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Sports Illustrated Magazine

Anchors Aweigh

After An Off-Season Of Cruisin', Peerless--But Oft-Injured--Rangers Catcher Ivan Rodriguez Is Eager To Prove That He's Shipshape

By Jeff Pearlman and David Sabino

"My goal is to finish my career as a catcher. It's the position I love." - Ivan Rodriguez

February 18, 2002
Copyright © 2002
Time Inc. All Rights Reserved.

The dark clouds are coming, floating across the blue Miami sky like oil spills on water. Ivan (Pudge) Rodriguez, the man whose life has been more or less a glorious stroll on a warm summer day, gazes upward and frowns. "Weather here, it's tough," he says. "Unpredictable." On cue, the raindrops begin to fall. Softly, at first, then a little harder. Suddenly Rodriguez is caught in a deluge on the dock behind his new house. He does his best Rickey Henderson, head down, arms pumping, legs churning--whoosh! He darts to the left, to a small bungalow adjacent to the house. Once inside, he takes a breath as he runs his right hand through his saturated mop of black hair.

In no time the thump-thump-thump of rain pelting roof ceases. It's beautiful outside again. "Never try to figure out Florida," he says. "It's sunny, then rain. Then sun, and more rain. You have no chance." As he speaks, Rodriguez is leaning against a spanking new pool table in the bungalow. A slot machine is near the door, and on the walls are four paintings depicting Rodriguez, the Texas Rangers' catcher, in action. He picks up the cue ball and cocks his right arm. The runner, invisible to all but Pudge, is dead meat.

To the 30-year-old Rodriguez, idle afternoons like these are ice cream sundaes and fast cars and salsa music wrapped into one. Later on he will take Dereck, his nine-year-old son, to Little League baseball practice. Then he might take the cigarette boat tied up behind his house ("It goes 90 miles per hour!" he brags) for a cruise on Biscayne Bay. Or he could head for a nearby marina and hang out on Maribella, the new 70-foot yacht he named for his wife, Maribel. Or maybe he'll take his Bentley or his Ferrari for a ride through South Beach. Perhaps he'll simply wait for the next cloud. "Right now, my life outside of work is very free," he says. "It's beautiful."

Rodriguez moved to Miami from Rio Piedras, Puerto Rico, last April because he'd tired of the six-hour flights from his native commonwealth to Dallas. The lavish, 15-room house isn't so much a place to live as it is a choice of lifestyle. Every room is decorated to the max with Persian rugs and oil paintings and sculptures. The opulence isn't intended to impress visitors, it's meant to be enjoyed. "I wanted all the rooms to be rooms where I could sit down, relax and be comfortable with my family," Pudge says. "Comfort is everything in a house."

That's why, in addition to Ivan, Maribel, Dereck, daughters Amanda, 6, and Ivanna, 1, and Maribel's sister, Sandra, and brother- in-law, Mariano, Pudge's place is home to three Colombian immigrants who attend to the Rodriguezes' every need. Since moving to Miami, Pudge hasn't changed a diaper, repaired a flat, cut down a tree or cooked so much as a bowl of rice. Usually the front gate is wide open, the front door unlocked. Nobody watches the security cameras. Relatives come and go. "My focus is family and baseball," Pudge says. "Everything else is taken care of for me." When he was a kid, playing ball in the dusty streets of Vega Baja, Rodriguez dreamed of one day living the good life. This is, without question, the good life.

Yet earlier this off-season, life wasn't so good. On Sept. 8 Rodriguez had 35% of his damaged left patella tendon removed. Exacerbated, along with the constant crouching, by the repeated rubbing of the edge of Rodriguez's shin guard against his kneecap, the tendinitis limited him to 111 games in 2001 but didn't prevent him from batting .308--his seventh consecutive season at .300 or better--or winning his 10th straight Gold Glove or appearing in his 10th straight All-Star Game. It did, however, introduce a small doubt into Rodriguez's otherwise paradisiacal world.

In 2000 he had missed 65 games after fracturing his right thumb, but that was a freak injury--he cracked a bone on the bat of Anaheim Angels slugger Mo Vaughn while throwing to second. The thumb required only light rehab, and Rodriguez suffers no aftereffects from the fracture. The knee injury was different. After the surgery Rodriguez spent two weeks on crutches and the ensuing two months in rehab, working every weekday morning to strengthen the knee using weights, exercise bikes and treadmills. He says he has been pain-free since December and that he will be at full strength when Rangers pitchers and catchers report to spring training this week in Port Charlotte, Fla. "I feel great," he says. "The left knee actually feels stronger than the right one, so that's a very good sign."

Certainly it's a good sign for the Rangers. Over Rodriguez's two injury-plagued seasons, Texas, which had won the American League West in three of the previous four years, went 144-180 (98-104 when Pudge was in the lineup, 46-76 when he wasn't). "The losing hasn't been fun," Rodriguez says. "I love to play baseball more than anything, but to not compete--it's difficult and it hurts. But I'm a professional. A leader. I can't show pain. My job is to go to the park every day and do everything to help us win." Last season Rodriguez did all he could with the Rangers' horrific pitching staff (a major league-worst 5.71 ERA), playing Mr. Mom to Texas's hurlers and throwing out 23 of 46 base runners attempting to steal. His main backups, Bill Haselman, Marcus Jensen and Doug Mirabelli, caught 22 of 71 would-be stealers.

