"Over (and Back Onto) the Hill" - Piecing The Big Three Back Together

By Ali Sperling | Alison.Sperling@gmail.com

This Saturday, the Oakland Athletics will send 37-year-old Barry Zito, appearing in his first start since 2013, to the hill. His opponent: the San Francisco Giants’ Tim Hudson, age 40, in his 17th and (reportedly) final season in the Majors.

If you squint, you can see one ballpark from the other, just fifteen-or-so miles apart, across the glimmering San Francisco Bay. Proximity alone demands a rivalry between the two clubs. But the baseball culture on each side also has its marked differences -- one boasting a gorgeous bay-front property, sushi bars, and an organic kale garden, while the other offers, one might say, more modest accommodations, suffering from low regular attendance in part due to a location a bit off the beaten path.

In the past five years, (this season notwithstanding), both teams have seen their share of success – though the Giants have more impressively brought three world championships to San Francisco, and the A’s, despite some wild runs to the playoffs, have yet to deliver a title to Oakland since the two teams met in the World Series in 1989. But in their meeting at the end of this 2015 season, what would typically be a rivalry charged with anticipation of the post-season, this year’s final Bay Bridge series was poised to fall a little flat. That is, until Monday’s welcome announcement that Zito and Hudson would face off in the series’ middle game.

Zito and Hudson were teammates once. As Oakland Athletics in the early 2000’s they made up two-thirds of the infamous “Big Three,” completed by left-hander Mark Mulder. The Big Three led the A’s to unparalleled success during those Moneyball years, resulting in four consecutive playoff bids and an AL Cy Young Award for Zito in 2002. Hudson wasn’t far behind, finishing as a top ten Cy Young Award contender three times: in 2000, 2001, and 2003. As a taste of the kind of absolute dominance I’m referencing here, imagine your top three pitchers in your starting rotation posting 23 (Zito), 19 (Mulder), and 16 (Hudson) wins, respectively, in one season. That was the 2002 Athletics.

Huddy has enjoyed swinging the lumber in the National League (Photo by Christian Petersen)

All magic comes to an end, however, especially in Major League Baseball (and always rather traumatically and unexpectedly for A’s fans). In 2004, Hudson was traded to the Atlanta Braves and Mulder dealt to the Cardinals; and in 2006, Zito trekked across the Bay in a legendary 126 million dollar deal inked by the rival San Francisco Giants. Admittedly, for any A’s fan, the breakup of the Big Three was heartbreaking. Even more so when Zito, a long-time Oakland favorite, donned the orange and black for the first time in 2007. While Mulder would go on to retire in 2010 (notwithstanding a comeback attempt in 2014), Hudson would sign with the Giants in 2013, where he plans to retire at the end of this season with a World Series championship ring on his finger.

For many baseball fans across the country, while this washed-up match-up might seem hardly worth the attention it has garnered, for a baseball-crazed Bay Area, Saturday will not only make history for many reasons, it is also rich with its own: a history of baseball’s grandeur when the right things all happen at the right time, a history of letting go of that grandeur, one of rivalry and even, for some, one of betrayal.    

The media has been swift in capitalizing on Saturday’s event, emphasizing and honoring the past, reliving those first few years of the 2000’s, recalling memories of The Big Three’s accomplishments, and printing interview responses from each pitcher which seem to affectionately reminisce on their time together at the height of each of their respective careers.

When you’re in the middle of something, you usually don’t know how special it is until you’re away from it to reflect,” Zito said. “It definitely was special. To have three homegrown guys, it’s pretty rare.
— ESPN.com

Zeets slinging his patented curveball in his first game back with the A's versus Houston (Photo by Richard Carson)

The stage for Saturday's game is thus set: nostalgia named, reflection the act, the end of an era effectively marked. It’s true, A’s manager Bob Melvin has said that Zito will likely throw no more than 50 pitches, and it’s doubtful that anyone expects to see performances reminiscent 2002. According to the media, it isn’t about who gets the “W”, it’s about honoring and remembering a different time, a time that perhaps, according to Zito, we didn’t quite understand as it was happening to us.

So, yes, while I share in the absolute glee and excitement over seeing Zito take the mound against Hudson on Saturday at the Coliseum, an uncanny ghost of the past in green and gold, I have to say that what is most striking to me in this moment is a certain sadness that also accompanies their reuniting.

Because it’s also, like a recent Chronicle headline points out, a goodbye. It’s a goodbye to Hudson and Zito in their final year of their careers, a goodbye to them in A’s uniforms -- perhaps a goodbye we never really got ten years ago. But it also exposes yet another metaphor for life that baseball offers up, the difficulties with letting go of our earlier selves, our earlier successes. A moment here where we might take stock of the past and face up to the present.

For me, for all the reasons that the media, and the players, and my own over-wrought ruminations point to, Saturday’s matchup feels so totally emotionally palpable. It’s the scene of Zito warming up in the outfield, one I rarely missed throughout his career in Oakland, or even in San Francisco. It’s my Dad and me sitting in Pac Bell Park side-by-side for every Zito start in 2007, black Zito t-shirt next to my green and gold of the same name. It’s not only an attachment to certain players that steal your heart, but also to the way that baseball can connect you inextricably to specific moments – moments in a ballpark with your dad, periods of your life. The return of The Big Three: now, not-so-big, not even three, is a reminder of the mortality of the game and of its players, the transience of success, the glory of the past as almost always exceeding, in some way, that of the present.


Ali Sperling, a Bay Area native, is a PhD student in English and Cultural Theory at the University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee. You can reach her at Alison.Sperling@gmail.com, or on Twitter, @ali_sperling.