Hurdle Called an Intentional Walk for Harvard

 For nearly fifty years, Clint Hurdle has been one of the Space Coast’s most revered sons. Just about every resident of Brevard County, Florida, knows he was a multisport Merritt Island High star athlete  as a power-hitting outfielder and unstoppable quarterback. They know he turned down football scholarships offers from the University of Miami and other major colleges to opt for a pro baseball career that included more than 500 MLB games as a starting outfielder and stints as a prominent manager primarily for the Colorado Rockies and Pittsburgh Pirates.

But few know he was also courted by another  famous entity revered worldwide.

Clint was offered an academic scholarship to Harvard University after he was sent one of those much-desired letter of admission approval  from that storied brain factory just outside Boston.

I ran into my old friend recently at his annual Clint Hurdle charity golf tournament at Cocoa Beach Country Club – proceeds to the Merritt Island Dugout Club, boosters of the school’s baseball program. His characteristic robust laugh erupted at the memory of being recruited by Harvard, a member of the Ivy League which prohibits athletic scholarships.

“They wanted me to play football and baseball, but warned that my grades could be a problem,” Clint recounted. “They told me if I got in trouble with grades, I wouldn’t have to attend practices and they would help my grades by providing a personal tutor.” Hurdle recounted, adding the obvious irony; at most big college powers, scholarship warriors must attend practice, but classes not so much . Actually, the Harvard coach shouldn’t have worried about Clint’s classwork. At Merritt Island High, he made one B (in drivers’ ed) and all A’s in the rest of his schoolboy classes. Is he a better driver now? “No,” Clint laughs.

Hurdle, 62, says going to Harvard tempted him, but after the Kansas City Royals picked him in the first round of the 1975 draft, he was off to a 45-year pro baseball career that came to an end (maybe) when he was fired by the Pirates last September and then announced his retirement from the game in November.  “That’s when I signed a lifetime contract with my family. Now I’m enjoying being home with my wife and kids at our (west coast Florida) home and not in airplanes and hotel rooms nine months a year.” Making the transition easier is remaining time on his contract, which the Pirates must pay him for the next two years.

The people of Colorado loved him when he guided the Rockies to 90 wins, most in the expansion club’s 15-year history to that point. Pittsburghers also were charmed by this big guy with a big personality when he turned around the Pirates by leading them to three playoff appearances after a 21-year post-season drought and was named NL Manager of the Year. Then came the 2019 season when he tried to fill out the lineup card each day without his best two pitchers Gerrit Cole (traded to Houston) and Jameson Taillon (Tommy John surgery); his two best hitters, Starling Marte and Greg Polanco, whose injuries kept them out of a combined 150 games. Franchise star Andrew McCutchen had departed the prior season for San Francisco. Not surprisingly, the Pirates finished way down in one of those old, familiar places in the standings. When the carnage was over, Clint was summoned to the front office. As the old baseball phrase goes: You can’t fire the players, so you fire the manager.

He spent a couple of weeks sitting by the phone. With credentials of leading then-woeful Colorado and Pittsburgh to those franchise milestone seasons, surely somebody would offer him one of the several managerial openings. “But you can’t make people call you or make them love you,” said Clint.

Nevertheless, our session was delightfully interrupted by a phone chat with our mutual friend, Hawk Harrelson, the colorful onetime power hitter and longtime voice of the White Sox. “You can’t judge how effective a manager is by reading what award he won,” offered Hawk. “You do it with your eyes – seeing whether a team plays hard for their manager. All the time he managed,  I saw his players busting their butts for Clint.”

So unless Clint gets an occasional analyst spot on MLB or Fox-TV broadcasts, baseball will have to get along without an embraceable guy brainy enough to convert box scores into logarithms. I’ve been exposed to dozens of baseball managers over my three-decades as a sports writer. I had to think hard of another worthy of an admission letter from Harvard. Winter Park’s Davey Johnson, maybe. But like Clint, even Johnson wasn’t brainy enough to avoid baseball’s cruel pink slip.

This post was originally published at SpaceCoastDaily.com

Self-serving College Football Elite Got What They Wanted

The self-serving college football elite got what they wanted: An end to the UCF Cinderella Knights’ remarkable 25-game regular season winning streak. It ended Saturday in Pittsburgh with a one-point, 35-34, last-minute escape by the Pitt Panthers, a certified member of one of the so-called Power Five conferences.

For more than two years, the Knights have been a burr in the Power Five saddles, threatening to horn in on the elites’ rich playoff pot of gold. The big boys became outspoken critics of the Knights’ alleged soft schedule — a result of numerous Power Five schools refusing to schedule the Knights after they began knocking off traditional powers like Auburn, Baylor, et al, and having a game against Georgia Tech cancelled by a hurricane last year. The big boys sneered at UCF for playing non-conference foes the likes of Florida A&M and Florida Atlantic, all the while failing to point out that even schools in the Power Five SEC and ACC softened their own 2019 schedules with off-Broadway cupcakes such as Samford, N Mexico State, Murray State, Western Kentucky, Lamar, Portland State, UT Martin, Towson, William & Mary, Old Dominion, Richmond, The Citadel, Bethune-Cookman, Wofford, Mercer, Holy Cross, Alabama State and the ever-powerful Elon.

