Divine timing allowed Braves’ Hurston Waldrep to make MLB debut in front of mother

Atlanta Braves starting pitcher Hurston Waldrep throws during the third inning of a baseball game against the Washington Nationals at Nationals Park, Sunday, June 9, 2024, in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

Credit: AP

Credit: AP

Atlanta Braves starting pitcher Hurston Waldrep throws during the third inning of a baseball game against the Washington Nationals at Nationals Park, Sunday, June 9, 2024, in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

WASHINGTON – In December, Debbie Waldrep was diagnosed with breast cancer. Soon after that, she began treatment.

On May 31, she finished treatment, which she now believes to be divine timing.

“And then this happened,” she says. “So, it was almost like God had a plan, and he let me finish before this happened.”

By “this,” she is referring to her son’s major-league debut. She is sitting in Section 114 with her husband, Cliff, and their other children – Ryan, Morgan and Edon. In that same section, others are present: High school baseball coaches, a travel ball coach and family members. Many of them came from Thomasville to see one of their own as he achieved a lifelong dream.

When Huston took the field for his first start, he crouched behind the mound before even throwing a warm-up pitch. This is his pregame prayer. “Everything that I do, pray before it,” he later said. Waldrep, who was raised a Baptist, used to wear a bracelet that said “Pray First.”

This – pitching in front of his mother after her treatment finished – was a blessing for him.

“Over the past couple months, it’s been pretty rough, not being at home and being able to support her through her journey,” he said. “She’s the strongest person I know. That’s where I get my work ethic from and my personality and who I am, and my stubbornness, too. But she’s amazing and to be able to have her there, knowing everything that she’s been through in the past couple weeks – her finishing up treatment and then all of this happening and aligning – it’s good to see a smile on her face.”

And to Hurston’s supporters, this day – his debut – meant everything.

“The emotions are through the roof,” Cliff, Hurston’s father, says.

“It’s a big day, not just for Hurston – it’s a big day for our community,” says Erik McDougald, Hurston’s head baseball coach at Thomasville High School. “And I think that’s a big testament (to Hurston).”

On Sunday, Waldrep allowed seven earned runs over 3-2/3 innings. The line looks worse than reality, though: He did not give up a hit through three innings before experiencing a rough fourth frame. He displayed flashes of brilliance, even if it did not go as anyone intended.

Still, there are reasons to be grateful. Hurston, a lifelong Braves fan, toed the rubber for the team he grew up idolizing. The best is yet to come for Hurston, whose work ethic and determination have personified his journey to the big leagues.

For Cliff, there was only one way to describe this day and the feeling that came with it.

“Surreal is the word I’ve used a million times to everybody, and it’s still surreal,” he said. “Whether he pitches any more after today, I think he’s made it.”

‘He works his tail off for everything’

Ten years ago, Debbie and Cliff were watching Hurston in an under-12 All-Star tournament in Georgia. And in those days, they noticed their son’s exemplary work ethic. He would come home from baseball tournaments and … play more baseball in their yard. He would hit and throw.

“He’d spend hours out there,” Cliff said. “Nonstop.”

Cliff and Debbie say Hurston’s drive was his own. They never lived vicariously through any of their kids. Their only message: If you start something, you must finish it. They followed their kids toward whatever interested them – not the other way around.

And when Waldrep arrived at Thomasville High, McDougald immediately noticed how hard he worked. Waldrep was also a punter on the football team – and he loved to hit, despite McDougald’s wishes he stayed safe and injury-free. During football season, Waldrep would try to keep his arm going.

Thomasville High had a really tall net in left field at its baseball field. If Waldrep couldn’t find a throwing partner on a given day during football season, he would grab a bucket of baseballs and do his long toss into the net in left field. Then he would go pick up the balls himself and get back at it.

“He’s always been kind of just mentally ahead, in baseball and the mental aspect of things,” McDougald said in the concourse at Nationals Park. “Just stuff you don’t really teach a kid. His work ethic has always set him apart from everyone. As a high school coach, you like to have those guys you like to reel back a little bit. He’s a guy you had to reel back a little bit – which is awesome, because you can work with that. You don’t like a passive guy. The last thing he is, is very passive. But his nature, he just comes across as very even-keeled.”

Don’t misinterpret his level-headed nature with carelessness. No, when Waldrep wants something, he works for it. He comes from a working family. Cliff is a quail hunter who manages around 11,000 acres of land, and Debbie is a school secretary.

