Ivan “Pudge” Rodriguez was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame on Wed., Jan. 18, 2017. This story, which originally ran in the Miami Herald on Oct. 30, 2003, discusses his importance to the Florida Marlins’ 2003 championship run.
The Marlins were a week from clinching a playoff berth and a month from winning the World Series when someone asked Gary Sheffield, part of the 1997 world championship club, if he thought this season’s team had sneaked up on opponents. “I don’t see how, “ he said. “In spring training I said they were a good team. When they added Pudge, they added a guy with credibility.”
That would be Ivan “Pudge” Rodriguez, arguably the most important free agent signing in the franchise’s 11-year history. But when you’re a 10-time All-Star, sometimes a nickname suffices.
Think Shaq in shinguards and you’re close.
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If credibility had been his only contribution, it might have been worth the $10 million the Marlins agreed to pay him in January. But there’s more.
“He’s one of the best defenders I’ve ever seen, “ teammate Derrek Lee said.
To credibility and defense, add this: “Pudge, he’s back to his All-Star status again, “ manager Jack McKeon said. “He’s playing remarkably well. He’s been a take-charge guy, a leader of the ballclub.”
Credibility, defense, leadership. And what about the record 10 RBI he had in National League Championship Series? That won him the series MVP award?
Suddenly that $10 million seems like a bargain - even to the guy who signed him.
“Pudge has really been unbelievable, “ general manager Larry Beinfest said. “Just his presence alone really makes this team feel different. Big guys step up in big games, and Pudge was huge. Lately it’s been about Pudge.”
Clearly, Rodriguez’s contributions go beyond such numbers as a .297 batting average, 16 homers and 85 RBI.
Rodriguez established himself as one of the greatest catchers today during a 12-year career with the Texas Rangers, winning an American League MVP award and leading the team into the playoffs three times. But injuries limited his playing time and productivity the past three years, so when the Rangers let him go as a free agent last winter, few teams expressed interest.
Rodriguez’s agent, Jeffrey Moorad, was even talking of shopping his client to Japanese teams when the Marlins offered a one-year, $10 million deal in January.
At first, it seemed a poor match. The Marlins were a low-budget team clearing salary by trading veterans such as Preston Wilson and Charles Johnson. Plus, they had a young pitching staff in need of a mentor, and the word on Rodriguez was he didn’t do pitching.
But he proved a bargain in both categories. The Marlins’ postseason revenue will go a long way toward paying Rodriguez’s salary, and the pitching staff, once skeptical, now says his presence had much to do with its success as well.
“He’s brought that strong leadership and his influence of how to play the game, “ said left-hander Mark Redman, another first-year Marlin. “He calls a great game. He takes pride in calling a good game. He doesn’t just call the pitch, he looks at what the hitter might be doing or the hitter’s weakness.
“He’s really working behind the plate and thinking and trying to make it easier for you.”
MIRRORING THE TEAM
Winning invigorated Rodriguez.
He hit .169 in May, when the team lost 16 of 28 games, and seemed uninterested at times. But when the Marlins caught fire, so did their catcher. The team’s best month was July, when Florida went 17-7, and it was Rodriguez’s best month as well. He hit .376 with a season-high 21 RBI.
Then he carried the team in the playoffs, hitting .353 against the Giants in the division series and single-handedly winning Game 4 with two plays at the plate. Then he drove in 10 runs in seven games against the Cubs.
After that series, Rodriguez gathered the team in a circle and offered an emotional tribute to McKeon. And after the Marlins’ first victory in the World Series, he and closer Ugueth Urbina exchanged kisses on the Yankee Stadium mound.
That doesn’t sound like a player who’s ready to move on and play for the highest bidder now that he’s a free agent.
“I don’t know, “ Rodriguez said just hours before the Marlins clinched the title. “We don’t talk about that right now. In the offseason let’s see what happens.”
Six weeks ago, when the Marlins were in Puerto Rico, the Puerto Rican-born Rodriguez held a news conference to say he would like to return. And the Marlins said they would like to have him back.
But will money become an obstacle? Rodriguez’s new agent, Scott Boras, is said to be seeking a five-year, $50 million deal - a lengthy one for a catcher who will be 32 next season and one the Marlins aren’t likely to entertain.
More likely is a three-year deal for about $8 million annually, a contract that would mean accepting less to play near his Miami Beach home. Boras, though, likely won’t accept such a deal.
But then, this season has been the best of Rodriguez’s career.
“They gave me a lot of respect, “ he said. “Our clubhouse, my teammates, we’re very united. Nobody knows what is going to happen next year but my personal opinion [is] this team will stay together for many years to come. . . . If this team stays together the way it is, I think they can be like the Yankees, they can win probably pretty much every year.”