It's the top of the first, the sun is shining on Anaheim
Stadium, and Wonder Dog is baying from the home dugout like a
Mississippi hound with a treed raccoon. Rex (Wonder Dog) Hudler,
the California Angels leftfielder, has watched the Kansas City
Royals' leadoff man, Bip Roberts, hit a lazy roller to the
pitcher and chug just as lazily to first for an out.
"Hey, Tim!" Hudler yells at Royals third base coach Tim Foli.
"At least tell your guys to run out balls. It's players like
that who got us into the bind we're in now."
Foli turns to Hudler and nods in agreement.
"Tim, tell your guys to give 110 percent," Hudler continues in a
freewheeling staccato. "Better make that 100 percent. Who can
give more than they have?"
Perhaps only Hudler, the 35-year-old utilityman who is known as
the game's greatest gamer. This season Hudler has been playing
everything from leftfield to second base and often bats leadoff
for the Angels. As of July 25 he was hitting a surprising .333
with 13 home runs. Hudler is a humble, hearty fellow with a .268
career batting average and an irrepressible enthusiasm for
almost anything that embodies Samuel Beckett's ethic: Fail
better. "Through failure," Hudler says, "you learn about
During Hudler's 19-year pro career--including 11 seasons in the
minors--he has failed at every position except pitcher and
catcher. He has failed aggressively. Exuberantly. "Most guys run
on adrenaline," says Snow. "Rex runs on turbo-adrenaline." The
player Whitey Herzog once called the "fastest white man in
baseball" has slid, dived and crashed into the hearts of Angels
fans. "Be a fountain," Hudler advises, "not a drain."
Says California pitcher Mark Langston, "The Angels have a
relaxed, laid-back tradition. And Hud is so far from that. We
feed off his energy."
Langston is a high priest in the Cult of Hud. He recites Hudler
stories with affection. "There's something mythic about Hud,"
says Langston, a friend of Hudler's since their year together on
the Montreal Expos in 1989. In '91, when Hudler was with the St.
Louis Cardinals, Langston formed the Hud Fan Club in the Angels
clubhouse. "We wore HEADFIRST HUDLER T-shirts and followed his
stats," Langston says. "I'd be lying in my hotel bed and the
phone would ring, and it would be ones of the guys yelling, 'Did
you see what Hud did on SportsCenter tonight? The guy is unreal.'"
No more unreal than the handstand push-ups Hudler
does--naked--after big victories. Or the way he used to spit at
a drawing of a sneering Pete Rose "out of respect." Or the $600
bet he won in 1992 from teammates by eating a June bug that had
landed on the bill of his cap. "It was an outstanding bug,"
Hudler says. "It had purple on its belly and wings, and it
tasted like burnt bacon."
Baseball fans in Japan have known Hudler since 1993, the year he
played for the Yakult Swallows. Though Hudler hit .300 with 14
homers and 64 RBIs for the eventual Japanese League champs, his
contract was bought out by Yakult after the season. "Our manager
thought Hud was undisciplined," says Angels third baseman Jack
Howell, who played with Hudler in Japan.
Was that the only reason he was sent packing? "No," Hudler says,
"it was the worm, too."
A year after consuming that June bug, with the taste still fresh
on his tongue, Hudler stunned his Japanese teammates by downing
a worm. "I leaned my head back, and Jack dropped it in my
mouth," Hudler says, grinning broadly. "Then I began to chew."
The next day a Tokyo newspaper ran a picture of him under the
headline CRAZY AMERICAN EATS WORM. "That worm turned on me for
the good," Hudler says. "Most players who leave for Japan never
play in the majors again. I got to come back. I never forget how
lucky I am. Which probably explains why people tell me I run to
first base like I haven't eaten for a week and there's food
waiting for me at the bag."
Hudler wasn't born hungry. He grew up in working-class Fresno,
Calif., the middle child of a nurse, Ann, and an insurance
agent, Marlyn. "Other kids ridiculed me for my freckles," Hudler
says. "But Mom always told me they were angel kisses, and that I
was a special person."
Special enough to be named an All-America wide receiver as a
senior at Bullard High. For his performance Hudler received more
than 25 college scholarship offers.
Notre Dame was his first choice. The Fighting Irish were
national champions, and their quarterback was Joe Montana.
Hudler signed a letter of intent. "Just for fun," he says, "I
decided to play baseball my final semester at Bullard." He
played so well, scouts took notice. The day of baseball's 1978
amateur draft, Hudler came home from school and asked his
mother, "Did any club call?"
