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Royals phenoms of the past

Once upon a time, we had them

It’s kind of hard to believe, but at one time in the mid-1970s, the Royals had two of the top outfield prospects in baseball with Ruppert Jones and Clint Hurdle. One of my friends, who we nicknamed Tweet, was a big Ruppert Jones fan. Tweet was sure Jones was going to be the next big thing. He certainly had the pedigree.

Jones was born in Dallas but moved with his family to Berkeley, California as a youth. At Berkeley High School, Jones was all-everything. He excelled in baseball, basketball and football. Jones received multiple college football scholarship offers but turned them down for the chance to play baseball. The Royals drafted him in the third round of the 1973 amateur draft.

To show you what an imperfect science the baseball draft is, the top pick in 1973 was David Clyde. That part wasn’t really up for debate. David Clyde would have most likely been the top pick of any team in that draft. Clyde was a fantastic talent who was grossly mishandled by the Texas Rangers, a malpractice that certainly cost him years of his career. John Stearns, a catcher from the University of Colorado was the second pick of the draft, by the Mets. The Mets have a reputation to uphold, and they do not disappoint. The next two picks were, in order, Robin Yount and Dave Winfield. Both of those guys are in the Hall of Fame. Fred Lynn, who set the baseball world on fire in 1975, lasted until the 41st pick of the second round. It wasn’t like Lynn was some unknown high school talent. He’d played, and played well, at USC which at the time was a college baseball powerhouse. How he ever lasted until pick #41 will always baffle me.

The Royals blew their first and second-round selections, before getting it right with Jones. Sort of. Six picks later the Orioles selected a Los Angeles high school kid you’ve probably heard of: Eddie Murray. He’s in Cooperstown too. Evaluating baseball talent is hard. I’ve always thought it was more difficult than evaluating talent in any of the other big three sports. Mankind will probably find a cure for male pattern baldness before coming up with a talent evaluation system that makes the baseball draft less of a crap shoot.

That’s no knock-on Jones. He was a solid player, just not for the Royals, which broke Tweet’s heart. We’ll get to that later. Jones shot through the Royals farm system: .301 at Billings as an 18-year-old. .321 between Class A Waterloo and AA San Jose in his age-19 season. AAA proved a little tougher as he hit .243 in Omaha at age 20. To put that in perspective, the 2022 Omaha Storm Chasers didn’t even have a 20-year-old on their roster. Their youngest player was Maikel Garcia, who was 22. Jones spent most of 1976 in Omaha, hitting .262, before getting the call-up to Kansas City.

He got his first start in an August 4th game against the Rangers at Royals Stadium. Facing future Hall of Famer Gaylord Perry, Jones singled in his first major league at-bat. Four batters later, he scored his first run on an Al Cowens sacrifice fly. He had his first three-hit game on August 21st against the Brewers and stroked his first career home run on August 29th off Rick Wise at Fenway Park. Nice place to get your first dinger. Jones played in 28 games that summer, as the Royals won the first of three consecutive American League West titles. After a hot start, he struggled, as young players often do. Baseball is a hard sport, especially your first trip through the league. Pitchers find your weakness and exploit it. You either adapt or wash out.

After the World Series was over, the Royals GM Joe Burke made a mistake. They left Jones unprotected in the 1976 expansion draft. The Royals elected to hang onto Tom Poquette and expose Jones. At the time it made some sense. Poquette had hit .302 in 104 games for the Royals, while Jones checked in at .216 over his 28 games. That was probably the ceiling on Poquette, but Jones, he had potential. He had good speed and was an excellent fielder plus he had some pop in his bat. The Seattle Mariners had the first overall pick in the draft and jumped on Jones, taking him with the first overall pick. The loss left many Royals fans with a cold pit in their stomach.

“He was the one we wanted. He can play.” said Lou Gorman, Seattle’s chief of baseball operations. That’s Lou Gorman, who up until the 1976 season had been the Royals Director of Scouting. Poquette played two more seasons for Kansas City before being shipped off to Boston for an aging George “Boomer” Scott in June of 1979. The Boomer, who was 35 at the time, lasted until mid-August before the Royals released him. Scott retired after the 1979 season. Fortunately, Royals Review didn’t exist at the time, or I’m sure we’d have been roasting Burke for these moves.

Jones immediately became a fan favorite in Seattle, where cheers of “ Roop, Roop, Roop” could be heard at every game. Jones, who was known as the First Mariner, was also making the Royals brain trust look bad. He was selected to the 1977 All-Star team, after clipping the first half with a .256 average, 17 home runs and 50 RBI. During that 1977 season, he hit a sixth-inning home run off Cleveland’s Dennis Eckersley, which put an end to Eckersley’s 22 innings of no-hit ball (spread over three games). The 22 innings were two innings short of Cy Young’s record. After the season ended, he was named to the Topps All-Rookie team. I saw Jones play in that 1977 season, in what I call the Clint Hurdle game. More on that later too. Jones struggled in 1978 while battling a knee injury and an appendectomy. The injuries limited him to 129 games and dropped his home run output from 24 to 6.

