Tuesday, October 16, 2012

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By Rob Goldman - AngelsWin.com Historical Writer 

Rex Hudler wasn’t his usual gregarious self in the gym the day after he became father to a new baby boy in November of 1995. His teammates were concerned.  No cigars, no smiles, no bragging, no nothing. Chuck Finley, JT Snow and Jim Abbott, were all prepared to shower him with congratulations, but his quiet behavior had stopped them all in their tacks.

It had taken Hudler a long time to gather the courage to come back to the gym and face his teammates.  How do tell your friends your newborn son has just been diagnosed with Downs syndrome?  It wasn’t supposed to be this way Hudler told himself that a million times.  His son Cade was the son of a professional athlete, after all.  Wasn’t he naturally supposed to be strong and vital?  For the always upbeat and positive Hudler, it was a blow that sent him hurtling towards depression.

When he finally told his teammates tithe news he became so overwhelmed that he collapsed on the bench press and burst into tears.  His teammates did their best to console him, but what could they say?  Jim Abbott watched all this with a keen and compassionate eye.  He, more than anyone else in that room, knew what Hudler was going through.  “Abby” bided his time and when Hudler started warming up on the treadmill, he sauntered over and took his place on the machine next to him.

“Hud,” Abbott said with a smile, “you and your wife are great parents.  You stay with that kid because miracles can happen.  And with you and Jennifer as Cade’s  parents something great is gonna happen.  I just know it!”

Hudler was taken aback. It was the first time since Cade was born that anyone spoke to him in a positive tone.  What struck him, too was the way Abbott spoke.  He wasn’t patronizing; he was speaking straight from the heart. Abby’s message sunk in and, like magic, Hudler’s optimism and positive energy came flooding back.

“You’re right, Abby.  Look at you. Look at what you did,” Hudler thought to himself.

Hudler ended his workout early, got in his car and drove home.  His wife, Jennifer, was shocked when her husband exploded through the door and proclaimed.

“Honey, Cade came to the right home and were gonna embrace him! And starting right now, we're gonna help him reach his full potential.  Let me tell you what Abby shared with me today.  He said, ‘Hud, miracles can happen!’”

Jennifer looked at him noticed the conviction in his eyes, started to cry. On the spot they made a silent pact: come hell or high water, they would love Cade with all their hearts and make sure they did everything in their power to make his life a special one.

Hudler raised his palm, “Put it here,” he said and as Jennifer returned the high-five and as their fingers entwined and she said, “Lets go with it!”

“All right then,” Rex replied.  “Go team!”

Hudler had discovered what legions of people already knew—that Jim Abbott could inspire.     

In his initial spring outing against the San Diego Padres, Abbott struck out the first two batters he faced, earning him the win after five innings of work. For his effort, manager Doug Rader rewarded him with a lemon drop and hinted to the press of things to come.

“It might be a tad more expensive for general manager Mike Port down the line,” Rader suggested, insinuating that Port would have to fork over the money-not candy if he wanted to keep Abbott as an Angel.

Throughout the spring, Abbot continued to impress.  At the end of March, Rader had to make a big decision—send the 21-year-old Abbott to the minors for more seasoning, or start the season with him on the big league roster. Rader was impressed by Abbott’s 94 M.P.H. fastball, but most of all, he admired his character and attitude.  “He’s the most mature, resilient 21-year-old I've ever seen,” Rader told Sports Illustrated.  “He’s well-rounded, stable, well-traveled and educated.  He's been prepared for this.  He’s certainly one of the 10 best pitchers in our organization.  And if he’s one of the 10 best we have, how can he not make our pitching staff?”

Rader's decision was made for him when a few days before the season started, Dan Petry projected to be a part of the organization, went down with arm injury.  On March 29, Rader told the press Abbott had made the team.  But not everyone welcomed the move.  Some in the press thou8ght he needed more seasoning and the Angles were rushing him to capitalize on his uniqueness and popularity.

Abbott himself thought his performance justified Rader’s decision.
“I felt comfortable with it at the time,” he says.  “With hindsight, you can look at it a number of ways, but I think, all things considered, I was pitching well enough to stay there and probably deserved to make the team.”

On April 8, 1989, in front of the world’s press and a packed house at Anaheim Stadium, Abbott, got his first major league start.  Nolan Ryan sent him a congratulatory telegram and Japanese camera crews accompanied him everywhere he went.

Overwhelmed by all the attention, Abbot surrendered six runs in five innings, struck out zero batters and lost the game 7-0.  When he lost his second as well receiving no run support yet again- the second guessers came out in full force.  One writer made the mistake of calling his presence on the team a publicity stunt, which drew immediate fire from Rader.

“Do you have the guts to sit there and tell me he has a handicap?  Well, he doesn’t.  He’s the least handicapped person I know.  To me, all this talk about a publicity stunt is distasteful.  He could have pitched a perfect game and it wouldn’t have been different.  He’ll still have to prove himself.”

In his third start, Abbott diffused the critics by defeating the Baltimore Orioles, 3-2, for his first major league win.  The game was significant not just for Abbott, who proved to himself that he now belonged, but to the game of baseball as well.

“Getting that first win against the Orioles and Cal Ripken, was a big relief,” Abbot said.  “Things had happened so fast and just figuring what it took to get these guys out, it was a difficult transition.  So to get that first win was just a tremendous feeling, and a big boost to my confidence.”

Purchase a copy of Rob Goldman's book "Once They Were Angels" at his website today! An amazing historical piece on the Angels over the years for just $19.95. 
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