Braves in Hudson's blood

Updated: February 22, 2005, 12:34 PM ET
By Jayson Stark | ESPN.com

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- Maybe this is how it was always supposed to work out.

Maybe Tim Hudson was always supposed to end up as an Atlanta Brave.

Tim Hudson
Hudson's .702 career winning percentage is third in history among pitchers with 100 decisions.

No one knew it at the time, of course. Not him. Not the Oakland A's, who were lucky enough to have him around for six spectacular seasons. Not even the Braves themselves, a team that hasn't exactly had to spend many of Hudson's post-pubescent years scouring the continent in desperate search of any more aces.

But maybe there's just some fateful rhythm in the cosmos that was always pushing them all in this almost spooky direction.

"It's almost," Hudson says now, two months after the trade that sent him from Oakland to Atlanta, "like things happen for a reason."

Could be. So let's go searching for the reason.

It wasn't even so much that Tim Hudson grew up a Braves fan in Alabama. Idolizing the Maddux-Glavine-Smoltz holy trinity. Screaming, if he recalls this right, like "a psycho" and "a dork" -- even waking up his mother -- the night Francisco Cabrera got That Hit to send the Braves to the World Series in October 1992.

But then the spinning of the baseball earth led Hudson to Oakland, where he would be destined to live out an even cooler plot twist -- being compared by half the population to the men he'd once called heroes.

Just two seasons into his big-league career, he would find himself part of America's second-most famous rotation: Hudson-Mulder-Zito.

The names still roll off your tongue as naturally as beads of water roll off your head in the shower: Hudson-Mulder-Zito.

We spit out those names, all together, as automatically as we still utter three other magical pitching names that have left their imprint all over this sport: Maddux-Glavine-Smoltz.

Greg Maddux. Tom Glavine. John Smoltz. They set the gold standard for all rotations around the globe. Except that no one ever approached that standard -- until the arrival of Tim Hudson, Mark Mulder and Barry Zito in a place far, far away.

For that three-headed A's monster, it was the ultimate compliment -- being compared to The Best Rotation of Their Generation. But for Tim Hudson, it was more than just flattery. It was Nirvana.

"I know I realized what kind of compliment that was," Hudson said. "I don't know if they [Mulder and Zito] realized it. But I knew, just because I was exposed to it firsthand, watching it. I was flattered that anybody thought we could be as good as those guys."

But they were so good, in fact, that the star power of Hudson, Mulder and Zito even registered on the radar screen in Atlanta, where Glavine and Smoltz, in particular, were almost feeling humbled by what they were witnessing on that other coast.

"They were ahead of us, to be honest," Smoltz said. "They won a lot earlier. They were more polished. And unlike us, they had a very good team right away. Just look at their career records. Their first 100 decisions were a lot better than ours."

Deadline approaches
March 1 arrives any day now. And it's one of the biggest days on the Atlanta Braves' spring-training calendar -- because it's the date when Tim Hudson has told them he plans to cut off negotiations on a new contract if he isn't signed to an extension.

Hudson would be the hottest free-agent pitcher on the market next winter if he doesn't sign. But his agent, Paul Cohen, has been talking with the Braves. And Hudson describes those discussions as "positive."

"I know March 1 is approaching pretty quick," Hudson said. "And there's still a gap. But I'm pretty optimistic right now."

However, Hudson says that date is not flexible. There will either be a deal -- or a trip to free agency.

"On March 1, we're going to know one way or another whether it got done," he said. "So we'll all know pretty soon."

OK, let's look.

Smoltz's first 100: 52-48.

Glavine: 51-49.

Hudson: 71-29.

Mulder: 65-35.

Zito: 65-35.

Whew.

Oh, you can make a case there was a huge difference in supporting casts when those two groups arrived in the big leagues. But you could also argue that that Oakland threesome elevated everyone else around it almost immediately.

Smoltz and Glavine, on the other hand, didn't begin laying the foundation for Atlanta's greatness until Steve Avery, and then Maddux, joined them in the early 1990s.

"They just looked so polished, right from the get-go," Smoltz said of Hudson-Mulder-Zito. "That's a credit to them."

But even Hudson isn't so sure he and his pals are worthy enough to be in this conversation. Good as those records above might look, Hudson, Mulder and Zito really had only two dominating years all together -- 2001 and 2002, when the three of them were nearly 70 games over .500 all by themselves, going a combined 113-46.

