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 PHOENIX - It was late in August, a time before the Colorado Rockies began their magical run and a time when fans still were debating whether their manager was worth his latest contract extension.
The Rockies were at home, and the playoffs seemed another world away. On this Monday night, Colorado would lose in 11 innings to the Pittsburgh Pirates, the team's fourth loss in its last five games.
It wasn't just that postseason hopes were fading fast. It was the way it was happening.
Reliever LaTroy Hawkins gave up a lead in the eighth inning, rookie of the year candidate Troy Tulowitski ran the team out of a run in the 10th inning, and everything fell apart in the 11th.
The mood in the locker room was somber, and manager Clint Hurdle seemed irritable. He cut his postgame press conference short when he was repeatedly quizzed about whether the loss was ``debilitating'' or ``crushing.''
Just another manager who couldn't take the heat?
Hardly.
``It was just kind of funny at that time because that day I had gotten a call from a mother at Children's Hospital that wanted me to come by and see her son before he was going to pass that night,'' Hurdle said. ``That was debilitating.''
And crushing?
``Crushing was when a doctor told me my little girl was born with a birth defect.''
Madison Hurdle is now 5 and her father's regular date on their ``Saturdays at Starbucks'' trips. She suffers from seizures and a rare genetic disorder called Prader-Willi Syndrome that causes low muscle tone, morbid obesity and other problems.
Her parents watch closely because Maddie, like others with the genetic defect, never knows when she is full and has a constant urge to keep eating. Many parents of children with the syndrome must padlock the refrigerator door and lock cupboards because of their child's insatiable appetite.
There is no cure.
Hurdle is a national spokesman for Prader-Willi Syndrome, which, though little known, affects one in every 12,000 to 15,000 people. He's also a frequent visitor to the Children's Hospital in Denver, where his daughter has been treated for Prader-Willi and another genetic disorder that induces seizures which have forced him to skip some games in recent years.
As manager of the hottest team in baseball, he hopes his team's success will bring some attention to the disorder. But he had another reason for bringing it up just a few hours before the Rockies met Arizona in the first game of the National League championship series.
This was about perspective, the kind that's often hard to find in this sports-crazed country. Hurdle was making clear this wasn't life, and it wasn't death.
``Baseball is a game. And I've learned that,'' he said. ``I've embraced that, and I've tried to share that with my players. It's a great challenge and a great opportunity for a lot of things. (But) let's keep it a game.''
There are some in Colorado who would argue with that. This is a team that has been in the playoffs only once, and that was a dozen years ago.
Fans are starving for success, one reason many were grousing earlier this season about both Hurdle, his mediocre record over the previous five years, and the decision by team owner Charlie Monfort to extend his contract at the beginning of the season.
Hurdle understands the power of expectations.
He's 50 now, his hair mostly gray and a few extra pounds on his frame. But he was once the next great thing in baseball.
Sports Illustrated put him on the cover of a 1978 issue in a Kansas City Royals uniform with a mop of unruly hair on his head and a huge smile on his face. ``This Year's Phenom,'' it read, but the 21-year-old never lived up to the hype and finished with 32 home runs and 193 RBI in a 10-year career spent with four different teams.
``Early in my career I was in a hurry,'' he said. ``I've had to learn patience through challenging times. That's been good. It's proved to become an asset, especially in this profession.''
He's got a team full of young phenoms now, and he's trying to teach them the same patience that came so hard to him. It took awhile to sink in as the team stumbled to a 17-25 start. But they kept battling through it, even in the dark days of late August when it seemed like they had about as much chance of making the playoffs as their skipper had being named manager of the year.
The Rockies are on top now, first game winners against Arizona, and odds-on favorites to be in the World Series. Fans are back on the bandwagon, Hurdle could be manager of the year, and all those years of struggling now seem little but a distant memory.
Hurdle doesn't know how long this ride will last or how it will end. He doesn't know when the next call from the Children's Hospital will come, or what the future holds for his daughter.
He does know one thing this weekend will bring: Another Saturday at Starbucks with Maddie.
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Tim Dahlberg is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at tdahlbergap.org

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