“He said he wanted to be a Texas Ranger his whole career and he wanted to see if he could work out a deal. That really meant a lot to me, and I think it meant a lot to this franchise.”
That’s what Rangers President Tom Schieffer told a national reporter on August 1, 1997, the day after Pudge Rodriguez didn’t tell his agent Jeff Moorad that he was going to walk into Schieffer’s office alone, two months before free agency and with his team a hopeless 10 games out of first place after an AL West title the previous season.
Pudge walked into Schieffer’s office and shook hands on a five-year, $42 million contract extension, without which Texas was poised to send him to the Yankees, that day, for rookie catcher Jorge Posada and minor league pitchers Tony Armas Jr. and Eric Milton. The same Yankees that had kicked Texas out of the playoffs the year before (and that would do so the following two).
It all came down 10 months before the first Newberg Report. Can’t even begin to imagine how many thousands of words my report would have been if the Schieffer office visit happened at a time when I had a mailing list.
Pudge my was Favorite.
I’m not really a Hall of Fame activist, but yesterday’s announcement — that Pudge had pulled in 336 votes, needing 332, earning first-ballot election to Cooperstown — affected me more than I thought it would.
He’s the sixth man to have played for the Rangers to gain entry, but, sort of shockingly given this franchise’s legacy, the first hitter.
He’s also the first Hall of Famer signed and developed by the Rangers.
(Unless you count Eric Nadel.)
And the first to negotiate a contract, without his agent, to stave off his departure.
I remember the room I was in when I heard the news of that handshake extension.
I remember the room I was in when he caught White Sox second baseman Joey Cora stealing in the fifth inning of his big league debut, at age 19, on the first Kevin Brown pitch after he’d drilled Cora.
Julio Franco was the endpoint of that insane Pudge Rodriguez vector, a 127-foot, 3 3/8-inch laser beam the likes of which we’d all heard about, and a needlessly sliding Cora wasn’t even on the TV screen yet when Franco caught the ball at second base, waiting.
I’d seen it before.
I’ve told the story many times, about that March 1990 visit to Port Charlotte when Ruben Sierra and Juan Gonzalez and Nolan Ryan weren’t around because 40-man roster members had been locked out of spring training by the owners. I was a college junior and perfectly interested in and willing to make the 1,200-mile trip, fired up to see Dan Peltier and Rob Maurer and Monty Fariss even if Juan Gonzalez and Dean Palmer and a 25-year-old Rafael Palmeiro weren’t allowed yet to report to camp. (I know now that 37-year-old Ron Washington was probably there, too, in his one spring training as a Rangers player, and his last before retiring.)
On the diamond that was furthest north and east at the complex was a group of six or eight catchers, working with minor league manager Orlando Gomez on a series of blocking and catch-and-throw drills. I had been watching Peltier and Donald Harris take BP on the field just to the south (after I’d played catch with Tom House’s young son), but their round had ended and I wasn’t as interested in seeing Brant Alyea and Gar Millay take their cuts.
I slid over to the catcher drills. There was journeyman Mike Berger. And Victor Reyes. And Bill Losa and Barry Winford.
And an 18-year-old kid who’d been in the system one year, named Ivan Rodriguez.
He’d played at Low A Gastonia the summer before, where Gomez was his manager. It was unusual for an international kid to make his pro debut with a full-season affiliate, and Rodriguez had been 17 that whole season. There were occasional notes in Baseball America about his arm, but the publication didn’t include him among the Rangers’ top 10 prospects after that 1989 season, instead recognizing Gonzalez, Robb Nen, Harris, Palmer, Brian Bohanon, Kevin Belcher, Peltier, Scott Coolbaugh, Farris, and Eric McCray.
Rodriguez had hit .238/.278/.355 for Gastonia, somewhat notable in that he’d gone deep seven times against much older competition, but truthfully I had higher hopes off that club’s roster for infielder Jeff Frye (.313/.405/.388), Darren Oliver (108 strikeouts and 86 hits allowed in 122.1 innings), Nen (146 strikeouts and 96 hits allowed in 138.1 innings), and Belcher (.296/.357/.488).
My vision for Pudge changed that morning.
I saw the throws. I saw the blinding-quick feet.
It was so different from the other catchers in the drills. So different from anything I’d ever seen.
He was 18.
I’ve never forgotten it.
Pudge would spend that whole 1990 season right there in Port Charlotte. First in camp, then in extended spring, then with High A Charlotte, with Frye and Nen and Roger Pavlik.
The year after that, he was throwing Joey Cora (and Warren Newson) out on regionally broadcast TV on June 20, driving in Gonzalez and Steve Buechele with a single to cap off a five-run ninth in a 7–3 comeback win while wearing the number 7 that will soon be retired in Texas, and the Rangers cap that will adorn his plaque in Cooperstown later this year.
No catcher won as many as his 13 Gold Gloves. None played as many games at the sport’s most demanding position. None threw runners out at a higher rate, or with greater style. He won a League MVP and an LCS MVP, and was a 14-time All-Star.
His hero, Johnny Bench, is the only other catcher inducted on his first ballot.
Pudge has given us so many memories.
That first caught-stealing, and so many of the 450-plus (with the Rangers) that followed.
Many at first base, and many at third, some on runners trying to advance and others trying helplessly to scramble back.
That fist pump in the fourth inning of the first home playoff game in franchise history, after a double play caught-stealing that ended with Tim Raines getting thrown out at the plate, 25 years and three months and 15 days before the two would be recognized together (along with Jeff Bagwell) as baseball immortality.
The picturesque right-handed swing, one of the most beautiful from that side of the plate I’ve ever seen.
The “1” he flashed before Kenny Rogers’s final pitch to Gary DiSarcina.
The smile, effervescent and omnipresent.
The arm and the feet that I saw through a chain-link fence in Port Charlotte.
Pudge arrived from Puerto Rico on July 27, 1988, less than two years before that country’s players became subject to the draft — and 29 years and three days before he will deliver a speech at a podium in Cooperstown, New York.
He came here and he learned how to play baseball professionally with the Rangers. He learned English (which he now draws a paycheck speaking) from the Rangers. And he learned how to compete and to lead and to share his joy with millions whose love for the game grew because they got to watch him play.
Pudge Rodriguez came here and he picked up a second language, but he created another language of his own, behind the plate, a powerful, elegant, melodic language, one that’s as easy to understand as it is virtually impossible to duplicate.
“He said he wanted to be a Texas Ranger his whole career,” Tom Schieffer said nearly 20 years ago. “That really meant a lot to me, and I think it meant a lot to this franchise.”
Pudge meant a lot to this franchise, and meant a lot to me, and to you.
And yesterday, a day I could have never imagined 27 years ago on the back fields in Port Charlotte, meant a whole lot more to me than I ever expected.