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- Jeff PassanESPNClose
AS GAME 1 of the National League Championship Series nears its conclusion Friday, the man who is supposed to be pitching in it lounges on a row of wooden cabinets covered by an inch-thick brown cushion. The Washington Nationals are on the verge of sealing a 2-0 victory against the St. Louis Cardinals, and Daniel Hudson, their closer, is watching on a 20-inch flat-screen in a hospital room more than 800 miles away in Scottsdale, Arizona. He is wearing a zip-up pullover, sweatpants and a grin of satisfaction. Regardless of what is happening on the TV, this feels like a perfect ninth inning.
In his arms is 8 pounds, 1 ounce of bliss. She doesn’t have a name yet. He calls her “Baby Girl.” She arrived 13 hours ago to great fanfare — all night, the broadcast on TBS has been talking about her. She is the reason her daddy isn’t pitching the ninth inning, and her daddy not pitching the ninth inning has sparked a national debate at the nexus of parenting, fatherhood, marriage and sports. Instead of playing in a postseason game, Hudson has chosen to spend the first day of his daughter’s life with her, her mom and her sisters.
Actually, to call this a choice is a misnomer. For Hudson, this is his responsibility. At every mention of his name on the TV, he rolls his eyes while his wife, Sara Hudson, provides color commentary from the bed next to his makeshift bunk.
“The Nationals do not have their closer, Daniel Hudson,” the play-by-play announcer says in the game’s middle innings.
“Wait!” Sara says, tilting her head to look over at him. “You’re not there?”
He smirks. For nearly a decade, baseball has teased and tested Hudson and his family, flummoxed them and fulfilled them. Six months ago, it rendered him an afterthought: a relief-pitching vagabond, 32 years old, fungible, jobless. Now the game is giving him what he always knew it could — to be wanted, needed, loved — and he isn’t there.
Because here’s the thing: All that time, even as Daniel Hudson searched for those things in the sport he adored, he was already getting them from his family.
IT’S 5:04 A.M. on Thursday, about 36 hours earlier, when Hudson rolls his suitcase out of the Langham hotel in Pasadena, California, and slides into the front seat of an UberX. He is operating on maybe two hours of sleep. Seven hours before, the Nationals completed a division series upset of the 106-win Los Angeles Dodgers, one of Hudson’s former teams. He pitched in all three wins, including a scoreless ninth inning in the series-clinching Game 5 that preceded Howie Kendrick‘s go-ahead grand slam in the 10th. In the clubhouse afterward, teammates showered Hudson with booze. Despite his best efforts to scrub himself clean, he still reeks of beer and champagne.
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He is headed to Ontario International Airport, about 45 minutes away, to hop on a flight home. Sara is due with their third child four days later, on Oct. 14 — now, suddenly, a date that conflicts with Game 3 of the NLCS. And her first two pregnancies went late, which could be Game 5 or 6 or 7. So the Hudsons pivoted. On Thursday, the day between the division series and the NLCS, Sara will be induced, and if everything goes according to plan, Hudson can make it to St. Louis in time for Game 1.
The Hudsons are used to altering their plans for baseball. In 2011, Hudson was one of the game’s most promising young starting pitchers: a 23-13 record and 3.01 ERA in a season and a half, a Silver Slugger award as baseball’s best hitting pitcher, a playoff appearance with the NL West-champion Arizona Diamondbacks. But in 2012, the ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow tore, requiring Tommy John surgery. In his first rehabilitation start 11 months later, the ligament tore again. Back-to-back UCL tears typically end careers. Hudson persisted and returned in late 2014 as a reliever with the Diamondbacks. He signed an $11 million free-agent deal before the 2017 season with the Pittsburgh Pirates, got traded to and cut by the Tampa Bay Rays the next season, then latched on with the Dodgers in 2018. By this offseason, Hudson was seen as pedestrian enough that, when he hit free agency again, no team offered him a major league deal.
He settled for a non-guaranteed contract with the Los Angeles Angels. On the eve of the season, they released him. The Toronto Blue Jays signed him, and Hudson pitched well enough for four months that the Nationals dealt for him hours before the trade deadline to help fortify their porous bullpen.
“He saved our season,” says Sean Doolittle, the Nationals reliever whose late-August knee injury forced Hudson into closing duties. Hudson pitched in 15 of the Nationals’ 24 games in his first month in D.C., an excessive workload for any reliever. In September, as the Nationals surged to secure a wild-card spot, manager Dave Martinez called on him in high-leverage spots, including both ends of a Sept. 24 doubleheader.