Those big boys and their sycophant media are now celebrating that the UCF streak ended with a 1-point loss on the road at Pitt despite an undersized freshman quarterback filling in for the magical but injured McKenzie Milton. One Ohio columnist claimed UCF never deserved a spot in the final four playoff because of its schedule and the “fact” that it was a small school “somewhere in Florida.”

Memo to that lazy journalist: Had you done your homework, you would have found that UCF is the largest university in the nation by enrollment, having recently passed your beloved Ohio State. Today, that guy is doubtless celebrating as if the Knights had been waxed in Pittsburgh by several touchdowns. In fact, UCF has been doing the waxing, dispatching its first three opponents this season by lop-sided, embarrassing scores, including Power Five headliner Stanford just last week.

Another critic, a college football rating service, now snidely puts UCF’s chances of gaining a berth in the playoffs at a demeaning one-tenth of one percent, even if the Knights run the table on its remaining schedule. But finishing with that 1-point loss to Pitt as the sole blemish on this season, will be tough because most remaining games are against the rapidly rising American Athletic Conference. Several fellow AAC members have begun knocking off Power Five teams. In addition to UCF’s romp over Stanford, Memphis beat Ole Miss, SMU upset TCU and Cincinnati upset UCLA just in the first month of this season.

You can’t tell the red faces for all the red faces.

No doubt the Power Five Ranking Committee will censure those athletic directors for being so foolish to put some AAC teams on their schedule, thinking when those contracts were made several years earlier the unwashed opponents would provide guaranteed wins (and bowl bids) for the big boys.

When the current college football playoffs were adopted a few years ago, the Committee claimed their goal was to identify a true No. 1.

No, they were instead looking out for No. 1. Themselves.

This post originally appeared September 23, 2019 at SpaceCoastDaily.com, based in Brevard County, Florida.

The George Bush I Came to Know

During those checkered three decades when I avoided real work by, instead, writing sports columns and books, I was privileged to have interaction with many famous and powerful individuals. Among the most impactful and telling were those several times when I shared moments with the late George H.W. Bush.

Those moments spawned and increasingly confirmed my view of President Bush as not only a man of high integrity, but endearing and genuine humility. Unlike too many egotistical coaches and overpaid me-me-me athletes I often suffered, President Bush exuded the aura of the unpretentious man next door.

My first personal exposure to him came in the Bay Hill Club locker room the day before he lost the presidency to Bill Clinton.He had just completed his final rallies in central Florida and decided to spend the rest of the afternoon with old friend Arnold Palmer. He chatted warmly with those of us in the room, then asked Arnie if someone could give him a ride to the Orlando airport. Like one of us great unwashed, he had planned to fly commercially to Houston that evening to cast his vote the next day and join his family and staff to watch the election returns. The sitting president??!! Trudging through a busy airport and finding his seat next to his two-man Secret Service detail??

Arnie would have none of it. Over Bush’s objections, Palmer made a quick call and, within hours, personally flew Bush to Houston in Arnie’s executive jet.

I was aware that Bush — an avid golfer despite his bedeviled putting — served as honorary U.S. team captain at the Ryder Cup matches at the Brookline Club outside Boston and became enamored with gregarious champion golfer Payne Stewart. While walking along observing one of his teammates’ matches, Stewart spotted George and Barbara Bush sitting inside the gallery ropes by a large tree. Knowing how approachable Bush was, Payne stopped, sat down and chatted at length with them. The friendship would grow with each additional encounter. 

A few years later, while writing a book about Payne after he perished in a plane mishap, I managed to get a request to  the ex-president, asking if he would consider writing the book’s foreword. He agreed and roughed out his thoughts on Stewart in a personal letter that is now framed and cherished above my desk.

In simple, but moving declarative sentences, he expressed his admiration for Payne and deep remorse for his premature death. “Barbara and I will always treasure that private little visit” at the Ryder Cup, he wrote, adding: “We were touched by his warmth and his humor … What a lovely man. Everybody who knew him, everyone who loves golf will miss him for years to come.”

There was a humble P.S. scrawled at the bottom: “Please correct my spelling or grammar if needed.”

In a more recent time, I found myself at tony Sea Island Club in Georgia, researching a magazine piece on the club’s very upscale new golf clinic instructed by two PGA Champions Tour stars. When I noticed from my hotel window a long line of sheriff’s cruisers stopped near the hotel entrance, I asked and was told it was for security for ex-President Bush, who would be addressing an economic conference that evening at the hotel. He thanked the sheriff for his concern but asked that the troopers be dismissed for “more important” duties so that other hotel guests would be at ease to chat. 

I found him in the lobby doing exactly that. I re-introduced myself as that pest who hounded him into writing that Payne book foreword. He brightened and generously applauded the book, thanking me for the signed copy I had sent. Then came the humor and that omnipresent humility: “I hope that (foreword) didn’t cost you too many sales,” he laughed.

To the contrary. When I told my publisher that Bush had committed to the foreword, he was ecstatic and declared that little “With Reflections by President George Bush” at the bottom of the dust jacket would reap an “additional 10,000 book sales.” 

The publisher underestimated Bush’s strong appeal. The book made several best-seller lists.

This post originally appeared in the Orange Observer, December 2018.