KANSAS CITY, Mo. – It took awhile for Rex Hudler to feel this way, but after his first year — a sometimes rocky year — in the Royals’ television broadcast booth, he now feels like he belongs.
“I feel comfortable and I feel at home,” Hudler said by phone Thursday. “I love Kansas City. And now I want to officially make it home.”
So much so that Hudler intends to move his family from California to Kansas City this off-season.
“My kids, they need some Midwest,” Hudler said. “I really believe that. They need a good education that Kansas City can provide. They need to meet these wonderful people. Weather isn’t everything.”
Hudler has three boys ages 8, 11 and 15. He also has a daughter enrolled at Kansas.
“I’m ready to make the move,” he said. “I spent last year here pretty much alone and that allowed me to really get to know the community. I got out there and had dinners and talked to the fans and really tried to get involved. Now I want to be here full-time with my family. I don’t want to worry about contracts and stuff like that. Just do it.”
Hudler, who joined the FSKC television booth with another newcomer, Steve Physioc, will start the second year of his three-year deal (FSKC holds an option for the third year).
But Hudler’s commitment to Kansas City wasn’t such a sure thing back in April. Royals fans did not warm up to Hudler’s sometimes over-the-top enthusiasm right away, and flooded sports-talk shows and comments sections with complaints.
Hudler knew it would be a tough transition for the fans, many of whom were still stinging from the sudden dismissal of Royals Hall of Famer Frank White.
“It’s always hard to replace someone the fans are used to, especially if he’s a legend (like White),” Hudler said. “Plus, they were missing Paul Splittorff, too. I get it. It was tough for them. I knew it’d take time.”
What didn’t help, either, is that the Royals plummeted early, losing 12 straight in early April, including 10 straight at home. Fans were searching for scapegoats, and the new guy in the booth was an easy target for some misdirected anger.
“I knew the fans were hissing (at me),” Hudler said. “That was a lot for them to handle right away. You got a team that loses 10 straight at home. I’d never seen that before in my baseball life. And they they have to deal with me, and I know I have a different style. They maybe weren’t ready for someone as positive and enthusiastic as me in the middle of that losing streak.
“Let’s face it: They were grieving, and they didn’t want to hear my stuff.”
So, Hudler wisely toned down his act.
“I did consciously back off a little,” he said. “I had to. I was feeling their pain, too.”
The Royals finally ended the 12-game losing streak with a win at Cleveland, then in early May snapped the 10-game home losing streak with a dramatic win over the Yankees.
“I’ll never forget that game,” Hudler said. “That’s when I knew what a great baseball town this was and what great fans they are here. I remember Moose (Mike Moustakas) charging in and making that great one-handed scoop and throw to beat Alex Rodriguez to win it.
“The place just went crazy. It was a like a playoff win. It was definitely a playoff roar. It made me think about how great it will be when this team becomes a contender, which isn’t far away.”
The winning seemed to ease the fans’ frustrations with Hudler, too, and his comfort level rose.
“I started to let go again a little more and just be me,” Hudler said. “I know it takes awhile to get used to me. It takes awhile to get used to all that enthusiasm but I just can’t help it. I love the game. I love what I do. I love this team.”
But Hudler also showed he could be critical when necessary. During a May series at Texas, Royals outfielder Jarrod Dyson was on first base and drew a wild pickoff throw. The ball scooted down into the right-field corner, yet Dyson, one of the fastest men in baseball, only advanced to second.
Hudler was incredulous in the booth and called Dyson out. It’s the type of criticism fans today expect out of the booth, even from the home-town announcers.
“You have to call what you see,” he said. “I do it when it’s there for the fans to see. But you don’t have to belabor the point. You make your point and you move on. That’s the best way.”
Hudler doesn’t hide from the players, either, even after delivering criticism. He spends almost all of his pregame routine on the field, talking to coaches and players.
“I probably get too close to them,” he said. “I don’t know. But I want to get information and pass it on to the fans. That’s part of my job, too.”
As Hudler’s comfort level rose throughout the season, so did his chemistry with Ryan Lefebvre, whose role changed last season to include more radio and less TV to accommodate the new arrivals.
While Hudler already had a long relationship with Physioc from their days with the Angels, it was remarkable to see how well Hudler and Lefebvre transitioned.
“He’s great to work with,” Hudler said of Lefebvre. “He plays a great straight man. I’m kind of the off-the-wall guy with all my sayings and mannerisms, and he just plays it straight and sets me up. It’s great because he has a great sense of humor – very dry, but it’s always there.”
In fact, Lefebvre had Hudler in stitches late in the season when Hudler misspoke while discussing how a contestant could win during the “Sonic Slam” inning.
Lefebvre didn’t hesitate and smoothly corrected Hudler, then said, “It’s OK. I knew what you meant. I speak ‘Hud.’ “
Hudler immediately began laughing so hard he couldn’t stop.
Lefebvre kept going, saying, “I’m not saying I’m fluent in ‘Hud.’ But I can get by, you know, if we’re in a foreign country or something.”
Hudler is looking forward to another year with Lefebvre.
“He’s just fun to work with,” Hudler said. “You know, I’ve got all this child-like enthusiasm and tolerates it really well. I’m up there with my baseball, tossing it from hand to hand, and I drop it, and he picks it up for me. I’m like a kid he’s watching after.”
Mainly, though, Hudler is just anxious to start his second season with a team he’s convinced is just one or two pieces away.
“That’s the exciting part,” Hudler said. “We get one or two starting pitchers and tweak this and that, it can turn around so fast. This is a good, young team. It’s going to be so great for the fans and it’s going to be so great to be right in the middle of it. How lucky am I?”