by: Mychael Urban, ESPN the Magazine
September 28, 2005
A's GM Billy Beane broke up the Big Three last December because of chronic payroll issues. Or did he? What technology joins together, no man can pull asunder. Throughout the long season, the three pitchers stayed connected. Now, on the verge of the playoffs, they're all coming up aces.
Hudson: The freshest yet. Uncle!
Zito: Saw that. Unreal. Wear it.
During his five-plus seasons with the A's, Tim Hudson watched 26 wins go up in the smoke of blown saves. Hudson took to calling such injustices "freshies," because there always seemed to be a fresh one right around the corner. In his second start with the Braves, Hudson watches as Danny Kolb cough up his 3-1 lead by allowing three runs in the ninth at Turner Field. None of his new teammates know Hudson's history with freshies, so he grabs his cell phone and text-messages California.
The freshest yet. Barry Zito, who won 23 games and the AL Cy Young Award in 2002, has often said Hudson might have won the award if the A's bullpen hadn't stuck him with eight freshies that year. Without the implosions, Hudson would have had 23 wins, too. So Zito feels some sympathy.
Then again, Zito is 0-2 with a four-digit ERA. Hudson is 1-0, 1.39. So by the time Zito responds to Hudson's text, sympathy has taken a backseat to ragging. Wear it. As in, better you than me.
For the first time since Zito made his big league debut in 2000, he and Hudson and Mark Mulder aren't teammates. Like Zito, Mulder is in touch with Hudson, mostly via text and voice mail. Zito and Mulder talk too, albeit far less frequently, for reasons neither of them can quite explain. Regardless, as a trio they've gone from four years of almost daily contact to hooking up sporadically and almost exclusively with the help of the same technology that keeps 14-year-old girls up at night.
"We are 14-year-old girls," Hudson says, laughing. "Gossipin', talkin' trash, braggin', gigglin'. And every once in a while, a little bit of the touchy-feely, too."
Mulder: "Okay, Barry, I know you're big-time and ALL, but are you ever gonna call me back?"
The relationship between Mulder, 28, and Zito, 27, is hard to define, but Hudson, 30, knows it as well as anyone. "It's a sibling rivalry type of thing," he says, "and brothers don't always see eye-to-eye."
Mulder, who grew up as the oldest of three brothers, is a serial teaser. Zito, who has two older sisters, is a sensitive sort. "Z is just Z," Hudson says. "He doesn't care if you think he's goofy. Mulder is Cool Daddy-O. That's what I call him. Perfect hair, perfect form."
Zito has a nickname for Mulder too. "He's Johnny Ballplayer," Zito says. "Everything you'd expect a pro baseball player to be and do, in the clubhouse and away from the field, that's Mark."
Zito was born in Vegas, raised in SoCal. Mulder was born and raised in suburban Chicago. Zito plays guitar, practices yoga and surfs. Mulder plays golf and Halo. Zito admits to thinking too much. Mulder's goal -- on the mound, at least -- is to think as little as possible. Zito's wardrobe is one giant homage to '70s icons like David Cassidy and Harry Reems. Mulder's consists of what's hot right now. Zito, if he could, would climb the hill to a blend of Bach, Beck, Ben Folds and Biz Markie. Mulder sticks to techno. "We're really, really different," Zito says.
The funny thing is, each has qualities the other covets. Says Mulder: "I think the most impressive thing about Zito is his drive, his focus."
"Mark just lets things roll off him," Zito says. "He's always been like that. Nothing seems to get to him. Ever." Zito is a bit distracted at the moment: he's out in his driveway, trying to fix a blown radiator hose on his Dodge Durango. "I took auto shop in high school," he says proudly. "Doing stuff like this, it's the most efficient you'll ever feel."
How might Mulder respond to a similar predicament? "Oh, dude, tow truck would be on the way right now," Zito says with a laugh. "Guaranteed."
Zito admits he and Mulder have spoken only once since the trade, during spring training, after Mulder badgered him with multiple messages. "I should call him," Zito says. "I follow what he's doing, though. That counts, right?"
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It's a "Fight Club" thing. The No. 1 rule when your buddy's struggling is don't talk about your buddy struggling.
In late May, Zito was 1-6 with a 4.85 ERA. By mid-June, Mulder had lost four of his past five starts and had a 4.75 ERA. On June 16, three days after giving up five runs in 3 2/3 innings, Hudson went on the DL with a strained oblique muscle.
These were quiet times. "If Huddy pitches well and gets screwed, like he always does, then I might text him real quick," Zito says. "But if he's getting lit, no. The last thing you want to do after pitching like crap is talk about it."
"I called Huddy after he got hurt," Mulder says, "only to find out if it was serious. He said it wasn't, and that was that. Next subject."
Zito: Byrnes ran into a wall today. Almost broke his face.
Hudson: Shocker. Wait till you hear what I did to Perez.
