Hurdle Manages to Find Way Through Difficulties

Colorado Manager Clint Hurdle has had a deft touch in leading his team on an unprecedented run through the final weeks of the season and National League playoffs to the World Series.
Colorado Manager Clint Hurdle has had a deft touch in leading his team on an unprecedented run through the final weeks of the season and National League playoffs to the World Series. (David Zalubowski - AP)
By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 23, 2007

The simple part involves the rocket ship rise to the majors, the cover of Sports Illustrated at 20, the injuries, the unrealized potential, the fall, the move to managing, the road back to the majors, and now, a reappearance in the spotlight.

"Hopefully," Clint Hurdle said, "I've gotten a little bit smarter as I've gotten older."

Growing wiser, then, would involve life's more complex parts. The battle with alcoholism, two failed marriages, to mention nothing of the nights spent alone in the halls of a hospital, waiting to figure out what the heck was wrong with his infant daughter. Clint Hurdle went from phenom to failure to father, and in the end, there's no debating what has been the most difficult -- and most rewarding -- role.

Through it all emerges the man who will, tomorrow night, be one of two left managing in the majors. Hurdle's Colorado Rockies will play at Boston in Game 1 of the World Series, the culmination of a run that is not to be believed, 21 wins in their past 22 games, including the last 10 in a row, all seven in the postseason.

It is Hurdle's biggest stage since the 1980 World Series, when he was still on his way up as a player, still a promising part of the future of the Kansas City Royals, before his career became non-descript and petered out. "But it's so much different now," said his father, also named Clint.

Hurdle's Saturdays used to be filled with the kind of nightlife a young stud in the big leagues enjoys. "He was young," his father said. "He acted young." Now, they are "Daddy and Maddy Saturdays," the times Hurdle and his 5-year-old daughter, Madison -- who has Prader-Willi Syndrome, a rare genetic disorder -- are guaranteed to spend together. A trip to Starbucks, just father and daughter, be it the regular season, the postseason, the offseason.

"Early in my career, I was in a hurry," Hurdle said. "I've had to learn patience through challenging times. That's been good. It's proved to be an asset, especially in this profession."

It is, his family members say, an asset away from the field as well. As his father said, "This tests you. It was an eye-opener for all of us. You always see those things happening, but it's always to the other guy. When it hits home, it's a shock."

The shock came late in the summer of 2002, when Madison was born prematurely, when the diagnosis of the disorder hadn't yet come. Prader-Willi Syndrome results from a lack of several genes on one of a victim's two chromosome 15s. It affects roughly one in 12,000 people, and results in a horrifying checklist of potential problems. Low muscle tone, an insatiable appetite, morbid obesity, behavioral abnormalities, on and on.

Early diagnosis is a key in controlling the disorder. Even so, parents have a difficult time adapting. Media reports often focus on the most sensational aspects of Prader-Willi Syndrome, showing parents who must lock their refrigerators to prevent their children from eating, or portraying afflicted kids as garbage-picking scavengers desperate for another bite. The stigma can be as upsetting as the symptoms.

"But one of the first things you notice about Clint," said Janalee Heinemann, the director of research and medical affairs for the Prader-Willi Syndrome Association, "is that right from the start, he didn't shy away. He was very open about it. He talked about it publicly. . . . It shows what a huge heart he has."

Hurdle became a spokesman for the association, taping public service announcements, meeting parents and children who suffer from the disorder in any city to which he traveled. All this while dealing with the crises of Madison's life. In 2005, he twice missed chunks of games, once leaving a road trip, once departing from Coors Field in the hours before a game, heading to Children's Hospital in Denver to be with Madison, who endured frightening bouts with seizures.

Now, though, Hurdle's parents will travel from their home in Rockledge, Fla., to take care of Madison and her younger brother, Christian, giving Clint and wife Karla some time alone. Madison's days are full, "Maybe physical therapy in the morning, then swimming in the afternoon, then the next day some mental therapy. It's a full schedule," the elder Hurdle said. But now, Madison attends a regular school two-and-a-half days a week, and the entire family sweats only the significant things.

"When he played his first game, Clint called me and said, 'Have you ever been in a stadium with 40,000 people, and half of them booed you?' " his father said. "Now, I don't think those things bother him."

To hear Hurdle describe it, everything has "slowed down." On the field, off the field, in the relations with his family. Athletics always came easy for him when he was a teenager, when he led his Merritt Island, Fla., high school to a state football championship as a quarterback, when he turned down a scholarship to the University of Miami, electing to sign with the Royals, who chose him ninth overall. He played two seasons in the minors, but was in the big leagues by the time he was 19, homering in his second at-bat. The Sports Illustrated cover came in the spring of 1978, before he had played a full big league season. Seems like a dream. For father and son, it wasn't.

"During my career, we didn't embrace it, we didn't enjoy it," Hurdle said. "I probably didn't embrace it. I didn't enjoy it. When I didn't do well, he would worry and I would fret. When I would do good, I expected it of myself and he expected it of me, and we didn't enjoy it."

Hurdle clearly enjoys this ride. His weathered, tanned face shows all the creases from a nearly permanent smile. He has reiterated one of his mantras -- "Respect everything, be in awe of nothing" -- to his players. But now, when he walks through the locker room, he generally keeps moving, preferring to allow his players to, as he said, "police things."

"I think he stepped back a little bit and kind of realized the guys are a little bit more mature, a little older, and he doesn't have to be quite as hands-on," third baseman Garrett Atkins said. "He's been a little bit quieter, and just kind of focuses on managing the game."

Not to mention managing his life, which is far more important. Early in the postseason, with the Rockies in the midst of their ridiculous run and the games growing in importance, Heinemann of the Prader-Willi Syndrome Association received a call from Hurdle, who was concerned about forwarding all the funds from a charity golf tournament he had just completed.

"I said, 'Clint, don't you have more important things to do?' " Heinemann said. "But that's how important this was to him."

Standing in the dugout at Fenway Park, Hurdle will be in position to push the buttons that may help or hurt the Rockies' chances of winning the World Series. He will stew over whether to remove a pitcher and wonder whether or not to pinch-hit. He will not fret about it afterward.

"We're prepared for our future through our paths," Hurdle said. "I've been given a lot of preparation for different situations. . . . Baseball is a game, and I've learned that, and I've embraced that and I've tried to share that with my players. It's a great challenge and a great opportunity for a lot of things. Let's keep it a game. And let's not take the end result and wear it like an anchor around our neck afterward."

Goodness knows life provides enough anchors. Now, Hurdle dismisses them, turns them around. It is, now, the simplest part of a complex journey.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company