There aren’t any mascots in the Gulf Coast League, the Minor League Baseball rookie league where Hayden Hurst spent his two seasons in the Pittsburgh Pirates organization.
That’s probably just as well for Hurst… and the mascots. Hurst was drafted in the 17th round of the 2012 Major League Baseball Draft by the Pirates on the strength of a right pitching arm that returned from Tommy John surgery in the eighth grade strong enough to be throwing in the lows 90s by the time he was a high school star for The Bolles School in Jacksonville, Fla.
“I just threw really hard,” Hurst said. “Sometimes I didn’t know where it was going.”
The Pirates sent him to Bradenton, Fla., and their GCL team to see if he could figure that out in the 2013 season. Unlike Nuke LaLoosh, the big-armed minor league pitcher who figured it all out after hitting the team’s bull mascot in the movie “Bull Durham,” Hurst never did get control of that fastball
“If there was a mascot at our game, I would have hit at least three,” he quipped. “That’s why I’m here.”
Here is South Carolina, where Hurst is a junior tight end and preseason All-SEC selection for the Gamecocks, who open the season Saturday against N.C. State at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, N.C. Hurst’s inability to harness his pitching control “has been beneficial for South Carolina to be honest with you,” USC tight ends coach Pat Washington said.
“He’s got a tremendous work ethic, and I think his growth from year one as a tight end to year two will be tremendous in terms of knowledge of the game,” Gamecocks head coach Will Muschamp said. “Riding on a bus in the minor leagues helps you. Those things you go through in life you go through and you mature. That maturity helps.”
It was hard-earned. By the end of his minor league career, Hurst was a wreck on the mound.
“I would shake,” he said. “I couldn’t throw strikes.”
Scott Elarton, a former MLB pitcher who was the GCL Pirates pitching coach in 2014, tried to work Hurst through it. Elarton and Hurst would arrive at the park early enough to throw without anyone else around. The sessions didn’t help Hurst’s control, but they did help him figure something out.
“He’s kind of the one that started pushing me to football because it’s all I would talk about. I’d be like, ‘Man I can’t do this anymore. This isn’t fun. I could be playing football,’” said Hurst, who had a baseball scholarship offer from Florida State out of high school. “He was every day like, ‘Go play, go play.’”
When the Pirates tried to transition Hurst to first base, he decided that’s exactly what he would do.
“I didn’t want to have to start at square one at 22 years old,” he said. “With football in the back of my mind and starting anew as a hitter, I knew that was going to take some time so I just pulled the trigger on it.”
He didn’t jump blindly though. By the time Hurst told the Pirates he was leaving, he already had arranged to walk on to South Carolina’s football team. Less than three weeks after leaving Bradenton, he was enrolled in classes at USC.
“For me it was more of a relief because (baseball) was just two and a half years of struggle and torment. I was over it at that point,” he said. “I made the call. It was huge for me, just to take that next step in my life.”
He never doubted he’d be successful at South Carolina, but he wasn’t sure he’d be this successful, he said. After playing wide receiver for Steve Spurrier’s final team in 2015, the 6-foot-5, 250-pound Hurst was moved to tight end last year. There, he had 48 catches for 616 yards and one touchdown, and he expects much bigger numbers this year.
If he gets them, this could be his final season in garnet and black. Hurst was one of three South Carolina underclassmen who met with NFL scouts in the spring just in case they decided to give up their final year of eligibility.
“When I was younger it was always some sort of professional sport I thought I would be playing when I was older. I think it’s funny that it has now switched to being the NFL possibly in a few months,” he said. “I never would have fathomed when I got here in 2014 that I would be on the Mackey Award watch list (which recognizes players in the running to be named the nation’s top tight end). It’s extremely humbling from where I came from in Bradenton, Fla., in 2014.”
Who: USC vs. N.C. State
When: 3 p.m., Saturday
Where: Bank of America Stadium, Charlotte
Line: N.C. State by 6