'Wonder Dog': Start early, have a backup plan

NEWPORT BEACH — Addressing nearly 100 ninth- to 12th-graders at the Beach City Service League's monthly meeting Sunday, former Angels announcer Rex Hudler encouraged them to figure out what they want early in life, then go for it.

"The clock is ticking. Find your compass in life," Hudler, a major league baseball player for 10 years, told the crowd at St. Andrew's Presbyterian Church. "I was blessed. I loved recess, and I loved PE classes. Little did I realize that that was going to turn into a professional career for me, but it did."

Founded three years ago, the Beach City Service League is the only organization in the Newport-Mesa area that connects mothers with their sons, said Susan Friend, the youth coordinator for the league. The mission is to teach the students how to volunteer more in the community and learn more about how to succeed in life and become upstanding citizens.

Enter Hudler, whose on-field career might not have been the greatest, he said, but there's no denying that he succeeded in "living the dream," regardless of the outcome or statistics.

"I might not have put up great numbers on the back of the bubble gum card," Hudler said, "but I was blessed to have been able to have played baseball."

While Hudler's speech touched on a few regrets in life, like wondering what life would have been like had he decided to play football at Notre Dame, the key message was that they should work hard and be sure to make a "very good first impression."

"Always have a firm handshake, always look the person in the eye," said Hudler, 50, a Tustin resident who grew up in Fresno and was drafted in the 18th round by the New York Yankees in 1978. "You never know where it might lead to."

Most of Hudler's 13-year career was spent as a utility player. The only positions he didn't play were pitcher and catcher.

The greatest piece of advice he ever received, he said, came from one of his most instrumental mentors: Dave Winfield. They were playing for the Yankees, and Winfield told Hudler that he could be sure of one thing: "Every baseball player will be an ex-baseball player."

"So I made sure to prepare for when that time came," Hudler said.

The speech was peppered with funny anecdotes on what it was like to play in the major leagues, including the time when the "Bleacher Creatures" in Wrigley Field in Chicago started to yell at him while he was in the outfield, asking him if he "rode in the car like a dog" by sticking his head out the window.

After a while, Hudler decided to go along with the joke, and in the later innings he started to scratch himself out on the grass without missing a beat or turning to face the Bleacher Bums.

"And I heard this chorus of laughter behind me," he said. "If you can only imagine what it's like to get the crowd going, thousands of people at the same time. It was a blast."

Other notables on the field included taking out future Hall of Famer shortstop Ozzie Smith of the St. Louis Cardinals in a double-play in the mid-1990s, then seeing the picture in the newspaper the next day, he said.

When he returned for the second game of the series and got to second base for the second day in a row, Hudler said Smith acknowledge him, and said, "Hey, Rex."

"He knew my name." Hudler said. "I had made an impression."

Hudler's speech also made an impression on the crowd.

Tyler Kiehnle, 16, a center fielder for Mater Dei High School in Santa Ana, said he thought the notion of having a back-up plan was a good one.

"It's nice to have a dream," said Tyler, who hopes to play college baseball. "But it's also good to have a plan. There are so little spots in baseball. You have to play it safe."

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