By Bob Cohn, PITTSBURGH TRIBUNE-REVIEW
Sunday, August 14, 2011
While the Pirates were finding different ways to lose, and lose often, manager Clint Hurdle rocked steady to the beat of the same message. His message.
"How you get through (adversity) as an organization and a team is what can define you actually and make you better in the long run," he said last Sunday after a 10th consecutive loss.
This has been a prevailing theme of Hurdle's. And who better to spread it than a brush-cut, slogan-spouting testament to the long run? "There's not much that's been thrown at me that's gonna catch me off guard," he said.
Certainly not a 10-game losing streak, distasteful as it was. Hurdle has dealt with larger issues.
"It's a game," he often says, win or lose.
As the Rockies' manager in 2007, Hurdle guided his club to the World Series a year after it finished 10 games under .500. In his first season with the Pirates, he has overseen a big improvement from last year's 105-loss disaster and kept the team competitive longer than what seemed reasonable.
But before trying to reinvent the Pirates, Hurdle had to reinvent himself.
"I've gone through an obstacle course and come out the other side bigger, stronger and better," he said. "I've learned and lived, on and off the field.
"Usually behind leadership you hope to have good judgment," Hurdle said, sitting at his desk inside PNC Park. "And good judgment's needed in times of adversity. How do you get good judgment? Through experience. And how do you get the experience? Through bad judgment."
Hurdle would know. A recovering alcoholic, he helped sabotage his promising career on the field and lived less than responsibly off it. In many ways, life began at 40.
"There were challenges that were presented to me," said Hurdle, 54, "and some I manufactured on my own."
Terry Bross, who pitched for Hurdle on three minor league clubs and in the Florida Instructional League, said, "The thing about Clint is because of the journey he's taken, he keeps everything in perspective. I never saw him get too high or too low. He's shouldered a lot in his life. And he does a very good job of sharing it."
While managing the Mets' Jackson (Miss.) affiliate in 1990, Hurdle noticed that Bross pitched better when he was angry. So Hurdle told Bross to rile himself up by stalking around the mound and trying to look intimidating. It wasn't hard. A former St. John's basketball player, Bross stood 6-foot-9.
Hurdle also suggested Bross grow a droopy Fu Manchu mustache, creating a taller version of Al Hrabosky, the colorful reliever and psyche-out artist known as "The Mad Hungarian" and Hurdle's ex-teammate. This would violate the Mets' minor league facial hair policy, but Hurdle got a pass.
Performing the full Hrabosky, Bross set a club saves record and was called up the next year. Although his major league career lasted just 10 games (he also pitched in Japan), he credits Hurdle with helping him get a taste of the big time.
"He's one of the most influential people I've ever been around and one of the best motivators," Bross said. "No matter what you thought you were going through, he always made you think you're better than you are."
Things can change
Twice divorced, Hurdle met Karla Yearick, an accountant from Muncy, Pa., while managing Williamsport for the Mets in 1991. They were married eight years later. Today they have two children: Christian, who is 6, and Madison, who celebrated her ninth birthday at a party last Sunday at PNC Park. Hurdle also has a daughter, Ashley, 26, from a previous marriage.
Maddie, as the family calls Madison, was born with a genetic disorder, Prader-Willi syndrome. Symptoms can vary, but PWS generally causes a chronic feeling of hunger, learning issues, and social and motor deficits. It affects 1 in 12,000-15,000 people.
The family's struggles with the disease have been well-chronicled, and the Hurdles are deeply involved with the national Prader-Willi Association. Clint is a spokesperson. In 2005, he missed several games while managing the Rockies after complications put Maddie in the hospital and things looked scary. He calls Maddie "my angel."
He is supposed to brood about his playing career or bust up the furniture over a losing streak?
"Right now is the time I think I can handle some adversity," he said.
An outfielder and first baseman, Hurdle rose and fell almost at once. He joined the Royals fulltime in 1978 pictured on the cover of Sports Illustrated with the words, "This Year's Phenom." He ended his career as the Mets' bullpen catcher in 1987, a bust to many, even though he played well at times and helped the Royals reach the 1980 World Series.
Reflecting on one particularly rocky time that included rumors he was gay, Hurdle several years ago wryly noted to reporters, "I saw with the snap of finger, things can change. In a period of four weeks I was hurt, separated, divorced and then supposedly a homosexual. It was amazing."
The reinvention of Clint Hurdle has occurred in stages, a telling moment here, some bad judgment there, the occasional epiphany, advice both heeded and ignored. About when he was 30, he said, coming off his second divorce, he took a walk with his dad, Big Clint.
"One of the all-time best walks," Hurdle said, as if ranking them. "He said, 'Life's not fair, boy. You need to get this. You need to listen to me. You don't need to talk. This isn't the time for your questions. Life's not fair. What you do in situations you're handed is gonna dictate how you're gonna live your life and how you're gonna respect your life and what you make of your life."
Hurdle took the message to heart, but the real transformation happened a few years later when he met Karla. "I have reference points for growth," he said. "But she is one of the defining moments of my life."
She made him wait a few years after he proposed.
"I think he had a lot more things to figure out about himself," Karla Hurdle said. "I told him he would never be able to make me happy until he made himself happy."
