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Hurst Balances Life in Baseball With His Beliefs

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Bruce Hurst, back from a fast-food joint, is sitting in front of his TV set with a hamburger in one hand, a soft drink in the other and his eyes transfixed straight ahead.

He watches Magic Johnson dart through the lane. He screams in delight when Vlade Divac, his favorite Laker, blocks a shot. He mutters when Sam Perkins throws the ball away.

This is the night of the Padre team party. The notice has been on the bulletin board for days. The Padres were to meet at the local pool hall at 9, drink beer and tell jokes. Padre Manager Greg Riddoch told the players he wanted everyone there.

Hurst looks at his watch. It’s nearly 10 p.m. He figures Riddoch and the rest of them know by now he wasn’t showing. He wondered what they were saying about him. What were they thinking?

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“I’m sure some of the guys are upset, saying I’m not a team player because I’m not there,” Hurst says. “Pardon me if my idea of a good time is not playing pool and drinking beer.

“I don’t want to stand around in a bar and watch guys get inebriated.”

This is the internal conflict that has raged inside him ever since he left St. George, Utah. He considers himself the ultimate team player. He has no enemies. And no one questions his desire to win.

Yet this is a man who never has attended a team party, and he has no desire to.

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Still, he is concerned how his teammates view him. He wonders if anyone really knows him. He doubts whether they realize just how close he was to leaving.

“I thought I was going to be traded,” Hurst, 33, said, “and considering the way everything was going, I can’t say I would have been disappointed.”

It happened the night of May 28, 1990, in the visiting clubhouse at Philadelphia. Hurst had blown a five-run lead, and although the Padres eventually won, he still was seething when his teammates entered the clubhouse.

Jack McKeon, Padre manager, went into his office, and Hurst was waiting for him. Hurst wanted out. He wasn’t helping the team, anyway, he said, so trade him to another club.

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His first choice was to return to Boston. But at this point, it really didn’t matter. Any place would do, as long as it was out of San Diego.

“I was miserable, absolutely miserable,” Hurst said. “It seemed like everything was falling apart. I just didn’t want to be a part of it, any more. It got to such a point where it was like, ‘Oh, no, we have to play a game now.’ ”

So he gave McKeon permission to make a deal.

“I was serious,” Hurst said.

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Said McKeon: “It was obvious that he was frustrated, but I think it was just the heat of the moment more than anything. I talked to a few teams, but I wasn’t going to trade Bruce. He wasn’t going anywhere. I just couldn’t do it.”

The decision was simple, Hurst said. Either he was going to be traded, or he was going to quit the game at the end of the 1991 season when his contract expired.

“I really thought this was it,” said Buck Hurst, 42, Bruce’s brother. “The way he was talking, I could tell by the conviction in his voice that he was serious. He knew he was passing up the opportunity to make a lot more money, but he didn’t care.

“I think that’s how bad it had gotten.”

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Hurst’s frustrations were evident. He was the last to arrive to the clubhouse each day. He was the first to leave. And he wasn’t hanging around a real long time on the mound, either, winning only three games the first nine weeks of the season.

“What people don’t understand in my brother,” Buck said, “is his competitiveness. The team wasn’t winning. He told me it didn’t even have a chance of winning. And for Bruce, that’s the worst thing you could ever do to him, take away the opportunity for success.”

Buck remembers a New Year’s Day basketball game at the gym--an ostensibly friendly game that ended up being physical, with Bruce angry and yelling.

“Look, can’t you just go to the gym and have fun?” Buck asked his brother.

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“Buck, don’t you understand?” Bruce said. “You just don’t play to play. You play to win.’ ”

The Padres had no chance of winning. They were out of the race by Memorial Day. Embarrassed by the All-Star break. And running for cover by Labor Day.

And, if this wasn’t anguish enough, Hurst was being tormented by seeing that the Red Sox were on their way to a third division title in five years.

Coming to San Diego, he realized, was the worst mistake he ever made in his life.

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“That’s what drove Bruce crazy,” said Ross Hurst, 48, the oldest of the three brothers. “In Boston, there was always the expectations to finish first. Nothing short of that was acceptable.

