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Pudge putting up mind-boggling numbers

DETROIT -- Ivan Rodriguez hit .500 in June and started
Tuesday with a .377 average, easily the best in the major leagues.

He was voted to the All-Star Game for the 11th time and is the
man most responsible for the transformation of the Detroit Tigers
from a record-setting loser to a team in the middle of the pack in
the AL Central.

"I'm very happy and pleased with the season," he said. "We're
playing great baseball. We just have to keep playing."

The Tigers showed a lot of faith in Rodriguez when they
gave him a $40 million, four-year contract in February.

The star catcher has been worth every penny.

"I played with Vladimir Guerrero and Sammy Sosa," teammate
Rondell White said. "And I've seen Bernie Williams get as hot as
anybody, but what Pudge is doing is unbelievable."

Many thought the same of Rodriguez's decision to sign with the
Tigers this offseason after being the MVP of the NL championship
series and helping the Florida Marlins win the World Series last
season.

Detroit lost an AL-record 119 games last year -- one short of the
modern-day record set by the 1962 New York Mets -- and hasn't had a
winning record since 1993.

But Rodriguez focused on the positive things about the
once-proud franchise, which has produced numerous Hall of Famers
and won four World Series in nine appearances since 1901.

Granted, the Tigers offered the 32-year-old catcher more money
than any other team was prepared to. But Rodriguez's performance
thus far has justified the team's confidence.

During spring training, Lance Parrish, Detroit's bullpen coach
and an eight-time All-Star catcher, said Rodriguez was arguably the
best player ever to play behind the plate.

Could he make a stronger argument now?

"Absolutely," Parrish said.

He's probably not going to hit as many home runs as Johnny
Bench or Carlton Fisk," he said. "But Pudge is probably better
than the best I've ever seen defensively. And obviously, he can do
some things at the plate."

After the misery of last season, Detroit now has a chance in
every game -- thanks in no small part to Rodriguez's bat, 10-time
Gold Glove arm and fiery leadership.

"We are doing pretty good," he said.

Entering Monday's game against the New York Yankees, the Tigers
had 37 wins. They had 43 all of last season.

Manager Alan Trammell said Rodriguez, the AL player of the month
for June, deserves a lot of credit.

"He's an elite player who continues to amaze even myself," he
said.

And the fans. Attendance at Comerica Park is up 32.4 percent
over last year after three straight years of declines. The team has
already sold more tickets, including advance sales, than it did all
of last season when it drew just 17,103 fans per game.

People around the state that are not going to games are talking
about the Tigers. And they're not making jokes.

"This guy has been great for the franchise," Trammell said.

He is the first Tiger to be voted into the All-Star Game since
Trammell in 1988, and he was Detroit's first AL player of the month
since Cecil Fielder in 1990.

On the field, and behind the scenes, Rodriguez is a strong
presence.

"When we were really struggling last month, he called a team
meeting in the clubhouse before a game," White said. "He told us
to turn it up a notch and to focus because he said, `We can do it.'
When he talks, we listen."

Rodriguez is doing what many thought an aging catcher couldn't.
He's playing like a star in his prime, and he rarely misses a game.

He also has a chance to become the first catcher to win the AL
batting crown.

Since 1900, a catcher has been the NL batting champ three times,
but none since 1942, according to the Elias Sports Bureau. The best
batting average by a catcher who caught at least 100 games was .361
by Bill Dickey of the New York Yankees in 1936, according to Elias.

Before Rodriguez, Colorado's Todd Helton was the last player to
hit .500 in a month, four years ago. During Detroit's weekend
series in Colorado, Rockies manager Clint Hurdle said Rodriguez's
feat was more impressive.

"He's a catcher doing it," Hurdle said. "And it's not like
he's only catching every other day."

Besides his gaudy batting average, Rodriguez started the series
in New York with 57 RBI and 10 home runs.

"Every time he gets an at-bat, I know I'm getting up there,
too," said Dmitri Young, who hits in the cleanup spot behind
Rodriguez. "There haven't been too many catchers winning batting
titles, but he might just be able to add that to his resume because
he hits everything.

"It's just another phenomenal thing he's doing on his way to
the Hall of Fame."