A few thoughts on Rodriguez and the Hall of Fame

Let's start off with a show of hands: Anyone else out there long for the days when we didn't have two-plus months of endless debate over who should be elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame?

Remember when the discussion period was only a couple of weeks, roughly right after the new year and up to the mid-January announcement of election results? Now we've moprhed from good-natured discussion and disagreement to animated sniping between writers and broadcasters, who debate a list of acronyms that look like they should be after a doctor or scholar's name.

Granted, the voting members of the Baseball Writers' Association of America have a difficult challenge each year, especially when poring over the candidacies of players from the Steroid Era. I know the voters put a lot of time and effort into their ballots - some going right up against the Dec. 31 postmark deadline - and consider their votes carefully and faithfully.

But they got it right this year, electing former Expos speedster Tim Raines, longtime Astros first baseman Jeff Bagwell and former Nationals catcher Ivan "Pudge" Rodriguez, who will be enshrined in Cooperstown, N.Y., on the final Sunday in July. All are deserving, but I wanted to share a few thoughts on Rodriguez, who will become the first former Nationals player to achieve baseball's greatest and most enduring honor.

Reading the plaudits from his former Nationals teammates and general manager Mike Rizzo the night of his election, even a casual observer can easily understand how much the veteran catcher meant to the Nationals, with whom he spent the final two seasons of a stellar 21-year career.

Pudge-Rodriguez-Nationals-Sidebar.jpgWhen the Nationals signed Rodriguez in December 2009, I knew what they were getting: a consummate professional who prepared for and played the game the right way. He was fanatical about conditioning, took game prep more seriously than most players I've covered and was the kind of veteran presence that's critical to a clubhouse, especially to the growth of young pitchers and catchers.

Yes, his better years were behind him. But I dare anyone to tell me Rodriguez didn't bring the same professionalism and enthusiasm to his first spring training with the Nats in 2010 as he had when he was a 19-year-old rookie learning the ropes in 1991 with the Rangers. Back then, Pudge took note of what the veterans taught him, did everything he could to better himself as a catcher and a hitter, and relished every day he had the opportunity to play the game he loved.

When Rodriguez arrived at Space Coast Stadium that February, he sought out his locker in the middle of the row of catchers on the position players' side of the room and started unpacking - a task that took a lot longer than he expected. He'd pull out a couple of gloves and would suddenly be deep in conversation with one of his fellow backstops, explaining best how to break in or care for a glove. He'd pull a bat or helmet out of his equipment bag and be interrupted by a pitcher or two; veterans and youngsters alike knew what a wonderful opportunity they'd have to learn from a guy who had logged nearly 2,400 career games.

It didn't take long before the affable Rodriguez was holding court. Guys like Jhonatan Solano, Derek Norris, Wil Nieves and Devin Ivany - all catchers, among the early reports to spring camp - were gathered around him. Some were seated on stools, others sprawled on the floor. They were eager to sponge whatever they could glean from the 14-time All-Star who had won World Series with the Marlins and appeared in another with the Tigers, wracked up 13 Gold Glove Awads and claimed an American League MVP award in 1999 with the Rangers.

And Pudge was happy to pay it forward. Interviewing him for a feature story in the Nationals gameday program that spring, he explained to me that it was important to prepare the next generation of major leaguers. He absolutely loved that young players were drawn to him like moths to a back porch light. And he enjoyed - no, felt obligated - to share whatever he could with them.

By that spring, I'd dealt with Rodriguez for a number of years, writing for The Associated Press and MLB.com. He was always very gracious with his time, always had a few minutes when I approached him at his locker. Some veteran players view the media with disdain; Rodriguez seemed to understand that we'd help him spread the baseball gospel, giving him a pulpit to preach the good word. Tools of ignorance? No way. There was never a more thoughtful, honest catcher on the other side of an interview.

Rodriguez was the reason I made my first appearance in a Wikipedia footnote. In May 2006, in the Tigers clubhouse at Camden Yards, I noticed him breaking in a first baseman's mitt at his locker stall and spoke with him about playing a position other than catcher for the first time in the majors. I'd learned from painful experience not to discount anything Pudge said.

Assigned to the visitors clubhouse for a July 1997 series between the Orioles and Rangers in Baltimore, I had to find someone to talk to after Texas was swept at Camden Yards. Because the last game of the series was July 31, the night of the non-waiver trading deadline, we were on the lookout for players being called into the manager's office or talking to the traveling secretary for alternate flights after a trade. But I had Rodriguez in my back pocket, and made a beeline to his locker.

He was frustrated, but patiently answered a handful of questions about the game and series. Wrapping up our interview, I remembered that Pudge was in his final contract season with the Rangers, who weren't budging on his salary demands, insisting he take a hometown discount. Free agency was looming after the season - and there were rumors that Rodriguez might be traded before - so when we had finished, I turned off my recorder and closed my notebook.

"Hope to see you next year," I told him. "And I hope you're in the same uniform."

"I'll be here," he promised. "And I'll still be a Ranger. I've got to take care of things myself."

It was a throwaway comment, something I've heard dozens of players say. What it meant could have been open to interpretation. But the next morning, hours after arriving back in Arlington, Texas, Rodriguez did something few players of his era did: He walked into Rangers president Tom Schieffer's office and hammered out his own deal, without the benefit of attorney and agent Jeff Moorad. The Rangers had rejected Rodriguez's overtures for a multi-year, $45 million deal the week before; Pudge and Schieffer put their heads together and came up with a five-year, $42 million pack that kept Rodriguez in Texas through 2002.

Reading the accounts of the meeting that day, I was shocked. I had a scoop and didn't know it. Lesson learned: You always listen to what Ivan Rodriguez has to say.

Near the end of his two years in D.C., which finished with him still 156 hits short of the 3,000-hit plateau, I remember asking him if he had regrets that he wouldn't reach the milestone. Pudge smiled and said there were none.

"I've gotten to play baseball for a long, long time," he told me, smiling wide. "I have no regrets."

One final memory of Rodriguez from his final major league season. On Sept. 1, I trekked to Harrisburg, Pa., to watch Stephen Strasburg pitch in his final rehab game on his comeback from Tommy John surgery. Waiting in the dugout before the game to talk to Rizzo about Strasburg and Bryce Harper (who was out with an ankle injury), I heard a familiar voice behind me: "What are you doing here?"

Turning around, I was face to face with Pudge, all geared up and ready to go out and warm up a pitcher. Rodriguez caught Strasburg that night at Metro Bank Park, all the focus on the pitcher and none of it on the man behind the mask. A few weeks before his career ended, there was Rodriguez, happily chatting up young players who sought him out and footing the bill for a postgame feast. After speaking with him for a few minutes before the game, Rodriguez apologized for cutting our chat short.

"Got work to do," he told me.

And if that's not his career in a nutshell, I don't know what is. He was the best catcher of his generation, and he deserved to be only the second catcher - the Reds' Johnny Bench was the other - elected in his first year of eligibility.

His work is done; now Rodriguez gets to enjoy the results of a lifetime's efforts.

Could Nats stand pat and field competitive 25-man ...
Relive "Nationals Classics": Throwing back to earl...

By accepting you will be accessing a service provided by a third-party external to https://www.masnsports.com/