“Who else is gonna do it?” Hudson is fond of saying. This is not a shot at his teammates so much as a defense mechanism taught by his trying baseball career. Hudson’s elbow had stolen more than two years of his career and consumed his life. To not be available is a sin.
Which makes his trip to Phoenix all the more meaningful. Over the previous two months, Hudson had seen Sara and his daughters, 5-year-old Baylor Rae and 2-year-old Parker Elizabeth, for three days. Their only other contact had come through FaceTime sessions. Every day, Baylor told him how much she missed him.
At 6:41 a.m. on Thursday, as Hudson prepares to board the plane, a text pops up on his phone — Sara ensuring he is at the airport. He replies that he is and asks how she’s doing. His phone dings again.
“I’m a hormonal, psychotic mess.”
SARA HUDSON’S SENSE of humor borders somewhere between caustic and perverse. When she arrives at the airport Thursday morning with the girls and her mom, Scotti Russell, Sara tells Baylor to show daddy the boo-boo she got on her finger when Parker accidentally closed it in a door. Baylor obliges and lifts the middle finger on her right hand directly at Hudson.
He and Sara met freshman year at Old Dominion in 2005, started dating the next semester and got married in 2011. During Hudson’s 26 months of rehab from his surgeries, Sara, now 32, kept him afloat. She dragged him to trivia night with friends when he didn’t want to go. She didn’t judge him for playing MLB The Show as bizarro Daniel Hudson — a made-from-scratch position player, not his actual video game self. She was supportive for so long, and in so many ways, in fact, that when their first daughter was born, she thought it only appropriate to steal Hudson’s phone, pull up her contact info and enter “My” as her first name and “Queen” as her last.
“IF YOU FEEL LIKE YOU NEED TO GO, YOU CAN GO.”
After more than a year of trying to have a child, Sara found out she was pregnant with their first back in 2014, while Hudson was rehabbing from his second Tommy John. Baylor was born just six weeks before his Sept. 3, 2014, return. She is headstrong, smart and sweet. Parker, who turns 3 in November, is mischievous, silly and bright. Seeing them Thursday reinvigorates Hudson — to a point. After they head home from the airport, he reads them books. They fly a kite in the back yard. The girls go swimming. Hudson keeps asking: “You tired? Ready for a lie-down?” Truth be told, he needs a nap more than they do.
As they play, Sara is at the doctor. With years of experience as a labor-and-delivery nurse, she has scripted out how the delivery will go: Whenever the induction starts, the baby will come between 10 and 12 hours later. If she can get checked in this morning, the Hudsons might be able to leave the hospital Friday.
Of course, then they’ll have to get Hudson to St. Louis. Chartering a jet on such short notice is too tricky. The direct commercial flights between Phoenix and St. Louis aren’t ideal — most leave too early for Sara to settle back at home or too late to ensure Hudson makes the game on time.
“If you feel like you need to go, you can go,” Sara told him earlier in the week.
“God forbid, what if something were to happen and I wasn’t there?” Hudson said.
“Valid point,” Sara said.
All of it becomes moot Thursday morning when Sara’s doctor tells her to return to the hospital at 8 p.m. That settles it. Hudson is missing Game 1.
The world doesn’t yet know. Around midnight, as Sara receives her epidural, a commercial for the postseason shows Hudson punctuating his Game 2-ending, bases-loaded strikeout of Dodgers shortstop Corey Seager with a scream of “Let’s go!” Sara points at the TV and said, “Hey, there’s you!” From the uncomfortable recliner in the corner of the delivery room, Hudson is barely responsive. When his eyes close for a few minutes, Sara angles her phone to snap pictures of him mid-snooze.
Around 5:30 a.m. Friday, her water breaks and they prepare to meet the newest Hudson. They didn’t learn the baby’s gender this time; they want to be surprised. Hudson thinks it’s a girl. Sara isn’t sure. She has alternated between referring to the baby as a boy and a girl. (Sometimes she just calls the baby “it,” which drew scoldings from her friends.)
At 7:02 a.m. — almost exactly 24 hours after Hudson boarded the plane in California — a healthy baby girl comes into the world. Hudson beams. Sara glows. A photographer captures their joy for posterity. Hudson sends texts to family and friends: “It’s a girl!” They move up two floors to a recovery room. Scotti brings Baylor and Parker around 10:30 a.m. After a few minutes of shyness — the girls didn’t realize how tiny the baby would be — Baylor is smitten. She scolds Kris Hudson, Daniel’s mom, for hogging her sister: “You’re holding her too long,” she says. Parker is confused. She wanted a brother. “Daddy,” she says. “I thought it was gonna be a boy!”
