When he was a rookie, many thought he'd be among the greatest Royals of all-time. Instead, Clint Hurdle is #63 on the list of Greatest Royals of All-Time.
Before there was Angel Berroa, before there was Bob Hamelin, there was Clint Hurdle
Clint was the starting right-fielder for the first pennant winning ballclub in Kansas City history, but he is probably better known for being a bust after being labeled "This Year's Phenom" on the cover of Sports Illustrated in 1978. Had he come up in the late 90s, instead of coming up when the Royals were in "win now" phase, a more patient team probably could have coaxed a more productive career out of Hurdle.
Clint was a first round pick in 1975 out of high school in Merritt Island, Florida. He signed for $50,000, a large sum at the time and was considered a "bonus baby." At six foot three, many projected great power numbers from the young athlete. At age seventeen, he hit .274 with 31 walks and just 24 strikeouts in 49 games at Sarasota. The next season at A ball he dramatically increased his power, slamming nineteen home runs, but it came at the expense of making contact. His walk-to-strikeout numbers took a huge tumble as he drew just eighteen walks and struck out 112 times, with his average plummeting to .235. Nonetheless, the Royals skipped him past AA, and sent him to AAA Omaha in 1977, where he responded with his best professional season, hitting .328 with 96 walks, just 61 strikeouts and sixteen home runs.
The Royals promoted him in September for a cup of coffee and in just his second at-bat in the big leagues he blasted a pitch into the fountains at Royals Stadium. By his third game, he was hitting cleanup, behind Royals star George Brett, and he blasted a home run that hit on top of a sign in the right field fountains and bounced out of the ballpark.
"He was the can't-miss prospect."
The Royals had a pair of rookie outfielders generating buzz in the spring of 1978. Willie Wilson and his blazing speed were expected to compete for a starting outfield role. Even greater expectations were thurst upon Hurdle after Sports Illustrated crowned him as a "phenom" on their cover that spring. Although he had come up as an outfielder, Hurdle was asked to learn first base to take over for the disappointing John Mayberry, who was traded just before Opening Day.
Hurdle struggled right off the bat, hitting just .205 that first month. By June he had lifted his average to .260, but he was still not hitting with the power many scouts thought he was capable of. When Al Cowens went down with injury and Willie Wilson was demoted, Hurdle moved back to the outfield. He ended the season at .264/.348/.398 with seven home runs and 56 RBI. He had decent numbers for a twenty year old rookie, but hardly the "phenom" many had projected him to be.
My list of biggest Royals busts
10. Jaime Quirk
Had a decent career, but never lived up to his first round draft pick billing
9. Carlos Febles
One half of "Dos Carlos", Febles never really capitalized on a solid rookie season
8. Bob Hamelin
Wasn't a hot prospect as a minor leaguer, but he did surface as Rookie of the Year, only to fade back into obscurity
7. Roy Branch
I don't know much about this guy, but he was the fifth overall selection in 1970 ahead of guys like Frank Tanana and Jim Rice. He never pitched an inning for the Royals, and only spend eleven innings in the big leagues.
6. Angel Berroa
Really only had one great minor league season and did win Rookie of the Year, but it was all a fluke
5. Dee Brown
Great blend of power and speed. Posnanski had a great piece on how the Royals messed him up
4. Jim Pittsley / Jeff Granger / Matt Smith / Dan Reichert / Chris George / Matt Burch / Jeff Austin / Jimmy Gobble / Jay Gehrke / Mike MacDougal / Kyle Snyder / Mike Stodolka
These are the pitchers selected in the first round by General Manager Herk Robinson. Some turned out to be decent relievers, but most were huge busts.
3. Gary Thurman
Boy he was fast. He couldn't hit that much but he was fast. Did I mention he was fast?
2. Colt Griffin
Colt didn't start pitching til age 16, then came out of nowhere to become a first round pick by wowing scouts with a 100 mph fastball. Trouble is, he had no idea where it was going. Retired at the age of 24.
