LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- All of this seemed ridiculously improbable when Tim Hudson graduated from high school with the reality that his only chance to play baseball at the next level was being offered by Chattahoochee Valley Community College in his hometown, Phenix City, Ala.
Those who understood the heart and determination of the 6-foot, 160-pound pitcher were not shocked that he used his experience at CVCC to earn a chance to play at nearby Auburn University. And those who saw him during his magical 1997 season with Auburn were not floored when he continued to grow and reached the Major League level with the A's two years later.
But as Hudson prepares to begin his 15th Major League season, he can't help but acknowledge that he has lived a dream that once would have seemed impossible, even in a fantasy world.
"I'd have had a better chance of winning the lottery," Hudson said. "Out of high school, if you would have told me, 'In 20 years, this is where your life is going to be,' I'd be like, 'You are crazy. There is no chance.'"
Life seemed grand when Hudson made his Major League debut and then spent each of his first six seasons with the A's. Things seemed to get even better in December 2004, when he learned that he had been traded to Atlanta, approximately two hours from his hometown.
Hudson's love for the Braves began back in the days of Dale Murphy and extended through his college years, during which Chipper Jones made his Major League debut. Like any young pitcher, he aspired to be like Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and John Smoltz.
Over the course of eight seasons, he has had the pleasure of being in the rotation with Glavine and Smoltz. And now that Jones has retired, the same kid who had to attend his hometown community college is the longest-tenured player on the Braves.
"It's been a while, and I feel like it's been a good time here," he said. "I feel like I've pulled my weight, or I wouldn't have been here this long. Those were the expectations when I got here -- to establish myself as a guy who could be here for a while."
When the Braves acquired Hudson from the A's and later gave him a contract extension that ran through 2009, they envisioned him serving as an anchor in their rotation for many years. There was some disappointment when he posted a career-high 4.86 ERA in 2006, but the past six seasons have been much closer to what both parties had envisioned.
Hudson has gone 78-44 with a 3.24 ERA over his past six seasons. Only Roy Halladay, Felix Hernandez, CC Sabathia, Adam Wainwright, Cliff Lee and Matt Cain have posted a better ERA while making at least 150 starts in that span.
"I always tell everybody, 'That guy is really good,'" bullpen coach and former catcher Eddie Perez said. "He is not too far from Maddux and all of those guys. He is one of the best in baseball. I tell that to everybody all of the time."
Perez was Atlanta's starting catcher when Hudson beat the Marlins on April 7, 2005, in the first of the 222 starts he has made for the Braves. The only pitchers in Atlanta history who made more starts are Phil Niekro, Glavine, Smoltz and Maddux.
"It's nice to know I'll be known as a Brave and not an A," Hudson said. "There's nothing wrong with that, but it's nice to be known as something, not bounce around three or four teams."
If all goes according to his wishes, Hudson will pitch a few more years and end his career with the Braves. But as he enters the final year of his contract, the 37-year-old understands that this could be his final season in Atlanta.
"We'll make the most of it," he said. "My job is to go out and help this team win. I'm going to enjoy it and savor it as much as I can. Hopefully it's not, but it could be the last year for me here."
Since returning from Tommy John surgery for the final month of the 2009 season, Hudson has gone 51-27 with a 3.22 ERA. He has won at least 16 games in each of the past three seasons, including last year, despite missing most of the first month while recovering from back surgery.
If Hudson remains healthy and enjoys another productive season, the Braves would certainly have plenty of reason to keep him for a few more years. The veteran could continue to be a strong influence in the clubhouse and especially with such young pitchers as J.R. Graham, a top prospect who has been likened to Hudson.
"Hopefully, I'll play a while longer, and hopefully it's here," Hudson said. "I think when the day comes when I'm not a Brave or not playing for anybody, it's going to be a sad day around the Hudson house."
Mark Bowman is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.