Hudler ends rocky debut

Rex Hudler is chatting in the Royals’ dugout when third baseman Mike Moustakas walks by on his way to grab a cup of water.

“Uncle Hud!” Moustakas says.

Hudler grins even wider than usual.

“They’re calling me that now,” Hudler says. “I take it as a compliment.”

He might be Uncle Hud to the players, but he acknowledges that some loyal Royals followers view him in a less familial light. In his first season as color analyst for the team’s television broadcasts, Hudler, 52, has drawn fire for an approach that mixes head-scratching commentary and quirky catch-phrases with an enthusiasm that seems misplaced to many amidst another losing season. At the supermarket, on the golf course and in letters to the editor, fans have spent as much time discussing the guy in the TV booth as they have the team on the field.

Jim Homan, a season-ticket holder from Kansas City, thought about skipping one of the Royals’ games against the Chicago White Sox during the current homestand, their second-to-last of the season. Then he realized he’d have to watch the game on television.

“And I didn’t want to because of him,” Homan said. “I’m not very opinioned, but he has to go.”

Perhaps no broadcaster in the Kansas City market has generated this much attention this quickly as Hudler, who was hired by Fox Sports Kansas City at the suggestion of the Royals to, as senior vice president-business operations Kevin Uhlich puts it, “take on a different dimension than what we had in the past.”

Hudler, who also has his supporters, has certainly stood out from the pack.

“He’s different than anybody I ever worked with,” said Ryan Lefebvre, a 13-year veteran of Royals broadcasts. “There’s emotion no matter what’s going on in the game.”

It’s all natural, Hudler says. The phrases — “Pilot to bombardier” or “Get yourself a piece of cheese” are a couple gems — originated in the dugout during his playing days, which included parts of 13 seasons with six major-league teams, plus another 10 years in the minors and Japan. Known as “Wonder Dog,” Hudler on separate occasions ate a bug and an earthworm to motivate teammates. He also cherished every day he put on a uniform, even if fans who wanted more than a .261 career hitter sometimes didn’t return the love.

“I wasn’t the greatest player,” Hudler said. “Fans would sometimes yell, ‘Hudler, you’re a bum!’ I’d look back at them and say, ‘I know, but the manager keeps playing me. What am I supposed to do?’ ”

Self-deprecating humor, unbridled optimism and strong faith have also helped Hudler through his maiden season in Kansas City. The insults haven’t stopped, but he still spends every available minute of batting practice on the field, notebook in hand, talking baseball. Throughout broadcasts, he grips a baseball. The game never seems to leave him.

“This is my 34th year in baseball,” Hudler said. “And I still get excited every time I come to the ballpark.”

With the end of the season approaching, did the Royals get what they wanted?

Apparently so. Uhlich said the plan is for the Royals’ broadcasting crew, all seven of them, to be back next season. Hudler signed a two-year deal with Fox Sports for 122 broadcast appearances, with an option for a third, and he wants to move his family to the area. His wife, Jennifer, and three sons remain in California. His oldest child, daughter Alyssa, is a freshman at Kansas.

Better for Hudler to consider that possibility now than six months ago. When the season started, he felt like he was walking out of the stadium every night covered in soot from fan blowback.

During broadcasts, he’d look out of the booth and figuratively see fans looking back at him, “doing this right at me.” Hudler mimes an archer with his arrow pulled back. “I knew it was coming.”

But the arrows came faster and more furious than Hudler expected for reasons he could not control.

For starters, Hudler’s turn in the booth followed that of Royals legend Frank White. Player, coach, announcer and Kansas Citian, his retired No. 20 is affixed to the Royals Hall of Fame wall in left field along with George Brett’s No. 5 and manager Dick Howser’s No. 10.

White and the Royals parted acrimoniously — White didn’t attend any of the All-Star Game festivities at Kauffman Stadium this summer — but he has remained a fan favorite.

“It wasn’t going to matter who filled that spot,” said Max Utsler, a KU journalism professor who teaches sports media classes. “Pick the greatest color analyst of all time, and it was going to be a challenge stepping into Frank’s spot.”

Hudler understood this. He never played for the Royals, but he came up in the Yankees organization in the mid-1980s and toiled behind beloved second baseman Willie Randolph. “We talked about Frank White all the time, how great he was,” Hudler said. “He was a hero of mine coming up.

“I don’t know what happened with Frank and the Royals. I didn’t ask. It was none of my business.”

Starting out, Hudler figured things would be all right if he could be himself in the booth. He had been with the Royals at spring training, and the team’s youthful makeup reminded him of Anaheim when he started broadcasting there in 1998. Five years later, that team was a world champion.

The Royals would be young, fun and the talk of the town; Hudler would bring the passion, and yes, some goofiness, connect to a younger audience, and enjoy being part of a season that the club’s marketing gurus were dubbing “Our Time.”