They start to solicit advice on names. Sara had picked Baylor because she liked the name when she read it in “Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood.” Hudson chose Parker, which he first saw when Sara was pregnant with Baylor. Baby Girl’s name would be a joint decision.
Baylor wants to name her Lulu. “I like it!” Sara says to her daughter as she vigorously shakes her head “no” to everyone else in the room. Maybe a baseball-inspired choice: Natalie — Nat for short? Nope. One particularly inspired option that doesn’t pass muster: Belle, because of all Sara’s weird cravings — roast beef, Pop Tarts and cold bologna — nothing sated her during this pregnancy quite like a MexiMelt from Taco Bell.
The name conversation continues without resolution. Unbeknownst to anyone in the room, the day is about to get even more interesting. The Nationals’ official Twitter account just posted a picture with the team’s NLCS roster, but instead of the standard four categories of players, they offered five: pitchers, catchers, infielders, outfielders and paternity list.
DANIEL HUDSON DELETED his Twitter in July 2016, amid the worst stretch of his career, because the negativity so overwhelmed him. When he pitched well, he received a few huzzahs. If he blew a game, a deluge of tweets pointing out his worthlessness followed. What happens Friday afternoon, then, takes a small step toward restoring his faith in social media.
It starts with a laugh from Sara. She had just seen the Nationals’ tweet — and is reading the replies.
Hudson is the first player to use MLB’s paternity-list policy in the postseason, and the cocktail of the playoffs and paternity leave is internet red meat. Sara can’t get enough of it. She reads her favorites aloud.
This is a terribly weak move — in the postseason. Regular season, totally fine. Championship on the line? Not a real Nat.
“I kind of wish I had Twitter,” Sara says, “to be like, ‘You’re right, he’s not. He’s a rental.’
She keeps reading: “Oh, I like this one: ‘Used to be it was safe for a National to get busy around mid-January. Good process, bad result.’ “
“Well, technically,” Hudson says, “I actually didn’t have a job when we got pregnant.”
“BRINGING A CHILD INTO THE WORLD IS A MIRACLE. AND IF YOU HAVE A CHANCE TO BE THERE AND SHARE THAT EXPERIENCE WITH YOUR WIFE AND YOUR FAMILY, YOU TAKE IT.”
The Hudsons are pleasantly surprised to find that the positive responses far outweigh the negative. But what stirs the masses most is a tweet from David Samson, the former president of the Miami Marlins, who says: “Unreal that Daniel Hudson is on paternity list and missing game 1 of #NLCS. Only excuse would be a problem with the birth or health of baby or mother. If all is well, he needs to get to St. Louis. Inexcusable. Will it matter?”
Samson got his first job in baseball from Jeffrey Loria, the owner of the Montreal Expos and then-husband of Samson’s mother, Sivia.
“So his whole baseball career exists because of family?” Hudson asks.
It does. And the responses bring Hudson solace. Thousands of tweets pillory Samson. To Hudson’s defenders, he is a proxy for something greater — for the sanctity of fatherhood, family and prioritizing. All these years, slogging along, trying to find his place in baseball, and all it took for the world to care about him was staying true to the thing that made him keep grinding away in the first place.
HUDSON IS STILL trying to reconcile what it means to matter. He wears permanent scars — actual and emotional — that have convinced him he doesn’t. Coming into this season, Hudson had been a slightly above-average pitcher for his career and slightly below-average since his surgeries. Even if he still believed greatness lurked, it couldn’t last. Could it?
“Going through what I’ve been through, you’re just kind of waiting for the wheels to come off again,” he says. “I know that sucks, but it’s happened how many times?”
That’s why he marvels at this season. It seems so perfect. The soft landing in Toronto. The trade to the Nationals, who were relying on the hit-or-miss Fernando Rodney and sundry other lesser-equipped relievers for big at-bats. The faith Martinez showed, giving him the final three outs in the come-from-behind wild-card win, after which Hudson wound up and chucked his glove in elation. The epic division series strikeout of Seager, in which Hudson threw seven consecutive fastballs before telling catcher Kurt Suzuki he wanted to throw a slider — then unleashing a perfect 88 mph tumbler through which Seager swung.
“I don’t think I’ve ever called my shot like that,” Hudson says.
