Atlanta Braves pitcher Tim Hudson throws a ball before the official start of baseball spring training on Sunday, Feb. 19, 2012, in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)
KISSIMMEE, Fla. -- Tim Hudson remembers when he was the young gun in the clubhouse.
Now, he's the old dude, looking a bit out of place on one of baseball's most promising pitching staffs.
But don't count him out just yet. At 36, Hudson isn't quite ready to pass the torch to all those hot young prospects on the Atlanta Braves. Quite the contrary. After undergoing back surgery over the winter -- yep, the sort of operation usually reserved for an aging athlete -- the right-hander feels better than ever.
"I'm in my prime," Hudson said, breaking into a mischievous grin.
He won't be ready to go at the start of the season. After two vertebrae in his lower back were fused during an operation in late November, Hudson is about a month behind schedule. For him, opening day is May 1.
But Hudson has no regrets about undergoing the procedure, having endured steadily increasing pain over the last three or four seasons. Finally, after being unable to get started on his latest offseason program because it was just too excruciating, he realized something had to be done.
"It's just one of those things that happens as you get a little older," he said. "You don't really think much about it until it gets to the point where you can't deal with it. Then, when you get it fixed, you realize how bad it was."
Looking around, Hudson is reminded of that up-and-coming Oakland staff at the start of the 2000s, the one that included himself and left-handers Barry Zito and Mike Mulder. The Braves have Jair Jurrjens, Tommy Hanson and Brandon Beachy in their rotation, while Mike Minor, Julio Teheran and Randall Delgado are poised to break through. The oldest one in the bunch is Jurrjens, who just turned 26.
"In Oakland when I came up, we had three top-of-the-line starters that were young," Hudson said. "There's a whole rotation full here that could be pretty special at some point."
The Braves are counting on Hudson to serve as a mentor to all those youngsters.
"Leadership is big," manager Fredi Gonzalez said. "If you were a young pitcher in this camp, Huddy is the guy you would follow. Not only his work habits, but the way he carries himself on and off the field."
Hudson looks forward to working with all the kids, passing on the lessons learned over his 13 years in the majors. He understands what it takes to be successful, winning at least 11 games every season except 2009, when he was coming back from major elbow surgery.
He's not an imposing pitcher by any means, packing all of 175 pounds on his wiry frame, and he certainly doesn't have a dominating repertoire. But Hudson knows how to keep the ball down, usually ranking among the league's best in producing ground balls. Plus, he's one of the most popular guys on the team, keeping everyone in stitches with Southern-accented humor that would work just as well in a frat house as it does a clubhouse.
There's certainly a youthful energy that allows Hudson to get along just fine with all the kids.
"I just want to watch 'em grow, man. They're really ... good right now, but they're only going to get better. It's going to be fun to watch," Hudson said. "Even though I'm considerably older than a lot of these guys, I don't feel like I am. I don't know if that's just because I'm kind of dumb or they just make me feel like I'm young."
Hudson knows there are plenty of Braves fans who wonder why he didn't have the surgery right after the season ended in September. But he'd always been able to mask the pain by taking anti-inflammatory medication. It was only when he stopped taking the pills and started back up with his workout program that he realized he wouldn't be able to deal with it this time. The vertebrae were rubbing against each other, essentially bone on bone.
"If you can't work out to be ready for spring training, then you're not gonna be worth a crap," Hudson said. "Obviously, a lot of people ask, 'Why didn't you do it a month earlier and you'd be right on time?' Well, it took me that long to realize that I wouldn't be able to stick it out like I normally had."
He only hopes this operation works out as well as the last one.
Hudson sustained the first serious injury of his career in 2008, a torn ligament in his elbow. He underwent Tommy John surgery and missed most of the next year, though seven starts late in the season persuaded the Braves to sign him to a new contract.
That was money well spent. Hudson has led the Braves in wins each of the last two years, combining to go 33-19 with a 3.02 ERA.
"I responded so well after my Tommy John, it was like a breath of fresh air," Hudson said.
"Hopefully this gives me another boost, another shot of confidence. Honestly, the way I felt, I could see the end of my career coming. It was like, 'That's just how I'm gonna go out, I guess -- the guy with the bad back.' But now, man, honestly, I'm pretty confident that whenever I retire, it's not gonna be because of my back."
Still, it's a little odd to be one of the oldest players in the room.
"Yeah, I used to be the young gun," he reminisced, "sitting at my locker, looking at some ol' 34-year-old going, 'Damn, look at that old" guy.
With that, Hudson jumps up from his locker and begins spouting jokes. Everyone laughs.
Yep, he still fits right in.