So here he is, in Oakland on a recent Saturday after dominating the Tampa Bay Devil Rays on 94 pitches, 64 of them strikes, and throwing a complete-game two-hitter in a 10-0 victory. He is, at age 25, the best young starter in the American League, holding opposing hitters to a .232 batting average, a mark bettered only by Boston's Pedro Martinez and the New York Yankees' Roger Clemens. Most telling, however, is that Hudson has struck out four Tampa Bay batters without a single stare-down. After beating the Devil Rays again, 5-2 last Saturday, Hudson is now 17-6 with a 4.49 ERA.
Perhaps the education of Tim Hudson began at a practice field on the Auburn campus....
Hal Baird, the Tigers' coach, looks at Hudson funny sometimes. After all, the kid stands out. He is 20 years old, still a wisp of a young man, recently removed from the safe haven of Phenix City's Chattahoochee Valley Community College. That's where Hudson wound up in 1993, immediately after graduating from Glenwood High with a 12-1, 1.78 ERA career record and nary a baseball scholarship offer. Pick a reason—any reason—why no college coaches wanted Tim Hudson. "Too small, too light, too unknown," says Russ Martin, Hudson's high school coach. "I told every college coach I could find the same thing: Every now and then you've gotta judge a kid by heart and guts, because this kid will be a pretty doggone good player."
Only B.R. Johnson, Chattahoochee's coach and Martin's close pal, listened. In two seasons at the school, Hudson turned into one of the nation's best juco players—a hard-throwing starter who also batted third as a DH. "His first year, we played a game at Gordon Junior College, and he just shut them down," recalls Johnson. "Their coach came up to me afterward and asked, 'Where'd you find this kid?' The answer was easy: In our own backyard."
Hudson does not come from money. His father, Ronnie, is the plant supervisor at a box company. His mother, Sue, is a housewife. Every one of Hudson's coaches—from Martin to Johnson to Baird—praises Hudson not as the strongest or fastest, but as the most motivated. "He came from a family that had zero," says Martin, "and he was driven to do something."
But this is Auburn, and during an early season practice Baird is skeptical. Hudson's fastball is so-so, his breaking ball is hittable and his straight-over-the-top delivery is terribly inefficient. In his first three outings of the '96 season, Hudson gets pounded. Then something unprecedented happens.
Baird urges Hudson to learn the split-fingered fastball. He also suggests that Hudson drop his arm to a three-quarters delivery. Baird hopes that over the course of the season Hudson will gradually change his style. "I remember the first time we experimented with a lower arm angle," says Baird. "I could not believe the movement he was getting. After three days his split-finger was devastating. Three days! In 24 years I never had a kid who made an adjustment on Monday and implemented it less than a week later."
The rest is War Eagles history. In his two seasons under Baird, Hudson became one of the best two-position players in college history. As a senior centerfielder, he hit .396 with 18 home runs and 95 RBIs. ("I am," admits Hudson, "the ultimate aluminum-bat hitter.") As a pitcher he went 15-2 with a 2.97 ERA and 165 strikeouts in his senior year. He beat out Rice's Lance Berkman and Florida State's J.D. Drew for the Rotary Smith Award, voted on by college baseball SIDs, as college baseball's 1997 player of the year. "Everything he's accomplished has been impressive," says Baird. "But when I think of Tim, what stands out is his ability to pick things up and run with 'em. It's a gift."
Following his senior year Hudson is selected by the A's in the sixth round of the June amateur draft. They like him a lot, but they have some concerns. During the '97 SEC tournament, Hudson was sidelined by inflammation in his right elbow. The A's believe he needs to raise his arm in his throwing motion—not completely over the top, as he threw in high school, but a nudge or two higher. Hudson does...and perfects the new motion within days. The inflammation goes away. His fastball, clocked at from 87 to 91 mph at Auburn, jumps to 90 to 94.
In the fall of 1997 Peterson, then the A's minor league pitching coordinator, asks Hudson if he'd like to learn a changeup. "Sure," says Hudson. Peterson shows him four possible grips. Hudson tries the first grip and fires a strike from the bullpen mound. "It was as good as any changeup he's ever thrown in the big leagues," says Peterson. "Great arm speed, and the bottom fell right out. Timmy turned to me and said, 'How was that?' Uhhh, pretty good, Timmy. Pretty good." By June 1999, Hudson is in the major leagues.