September 4, 2008 in City

The game of his life

By The Spokesman-Review
 

If you go

Championship series

Today: Salem-Keizer at Spokane, 6:30 p.m.

Friday: Salem-Keizer at Spokane, 1:30 p.m.

Saturday: Spokane at Salem-Keizer, TBA

Sunday: Spokane at Salem-Keizer, TBA*

Monday: Spokane at Salem-Keizer, TBA*

*If necessary

Last Saturday afternoon, Tim Hulett paced his hotel room, trying to will his vision through the radio and into the eyes, hands and synapses of his oldest son.

Tug Hulett, in the lineup for the Seattle Mariners against Cleveland that day, was going to hit his first major league home run. His dad just knew it.

He just couldn’t see it.

The start of the college football season had bumped the Mariners off cable TV. Major League Baseball had blacked out the game from its Internet package. And even though the Spokane Indians had clinched the Northwest League’s East Division championship the night before, their manager still had to be in uniform in Boise that night.

So Hulett was left with radio – and telepathy.

“And sure enough he hits it, and it’s gone,” said Hulett, “and I’m in my room pumping my fist, all by myself.”

Except he wasn’t. Not really. Baseball has never been a solitary pursuit for Tim Hulett.

As a minor league manager, he’s the shepherd for a flock of 30 young Indians players who tonight launch their bid for the NWL championship in a best-of-five series against the Salem-Keizer Volcanoes at Avista Stadium. In his second season in Spokane, Hulett was the league’s Manager of the Year for guiding the Indians to 51 victories, even though they didn’t have a single non-pitcher voted to the All-Star team.

When he’s not on the clock – OK, maybe sometimes when he is, too – Hulett is a slave to technology. Not only does he try to track the progress of Tug but also of his youngest son, Jeff, a shortstop in his first year of professional ball in the New York-Penn League with the Tri-City ValleyCats.

“I would probably fine players for doing some of the things I’ve done this year during a game,” he laughed, confessing to his divided attention.

It could have been worse. Another son, Joe, went to spring training with the Texas Rangers this year before being released.

That baseball has such a tight grip on the family of Tim and Linda Hulett is no great surprise. He spent 12 seasons in the majors as an infielder with the White Sox, Orioles and Cardinals before retiring in 1995 – and picking it right up again as a high school coach at Evangel Christian Academy in Louisiana.

“My wife is a real trouper,” he said. “I get credit for the boys’ talent, but let’s face it – I was off playing. She was the one teaching them how to play the game.

“Baseball is what they love to do, and we have a great relationship because it’s something I love. I became a coach when I got out of pro ball because I wanted to be with my kids and I knew they were going to play.”

Tug told his kindergarten teacher he was “born to play baseball” – so, yes, destiny seems to have been involved along with passion and a family’s bond.

And no little heartache.

Tim Hulett got to coach three sons. He had planned on coaching four.

Sam Hulett was 6 years old in 1992, slotted chronologically between Joe and Jeff and three years younger than Tug. The four were waiting to cross the street in front of their Baltimore home, heading to the park where they played ball every day. It was always a race, and one day Sam impulsively decided to even the odds with his oldest brother by getting a head start – dashing into the street without looking for traffic. As his brothers watched in horror, he was hit by a car.

“I was in Chicago, playing the last game of a road series and got a phone call in the locker room from my wife,” Hulett recalled. “In 14 years of baseball, she had never called me in the locker room so I knew it was something terrible.”

He flew home to Baltimore. Sam died of head injuries the next day.

And a family was forced to talk through an unspeakable tragedy.

“It was tough for a couple of years,” Hulett said. “You try to give them counsel and help them through it, but they all blamed themselves one way or another. Maybe not Jeff in a way he could understand – he was only 4. But Tug was 9 and the oldest, and he felt it was his fault. Joe kind of reached for Sam when it happened. He said, ‘Don’t go’ but was looking the other way and Sam just ran out.”

The Huletts sought solace in their faith and discovered their lives irrevocably changed – “for the good,” Tim said, “not that you’d ever choose for it to happen that way.”

Over time, connections between father and sons have grown stronger, with an assist from baseball.

Joe is now Tim’s assistant coach at Evangel. Jeff – “hard-headed like me,” said Dad – has struggled through his rookie pro season, and Hulett senses he’s ready to accept some of the wisdom he once resisted “because he was the youngest and wanted to do it on his own.” And when the NWL playoffs end, Hulett will head straight to Safeco Field.

“It’s killing me that I haven’t seen Tug yet in a big league game,” he said.

But he also remembered sitting in the clubhouse in Eugene earlier this season between batting practice and the first pitch, with the M’s on TV and the entire Indians team gathered around to cheer on their manager’s kid in his first big-league game, as if he were one of their own – which, in fact, he was. Tug Hulett started his pro career here in 2004.

In that sense, they’re all part of the family.

Reach John Blanchette at (509) 459-5509 or at johnbl@spokesman.com.

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