For the Tidewater Tides, the New York Mets Triple-A affiliate, it was a long evening. Their pitcher, Ron Darling, gave up five runs in the first inning. They gave away three more runs in the third because of a misplayed double-play ball. Altogether they hit only six singles.

But for Clint Hurdle, it was hardly a lost night. He was two for four, extending his hitting streak to nine games. He drove in the Tides' only run, his 64th RBI in 87 games. And he started a double play with a nifty backhand grab of a short hop at third base, a play so surprising for a player long considered a defensive liability that Lou Gorman, the Mets director of player operations, came up out of his seat.

It was another solid night for Hurdle, one more step back for him on a trip from near oblivion that he says will not be complete until he is back in the major leagues. "When I get there," he says in a husky, emotional voice, "it will be so sweet I can't describe it. I don't need to do anything special, be a hero or any of those things. I just want to show people I can do it."

Five years ago when he was a Kansas City Royals rookie, Hurdle, at age 20, was on the cover of Sports Illustrated. The words floating over his head said, "This Year's Phenom."

Eight months ago, Hurdle was released (at his request) by the Cincinnati Reds after hitting .245 for their minor league team in Indianapolis. He was 24.

Hurdle has almost returned from a chilling odyssey that included a divorce, false rumors of homosexuality, exile from two teams and, this spring, after hitting .357 in spring training, release from one of the worst teams in baseball.

Hurdle is now batting .291 for the Tides with 19 home runs and 74 RBI. Shifted to third base the first week in May, he made seven errors the first week. He's made three since then. Tidewater General Manager Dave Rosenfield and Manager Dave Johnson say the same thing about him: "He's been the best player on the club--by far."

Gorman and General Manager Frank Cashen will decide on Sept. 1 whether to put Hurdle on the 40-man major league roster. Gorman said, "If he keeps playing the way he has, there's a definite possiblity we'll bring him to New York."

If Hurdle had landed in Tidewater this spring without the baggage of his past, he probably would be in New York right now, hailed as this month's Mets' savior. But his past makes him a retread rather than a prospect.

Clinton Merrick Hurdle was born in Big Rapids, Mich., but moved with his family to Merritt Island, Fla., when he was 6. There, he was the town's star athlete, playing football, basketball and baseball.

He was 14 when he was first noticed by a big league scout and the Royals liked Hurdle enough to make him their first draft pick in June 1975. He considered playing college football. He had excellent grades and visited Harvard, which he loved, but finally signed a letter of intent with Miami. But baseball was his first love and he signed with the Royals.

His ascent through the Kansas City system was meteoric. "He came through our system as quickly and as productively as any player we've ever had," said John Schuerholz, the Royals director of player personnel. "He was the talk of baseball. He had as much talent as anyone we've ever signed. We thought he would be our right fielder for at least 10 years."

Hurdle arrived in the big leagues six weeks after his 20th birthday in September, 1977. In his first major league game he hit a game-winning home run. He was 6 feet 4 and 195 pounds with dark, movie-star looks. The next spring came the Sports Illustrated cover. Then the trouble began.

It started the last week in spring training when Manager Whitey Herzog decided to make Hurdle a first baseman. He had never played the position before and was uncomfortable. He began worrying, losing sleep at night.

"Everything bugged me," he says now. "I was getting sick before games. I kept thinking if I didn't hit .400 I'd be a flop. I wasn't in control of myself."

His statistics that year were respectable: a batting average of .264, seven homers and 56 RBI in 133 games. Had he arrived quietly, he would have been pointed to as a solid first-year player. Instead, he was pointed at--as a disappointment.

"Maybe we asked too much of him too soon," Royals General Manager Joe Burke said. "But we couldn't keep him in the minor leagues any longer. But the pressure was certainly a little unfair."

When Hurdle started slowly in 1979, the Royals sent him back to Omaha. In 1980, Hurdle came back, played 130 games in the outfield and hit .294 with 10 home runs and 60 RBI. He hit .417 in the World Series.

But even with good statistics, Schuerholz didn't think Hurdle was the same player he had raved about three years before. "His skills weren't the same. His reactions were different, slower. It started then, before he hurt his back (in 1981) and went downhill so fast it was frightening. By the end, it looked like he was playing in slow motion."

