Drungo LaRue Hazewood – and we always used all three names – was a baseball legend when I came to Charlotte in 1981. The name had a lot to do with it, of course. What a name. Say those three names together. Poetry. But it wasn’t only the name. It was also that he had the bearings of a star. Some people just have that.
Oh man, I can still see him now: 6-foot-3, chiseled in stone, long and violent right-handed swing that – when it connected – would make baseballs hurt. He could run too. He could do everything.
Well … OK … not everything. That long and violent swing missed baseballs. A lot.
But we were 13 and 14 years old, we didn’t come to Crockett Park – an old wooden ballpark on Magnolia Avenue -- to scout players. We came to be amazed. And Drungo Larue Hazewood amazed us. He would hit these home runs that would not come down. And he would strike out four times in a row. He would steal bases with such ease you wondered how a catcher could EVER throw him out. And he would get thrown out by five steps. He would uncork these ridiculous throws from the outfield, some of them so perfect you wanted time to stop to celebrate, others so far off target you wondered exactly where he was aiming. He was every single thing a minor league baseball legend should be. We all wanted to be him.
And he was named: Drungo LaRue Hazewood.
Yes, of course, there was a more unsentimental baseball story too: Hazewood was Baltimore’s first round pick in 1977, just before the Dodgers took Bob Welch. A scout in Sacramento had watched him play and fell in love with the tools – he had all of them. Ah, there should be a baseball heaven for toolsy players who couldn’t hit well enough. Hazewood went to Bluefield at 17 and hit .184 and struck out 55 times in 51 games. In Miami -- an A-ball team then -- he hit .242 and struck out 119 times in 111 games.
Those numbers may not look out of place in today’s baseball, but the late 1970s -- especially in the minor leagues -- they were kind of shocking.
Then he came to Charlotte in 1979, and he hit .231 and struck out 137 times. But he also cracked some homers, stole some bases, and got himself an invite to Orioles spring training.
At spring training, Drungo LaRue hit .583 for the Orioles. Earl Weaver cut him. The Orioles were defending American League champions and had no place for him. “He was making the rest of us look bad with that average,” Weaver cracked. Hazewood went back to Charlotte and he hit 28 homers and stole 29 bases (and struck out 177 times). He made it to the big leagues as a September call-up.
In his first three games, he was a defensive replacement and did not get an at-bat.
In his fourth, he was used as a pinch-runner for Ken Singleton and he scored a run.
In his fifth game -- the first of a double-header against Cleveland -- he pinch-hit for Mark Belanger. It was his first big-league at-bat. He flew out to center field.
In his sixth game -- the second game of that same doubleheader -- he finally started. He came up in the second inning against Rick Waits. He struck out. In the fourth, he faced Waits again. He struck out. In the sixth, he came up again against Rick Waits and, yes, he struck out. Finally ninth inning, against Rick Waits, Drungo LaRue Hazewood struck out. Four at-bats. Four Ks.
And that’s where it ended. He never got another big league at-bat. He went to Rochester in 1981, the Class AAA team, and was hitting .094 and striking out like crazy when he was returned to Charlotte, where he was beloved. Drungo LaROOOOOOOOOOO Hazewood, they used to say at Crockett Park, and he hit .282/.419/.500 with 19 homers and 17 steals for the Charlotte O’s. I saw many of those. Oh did we love him.
My Charlotte O’s love probably hit its height in 1982, and Hazewood hit just .226 with 11 homers. But those homers seemed outsized. I still get psyched up hearing some of the names on that 1982 O’s team -- Jesus Alfaro and John Stefero and Kenny Dixon. Eddie Hook, in my memory, did not have a great hook. Donald Bowman was this giant of a man who could poke long home runs. But Drungo LaRue was more memorable than any of them.
On Sunday, Drungo Hazewood died. He was just 53 years old -- it’s hard to believe he was just seven years older than I was. He had always seemed SO MUCH older. Hazewood had apparently battled cancer for a long time. The story says that while some thought Hazewood was embittered by his baseball experience, his wife Lagette says he was not. “He wasn't bitter about baseball,” she says. “He wasn't angry that it didn't work out. He had a dream to play major-league baseball, and he got his chance. He did his best.”
Also to a bunch of kids in Charlotte, Drungo LaRue Hazewood was bigger than life.