Their son’s determination is part of him.

“When he has set his mind to something, when he has a goal, he’s gonna get it,” Debbie said.

“He works his tail off for everything he’s got,” Cliff said. “He was never given anything. He works his butt off. Humble, God-fearing. Just a good young man. So, we’ve been blessed with him.”

Waldrep is always looking for the next way to improve. One example: In the summer of 2022, he became frustrated with his inability to handle left-handed hitters, so he developed a splitter that eventually became his main weapon, and the one that pushed him into the first round last summer and into the majors now.

But Waldrep is special because he believes the otherwise mundane tasks to be of great importance. And in this way, he’s set an example for others.

Last offseason, he wanted to throw a bullpen session in the cage at Thomasville High. McDougald and a group of his players arrived there at around 3 p.m. McDougal asked how long Waldrep had been there.

The answer: Since 1:30 p.m., when he began his pre-throwing routine with some stretching. McDougald used this as an example for his players.

He told them: “Guys, he didn’t just show up 30 minutes ago, 20 minutes ago, and just throw a little bit and say, ‘I’m ready to go. He prepared. And guys, he’s throwing a bullpen today. To y’all, it’s just a ‘pen. And he’s thinking about his ‘pen as, this is more than (him) just throwing some pitches to a catcher.’”

A couple hours before McDougald told this story, Spencer Schwellenbach – another Braves arm who recently made his debut – talked about Waldrep in the visiting dugout at Nationals Park. Asked what makes Waldrep so special, Schwellenbach pointed to what others did.

He works harder than anyone.

“He gets his work done. He’s one of the guys who’s always doing something to help his body out, (or) recovery, to make him better,” Schwellenbach said. “Honestly, I haven’t really seen anything like that in pro ball. He’s one of a kind in that aspect.

“And when he gets to the field, he’s all business. When he’s on the mound, you know what you’re gonna get. He’s gonna throw you his best stuff. And he’s got a personality out there that’s just, ‘I’m gonna get you out, and if I don’t, the next time I face you, I’m gonna get you out.’ And that’s something that’s really special, and that’s why he’s as good as he is.”

‘I play for them, not for me’

During Waldrep’s sophomore season, he pitched in the rivalry game against Thomas County Central. He went in to close a one-run game. He hit a batter to load the bases and, with the adrenaline pumping throughout the stadium, escaped the threat unscathed.

After the game, he said something from the heart.

“He said, ‘I went off the field, I looked around the stands, I looked around at the people that I’m representing’ and he calmed himself down and he came back out and he said, ‘I play for them, not for me,’” Cliff recalled.

It’s clear Waldrep feels pride in representing Thomasville. And the community loves him back: McDougald and his assistant coaches at Thomasville High drove – yes, drove – all the way up to Nationals Park. They’d planned to leave Sunday night.

They did it for Waldrep – as did the rest of his family and friends who attended this special day.

They love him not because he’s a terrific pitcher, but because he’s an outstanding person. He’s the same guy they always knew.

“What he does on the mound today doesn’t represent who he is right here,” Cliff said, tapping his heart.

When Waldrep attended Southern Miss – his stop before transferring to the University of Florida – he once helped at a kids baseball camp in Thomasville. And if any Thomasville High student-athletes ever need an extra set of eyes, they’ll send a quick video to Waldrep, who’ll always text back with his thoughts.

And right before he reported to North Port for Braves spring training, Waldrep hung out at Thomasville High’s baseball practices.

“And he’s just another guy,” McDougald said. “He’s hanging out with the guys and you’re like, ‘This guy’s fixing to go to Braves training camp and he’s just hanging out with our guys.’ No distraction, he’s just sitting on a bucket like another guy just hanging out, and they’re talking to Hurston. He’s just a normal dude.”

On Saturday, Waldrep said he knows people don’t know a lot about Thomasville.

What does he want them to know?

“It’s just a good town full of a lot of good people, and I’m grateful that’s where I’m from,” Waldrep said. “My family and friends, very grateful for everything they’ve done for me. Just a lot of good people.

On Sunday, Thomasville’s own took the mound at Nationals Park. He crouched, as he always does. Remember: Pray First.

“Everything that I did, I prayed and knew God would be with me every step of the way, and where I went,” he said.

The outing itself did not go as well as Waldrep hoped, but there is still a lot for which to be grateful.

“He’ll never take this for granted right here,” Cliff said of his son. “He’ll downplay it, but he won’t forget it.”