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 utility-man 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 yourself."
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 one 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.