Former Orioles minor league phenom Drungo Hazewood dies
By By Nick Diunte
For The Baltimore Sun|
Jul 30, 2013 | 6:17 PM
The name Drungo Hazewood by itself is enough to elicit tales of legendary power, strength, and speed. Standing 6-foot-3, with a 210-pound frame talented enough to warrant a full scholarship to USC as a tailback and a 1977 first-round selection from Orioles, Hazewood's physical gifts were some of the most awe inspiring his teammates had ever seen.
"The only other person I can come close to describing his physicality [to] probably was Bo Jackson," said Bob Bonner, a teammate with the Orioles. "Everybody just looked at Drungo with envy, [thinking], 'If I had a body like his, an arm like his, if I could run like him.' He had just so much natural talent, it was unbelievable."
Hazewood died Sunday in his Sacramento, Calif., home from complications of ampullary cancer. He was 53.
"He was diagnosed in June 2011," said his wife, Lagette. "He had major surgery to remove the cancer in August 2011. He did six months of chemo and that put it in remission. We lost our son in August and soon after that he had a reoccurrence. We started to fight it again in October, he had another surgery and radiation, and [Sunday] he lost the battle."
While his major league records show a hitless five at-bats in 1980, the tale of this prodigy is greater than the few weeks he spent in an Orioles uniform.
Despite batting .184 in his first minor league season, he was promoted within the Orioles' system, and the more he played, the more he drew comparisons to the greats of the game.
"He was the next Mickey Mantle," said Scott Christopher, a teammate with Double-A Charlotte. "I used to take his cutoff throws from right field and it was like it came out of an absolute cannon. Some of the bombs he hit were devastating, probably 500-plus feet. The guy was unreal."
Bonner recalled one tape-measure shot that left everyone in the stadium agape.
"We were playing for Charlotte in 1979, and at one field, I remember it was 375 to left center and there was a parking lot behind the fence and a 10-story apartment complex behind that, and he hit it over that complex," Bonner said. "It was estimated at 600 feet. I stood in awe. Everybody did. You could hear a pin drop at the ballpark when he hit it."
Cal Ripken Jr., who played with Hazewood for two seasons in Charlotte, marveled at the abilities of the strapping outfielder.
"He was big and fast and something to watch scoring from first on a double," Ripken wrote in his book "The Only Way I Know."
Yet it was Hazewood's strength that left a lasting impression on the Hall of Famer. After a brawl resulted in Hazewood being ejected, Ripken recalled how Drungo broke a bat using his hands and nothing else.
"He threw on some street clothes — no shower — and then stopped in front of a display of two bats mounted on hooks on the wall. He grabbed one and snapped it like a toothpick. … Drungo didn't snap this bat across anything, and he didn't hit it against anything. He just twisted and snapped it like a toothpick."
While his raw ability has been glamorized, his fierce devotion to his teammates was something that was seldom reported.
"He was a very loyal teammate," Bonner said. "He was one guy that if you were ever in a brawl on the field, you would want him on your side."
Bonner explained how Hazewood manhandled the entire opposition after a player was plunked in succession after his teammates twice hit back-to-back-to-back home runs.
"To make a long story short, it was quite a brawl," Bonner said. "After the brawl was over, Drungo put two of their guys in the hospital. You didn't want to mess with Drungo. He was so strong."
So why didn't Hazewood, with these wondrous displays of strength, stay longer in the big leagues? He couldn't hit the curveball. Pitchers started to figure out that off-speed pitches were Hazewood's kryptonite.
"Had he mastered the curveball, he could have been standing next to Cal in the Hall of Fame," Christopher said.
Instead, Hazewood was out of baseball only a few years after his 1980 major league debut at the age of 21. He abruptly stopped playing in 1983, leaving baseball to take care of his mother who was suffering from breast cancer. Rumors circulated regarding his whereabouts, as he was absent from team reunions and unresponsive to fan mail. Hazewood slipped into relative anonymity in his hometown of Sacramento, no longer a ballplayer, but a family man who was busy driving a truck and raising seven children.
The last few years were difficult for Hazewood after his 2011 cancer diagnosis. His teenage son Aubrey died in 2012, and his former teammates, led by Christopher, united to help raise funds for the funeral and Hazewood's growing medical expenses.
"I told the funeral home director that this group of teammates will take care of what needs to be done, which we did," Christopher said.
The outpouring of support for Hazewood continued after his passing.
Said Bonner: "Anytime someone asks me who the greatest player I ever played with was, and of course I played with Ripken, [I tell them] the guy who had more talent than anyone I ever played with was Drungo LaRue Hazewood."