Two games later came the Will Smith at-bat. Win-or-go-home game, 3-3, bottom of the ninth, walk-off waiting to happen. Hudson hung a slider to the Dodgers’ rookie catcher. “Of course the worst one I throw in six weeks would end our season,” he says. Smith hit it to the opposite field and flipped his bat. Dodgers players leapt over the dugout railing. They were convinced it was a series-ending home run. The ball — conveniently for Hudson not flying nearly as far this postseason as it did during the regular season — died in right fielder Adam Eaton‘s glove.
“For me, it would have been a fitting end,” Hudson says. “That s— always happens to me.”
He’s not sandbagging. Even a relatively uncomplicated baseball career can beat you down, and Hudson’s career has not been uncomplicated. So you can excuse him for thinking this is all a big joke when he’s saving postseason games like Mariano Rivera, even with an elbow that has proved far too tenuous for him ever to really trust it and a right knee that, for the past three months, has been in constant pain because of a strained medial collateral ligament. If Hudson sits for more than 10 minutes, his knee barks when he stands up. The team doctor won’t give him a shot because he worries it could further damage the ligament. Only adrenaline and anti-inflammatory drugs allow him to pitch. When they met at the airport Thursday, Sara put on her nurse hat.
“Everything hurts,” Hudson said.
“You need, like, five Aleves?” Sara said.
“I need something,” he said.
“I told him he needs to slow down,” she said. “If he needs a kidney, it’s not coming from me.”
Even in this dream season, Hudson often feels like he’s barely getting through the pain, the self-doubt, the certainty that this can all fall apart. And so Hudson flew to Phoenix to see his child born, yes, but for so much more than that. A recalibration. A reminder that, even with the extreme highs and lows baseball provides, there is something that will forever center him. That he’s got Sara and Baylor and Parker and Baby Girl, and that their want and need and love, unlike the game’s, is unconditional.
It’s what makes this time with his family so heartening. About an hour before Game 1 is set to begin, Hudson drives to his house to pick up his suitcase. Sara booked him a flight for early Saturday morning so he could make it to St. Louis in time for Game 2, and he needs his luggage so he can spend the night with her and Baby Girl. Baylor and Parker are at Scotti’s, and she asks whether he can bring the girls’ pink scooters to her house.
When Scotti opens the front door, Baylor and Parker stand behind her. Each is cradling a baby doll. If they can’t be with their sister, they at least want a reasonable facsimile. Hudson bends his knees, grimacing at the creak in his right one, and opens his arms. The girls lean in for hugs and say goodbye. They ask where Hudson is going. “Daddy has to go play more baseball,” he says.
THIRTY-FIVE MINUTES after the first pitch of the NLCS on Friday night, Sara picks up her phone and starts to scroll. The photographer sent the first batch of pictures from that morning, and Sara is taken by one in particular. It shows Hudson, sitting in the uncomfortable recliner, a smile spread across his face, holding Baby Girl, her eyes wide open, a bow on top of her head, her right hand trying to break through the swaddle that enveloped her.
“That was worth Game 1,” Sara says.
Over the next three hours, Hudson and Sara’s attention vacillates between the game and the baby. In one breath, they dissect the butterfly changeup of Nationals starter Anibal Sanchez, who is carrying a no-hitter deep into the game, and in the next they debate the baby’s name. Both of them like Millie, a homophone for Sara’s maiden name, Milley, but they’re still not entirely sure.
Throughout the night, the broadcast team never misses an opportunity to bring up Hudson’s absence. It becomes such a recurring theme that Craig Hanks, a friend of Hudson’s, sends him a text proposing a new drinking game: “Every time they say Daniel Hudson take a drink … I might die.” When Sanchez loses his no-hit bid, Hudson turns into an especially important talking point. This would have been his time to pitch, the broadcast notes, his save to secure.
“All this time I thought I’d married Rodney,” Sara says, “and it turns out I married Rivera.”
After the first out in the ninth, Hudson passes Baby Girl back to Sara. With one out remaining, he sits up and gazes at the TV — composed, even stoic. No fist-pump when Marcell Ozuna stares at a first-pitch strike from Doolittle. No disappointment when Ozuna takes a ball to even the count. Nothing even when Ozuna swings and misses at a fastball that ends the game and gives the Nationals a 1-0 series lead.
“Told you we were good,” Hudson says. “Got it locked down.”
“Look at that,” Sara says. “Team picks you up in a team sport.”
About 10 minutes later, Hudson’s phone buzzes with a text from Martinez, the Nationals’ manager: “You need to name your daughter Anibala Sean.”
As tempting as that might be, it doesn’t fit. Around midnight, about 3 1/2 hours before Hudson would awaken and head to the airport for his 6:05 a.m. flight, he and Sara agree that Baby Girl will be called Millie Lou Hudson. You can never go wrong honoring the family.
