 call-up. He was a cocksure, party-hearty 20-year-old, the only 20-year-old who ever said to me, "I'm not getting any younger." By the look of his tricked-up Dodge van, fitted with a foldout bed, he wasn't.
If Hurdle seemed full of himself, he took his cue from the Royals' leadership. To quote myself: "The very mention of Hurdle's name causes heads to bow and heartbeats to quicken. General Manager Joe Burke calls him 'one of the top prospects I've seen in the 17 years I've been in the major leagues.' John Schuerholz, the director of scouting and player development, says, 'I bubble inside when I think about his potential.' Batting instructor Charlie Lau, the maestro behind George Brett's bat, considers Hurdle 'the best hitting prospect I've ever seen in our organization.' Manager Whitey Herzog rates him 'the best player in the minors last year.'"
Another Herzog observation was more prescient, as it turned out. "Hurdle has to prove to me he can't play," the manager said. Lamentably, Hurdle did just that, sputtering out at age 29 with 32 career home runs and a .259 batting average. The Golden Boy had been minted in pyrite.
In fact, the fickle nature of success, the virtual impossibility of predicting who will make it and who won't, was the subtext of the entire 1,800-word article. (Of course you would have had to actually read the piece to know that.) Hurdle, you see, was simply THIS YEAR'S PHENOM, just another in a catwalk of promising young men who might -- or might not -- succeed. The mocking note of caution wasn't exactly buried, coming as it did in the third paragraph:
"Like budding flowers and chirping birds, phenoms are a sure sign of spring, but a phenom named Clint does not come along very often. The last was Clint Hartung, a 6' 5" pitcher-outfielder who reported to the New York Giants' spring-training camp in 1947 amid proclamations that he was 'an entire ball club in himself.'" Hartung made the team, the story pointed out, but in five years his career was over. Sic transit gloria.
The possibility became reality: Clint Hurdle morphed into Clint Hartung. No one remembers that part, of course, because the cover (available on e-Bay for less than $10, and sure to go higher if the Rockies win the World Series) showed a swaggering Adonis with a smile on his face, the world at his feet and the word Phenom over his shoulder.
But the Hartung parallel only goes so far. That Clint never took a team to the World Series, wrote me a thank-you note or helped lead the fight against the mysterious childhood disease, Prader-Willi Syndrome, that afflicts his daughter Madison. So I'm hoping Hurdle wins, because, if he does, maybe folks will stop reminding him that he fell short as a player. After all, as a man and a manager, he seems to be doing rather nicely.
Larry Keith is a former writer and editor at Sports Illustrated, where he covered and edited baseball for 10 years.