To understand San Diego Padres pitcher Bruce Hurst, friends say, is to look at his game face. Such a face for such a devoutly religious guy.
“Nothing personal, but the day that I pitch is my day, and I want to be left alone,” said Hurst, baseball’s hottest free-agent prize last winter. He came to San Diego from the Boston Red Sox for $5.25 million and the trust that he can help the Padres win a pennant.
“On the day I pitch, I don’t want anybody talking to me about anything but the hitters,” Hurst said. “I don’t want to be bothered, not even by teammates, unless it’s about the game. In Boston they said that four out of five days, I was the nicest guy in the world. But on the fifth day, watch out. They were right.”
The reason for this is as simple as the smile and clothes and haircut of the Mormon from Utah.
“The mound is where I can compete,” he said. “It’s my chance.”
Translation: Not once on the mound has anyone jeered him for not drinking a beer. Not once has he been hit with a pack of cigarettes. Not once has anyone sneaked a girlie magazine into his locker and then sneaked away snickering.
When Hurst is pitching, teammates don’t care that he doesn’t join them at bars or poker games. They don’t care that he refuses to undress in the clubhouse when female reporters are present, running instead to the trainer’s room or a closet.
And when he’s pitching, Bruce Hurst does not get homesick. He does not think about eating ice cream with his wife and playing with his children and talking on the telephone with the rest of his family in small-town St. George, Utah. He does not worry whether one day somebody will ask him to make a choice between baseball and the rest of his life, which he says will be no choice at all.
Throughout a 13-year pro career in which he has felt so tormented he threatened to quit several times, and actually did quit once, the mound has been more than Bruce Hurst’s place of employment. It has been his refuge.
“Even in high school, my favorite class was P.E.,” Hurst said. “I was tall and thin and had big feet and a big nose. I wasn’t Mr. Handsome. I wasn’t one of the ‘cool’ ones. But once on the field, I could compete. Out there, I loved to compete.”
He still does. Hurst is coming off his best year with the Red Sox--18-6 with a 3.66 earned-run average--and joins the Padres as one of baseball’s top left-handers.
If it’s control the Padres want, Hurst has struck out 1,043 and walked just 479 in his eight-year big league career. If it’s consistency, only once has Hurst won fewer than 10 games in each of his seven full big league seasons, and only once in the last six years had he started fewer than 33 games.
The Padres also hope to be in a few big games this season, at which point Hurst might also be their man. In seven postseason starts, including three in the 1986 World Series against the New York Mets, he is 3-2 with a 2.29 ERA and 37 strikeouts compared with just 12 walks.
Padre pitching coach Pat Dobson said: “What we got in Hurst is a guy who will beat a team 1-0 to break your four-game losing streak. That kind of guy.”
What they also got was a 30-year-old man who describes an entertaining off-season night as, “Playing hoops for a couple of hours, going down to the 7-Eleven for a Big Gulp, and then bringing it on home.”
Listen close and you also hear rebellion in this voice, perhaps even a trace of anger. In that voice is a part of him that dares you, with your assumptions that nice guys can’t finish first, to just watch.
The voice warns, don’t look at the mound for something that isn’t there, look for his game face.
“I read somewhere that I would have trouble in San Diego with all the pressure on me because of my ‘delicate psyche,’ ” Hurst said. Delicate psyche? Nice phrase. Give me a break. Just because I don’t smoke, don’t drink and don’t swear doesn’t mean I can’t fight and I can’t compete.
“Delicate psyche, huh? What a laugh. I don’t care what they say about me because they don’t know me.”
“Well, OK, I do care,” he said. “It makes me mad that because of my choice of life style, people are waiting, waiting, waiting--and then, wham! --I slip up and all of a sudden I have a delicate psyche.
“Slumps happen because I’m a human being. But that doesn’t mean I’m also not a fighter. I wouldn’t have made it this far if I wasn’t a fighter.”
Hurst is not the only one who thinks that. His brother Buck, who is 10 years older, was recently asked about the odds against Bruce ever reaching this place.
“Good grief almighty,” said Buck from St. George, near where he runs a hardware store. “To be right frank about it, I don’t know how Bruce ever even stayed in baseball, much less done what he’s done.
“How many times did he quit? Oh, about a million.”
--On a cross-country drive to his first spring training camp in 1977, Hurst kept saying that he wanted to quit.
--When he was injured in the middle of 1978 at double-A Bristol, Conn., he went home in the middle of the season and everybody assumed he had quit.
