Monday, May 7, 2012

The Retirement of Pudge Rodriguez

Pudge Rodriguez blocks the plate in the final play of the
2003 NLDS between the Florida Marlins and the
San Francisco Giants.
When the Kansas City Royals offered Ivan "Pudge" Rodriguez a contract to mentor their young catchers in a back-up role, Pudge declined the offer and many knew then that a retirement announcement was coming. I, on the other hand, thought another offer would come. I wasn't ready to let go of Pudge Rodriguez.

As a young kid playing little league baseball, I idolized Pudge Rodriguez. The year I decided to put on the tools of ignorance, i.e. the catching gear, Pudge Rodriguez hit .300 with 192 hits. Pudge played in 153 games that year, an ungoldly number for a guy who spends 9 innings in a crouch (not to mention the ridiculous heat he was playing in as a Texas Ranger in Arlington). That same year he was a ridiculous 25 Rfield--the number of runs a player is better or worse due to their fielding. In other words, Pudge was worth his weight in gold when it came to fielding. Despite his offensive accomplishments, Pudge was the best defensive catcher of his generation and has a rightful place in the discussion of best defensive catchers of all time. I would imagine that there were hundreds of little leaguers who sat behind the plate and thought about Pudge when they threw down to second base or attempted a pick-off at first or third. There simply was nobody better than Pudge Rodriguez.

Ivan "Pudge" Rodriguez is honored by a pitcher
he once caught and now team president Nolan
Ryan in Arlington, Texas.
When the news broke that Pudge would announce his retirement, there was really no question whether or not he would retire a Ranger. And with his former battery mate now leading the Texas Rangers, it didn't take much to make it happen. Last Monday, on the field in Arlington, Pudge Rodriguez officially retired from Major League Baseball. Without question, Rodriguez' number seven will be retired at Rangers Ballpark. Without question, Rodriguez will enter the Rangers Hall of Fame. Which leaves only the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown.

Pudge Rodriguez has the following Major League Baseball records and accomplishments to his name:
  • 14 All Star Game appearances
  • 13 Gold Glove awards
  • Silver Slugger awards
  • 1999 American League MVP
  • 2003 NL NLCS MVP
  • 2,427 games caught, the most by any catcher in Major League Baseball history
  • 14,864 put-outs as a catcher, the most by a catcher in Major League Baseball history
  • 9 times the leader in caught stealing percentage in the American League, 6 of them consecutive
After throwing out the ceremonial first pitch, Pudge
took his rightful place behind the plate and threw
a strike to former teammate Michael Young at second base.
For thirteen years, if you were running on Pudge Rodriguez, you knew your chances were fifty percent or less. For the additional seven years of Pudge's big league career, runners did not have much better of a chance to run on him. Pudge could and would gun a runner down at first, second or third base. This is what was so fitting about ceremonial first pitch in Arlington. After Pudge threw out the first pitch, he quickly took his rightful place behind the plate and threw one last strike down to second base. Surely with that pitch, players around Major League Baseball breathed a sigh of relief. But pitchers who had the privilege of throwing to Pudge over the course of twenty seasons knew that the greatest at controlling the running game would no longer be in his familiar position behind the plate.

Pudge Rodriguez has left a mark on the game of baseball in ways few other position players can--he has mentored great young pitchers like Stephen Strasburg and Justin Verlander as well as promising young catchers like Wilson Ramos and Jarrod Saltalamacchia. His mentorship of baseball's young players is what earned him kind words and congratulations recently from his former general manager with the Nationals. When you think about the caliber of pitchers Pudge Rodriguez has received, it's unbelievable. Pudge caught Cy Young Award winners (Nolan Ryan, Justin Verlander,); Hall of Famers (Goose Gossage, Nolan Ryan and future HOFer Mariano Rivera); World Champions (Josh Beckett, Livan Hernandez, Bobby Witt, Rick Honeycutt, Kenny Rogers, Kevin Brown, Brad Penny, Mike Stanton, Mike Morgan, Andy Pettitte); and,  Rookies of the Year (Dontrelle Willis, Justin Verlander, Neftali Feliz). 

Unfortunately, it wouldn't be fair to highlight the career of Pudge Rodrigez without at least mentioning the era in which Pudge played and the accusations that have surrounded Pudge since 2003. Whether or not Pudge Rodriguez was one of the 5-7% of Major League Baseball players who tested positive for steroids or other performance enhancing drugs in 2003 may never be known. There is plenty of speculation that Pudge was indeed among the 103 players on the list. He has said "only God knows" about that possibility. Though Jose Canseco says he personally injected Pudge with PEDs, the integrity of Canseco has crumbled since he began talking about steroids in baseball. Whether or not there is truth to Canseco's accusation may also never be known, though Pudge denies this particular accusation vehemently. Pudge Rodriguez is not listed in the Mitchell Report. Where Pudge played will certainly have weight, but the proof does not seem to have materialized. It remains one of the most difficult cases to come of the steroid era for me personally.

In retirement, I highly doubt Pudge Rodriguez will stay out of baseball for long. There is simply too much Pudge has to offer the game of baseball. If he ever has a desire to be a coach or manager, there are 30 teams that would listen to that proposal. Perhaps the most likely option is that Pudge sticks close to whichever team his son eventually plays for; Ivan, Jr. was drafted in the 6th round of the 2011 MLB Draft by the Twins.

This may not be the last time we see Pudge Rodriguez around baseball, but it will be the last time we have the pleasure of watching Pudge Rodriguez gun a runner down in the time it takes for them to realize they're in trouble.

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