Hurst still pitching, only now it's to help game grow
Former big leaguer's international efforts include coaching China's Classic pitchers
PEORIA, Ariz. -- For the second time in his post-playing career, Bruce Hurst finds himself working with Team China as its pitching coach, preparing for the World Baseball Classic. This time, Hurst is on the staff with manager John McLaren and Art Howe, the former big league manager who is the hitting coach.
The 54-year old lefty, who starred in Boston and San Diego during the 1980s and early '90s, is now part of Major League Baseball's foray into the international growth of the sport. Hurst was the pitching coach for China in the inaugural Classic in 2006, the country's first attempt at baseball in preparation for hosting the 2008 Summer Olympics.
"I really found my niche," Hurst said. "I really like this. I like the people from Major League Baseball International I work with. They are great guys. This is where I found my passion."
Hurst went 145-113 in a 15-year career that ended with Texas in 1994. He was drafted by the Red Sox and was with Boston for his first nine years, playing in two of the crazier games in pro baseball history along the way.
As a youngster in Boston's Minor League system, Hurst played in the longest game in baseball history: Pawtucket's 3-2 win over Rochester that took 33 innings and more than two months to finish. Hall of Famers Cal Ripken Jr. and Wade Boggs also played in that game.
"It was fun to play in it," said Hurst, who pitched five innings of three-hit ball in the wee hours of April 19, 1981. "I just don't remember all the particulars of it sometimes. I just remember it was cold."
Five years later, Hurst was among the Red Sox players ready to celebrate their team's apparent curse-shattering victory over the Mets in Game 6 of the 1986 World Series at New York's Shea Stadium. Twice a strike away from winning, the game devolved in the bottom of the 10th inning, ending when Mookie Wilson's grounder skidded through the legs of first baseman Bill Buckner, allowing Ray Knight to score.
"I guess you can't get any closer to winning and still lose," Hurst said. "You play that game a thousand times and we don't lose. But the one time, that 1,001st time when it mattered, we did."
Two nights later, it was Hurst who was on the mound.
MLB.com: Everybody remembers Game 6, but people forget about Game 7. You had pitched great in that Series. After a rainout, manager John McNamara yanked Oil Can Boyd and gave you the start. You had a 3-0 lead and lost.
Hurst: I had my chance, no question about it. I had one out and nobody on and a 3-0 lead in the sixth inning and wound up leaving after that inning with the score tied. They loaded the bases. I had two outs, and Keith Hernandez had a hit and drove in a couple of runs off me. Because of Game 6, Game 7 has gone under the radar. I was watching MLB Network recently and they had Game 6 in the top 10 all-time great games. It's baseball lore now.
MLB.com: When you look back on your career, was that the highlight?
Hurst: The highlight is the '86 World Series. It has to be any time you get to play in something like that. There were a lot of great games, but as I get older, it's more the people I played with, the experiences I had. The games, they all came and went and they're recorded in history. But the friendships and relationships you developed over the course of the years, that's what matters most.
MLB.com: I guess it has to be one of your great disappointments, too.
Hurst: It would have been nicer to win. But, yeah, especially the way we lost.
MLB.com: You've been involved in baseball internationally for a while. How have you watched the China program grow?
Hurst: Before the Olympics, everyone and their dog was pouncing on China. There was a little bit more money. Everyone wanted them to have their fingerprints on it. Since baseball is out of the Olympics, some of the funding has dried up. There's not as much money going into the program, so it's a bit of a challenge. Last year, the professional league didn't play because there wasn't a sponsor. Because of that, the coaches have a lot more discretion. It's been interesting to watch.
MLB.com: How about the growth of the sport internationally?
Hurst: It's been quite fun to participate in. When we first started with the camps in Italy, we had 14- and 15-year-old kids. Actually, one of the first kids we had was [Mariners infielder] Alex Liddi. He was in that camp as just a 14-year-old kid. He was gangly and just a young boy. So it's interesting to watch the game develop. But with baseball out of the Olympics, the Classic is really significant. That's the way a lot of the countries and baseball federations get their funding now.
MLB.com: So the interest internationally is light years away from when you started more than a decade ago?
Hurst: I've found that there a lot of people around the world who are really passionate about the game. They have tall mountains to climb, because it's a second-tier sport in a lot of these countries. But more and more kids are playing. Coaches are getting better. We're starting to develop some kids in countries no one would have ever expected. Kids in Italy and Lithuania have been signed and are showing some promise. We had two kids sign from Moldavia. The Reds just signed a kid from Slovakia, a good-looking left-handed pitcher. We're starting to get better and better athletes. A lot of good things are happening. It's slow, but it's happening.
MLB.com: Where do you see the greatest growth in the sport?
Hurst: I see it in Brazil, in Colombia. In Europe, the Dutch have done a great job. It's a very mature program. Germany is making a lot of progress. The Czech Republic, actually, has a lot of good-looking players. They're progressing. The French are trying. There are some really good coaches in Sweden. They're just starting to get all the athletes they need to play there. And there are the Eastern Bloc countries. There are a lot of great softball players in New Zealand. And they're starting to introduce the game of hardball over there.
MLB.com: This has all happened since 2000, when the U.S. won the gold medal in the Olympics. Only eight countries qualified. Back then, almost none of this existed. So it's really not so slow. It's only been 13 years, a blink in the eye of world history.
Hurst: I guess when you look at it from that perspective, it has grown pretty quickly. Baseball is just like any other business, to a certain degree. You're competing for athletes. You're competing with golf, tennis, basketball, hockey and especially soccer around the world. We've got to do a good job of giving them a reason to play baseball. Here in the States and the Caribbean and Japan, all the kids play, so the best athletes are exposed to it.
MLB.com: Have you thought about being a pitching coach in the Majors?
Hurst: Nothing has really jumped out at me. I think everybody would like to get back in the big leagues. That's the greatest place in the world to play and to coach. I don't know. I haven't spent a lot of time thinking about it. I really enjoy doing this. I'll cross that bridge if it comes.
MLB.com: You were back for the Red Sox reunion last year on the day of Fenway's 100th birthday?
Hurst: That was incredible. It was a great day. I saw guys I hadn't seen in 25, 30 years. Man, it was fun. And to go back out on that field and stand there with them. I'm standing by Jim Lonborg and Dennis Eckersley and Pedro Martinez, all the guys who came back. Bobby Stanley. Yaz. Billy Buck. Carlton Fisk. The guys who came before me. Pumpsie Green, who changed the face of the franchise. Jim Rice. Just great guys. It was just phenomenal to be there.
MLB.com: In your heart, do you consider yourself to be a member of the Red Sox?
Hurst: Yeah, probably. If I had to pick a place, that's probably where I'd hang my hat.
Barry M. Bloom is national reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog, Boomskie on Baseball. Follow @boomskie on Twitter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.