The loudest voice of the Royals is driving up I-35, and if there is a radar gun ahead, Rex Hudler is going to have a problem. It is 8:42 on a recent morning and he’s running a bit late, but he’d probably be speeding anyway. The Royals broadcaster doesn’t do slow. Never has.
The alarm went off at 6 this morning. His wife, like most humans, likes to lie in bed for a bit. Hit the snooze button. Hudler’s feet hit the floor within seconds. He is like a red-headed 54-year-old windup toy, only you never know what’s about to come out of his mouth, and one pull of the string lasts all day.
He is in the middle of, like, the fourth of a hundred stories in a day that started at 6 and won’t end until around 11 that night, after he broadcasts the 126th of 162 games in what is shaping up to be a historic Royals season.
There was the time he got promoted from Class A by writing George Steinbrenner a letter. The time he took out a teammate with a slide during a spring training B-game at 9 in the morning. The time he bought two engagement rings just to make sure she said yes.
All the times he’s talked to God, the big man always calling him Hud, and the time he got fired by the Angels, then hired by the Royals, and mostly hated by his new city. That was hard. There was also the time he found out his first son had Down syndrome. That was harder.
But at the moment, he is talking about baseball, so he is smiling and taking his sunglasses off to look you in the eye even as he speeds down the highway and steers with his leg.
“The feeling I get coming to the ballpark now is the same as when I played,” Hudler says. “I know who’s pitching that night, and I’m thinking about that (expletive). He’s the guy I’m going to make a living off of. He’s the man who’s going to pay my family, and my future. That’s how serious it is. I’d stand in the batters box, ‘My family against yours, (expletive). Let’s go.’”
By the time the day is over, Hud — even his wife, Jennifer, calls him that — will have laughed and cried and kissed each of his three sons.
He will have talked about experimenting with drugs, of starting six straight seasons with the same minor-league team, and of asking to play one last game before retiring at the age of 37 — a game in which he got hit in the neck with a pitch, then lost the game by whiffing a routine grounder at second base.
For three hours every night, he is the goofball announcer some call Uncle Hud. Every day, Royals fans come up to him and say they never know what’s going to come out of his mouth. And every day, he tells them, “That makes two of us.”
Once, his tongue got tied and he ended up calling a backup Royals outfielder “Paulo Homo.” Another time, he called the moon a planet. He said the Astros use the metric system. He laughs these things off, even when Jennifer playfully calls him an idiot, and (not as playfully) begs him to stay away from big words on the air.
The stories come out in real life the same as they do during his broadcasts: fast, loud, occasionally mangled, often self-deprecating and usually out of nowhere. The difference is they are about a complicated life, not a simple game, and he doesn’t have to watch his language.
But first, he’s got yoga, shirt off in a room the instructor keeps at 105 degrees.
At 7:16 in the morning, the bus pulls up outside Hudler’s home. Cade has been standing in the driveway for a few minutes already, waving a small American flag. Hudler just got back from taking his two younger boys to school, and jokes that Cade is throwing a one-man welcome home parade.
“Love you, daddy,” Cade says.
“Oh, I love you too, bud,” Hudler says.
Cade smiles and runs toward the bus. Hudler calls Cade “my special boy.” He will never forget that phone call. It was a few days after Cade was born, and doctors had already pronounced him totally healthy. But then the blood test results came back. Cade had an extra chromosome. Down syndrome.
Hudler took the news the way he takes everything in his life. With a smile. A stubborn optimism. The rest of the family – Jennifer, their parents, friends – cried. Hudler refused the pain. He smiled. He didn’t know what else to do.
Then Hudler called Tim Burke, an old teammate who raised a child with special needs.
“You need to grieve with Jennifer,” Hudler remembers Burke saying. “You need to grieve the dreams of the typical boy for your first-born son.”
That’s when Hudler wept. This went on for days. He was consumed. The lowest point of his life. Then he met some teammates for an offseason workout. They could tell something was off. He told them the news. One of those teammates was Jim Abbott, who pitched 10 big-league seasons and threw a no-hitter despite being born without a right hand.
