In 1968 Clint Hurdle was a precocious 10-year-old kid dragging bats for the Cocoa Astros of the Florida State League and playing an occasional game of catch with a promising Astro first baseman named John Mayberry. Now, in 1978, Hurdle is tall, dark, handsome and brash and able to hit a baseball nine miles, and he and Mayberry are together again, this time at the Kansas City Royals' training camp in Fort Myers, Fla. Clint Hurdle, you see, is trying to take away John Mayberry's job.
Hurdle is only one of several rookies given a solid chance to break into a major league regular lineup this season. Not one of them has more confidence than Hurdle, not one has better credentials, and not one faces a more difficult task. The Royals, after all, are not exactly begging for help, and the 28-year-old Mayberry is hardly a liability at first base. Kansas City has won the last two American League West titles, and the slick-fielding Mayberry has averaged 24 home runs and 92 RBIs a season since he was acquired from Houston in 1972.
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 did make the team, and he showed promise during the 1947 season by winning nine of 16 pitching decisions and batting .309 in 34 games. But by 1950 his pitching days were over, and in 1952 so was his career. He left with a 29-29 career pitching record, a .238 lifetime batting average and 14 home runs.
No one in the Royals organization expects Hurdle to wind up as another Hartung. 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." Even Mayberry concedes, "He has the makings of a great player."
Mayberry would not be so concerned about his job security if he had not made the mistake of having the best year of his career in 1975, when he hit .291 and had 34 home runs and 109 RBIs. Since then his batting totals have fallen off considerably, making him the focal point of criticism in Kansas City. "On this club, anyone batting fifth where John does ought to drive in at least 100 runs," says Herzog. Last year Mayberry had 83 RBIs and a puny .230 batting average.
One thing that has not fallen off, though, is Mayberry's glove work at first base, a skill Hurdle, who has played mostly in the outfield, is not likely to replace. "Without John over there," says Third Baseman Brett, "[Shortstop] Fred Patek and I could have a lot more errors."
Mayberry has been sharing some of his defensive wisdom with Hurdle this spring. "I like Clint, I really do," says Mayberry. "First is a tough position. I don't think I'm hurting myself by helping him because I have confidence in my own ability. I think I can hold on to the position by not trying for the long ball every time and concentrating on raising my average. Last year I was thinking home run as soon as I left the on-deck circle."
If Hurdle does not make it at first base, he could take over in left field, where the Royals would prefer an everyday player with Hurdle's type of power instead of incumbents Tom Poquette and Joe Zdeb, who platooned in left last year. Poquette and Zdeb both hit over .290, but they also had only two home runs each. And Poquette and Zdeb have another Royal rookie to worry about—Centerfielder Willie Wilson. If Wilson, who hit .281 and stole 74 bases at Omaha last season, beats out veteran Amos Otis for the job in center, Otis may well become the starting leftfielder. Also given a good chance of making the club are two more rookies, Shortstop U. L. Washington, who would serve as a reserve infielder, and Pitcher Rich Gale.
This kind of competition pleases General Manager Burke because he prefers to promote players from inside the organization rather than to load up in the reentry draft, the route division rivals Texas and California have taken. "It looks like some of our veterans are going to have to bite the dust," says Burke.
Hurdle came to the attention of the Royals through a stroke of geographic good fortune. He grew up in Merritt Island, Fla., near the Cocoa home of the Royals' minor league pitching instructor, Bill Fischer. Fischer watched Hurdle play high school ball in the spring and pitched batting practice to him during the winter. "By the time Clint was 17," Fischer says, "he was hitting the ball over the fence and into the drainage ditch. I quit working out with him more out of fear than anything else. I was afraid I might get killed."