SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. – The pitcher they sometimes call crafty and inventive is at the moment crafting an inventive way to get a sock on his foot. A week into spring training his arms apparently have shrunk a few inches. He's gone the foot-on-the-floor-bend-at-the-waist method, the shoulders-rolled-foot-partially-raised standby, and now – victory! – the foot-hoisted-by-force-to-the-opposite-knee technique.
Tim Hudson is a couple hours from throwing to hitters for the first time since late July, when he'd broken his ankle at first base and had been carted away, which is no way to leave a baseball field or, especially, a very presentable baseball career. So he is here, with the San Francisco Giants, wedged into a corner of the clubhouse between Tim Lincecum and Matt Cain, pulling on one black sock and then the other, at 38 years old.
His ERA was 3.97 in 21 starts before Eric Young Jr.'s foot separated him from the rest of the season, and 2.73 in the eight weeks leading to that season-ending pileup. A long way from his home in Alabama, the Giants guaranteed him two years and $23 million, which he accepted after a short family meeting and hardly any hesitation.
"Obviously," he says, "I didn't want that to be the end for me. I hoped it wasn't going to be my last time on a baseball field."
We love our veteran pitchers, "veteran" being somewhat polite for "You're still playing?" We like them smart and savvy, held together with pine tar and heat balm, because they pitch and sometimes it seems magical. Good arms come and go, and the healthy and lucky and genetically predisposed and Dr. James Andrews-enhanced arms like Hudson's throw seven more six-hit, two-run innings. Hudson has been around long enough and pitched for enough good teams to win 205 games, more than any active pitcher but CC Sabathia, who also has 205 wins. (Sabathia is five years younger.) Don't worry, Hudson hasn't been around so long that he believes wins are an appropriate reflection of a pitcher's effectiveness. (He's an ERA guy, or WHIP. The rest? "You need a damn math degree to figure 'em out," he said with some admiration.) But neither has he forgotten those many nights when a team win was all that was left, and the ball was still in his hand, and he was gonna get through one more inning if he had to finish it with his left arm. He's right-handed.
Hudson, in an eye-blink, has become one of those veteran guys, too. A little weary around the eyes. His head shaved clean, beating it to the inevitable. Scars in curious places. And yet still those simple and elegant mechanics, the crisp arm stroke, the late-action sinker, other stuff that buys him an inch of veer here, another inch of evasion there, enough to move on to the next pitch.
"It's an amazing game," he says, honestly awed by it. In love with it. "Bottom line, the hitters'll let you know who's throwing the beach balls.
"It all boils down to, ‘Can I get this guy out at the plate? When he swings the bat, does he make solid contact?'"
Generally, we all find out together – the pitcher, the hitter, the guy who called the pitch, and everyone watching.
Hudson's good with that. He's won those tiny little moments far more often than he's lost them, going back 15 years. It's why he's back for a 16th season, his ankle feeling just fine, his arm certainly rested, his mind gaining on the notion that, yes, it's starting again and, yes, that sock is going to have to go on that foot.
He'll run through this contract, and sort it out then. There's a fine line between mis-hits and beach balls, and nobody stays off the bat barrel forever, but this feels right. He's not so – let's say – mature that he doesn't remember the incredible confidence of his youth, but his body has held up with some help, there's always plenty of pine tar and heat balm around, and the game hasn't lost him quite yet.
Besides, he was good last year. His ERA was right around the National League average for starters. He wins, generally. He knows exactly who he is, as a pitcher, as a teammate, as a guy in the next locker. That's a skill, too, and it often forms after that incredible confidence of youth wears away. So when Tim Lincecum introduces himself and eventually gets to the question everyone asks – "How have you stayed in that game that long?" – Hudson has an answer. When Lincecum asks what he does when things go awry – "And I've been more awry than not over the last couple years," Lincecum admitted – Hudson has an answer.
"Now," Lincecum announced in summary, "I'm looking for crappy contact." So there you go.
Young in the rest of the world but fairly ancient in here, Hudson seems to have it figured out. Mid-day Friday, he looked capable and comfortable on the mound again, and he threw strikes, and his ankle did not bother him, and his socks looked fine. He's here to pitch, here to help. Maybe, he said, he's slightly behind where he usually is this time of year from a physical standpoint. He smiled.
"But, you know," he said, "I've never been this old before either."