“Miracles can happen,” Abbott said, and that’s all Hud needed to hear.
He sped home, slammed open the door, and yelled with joy to Jennifer.
“Honey, guess what?” he remembers saying. “Cade came to the right place. We’re gonna get him where he needs to be. Call the cops!”
Cade will be 18 in November. He is the happiest kid you are likely to meet in a month. Rex and Jennifer started a non-profit to help children with special needs, and their annual event will take place at Kauffman Stadium on Sept. 6.
Sometimes people ask Hudler why he’s happy all the time. Where all of this energy comes from. He tells them about Cade. How could Hud be sad when Cade keeps him so happy? There’s more to it than that. We’ll get to the rest soon.
But watching Hud kiss his son is a good place to start.
At 10:21 in the morning, Hud is dead silent except for rhythmic and deliberate breaths. His shirt is off, sweat pouring from his skin. He is face down, only his pelvis touching the ground, his legs and arms stretching up and out. In yoga, they call this the full locust.
“Feel that bone-to-skin stretch,” the instructor is saying. “You are continually reminding yourself how great you are, even through the pain, even through the suffering.”
Steve Physioc, Hud’s occasional broadcast partner with the Royals and before that with the Angels, introduced him to yoga. But like most things, Hud took it to the extreme, which is why he drives a half-hour to Kansas City Bikram Yoga and this room intentionally kept hot enough to induce a fever.
The only noise is the instructor’s steady voice and the breaths of the other 14 people here. Hud feels lighter when he’s done, and says the pain of 21 years of professional baseball is diminished every time he does this. But there is also a peace he finds here, a peace that he’s needed.
That first year in Kansas City was particularly brutal as Hudler replaced the fired Frank White on the broadcast. That would’ve been difficult anyway. White’s No. 20 is on the Hall of Fame building in left field, and before the first game Hudler broadcast a plane flew over the stadium with a banner asking WHERE’S FRANK?
But Hud is also — and how do we say this? — different. For as long as the Royals have existed, their broadcasts have been defined by the steady and understated Denny Matthews. White’s style was much the same, his focus put into picking out details from a replay rather than raw entertainment.
Into that culture came Hud, with his catchphrases and presentation that more closely resemble former pro wrestler Macho Man Randy Savage (who Hud once asked if he could body-slam, but that’s a different story). It didn’t help that the Royals lost 90 games that year, including all 10 at home in April.
People wrote in saying they were done with the Royals, that they couldn’t stomach Hudler’s broadcasts. It was one thing to fire a franchise icon, they said, but to replace him with this?
“I knew I was going to eat (expletive),” he says now. “The Royals told me that when I took the job.”
At some point, he made the decision to pull back a little bit. Give the fans half a dose of Hud, is the way he puts it, because they weren’t ready for the full dose. After a month or two, someone from the team called him in. Where’s the guy we hired? But it’s hard when a near consensus of the feedback is negative, much of it brutal.
Hudler made a nice living as a player, but even with his pension he needs to work. He has four kids. His in-laws stay in the master bedroom, and require hired care. He needs to work, and he considers his job the second best in the world (being a ballplayer, of course, is No. 1), so it’s head down and refuse to give up.
Hud is a man of faith. He prays every morning with his family over breakfast, and by himself whenever he gets a free moment. He often describes conversations with God in very plain terms.
“I heard Him get on me,” Hudler says. “He said, ‘Get up, Hud, stand up, be the man I sent you to be.’”
So Hudler put a box of his old baseball cards in his car one day, and stood outside Kauffman Stadium, handing them out like a politician.
“Hi,” he told people. “I’m Rex Hudler and I’m your new color commentator.”
Nothing happens overnight. Hud says it wasn’t until midway through last season — his third in Kansas City — that the compliments started to outnumber the criticisms. Look around the ballpark now and you’ll see references to his catchphrases. Fans stand and yell for his autograph along with Eric Hosmer’s.
