RF ∙ 1977—81
The Royals selected Clint Hurdle with the ninth overall pick in the June, 1975 amateur draft and quickly shipped him to the Gulf Coast rookie league to squeeze in his first pro games before the ’75 season ran out. Hurdle then headed to Florida to get some reps in the winter instructional league, where he was observed by Royals skipper Whitey Herzog. “I don’t like to go overboard on an 18-year-old kid just out of a rookie league,” Herzog said before going on to do just that: “…I’ve been going to the winter instructional league since 1964…and Hurdle is the best 18-year-old hitter I’ve seen.”[i] Hurdle had been in the organization for less than half a year before hype and expectations were being placed on his shoulders.
Hurdle put together a good 1976 season in Class A, and then looked so good at the following spring training that the team sped up their plans and jumped Hurdle all the way to Class AAA Omaha for ’77. The leap did not seem to faze Hurdle as he continued to inspire hyperbole. Omaha teammate Joe Lahoud gushed, “Clint Hurdle is going to be a super star. He’s only 19 and he’ll have an armored truck to carry his pay checks to the bank before he’s finished in this game.”[ii] His performance in Omaha earned him the American Association MVP award and a September call-up to the show. In his MLB debut on September 18, 1977, Hurdle, at 20 years and 50 days, was the youngest player to appear for Kansas City, and homered in his second trip to the plate. He got in nine games that September, and became perhaps the first Royals prospect to endure the curse of George Brett comparisons when Herzog said, “From what I’ve seen, Hurdle is a lot like George Brett.”[iii]
Sports Illustrated piled on with their March 20, 1978 cover featuring Hurdle and the words “THIS YEAR’S PHENOM” and a feature story that almost reads like a parody of going overboard about a prospect. Even George Brett makes a George Brett comparison in the article. Hurdle was a candidate to take over either first base or one of the outfield corners in ’78, but it was a crowded picture with John Mayberry at first and Al Cowens, Amos Otis, and fellow hot prospect Willie Wilson all in the mix in the outfield. So sure were the Royals of Hurdle that they allowed Mayberry to go to Toronto for peanuts a few days before Opening Day and Hurdle took over first base duties. Hurdle failed to follow the script by not setting the league on fire. In July he shifted to the outfield for the remainder of the year, where his range was limited but he could utilize his powerful throwing arm. His hitting picked up slightly. In mid-season, perhaps showing signs of the undue pressure placed on him, Hurdle cracked, “If I had done everything I was supposed to up to now, I’d be leading in homers, have the highest batting average, given $1,000 to the cancer fund and married Marie Osmond.”[iv] Instead, he was more like an almost average major leaguer, not too shabby for a 20 year old rookie, but it could only feel like a disappointment after all the hype. “This has been a tough year for a young guy,” admitted Hurdle. “Things were not smooth from the start of spring training for me. There was that controversy about John Mayberry…There was all of that noise about how much I had done in the minors and winter ball. But people don’t realize there’s a lot of difference between the minors and the big leagues…One of these days I think I’ll do what a lot of people predicted me to do.”[v] He got his first taste of playoff baseball as the Royals fell to the Yankees in four games.
Hurdle earned the starting left field spot heading into 1979, but couldn’t get going with the bat. By June, Willie Wilson took over in left and Hurdle headed down to Omaha. Herzog explained, “We want him to go to Omaha and try to get back his stroke. He’s had trouble pulling the trigger on fast balls. He’s doing too much lunging…I know when he first joined us in September of 1977, Hurdle had his stroke. Somehow he lost it. I think he can get it back.”[vi] Unfortunately the slump followed Hurdle to Nebraska. He got the call back to KC in time to get into a few late season games, but overall just played 59 MLB games in ’79.
The Royals were not ready to give up on Hurdle, and in fact traded away Al Cowens with the idea that right field now belonged to Hurdle. “I’m a prospect again, huh?” Hurdle joked.[vii] 1980 turned into something like a success for him, or at least the closest he would get as a big league player. It was the only season he was able to enjoy some positional stability (though he was still benched against some lefty starters), and his .349 OBP and .458 SLG were helpful in getting the team the division title. He only got into the ALCS for two plate appearances, but was the starting right fielder in four of the six World Series games. He reached base in half of his 14 World Series plate appearances, but it was mostly in vain as he scored just one run in the series and drove in none.
1981 held some promise considering Hurdle was still just 23 years old and he had finally put together a decent year in ’80. And Hurdle did absolutely destroy the ball in 1981. But forces conspired to limit that damage to just 28 games played. Back spasms and pain took him out of the lineup after just five games. After rest wasn’t taking care of it, a muscle tear was finally discovered. In early June he was finally able to start swinging the bat again, and joked, “It was like I had my old swing back—the swing that got me sent to Omaha in 1979.”[viii] He was back in the lineup on May 30 and knocked a 430 footer out of Metropolitan Stadium in Minneapolis. But just six games later a strike kicked Hurdle (and everyone else) off the field again. Hurdle and the Royals came back to have a good “second season” after the strike, and faced the A’s in the ALDS. The Royals were swept easily, and Hurdle observed, “We stunk. Good God were we awful.”[ix] Hurdle was responsible for one of the low points of the series when he was picked off of second base at a crucial moment.
The Royals were finally out of patience with Hurdle and traded him to the Reds for minor league pitcher Scott Brown. Hurdle battled health problems, subpar hitting, and minimal playing time through 1987 before calling it a career as a player. His story is certainly one of unmet expectations, and a prime reminder that there is no such thing as a sure thing in baseball. We’d all do better not to place undue expectations on any prospect. But his story is also one of redemption, since Hurdle has found success in the majors as a manager, most notably with a World Series appearance and a manager of the year award.
[i] Joe McGuff, “Herzog Jumps For Joy Over Hurdle,” The Sporting News, November 15, 1975.
[ii] “American Assn.,” The Sporting News, August 6, 1977.
[iii] Del Black, “Heirs Apparent Make Instant Hit With Royals,” The Sporting News, October 22, 1977.
[iv] “Insiders Say,” The Sporting News, August 5, 1978.
[v] Sid Bordman, “Clint Clearing Hurdle With Royals,” The Sporting News, September 2, 1978.
[vi] Del Black, “Brett Boosts His Bat Mark With Torrid Month,” The Sporting News, June 16, 1979.
[vii] Del Black, “Clint Faces New Hurdle As Royals’ Right Fielder,” The Sporting News, January 12, 1980.
[viii] Mike McKenzie, “Quisenberry Discoveries ‘Delivery in My Flaw,’” The Sporting News, June 6, 1981.
[ix] Kit Stier, “Up-and-Coming A’s Frustrate Royals,” The Sporting News, October 24, 1981.