Published April 1st, 2021 at 6:00 AM
On Thursday, Royals color commentator Rex Hudler will begin his 10th season calling games in Kansas City.
Flatland caught up with “Hud,” aka “The Wonderdog,” to talk about the 2021 Royals, a bit about his time as a big leaguer and what it takes to win over an audience ahead of Opening Day.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Flatland: Opening Day is always exciting, but as the city tries to regain some sense of “normal” coming out of the pandemic — just like that baseball is back. What’s it going to mean to Kansas City to have the Royals back out there?
Rex Hudler: Well we know the fan base here is rabid. We know that they love the Royals and it was extremely painful from what I heard from the fans this offseason that they couldn’t bring their kids to the ballpark. That is a huge thing during the summer for fans here in Kansas City. For this year, the excitement — even for 10,000 people — is renewed. It’s a whole new ballgame so to speak. No pun intended.
F: It’s been an exciting offseason for the Royals and there have been some strong spring training performances. What does a solid spring training do for a group headed into the regular season?
RH: As a former player I can tell you from experience that you all wish the numbers would count when you had a good spring. That’s hard. But we all know that they don’t count. (Manager Mike Matheny) really wants to stress the mindset of winning. We have to get off to a good start in April. The last few Aprils we’ve had, maybe several, have all been losing streaks.
This spring is more than just an eyewash. There are probably 10 to 15 players in that clubhouse now that have been to the postseason, which is huge mentally. The team right now physically had a good spring training with no injuries. They are mentally set and now it’s time to take it one game at a time. I know people don’t like to hear that, but it’s true in baseball. Matheny did his job this spring and (General Manager) Dayton Moore did his job this offseason. So far, the boxes have been checked.
F: Spring training isn’t a complete picture of what the roster and results will show this season. For a city that’s grown relatively accustomed to winning, what should the expectations be?
As far as the city goes, it’s a city of champions. Even in a small market like Kansas City, you want to continue and develop in your fan base winning expectations. Dayton Moore is a winner. He has never wanted to even hear the word ‘tank’ or give in for draft picks. He wants to win every single year, so I really admire that about him. This is a fan base that gets behind their team and their general manager. It’s a great marriage. I think the fact that everyone has done their homework before Opening Day is great. You can’t go into a season with more optimism than our fan base right now.
I’m going to say if this team is under .500 this year, it will be a disappointment. This is a .500 or better team. It could be exponentially better than .500.
F: We’ll get to new faces, but we know Alex Gordon won’t roam the outfield this season. What happens in the clubhouse when a 14-year vet and leader hangs it up?
RH: There’s a void and they miss him, but you know, he’s been replaced and it’s time to move on. Alex had a legendary career and he’s a legendary Royal. The mark he made on this organization, team and city will never be forgotten. But for Dayton Moore, eyes were on him to see who would replace (Gordon) and for him to put together a trade with two teams and figure out that they wanted a young World Series champion to replace him — he couldn’t have found a better player than (Andrew) Benintendi. That’s one of the ways they’ll move on past Alex.
F: While Gordo moved on to what’s next, you’re headed back to the booth. This season marks a personal milestone for yourself. With a decade with the Royals now under your belt, what’s your impression of KC as a baseball city?
RH: Thank you. It’s been an awesome run, not just for me because I love baseball no matter where or what it is, but to move from the West Coast to the central United States to a place like this where people know who you are, they are kind and friendly, they love baseball. It’s the perfect place to land. Not just for me, but for my family. When I first landed here in 2012, I told my wife they are going to win here and we needed to move everyone to Kansas City. We moved here believing in this organization, believing in the city and it’s been a win win win for the Hudlers. Over 40 years I’ve been in professional baseball and I can’t think of a better stop and I don’t want to go anywhere else. This is home for me and my family.
F: Passionate sports fans can be tough on a new broadcaster. You’ve been on the record saying something along the lines of ‘people don’t have to like me, but they can’t stop me from liking them.’ Has anyone approached you about your one-of-a-kind style winning them over?
RH: I’m an acquired taste. I was able to be a broadcaster successfully for 11 years with the Angels, after a guy named Sparky Anderson, a Hall of Fame manager. He was real calm and quiet and here I am this guy that bounces off the walls a little bit. It was an adjustment for them. Coming here after Royals Hall of Famer Frank White there was an adjustment period as well, maybe even more so because Kansas City is a little more protective of their booth and who is in it. There was a little bit more of a trial with us and for them to accept me. But winning cures all … and that includes the broadcasters who kept bringing good news into their house every night. They finally said: ‘You know what? This guy is not too bad.’ I credit the Royals and the team for winning so they had to accept me.
F: I think they would have accepted you regardless.
RH: I’m a lover. I love fans. When I back out the driveway every day, I prepare myself to engage with a fan or a person. It makes you feel good. They’ll ask me questions about the Royals and I share with them, no matter what it is. I’m wound that way and a lot of people aren’t like that. I’m passionate, I’m loyal and I’m happy.
F: A lot of your lingo goes back to your time in the dugout as a player. How has your relationship with the game changed during your time as a broadcaster?