Jones signing autographs for the kids

He bounced back big with his best season in Seattle in 1979. He slashed .267/.356/.444 with 21 home runs and 78 RBI. He also drew 78 walks and stole 33 bases. He was still only 24. After the 1979 season, Seattle traded Jones to the New York Yankees as part of a six-player deal. It looked like a case of the rich getting richer, as many, including me and Tweet, expected Jones to continue to excel. Jones’ time in the Big Apple was hampered by more injuries. First, he had surgery to remove an adhesion from his earlier appendix surgery. In late August, he had a scary crash into the outfield wall in Oakland while chasing a Tony Armas fly ball. The crash separated his shoulder, gave him a concussion and knocked him unconscious for 24 hours. The injury sidelined him for the remainder of the season and the playoffs. In those days, outfield walls were serious obstacles. Jones later sued A’s owner Charlie O. Finley for the dangerous conditions.

The Yanks decided to cut bait and shipped Jones to the San Diego Padres in the off-season as part of another six-player trade. Even though he continued to be hampered by injuries, Jones had the best season of his career in 1982 with the Padres. In 116 games, he slashed .283/.373/.425 while playing stellar centerfield. He made his second All-Star team and hit a pinch-hit triple in the game off old foil Dennis Eckersley. He became a free agent after the 1983 season but found few takers. He had a strong spring with the Pittsburgh Pirates but was released while the Pirates held onto higher-paid, underperforming players. He then signed with Detroit and after a hot stint in AAA Evansville, was called up to the Tigers. He played a significant role for the Tigers that summer, platooning in left field. In a game on June 24th, he hit a moon shot that cleared the right field roof at Tiger Stadium. The fans promptly nicknamed him “Rooftop Ruppert”.

That Tiger team was a powerhouse, winning 104 games and the World Series (over San Diego coincidentally) earning Ruppert a World Series ring. After the season ended, Jones became a free agent. He turned down a reasonable offer from the Tigers but once again found few suitors. He signed with the Angels, where in 1985 and spent the last three seasons of his career in Anaheim. He made it back to the playoffs in 1986, but the Angels lost a heartbreaking championship series to the Red Sox. Those Red Sox of course ended up coughing up the World Series to the once and future-cursed Mets as Bob Stanley uncorked a wild pitch and a hobbled Bill Buckner let a Mookie Wilson dribbler get through the wickets. Baseball can be a cruel game.

Jones played for a short time in Japan in 1988 before finally calling it a career at the age of 34. Jones ended his career with almost 23 WAR while swatting 147 home runs and stealing 143 bases. Tom Poquette, the guy Kansas City elected to keep, ended with a 3 WAR career. Had Jones been able to stay healthy, he could have been a 50 WAR type player.

Clint Hurdle was the second Royals phenom in those days. Hurdle was another outstanding high school athlete. He was a star baseball and football player at Merritt Island, FL High School. He turned down a scholarship offer from the University of Miami, who wanted him to play football and baseball, and made himself available in the draft.

The Royals selected Hurdle with their first-round pick (ninth overall) in the 1975 draft on the advice of scout Bill Fischer. The Royals had brought in Hurdle to their Florida complex prior to the draft for batting practice and he put on a show that made the scouts swoon like 16-year-old schoolboys. That was a strange draft as the talent was spread all over. In taking Hurdle, the Royals passed on Lee Smith, Carney Lansford and Lou Whitaker.

Hurdle roared through the Royals minor league system. He played 49 games as a 17-year-old for the Royals Gulf Coast rookie team in 1975. He spent his age-18 season in 1976 at Class A Waterloo (Iowa) before a strong spring training sent him to AAA Omaha for the 1977 season. He hit .328 in 129 games at Omaha before getting a late-season call-up to the big club. He made his debut on September 18th, a Sunday game against Ruppert Jones and the Seattle Mariners. The Royals were well on their way to a club record 102 wins and on this day were basically playing out the string, waiting for the playoffs and a rematch with the Yankees.

Hurdle got the start in right field and batted fifth, behind John Mayberry. My dad and I had great seats, in the first row behind home plate. He was excited about seeing Hurdle, who we’d heard about all summer. Dad thought he had potential to be another Mickey Mantle-type player. Those were heady days for Royals fans. A division-winning team plus a farm system that was turning out top rated prospects? Sign me up!

The game was quiet until the bottom of the fifth. Mayberry led off the inning with a double. Hurdle came up for the second time, facing Glenn Abbott. Hurdle, who was still just 19 years old, turned on an Abbott fastball and deposited the pitch 450 feet away into the upper level of the right field water fountains. The crowd of nearly 34,000 went nuts. Unnerved by the long home run, Abbott walked Amos Otis. He then threw the ball into right field trying to pick off AO. Darrell Porter hit an RBI single. Freddie Patek drilled a single followed by a Frank White sacrifice fly. 4-0 KC. Mayberry added a dong of his own in the sixth, and the party was on.