"We were at our best in 2002, the year Zito won the Cy Young," Hudson said. "All three of us had good years that year (23-5, 2.75 for Zito; 19-7, 3.49 for Mulder; 15-9, 2.98 for Hudson). That was a year you could compare to Maddux, Glavine and Smoltz.

"But the other years, it seemed like two of us would have solid years, but there seemed to be always one guy who had a down year, for one reason or another. While these guys here [in Atlanta] -- I mean they hardly ever had a bad year. And that's ridiculous. That just doesn't happen.

"So I think a lot of people were quick to jump on that [comparison]. But I knew how good those guys [in Atlanta] really were. I said, 'I think we're pretty good. But I don't know if we're that good.' "

But were they? Unfortunately, we'll never know now. Will we?

What the record will show, in the end, is that, in the 10 years Maddux, Glavine and Smoltz pitched together (1993-2002), they won a combined 453 games. In the five years Hudson, Mulder and Zito were teammates, they won 234 games.

So maybe that Oakland crew was on a path to duplicate the greatness that unfolded in Atlanta. But that group wasn't given the opportunity to keep traveling down that path. Which is why it's no surprise that not everyone in the home of the Braves is so willing to reserve Hudson, Mulder and Zito a space in the penthouse of modern rotations.

"I don't think there is a comparison, if you want to know the truth," Braves pitching coach Leo Mazzone said. "How many years were they together out there? About five? You're talking 10 years here. So there is no comparison. When someone else does it for 10 years, get back to me."

But whose fault is it that those guys in Oakland didn't get to spend a decade feeding off each other? Not theirs. That's for sure.

"If the economics of the game would have allowed it, we would have had a chance to do something very special," Hudson said. "Now, who knows? Three or four years down the road, people may forget we even pitched together. And that's sad."

Sad? Heck, it's borderline tragic. But it's life in the real world of modern baseball, a world that will leave us reflecting on the what-ifs for the next 1,000 years.

"We'll always wonder," Hudson philosophizes, "about what would have happened if we'd stayed together 10 years, if we'd played our whole career together. It's kind of sad to think about it. ... But what can you do? It's the nature of the business."

Hudson and Estrada
Hudson gets to know his new batterymate, Johnny Estrada.

Then again, that business could have propelled Hudson in all sorts of different directions. Yet somehow, amazingly, it propelled him in this direction.

To this team, the one that shaped his early baseball passions.

To this team, home of the rotation he'd spent most of his professional career being measured against.

To this team, which had suddenly found itself aceless last year -- and spent the winter trying to reshape itself back into the pitching-first image of the great Braves teams of yesteryear.

Do you believe in symmetry? Hudson does now -- especially when he looks up and sees his idol, Smoltz, standing at a locker 15 feet away from his.

"This is a very unique situation," Hudson said, "one that almost nobody ever gets to do. I mean, think about it. How many kids are big fans of one team, and then actually get to play for that team? It very rarely happens."

The only tough part is that, in Hudson's rear-view mirror, he sees the only team he'd ever played for. A team he went 92-39 for (the third-highest winning percentage in history among pitchers with that many decisions). A team he never wanted to leave. A team he wishes he'd had a chance to say goodbye to.

"When I walked out of there last [October], it never entered my mind that I wouldn't be back," he said. "And it's kind of sad that it didn't. If I'd known I was going to get traded, or that it would be my last time there, at least I'd have taken a little one-on-one time with my teammates, give them a 'Hey, hope I'm here next year -- but I might not be. So just in case, I want you guys to know you were great teammates.' That kind of thing. But I never got to do that, to say goodbye. And that feels really kind of weird."

In keeping with this perfect script, though, those Oakland A's will be making a road trip June 10-12 to (where else?) Atlanta. And guess the first non-NL East team to visit Turner Field this season, in the last weekend of April? Had to be Mulder's St. Louis Cardinals. Of course.

"It's all too perfect," Hudson laughs. "It's like a movie. There could be a movie one day. There's already a book [a best-seller, in fact, about that team in Oakland]. So why not a movie?"

Sure. Why not? Especially if the last scene features the guy who apparently was destined all his life to pitch for the Braves. And then arrives after they'd won 13 straight division titles. And, finally, winds up as the fellow who gets to pitch them into a rendezvous with ticker tape.

Could happen. And it wouldn't get much more cinematic than that.

"Yeah, that would be cool," Tim Hudson said. "But I'm not thinking about that. I just hope their streak [of division titles] doesn't end this year -- or else they might run me out of town."

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

Jayson Stark | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com