"Yeah," she said. "The damn Yankees."
"What did you tell them?" he asked.
"That they wasted their first-round pick. You're going to Notre
"Way to go, Mom!" Rex said glumly.
"If they really want you, they'll call back."
A week later they did. When members of the Yankees brass
descended on the Hudler home, Ann told Rex to go out and buy
himself a hot dog. By the time he returned, Mom had negotiated a
$125,000 signing bonus for her son. Rex phoned Notre Dame coach
Dan Devine to tell him the news. "Son, have a great career,"
said Devine. "If this doesn't work out, we'll always take you
So Hudler became a Yankee and spent parts of five years hacking
away in A ball in the Florida State League. Finally, in 1983,
emboldened by a .270 batting average, he dropped off a note to
Yankees owner George Steinbrenner at his hotel in Tampa. It
read, "I've been playing hard and well for you these last five
years and I believe I'm ready for a promotion." That night
during the game Hudler spied his manager, Stump Merrill,
huddling with Steinbrenner in the bleachers.
"My stomach was in knots, churning, churning," Hudler says.
"Later, on the field, I said, 'Hey, Stumpie. Did Mr.
Steinbrenner get my letter?'"
There was the slightest of pauses. "Yeah," said Merrill. "And he
A day later Hudler got promoted to Triple A.
"I never worried about Rex," says Steinbrenner. "What he lacked
in talent, he gave you in heart and desire."
Over the next few years Hudler had enough cups of coffee in the
major leagues to open his own espresso bar. Plans to groom him
as a replacement for aging second baseman Willie Randolph were
scotched in '85 after Hudler's biggest booster, manager Billy
Martin, got fired. This time it was Steinbrenner who sent Hudler
a note: "I've decided to keep Willie, but I still believe you
can be an every-day second baseman. Which is why I'm trading you
to the Baltimore Orioles and my favorite manager, Earl Weaver.
You exemplify what it means to wear the pinstripes."
Weaver may have liked Hudler, but he rarely played him. In 14
games with the Orioles he batted just once. Then it was back to
the minors for a couple of seasons before he signed as a free
agent with the Montreal Expos in 1988. His next big league
manager, Buck Rodgers, didn't exactly have use for him either.
"You're not a player," Rodgers told Hudler early in the season.
"You're not even a big league utility player."
"Let me go down to Triple A," Hudler said. "I'll play every day
and see you in a couple of months."
A couple of months was all Hudler needed. When he returned to
the majors, he stole 19 straight bases and helped jump-start the
Expos' pennant drive. Hudler has been in the big leagues ever
since. "I wouldn't trade those 10 years in the minors for 10
years in the majors," Hudler says. "I was able to find myself
and develop my character. I had to learn how to play the game
down there. By now I have a pretty good idea."
It's no surprise that Hudler's role model is Cal Ripken Jr., who
was drafted one round after him in '78. As fate would have it,
Hudler played a part in Ripken's record 2,131th consecutive game
last Sept. 6. With two outs and the bases loaded in the bottom
of the fifth and Ripken batting, Hudler whispered to himself at
second base, "Please hit it to me, please, please." Sure enough,
on the first pitch, Ripken lined a soft flare to right center.
"I thought, This is your chance, Hud!" says Hudler. "If I have
to die running down this ball, I will."
He made an over-the-shoulder catch on the dead run. "I couldn't
believe it," says Hudler. "It was like I'd caught a diamond
somebody threw up for grabs." He shook the ball and ran whooping
back to the Angels dugout. "That ball is my greatest baseball
treasure," he says. "There's not another one like it."
Especially since his two-year-old daughter, Alyssa, scribbled
all over it with a pen.
Hudler's contract expires in October. "I hope to end my career
in Japan," he says. He says that he prefers the Japanese game,
with its unspoken standards of dignity and honor, its reliance
on group discipline and mutual support. "On the other hand," he
says, "I might take Notre Dame up on that football scholarship
after all." He cracks a smile, a big, beguiling, bug-eating
smile. "With Wonder Dog, you never know."
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY V.J. LOVERO Hudler may be 35 years old, but he plays with the enthusiasm of a teenager. [Rex Hudler]
TWO COLOR PHOTOS: PHOTOGRAPHS BY V.J. LOVERO Hudler has always talked a terrific game; with a .333 average this season, his bat is talking too. [Rex Hudler; Rex Hudler batting]