Ivan Rodriguez: 'A beautiful career'
'Pudge' isn't playing for the first time in 22 years, but he hasn't really left the game
EDITOR'S NOTE: This story is available in Spanish here.
KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- He still gets up early; he always has. In the morning, he still goes through a three-hour exercise routine, as he has for the past 25 years. Then, he still goes back home and rests for a few hours.
Early in the day, at least, everything remains the same in Ivan Rodriguez's life.
But in the afternoons, he no longer goes to the ballpark to take batting practice and get ready for a game. He doesn't pack suitcases for road trips that take him from hotel to hotel, from ballpark to ballpark. The only swings he takes now are with golf clubs several times a week rather than with bats for 162 games over the course of six months.
"My golf has improved quite a bit," the legendary catcher says with pride. "I am now a 5 handicap; I am hitting the ball well."
After 21 years in major league baseball, Rodriguez formally retired April 23 at Rangers Ballpark in Arlington, his home city for his first 12 seasons. A lack of reasonable offers in the offseason signaled to him that it was time to give it up, despite the fact that he still considers himself capable of playing part-time for two more seasons.
At the All-Star Game in Kansas City last week, the undisputed best catcher of the last 20 years, considered by some as the best of all time, reflected on his years on the diamond.
Perhaps it isn't surprising that, three months into retirement, he still isn't entirely accustomed to his new life away from baseball. He misses being behind the plate. He misses hitting a two-strike breaking ball to right field, one of his trademarks. He misses the rush of adrenaline he felt when there was a runner on base. He misses what he shared with his teammates in the clubhouse.
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He misses the game.
"I don't think this will change with time," he says. "Baseball will be with me for the rest of my life. I miss arriving at the park, getting ready for the game. Physically and mentally, I feel ready to play, even if it was once or twice per week."
"It was hard for me to make the decision," he adds. "You always think you've got more left. It was the right time, and you have to realize there are other things to accomplish in life. I try to stay busy; but even so, it was rough making the decision."
Of course, there are things he does not miss.
"The trips and the hotels are what you miss the least," he says. "If you ask any baseball player, he will tell you the same thing. It's a lot of days away from home and you miss out on a lot with the family. It is a beautiful career, but there are many things you miss out on."
Some players, when they retire, step away from the game completely, at least for a while. That isn't the way Rodriguez is doing it. Not a day goes by that he doesn't watch one or two games, either in person or on television.
Still a student of the game
The last time Rodriguez knelt behind the plate -- Sept. 28, 2011 -- he wore a Washington Nationals uniform and still had his sights set on reaching 3,000 hits, one of the few milestones that eluded him. He came up 156 hits short.
However, by the time he finished his career, he had played in 2,543 games, of which 2,427 were behind the plate, more than any other catcher in history. He holds the record among catchers for hits (2,844) and doubles (572). He ended up with a .296 batting average, with 311 home runs and 1,332 RBIs. He was American League MVP in 1999 and guided the Florida Marlins to the World Series title in 2003.
Despite all that exceptional work with his bat, he is still better known as a defensive catcher -- and his numbers from behind the plate support that. Rodriguez is the career leader in putouts (14,864), and for nine seasons he led the AL in caught-stealing percentage. His 13 Gold Gloves surpassed the 10 earned by Johnny Bench, with whom he is most often compared.
"I was very proud of my defense," Rodriguez says. "I came up because of my defense; only later did I learn to hit. I tried to learn day by day what was best [to do] in my position. I studied how Bench and other great catchers did it. Catcher is a defensive position and it was always my first option."
Baserunners knew it. Or, if they didn't know it at first, they learned it in a hurry. With the Texas Rangers in 2001, for example, Rodriguez threw out 60 percent (35 of 58) of runners attempting to steal against him.
"There was no formula for stealing on Pudge," says Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter, who was Rodriguez's opponent for many years and his teammate for part of the 2008 season. "The best way of staying safe with him behind the plate was to stay put, close to the base. If you moved away a little, you could be taken out."
