You know when you shake hands with a former catcher. It’s like having an overstuffed bag of walnuts put in your palm and then having it squeeze the circulation out of your mitts. It’s the fingers, of course, broken so often that they seem as though somebody had stomped out a tango on each and every knuckle. The toll on each catcher’s hands, not to mention his knees, is tremendous. The workload and the toll it takes seems almost cruelly balanced against the near-absence of glory at a position where, often as not, you get to take the statistical rap for something gone amiss because of a pitcher’s errant throw home or his poor move to first base. You admire catchers, even if you wouldn’t want to be one.
But even among that small fraternity of catchers hardy enough to make it to the majors and stick around and take the daily beating that regular receiving requires, there are those very few who stand apart because of their ability to endure. It’s part of the reason why we mourn Gary Carter (fourth all-time in games caught) now, beyond The Kid’s natural ebullience. And it’s why we respect the catchers who didn’t last that long because they hit well at the position or provided “above replacement value,” but who lasted that long because they could catch: Bob Boone and Brad Ausmus and Jim Sundberg. Easy guys to root for, if long-suffering.
None of that matches the magnitude of what Pudge Rodriguez did during his career, the value he delivered, the greatness that was manifest from his first day behind the plate in the major leagues, all the way back in 1991 as a 19-year-old catching his first game for the Texas Rangers as the other half of a battery with Kevin Brown.
It might surprise in today’s all-media environment in which prospects get to spring with few surprises for us, but even back then, thanks to Baseball America and the like, the legend of how good Ivan Rodriguez was behind the plate was spreading. From the squat behind the plate he was as nimble as a cat despite the gear that goes with the trade of framing and catching pitches day after day, and throwing better than anyone ever has as an everyday regular, before, since, and likely ever.
It’s well he’s calling it quits as a Ranger, because nothing else would have made sense. In the ’90s he was one of those players worth the price of admission all by himself, like Jim Abbott on the mound or Frank Thomas digging in at the batter's box or even Ken Caminiti’s kamikaze glove work at third. For 12 years in Texas, he was as close to a signature star as the franchise had ever had to that point, outshining even sluggers Rafael Pameiro and Juan Gonzalez in that performance-enhanced era.
The great novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald said that, “There are no second acts in American lives,” and maybe there’s something to that, but it certainly wasn’t true about Pudge Rodriguez in his career. After a dozen seasons in Texas, the man moved on to the Marlins to help lead their other, less notorious “bought” World Series in 2003, a single-season temp who was just getting started at proving he had plenty left in the tank on the back slope of his career. He was a key player on the 2006 Tigers team that upset a few apple carts by winning an American League pennant.
That sort of second wind propelled him to the elder statesman stints that seem to reflect the end of more than a few great catchers’ careers. After a pre-free agency trade to the Yankees, he’d move from Houston to Texas to Washington, an extended victory lap on a career that had seen its share of winning.
There was a special kind of agony associated with watching Pudge at the end of his career that took me back to watching the previous "Pudge," Carlton Fisk, catching games for the White Sox at the end of his career, as he set the games caught record that had been, briefly, Boone’s. As catchers, both Pudges had probably taken more pounding behind the plate than anyone else to don a uniform, let alone take up the tools of ignorance.
At the end, there was something both poetic and sad about the contrast between the tremendous young catchers who stood ready to replace them -- Ron Karkovice with the White Sox and Wilson Ramos with the Nats -- and their own diminished skills. Draw whatever broad-strokes image about the passage of time in baseball that you care for, but the handoff from an all-time great to a ready kid with skills is the epitome of following teams and players over time. It’s why we ache for the ones who have to let go, and root for the ones ready to step in. It’s a big part of why we watch.
There’s nothing poetic or sad about watching Rodriguez choose to walk away now, though. His greatness is a matter of record. The 14 All-Star appearances, the 13 Gold Gloves, the MVP award or the ring, all of it was his due because he could do what no one else could, catching longer than anyone else has or will, better than anyone ever has, or will. Here’s looking forward to seeing Pudge in Cooperstown on the first ballot. It, like so much else, is what he has earned.
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Christina Kahrl covers baseball for ESPN.com. You can follow her on Twitter.