Hudson has a talent for talking hotel employees into giving him a teammate's room key, then lying in wait for a big scare. Last year, Hudson and Zito jumped out from behind a shower curtain while rookie Nick Swisher was taking care of some bathroom business. ("Welcome to the big leagues," Swisher says.) Braves catcher Eddie Perez was the latest victim. Wearing the black cassock and mask made famous in the Scream movies, Hudson was hiding in a closet at the Fort Lauderdale Marina Marriott with a soundman for MLB Productions when Perez, thinking he was being trailed by a camera crew for a day-in-the-life piece, walked in.
"He's like, 'Here's what a big-league closet looks like,'" Hudson says, "and I bounce out screaming at him. I absolutely crushed him, man. He flipped out. I might have to come up with a new wrinkle, though, because everyone's kind of catchin' on. The word is out now: Huddy's up there waitin' to scare the hell out of you."
Hudson, a Georgia native, showed Mulder around when the Cards visited Atlanta in April, and he hosted Zito and his former teammates in the VIP section of a downtown club when the A's visited in June, but he's not hurting for buddies among the Braves. "You need to bring your personality out so people can get to know you," says Julio Franco. "Huddy let us see who he is right away."
Teams often develop the attitude of their top dogs, and Chipper Jones and John Smoltz have been laid-back leaders in Atlanta. Hudson likes to bark. "There are a lot of superstitions here," he says. "They've won 13 division titles in a row, and the rules now are the same rules that were in place when it all started, so I'm not gonna fight that. But the radio thing ... if you want to hear music here, you have to MP3-it, so I'm workin' on that. And honestly, when I first got here, I felt like we could use a little more life in general. A little more fire. That's what I'd like to bring to this team."
Hudson is quick to credit the Braves' infusion of youth for any upswing in clubhouse energy. "It's not just because of me," he says. "It's a combination of a lot of guys coming up with a lot of passion, and the guys who've been here awhile wanting to give that passion back. I mean, let's not be so corporate. Let's smile and laugh and carry on. And it's starting to get more like that. Chipper was pretty quiet when I got here, but now I see him smiling more and cutting up. Smoltz too, and I think that's from being around young guys, which is all we had in Oakland. It's not like you're gonna walk in tomorrow and hear music blarin' with a bunch of guys poundin' beers, but we're gonna have some fun."
Hudson: You see Z last night?
Mulder: Yup. Just saw SportsCenter.
On July 15, Zito took a no-hitter into the eighth against the Rangers. Kevin Mench spoiled it with a one-out homer, but the game served as national confirmation of what had been local knowledge in the A's clubhouse for two-and-a-half months: Zito is back among the elite. The victory that night was only his seventh of the year against eight losses, but the A's had scored all of seven runs in those eight L's, and Zito's once-astronomical ERA is down to 3.74. His trademark curveball is sick as ever. "When Barry's curveball is on, it's not just the hitter who buckles," says A's catcher Jason Kendall. "The umpire buckles. I buckle. People in the first few rows buckle. It's that good."
And that big breaker, along with a four-seam fastball and a changeup, was all Zito needed to win the 2002 Cy Young Award. But big league ball is all about adjustments, and those not willing to tinker risk slipping slowly into where-are-they-nowville. So Zito tinkered. At the 2004 All-Star break, he and his childhood mentor, former NL Cy-winner Randy Jones, added a two-seam fastball to give him something with sink; Hudson and Mulder make a living with sinkers. Zito also has dabbled with a cut fastball, and this year he added a slider, giving him six pitches to Hudson's nine (including two sidearm variations) and Mulder's seven. Says ex-Mariner Bret Boone of Zito: "It's like facing someone you haven't seen before."
"The difference for me is mental," Zito says. "I'm back to pounding the strike zone. I'm committed to every pitch. For whatever reason, I lost that for a while in 2004. Now I'm back to just acting like I own it out there. Like there's nobody better."
That's as close to self-hype as you'll hear from Zito, who would much rather crow about Oakland's remarkable turnaround. On May 29, the young and injury-ravaged club lost its eighth straight game to fall 15 games under .500, 12½ back of the Angels. Two months and two days later, after ripping off 41 wins in 55 games, they are 12 games over .500, within 1½ games of the Angels and leading the wild-card race.
"No matter what happens from here, I'm so proud to be part of this team," Zito says. But he's not just a part of the team. He is, to the surprise of those who have mistaken his eccentricities for flakiness over the years, every bit the leader in Oakland that Hudson was.
"People see Z and his candles, pillows and guitar and whatever you want to call his hair, and they think he's out there," Hudson says. "And he is. But not when it comes to baseball, and as far as a young team goes, he's the perfect guy to have, because he's so open about sharing his experiences."
Mulder: Dude, can you get my buddy tickets 4 tomorrow?
Hudson: What's her name? ... Oh, and nice game. Keep it up.