The 1981 season was like a slow motion nightmare for Hurdle. He started superbly, hitting over .400 the first week of the season but landed in the hospital with back trouble. In June, came the players strike. His marriage was falling apart; he later divorced.

Then, during the strike, Hurdle was stopped by Kansas City police late at night and briefly taken into custody and released. (He was never charged with any offense.) Somehow, an unsubstantiated rumor got around Kansas City that the incident had involved homosexuality. Hurdle denied it at the time and won't talk about it today. Friends believe the rumor was planted by a woman he had spurned. Both the Royals and the Mets have investigated the incident and talked to police about it and both organizations found the rumor was false.

"Complete and total falsehood, a vicious lie," Schuerholz said angrily. "We checked it out thoroughly and it just wasn't true."

Hurdle played sparingly after the strike in 1981 and went to Japan with the Royals on a postseason trip. He played so poorly he was benched after three games. Burke and Schuerholz decided he had to be traded.

"What had started out to be a glorious story, an all-American, Jack Armstrong story," Schuerholz said, "had spiraled out of everybody's control.

"He had all the God-given ability you could ask for, everything. He could have been a hero and then it all fell apart."

On Dec. 10, 1981, Hurdle was traded to Cincinnati for relief pitcher Scott Brown. He started the season in left field, but was beaned in the second game of the season. After 19 games and 34 at bats he was sent to Indianapolis. There, he languished most of the summer, knowing the Reds would not call him back.

Although 1982 was a disaster on the field for Hurdle, off the field, he began to put things back together. Playing winter ball in the Dominican Republic, he met Julie Woodell, a petite, dark-haired New Englander who had never heard of Clint Hurdle. Shortly after the season started, they were married. Throughout the season, first in the majors, then in the minors, his wife traveled with Hurdle, breaking one of baseball's unwritten laws. Hurdle didn't care.

"I wanted my marriage to work and I thought that was an important time for us," he says. "What's more, if I hadn't had her with me I don't know if I could have made it through the season."

Hurdle was finally released by the Reds last November, after they first tried to persuade him to let them sell his rights to a Japanese team. Hurdle would have none of it. "I still had too much to prove here," he said.

Hurdle and his agent Ron Shapiro were contacted by several teams after his release, including the Mets. They decided to sign with Seattle because the club appeared to have more openings on its roster and because the Mariners guaranteed Hurdle a look in their major league camp. Hurdle signed with Shapiro after hearing how the Baltimore attorney had bailed Brooks Robinson out of his financial difficulties. Shapiro sat Hurdle down and told him if he still wanted to play baseball, this was probably his last chance.

Hurdle worked hard in the offseason to get ready for spring training. "He was the first guy at the park every morning," said Rene Lacheman, the Mariners manager until last month. "He outworked everybody. If he was a party boy like people said, then he must have been in amazing shape to be out there running first thing every day. I wanted him on the club."

General Manager Dan O'Brien felt differently. Although he agreed Hurdle was one of the 25 best players in camp, O'Brien felt Hurdle's presence might keep younger prospects in the minors when they were ready to move up.

"We had to look to our future," O'Brien said. "I didn't think he was the kind of guy you build a team around."

O'Brien told Hurdle that during a 25-minute meeting just before the season started. Hurdle was stunned, but not crushed. "When I get back to the big leagues I'm going to call him and just say, 'You were wrong.' "

The Mets called within days of Hurdle's release and offered him a minor league contract to go to Tidewater. The salary of about $25,000 was a far cry from the $175,000 he had made on the last year of a guaranteed contract in Cincinnati.

But Hurdle didn't care. He has invested wisely enough that he and Julie live comfortably in Virginia Beach about a mile from the ocean, and drive a Mercedes-Benz.

He's well-liked by teammates and club officials. And he smiles when some of the compliments are read back to him.

Hurdle says, "I've enjoyed this season as much as any I've had in ball. I know myself as a player and as a person. My wife and I make each other happy. We have interests outside of baseball. Last year, we started a wine cellar and a library. We're not great literary types or wine experts but we're interested and we have fun.

"I know I could play in the majors now, that I could help some team. But that will take care of itself in time. Right now I'm just trying to improve as a third baseman and keep putting those numbers up at the plate.

"I could sit here and talk about the past all day and make excuses if you wanted me to. But why do it? I'm 25 years old and my whole life is ahead of me. For the first time in a long time, baseball is fun for me again."