RH: When I went to the broadcast booth for the first time, I went from the field to the booth right away that following year. I didn’t have any time off. The first thing I noticed is how much green grass there was. Oh wow, being up in the booth … was a different perspective for me. To sit up there and see the green grass I’m thinking, ‘With just three people in that outfield, how could I not get more hits?’ Then I remembered these guys are the greatest athletes in the world and they close ground pretty quick and they are really good. That was part of it.
Then realizing how easy the game looked. No wonder some broadcasters get up there and they become an expert. I knew from my long career, 10 years in the minors and 10 years in the majors, that it was not easy. I’ve never lost that perspective and I’m very humbled by the opportunity to have the chance to share the game with the fans from my perspective and try to teach them. That was a big adjustment, making sure that the fans … didn’t hear some big ego guy up there that did it all. Especially me, not having a Hall of Fame-type career. It’s a humbling experience to be up there and share with the people.
F: I’m sure last season was flat out weird. You called road games from ‘The K.’ How challenging was that?
RH: I hope we never have a year like that ever again. It was frightening. There were no people. At night when the game was over and I was walking out of the ballpark and they turned the lights out, it was pitch black. It was like wow, where are we? My partners Ryan Lefebvre and Steve Physioc, these guys are very professional and it’s so easy to work with a professional. They know how to set me up and how to make me look good. These guys are prepared, so actually I wasn’t distracted. There were no people there. I listened to my partners and we broadcasted baseball like we could, but it was certainly different. When the team was on the road and we saw their B team playing on the field at The K in front of us it was very distracting and hard. Watching (prospects) Bobby Witt Jr. and (Nick) Pratto, (Kyle) Isbel, some of our future stars out there playing, it was really hard to keep my focus on the game that we were doing.
F: So are you traveling with the team to call games this season?
RH: No, not at first. I think they are going to wait until about halfway through and then we will get to go with them. We need to be there with the team and share with the fans what the players tell us so we can give them insight. That’s the whole business of broadcasting, so I would expect them to open it up hopefully a little later this season.
F: Back to the 2021 Royals. Give us two new names to watch this season and why.
RH: I’m going to say keep an eye out for Andrew Benintendi, our new left fielder. He’s experienced, but just watch him play defense and watch him hit the gaps in right. He’s a gap-to-gap type of hitter. It will be fun to watch him. And these are new players, we’ve talked a lot about our new players and that’s exciting, but how about (second basemen) Whit Merrifield? He’s the most exciting player on the field. He hits the ball, runs, can steal bases. (shortstop Adalberto) Mondesi is another guy who is an action-type player. And (designated hitter-outfielder Jorge) Soler. When you’re in the stands you don’t want to get up to get a hotdog when they are up, you want to be in your seat because they are going to bring you out of it with something exciting. We have a handful of guys this year, not just one or two. This is going to be a fun year. We are well rounded with power, speed and leadership.
F: Speaking of new names, there’s a ton of buzz surrounding prospect Bobby Witt Jr. How does an organization handle the hype of developing the No. 2 overall prospect, according to MLB.com? Is there pressure to bring him up as soon as possible?
RH: The organization picked him No. 2 overall, so heck they should be really excited about him and they are. How do they handle it? They just let the people clamor for him and keep putting him out there. He’s got to get some experience though, people need to know that. In baseball you can’t just show up. Now, he’s that talented to where he could probably hold his head above water if he had to make the team this year, but he doesn’t have to. We have a solid baseball team ahead of him. He’ll add when they say he needs to be adding and when I say ‘they’ that’s Dayton Moore and all of his lieutenants who get paid big money. They’ll know the right time to bring him.
F: Players have the most fun on a weekend series in which city?
RH: I’m going to say from personal experience, all of them. Chicago was the best. San Francisco was fun. Those are great cities, but Chicago has day games so you can go out after. Playing baseball during the day, there is nothing better. Chicago was my personal favorite and a lot of players will tell you that. Boston was great, New York City is fun. Even St. Petersburg (Florida), you can rent a boat and go in the ocean.
F: Let’s play fill in the blank. June bugs would go best with this KC Barbecue sauce _____.
RH: They are better by themselves. They are so tasty they don’t need any barbecue sauce. I know a lot of my friends that would gladly eat a June bug for $800.
F: Ryan Lefebvre’s pregame routine includes _____.
RH: Preparing. He’s preparing, he’s studying, he’s talking to players, he’s prepping. He wants to make it a perfect broadcast. He’s a real pro and that’s what real pros do. They prepare every day, 162 games. That way when the game comes he can be free and easy and set me up, he can just take it and steer it. That’s what the play-by-play broadcaster does.
F: The Royals’ greatest strength this season will be _____.
RH: I’m going to say their bullpen. I wouldn’t have said that in years past, but I just love their bullpen. We’re going to get a lead and we’re going to be able to hold it.
F: Finally, anything on the docket for you and your wife Jennifer’s foundation Team Up for Down Syndrome?
RH: Yes, I think we are going to have a golf tournament this summer at some point for the first time since we’ve been here. We have one day at the end of the ball season called Special Day at The K, where we invite families with kids who have special abilities and they come and enjoy a ballgame together. We haven’t quite figured out if we are going to do that yet, but we are going to have a golf tournament as I understand it later in the year.
The Royals open the 2021 season Thursday afternoon at Kauffman Stadium against the Texas Rangers. First pitch is at 3:10 p.m.