Pudge remembers: His first game with the Texas Rangers

Baseball Hall of Fame inductee Ivan Rodriguez was all of 19 when the Rangers called him up for first professional game. But, he had a decision to make: Go to the big leagues or get married?
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Baseball Hall of Fame inductee Ivan Rodriguez was all of 19 when the Rangers called him up for first professional game. But, he had a decision to make: Go to the big leagues or get married?

Texas Rangers

You all know Pudge is a Hall of Famer, but these traits make him an all-time great

July 27, 2017 10:39 AM

As of Sunday afternoon, Ivan Rodriguez will be a permanent member of baseball’s most exclusive club.

Not only is the former Texas Rangers star going into the National Baseball Hall of Fame — along with Jeff Bagwell, Tim Raines, Bud Selig and John Schuerholz — he was elected for enshrinement in his first year on the ballot.

That is an honor reserved for the best of the best, the no-doubters, even though there was enough doubt among voters for Rodriguez to just barely become the 52nd member of the first-ballot club.

The other 167 players in the Hall had to wait at least one more year.

Even if that had been Rodriguez’s fate, if only three voters had left him off their ballot, he was going to get in eventually as the best defensive catcher in baseball history and, arguably, the best catcher.

At the very least he is an all-time great, an MVP, a 13-time Gold Glove winner, a 14-time All-Star, a world champion. Those players don’t come along often, and they all have multiple tools that made them the game’s best.

“I did a lot of great things in the game,” Rodriguez said. “I’m glad to say I had all that with me to become a great player.”

The arm

Rodriguez didn’t win all of those Gold Gloves based on good looks, but he contends that he didn’t win all that defensive hardware strictly because of a throwing arm that is widely considered as one of the best, if not the best, for a catcher in baseball history.

Footwork, release and accuracy were all things that Rodriguez worked on throughout his career to make that historic arm strength all the better. He said that without proper mechanics, not to mention being prepared for every situation, a strong arm isn’t nearly as effective.

Rangers first-base coach Hector Ortiz, the team’s former minor-league catching instructor, said no one had the quick feet and release of his fellow Puerto Rican Rodriguez. Rodriguez’s footwork featured small, quick steps, and his throws came from a short stroke.

“He had the quickest feet and strongest arm at the position when he played,” said Ortiz, who has seen many catchers with great arms. “But they were sloppy on the bottom. Pudge was short with his feet and that made him be unbelievable, which he was. It’s supposed to be a short first step. It’s like a jab, and then boom. Guys with great arms have a tendency to be long because they want to be all arm strength. Pudge did both.”

But that arm ...

It was evident to the Rangers when they signed him at 16 on July 27, 1988, and when he made his MLB debut June 20, 1991, at 19. It was evident well before then, too.

“Since Day One, I think, since I started to play when I was a little kid,” Rodriguez said. “I always had a good arm. That’s something I can’t take away. A good arm is one thing, but working behind the plate and learning how to move my feet, that’s a different thing. I had to work on that, and I had to make sure I worked on that a lot.”

Hall of Famers Johnny Bench, the Cincinnati Reds great and one of Rodriguez’s biggest fans, and the late Gary Carter, who starred with the Montreal Expos and New York Mets, also are in the conversation for MLB’s best all-time defender behind the plate.

Rodriguez’s defensive WAR of 28.7, according to the baseball-reference.com formula, is tied for eighth all time at any position and is the best by a catcher ahead Carter (25.5). Bench, meanwhile, won 10 Gold Gloves.

Rodriguez led the American League in caught-stealing percentage nine times and caught 41.7 percent (563 of 1349) of attempted base stealers in his career, the highest percentage by any catcher with at least 480 games since the stat was first tracked in 1974.

“Back then we took infield before games, and just to watch him throw during infield, it was different,” said Rangers bench coach Steve Buechele, who was in the lineup for Rodriguez’s debut. “It was different than any catcher I’d been with. It was special. And then you knew there was tremendous talent there.

“It got on you really quick, especially at third. He’d throw it knee-high, and it would just stay there. He had something on it. He threw bullets. He just threw missiles. He had an incredible arm and a quick release.”

The 83 pickoffs Rodriguez amassed are the most by any catcher since 1974, and his 1,227 assists are the most by a modern-day catcher.

There are also the bases that weren’t taken simply because of what might happen.

“If you walked a guy, you were wanting him to try to steal second,” said former Rangers pitcher Bobby Witt, Rodriguez’s teammate for five seasons. “You knew that was pretty much a gimme out. The other thing about Pudge, the ability that he had to back-pick a guy at first base, the guys’ secondary lead, they couldn’t get off as much as they’d like to.

“So, I think a lot of times our outfielders had a better chance at throwing someone out at third, and if the ball was hit hard enough, the runners didn’t have as good a chance to advance, either.”

