Barry Zito, Tim Hudson, And The Last Day Of Work

Saturday's valedictory match-up between two Bay Area aces at the end of the road was contrived, and not a great game. But there was still greatness in it.
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Saturday afternoon in Oakland, the A’s and the San Francisco Giants played the most contrived baseball game of the season. It pitted Giants starter Tim Hudson, due to retire at year’s end, against A’s pitcher Barry Zito, who was making his only Major League start of the year after spending the whole of his age-37 season at Triple-A. It was a reunion made possible by each team’s misfortune; having fallen out of their leagues’ playoff hunts, the clubs to either side of the bay could trade in nostalgia without risk. At the starts of their careers, Hudson and Zito had led the great A’s pitching staffs of the early 2000s alongside with Mark Mulder. He was on hand, too, as it happened—camped out in a luxury box where television cameras, at the opportune moments, could easily pick him out.

The match-up was manufactured, inorganic, and more than a little opportunistic. Nosebleed seats in the days leading up to the game demanded more than $50 on the secondary market; they have been (wildly) available at around $5 since August. For all the good feelings preceding the first pitch, everything fizzled pretty quickly; neither starter lasted three innings, and each gave up at least three runs. In pure baseball terms, it was a minor first act to a meaningless game that proceeded tediously. Three and a half hours after Zito’s first pitch, the game ended with the teams having combined for 24 runs. It’s not really worth noting who won.

And yet despite all this—despite the obviousness of the arrangement and the unimportance of the contest and the poor showings of the afternoon’s principal figures—the first and final instance of Zito v. Hudson was a delight. Those who watched at the Coliseum that afternoon will surely tell you that it was an honor to stand and hail their heroes one last time. Anchors on highlight shows will run clips of the ovations in season-capping reels and coach you in the ways of fandom, intoning in the voices of people that know such things that this is the right way for things to end.

But the joy of Saturday was not primarily in the send-off, the tipped caps and curtain calls. It was in the work itself, shoddy and short though it was. Watching Zito and Hudson take alternate turns on the same mound, it was hard not to marvel at how like themselves they still looked and conclude that it was not the front offices or fans giving the gifts that afternoon but the players themselves. A departing player means a shelved approach, a section of baseball’s whole slivered off. These two offered last glimpses on their way out.

***

That you would be hard pressed to find more extreme opposites than these two only enhanced the effect. There was Zito, the tall lefty with neck-length hair, avian-elbowed and surrounded by an air of secondhand California mysticism. There was Hudson, cue-bald, straight-faced, and short, with a bunched delivery that made him appear shorter still. “The body always expresses the spirit for which it is the shell,” Rodin said, and had he grown up in the Bay Area at the end of the 20th Century instead of Paris in the 19th, he may well have been talking about these two.

Zito was always somehow a brilliant pitcher, but that brilliance resolved at various points of his career in either excellence or crumminess, with little middle ground, depending on the states of certain makeshift chakras. Hudson, at his best, was almost as good as Zito but never close to as bad; he was pointedly professional, an accumulator of pitching failsafes. If his stuff failed, he looked to his guile. If that went too, he leaned on his nerve. He has kept on checking down, without any apparent nervousness or doubt, for 17 seasons.

In times of promise and trouble, Zito’s trademark was his curveball, a gorgeous, high-arcing thing that whisked below bats and earned him a Cy Young in Oakland. It also won him a record deal with San Francisco, whereupon it started showing up only part time. Across the bay, Zito’s curve ran right into swings and made his troubles seem almost the product of outmatched supplies, as if he were trying to fight a wildfire with a water pistol.

Hudson’s pitch of choice was the sinker, a fastball fired from a low release point that held the level of the strike zone’s bottom border before falling a few vital inches at the last moment. It was a mean little fucker, seeming with its drop almost to contract its mass into itself, like a football safety gearing up to deliver a hit. It served him well as he reached baseball middle age in Atlanta, producing ground balls in bushels.

On Saturday, each showed his trademark wares, which had changed in degree of effectiveness but not in type. Zito’s compartmental windup, the glove moving behind the neck and back before the high knee-lift, led to slow fastballs, slower changeups, and finally the slowest of them all, that curve looping in like a balloon losing its helium. What had once been an out pitch was now a plain gamble—Giants batters squared it up reliably; some of the shots found Oakland gloves and some didn’t—but you could still see in it something like a scan of Zito’s whole baseball life, the idiosyncratic success and the sudden failure.

Hudson’s first pitch on Saturday was a sinker to A’s centerfielder Billy Burns. It was note-perfect, low and getting lower. Burns slashed at it and managed to send it only as far as second baseman Brett Lawrie, who passed it easily along to first for the out. A few years ago, that may have been the start of a prosperous afternoon of slow-rollers and stranded runners. On this day, Hudson couldn’t make it last. What meager triumphs he did achieve, though, he did so in the same manner as always.

There was something strangely reassuring about how Saturday’s honorees ended up getting shelled. Baseball is not beholden to sentiment; the drumming of old-timers is the mechanism of progress. A run of scoreless innings might have felt phony, a cosmic collusion to match the one that produced the event in the first place.

So it was an honest exit after all. Zito and Hudson struggled, but they were not there to succeed. They were there to be seen a last time before passing wholly into the world of recorded image and accumulated statistics, and to throw the stuff that only they can, and to show that they were worn out but not fundamentally changed. They weren’t out there long, but they did enough.


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