SOUTHWEST FLIGHT 3558 landsin St. Louis about 30 minutes early Saturday morning. Hudson scored the best seat on the plane — 12A, in the exit row and without a seat in front of it — allowing him to flex his right knee and prevent soreness from creeping into the joint. As the plane parks at the gate and passengers reach for their belongings from the overhead bins, a man two rows in front of Hudson turns around.
“I just wanna say thanks for beating the Dodgers,” he says.
Hudson appreciates the acknowledgment, especially a year after he ended the season on the injured list instead of the Dodgers’ postseason roster. Now he is headed to his first NLCS. Hudson winds his way through the airport, grabs his bag and arrives at Busch Stadium at 11 a.m. “Hey, dad,” his Nationals teammates call out as he walks into the clubhouse. They ask about Sara (she’s heading home) and how much sleep he has gotten (eight hours over three days) and whether he is ready to go (of course).
“ALL THIS TIME I THOUGHT I’D MARRIED RODNEY, AND IT TURNS OUT I MARRIED RIVERA.”
About 90 minutes later, he sits atop a dais in front of the media and tells the story of his last 50 or so hours, from the flight home to the decision to the birth. He says he is awed by the response and appreciative of the Nationals for being so supportive, and he adds that Sara is a “rock star.” “I heard somebody say one time baseball’s what I do, it’s not who I am,” Hudson says. “And kind of once you have kids, or once I had kids, it really resonated with me. So to be able to be a part of that was awesome.” The room is duly charmed.
From there, it is back to the clubhouse. Typically, Hudson spends the first few innings of a game undergoing treatment on his knee to activate his leg muscles and reduce the stress on his MCL. He hangs back with Doolittle and Patrick Corbin, talking about the improbability of his life right now, and before they know it, the fifth inning comes and they make their way to the bullpen.
Max Scherzer throws seven brilliant innings. The Cardinals score a run off Doolittle on a defensive miscue in the eighth to cut the Nationals’ lead to 3-1. In the ninth, Martinez calls on Corbin, a $140 million free agent signing last winter, to secure the first out. He gives way to Hudson, who figures his free agency will go better this offseason than last. He earned a save in the wild-card game, plus a save and the series-clinching win in the division series. Now he has a chance at an NLCS save.
First up is Paul Goldschmidt, his old Diamondbacks teammate. Hudson hangs a slider. Goldschmidt doesn’t capitalize, popping out to left field. Hudson wants to jam the next hitter, Ozuna, with an inside fastball. Ozuna bites, breaks his bat and pops out feebly. Hudson comes through again, his 13th consecutive scoreless outing dating to the regular season.
Cameras swarm him in the clubhouse afterward. Reporters ask teammates about him. Doolittle provides the money quote: “If your reaction to someone having a baby is anything other than, ‘Congratulations, I hope everybody’s healthy,’ you’re an a–hole.”
A few minutes later, as the clubhouse clears and the Nationals’ bus readies to leave, Doolittle continues.
“I was thinking about this yesterday,” he says. “I don’t know if it’s 2019 and we take modern medicine for granted, or if we just live in a really cynical or jaded society, but bringing a child into the world is a miracle. It’s unbelievable. And if you have a chance to be there and share that experience with your wife and your family, you take it.”
And as the bus drives toward the Nationals’ hotel, Doolittle elaborates even more. This is personal to him. What Hudson had done resonated deeper than anyone realized.
“As important as our careers are to us as players, nothing is more important to us than our families,” Doolittle says. “Our careers will end someday, but family is forever. We sacrifice so much and we miss so much during our careers. We miss graduations and weddings. Lots of players might miss their kids’ first steps or first words. They’re gone six to eight months out of the year and can’t take their kids to school or help their wives with taking care of the kids. So when he said, ‘Hey, I need a day to be with my family because my wife is about to give birth,’ it was a no-brainer for me, and we focused all our energy on picking him up.”
When Hudson walks into his room, he collapses on the bed, ready for a good night’s sleep. First, though, he has one final responsibility: calling the girls on FaceTime and helping put them to bed. He’ll do that whenever time permits, perhaps even after Game 3 on Monday, when the Nationals can put themselves within one win of the World Series. Even if he’s not there with them, he tries to make sure they’re there with him.
That goes for on the field, too. All he needs to do is look at his left hand. All season, sewn into his glove, on the thumb side, were three sets of initials: SMH, BRH and PEH. Before Game 2, Hudson realized something was missing. So he grabbed a black marker, and in the small patch of empty leather, he wrote three more letters: MLH.