--After being embarrassed on the mound by Boston Manager Don Zimmer in 1980, he ran out of Baltimore’s Memorial Stadium in tears and nearly quit.
--Finally, in 1981, he actually did quit. Pitching for triple-A Pawtucket, feeling embarrassed by yet another coach, he walked off the field and stayed away for three days.
“I’ll never forget his phone call to me that day in 1981,” Buck recalled. “He said, ‘Buck, this is it. I’m really quitting and don’t try to talk me out of it. Don’t try to tell me about those $3.35-an-hour jobs out there. Don’t tell me about my mistake. I’m quitting, and that’s it.’
“I told him, ‘Fine, it’s your life.’ And I thought he was gone. His career was over.”
But Hurst also phoned Elder Paul Dunn, the Mormon general authority who had played pro baseball in the 1940s. Dunn told Hurst to give himself three more years, without quitting once, and then he could quit for good.
“I loved to compete so much, I loved to try and win, that I figured, ‘OK, three years is fine,’ ” Hurst said. “But that was all I was giving it.”
Three years later, he went 12-12 with a 3.92 ERA and was becoming one of the aces of the Red Sox staff. He has not discussed quitting since.
Today, this former minor league roommate of Wade Boggs looks over at his former club, and watches it shake under the duress of the Margo Adams scandal, and says he can make only one comment.
“When I say that all the abuse I have taken in baseball for being different has been worth it, what do you think?” he asks. “I’m looking over there and thinking of the alternative and saying, ‘Yeah, the way I took has definitely been worth it.’ ”
Said Buck: “I never knew exactly what Elder Dunn told Bruce that day he quit. But I know this--Bruce stayed himself. And I am certain that’s the only thing that saved him.”
What is Bruce Hurst’s self?
Offering this first impression, Padre pitcher Mark Grant noted, “He’s like a Little Leaguer in a man’s body.”
It has seemingly always been that way. He was the youngest of four children from a broken home in St. George, population 4,500 while he was growing up. One of his church mentors, Kent Garrett, taught him pitching mechanics from cutting out magazine photos of different pitchers in different parts of their delivery. Hurst would then practice in front of a full length mirror in Garrett’s clothing store, the Chatting Post.
“This was before the age of video,” Hurst recalled with a laugh.
He remained just as simple throughout his high school years, until in 1976 he was made a No. 1 draft choice by the Boston Red Sox--the first No. 1 pick in history from Utah--and sent across the country to a rookie league club in Elmira, N.Y.
At the time, he had just turned 18, and had never been away from home for more than a couple of days, never anywhere that his Mormon beliefs would be tested.
“I’m coming from a place where we couldn’t even date during the week,” Hurst said. “And all of a sudden I’m on my own.”
He showed up in Elmira that first day in a suit with a tie featuring tiny embroidered baseball pitchers--right-handed pitchers, at that. Other members of the team, in jeans and T-shirts, just stared.
“They all knew, this guy was different,” recalled his Elmira roommate, Steve Schneck, a pitcher who lived with Hurst for parts of four minor league seasons. “He was the kind of guy who sat in the front of the bus, with the coaches. They all ridiculed him.”
From the start, there were beer and girlie magazines planted in his locker. There were questions of manhood and brotherhood.
Then both the best and worst thing happened. Elmira won the league title. And the players threw a champagne party, dousing Hurst and trying to goad him into drinking.
“It really upset him,” Schneck said. “He had it all over his face and mouth and didn’t know what to do.”
Hurst recalled: “They kept doing it on the bus ride home. I thought the ride would never end.”
It was enough to make him not want to return the next spring. He resisted the cross-country drive from St. George to the Red Sox training camp in Winter Haven, Fla., resisted it all the way into New Mexico.
“He was moaning the whole way, saying he wanted to go home, that pro baseball wasn’t for him,” recalled Buck, who was driving him with brother Ross. “Finally, just outside of Albuquerque, we pulled over and told Bruce to get out. Told him, we were going to spring training with or without him, and if he couldn’t shut up, he could walk home.”
Hurst stayed in the car, but a couple of months into the Class-A Winter Haven season, he was home again, this time to tend to his sick grandmother.
“She had burned herself bad, and I couldn’t bear to stay away, so they let me off for a few days,” Hurst recalled.
Because his family couldn’t afford an ambulance, while he was home he put her into the back of a truck and drove her to a Salt Lake City hospital, five hours away, when her condition worsened.