This year might be easier on Rangers catchers. In a busy off- season new general manager John Hart accomplished what his deposed predecessor, Doug Melvin, never could: He revamped the staff. Free- agent righthanders Chan Ho Park (five years, $65 million), Dave Burba (one year, $2 million) and Ismael Valdes (one year, $2.5 million) top a renovated--if not fear-inducing--rotation. Free-agent righthanders Jay Powell (three years, $9 million) and Todd Van Poppel (three years, $7.5 million) and lefty John Rocker (acquired in a trade with the Cleveland Indians) are among the additions to the bullpen.

Texas's already potent lineup has been augmented by the return of free-agent rightfielder Juan Gonzalez, who spent his first 11 big league seasons with the Rangers and who hit .325 with 35 homers and 140 RBIs for the Indians in 2001, and by the acquisition of temperamental but talented centerfielder Carl Everett from the Boston Red Sox. "We're not the same group of players from the past two seasons," says Rodriguez. "I believe we can compete for the division title. I just hope for...."

He pauses. Hope for what? Good health? A quick recovery? An injury- free season? Rodriguez suddenly seems to be a distant cousin of the What? Me, worry? guy of moments earlier. It's a stunning change in mood. Ordinarily he doesn't lack confidence, just as his belongings don't lack dozens of reminders that baseball's best backstop pays the bills. Painted on the side of his cigarette boat is a lifelike image of him, in Rangers uniform and catching gear, firing a laser cannon. In the corner of his backyard, rising from a mound of thick green grass, is a larger-than-life bronze sculpture of Rodriguez, crouching behind a plate. So to witness him appearing timid or worried, even for a moment, is startling.

Rodriguez glances at the scar on his left knee. His ever-present smile takes a break. "Well, I don't want to be foolish," he says. "I want to make sure that when I come back, I'm back for good. I'm a catcher. I want to be ready to catch every day. It's important to be the same player I was before the operation."

Rodriguez's five-year, $42 million contract expires after the 2002 season. Before Melvin was fired in October, he said that Rodriguez would have to prove himself before the Rangers would offer him a new deal. "He's not washed up," Melvin said, "but how long will his career last, and at what performance level? It makes sense to want to see him play."

Hart shares Melvin's opinion, even though the Rangers are thin at catcher: Haselman, the only other catcher on the roster from last season, is a career backup, and Texas's best minor league prospect, 2000 top draft choice Scott Heard, hit .228 in a stint with Class A Savannah last year. "Pudge is obviously a huge piece here, and I'm very respectful of that," Hart says. "But this is not the time or place to begin contract talks, or even think about it."

Rodriguez admits the club's position is understandable if disheartening. In July 1997, when he was on the verge of becoming a first-time free agent, Rodriguez stuck with Texas, even though the market would have offered greater riches elsewhere. At one point negotiations between Melvin and Jeff Moorad, Rodriguez's agent, nearly fell apart, and Rodriguez was on the brink of being dealt to the New York Yankees for catcher Jorge Posada. On his own, Rodriguez went to see Tom Schieffer, the Rangers' president and general partner at the time, and a deal was worked out. "I believe in loyalty," Rodriguez says. "Texas is the organization that signed me. I've always been a Ranger, and my first choice would be to always be a Ranger. But I know they need to see that I'm back, and I believe they will."

To this end, Rodriguez says, he works out harder now than ever before. He has not only a desire but also a physical need to stay in shape. He believes that he has another seven or eight seasons of Grade A catching in him. "Everybody gets old at some point," he says, "but my love of baseball motivates me."

Still, what if Rodriguez, approaching a point in his career when Johnny Bench and Yogi Berra (chart, page 66) and other elite catchers began to decline, is never the same as he was before knee surgery? He says he won't move to another position, despite rumors that he would work out at second base in spring training and despite manager Jerry Narron's idea to rest Rodriguez's knees with a dozen or so starts in the outfield during the season. "My goal is to finish my career as a catcher," says Rodriguez, who has been a DH but has never played any other position in the field. "I'm Pudge Rodriguez, the catcher. It's the position I love."

One day, Rodriguez says, he will simply take a walk, away from the game and toward the water. Recently he and Maribel took delivery of their Italian-made Uniesse motor yacht. The $2.9 million vessel has a U-shaped lounge, four state rooms and dual 1,300-horsepower diesel engines. In January, Rodriguez, his family and a hired captain (Rodriguez plans to become a licensed skipper) made a voyage from Miami Beach to Paradise Island in the Bahamas. Eventually he and Maribel want to take their children on an around-the-world voyage. "The best part about sailing, the beauty, is when it feels like the ocean is yours," he says. "You're alone, on a boat, happy and free. Far away from the world."

Life, for Pudge, would be but a dream.

Can He Keep It Up?

Season-ending injuries in 2000 and '01 interrupted the most productive offensive stretch of Ivan Rodriguez's 11-year career. In 346 games since the start of the 1999 season, he has batted .328 with 87 home runs, 261 RBIs and a .581 slugging percentage. Last year, however, Rodriguez (above) caught his 1,300th game--a milestone after which the production of some stellar catchers has declined. Here's how five Hall of Famers fared in the three seasons up to and including their 1,300th game behind the plate and in the three seasons thereafter. --David Sabino

Bill Dickey 1937-39 400 .316 80 353 .551
1940-42 297 .273 18 162 .382
Ernie Lombardi 1942-44 326 .294 31 155 .424
1945-47 251 .297 35 130 .472
Yogi Berra 1955-57 421 .274 81 295 .481
1958-60 373 .275 56 221 .460
Johnny Bench 1975-77 419 .265 75 293 .487
1978-80 364 .263 69 221 .474
Carlton Fisk 1981-83 369 .274 47 196 .435
1984-86 380 .230 72 213 .432

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