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The Fort Worth Star-Telegram

Thanks, Pudge Ivan Rodriguez Leaves Mark As Rangers' Greatest Hit At Catcher For 12 Seasons

By T.R. Sullivan

December 9, 2002
Copyright © 2002 The Fort Worth Star-Telegram. All rights reserved. 

In the beginning, there was the arm. From Ivan Rodriguez's earliest days in the minor leagues, the Rangers knew he had a great arm and incredibly quick feet.

They weren't sure if he was going to hit, but they knew there was nobody who could throw like the 5-foot-9 kid from Puerto Rico.

So they took a chance in the middle of the 1991 season. Rodriguez was only 19 and had played just 2 1/2 years when the Rangers called him up from Double-A Tulsa and made him their No. 1 catcher. He was the third-youngest player in club history but threw out 48.6 percent of attempted base stealers the rest of that season, and the legend was born.

He also hit, a little more each year, and the Rangers and the rest of baseball soon understood completely he was the best catcher around. The comparisons with Johnny Bench grew with each passing year as he gunned down base stealers and picked off careless runners.

He was there when the Rangers finally won the Western Division in 1996, hitting .300, scoring 116 runs and setting a major-league record for doubles by a catcher.

By then he was clearly the fans' favorite, not only for his historic offensive numbers and Gold Glove defense but for the passion with which he played the game. Rodriguez played with unbridled emotion, whether it was shaking his fist in delight after gunning down Kenny Lofton trying to steal or throwing down his helmet after making an out.

In 1997, the Cleveland Indians and the Florida Marlins played a World Series. The Indians had Sandy Alomar and the Marlins had Charles Johnson, and the media gushed about the extraordinary talents of the two catchers. Lofton was asked who was the best.

"Wait a minute," Lofton said. "Pudge Rodriguez is the best catcher in baseball."

That was proved conclusively in 1999, when Rodriguez hit .332 with 116 runs scored, 35 home runs and 113 runs batted in. The Rangers won a division title, and Rodriguez was named the American League's Most Valuable Player.

That was peak for Rodriguez and the Rangers. He suffered three years' of injuries after that, and the Rangers finished in last place three straight times. Attendance dropped. The payroll became bloated.

The Rangers decided they could no longer afford the best catcher in baseball. They will play Carl Everett $9 million and Chan Ho Park $12 million. There was nothing left for Rodriguez.

He will play somewhere else next year. Someday he will be in the Hall of Fame. The Rangers may never see the likes of him again at The Ballpark in Arlington.

The legend of Pudge Rodriguez

He was a third baseman playing American Legion baseball in Puerto Rico before being converted to catcher.

Former Rangers minor-league manager Chino Cadahia was the first to call him Pudge, a nickname once held by Boston Red Sox Hall of Fame catcher Carlton Fisk. When asked about it, Fisk said dryly, "It's a common name."

The Rangers were close to trading him to the New York Yankees on July 31, 1997, when he walked into club president Tom Schieffer's office, told him he wanted to stay and worked out a five-year contract extension.

He supposedly married his wife, Maribel, in Tulsa, Okla., on the day he was called up to the majors. Rodriguez said later they were actually married the following spring in Punta Gorda, Fla., the city next to Port Charlotte.

He was often late to spring training, including Kevin Kennedy's first year in 1993. Said Kennedy: "I don't care. We're going to be together for the next 18 years."

He picked off 46 runners since the start of the 1996 season.

His personal trainer, Edgar Diaz, was an Olympic pole vaulter from Puerto Rico.

He threw out 46.7 percent of base runners trying to steal in 12 years with the Rangers.

His teammates stole his clothes after his first game with the Rangers, forcing him to talk with the media in the nude.

He personally recruited Alex Rodriguez to Texas. Alex Rodriguez referred to him as "Barry Switzer." Alex Rodriguez also said he would tie up Rodriguez with a ball and chain to keep him from ever leaving.

He once put out Omar Vizquel for three months with a hard slide into second base. The next time he faced the Indians, Jack Morris hit him with a pitch. Rodriguez picked up the ball and casually flipped it back to him.

Orioles first baseman Glenn Davis once spiked him with a high slide into home plate. The Rangers were going to take revenge by hitting Davis, but reliever Danny Leon got mixed up and hit Cal Ripken Jr. instead. A few days later, Rodriguez showed his courage by blocking home plate in the eighth inning as Boston's Luis Rivera was thrown out trying to score a crucial run.

He hits left-handed in batting practice and can pound the ball into the right-field bleachers. Rodriguez also used to beg manager Johnny Oates for a chance to pitch in the a real game.

Only seven players have won more than 10 Gold Gloves.

Only eight catchers have hit more home runs.

Only five catchers have a higher lifetime batting average than his .305 average.

He is the only Ranger to hit .300 five times in a season while qualifying for the batting title.

He led the league throwing out base stealers seven times.

Pudge marks

1991: Makes 88 starts as a rookie.

