Friday, August 2, 2013

Teammates ensure the legend of Drungo Hazewood lives on

Drungo Hazewood / Ripkenintheminors.com
Before Bo Jackson, there was Drungo LaRue Hazewood. A two-sport star in high school so athletically gifted that USC wanted to make him their starting tailback, and the Baltimore Orioles made him their first round pick in 1977. Possessing the ability to hit a baseball over five-hundred feet, run like a world-class sprinter, and throw a ball like it was shot out of a cannon, Hazewood tantalized his teammates, opponents and fans with his skill.

“In spring training, we’d always run for times,” teammate Willie Royster said. “I remember the last time we were all together, he was the fastest guy in the organization. Nobody could beat him in the 60. We’re talking a guy over six-feet and 200 lbs., and he could just motor. It was great just to watch him perform.”

Hazewood, at the young age of 20 set the minor leagues on fire in 1980. Playing for the Double-A Charlotte Orioles, he set a team record for home runs with 28, while also stealing 29 bases. His undeniable performance led manager Jimmy Williams to enthusiastically recommend him for a September call-up.

“He had a super year and it looked like he was going to go all the way,” said the 87-year old Williams from his home in Maryland. “At the time I knew him, he had a super chance to play in the big leagues. If I look back at any of the reports I have, I’m sure that’s what I said in there. My reports were, ‘This kid has a chance to play in the big leagues. He has all the possibilities. He’s big, he’s strong, he hits the ball well, good outfielder, runs the bases well because of his speed.’”

Joining a team in a middle of a pennant race that included veteran outfielders Al Bumbry and Ken Singleton, there was little room for Hazewood to display his talents. He sat on the bench for most of the month, earning his only start in the next-to-last game of the season when the Orioles were eliminated from contention.

Despite all of his talent, Hazewood would never return to the big leagues. He passed away Sunday July 28, 2013 due to complications from cancer. He was 53.

As quickly as he ascended to the major leagues, was almost as quickly as he was out of baseball. In 1983, only 23 years old, Hazewood found himself attempting to take care of his mother who was suffering from cancer, as well as his wife and two children. Needing to support his family, he went to work driving trucks, losing touch with the baseball community.

“He was always talking about his family; he was a big family guy,” Royster said. “When we stopped playing, he immediately started working as a truck driver, making runs across country. Every now and then I’d hear from him by phone, but everybody at that time was trying to get their life together after the game was over.”

Some years later, a chance encounter enabled Royster to rekindle his friendship with his teammate who had drifted away.

“A teammate ran into him while he was in Sacramento and they exchanged phone numbers and we made contact again. After that point, we stayed in touch for the past 8-10 years.”

Little was ever reported as to the kindred spirit that was Hazewood. His passing allowed me to get in touch with a cadre of former teammates that were able to shine light on his personality.

“I loved Drungo,” Charlotte teammate Tom Rowe said. “He was one of my favorites, always was. We had a special kind of relationship. We’d wrestle in the hotel a lot and kind of like that brawl in Charlotte, I’d be the one flying all over the place. We had this thing, if he got really frustrated if he struck out, I’d tighten up my stomach and he’d punch me in the stomach to get his frustration out. Luckily I did a lot of sit-ups back then. He’d come over to me, ‘Tommy, I need it.’”

Royster had a breakout year in 1981 with Charlotte when he hit 31 home runs and stole 53 bases. He attributed a lot of his success from the constant support from Hazewood.

“During that whole year we were roommates," he said. "We motivated each other; we pushed each other to produce because we felt the only way to get to the big leagues was to dominate where we were.”

Hazewood seldom made public appearances, attending a reunion for the Charlotte Orioles in 2010 and did a private autograph signing with Chris Potter in the fall of 2012. Many think that he held a grudge against those in the game for never getting another shot at the big leagues, but Royster disagreed.

“He never thought they gave him the opportunity to produce and to show his wares. There were other guys they pushed ahead of him, for whatever their reasoning was. He dealt with it; he didn’t walk around angry at the world, he tried to improve on his craft.”

Looking back at his playing days, Royster’s lasting memory of his friend was someone who was highly revered by everyone on the field.

“We were best friends. Back then, he was a young kid. He was a big deal. He had all the tools. He could run, throw, hit, had a great arm, and speed. He was just a good hearted person. If he was on your team, he was the kind of guy you wanted on your team. If he was on the other team, you didn’t want to face him.”

Editor's Note -
The outpouring of support in the wake of Hazewood's passing from his former teammates was unbelievable. They all jumped at the chance to share their memories of their friend. The interviews in this article were conducted after I had submitted articles to regional newspapers memorializing his passing. You can read more interviews with his teammates that I conducted in the following articles.

Former Orioles phenom Drungo Hazewood dies - Baltimore Sun 

Charlotte Orioles' Drungo Hazewood a natural, rare blend of talent - Charlotte Observer

Drungo Hazewood's 1977 Scouting Report - Kansas City Royals

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