Drungo LaRue Hazewood (1959 - 2013)

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The name Drungo Hazewood is enough to elicit tales of legendary power, strength and speed.

At 6-foot-3, 210 pounds and talented enough to receive a football scholarship to Southern California, Haywood was chosen by the Baltimore Orioles in the first round of the Major League Baseball draft in 1977.

"The only other person I can come close to describing his physicality probably was Bo Jackson," said Bob Bonner, his former teammate with the Charlotte Orioles. "Everybody just looked at Drungo with envy. 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."

While his major league ledger displays a hitless in five at-bats, the tale of this prodigy is greater than the few weeks he spent in a Baltimore Orioles uniform. It grows even bigger now that he has passed on.

Hazewood died Sunday in his Sacramento, Calif., home of 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."

Hazewood played the bulk of his career in Charlotte, where he hit 79 home runs in four seasons from 1979 through 1982. His feats drew comparisons to some of the most revered names in the game.

"He was the next Mickey Mantle," former Charlotte teammate Scott Christopher said. "I used to take his cut-off throws from right field and it was like it came out of an absolute cannon. It was just an absolute rocket. 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 (feet) 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 that night."

Hall of Famer Cal Ripken Jr., who played alongside 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 said in his autobiography "The Only Way I Know How."

Yet, it was Hazewood's strength that truly made a lasting impression on Ripken. After a brawl resulted in Hazewood being ejected, Ripken recalled how he 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," Ripken said. "… 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 Hazewood's raw ability has been glamorized, his fierce devotion to teammates 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 told how Hazewood once took on an entire opposing team after the same teammate was plunked in succession after the O's not once, but twice, hit consecutive back-to-back-to-back home runs.

"One night in Charlotte, Vern Thomas, Dan Logan and I hit three home runs in a row and the next batter, Cat Whitfield got hit," Bonner said. "Next time we get up, we all hit home runs again; we had two sets of back-to-back-to-back home runs in the same game. Sure enough, Cat Whitfield got hit again. When Cat charged the mound, Drungo beat Cat to the mound.

"To make a long story short, it was quite a brawl and 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. I remember looking up and seeing him pick this pitcher up on the other team and throw him so hard down to the ground, the ground shook.

"I remember seeing someone else hitting Drungo, he didn't flinch and hit the guy and he went down and they carried both of those guys off on stretchers."

So why didn't Hazewood, who displayed these wondrous feats of strength, stay longer in the big leagues?

He couldn't hit the curveball. As he moved up the ladder, pitchers started to figure out that the off-speed was Hazewood's kryptonite.

"He could hit a fastball no doubt, but he had trouble with the breaking ball," Bonner said.

Christopher said Hazewood's potential was unlimited had he made the necessary adjustments.

"Had he mastered the curveball, he could have been standing next to Cal in the Hall of Fame."

Hazewood's case remained a curious one for teammates and fans alike, as he was out of baseball only a few short years after his 1980 Major League Baseball debut at 21. He abruptly stopped playing in 1983, leaving baseball to care for his mother, who suffered 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 ball player, but a family man who was busy driving a truck and raising seven children.

Maryland-area autograph specialist Chris Potter caught up with Hazewood in the fall of 2012, and traveled to his home to organize a signing for collectors who desperately wanted his signature. It was Hazewood's first signing of this type , and he wondered why people still sought his autograph.
Published in Charlotte Observer on July 31, 2013
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