Last week at the All-Star Game FanFest, Rodriguez spoke with Candy Maldonado, a former player who is now a baseball analyst for Beisbol Esta Noche and color commentator for Domingo de Grandes Ligas on ESPN Deportes, about some of the keys to his success as a catcher. It was clear throughout the conversation that Rodriguez still carries the same intensity and interest in the craft of catching that he brought to his 21 years of playing the game.
"The most important thing for a catcher is to be on his toes all the time," he told Maldonado as he explained the proper mechanics for throwing to second. "Anticipating, being ready, more than the arm and the legs. And good physical condition. It's a position that demands a lot physically and mentally. You must pay attention to many details."
During the interview, he expressed his admiration for the wave of star catchers now following in his footsteps.
"Yadier [Molina] does a great job. Brian McCann, Buster Posey, Matt Wieters -- I have great respect for them," he says. "Carlos Ruiz also falls in that group, catchers who do it all well. They carry the game, they know how to throw to the bases and they do their job offensively."
The biggest out of all
A scene from a certain Hall of Fame career
Two outs in the ninth inning of a one-run game, and Rodriguez awaits the ball while J.T. Snow rounds third on his way home. The catcher cannot jump the gun; he must wait until the ball reaches his glove to make his next move, while Snow tries to reach home with a run that will tie it.
The throw by left fielder Jeff Conine arrives on a hop to Rodriguez. He has time to grab it, secure it and stand in front of the plate, bracing himself to be steamrollered by Snow.
The runner comes at full speed, no brakes. Rodriguez takes the ball on the left side of the plate and moves to block him. The collision is massive. Pudge rolls once on the field. Snow ends up face-down on the dirt.
The ball stays in Rodriguez's mitt; the umpire checks that he has it as the catcher rises to show the world that he has maintained possession. Snow is out. The Marlins win the game and the series, three games to one. The Giants go home.
If any play defines Rodriguez's career, it is that block at the plate that ended the 2003 National League Division Series against San Francisco. The play propelled the Marlins into the NLCS and on to the World Series.
"My chest still hurts," Rodriguez jokes as he recalls the play. "It was perhaps the most important play of my career -- or, at least, one of the top three. In a series where every out counted, that was the last one and it was very emotional. I've always thought that if that out didn't happen, maybe we wouldn't have made it to the World Series."
Ozzie Guillen, now the Marlins' manager and Florida's third-base coach in 2003, agrees.
"The way we finished that game gave us a little push, to say, 'Wow, we believe this,'" Guillen told MLB.com last week during a tribute to Rodriguez at Marlins Park.
Rodriguez certainly rode that wave into the NLCS against the Chicago Cubs. He was the MVP in the championship series, hitting .421 with two home runs and 10 RBIs. Florida went on to win the World Series in six games against the New York Yankees.
Time for reflection
He's been out of baseball officially for only a matter of months, perhaps not long enough for him to develop a complete appreciation of his 21 years in the majors, especially as he is staying busy with his continuing training, his rounds of golf, the new-found quality time for family and his business ventures.
Many others inside and outside the game have appreciated him for some time. A recent ranking by ESPNDallas.com placed Rodriguez No. 2 on its list of the 40 greatest Rangers of all time, behind only Nolan Ryan. Guillen, no stranger to controversy, said two years ago that Rodriguez was the best player from Puerto Rico in the history of the game, a statement that generated debate in the birthplace of Roberto Clemente, the island's most revered athlete.
But Guillen isn't backing away from his high praise.
"If you look at his numbers and all that stuff, I think Pudge, in my era, is the best catcher I've seen," Guillen told MLB.com. "To play the way he played and where he played, that's not easy. He played in Texas. To play the way he played, I don't think too many people can handle that. Who's a better catcher than him over the years?"
Rodriguez concedes that as the All-Star Game approached this summer -- he was named to the game 14 times -- he looked over his stats and was amazed at the numbers he amassed.
"When you're playing, you don't think about goals or numbers," he says. "When you are young, you don't think about this or that number. The only thing you think about is being healthy to be able to produce, prepare and be ready to play. Now, when I see them and analyze them is when I say: 'Truth be told, I did it well.'"
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