Aside from Yost and general manager Dayton Moore, there may not be anyone around the team whose image benefitted from the Royals’ turnaround more than Hudler.
“It took some time for me,” says Scott Hadsall, who got Hudler’s autograph before Wednesday’s game. “When the team starts winning, and you grow to love the team, you grow to love everything about the team. Now, I can’t help but love the guy and his enthusiasm.
“It’s like, everything about the team is better. Even with Rex, the same stuff that before you saw as a flaw, well, now it’s his youthful enthusiasm.”
Hudler is thinking about bits of all this as he stretches. They tell you to clear your mind completely during yoga, but that’s impossible for him. So he prays for his family, thinks of reasons to be grateful, ways he can improve, and soaks in the only silent part of his day.
“I feel so energized when I leave here,” he says, walking to his car. “But I’m not kidding. An hour and a half of not talking is hard for me.”
At 11:57, Hud is at the Peach Tree Buffet eating catfish and collard greens. This is his favorite restaurant in town, the place he goes to treat himself. The food is Southern and goes on forever, both of which remind him of growing up with a mother with Texas roots.
Mom was the constant. Hudler’s parents divorced when he was 8. She got remarried to a man she did not love but thought would be a good father to her three boys. She wanted to divorce again when Rex was a junior in high school, but Rex begged her to wait a year. She did. Of course she did. Anything for those boys.
Mom was full of love, but she also was strict. She yelled and got physical in ways that fathers did a generation or two ago. She taught Rex to respect authority, and to take care of himself. She gave him a list of chores and they had to be done right or Rex had to start over.
She worked so hard. Raising those three boys, she still found time to study her way through nursing school. Sometimes, Rex would race home from school and clean the house. He’d hide behind the couch and wait for his mother to get home. Even now, all these years later, tears drip from his eyes as he tells the story and remembers his mom’s reaction.
“I just wanted to see her expression,” he says. “She’d drop her jaw. She’d start crying. As hard as she worked for me and my brothers, I wanted to see the joy in her face.”
Hudler’s two brothers took a different path. Both got swept up by addiction. Drugs. Heavy stuff. Hudler admits to experimenting — “I tasted, I dabbled,” he says — but he never went too far. He wanted to do well by Mom, and later he kicked what he calls an immature and selfish lifestyle to better his baseball career.
Mom gave him so much. Not just the discipline, and not just a standard to meet. She gave him the best advice of his life, too.
“The world is negative,” he remembers her saying. “The only way you’ll survive is to be positive. You have to learn how to get a positive out of a negative. If you don’t, you’ll have a hard time surviving.”
Those words, along with Cade’s spirit, are the fuel for what the baseball world and Royals fans in particular have come to know as Hud. That energy was always in him, but he made a conscious effort to bring it out. He is a natural salesman, and he sells baseball. At some point, a conscious effort becomes habit and a habit becomes who you are.
People sometimes wonder if Hudler is acting. If he’s playing a character. There was some of that in the beginning, sure, but if you are constantly playing the same character it stops being a character and becomes your personality. This is how Rex Hudler came to be Hud.
“You’re right on,” Hud says. “One hundred percent.”
At 1:34 p.m., Hud is sitting by the pool in his backyard and he is in full Hud mode. He is making fun of his baseball career, and the jokes work, because Hud has always been comfortable laughing at himself.
He says that instead of the collection of old jerseys he has inside his house, he should’ve kept a collection of splinters from every bench he rode in the big leagues. And speaking of benches, did you know the one in Montreal was the best for farting? Something about the acoustics there. And speaking of farting, do you have any idea how many times he crop-dusted his teammates? Too many to count.
This goes on for a few more minutes, until, well, maybe he’s run out of one-liners because here comes something you weren’t expecting.
“Every day I get to go to the ballpark and talk about the best team in baseball,” he says before ripping off his T-shirt and doing a half belly-flop into the pool.