“The Red Sox organization was extremely sensitive to the needs of its young players,” recalled Tony Torchia, one of Hurst’s minor league managers and now a coach in the Padre organization. “Good thing they were, or Bruce might not have made it.”
The next year, while playing for Torchia at double-A Bristol, Hurst hurt his shoulder and elbow. Instead of staying with the team while rehabilitating, he went home again. When he returned, just in time for a pennant race, teammates let him know they were tiring of him.
Recalled Hurst: “I used the word we when talking about our chances to make the playoffs when a teammate came up and told me that I had no right to use that word, that I wasn’t part of the team, that I was the biggest waste of a first-round draft pick in history.”
Torchia said: “When he went home that year, we weren’t sure he was coming back.”
Said Hurst: “I was so lonely. It was so hard out there, all the abuse and being away from home. I’d call every day, every night, after every game. Everybody would go to some bar, and I would come home and use the phone.”
He finished the 1979 season, having spent parts of it in Winter Haven and Bristol, and even pitched well enough make the big league Red Sox in 1980. But that only meant his problems were also big league.
Pitching against Baltimore in the middle of a title race, Hurst was late covering home plate in a rundown. The runner was safe. Zimmer charged the mound and scolded Hurst.
“He told me if I was in the right place at the right time, the guy would have been out,” Hurst said. “Then I said something really dumb. I told him if I pitched more, this wouldn’t have happened. Then he cussed me up and down, and that was it, I had had it.”
Zimmer called for a relief pitcher. Hurst showered, dressed and ran out of the clubhouse in tears. He kept running, out of Memorial Stadium and down the road to a pay phone where he called--who else?--one of his brothers.
“We would always say, ‘If you want to quit, fine, but make sure it’s really what you want,’ ” Buck recounted.
This time, Hurst decided it wasn’t what he wanted.
“I just didn’t know what to do,” he said. “I didn’t know how to handle all this. Luckily, I walked back into the clubhouse and left with the team and everything was fine.”
Fine, that is, until 1981, when one of the Red Sox triple-A coaches at Pawtucket cursed him. He called Buck again and this time, really quit. That was when the Mormon elder, Dunn, handed down his three-year timetable.
“This was all as frustrating for his friends as anybody,” Schneck said. “We would get him in a room and say, ‘Why, why, why are you like this? Why can’t you stick it out? You’ve got the greatest gift in the world!’ He would tell us something about being out of place, and we would get into a shouting match.”
Hurst ultimately decided that being out of place was his place. It is a decision that has brought him from clubhouse joke to candidate for clubhouse leader.
“I’m not going to try to fit in,” Hurst said. “I don’t want to fit in. It’s easy to say no to the things I don’t want in my life. If I had tried to fit in, no telling what might have happened.”
What’s hard, he says, is when his beliefs are misread. A story circulated throughout the winter that Hurst’s last official act with the Red Sox was to get off their team plane before take-off after the final playoff loss in Oakland, because too many players were drinking.
“I left the plane because my shoulder was killing me and we had been sitting on the runway for four hours and I could have stayed one more night with my brothers,” Hurst said. “Sure, I won’t say guys weren’t intoxicated and I was uncomfortable. But don’t you think by this time I have learned to deal with that?
“Saying I hated my teammates was a reach. It was just another way to distort my intentions.”
He says misperceptions of his life style can easily carry over to his unique dealings with everyone from female reporters to autograph seekers.
“I don’t like women in the clubhouse for obvious reasons,” he said. “But it’s nothing against women writers. If they respect me enough to stay out of my clubhouse after I pitch, I will talk to them anywhere, before anyone else.”
And on autographs: “I’m not big on autographs. I love helping the kids, but when adults get involved, it’s like ‘Hey buddy, at ease, you’re a good guy, too.’ People tell me their kids look up to me, and that’s good, but I feel their kids should mainly look up to them. One of my sons (6-year-old Ryan) really looks up to Roger (Clemens), but I want to be his role model. I want to be the guy.”
On the mound, in competition, as an athlete where all things are equal, that’s where Bruce Hurst still believes is the best place to be everybody’s guy.
Bruce Hurst’s pitching statistics in his eight seasons in major leagues with the Boston Red Sox.
YR W-L ERA 1981 2-0 4.30 1982 3-7 5.77 1983 12-12 4.09 1984 12-12 3.92 1985 11-13 4.51 1986 13-8 2.99 1987 15-13 4.41 1988 18-6 3.66