Hall of Fame pitcher John Smoltz saw Rodriguez up close in 2003 after he left the Rangers to sign with the Florida Marlins. Rodriguez would win his only world championship in his only season with the Marlins, the wild-card entry after finishing second to Smoltz’s Atlanta Braves in the National League East.

“Single-handedly he took away a lot of what a team could do,” Smoltz said. “You talk about that time and era when running was more of an indicator of what we see today. It was basically a version of ‘you can’t do what you want to do.’ He just shut down the running game.”

Defense for a catcher also includes game-calling, a skill that develops over time. Former manager Ron Washington said catchers might need three or four seasons to learn the league and to learn the pitchers they’re catching.

In 1994, Rodriguez caught Kenny Rogers’ perfect game. Early on, Rodriguez learned about the game from catching Hall of Famer Nolan Ryan.

“I think from the first or second start we were clicking really quick about what he likes to throw in situations,” Rodriguez said. “One of the reasons I stayed in the major leagues was because he wanted me behind the plate.”

When Rodriguez returned to the Rangers in 2009, after an August trade with the Houston Astros, he wasn’t the world-class player he had been but he certainly wasn’t a liability.

“He could still flat-out play, and every time he played he was making contributions and helping us win games,” said Michael Young, who was just beginning his career when he played with Rodriguez briefly in 2000 and every day in 2001 and 2002.

“I remember guys saying, ‘Man, Pudge is really good.’ But they’d never seen him. I was like, “Shoot, you didn’t see him eight or nine years ago. That was a whole different level of catcher.”

The bat

This is Hall-worthy: Rodriguez is the only player in baseball history with at least 13 Gold Gloves and a lifetime average of .295. It’s a small group of Hall of Fame position players with 13 Gold Gloves — shortstop Ozzie Smith (13) and third baseman Brooks Robinson (16) — but it’s still a telling nugget.

Bench won 10 Gold Gloves with a .267 average. Outfielder Ken Griffey Jr., inducted last year, also won 10 with a .284 average. Willie Mays batted .302, but is a Gold Glove shy of joining Rodriguez.

Try this one on for size: Rodriguez finished with a .296 average, 311 home runs, 1,332 RBIs and 2,844 hits. Only five others in MLB history have those career minimums: Hall of Famers Hank Aaron, Stan Musial and George Brett; future HOFer Albert Pujols, who topped 600 homers this season; and Barry Bonds, the all-time home run leader whose Hall candidacy appears to be gaining traction.

That’s the company Rodriguez keeps.

Yeah, he could hit, too.

“Pudge had great hands,” Young said. “That’s something that’s very difficult to teach. I think he just had that. There were times I saw him adjust with his lower body, but he could use the whole field. Quick hands, a short quick swing, use the whole field — that’s what I think of when I think of Pudge.”

Rodriguez said he benefited from the hitters around him in the Rangers’ lineup, namely Juan Gonzalez and Rafael Palmeiro. They hit 39 and 47 home runs during Rodriguez’s MVP season in 1999, when he hit 35 homers while batting .332 with 113 RBIs.

Rodriguez has his critics, who believe his numbers might have been artificially enhanced by performance-enhancing drugs, as many say was the case with Gonzalez and Palmeiro.

Jose Canseco said in his book “Juiced” that he personally injected steroids into Rodriguez in 1992. Frank Thomas, who joined the Hall in 2015, implied in January that Rodriguez and Bagwell did steroids.

Rodriguez, though, punches back against all allegations in a new book, “They Call Me Pudge.”

“I never took steroids,” he said in the first chapter. “Let’s make that as crystal clear as possible — I never took steroids. If anyone says differently, they are lying.”

Rodriguez debuted when his body was still developing and would develop for several more years. He worked out hard, so, naturally, he was going to add muscle to his frame.

Combine that with the quick, compact swings Young admired, and an easy case can be made that the power numbers were coming naturally. Rodriguez, by the way, topped 30 home runs only once in his career, during his MVP season, though he was pacing for 30 homers the next two seasons before injuries cut down on his numbers.

He never had a season in which he led the team in homers in an era when baseball was going crazy with home runs and was about to get crazier. Rodriguez was going crazy with doubles, but even then he led the Rangers only twice and never led the league.

No catcher in MLB history has more hits (2,844), runs (1,354), doubles (572), total bases (4,451) and extra-base hits (934) than Rodriguez.

To many, he was just a good hitter with the skills to do great things.

“From when he was 19 until I saw him at the end of my career, you knew that he was capable of doing something special,” Buechele said.

The “speed”

To rate a catcher’s speed as “fast for his position” is a backhanded compliment that implies that he’s really not that fast at all.

Indeed, Rodriguez wasn’t going to win any 100-meter dashes against the game’s top base stealers and base runners, but he had enough speed and enough smarts to turn into a threat on the bases — catcher or not.

“Pudge could run,” Buechele said.

Rodriguez stole 127 bases in his career. He didn’t steal any bases in his first two seasons, and ran less and less later in his career.