1992: Appears in 116 games as a catcher, fourth-most in history for a player 20 years or younger.

1993: Makes the All-Star team for the first time.

1996: Sets a career high with 116 runs scored, tying Yogi Berra for most runs scored by a catcher. Sets record for catchers with 47 doubles and 639 at-bats.

1997: Plays in his sixth All-Star Game, setting a Rangers record he has since added to.

1999: Sets career highs with a .332 average, 35 home runs, 114 runs batted in and 25 stolen bases in his MVP season. Is the first catcher with 20 home runs and 20 steals in a season. His 35 home runs are the ALrecord for a catcher.

2001: Wins his 10th consecutive Gold Glove award and starts his ninth consecutive All-Star Game at catcher, tying Johnny Bench for the all-time catchers records in both categories.

2002: Leads the Rangers in hitting (.314) and is among the team's top four in doubles, total bases, runs, hits and homers despite missing nearly two months because of injury.

-- Carlos Mendez

Pudge through the years

July 27, 1988: The Rangers sign 16-year-old Ivan Rodriguez out of Puerto Rico to a free-agent contract. Scout Luis Rosa signs the teen-ager.

June 20, 1991: The Rangers purchase Rodriguez from Double-A Tulsa, the day before he plans to get married. To accommodate the change in plans, the wedding is rescheduled, and hours after exchanging vows with his bride, Maribel Rivera, the 19-year-old Rodriguez joins the Rangers in Chicago. He later says he was married during spring training the next year.

Aug. 11, 1994: A players' strike ends the season, leaving Rodriguez with 16 home runs and a .298 average, his last sub-.300 season.

July 31, 1997: A remarkable day in player-management relations. Rodriguez, unaware that he was hours away from being traded to the New York Yankees, walks into team president Tom Schieffer's office and declares that he wants to remain in a Rangers uniform. He and Schieffer negotiate a five-year, $42 million contract that keeps Rodriguez in Texas. The Rangers had worked out a deal that would have sent Rodriguez, due to become a free agent at season's end, to the Yankees for pitcher Tony Armas Jr. and catcher Jorge Posada.

Sept. 11, 1997: Rodriguez homers three times against the Twins, his first three-homer game.

April 2, 1998: Rodriguez is one of four Rangers who homer in a 20-4 victory against the White Sox.

June 23, 1998: Rodriguez is one of two Rangers players with four hits in a 16-5 victory against the Diamondbacks.

April 13, 1999: Rodriguez drives in nine runs in a game at Seattle, setting a club record.

June 1, 1999: Rodriguez sets a personal record with a 20-game hitting streak.

June 25, 1999: Rodriguez and Juan Gonzalez each hit two home runs in a 14-4 victory against the Mariners.

Aug. 1, 1999: Rodriguez homers and finishes with five hits and four runs batted in as the Rangers defeat the Royals 12-5.

Aug. 14, 1999: Rodriguez steals second base against the White Sox, becoming baseball's first 20-20 catcher.

Nov. 18, 1999: Rodriguez wins the American League MVP Award, his first, after hitting .332 with 35 home runs, 114 runs batted in and 25 stolen bases.

April 3, 2000: In his ninth Opening Day start with the Rangers, Rodriguez hits two home runs as the Rangers defeat the White Sox 10-4.

July 24, 2000: As he attempts a throw to second, Rodriguez breaks his thumb when his hand hits the bat of Mo Vaughn. The injury is season-ending, interrupting what might have become the greatest offensive season by a catcher ever. Rodriguez goes on the disabled list with a .347 average, 27 home runs and 77 runs batted in after 91 games, a pace for almost 50 home runs.

Aug. 18, 2001: Rodriguez hits a grand slam against Billy Koch in a 12-5 victory against the Blue Jays. It is Rodriguez's fourth career grand slam.

Nov. 6, 2001: Rodriguez wins his 10th consecutive Gold Glove award to tie Johnny Bench for the most ever by a catcher.

July 17, 2002: Rodriguez hits two home runs, including the game-winner in the bottom of the ninth, in a victory against Seattle. It is his 17th multihomer game, tied for seventh-most among catchers.

Sept. 16, 2002: Rodriguez is ejected for arguing strike calls with the home-plate umpire. After leaving the field, Rodriguez returns to argue again with the umpire. Serves a one-game suspension Sept. 28.

Sept. 29, 2002: In the season finale, Rodriguez homers and doubles, but the Rangers cannot complete a comeback against the Athletics. Sensing the significance of the game, the The Ballpark in Arlington crowd greets him with standing ovations each time he bats. The home run gives him 210 as a catcher, seventh most on the all-time list.

Oct. 28, 2002: Rodriguez files for free agency, as he is eligible to do on the first day after the World Series. It is the first time in 11 years that he is not on the Rangers' major-league roster.

Dec. 8, 2002: The Rangers end their last tie to Rodriguez by declining to offer him arbitration, which would have extended their exclusive negotiation period with him. He cannot re-sign with the Rangers until May 15 of next season.

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