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HURST CALLS BASEBALL ENDEARING, STRIKE STUPID

SHARE HURST CALLS BASEBALL ENDEARING, STRIKE STUPID

It wasn't James Earl Jones' rich voice booming across the Field of Dreams, but it came from the heart nonetheless. Bruce Hurst was talking over the telephone about baseball, the game he grew to love on the green grass and red dirt of St. George. And he was getting downright philosophical as he went.

"Baseball," he said, with more than a touch of sentimentality in his voice, "is the national pasttime. It's an endearing game. It's gone on for generations."Hurst continued, "It's woven into the fabric of the culture. It's a bit of Americana. And I don't think anything will ever change that, regardless of all the stupidity with the strikes and all that, it will never change."

If Hurst waxes poetic about a game that has become the symbol of greed and self-centeredness in the 90s, it's understandable. The St. George native has returned home after pitching in 379 Major League games in Boston, San Diego, Colorado and Texas. His was no fleeting career. He finished with 145 wins, third highest total among active left-handers.

But in the middle of a mid-June game against Oakland, he announced his retirement during a mound visit with Texas pitching coach Claude Osteen. "This is it for me," said Hurst.

He stepped down this summer after struggling with shoulder problems for 18 months. "I wasn't very good anymore. I just wanted to remember the good years and not just be a hanger-on," says Hurst.

These days Hurst is back in his hometown, free to play golf or check on the goings-on at the family hardware store. No more 6 a.m. wakeup calls, no more room service at 2 a.m. and no more weeks on the road.

Since he left St. George, both his hometown and baseball have changed. The city is three times the size it was when he left, and the game he loves seems to be dying a painful, self-inflicted death.

Hurst closely follows the goings and comings of the current baseball strike, and he isn't riding the fence on the issues. Once a player, always a player. He considers baseball's owners a skilled group at speaking out of both sides of their mouths.

"After you sign a contract they say, `We're happy with this, we're going to show the fans a winning team,' and the next day they say, `Baseball's insane, look at what they're paying these players,' " says Hurst. "I don't want my employer to think I'm overpaid, but I've never understood why they do that. They pay something and then badmouth the players and say they're overpriced."

Hurst says the Great American Game could learn from professional basketball, though he steers clear of saying the Major Leagues should add a salary cap. The marketing of basketball, he says, is far ahead of baseball.

When Karl Malone, David Robinson or Charles Barkley signs a new contract with his respective NBA team, everything is upbeat. "I don't see the (basketball) owners saying their players are being paid too much money. They say they're excellent players. But in baseball, they just talk about the insanity of it all," he says.

Hurst says baseball has gone out of its way to "publicly point out all its warts instead of looking to find ways to increase revenues."

The result is resentment from the fans, who arrive at games with icy stares and angry placards. "The reason is the amounts of money you make compared to what they make," he says. "People will never understand that kind of dollars and, from my standpoint, I can't expect them to."

Hurst says the owners appear determined to make a statement as to who are the bosses of the Grand Old Game. Consequently, he expects the strike to drag on for a long period.

Problems aside, Hurst says the game will survive. Someday, whether it be this summer or next, evening will deepen into night and the fans will again smell the scent of fresh-cut grass and hear the muted sounds of twilight at the ballpark.

"I would say that baseball itself is still ingrained in the nation," says Hurst. "In an age of microwaves, baseball is still a wonderful game. It's timeless. There's magic in the fact that within that 90 feet and that 60 feet, six inches you have good and bad, out and safe, ball and strike."

And perhaps it is only magic that will save baseball from ruining itself.