1. Clint Hurdle
Hey, not everyone with a career OPS+ of 105 makes the cover of Sports Illustrated
The Royals clinched their third consecutive division title and for the third consecutive year faced the hated New York Yankees. Hurdle started the first three games and his triple in Game Two broke the game wide open and turned it into a laugher. Otherwise, he had a very quiet series, and he was benched in a crucial Game Four. He was called on to pinch hit in the ninth inning with the tying run in scoring position, but he struck out against Rich Gossage as the Yankees beat the Royals for the third straight year.
Hurdle began 1979 with lower expectations surrounding him. He began the year as the starting right fielder and was hitting .272 in mid-May before a 2-22 slump dropped his average thirty points. With Willie Wilson hitting well, and veterans Amos Otis and Al Cowens entrenched in the outfield, Hurdle was the odd man out. The Royals demoted him to Omaha so he could regain his stroke. Hurdle struggled even more in Omaha, hitting just .236 with just six home runs in 68 games. He rejoined the Royals in August, but did little to impress.
The next spring, the Royals dealt Cowens to Anaheim for first baseman Willie Aikens, opening a spot in right field. The Royals went with a combination of Hurdle, John Wathan and veteran Jose Cardenal. With the pressure off, Hurdle began to hit. He had back-to-back three hit games in late May. On June 11, he went 3-3 with a home run. Two days later he began a streak of six multi-hit games in a row. On July 25, he went 3-3 with an inside-the-park home run and four RBI against the Yankees. He finished with his best season ever, hitting .294/.349/.458 with ten home runs and 60 RBI.
The Royals clinched their fourth division title and once again faced their rivals from New York. Manager Jim Frey had concerns about Hurdle against lefties, and sat him in favor of veteran John Wathan.
''I've always felt the best possible lineup was one that had me in it. But we can still win with this lineup. Besides, we're going to have to use more ball players than the starting nine to win this thing. I'll just have to produce when my role comes up.''
Hurdle did start Game Three, going 0-2, but his services would not be needed as the Royals easily swept the Yankees and advanced to their first World Series. Hurdle did start four of the six games against the Phillies in a losing cause.
Hurdle came into 1981 looking for a starting spot. The Royals were concerned he couldn't hit left handed pitching, and he had become a bit of a defensive liability, committing ten errors in 1980. Still, he was coming off his first successful season in the big leagues, and there was still hope that he could fulfill some of the potential he tantalized scouts with.
''I had a good, solid consistent year last year. It's something I've been striving for. In the past I've been inconsistent at times. I'd have a good week and then a bad one and you can't afford to do that. There are too many good ballplayers. You have that bad week and somebody's in there the next. I showed a little consistency and I think that's what Skip is looking for."
Hurdle went 3-4 with a home run on opening day, then followed that up with another home run the next game. Just two weeks later, he went down with a back injury, missing a month of action. When he returned, he hit a game winning home run in Minnesota. Two weeks later, the players went on strike.
While on strike, Hurdle got a job serving beers at a local Kansas City bar called "Thirsty's". "I spill a lot, but it's good showmanship," he admitted.
When play resumed in August, Hurdle again found himself sidelined with injuries. He would return in September, but he would end the year having appeared in just twenty-eight games, hitting .329.
The Royals ran out of patience waiting for Hurdle to put his career together, and that December they dealt him to Cincinnati for relief prospect Scott Brown. Hurdle continued to struggle, and spent most of the season in the minor leagues. The Reds released him after just one season and he bounced around the Mets organization, spending time mostly in the minors.
After another season in the minors in 1987, Hurdle decided to finally retire at the age of twenty-nine. He immediately became a manager in the Mets system, reaching AAA by 1993. A clash with minor league director Steve Phillips caused Hurdle to leave for the Colorado Rockies. In 1997, he was named hitting instructor for the Rockies big league team and in 2002 he was promoted to manager after the firing of Buddy Bell. In 2007, he led the Rockies to their first ever World Series.
"I'd done everything I could've done. Did I come up short? In my own mind, I came up short. But I'm proud of the resiliency I had in most situations. I sleep well at night....Making it to the big leagues was like turning a corner on a cold winter's day and wow - you're living a dream.. Then, there were some sour times, when you think, 'Is this all worth it? Is this all there is?' You have to have belief in the dream. I decided I was going to ride this out until I abhor coming to the park."