Overcoming Life’s Hurdles

Pittsburgh Pirates' manager is all in for Jesus Christ

In bold, bright yellow letters across the cover of a 1978 Sports Illustrated issue were the words: “This Year’s Phenom.” Underneath those words was a picture of Clint Hurdle, the Kansas City Royals first-round draft pick and ninth overall selection of the 1975 Major League Baseball draft. 

A native of Big Rapids, Michigan, Clint grew up with his two younger sisters, Bobbi and Robin, in a home full of love. His mother, Louise, and father, Clint, worked hard to provide for their family, which led them to Merritt Island,Florida, after his father accepted a new job at the Kennedy Space Center. Though he was only a young boy at the time, Florida quickly became home.

From the days of Little League, Clint wanted to pursue baseball. He spent many weekends playing catch with his father and hitting at the ballpark. He was also a regular church attender. Sundays in the Hurdle household meant quiet time at home for his parents and church time for him and his sisters. He would walk with his sisters up the street to church, and then they’d come home and share with their parents what they had learned. For years, church meant Bible lessons, crafts and activities. But when Clint entered high school, church changed for him. 

“I got to a point where the church was a place of comfort, and conviction, and commitment for me,” he said. The Reverend Len Turner and John Faull, the two men who led the services each week, spent time with Clint and explained the Gospel to him. “They took me deeper,” he added, “and it was there during my senior year that I gave my heart and life to Jesus. I was baptized shortly thereafter, and that’s when my walk with Jesus started, my senior year in high school, at the age of 17.”

As his new life in Christ was beginning, high school graduation arrived. He received a scholarship offer from the University of Miami to play college football as a quarterback as well as college baseball, and he was accepted to Harvard University. But he declined both after receiving a phone call from the Royals to play professional baseball.

“I would never tire from practicing or playing baseball,” he said. “Baseball always had my heartbeat.”

The future looked big and bright for the young, beaming prospect. However, his relationship with Christ began to stray.

“The relationship became very one-sided,” he said. “I went through a 23-year period, from the age of 17 to the age of 40, where I basically used God as an ATM card. … I was using God when I needed Him, and in my mind I didn’t need Him all the time.” 

During that period, Clint encountered several professional setbacks, falling short of the expectations put on him and not living up to the label of “phenom,” posting a .259 lifetime batting average. And he faced several personal obstacles, including two divorces and a long battle with alcoholism. 

Things of the world satisfied him, but only for a moment. Clint knew he couldn’t live his life this way anymore.

After 10 years in the Majors, mainly as a reserve outfielder—with the Royals (1977-81), Reds (’82), Mets (’83, ’85, ’87) and Cardinals (’86)—Clint retired from the game he loved.

While processing what was going on, he fell in love with a woman named Karla. Ready to commit his life to her, he asked her to marry him. 

The first word out of her mouth was, “No.” 

“You have some things to work on.” Karla told him. “I don’t think you’re where you need to be.” 

“I knew there was a great guy in there,” she says now. “He just didn’t come out to the table enough.”

All the years of struggle and isolation Clint had walked through boiled down to this moment. Karla’s response pushed him to make a list of things in his life that needed to change—the first on the list was his relationship with Jesus Christ.

“I had 50 things down on the paper,” he said, “and it’s amazing that once I recommitted my life to Christ, and once I started seeking out some help for my alcoholism, the other 48 things that felt important really just kind of fell off the list on their own.”

He’s been sober now for 20 years, and he and Karla have been married 19.

“What I realized is that you make that commitment with Christ and a lot of people think ‘OK, we’re good.’ Well, I left; He didn’t. I strayed; He didn’t. He made the commitment with me the day I made the commitment with Him, but He never wavered.”

Clint, 61, has seen the transformative power of Jesus Christ in his own life, and he knows that this life is not about him. 

“There’s a bigger vision involved than my personal vision,” he said. “I want to model behavior that will instill others to be drawn to Jesus Christ. Truthfully, it goes back to Sunday school. I need to let my light shine.”

Clint has let his light shine as an MLB manager. He became the Pittsburgh Pirates’ manager in 2010 after spending 2002-09 with the Colorado Rockies, whom he led to the World Series in 2007. The 2019 season will mark his ninth with the Pirates and 45th in professional baseball. He’s led the Pirates to the postseason in three consecutive seasons (2013-2015) and was named the 2013 National League Manager of the Year after leading the Pirates to a 94-68 record and their first postseason since 1992. 

Clint’s trust in God keeps him grounded.

“When you talk about people truly living out their faith and truly putting God first and trusting in that, Clint does that,” Rod Olson, founder and chief catalyst of Coaches of Excellence, said of his longtime friend. “I think he’s a great example of living in the world but not being of it.

“When you meet Clint, you’re going to notice there’s something different about him. … He values people and he puts people first. I just love the fact that he’s all in, not only in his faith, but he’s all in as a Pirate. And he’s all in for his players, and he’s all in for his family and friends.”When it comes to his players, “his door is open and nothing’s off limits to talk about,” said longtime friend Scott Whitaker, who is also co-founder of Impact for Living, an organization centered on building lives of significance and impact for Christ. “He sees their potential,” Whitaker added. “He not only pushes them but he encourages them. And, he wants them to be the best men they can be both on and off the field.”

Though Clint loves being an MLB manager, his love for his family always comes first. He has a 33-year-old daughter, Ashley, from a previous marriage, and together he and Karla have two children, Maddie, 16, and Christian, 14.

“One of the biggest blessings I’ve received in my sobriety and my Christianity is being a parent,” he said. “I think of my kids and the blessings that they’ve brought. And the biggest blessing is their mother. Karla’s incredible.”

Clint and Karla have seen the love of God in full display from their daughter, Maddie, who lives with a genetic disorder called Prader-Willi syndrome, which causes weak muscle tone, feeding difficulties, poor growth and delayed development. “He blessed us with Madison and all her glory and splendor and challenges and disconnects and connects,” he said. “She’s probably given Karla and my relationship an opportunity to get in a place that we may not have ever gotten to on our own, our own humanness, because there’s an unconditional love there. There’s unconditional grace. There’s mercy.”

Through the obstacles of life, Clint has rooted himself in the truths of God’s Word. “There’s nothing I can do to make Him love me more, and there’s nothing I can do to make Him love me less. He asks us to be faithful, and when you peel back all the layers, my goals when I wake up and my feet hit the ground today are to be faithful to Him.”

Photo: AP