Venture with me below the fold, as I honor my friend the only way I really know how.
Baseball great Rogers Hornsby once said:
"People ask me what I do in winter when there's no baseball. I'll tell you what I do: I stare out the window and wait for spring."For the last decade, that's been true of me, too. At least it's been true figuratively. March is normally a happy time of year. I prepare my fantasy baseball team, follow spring training results, and acquaint myself with whatever team Orlando Hudson is playing for that year. Over his career, there have been a number of clubs - Blue Jays, Diamondbacks, Dodgers, Twins, Padres, and White Sox, in that order. I always try to keep a ball cap with the insignia of whatever city he calls home. And I'd tell friends that though I've often tried, I just can't pull for any team that wasn't Orlando's. Call me loyal, I guess.
Lately he's been stretching my cap budget. After an extended stay as the second baseman of the Diamondbacks, he's played for those last four clubs over a period of four years. That's because Orlando's now in his mid-thirties, and second basemen just don't seem to last all that long. And now, this spring training, he's unsigned - technically a free agent with some possibilities on the table - and his career as I knew it is probably over.
He once drew fire for suggesting that Major League owners were colluding to keep veteran black players off of rosters, a claim that I view as only partially true. I do think modern statistics have produced a bias - though not malicious - against older players, who tend to be more expensive than their cost-controlled, and younger, counterparts. And he ruffled some feathers in San Diego for speaking up on social media in defense of his teammates.
All of that goes into the cache of how Orlando Hudson will be remembered. But it's really just a side dish for me. I will remember Orlando Hudson as an inspiration on many different levels. And that's a reputation that's well-earned.
When you come into our town, you'll see two green signs. One says, "Welcome to Darlington." The other says, "Hometown of Orlando Hudson." There's plenty of reason to be proud of what he's done on the field. In high school, he led the St. John's Blue Devils to a state championship on the diamond. He also quarterbacked the football team, and he played shooting guard in basketball. In the pros, he worked his way into a two-time all-star and a four-time Gold Glove winner. For a period of two to three years, he was arguably the best defensive player in baseball. He played hard, and demanded that he see the field everyday. "I don't take off days," he used to tell me. He made the playoffs twice, hitting two home runs. His last post-season home run came against the Yankees when he played in Minnesota. It tied a game that they eventually lost.
For almost a decade, a framed newspaper clipping has hung on every wall I've ever rented. The heading is simple: Getting the Call. It was an article written by the News and Press, a small-time Darlington newspaper. It features the story of Orlando, a home-town boy done good, who just got called up from the Syracuse Sky Chiefs to Toronto, where he'd play second base for the Blue Jays. That article is important to me - evidenced by the fact that I saved it well before he became a star - because it represents a person overcoming enormous odds to find unlikely respect. I didn't know at the time what I would end up doing with my life, but I always hoped I, too, would get the call to the pinnacle of my profession.
Orlando's success on the field has been surpassed only by success off of the field. That can be measured in a number of ways, because he was not shy about dipping his hands into many different causes. His story can't be told without a mention of family. Visit any one of his games and you'd see the Hudson cheering section, a group of which I was privileged to be a part many times. He would bus his entire church to games in Atlanta, and he would wait outside of the locker room to speak with the little kids that made that trip. Those of us who were lucky got free tickets, a luxury I never took for granted.
With one of his first checks, he bought his mother and father a spacious home on a nice plot of land outside of town. Orlando had been brought up by good, hard-working parents. His mother taught school and his father worked hard in the plant when he wasn't himself fishing or playing adult league baseball. He didn't spend too extravagantly, but he made sure his mother had a nice car. And if you took the time to visit the Hudson home, you'd see all four of Orlando's Gold Glove awards sitting on the mantle. He took care of many of his other family members, and he was generous with his time in the community.
Recently, he took to mentoring young, disadvantaged kids through the Around the Mound Tour. This program brought Orlando to various schools around the country when his teams made road trips. He would read to kids and offer them encouragement. He'd bring along whatever friends he had in the game to these events, giving kids the thrill of meeting their favorite players. He'd emphasize the importance of education, and through his own story of triumph, he'd offer them hope.
Orlando grew up in the sleepy town of Mechanicsville. For those who don't know, that's the suburb of our already small town, which itself is the suburb of another small town. It's unlikely that the population of such a place gets anywhere near four figures. He didn't have a lot of money growing up, but his talent was undeniable. From a young age, Orlando was aware of his unique gifts, and he was aware of the people around him. His passion for autism research arose from experiences spent in Darlington schools, where those kids weren't given ideal opportunities.
During his career, he honored two fallen high school friends by writing their initials on his wrists. He'd do so every single game out of respect for them and their families. He cared and cares very deeply for those people around him, and nothing brought this trait to light more dramatically than this ceremonial routine.
He now has a home in Darlington, where he's able to spend time with family, and participate in hunting or fishing, his favorite pastimes. He's got kids, the oldest named Orlando Hudson, Jr. ("Deuce"). To say that the down-home ways were never drummed out of him would be an understatement. He simply never got too good for the people he grew up around. And most importantly, he's used his talents to give back in almost every way imaginable.
As for me, I will remember a number of experiences. I'll remember walking on the field in Cincinnati, where the Diamondbacks played the Reds. I'll remember retrieving one of the Orlando's 93 career home run balls. I'll remember spending almost all of my dollars to make four consecutive trips to Atlanta to see the Diamondbacks play the Braves. I will remember many nights spent watching his games on my computer, as his West division teams rarely made it on my cable. I'll remember the excitement of a new season with a new team, and breaking in every new cap. I'll remember meeting countless players - Randy Johnson, Justin Upton, Mark Grace - who I would have never met without the help of Orlando.
Mostly, I will remember the kindness that he showed me as a 10-year old kid, a 17-year old teenager, or even as a 25-year old man. Not all of my heroes played sports, but this one did. On and off the field, he had a way of making people feel good, and I was the recipient of that good feeling more times than not.
Orlando hasn't officially retired, and all indications are that he's looking for the right opportunity to try and make a roster. But it's likely that his days as a Major League regular are over. Luckily for him, he's built a cache of good experiences - both on and off the field - that people will remember him by. From small town kid, 43rd round draft pick, and Major League longshot to Gold Glove winner and two-time all-star, it's been one hell of a ride. And for the people who know him best, we'll know that retirement should provide Orlando with more time to do the things he does best - fish the lakes, hunt the woods, and give back to the community that he cares so much about.