The Braves are in Phoenix for a three-game series, and in addition to acknowledging Mulder's victory over the Brewers two nights earlier, Hudson can't resist poking fun at Johnny Ballplayer's rep. Gifted, single, rich and famous, the 6-foot-6, 215-pound Mulder has been known to take advantage of certain luxuries afforded star athletes, and tee times aren't the half of it. But in this case, the buddy isn't a drop-dead blonde. It's a friend from nearby Scottsdale, Ariz., where Mulder makes his offseason home.
Scottsdale fits Mulder like the Catwoman suit fits Halle Berry. And that's one of the many things that pained Mulder about being traded to the Cardinals, who train in sleepy Jupiter, Fla. Scottsdale is the vibrant, sun-splashed focal point of baseball culture in Arizona. During spring training, eight of the 12 teams work out within a short drive of each other. The A's are one of them. "Dude," Mulder told Hudson this spring, "you have no idea how much I miss Scottsdale." Oakland, too.
Mulder speaks to the A's equipment manager, Steve Vucinich, at least once a week. "It's been tough," he said. "I don't know if I'd say I've been lonely in St. Louis; I have plenty of friends on the team. But not like in Oakland."
It should be noted that this is a two-way thing. When A's shortstop Bobby Crosby, who shared a house with Mulder last season, was photographed sporting a $15,000 watch on the red carpet of a Hollywood-style spring training bash in Scottsdale this year, Vucinich faxed Mulder the newspaper article. Mulder immediately left Crosby a voice mail razzing him for being quoted as saying, among other things, "I always wear Paper Denim Jeans," and, "I'm very single, and I look forward to getting inside."
"He knows everything we're doing," says Crosby, who talks to Mulder twice a week. "Is he lonely? Maybe a little bit. All his best friends are here."
Says Cardinals closer Jason Isringhausen, who played with Mulder in Oakland for two years: "We get on him about cutting the cord."
Zito: "Mulder, what up, bro?"
Mulder: "Hey, I'm in your town right now. Where do I go?"
Zito: "You're in LA? Me too, dude. We have an off day. Yeah, man, I got a few sweet spots for you."
Zito, while checking out the remodeling of his home in the Hollywood Hills, sees Mulder's name on his caller ID, hesitates ever-so-briefly and picks up. Over the next 20 minutes, they reconnect. There is no mention of the unreturned calls. "We talked about everything but baseball," Mulder says. "Just catching up, really."
"It was cool," Zito says. "The Cardinals had just finished playing in San Diego, and a buddy of Mulder's flew him from Diego to Pasadena in a helicopter, up the coast the whole way. I told him, 'Dude, it doesn't get any more big league that that.' He sounds happy."
For now, they all are. Hudson is healthy, he's 1-0 with a 1.89 in three starts since coming off the DL, and the Braves are coming off a sweep of the Nats that has vaulted them into first place. Mulder's Cardinals are running away with the NL Central, and now that he's eliminated the bad mechanical habits that haunted him early, he's 3-0 with a 1.26 ERA in his past four starts. Zito's A's are the talk of baseball, and he's 6-0 with a 1.67 ERA in his past six starts; two days later he won his seventh in a row.
Zito: Congrats on clinch. C U in October?
Mulder: Can't wait.
One down, two to go. Since the Cards wrapped up their division first, Zito sends his love. The Braves are nearly in, and although the A's are iffy, they're still neck and neck with the Angels. "It's kinda funny the way everything's worked out," says Hudson, who's rediscovered his lethal splitter in the second half. "We all went through our different problems at about the same time, and now we're all back to normal at the same time. Wouldn't it be somethin' if we played the Cardinals in the NLCS, and the winner played the A's in the World Series?"
Mulder is just hoping for a chance to erase memories of April 29, when he and Hudson combined to give up 10 earned runs in 13 innings (though Mulder got the win). Even worse, when facing each other, they went a combined 0-for-5 and looked nothing like the stud college hitters they were.
Mulder wants Zito, too. "Can you imagine?" he says. "What a great story that'd be. I'd like to face him in St. Louis so I can hit. I'd go up there thinking curveball the whole time, and just rake. And then he'd probably throw three 88s right past me."
Zito laughs at the thought. "Don't forget, I'm 1-for-my-last-4. But honestly, if Mulder's got that sinker working, I wouldn't want to face him."
Hudson and Mulder don't want to discuss the possibility that the A's could miss the cut. Zito will, though. After saying he'd rather the A's draw the Braves in the Series, strictly based on matchups, he promises to break form if he's left out.
"I've never watched a whole playoff game on TV since I made it to the big leagues," he says. "But if Huddy and Mulder are in and I'm not, I guarantee I'd never miss one of their starts. And if they face each other, I'd want them each to go nine shutout and have the bullpens decide it."
Sender unknown: Sweet freshie, bro. Wear it.
*FYI: The top picture is separated into two pieces.