He's a Rookie Phenom, but Now Kent Hrbek Is Batting for His Dad
Kent Hrbek had never been to New York, much less to Yankee Stadium. But within hours of his arrival last August, he had signed a $33,500 contract with his hometown Minnesota Twins and was penciled into the lineup against the mighty Yankees. "You're my first baseman," said Twin manager Billy Gardner. The first time up against Yankee ace Ron Guidry, Hrbek flied to center. Then he singled, whiffed, grounded out. With the game tied in the 12th and the count two and two, he rocketed the ball 380 feet into the right field bleachers and decided his very first contest in the big leagues. "I didn't know whether to laugh or cry," recalls Hrbek, 22.
Hrbek (pronounced Hur-beck) still doesn't know. Three weeks before that game against the Yankees, he had been tearing up the minors from his outpost in Visalia, Calif. That summer he also learned that his father, Ed, had amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, a degenerative nerve disorder also known as Lou Gehrig's disease for the Yankee slugger who died from it. "I wanted to return home," he remembers. "But I talked to my dad and he said, 'You stay right there and play hard. Don't let me spoil what you are doing.' I thought about my dad a lot, especially at Yankee Stadium. Lou Gehrig was a first baseman like me, and this was his home field. It's such a strange coincidence."
This year Ed Hrbek, 52, is so weakened by the disease that he can no longer speak but writes his thoughts on paper. Now that he has retired from his job as a gas company supervisor, his wife, Tina, observes, "Ed's whole life is attending games." He sits in the last row of seats behind home plate in Minneapolis' new Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome, which allows him to stretch out his numb legs. He struggles to his feet only for The Star-Spangled Banner—or when Kent hits a homer.
One thing is sure: Ed Hrbek has to like what he sees. Early on this season, his son compiled a 23-game hitting streak that fell short of the major league record for a rookie (set in 1943 by White Sox outfielder Guy Curtright) by just three games. As of last week, he led the American League in slugging percentage (.591) and was fifth in home runs with 17, fifth in batting with a .322 average, and sixth in RBIs with 55. At this week's All-Star break, he was the odds-on favorite to be Rookie of the Year.
Twin owner Calvin Griffith speaks rapturously of Kent's "power and grace and endurance." Recently Texas Ranger manager Don Zimmer made his respect for Hrbek graphically clear. In the bottom of the ninth, with two out, nobody on base, and the Rangers leading 3-2, he had the 6'4" phenom intentionally walked. "I've seen that done before," reflects Twin skipper Gardner, "with Mantle, Williams and Aaron. I guess that puts Hrbek in a pretty special class." Hrbek's record is all the more remarkable given the fact that the hapless Twins, who entered July with a 20-56 record, vie with the 1962 Mets for the title "Losingest Team in Baseball History."
Ed and Tina Hrbek's second child grew up 20 blocks from the Twins' stadium in Bloomington and was still in diapers when he began attending his dad's amateur softball games. A standout player at Kennedy High School, Kent was spotted by the Twins in 1978 but refused to sign until the team agreed to pay him a $30,000 bonus—in lieu of the four-year scholarship that had already been offered by the University of Minnesota. Hrbek is not sorry to have missed out on college. "Baseball is my business," he says, "so I might as well get on with it."
He had planned to spend five years in the minors, especially since his first two seasons were lost due to torn cartilage in a knee. In the spring of 1981, however, he proved so mighty at the plate that his teammates on the class A club in Visalia started calling him "Ted," as in Williams. He was making well under $10,000 in the minors and is now collecting around $40,000 annually (that figure includes a hefty bonus from the notoriously tight Twin management). Hrbek's lawyer is talking about $300,000 by the end of next year, but Kent insists he is content. "I don't know what I'd do with a lot of money," he says. "What's funny is now that I'm making more money, they give you everything: clothes, cars. I'm not going to be cheated, but I'm not going to go overboard, either. Nobody likes a big shot."
Fear of failure plays at the edges of Hrbek's success. "I've seen a lot of guys as good as me," he says. "But they don't have the nuts and bolts upstairs. Concentration is the key. If I can keep that I'll be okay." He is also following his father's advice to "stay cool and don't do anything half-assed."
"If someone had told me a year ago," Kent reflects, "that my father would be dying and I would be playing in the major leagues, I would have said, 'I can't handle that.' " But Hrbek is handling things well, according to friends and relatives, who say that he seems to be gaining strength as his father weakens. "We all felt sorry at first," Kent says. "But now we try to be more normal. In a way, it's really given me a boost. I realize that this is what my dad wanted all of his life, and it's my opportunity to put on a show for him—while I have the chance."
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