When he was a youngster, growing up in Darlington, S.C., Orlando Hudson was a three-sport star -- All-State as a football quarterback, basketball shooting guard and baseball infielder. There were scholarship offers in each, but for Hudson, his sport of choice was never in doubt.
07/16/2009 1:59 PM ET
Hudson crossing barriers for baseball
All-Star helping to make sport relevant in inner city
By Hal Bock / MLBPLAYERS.com
"Baseball was my first love," he said. "I always wanted to play baseball."
And now the Los Angeles Dodgers All-Star second baseman is determined to instill that passion to the next generation of African-American kids. That's why this season, with a bunch of his baseball buddies, he launched Tour Around the Mound, a program to get inner city youngsters back to his sport.
It was no accident that the nine-city tour was introduced on April 15, the anniversary of Jackie Robinson's first game with the Brooklyn Dodgers and the start of a sociological revolution that introduced black players to Major League Baseball.
The influx of African-American players included some of the game's greatest stars like Hall of Famers Willie Mays and Hank Aaron, Bob Gibson and Ferguson Jenkins, Lou Brock and Rickey Henderson. Gradually, though, the surge has been reduced to a trickle, and Hudson wants to reverse that trend.
"My message is, don't give up on baseball," he said. "Baseball takes a while. It's not overnight, but don't forget the sacrifices made by Mr. Jackie Robinson and Mr. Larry Doby, what they went through to open this game for us. Play the game. Enjoy the game."
The message resonates because of the messengers -- Hudson's pals like big leaguers Mike Cameron, Jermaine Dye, Torii Hunter, Jimmy Rollins, Brandon Phillips, Ken Griffey Jr. and a host of others, who visit schools to talk to youngsters about their sport.
Just before the All-Star break, Hudson took teammates James Loney and Juan Pierre to speak to some New York City kids, and he then visited some kids in Milwaukee with Cameron to spread the word.
Putting together his roster of visitors was easy. "We are all family and friends," Hudson said. The program schedules visits to middle school, high schools and Little Leagues, encouraging kids.
"There is a lack of instruction, fields and resources," Hudson said. "Major League Baseball is interested in changing that, and so am I. I want this tour to highlight the sport and let kids know they can excel at it."
But Hudson said it's an uphill fight, because the lure of the NBA and NFL is enormous.
"They hear the hip-hop music," he said. "They see LeBron [James] making all those commercials. They see no Minor Leagues. They see those sports as a quick trip right to the top."
And that turns their heads.
Hudson's story is quite different. He spent five years in the Minors after being drafted in 1997, honing his skills at outposts like Medicine Hat, Hagerstown, Dunedin, Tennessee and Syracuse before reaching the Majors. That's an eternity for today's instant gratification crowd.
But he learned his craft well, breaking in with Toronto and then moving on to Arizona and, this season, to the Dodgers. He is a three-time Gold Glove winner, is one of just six infielders to win that award in both leagues and made the All-Star team for the second time this season.
Hudson was one of the last free agents to sign last winter because teams were wary after he missed the final month of the 2008 season with a dislocated left wrist.
"The wrist is fine," he said, although he plays with it heavily taped.
And any concerns the team had disappeared quickly when, in the home opener, Hudson hit for the cycle, becoming the first Dodger to do that since Wes Parker in 1970 and the only one to ever do it at Dodger Stadium. Hudson has had hitting streaks of 11 games and 17 games and was a fixture at second base over the first half of the season.
He was having fun, and he wants inner-city kids to know that baseball can do the same thing for them.
Hal Bock is a freelance writer based in New York.