Hurdle’s first HR at bat

Dad and I were practically giddy on the drive home, thinking how bright the future was for the Royals. New ballpark. A team on the way to 100 wins and the playoffs. Some of the best young players and prospects in baseball. Damn, those were great days to be a Royals fan. In March of 1978, Hurdle appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated, under the title “This year’s Phenom”. The article also made mention of Hurdle’s fellow rookie teammates, Willie Wilson, U.L. Washington and Rich Gale. General Manager Joe Burke, who evidently never read the book, “How to win friends and influence people” said quite bluntly, “It looks like some of our veterans are going to have to bite the dust.” I’m sure that quote went over well in the locker room. Wilson of course, went on to be the biggest star of the group, which was an unexpected development.

In that Sports Illustrated story, George Brett best summed up the buildup to Hurdle’s rookie season. ”Clint is a lot like me. I guess that’s one of the reasons we’ve become close. In 1974 I was the All-American boy trying to make it in the big leagues, and now it’s Clint. I can remember the front office asking me not to chew tobacco or go into bars. I was their golden boy. Now the golden boy is Clint, and they’ll probably want to protect him, too.”

Hurdle’s response was, “You’ve got to get it while you can. When I’ve had a few drinks, I want to get Rubin “Hurricane” Carter out of jail. When I came up to Kansas City last season, I thought life in the majors would be great, but it was ten times better than I expected.” Hurdle spent some of his paycheck on a new Dodge van. Understand, not a suburban soccer mom minivan like we have today. No, this was a 1970s love van, complete with a fridge, sink, CB radio/tape deck and of course a fold-out bed. Yessiree, Clint Hurdle was ready to set Kansas City and the American League on fire. Did I mention earlier that baseball is hard?

Hurdle appeared in a career-high 133 games for the Royals in 1978. He slashed a respectable .264/.348/.398 but the power never materialized as he hit only 7 home runs. Over the next three seasons, he battled injuries, only appearing in 217 games. The frustrating part was, it looked like he was starting to figure it out, then an injury would knock him back. He hit .284 in those 217 games between injuries, and even displayed a bit of power and RBI potential. A notoriously slow starter, he got off to a blistering start in 1981 and by June 5th was hitting a robust .364. He had missed some games in April, and most of May, after injuring his back sliding into third base. Then came the player’s strike. Hurdle got a job tending bar during the strike, “just to keep busy.” He cooled a little after play resumed, but still ended with a batting average of .329. The A’s swept the Royals out of the playoffs and Hurdle’s time in KC was over. In December, the team traded him to Cincinnati for pitcher Scott Brown. Brown missed all the 1982 season and only appeared in 14 games for Omaha in 1983 before his career ended.

Hurdle didn’t fare much better. He spent the next six seasons bouncing between the Reds, Mets, Cardinals and the Mets again, including extended stays to each teams AAA affiliate, before calling it a career at the age of 30. The Mets immediately hired him as manager of their Class A team in Port St. Lucie. Hurdle said, “if I can’t make the Hall of Fame as a player, maybe I can do it this way.”

Over the next few years, Hurdle earned praise as a teacher and leader as he climbed the managerial ladder. He made it back to the majors in 1996 with the Colorado Rockies when Don Baylor hired him as the team's hitting coach. During that stint, Hurdle helped develop Larry Walker and Todd Helton. He ascended to the manager’s job when Buddy Bell was fired early in the 2002 campaign. In 2007, Hurdle’s Rockies team enjoyed one of those moments that makes baseball a magical sport. The team won 13 of their last 14 regular season games to tie San Diego for the wildcard spot. The Rocks then won an unforgettable 13-inning elimination game against the Padres, when they overcame a two-run deficit by walking off Hall of Fame closer Trevor Hoffman. They then swept the Phillies and the Diamondbacks to make their first World Series. Rocktober! The team won 20 of 21 games leading up to the Series, a run reminiscent of what the 1977 Royals did. Unfortunately, they turned into a pumpkin in the World Series, getting swept by the Red Sox.

Hurdle spent eight seasons managing the Rockies before getting axed. He then went to Pittsburgh, where he managed the Pirates for nine more years, which included three trips to the playoffs. The Royals spent most of those years in managerial purgatory while two of our own, Hurdle and Lou Piniella, were enjoying success with other clubs. That always frustrated me a bit. Hurdle has always drawn rave reviews for his ability to connect and communicate with his players. in 2021, the Rockies lured him out of retirement as a Special Assistant to the GM. You have to give Hurdle credit for moving past a disappointing playing career and making himself one of the better managers in the game.