Huth: Hudson hopes to improve on last year's cup of coffee
In every life, there are days so profoundly significant that they become indelible in the memory.
For Kyle Hudson, one of them certainly was Jan. 27, 2012.
It began with the former University of Illinois All-American agreeing to a minor league contract offer from the Texas Rangers.
It concluded with Shaela Elsasser saying yes to Hudson's marriage proposal.
"It's one of the best things to happen to me in my life," Hudson said.
The 25-year-old Mattoon native was referring to his relationship with Elsasser.
But Hudson hopes to eventually be able to say the same of his professional marriage to the two-time defending American League champions. For much of January, the former fourth-round draft pick found himself in professional baseball's equivalent of limbo.
"It was pretty crazy," Hudson said.
The news first reached Hudson via Twitter. Multiple tweets informed the outfielder he had been designated for assignment.
"Not 30 minutes later," Hudson recalled, "I got a call from the Orioles."
Since reaching the major leagues for the first time last September, the fourth-year pro had remained on Baltimore's 40-man roster. But when the Orioles signed free agent Wei-Yin Chen on Jan. 10, they needed to clear a roster spot for the Taiwanese pitcher. Hudson was their choice.
The decision didn't catch Hudson completely off guard. His agent had warned Hudson that changes in the Orioles' front office, including the hiring of new executive vice president of baseball operations Dan Duquette, could affect his status with the team.
Still, Hudson viewed it as a positive sign when the Orioles picked him to attend Major League Baseball's Rookie Career Development Program. The convention, which is held each January in Washington D.C., serves as a kind of crash course on life in the big leagues for a select few prospects from each organization.
Two days after returning from the convention, Hudson learned he'd been designated for assignment.
"I was pretty surprised because we had talked to some people in the organization and they had thought that my spot would be secure going this late into the process," he said.
In Hudson's case, under MLB rules, Baltimore simply could not return him to one of its minor league teams. Instead, the Orioles had 10 days to either trade or release him. On Jan. 19, it was the latter.
For Hudson, it was an education in the business of baseball. The kind of topic you won't hear at one of those annual rookie career programs in D.C. When the Orioles signed Chen, they undoubtedly formulated a short list of players to drop from the roster. It could have been any of them. It was Hudson.
"In everything nowadays it's a business," he said. "This is not my first experience, but (it is) one of the biggest experiences I've had with it being a business.
"It just motivates me a lot to go out there and better myself each and every day."
With his release, Hudson became a free agent, open to offers from any organization.
Realistically, the best he could expect at that point was a minor league contract. And that was the case. But Hudson, through his agent, indicated to any suitors that he would want an invitation to a major league spring training camp as a non-roster player.
Given Hudson's remarkable 2011 season — he rose through three minor league levels to reach the Orioles — the free agent considered anything less than a trip to big league camp a deal-breaker.
"We felt like my year I had last year, I deserved ... a chance to make the big league team out of spring training," he said.
Of the teams that agreed, Hudson whittled the list to "four or five." Ultimately, it came down to the Rangers and Phillies. On the evening of Jan. 26, Hudson met with family members to weigh the pros and cons of each opportunity. The next day, his agent called Texas to accept.
Having been abruptly spurned by the Orioles, it should come as no surprise that Hudson appreciated the Rangers' proactive approach — particularly a lengthy phone conversation he had with Rangers first base coach and outfield instructor Gary Pettis.
"I want to be somewhere where I'm wanted and feel wanted," Hudson said. "What they were saying to me, it just felt like they really wanted me to be there.
"I've heard nothing but great things about their organization. It felt like the Rangers were the best opportunity for me to further my career."
The Rangers' spring training complex is in Surprise, Ariz., and considering that Texas has eight outfielders on its 40-man roster — including its 2011 World Series starters — it would come as a surprise should Hudson still be with the Rangers when they break camp.
"It's somewhat of a long shot," said Tim Purpura, the team's senior director of player development, "but it's a good opportunity for him to come in and show us what he's capable of doing."
Purpura was general manager of the Astros when Houston reached the World Series in 2005, and his interest in Hudson reflects the emphasis the Astros put on speed, athleticism and defense during his tenure with the team.
"We were always defensively oriented and had a penchant for speed in the outfield," Purpura said. "You can never have too much speed, particularly in center field. And speed is a tough commodity to find."
In Hudson, the Rangers didn't have to look hard to find it. The story is still told about how the speedy Hudson, as a high school sophomore, attracted the attention of the UI baseball staff.
Eric Snider, now the Illini's associate head baseball coach, attended a Mattoon High game to check out one of Hudson's teammates. Green Wave coach Mark Jackley advised Snider to keep an eye on Mattoon's leadoff batter, too.
Standing near the first-base fence, Snider didn't believe his eyes when he put a stopwatch to Hudson. In his first plate appearance, Hudson laid down a bunt and took off. The whole time, Jackley kept his eyes on Snider during and after the play.
"He looked at his stopwatch once; he looked at it a second time; and he looked at it a third time," Jackley said. "It was like something was wrong with his stopwatch and no way could this kid run that fast to first."
The stopwatch read 3.7 seconds. In comparison, the average time for a college or professional player is in the 4.2 to 4.4 range, according to Snider.
Hudson's time was no fluke. The next time the left-handed batter came to the plate that day, he hit a grounder to shortstop. Snider's stopwatch stopped at 3.78 seconds.
"After the game, Coach Snider didn't want to talk about the kid he came to see," Jackley said.
A two-sport athlete at the UI, Hudson continued to flash that speed on the collegiate gridiron as a wide receiver/returner as well as on the diamond. By the time he signed with the Orioles following his junior season, Hudson had set or tied Illini baseball records for single-season steals, Big Ten career steals and Big Ten single-season steals. Despite playing just three seasons, he also left as the Illini's No. 2 in career stolen bases.
