“Lee, one quick question. Does Clint ever smile? He always looks like he just bit a lemon.”
That was a comment left on the website and I’ve decided to answer at length. If you wanna hear some funny baseball stories, keep reading. If you’re an internet sourpuss, keep reading anyway … it might change your attitude.
How I got to know Pittsburgh Pirates manager Clint Hurdle
If I recall correctly — and I’m not sure I remembered to take my allergy pill this morning — I went to a Royals fantasy camp in 1990. Here’s the deal on fantasy camps: a bunch of ex-pros get paid to act as instructors, managers and coaches and a bunch of guys who can’t play baseball pay a lot of money to be there.
On the first day, after a morning of instruction, the campers played a game for the benefit of the pros. They watched us and figured out who they wanted to draft. As luck would have it, I got drafted by Clint Hurdle.
One day it rained, so Clint threw our team batting practice inside one of the sheds constructed for that purpose. He started by saying we each got seven swings, if we were still standing in the batter’s box waiting for an eighth swing, he was going to hit us with a baseball.
First baseball lesson: Batting practice is fun and everyone wants to get their hacks in, so don’t be a hog. At one point I took a few swings and said I’d had enough and got out of the hitting cage. Clint started laughing and said: “You lost count, didn’t you?”
He was right and complimented me on making a good decision.
After Clint threw a bucket’s worth of balls that wound up all over the batting cage floor he told us; “Pick ’em up, they don’t have (expletive) on ’em.”
Second baseball lesson: If you hit ’em, you get ’em. Don’t make the guy doing all the work of throwing the baseballs then have to pick up the baseballs. After Clint had thrown everybody on the team BP he said: “I just want to thank all of you for letting me throw you batting practice for two hours.”
Third baseball lesson: If a guy is nice enough to throw you BP, say thank you.
It dawned on me that Clint was teaching us the game; if we paid attention we could learn its customs and rules. Batting practice is a privilege; everything is revolving around you, so be polite, take turns and hustle in and out of the batting cage so someone else doesn’t get shortchanged — people are waiting their turn. You see guys in the major leagues literally jump in and out of the batting cage and that’s why: to dawdle is considered impolite.
One guy didn’t get it
Cut to the next day: this time we were outside taking batting practice. Clint was throwing BP and a camper was at the plate getting in his hacks. The camper hit one pretty well and wanted to watch the ball fly. He held a hand up to signal Clint to wait to throw the next pitch — he was watching the one he just hit. Clint grinned.
I thought: “That’s not good.”
The camper had just violated all the rules Clint had tried to teach us the day before. Clint asked the camper if he was done watching his own hit. The camper was a bit mystified, but said yes. Clint held up a ball and said: “If you want to watch a baseball, watch this one.”
Clint then wound up, threw a pitch about 20 miles an hour harder than anything else he’d thrown that morning and hit the camper in the butt. The camper yelped, jumped out of the cage holding his butt and whined: “I think he did that on purpose.”
Baseball humor can be brutal
Some people thought Clint was hilarious and some people were offended; how can we pay this much money and get treated this way? I was one of the people who thought Clint was hilarious: we paid to have a baseball experience and Clint was giving us one — and that experience included being the subject of baseball humor.
A 78-year-old camper had purchased a new glove before coming to fantasy camp. Clint asked to see it, said it was nice and then told the guy: “You’re never going to get that broke in.”
When Clint was with the Rockies, Dante Bichette showed up with a godawful haircut and I asked Clint where Dante had gotten his hair done: “Benihana’s.”
And Hurdle doesn’t mind poking fun at himself, either. I asked about his hip replacements and he said he couldn’t understand why he needed them: “I never played that hard.”
When Rex Hudler complimented him on his hair — and it would take about four more paragraphs to describe how that came about — Clint said he’d grown it out because his wife was tired of his flattop: “I didn’t want her testing the free agent market.”
I go to Williamsport, Penn., and start paying attention
OK, so I go to fantasy camp, hit it off with Clint and he invites me to visit him during the season. If you’ve never tried to get to Williamsport, Penn., trust me; it’s not easy. That’s where Clint was managing the Class AA Williamsport Bills, a New York Mets affiliate.
During our stay, the Bills lost a game in extra innings and I made the mistake of saying it was too bad a Bills outfielder failed to make a game-saving catch in the 11th inning. Clint was apoplectic: “The 11th? The 11th? We lost that game in the seventh!”
“Didn’t you see the runner on second with nobody out? Didn’t you see me signal the hitter to move the runner over to third? Didn’t you see him take two pitches that would have been perfect to hit to the right side? Didn’t you see him then ground out to the third baseman, forcing the runner to stay at second? Didn’t you see the next guy hit a fly ball that would have scored the run if the first guy had moved the runner over to third?”
“Umm, I think I was getting a hot dog.”
Because I wasn’t paying attention and didn’t know what to look for, I’d missed the key moment in the game. Key moments don’t always come in the ninth inning — sometimes they arrive in the seventh. It dawned on me that if I was going to hang out with Clint Hurdle, I better start paying attention.
I finally ask a good question
Now it’s years later and over that time I’ve bugged Clint with a thousand and one stupid baseball questions. I was playing baseball in a men’s amateur league, trying to learn the game and visiting Clint on a regular basis. He’d moved up to the big leagues and at the time of this story he was the hitting coach for the Colorado Rockies. One night I watched the Rockies play somebody — can’t remember who — and I had a question after the game.
I asked Clint why the Rockies had held the runner on first base in the top of the ninth inning. They had a three-run lead; the runner on first base didn’t matter. When holding a runner, a first baseman doesn’t cover much territory. Why not play the first baseman back behind the runner, near the edge of the outfield grass, for more range and better defense?
Clint said it was because their spray charts showed the guy at the plate hardly ever hit the ball down the right-field line. If they played the first baseman back it was unlikely that the ball would be hit to him. Plus, if they played the first baseman back the runner could steal second base. It made more sense to hold the runner on first base and keep the double play in order.
We were driving down the freeway at the time and after I asked that question Clint was quiet. Eventually he spoke: “Y’know, Lee, you’ve gotten yourself to the point where you’re not a total waste of time to talk to.”
I said I knew there was a compliment in there somewhere and I’d do my best to find it — I’m still looking.
Keeping a straight face
When Clint became a big-league manager, I’d watch his team whenever I got the chance. After a while I noticed a pattern: whenever something bad happened to his team there was a good chance the camera was going to cut to him — they were hoping to catch a reaction.
Some managers are happy to give one; they don’t mind letting everyone know they’re upset and it’s actually a crappy thing to do. The manager is making sure that fans blame the player, not him; he’s also mad about the player making a mistake. It’s a way to deflect blame and the players resent the hell out of it. The better managers keep a straight face. If they have a reaction they’ll go up the tunnel or wait until later to let it out.
So Clint Hurdle might look like he just bit a lemon, but he’s actually the funniest manager I know.