“But in San Diego, there never were the expectations. It’s like, if you finished close to first, that was OK. Bruce didn’t like that environment at all. It was unacceptable.

“To tell you the truth, it wouldn’t have surprised me if I woke up one morning and read in the paper that he quit. He was that upset.”

Said Hurst: “I learned an awful lot about myself last year. It was a difficult time, but I got through it. What do you think? Maybe I’ve grown up, huh?”

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It has been 15 years since Bruce Vee Hurst ventured outside St. George, Utah, and into the world of professional baseball. No one prepared ever him for life outside the serenity of St. George. And, in many aspects, Hurst still is trying to adjust.

This was a town of 5,000, nestled in the mountains, that had its own beliefs, own rituals, and certainly own lifestyle. Most everyone around belonged to the Mormon Church. Everyone is white. There’s not a tavern in sight.

St. George has changed since Hurst left. The town has grown to nearly 40,000. There’s two high schools in town now, and another in the planning stages. There are seven golf courses.

“I can’t think of a better place in the world to grow up,” Hurst said. “I feel sorry my kids can’t experience everything I did.”

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It was the simple life. Play basketball in the morning. Go to school. Play basketball until dinner. Play basketball after dinner. Watch basketball on TV.

“I don’t think he really cared much for baseball,” Ross Hurst said. “Basketball was his love. I remember when the scouts started coming into St. George. We didn’t know what they looked like. No one had ever seen one before.

“They came in with their cigars and radar guns, and to us, it was like they were the man on the moon. Foreigners. But I remember one day a scout came into our house and compared him to (Sandy) Koufax and Frank Tanana. . . . You know what Bruce did? He kind of shrugged his shoulders and went out and played basketball.”

It hardly was surprising that Hurst, 6-feet-3 and 219 pounds, wanted to stay home and play basketball at Dixie College, a local two-year school. He wanted eventually to play at Brigham Young University.

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His brothers convinced him otherwise. The money was too good to pass up, and with the Boston Red Sox drafting him in the first round, he’d be a fool not to play baseball.

The culture shock was unimaginable. This was an 18-year-old kid who never had been out of Southern Utah. He was reared with strict Mormon beliefs. No one drank Coke, let alone beer. And dating was restricted to the the weekends.

“I just wasn’t prepared for this,” Hurst said. “No one told me what went on outside St. George. It wasn’t like they gave us brochures.

“I get there, and people are drinking beer after games. They’re smoking heaters during games. Everybody would go to some bar, and I’d go back to the apartment and use the phone.

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“I called home every night and cried.”

He almost quit the following spring as his brothers drove him to spring training.

“That was a rough one,” Ross said, remembering his brother crying uncontrollably on a hill outside Albuquerque. “We had already gone through two to three crises before that, but he was adamant this time. We finally told him, ‘Bruce, if you want out, you can walk home. But we’re going to Florida.’ ”

Hurst actually did quit twice during the next four years. He was being ridiculed on the mound during a game one night in 1980 by Red Sox Manager Don Zimmer. Hurst dressed, showered, and ran right out of Baltimore’s Memorial Stadium to a pay phone, and told Buck that he was quitting. He was back with the team that night.

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In 1981, after being cursed by one of his triple-A coaches at Pawtucket, Hurst quit again. This time, he stayed away for three days.

“I just didn’t know if it was worth it anymore,” Hurst said. “I said, ‘Hey, there are a lot of people in the world who are happy and don’t play baseball. I think I can become one of them.’ ”

This time, he telephoned Elder Paul Dunn, the Mormon general authority who played pro baseball in the 1940s. Dunn told Hurst to give baseball three more years. If he still didn’t like it, come on home.

Hurst has yet to quit. In fact, he committed himself to playing at least through 1993 by signing a two-year contract for $6.4 million with an option during the winter.

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“It’s like I have a peace of mind,” said Hurst, who leads the Padre staff with seven scoreless innings this spring. “I’m excited to play again. Really, I can’t wait.”

Said Buck Hurst: “Who would ever have figured?”

