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Puerto Rico Profile: Ivan "Pudge" Rodriguez

March 30, 2001
Copyright © 2001 THE PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved.

On July 24, 2000, the baseball season came to a sudden halt for Iván "Pudge" Rodríguez. From his position behind home plate, the catcher for the Texas Rangers — believed by some to be the best catcher of all time — broke his thumb in the first inning of a game against the Anaheim Angels. In an attempt to throw out a runner stealing second base, his right hand smashed into Mo Vaughn’s swinging bat. The resulting fracture kept Rodríguez, the 1999 American League MVP, off the field for the remaining two months of the 2000 season.

On Sunday, April 1, Pudge Rodríguez will be back in the Rangers’ line-up for the first official game since his injury, hoping to lead his team to victory against the Toronto Blue Jays on the opening day of the Major League Baseball season.

Sunday’s game will be more than a return to the playing field for Rodríguez. It will also mark a return to his native Puerto Rico.

The island is hosting baseball’s opening day this year for the first time ever. The Opening Day ceremonies and game, which the Rangers and Blue Jays will play in San Juan, will feature a number of great Puerto Rican ballplayers, both past and present. The ceremonial first pitch will be thrown by Orlando Cepeda and Vera Clemente. Cepeda, a native of Ponce who played for the San Francisco Giants, the St. Louis Cardinals, and several other teams from the late 1950s through the mid-‘70’s, was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1999. Clemente is the widow of Roberto Clemente, Puerto Rico’s legendary baseball hero who lost his life in 1972 while flying humanitarian aid to earthquake victims in Nicaragua.

In addition, both the Rangers and the Blue Jays have several Puerto Rican players on their rosters. Toronto’s excellent first baseman Carlos Delgado and outfielder José Cruz, Jr., come from Aguadilla and Arroyo, respectively. Ricky Ledée, an outfielder for Texas, is originally from Ponce.

However, the real center of attention for Puerto Rican baseball fans will be Iván Rodríguez. After ten years of outstanding play — and constant improvement — on both offense and defense, Rodríguez is poised to prove that he is the best all-around catcher who ever played the game of baseball.

Rodríguez was born in 1971 in the town of Manatí, some 30 miles west of San Juan. He was raised several miles away, in Barrio Algarrobo, which lies in the hills over the town of Vega Baja. His father, Juan, works for a U.S.-based construction company. His mother, Eva Torres, teaches elementary school in Vega Baja. "My mother and father told me the right things, and I listened," Rodríguez recalled in 1999.

Like many boys in Puerto Rico, Rodríguez learned to play baseball at an early age, and as he grew up he played with several future major leaguers. In fact, Ricky Otero, who went on to play for the New York Mets and Philadelphia Phillies, was on the same little league team as Rodríguez when they were only seven years old.

As "Pudge" Rodríguez grew up, his biggest rival in Vega Baja was Juan "Igor" González, who would also grow up to be a major league superstar. The two played against each other in their youth, and they eventually became teammates when both starred for the Texas Rangers from 1991 through 1999. González now plays for the Cleveland Indians.

While Iván Rodríguez was a student at Lino Padron Rivera High School in Vega Baja, he was discovered by Luis Rosa, a scout famous for signing other big league stars like Roberto and Sandy Alomar, Jr., and Juan González.

"Pudge was hard-nosed, even then," Rosa has said. "He showed leadership at 16 that I’d seen in few kids. He knew where he was going."

Rosa signed Rodríguez to a contract with the Texas Rangers in July of 1988, when he was still only 16 years old. After less than three years in the minor leagues, he was promoted to the major leagues on June 20, 1991. On that same day, he married the former Maribel Rivera.

In his first season with the Rangers, Pudge Rodríguez was, at 19, the youngest player in the major leagues. (In fact, he was also the youngest major-leaguer in his second season.) Nevertheless, he made an immediate impact on the team, starting 81 games and ranking third among American League rookies in batting average (.264).

Rodríguez immediately became a leader for the Rangers. In his second season, he was selected to play in the All-Star Game, and he won a Gold Glove for being the best defensive catcher in the league. Moreover, as his career progressed, his offensive skills developed steadily to complement his spectacular defensive ability.

1999 was a banner year for Rodríguez. He continued his dominance behind home plate, throwing out 54.2% of all runners attempting to steal. On offense, his batting average was .332, he hit 35 home runs, and he drove in 113 runs. Perhaps most astonishing, he also stole 25 bases, making him the first catcher ever to hit more than 20 home runs and steal more than 20 bases in a season. As a result, at the season’s end he was named the Most Valuable Player of the American League.

Last year, prior to his injury, Rodríguez clearly demonstrated that his spectacular play in 1999 had been no accident. In fact, his statistics were even better in 2000 than they had been the year before. Until he was injured, he batted .347 and had already amassed 27 home runs and 83 runs batted in. Incredibly, at the end of the season, he still ranked second on his team in homers, RBI, and total bases.

He also was selected to start his eighth consecutive All-Star Game as catcher, and he won his ninth consecutive Gold Glove. Both distinctions are one shy of the record set by Johnny Bench, the legendary Hall of Fame catcher. This year, Rodríguez is widely expected to tie that record.

Sunday’s game in San Juan has special significance for Pudge Rodríguez. He still has a home in Puerto Rico, along with one in Texas. He and his wife, Maribel, split their time between the two houses as they raise their children Iván Dereck (8), Amanda Christine (5) and 14-month-old Ivánna Sofia.

This year, before taking his family to Texas for the long major league season, Rodríguez will have the chance to spend a few extra days in Puerto Rico. He will conduct youth baseball clinics and sign autographs on Saturday before Sunday’s game at Hiram Bithorn Stadium.

"I'm thrilled to open the season in front of my people," he said. "They will have the opportunity to watch a team we believe can make it to the World Series." They will also have the chance to share in the historic Opening Day of what could be an equally historic season for Pudge Rodríguez.

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