Nostalgia is baseball’s foundation. – Mike Nalepa
I am not a sentimental person by trade. I don’t tend to hang on to memorabilia from past glory days, rehash fun memories with friends from high school, or spending a lot of time thinking about opportunities that I missed. For the most part I look forward. So why then am I so hung up on Bill Hurst?
Who’s Bill Hurst, you say? He’s this guy to the right.
“Ned…this picture does nothing to help me, plus you took this image off GettyImages without paying for it.”
Well yes, avid reader, it is true that I am too cheap to buy a picture of Bill Hurst for this article. And you perhaps haven’t heard of Bill Hurst because he made his Major League debut pitching for the Marlins on September 16, 1996, and pitched his final Major League game for the Marlins on September 28, 1996. In other words, he wasn’t in the Majors for very long. In 1996, however, the Portland Sea Dogs were still affiliated with the Marlins and in their 3rd season they featured a young, up-and-coming pitcher named Bill Hurst. That dude was awesome for Portland, with a 2.20 ERA and only 3 Home Runs given up all season (also he had 2 at bats with 2 Hits and 1 RBI, so he’s basically a legend). He also signed a baseball for 7 year old me.
I immediately put the signed ball into a display case, and put into a place of honor on my shelf. I was obsessed from then on. I wrote letters to Hurst thanking him for signing my baseball, I would play pickup with my friends and declare myself Bill Hurst, no matter what position I played (which was always in flux anyways, because there were only like…9 of us who played, and so we were really just running all over the field trying to do everything. Needless to say, there were a lot of inside the park home runs), and I would get so excited when Hurst entered as a reliever for Sea Dogs games.
Was Hurst a star? Not by any metric that we’d use to look at a baseball player’s career. But to me? He was the biggest player there was. Other players on that 1996 Sea Dogs team included Kevin Millar, Luis Castillo, Mike Redmond, and more, but what did they matter? They didn’t sign my ball, Hurst did.
I moved a lot as a kid, which is one of the reasons I just call the city of Portland, Maine, “Home” with no specific house to point to. Over my childhood, my parents lived in 6 different houses/apartments in Portland (7 if you include the one my stepmom lived in when my dad and she started dating), and my possessions were constantly getting pared down for moving to a new place. Few things stayed consistent, a couple of stuffed animals, memorabilia from summer camp, a couple of pennants that I’ve collected over the years, and the Bill Hurst baseball.
I came across that ball the other day, while going through old possessions. The childhood houses are long gone, my mother now lives in a small, one bedroom apartment in downtown Portland (less than a half a mile from Hadlock Field). There’s a little office room we’ve turned into a second bedroom, and in the corner are a pile of belongings from old houses that my brother and I haven’t dealt with. The Hurst ball, however, isn’t in the pile, it’s prominently displayed on a shelf. As if to proudly say, “yeah, check it out, Bill Hurst signed my ball, did he sign yours? I didn’t think so.”
Finding that ball, I felt an old rush of excitement, and pride, and a real sense of awe for being in the presence of a signature from a childhood sports hero. This game forgets so many people, and so many people never “make it” in the traditional sense, but what I’ve always loved about the Minor Leagues is they allow someone with a dream to become a “hometown hero”. Ask a fan from Binghamton, New York, I bet there’s a player for the Mets they remember fondly who never quite made it in the Majors, or a Carolina Mudcat, or a Frederick Key.
For me, it’s always gonna be Bill Hurst, the pitcher who signed my baseball in 1996.
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