The folks in St. George look at Hurst curiously when he comes home. They know he’s still one of them. But for the life of them, they can’t understand how he’s able to survive in this environment called baseball, where drugs, gambling, criminal investigations, infidelity, alcohol and profanity are facts of everyday life.

“They don’t understand how I do it,” Hurst said, “it’s almost like guilt by association. And I don’t think they’ll ever understand that one my best friends is Roger (Clemens).”

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The folks back home also are quite inquisitive asking Hurst about those with a different skin color. There are folks in St. George who have never met a black man or woman, much less work everyday with someone that looks different.

“There’s never been a black (resident) in St. George,” Buck Hurst said. “It’s always been an all-white environment, and probably always will. It’s only natural that there are folks who are prejudiced, but Bruce, there’s not a prejudiced bone in his body.

“He couldn’t say enough about Jim Rice. He loved that man. I think people had a hard time understanding that.”

There’s also a genuine love for Hurst in St. George. They’ve dedicated the Dixie College baseball complex in his name and are erecting a life-sized monument of him. Hurst lends his name to the complex because it will raise money for the school.

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He also is quite generous with his checkbook. Besides providing aid to his 73-year-old mother, and his mother-in-law who has multiple sclerosis, he donates a good sum of his salary to the college, the church and the community. There’s only one stipulation. He doesn’t want anyone to divulge his benevolent efforts.

“The attention is kind of embarrassing,” Hurst said. “It’s embarrassing to see your name in the paper as much as it is. There are plenty of people who are role models in the world, and I guarantee you they’re not baseball players.”

Hurst never has been enamored by this game of baseball, anyway. There was a time when he couldn’t tell you the difference between Carl Yastrzemski and Carl Hubbell. Oh, he’ll frequently check statistics in the paper, but ask him to figure out his own earned-run average, and he has no idea.

“It’s funny,” Buck Hurst said, “baseball still isn’t a passion with Bruce. He’s committed to be good at it, but he certainly isn’t overwhelmed by it.

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“I remember during the (1986) World Series, he didn’t keep anything. He threw me a ball, and I took his bat. He didn’t want that either. I said, ‘Bruce, I’ll keep it for you. You’ll want it back some day.’

“He said, ‘No, it’s history, Buck, it’s just history.’ ”

No offense, but Hurst spends as little time as possible in the clubhouse.

“I’m not a big clubhouse guy,” Hurst said. “I just don’t feel real comfortable in there. My life is not going to be consumed by the game.

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“But I’m not snubbing my nose at the team; I just don’t feel like I have to always socialize with them. And I hope people don’t view me as judgmental because of my lifestyle, because I don’t feel I’m judgmental at all.

“I have weaknesses. I commit sins. Believe me, there are better Christians than myself. I just happen to be Mormon, and because of that, it seems I’m put up to higher standards.

“It’s just like drinking. I don’t drink because I’m Mormon. I don’t drink because it’s not good for you. Even if I wasn’t Mormon, I wouldn’t drink.”

Said teammate Dennis Rasmussen: “Bruce is his own man, if he doesn’t want to partake in our team parties, and things like that, it doesn’t matter. No one holds anything against him. I think he wonders what we think, and we don’t think anything.”

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Perhaps the day Hurst retires from baseball, when he no longer has to be a part of the daily clubhouse ritual, the internal conflict will end. No longer will he be separated from his wife and family for weeks at a time. No longer will he be surrounded by those who have different beliefs and values. No longer will he have to distinguish between his real friends, and those who are close to him because of his occupation.

“I really don’t know what we’ll do,” Hurst said, “maybe we’ll move back to St. George. Maybe that’ll be best. I don’t want to expose my three kids to everything now. I just won’t do it. There’s plenty of time for that later.”

Is St. George ready for Hurst?

“You know, Ross and I have talked about that,” Buck Hurst said, “and I don’t know whether he’d be happy anymore in St. George. Don’t get me wrong, there’s a lot of great qualities about St. George, and it’s a great place to raise children. But I don’t think he’s coming back.

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“I think he’d be terribly bored. You know what I think, I think he’s going to stay in baseball. I think he’s going to end up in the front office of the Padre organization.

“Bruce may not believe this, but baseball’s in his blood now, and there’s not a thing he can do about it.”


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