Washington welcomes Pudge

Pudge Rizzo.JPGJune 19, 1991. The date probably doesn’t mean anything to you but it was the beginning of an era for a young, stocky 19-year-old nicknamed Pudge–a nickname that originated right from his physical attributes and 5-foot-9 frame. Ivan Rodriguez was scheduled to get married that day in between games of a double header. It didn’t quite go as planned.

He was called into the manager’s office and was told he had to delay the wedding because he was going to the Big Leagues. His manager told him he would only be there for 15 days. Well, 15 days passed and he was still playing. Now 18 years have passed. And yeah, he is still playing.

June 20, 1991. It was an unforgettable day for Ivan Rodriguez. He made his Major League debut and drove in two runs with his first Major League hit, capping off the Rangers five-run, ninth-inning rally to beat the White Sox 7-3. He threw out a pair of would-be base stealers too.

Almost 18 and half years–half his life–and 14 All-Star games, 13 Gold Gloves, seven Silver Slugger awards later, we know it  wasn’t an accident. It was just an average day at the ballpark. It was Pudge being Pudge.

If baseball was Greek mythology, he would be Hercules. Among catchers with 1,000 games caught, Rodriguez is first in games caught (2,288), runs (1,308), hits (2,711), doubles (547) and extra-base hits (902). Those are all nice but he can’t refrain from mentioning that he threw seven no-hitters in Little League.

“They are still talking about that today,” Rodriguez said.

Pudge 2.JPGPeople have always been talking about Rodriguez since he debuted in the Majors. The numbers, the accolades and the gold gloves, they speak for themselves.

“It is an exciting day for Washington Nationals family,” GM Mike Rizzo said. “We get to introduce certainly the greatest catcher in our generation and, quite possibly, the greatest catcher in the history of baseball.”

Now that is saying something. It might not be far from the truth either.

The Nationals started the offseason with a well drafted blueprint: upgrade the bullpen, acquire a veteran starting pitcher, sign a defensive catcher and improve up the middle. It is starting to take shape now. They bolstered the bullpen on Monday trading for reliever Brian Bruney and today they officially signed a future Hall-of-Famer in Rodriguez.

As expected with a 38-year-old catcher, his batting average has steadily declined the last four seasons and his best years are behind him offensively. It may not be the prime of Pudge’s career but he can still play baseball. He has 289 hits to go before he reaches the illustrious 3,000 hit club and he has every intention of accomplishing that feat. It is a goal for him but he still wants to win.

It is still unclear how much he will play in 2010. He started 108 games at catcher in 2009, 95 in ’08, 119 in ’07 and 121 in ’06. His main job will be mentoring catcher Jesus Flores, 25, and the young pitching staff.

Flores is still recovering from a torn right labrum but while his health status is still uncertain, Rizzo said he will be healthy for the start of Spring Training. But don’t be surprised if Rodriguez carries the bulk of the work load during the 2010 season. He has his whole career. He is a machine. The future Hall-of-Famer still has knees like a 28-year-old–how else could you start 108 games in baseball’s most demanding position at the age of 37?

“I am ready to play every day,” Rodriguez said. “I am a player that still can play every day and I will play every day.”

Of course, he knows he can’t start 162 games, but maybe 110. He will accept the role that is best for the team.

Maybe more important than his offensive or defensive skills, are the intangible attributes Pudge brings to the clubhouse. He is a hard working, friendly, follow-by-example team leader that will do anything and everything to win. Rodriguez has been a key catalyst for change too. See the 2003 Marlins or the post-2003 Tigers. He signed with the Marlins in 2003 and we all know what happened–they beat the Yankees in six games to win the World Series. He was the MVP of the NLCS, hitting .321 with a record 10 RBI as Florida came back from a 3-1 deficit to beat the Chicago Cubs in seven games which is most notably remembered for the Steve Bartman incident.

The following season, he helped orchestrate the Tigers turnaround. He nearly led the perennial cellar dwellers to a championship in three seasons. They improved 29.0 games in 2004, a year after losing 119 games. They made it to the World Series in 2006. Next up… the Nationals.

Pudge media 1.JPG
Pudge media 2.JPG“My goal is to support the whole team and to win ballgames,” Rodriguez said. “You have to play 27 hard outs and if you do that every game, you are going to win a lot of games. Basically, that’s my philosophy. That’s the way I play the game and that’s what I plan to bring to the ballclub.” 

December 11, 2009. It was a memorable afternoon for the Nationals. Rodriguez smiled ear to ear putting on a Nationals jersey. Then again, being able to put on a jersey every day has been the favorite part of his celebrated career. 

No matter what kind of numbers he puts up on the field, he will make a difference in Washington, DC. His numbers may be declining but his positive mentality and friendly demeanor haven’t changed. His nickname may no longer apply–slimmer, faster and built with a body most 18-year-olds dream of nowadays–but it stuck and it won’t change. He doesn’t want to change his nickname… the Immortal Ivan.

“I like Pudge,” he said.

He just wants to change the ways in Washington.


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