The following was written by Noah Frank, a good friend of Athletics Nation. Noah is the Digital Sports Editor for WTOP in Washington. He is a lifelong A's fan, and he interned for the team during his younger years.
Like many of you, when Barry Zito was called back up to the Oakland A's this week, I found myself irrationally excited at the possibility that he might square off with Tim Hudson in the final home weekend at the Coliseum. I became even more giddy -- and also emotional -- when the team announced that the matchup would actually happen. Such celebratory sporting acts usually do little to nothing for me, but for some reason, this one was different.
This is why.
My girlfriend and I drove from Washington, D.C. to Memphis for a wedding in May. When we planned the trip, I looked at the schedule for the Nashville Sounds, trying to figure out if I could swing through and snag a couple interviews for potential stories later in the season. As it turned out, the Sounds were at home that weekend, which allowed me to get one of the two -- a profile of Pat Venditte, which I ran a couple weeks later upon his call-up to Oakland.
But I didn't get the other one.
Zito had started the evening before, a game after a travel day that had stretched nearly five and a half hours and 18 innings, deep into the night. By the time he arrived for a show-and-go Sunday game, rocking a black AC/DC T-shirt and dark sunglasses, he was in no mood to chat.
That's life as a sportswriter, even when you've had the strange, circular connections to Zito like I have.
The Big Three, The Big One: Era Ends with Hudson
The Big Three: Hudson, Mulder and Zito. ACES. A special era for the green and gold is concluding forever. An era that gave us five years of one of the most exciting rotations in A’s history. We remember and relish these special combinations and this weekend we get to see a nostalgic reunion as Tim Hudson makes his final start for the Giants against his friend and colleague, Barry Zito.
When I was 17, I was attending the Northwestern University National High School Institute journalism program when a friend of mine in the program told me I needed to see something. He was a baseball junkie from Tucson and had seen a young lefty come through with Triple-A Sacramento to play the Sidewinders. That lefty had just been called up to Oakland and was making his first start against the Angels that afternoon. We watched it online, our only recourse in Evanston that day, waiting for each Ball, Strike, and "In Play, Out(s)" to register on the first-generation programming.
In the top of the fifth, Zito sandwiched walks around a Darin Erstad single, loading the bases for the heart of the Anaheim order: Mo Vaughn, Tim Salmon and Garret Anderson. Then he struck out all three, and I knew we had another special pitcher in green and gold.
A year later, I asked Zito about that outing on the microphone at an A's booster lunch at Francesco's, and he laughed. We chatted afterward about UC Santa Barbara, where he went his freshman year and where I was headed in the fall, and he wished me well. One week later I scored an internship with the club, working on the old athletics.com (before MLB integrated it later that summer), and found myself standing in the home clubhouse for the first time, scared out of my mind.
Zito saw me and gave me a confused look, then smiled and asked what I was doing there. He welcomed me into the fold, putting me immediately at ease (even inviting me out one time postgame to hit the bars, but again, I was 18, and going on about 15, looks-wise). He was great all summer and into the fall, but I never had a chance to say goodbye. My second-to-last day of work with the team before leaving for college was a Tuesday in mid-September, when four airplanes crashed and the nation stopped moving and playing baseball for a week. I never went back.
Ten years later, I was working as the director of media relations for the then-Giants affiliate Fresno Grizzlies, when I learned that Zito would be coming to town for a rehab start. We had a deal with Comcast Hometown Network where four of our games would be televised that season, one of which landed on the date of Zito's start. That meant that Doug Greenwald, our radio guy, would head over to the television side, leaving me on the radio call.
I had our interns prep giant Z's to hang for strikeouts, like the bleacher creatures used to do at the Coliseum. We played Daft Punk's "Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger" when he took the mound for pregame warmups, his old Oakland walkout music. And Zito was brilliant in a way I hadn't seen since his glorious 2006 campaign.
He two-hit the Salt Lake Bees, punching out Paul McAnulty on a 3-2 pitch for his seventh strikeout of the night to finish it off. I still remember it distinctly, as my call is linked to the old video highlight.
My cousin texted me from the Bay Area the next morning to let me know the call had been running all day on KNBR. I felt like that was as much closure as I would ever have on the Big 3 era, especially in regards to Zito.
While Zito was an icon, Huddy was like me. Always a terrific athlete, but overlooked because he was short, because he didn't fit the profile. He was a ruthless competitor, who would scream profanities into his mitt as he scampered off the mound to back up home plate whenever he allowed a run.
He was also the singular player that brought my fandom to a previously unrealized fruition in 1999. I grew up without cable, which meant the only time I could watch the A's on television growing up were the rare locally televised games and the national Saturday FOX games. One of those games in 1999 was an A's-Diamondbacks affair in Phoenix, with Hudson making his seventh career start against back-to-back defending Cy Young Award winner Randy Johnson (who would go on to win the award again both that year and the next).
All the pregame talk surrounded the Unit, who fanned 11 over seven innings of work. But it was the fiery Alabamian rookie nearly a foot shorter who stole the show, punching out nine over 8⅓ scoreless innings of three-hit ball as the A's stole a 2-0 win. The A's had a future, and I had my new favorite player.
I never knew Huddy like I knew Zito, but his was the trade that hurt the most. It was an absolute gut punch. I knew the good times wouldn't last forever, but I didn't yet understand enough about contracts and controllable years and free agency to put things into the perspective that I have now about the business of the game.
I was in the clubhouse prior to Game 1 of the 2014 NLDS, when Hudson found himself in the news after backhandedly claiming the Nationals didn't have the "fortitude" to win in the postseason. It was classic Huddy, and whether or not it had any impact on the way the series actually played out on the field, it will always appear that it did. Washington dropped both home games in the series and would not play baseball in D.C. again until Opening Day, 2015.
Hudson and the Giants would go on to win the World Series, bringing that bittersweet feeling I had in 2010 and 2012, watching players who had played on teams I'd worked for (Buster Posey, Madison Bumgarner, Brandon Belt and others) win titles for a team I grew up despising. Somehow, I felt better about Huddy, because at least it was Huddy. At least he was going out on top, with the title he deserved, but never won in Oakland.
But now, this. Now, the two pitchers who defined so much of both my teenage and adult fandom are coming back together once again, with Mark Mulder on hand to boot. We'll never have a 10th or 25th or 50th anniversary celebration of a title from the early 2000s, because the stars never aligned to make that happen. There will be no excuse to bring everyone together to remember those teams, no matter how good they were. So this is it.
You can tell me it's contrived, that it doesn't matter, that it's just a push to sell more tickets or play off of the emotions of the fans. I don't care. If I had the money, I'd be on a plane to Oakland tonight to be there. Since I can't, I'll be watching from the East Coast as the pitchers who helped forge that fandom come together one final time in Oakland.
A lifelong baseball fan, I've owned an embarrassingly large amount of regalia over my lifetime. But I've only ever purchased two jersey shirts. I've considered getting others, but I've only actually spent my money on those two, which I still wear to games. They're old and faded. They have holes. They don't even fit that well anymore. But they're still mine. They're still ours.
Noah can be reached on Twitter: @NoahFrankWTOP