Barry Zito vs. Tim Hudson. Mark Mulder watching from a suite.
The worst venue in Major League Baseball packed with A’s and Giants fans. Players cheering an opponent – which would be heresy under normal circumstances – and two former A’s teammates summoned for a disappointingly early curtain call.
Imagine any of that happening last season? Five years ago? A decade ago?
Probably not. But the A’s and Giants played this one right. Saturday’s home run marathon wasn’t a symposium on curing cancer, solving the Eastern European immigration crisis, fixing potholes or easing congestion on the Bay Area’s gridlocked freeways. For one final day, perhaps, two franchises that will miss out on the postseason (A’s already eliminated) watched one Giants youngster imitate slugger Barry Bonds and celebrated two of the area’s more compelling and enduring sports figures.
So tears and cheers to that. The Giants’ 14-10 victory started out as a trek down memory lane, as a chance to celebrate the “Big Three” and a blissful era of East Bay baseball. So there they were. Sometime teammates, occasional opponents, lifelong friends. Mulder, Zito, Hudson, sharing the premises for the first time since 2004.
“It didn’t turn out exactly how I drew it up,” said Hudson, “but it was a good day. There was a lot of emotions going on. I’m honored to be here and do what I did.”
Hudson and Zito, in fact, were gone long before recent Giants call-up Jarrett Parker belted three home runs. Zito, in his first major-league start in two years, was pulled after getting knocked around for six hits and four runs in two innings. The Giants veteran known as “Huddy” was almost as ineffective; after throwing a scoreless first, he walked Stephen Vogt and hit Billy Butler, hinting at what proved to be a long, eventful afternoon.
Their early exits notwithstanding, both players received standing ovations when they walked off the mound, and later, when summoned between innings for a curtain call. Hudson went first. He walked to the top step of the dugout and waved, tapped his chest, then looked toward the A’s dugout and saluted his former organization. Moments later Zito came back out and acknowledged the crowd, allowing a soft smile and a familiar wave of his cap.
“In this game, you have some really hard decisions,” Giants manager Bruce Bochy noted afterward, “and that (pulling Hudson) was one for me. He was just so out of sync. I didn’t know if his hip was bothering him. That was the last thing I wanted to do in that situation because this was his day. But I just felt like he needed help.”
Old age can be a real pain. But back in the day, before the Giants began winning the World Series and Billy Beane had assembled and then decimated an A’s contender that included Miguel Tejada, Jermaine Dye and Eric Chavez, Mulder, Zito and Hudson formed the most promising young threesome since the Atlanta Braves’ Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and John Smoltz in the 1990s.
From 2000-2003, the dynamic, if light-hitting A’s never skipped a postseason. During their time together in Oakland, the Big Three combined for one Cy Young award (Zito) and seven All-Star appearances, with each starter establishing his own unique, indelible identity.
Mulder, a 6-foot-6 left-hander, was a superb athlete and the hardest thrower of the bunch. He arrived in Oakland with an impressive pedigree – Michigan State All-American, A’s first-round draft choice in 1989, overpowering and expansive repertoire, clean-cut looks – only to retire prematurely because of injuries.
Zito, another lefty who stood 6-4 and was the ninth overall pick a year later, charmed the River Cats crowds for 13 games before joining Mulder and Hudson in the big leagues. By then, he already had developed something of a cult following with his free-flowing dark hair and frequent musings about playing his guitar, saving the environment and feeling at peace on his surfboard.
Eccentric, to be sure. Opponents couldn’t figure him out, either. Particularly in those early years, before he signed with the Giants and morphed from Bay Area pariah to an important contributor for the 2012 World Series champions. Long and athletic, he threw one of the nastiest curves in the business, a 12-6 looper that routinely froze hitters or enticed them to swing early. In his best season, he went 23-5 with a 2.75 ERA and was named the 2002 Cy Young winner.
Hudson, who was selected in the sixth round of the June 1997 free-agent draft, enjoyed the greatest longevity of the bunch and a spin with his home state Braves. And then, as now, there is nothing imposing about him. He is a right-hander who stands 6-1 and weighs all of 174 pounds after a two-burger lunch. With his slight frame and bald head, he resembles a professor –coincidentally, the nickname of his boyhood idol Greg Maddux. His 17 seasons is a textbook of attacking the corners, mixing pitches and inducing grounders with a sinking, deceptive fastball.
At 40, Hudson, the oldest of the three, has endured his share of injuries as well. He underwent Tommy John elbow surgery and recovered from an ankle injury that jeopardized his career two years ago in Atlanta. Instead, he rehabbed the ankle, spurned the Braves, rebuffed the A’s and signed with the Giants. It was something about the ballpark, about competing for a World Series, about ending with a flourish.
While Hudson is still hopeful of getting another start, there is no guarantee. Bochy was noncommittal after Saturday’s abbreviated effort. But if Saturday indeed was the finale, Hudson, like Zito in 2012, can head home with a 2014 World Series ring in his possession, knowing he finished what he started.