The Boy with the Golden Arm

The Boy with the Golden Arm

Bethesda's Danny Hultzen was one of those rare kids who really worked at baseball. Now major-league attention has come his way.

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At age 5, Danny Hultzen started throwing baseballs against the front wall of his house in Carderock Springs. Dozens a night, hundreds a season, countless thousands over a childhood.

“I always remember loving to throw baseballs,” he says. “I spent a lot of my life out there.”

Occasionally a pitch shattered a window or cleared the roof, but most landed in a tight square just above the outdoor water faucet. Danny’s father, Chris, shows me the bricks, chipped and faded from years of relentless pounding, and calls them a “shrine to Danny’s determination.”

That determination paid off. As a junior pitcher for the University of Virginia last season, Danny set school records for wins and strikeouts and was named a first-team All-American. The Seattle Mariners made him the second pick in the amateur draft, and he could receive a $10 million bonus if he goes pro and passes up his final year in Charlottesville.

At 21, Danny has the body of a man: 200 pounds packed on a 6-foot-3-inch frame. But he has the smile of a child: bright and beaming, perfectly suited for a baseball card or a TV commercial.

We tour his boyhood room, littered with bats and gloves, trophies and posters. Cal Ripken wearing an Orioles uniform competes with a British pop star wearing almost nothing. Danny recalls watching the draft on TV with his teammates: “That is the most surprised I’ve ever been. When they said my name I was in shock.”

The people who watched Danny grow up on the ball fields of Montgomery County were not surprised, however. By age 6, he was playing on a T-ball team coached by his mother, Martha Martin.

“He stood out because he was just so good,” Martin recalls. “One of the other coaches complained that I had brought in a ringer, and this is T-ball we’re talking about! That seemed very Bethesda to me.”

Bruce Adams, who coached Danny at age 9, still has the scorecard from the first game the boy ever pitched, on Sept. 12, 1999. He struck out all six batters he faced and got three hits. Denise Gorham, who runs Bethesda Chevy Chase Baseball, adds, “When he was 11 years old, we said, ‘Danny’s the one kid who could make it to the majors.’”

Adams jokes that his claim to fame is “I didn’t ruin Danny Hultzen.” His parents didn’t either. Both are physicians (his mother is a psychiatrist, his father a neonatologist), and though they divorced when their son was young, they lived just a few miles apart and both spent a lot of time coaching and consoling, ferrying and feeding. So did Martin’s mother, Norene, a retired trade association executive, who would sit right behind home plate at her grandson’s games and watch him through binoculars because of her poor eyesight.

In a high-pressure, high-achieving community like Bethesda, parents can behave badly on the ball field—pushing the kids, criticizing the coaches, berating the umpires. But by all accounts Danny’s parents never crossed that line, and even today they seem amused, and slightly bewildered, by their athletic prodigy.

“Baseball dads can be a real pain in the butt, but Chris knows what he knows and he knows what he doesn’t know,” Martin says. “Unfortunately, too often parents think they know better.” She adds: “I once blurted out before a game, ‘Just have fun, honey.’ I think I embarrassed him.”

Perhaps, but the phrase has become a good-luck mantra between them and she texts it to her son before every game.

By age 10, Danny was playing for a select team called the Hurricanes. The boys came from all over the county and the team itself became their neighborhood, their community. In particular, Chris Hultzen says, it was the mothers who “were spending time with each other’s children, picking up four kids and taking them to practice and to McDonald’s afterwards.”

Their bonds were tightened not just by schedules but by emotions, and the “Hurricane Moms” still get together for regular dinners. “We had enthusiasm and love for everybody else’s kids,” Martin says. “This is what we talk about.”

Danny started school at Green Acres in Rockville, but moved downtown to St. Albans for seventh grade. That meant fighting traffic every morning, but his parents liked the academic standards, he liked the baseball coach, and his grandmother liked the connection to the National Cathedral, where she was an active parishioner.

After his senior year he was drafted by the Arizona Diamondbacks, but there was no question of turning pro: The child of two doctors was going to college. His teammates came from similar families, and even if Danny does sign a contract, he’s determined to finish his degree in the off-season. “We’re suburban professional parents,” Denise Gorham says. “We’re a different breed. He’s not a farm boy from Iowa.”

That might sound snobbish but it’s true. And one reason the Mariners drafted him was his family background. They are investing millions of dollars not just in Danny’s left arm, but in his head and his heart. The team’s general manager, Jack Zduriencik, told a Seattle reporter: “The father’s a doctor, the mother’s a psychiatrist. He’s an academic All-American. You start putting all the pieces together and you realize you have a pedigree here as well as a lot of success on the field.”

As I write this, Danny Hultzen’s future is uncertain. He is likely to sign a contract with the Mariners but could still return to school and re-enter the draft next year. What’s not uncertain is that somewhere in Montgomery County today, there’s a 5-year-old tossing a baseball against a brick wall and dreaming of glory. 

Steve Roberts’ latest book, written with his wife, Cokie, is Our Haggadah. Send ideas for future columns to svroberts@aol.com.

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