Then came the second week of the season, and the losing never seemed to stop.

A few defeats became a week’s worth, and on April 24 in Cleveland, the Royals dropped their 12th straight — a miserable stretch that included 10 consecutive losses at home. Their record fell to 3-14.

Instead of White’s soothing voice explaining the disaster, there was Hudler, the outsider still bringing the enthusiasm in a situation that many felt called for anything but.

The fans reacted swiftly and haven’t let up since.

“He became the fans’ punching bag for the team’s lack of success,” Utsler said.

Hudler felt the blows. One night during the skid, he and Alyssa opened a laptop and came across blogs and comments filled with venomous critiques.

“I told her I didn’t need to see that,” Hudler said. “It was going to be tough enough coming into a new situation without hearing of what the people are saying. That was very depressing for me.”

During the early losing streak, Hudler would remain in the booth long after games, up to an hour. He took losses hard, and the most of the fans weren’t friendly.

But the Wonder Dog doesn’t wallow in negativity or allow it to fester. His idea of battling back was to confront the issue head on.

He made sure to make eye contact and greet fans when he was entering and leaving the ballpark. He shook hands, signed autographs. Stopped and chatted about baseball. On his off-days, he remained upbeat in public, in restaurants and around town.

The positive approach seemed to help.

“I talked to a lot of good, American people who loved baseball just like me,” Hudler said. “They’re fans and I’m a fan. Sometimes I’d get the cold shoulder, but I didn’t let that bother me.”

Lefevbre’s story with the Royals also comforted Hudler. It took Lefevbre about three years to feel widely accepted in Kansas City as the voice who replaced the venerable Fred White. In that third year, White pinch-hit for Denny Matthews and worked with Lefevbre.

“Fred and I got along well and laughed on the air about things, and I got the sense from fans that, ‘If Fred likes him, I guess I can like him, too,’ ” Lefevbre said.

Perhaps it will eventually be that way with Hudler, who doesn’t follow in the tradition of straightforward Royals broadcasting talent.

Matthews, Fred White, Buddy Blattner, Lefevbre and former players such as Paul Splittorff and Frank White didn’t come off so much as entertainers, but as conversationalists.

“I’ve always thought that people who follow baseball in the Midwest know the game and like to talk about the game,” said Utsler, the KU professor. “That’s their enjoyment.”

Hudler blasts a different sound, one that elicits criticism, and some support, from Royals fans even this late in the season.

Anna Buchholz of Kansas City has family in Orange, Calif., and is familiar with Hudler from his Angels days.

“They told me you’re going to love him or you’re going to hate him,” Buchholz said as she tailgated outside Kauffman Stadium before a game last week.

Hudler got a thumbs-down from Buchholz and her friend Kara Johnson of Parkville, Mo., who flipped through her phone to find one of the recent “Rexclamations” posted after a play Hudler had called. The one they found — “That was filthy; someone call the cops!” — prompted Homan, the season-ticket holder, to soften his assessment.

“When they’re between pitches and you want to hear stats or strategy, he’s horrible,” Homan said. “But when there’s a great play, his one-liners are pretty solid.”

Fan Mike Brasington of Independence, Mo., can’t get enough of Hud.

“I like the guy,” Brasington said. “The passion he shows for the game, the fact that he’s holding the baseball the whole dang time, all of it.”

For the most part, fans in Southern California liked him, too. When Hudler and play-by-play man Steve Physioc weren’t retained by the Angels after the 2009 season — before both were hired by Fox Sports for the Royals this season — more than 70 percent responding to a Los Angeles Times poll said they wanted Hudler back.

He’d been out of the game for two years when he got the call from Uhlich, who had worked with Hudler and Physioc in Anaheim. Physioc, who graduated from Kansas State and became the Wildcats’ radio voice in the early 1980s, was a natural. Uhlich knew Hudler would have the more difficult adjustment.

“Royals fans are very passionate about their team, and they love their players and alumni,” Uhlich said. It’s understandable Rex wasn’t going to have instant acceptance.”

Uhlich has helped guide Hudler navigate this season. He told Hudler that the audience didn’t need to hear from him constantly, and to make his comments meaningful.

Hudler said that after the team’s rough start, he toned things down. But as the Royals showed improvement, he felt more comfortable sharing his enthusiasm. Uhlich’s unscientific survey of correspondence and social media shows that Hudler is steadily winning over Royals fans.

More precise are the Nielsen ratings. According to Fox, viewership of Royals television broadcasts is up 14 percent over last season and will finish with the highest ratings since the team went to cable broadcasts in 1997. September ratings are up 62 percent over the same month last year.

Fans are watching the Royals.

And like him or not, they’re still getting plenty of Hud.

“You know, some people don’t know me or they don’t like me,” Hudler said. “That’s OK. It doesn’t mean I can’t like them back.”