It's been more of the same in the pros, Hudson stealing between 34 and 41 bases in each of his three full minor league seasons.
Such speed made the 5-foot-11, 175-pound Hudson attractive to the Rangers for defensive reasons, too. Purpura indicated that the Texas front office regards starting center fielder Josh Hamilton as a better fit in left field. Hudson, he says, fits the profile the Rangers are looking for to patrol the middle of the outfield.
"We're looking at a number of options for us in center field," Purpura said. "When you've got a guy that has the speed that Kyle has and the athleticism, you take a look at that guy as a potential option in center field."
Hudson's destination to open the 2012 season isn't the only thing currently up in the air in his life. Kyle and Shaela know they'll be married next offseason but they've yet to set a date.
"November or December," he said.
They met at the UI when he was a junior and she a freshman. Like one of Hudson's former Mattoon High classmates, Elsasser was a UI cheerleader.
They first became acquainted when she joined a group of friends that visited Hudson's apartment to hang out with his roommate. By that winter, Kyle and Shaela were dating.
"We've been together ever since," he said.
That is, as together as his baseball career will allow, which isn't much during the season.
"It's been tough just doing the distance thing," Hudson said. "We go sometimes months at a time not seeing each other when I'm in season."
It helps that Elsasser's current job gives her free time for a few months in the summer, allowing for occasional in-season visits. She's a fourth-grade teacher at Banner Elementary School in Dunlap, near Peoria.
"Her and her family have been so supportive of what I do, and she's always been there for me," Hudson said. "When I get upset or I get mad, she's always there to calm me down. So she's my better half."
And they already have a good story to tell about the night Kyle popped the question. Since he was living at an apartment complex in Savoy when they met, Hudson thought it would be romantic to ask her to marry him near that site. The top of a hill behind the complex seemed like the perfect spot. Problem was, it had rained virtually nonstop the day before.
"So we were trekking through mud and water," Hudson recalled.
Since he had scoped out the area during the day, Hudson also was unaware that a nearby Walmart is prominently lit at night. Not exactly the backdrop he'd envisioned for a proposal.
"So as far as it being romantic, that was kind of out of the question at that point — when you (can) see Walmart," Hudson said. "But I told her to block that out."
This is a time of exciting new beginnings for Hudson — on and off the field.
And he is excited, even if his former manager at Class AAA Norfolk might have reason to question whether Hudson ever gets animated about anything.
When the Orioles decided to promote Hudson to the major leagues on Sept. 1, 2011, it was Gary Allenson's welcome assignment to break the news the night before.
Hudson's verbal response? A monotone "All right. Good."
A puzzled Allenson asked Hudson if he already knew. Nope.
"I was excited inside, but I wasn't going to jump around," Hudson said. "I guess he did expect a bigger reaction but — and this might come across as being cocky, but I feel like it's just confidence — I expect to be at the highest level.
"Throughout my athletic career in anything ... I expect to be at the highest level. That's why I work so hard every day at what I do. I want to be at the best level. I want to be playing against the best people."
Here's one clue that Hudson was doing cartwheels in his head after learning of his promotion: He doesn't recall sleeping a wink that night as he waited for a 5 a.m. flight from Norfolk, Va., to Baltimore.
"I maybe laid down for 15 minutes and my eyes never shut, I'm pretty sure about that," he said.
Heading straight to Oriole Park after his flight touched down, Hudson arrived at 7:30 a.m. for a day game and had to talk his way through security to get into the stadium and then into a locked clubhouse. There he sat, in the dark, until one of the clubhouse attendants came in and turned on the lights.
Hudson did not play that day — "Which is probably good because I didn't sleep a minute" — but he didn't have to wait too long to make his major league debut. In the final game of a series at Tampa Bay on Sept. 4, Hudson started in left field and batted eighth.
One day later, at Yankee Stadium in New York, he got his first big league hit — a sharp single to center off reliever Scott Proctor.
By season's end, Hudson had 14 games, 28 at-bats and four hits on his MLB resume. It was a taste that whetted a now-ravenous appetite.
"I had so much fun that last month because we were playing good baseball," he said. "We were winning games. It was fun to be a part of. My teammates made it pretty special for me."
Certainly, Hudson is expecting to be back in the bigs, sooner rather than later. But it also has dawned on him that he now is a card-carrying member of a highly exclusive club. One that so many baseball players aspire to and so few actually reach.
And he always will be.
"I was a big leaguer from there on in," Hudson said, recalling his major league debut. "That's one thing that nobody can ever take away from me."
Staff writer JEFF HUTH lists some noteworthy dates on the 2012 MLB calendar:
Voluntary reporting date for pitchers, catchers and injured players (except Mariners and Athletics, who were allowed to report Feb. 12)
Full squads (in addition to earlier arrivals Mariners and Athletics) may report for spring training
First spring training game between Mariners and Athletics at Phoenix
Opening Day: Mariners vs. Athletics at Tokyo (set your alarm clocks; first pitch is 5:10 a.m. CDT)
Defending world champion Cardinals — minus Pujols and La Russa — open season at new Marlins Park in Miami
The Epstein-Sveum Cubs era officially beings with season opener against visiting Nationals
Interleague play starts; Chicago rivals White Sox and Cubs get to it right away with series at Wrigley Field
Amateur draft opens three-day run
All-Star Game returns to Kansas City for first time since 1973, when legendary Willie Mays made his final appearance
Hall of Fame inducts its latest class, including late Cubs great Ron Santo, at Cooperstown, N.Y.
Astros play final regular season game (against Cubs in Chicago) as member of National League