Hurdle said he told Karla not long ago, "I know how much God loves me by the fact that he brought you into my life."
If Karla is one "defining moment," the other is Maddie. Hurdle's sister, Bobbi Jo, once told a reporter that Maddie took Clint "to a place where he'd never been." He was asked where that place was.
"It's given me the understanding of what unconditional love is all about," he said while in his PNC Park office. "It was a term I thought I had a grasp on. I thought I had a pretty good feeling about it. I didn't."
Karla Hurdle said, "You don't raise your hand to be picked for this; you kind of get elected by God. I don't think we would have gotten to this place in our relationship had we not been given Maddie as this gift.
"When you have someone with special needs, you have to remove yourself from the picture sometimes. They come first. We've accepted this. We know we've been given this awesome platform in baseball, and we can help bring awareness to the syndrome. When you do that you kind of give up a selfish piece of yourself."
Hurdle volunteers that he is still involved with Alcoholics Anonymous, preaches the benefits of therapy and, yes, expresses how much he loves his wife. Such subjects usually go unbroached in baseball. Hurdle doesn't care.
"You've got a broken bone, you go see a bone doctor," he said. "You've got a broken head, you go see a head doctor. You've got a broken heart, you might want to find somebody you can share that with.
"Most people go through things that don't work out, and they only look at how it affected them. I was able to take another step through counseling. All the damage I caused to other people. I never had that side of my life. It was all about me. The sun rose and set on the crack of my (rear) every day."
A large, robust man, Hurdle uses his voice like a musical instrument, changing keys and chords, punching some words hard, drawing out others. He resonates. He can intimidate and enlighten in the same sentence. "He's a very dominant person when he walks into a room," said his former teammate, Jamie Quirk. Hurdle also is fond of slogans that proffer wisdom and advice, like "Multitasking makes me multimediocre," and "Delay is not denial."
"I went through dealing with addiction," he said. "I went through two failed marriages and another marriage that has substance and roots, and understanding the collateral damage that I could have caused to others through my drinking and bad relationships.
"I've reached out and gotten some help and gotten some things right. Because I want to. I wanted to be better. I felt my family deserved better, my mom and dad, my sisters, my teammates. Even late in my career. And especially as a coach and a manager."
With the Royals, Hurdle shared a house with veterans George Brett and Quirk. That is, until Brett, who owned the house, kicked out Hurdle. The place came to be known as Animal House.
Hurdle drank heavily, ignoring his family's pleas to stop. During the 1981 strike, he got a job tending bar.
"It was just craziness," said Quirk, now a Houston Astros coach. "Clint was starting to get platooned and knew a lefty was going the next day, so his hours became a little longer at night and George had to go out and play. Not that he went to bed early, either."
Quirk and Hurdle went their separate ways after Hurdle was traded from Kansas City to Cincinnati in late 1981. When Hurdle became Rockies manager in 2002, Quirk called to congratulate his former teammate. The next thing Quirk knew, Hurdle hired him as a coach.
"If you had asked me when we were 25 years old, do you think Clint Hurdle would ever manage in the big leagues, I would absolutely say no," Quirk said. "It would have never entered my mind.
"He was just happy-go-lucky."
Drinking, injuries and attitude helped derail Hurdle's playing career. "He just didn't take care of himself," Quirk said. "And there was a lot of pressure on him."
When Quirk interviewed for the job, "Right away, I could see he was a different guy," he said. "The more I worked with him, the more I could see how intelligent he is."
A life experience
Hurdle said he became a Christian when he was 17, "but I used Jesus as an ATM card for 23 years. I'd go get some Jesus when I needed some Jesus. And there were plenty of times I didn't need it."
Nowadays, Hurdle said he asks God every day to be the best husband, father, friend and manager he can be.
People still send Hurdle the Sports Illustrated and ask him to autograph the cover. He complies.
"It does not bother me," he said. "It's a great reference, or should I say a North Star. Who I used to be. It's a life experience."
More life experiences: The Mets organization fired Hurdle after a shakeup in 1993, even though he was considered a promising young manager. The Rockies fired Hurdle in 2009 less than two years after he led them to their first and only World Series.
It's just a game, Hurdle often says. But don't tell him how important it is to other people, not to mention himself. He is a baseball lifer who plunges headfirst into the job.
Still, at some point you have to get out and towel off. Hurdle likes to read. About 20 books rest on his office desk. In one pile, a Vince Lombardi inspirational tome sits atop Keith Richards' autobiography. Not a surprise; his real passion is music, all types. "I'm all over the joint," he said. He is converting his 10,000 CDs to digital, an ongoing project. He has four iPods.
But family comes first. The Hurdles are moving into their new house in Hampton, where Karla's five-minute rule still applies. Hurdle gets to vent about the game for no longer than that. "Maddie doesn't want to hear about missed cutoff men or three-run homers," he said.
"Kid time," Hurdle said, is always first thing in the morning. Maddie gets up first, and they have breakfast. Then Christian stumbles down "like a college kid."
After a lopsided loss during the streak, Hurdle and Maddie talked about the pierogi race at the stadium and swimming. It wasn't until the next day that he got up, gave Karla a hug and said, "We got slaughtered last night."
Karla laughed. "Yes you did," she said.
There was another game that night.
Photo: Justin Merriman | Tribune-Review