During his best offfensive seasons, from 1995 to 2007, he swiped 100. He was no Tom Goodwin, the speedy outfielder who stole 93 for the Rangers from 1997 to 1999. But he was no Salvador Perez, the current-day catching iron man with three steals in his six-plus seasons.

“I was a fast catcher running, but I wasn’t a stolen-base man,” Rodriguez said. “Roberto Alomar, he wasn’t fast, but he stole a lot of bases because he knew, he anticipated, he learned what’s a good count and the movements of a pitcher. For me, he was one of the toughest to throw out.

“If you put Elvis Andrus and Delino DeShields in a 100 meters, it’s not even close. Delino would just beat him, but I think Elvis can steal more because he’s learned how to steal bases. You have to learn all of those things.”

Rodriguez stole 25 bases in his MVP season, and also bounced into a league-high 31 double plays. That suggests the straight-line speed wasn’t there, but the know-how to steal bases was.

And he was fast, especially for a catcher.

The durability

As Adrian Beltre is fond of saying on his road to 3,000 hits, it just means that he’s old. While true, Beltre has also been durable, playing every day through various ailments that might send others to the disabled list.

Rodriguez was the same way over his 21 seasons — at the most physically demanding position in the game.

“I don’t know how he did it, to be honest, especially playing catcher all those years in this weather,” Beltre said. “Determination, the will to be out there every day. It takes a toll on your body. You get tired, but it looked like he was in really good shape. He was able to do it, and not only do it, but produce.”

He didn’t just play in three different decades, he played at least 108 games in 17 seasons. He caught at least 100 in all of those, including 102 in his 20th season.

When he retired in 2011, Rodriguez had caught the most games in baseball history, a record that still stands. His 2,427 games as a catcher are 201 more than the runner-up, fellow Hall of Famer and fellow “Pudge,” Carlton Fisk.

“If you ask me if I felt 100 percent every day,” Rodriguez said. “Nope.”

Witt remembers a game at Cleveland when Rodriguez was struck in the chest by a fastball while catching.

No glove. No foul tip. A heater straight into the chest protector.

“It smoked him, and I thought, ‘No way. He’s going to come out of the game right there,’ ” Witt recalled. “Not only did he stay in the game, he stayed in the game and he played the next day. He was that type of guy. Unless he was beat or something happened to his hands ... . Taking one off the mask, there wasn’t even a doubt. They didn’t even ask him ‘How many fingers?’

“The one thing about Pudge, he was a gamer, man. I’ll tell you that right now. He was a dude who wanted to play every day. At that position in Texas, it’s almost impossible with that heat. But he wanted to be out there every single day. He did not like not playing.”

Rodriguez wasn’t immune to injury. He found the disabled list eight times, including his second season with a stress fracture in his lower back. He missed only 21 days.

He didn’t find the DL again for eight years. There were a lot of hot, sweaty Texas days behind the plate during that stretch.

The passion

Ask Rodriguez why he is in the Hall of Fame, and he says it all starts not with his arm or bat or durability but with a love for the game. His passion drove him to work on all the things that people say made him great.

“It was my love and care for the game of baseball,” he said. “To me, if you have that, you’re going to be a Hall-of-Famer, for sure.”

Local fans loved him because he was good but also because of the way he played. Rodriguez was one of the first to pump his fists after a big play at a big moment, and he seemed happier than Rogers after catching the left-hander’s perfect game on July 28, 1994.

Rodriguez brought life to the Marlins during their championship season and helped invigorate a Detroit Tigers franchise that lost 113 games in 2003 and was in the World Series three seasons later.

“He was into it,” said Beltre, who played against Rodriguez while with the Los Angeles Dodgers, Seattle Mariners and Boston Red Sox. “He was a passionate player. Coming out he had a chip on his shoulder, and he wanted to prove to everybody that he was in the big leagues to stay. It was quite a statement. He’s a Hall-of-Famer.”

As his career moved toward its twilight, Rodriguez took his passion and tried to pass on his knowledge of the game. He became more approachable and was the wise veteran players sought out.

Along the way, he helped nurture a young Josh Beckett in Florida — Beckett would win the World Series MVP in their only season together — and was behind the plate for Justin Verlander’s first three full seasons in the majors in Detroit.

Young remembers a specific moment after Rodriguez rejoined the Rangers late in 2009 as they were trying to end their playoff drought. Young was the team’s best player and was having one of his finest seasons when a hamstring popped during a game in early September.

“I was at my locker, and I’ve got my head in my hands,” Young said. “There was one guy who was there, and it was Pudge just talking me through it and saying how proud he was of me for what I’d done. Looking back, that made me feel a hell of a lot better. He stayed with me the whole time.

“That was my favorite time with Pudge. He was such a more chill guy. He was very approachable. He was really good with the young guys. In 2009 I got to know him better and I realized what a great guy he is.”

Baseball Hall of Fame induction ceremony

12:30 p.m. Sunday, MLB Network