This is all a bit of a show, of course. The jokes about his career cover up a few important points about him, too. The first is that he worked hard for that career, no matter how many times he lets it be defined by eating a june bug on the bench (which he did for $800 cash).
Hudler spent a full decade in the minors before becoming a regular big-leaguer. He was a high school football star, signing with the Yankees over Notre Dame, and after his third or fourth stalled season in the minor leagues the coach at Fresno State — Hud’s hometown school — offered him a scholarship to play wide receiver. Hud kept on in baseball, though, never believing his story would end anywhere but the big leagues.
He played in eight organizations and spent a year in Japan before getting the 10 years of service time required for a big-league pension. That was always a big goal of his. Money is important, obviously, but so too is validation.
When he’s pushed too far in the baseball world, he talks about how hard he played, adding: and not much has changed. Ozzie Smith learned his name after Hudler slammed into him at second base. Cal Ripken signed a picture for him once, writing, “All these years I thought you were the real ‘Iron Man.’”
The second important point covered up by all the jokes is that Hud’s story is woven together in a way that can’t be undone. He made the most money of his career during his last two seasons in the majors. That was on a deal with the Phillies, playing in Terry Francona’s first two years as a big-league manager. The Phillies had a bunch of rookies on that team. Francona knew about Hudler’s fire and heard about his positivity and thought it could be a good example for his younger players.
So Hudler made more money than ever before, and finally qualified for a pension that will last as long as he or Jennifer live, mostly because of his energy. In other words, Hud would not have this house or the pool behind it without being Hud.
“I’m a professional people person,” he says. “I’m in the love business.”
At 9:44 p.m., Hud is in the broadcast booth on the fourth floor at Kauffman Stadium. He’s finally comfortable here. Finally feels the love coming back. As he puts it, Royals fans always waved to him. But now they use all their fingers, instead of just the middle one.
This is his booth now, more than it ever has been before. Ryan Lefebvre, his broadcast partner, is learning how to better set him up, and the pair’s chemistry is improving. Hud is still too much at times — the other day, they had to reshoot the opening to the Royals broadcast because he was about five levels too Hud — but he is learning to pick his spots. You can hear both sides after Mike Moustakas hits a home run in the eighth inning.
“That’s a Moose souvenir for sure!” he says. “That ball was tattered and battered! A fastball up in the zone. Moose is taking his hands back, doing very little with his body. I love the fact he’s so quiet with his lower body. He’s letting his hands do the work, and that’s why Moose is coming back.”
In front of Hud sits a bottle of water, a cup of coffee, notes, his scorecard, and two TV monitors. A baseball is almost constantly bouncing around his right hand. Hud calls this his pacifier, a way to let the extra energy drip out. He used to bounce it on the table but stopped after learning it could be heard two booths down.
Behind Hudler’s right shoulder is a wall signed by guests on the broadcast. Much of it is the good-natured insults of male friendship. I need a vacation from Rex! writes Ripken. Rex you are #2 in my heart, everybody else is #1, kiss my ass! writes Bert Blyleven.
Hud loves it, of course. All of it. This is his life, and the language of his people. The Royals will lose this game, 8-5. It’s their first loss in five games and they will come back the next day to win. Hud has always been at his best when focusing on the positives.
At 9:58 p.m., the last out is made and Hud packs up and walks out of the booth. He takes one flight of stairs down, then walks out to the parking lot to beat as much of the postgame traffic as he can.
It was a good broadcast, he thinks. One more step of progress. One more chance to get better. One more day of, hopefully, winning over a few more fans.
The broadcast two days earlier was his best of the year, according to Hudler. It was a quick game, and the points he and Lefebvre made played out like fortune-telling. They said the outfield was playing Omar Infante too far in, and Infante hit a triple to the wall. Next time up, they said the right fielder was still too far in and Infante hit a triple that way.
This was good. Lefebvre set him up well, and Hudler did not step on Lefebvre’s calls. Perhaps most importantly, Hudler did not screw up. His wife will not call him an idiot.
But tomorrow is another day.