Pudge leaves winning legacy in Detroit
Hard-working catcher contributed to Tigers' transformation
CLEVELAND -- Ivan Rodriguez came to Detroit on a big contract and a crazy idea, a future Hall of Fame catcher coming off a world championship taking a chance on a big contract and a promise from an owner to build a winner.
Nearly five years later, history has proven him right. They were good enough, however, that he became expendable.
If the Tigers make a run at a playoff spot over the next two months, they'll do it without Rodriguez, traded to the Yankees on Wednesday for reliever Kyle Farnsworth. Yet as Tigers officials discussed the reasons they parted ways with Rodriguez at this year's Trade Deadline, they acknowledged that there's no way they'd be a contender without him.
"The franchise started coming back on the field the day we signed Pudge," team president/general manager Dave Dombrowski said. "He's been an All-Star. He's given us everything. He busts his tail every day."
He wasn't the first free agent to sign with Detroit on the heels of its 119-loss season, but he was by far the biggest. For many, he made it OK to be a Tiger. And while it took an entire team to finish the turnaround from baseball doormat to American League champion in three years, it will be part of Rodriguez's legacy more than anyone else in Detroit.
"My 4 1/2 years in a Detroit uniform were very good, very nice," Rodriguez said. "People thought Detroit was never going to be a winning team. And guess what? We played in the World Series. We hired a good manager, one of the best managers in the game. It's unbelievable."
It was a marriage of a team looking for a franchise player with a player looking for a franchise when neither seemed able to find a match. Miguel Tejada, Vladimir Guerrero and many other free agents spurned the Tigers' overtures after that disastrous 2003 season. Some agents wouldn't even take their phone calls.
The one prominent free agent left was Rodriguez, a cornerstone on a Marlins team that had just won a World Series. His talent was unquestioned; he drove in 85 runs and hit 16 homers while batting .297 that year. The concern was his health, his age (32) and his history of back issues.
The fiery Rodriguez immediately won over Tigers officials -- especially owner Mike Ilitch, who saw Pudge as potentially his baseball team's version of beloved Red Wings captain Steve Yzerman. A meeting with Ilitch, whose an all-out recruitment effort included a promise to build a winner, won over Rodriguez.
When they agreed to a four-year, $40 million contract, it was seen as a risky, desperate move for the Tigers, and a financial move for Rodriguez. But as much national scrutiny as it created, the sight of a championship baseball player coming to Detroit created a local frenzy. Rodriguez instantly became the face of a franchise that rebounded from just 43 wins in 2003 to 72 in '04.
"Here we were, signing a guy still at the top of his career, coming off a World Series championship, a quality player," Dombrowski said. "For us, it was an important step. And I think it also opened the doors to many other players having an open mind about coming here. We were able to build upon that."
Free agents Magglio Ordonez, Kenny Rogers and Todd Jones followed, as did manager Jim Leyland. The rest is history.
"He really was a huge, huge part of the turnaround," Leyland said, "well before I got here and probably long after I'm gone. You don't want to start slighting anybody, but when the Tigers put the faces of Pudge Rodriguez and Magglio Ordonez to this franchise, it changed things. "
The players that followed added more and more star power, making Rodriguez less of a prominent superstar and more part of the group. Yet as the Tigers transitioned from also-ran to contender, Rodriguez became known for more than his track record. He added to it, becoming a marvel for the way he maintained his level of play into his mid-30s.
The Tigers backstop hit .500 in a calendar month on his way to a .334 average, 19 homers and 86 RBIs in 2004, then remade his game in '05, reporting to camp with a slimmer frame. He became one of the team's best baserunners, a status he retains even today, and he took advantage of his ability to punch the ball to the opposite field. Rodriguez even began to embrace walks this season, a thought that seemed impossible last year when he drew just nine of them.
All the while, his defensive ability and pitch-calling skills allowed Detroit's young staff to simply concentrate on pitching. When Rodriguez signed, the Tigers hadn't had a starter in the All-Star Game since Cecil Fielder in 1991. Rodriguez started behind the plate for the American League in 2004, '06 and '07 and was a reserve in '05.
"If you would've told me at the time that we signed him that we'd be able to have five years of production out of him, I would not have guessed that," Dombrowski said. "He's worked so hard and taken care of himself, and I tip my cap to him. I'm so impressed with his work ethic and the way he handles himself. He's a Hall of Famer."
Rodriguez became such a part of this franchise that he still used "we" to refer to the Tigers when talking with reporters after the trade.
It wasn't always smooth. He came under scrutiny in 2005 for leaving the country while under suspension for an on-field argument with an umpire, and he took some heat for former manager Alan Trammell's dismissal. And his desire to play every day never ceased, even when Brandon Inge started to cut into his playing time this summer.
"Pudge would play seven days a week," Leyland said. "If there were eight days, he'd play eight, but the good lord made seven. And that's one of the things that you love about him."
Still, his will to win is unquestioned. As Leyland liked to say, he plays hard, he plays hurt, and he comes to beat the other team.
When team officials informed Rodriguez about the trade Wednesday afternoon, they closed the clubhouse so that he could give his good-byes to teammates in private. And he also requested a phone conversation with Ilitch to give his farewell.
"He just thanked me for all the years, the same way I did to him," Rodriguez said. "He's a great owner, an owner who loves to win, and he deserves to win."
He had been pondering his future at times all season, since his contract expires at year's end. He knew Inge's reemergence as a catcher didn't help his own chances of re-signing with Detroit, and he said all season he was prepared for anything.
"When you're a free agent and the month of July comes, you have to think about anything," Rodriguez said. "You never know what's going to happen. You have to be ready for everything. Baseball is like that. It's a sport where you have to play hard, but in the end, you have to see what's going to happen."
He was prepared for this, too. As tough as it was, he was excited for his new chance. He won't have to worry about a franchise turnaround with the Yankees, but he'll still keep an eye on the Tigers as the season unwinds towards Sept. 1. That's when the Yankees visit Detroit for a makeup game that now becomes an event.
"He's loved," Dombrowski said. "And I would assume when he comes back Sept. 1 that there will be one of the biggest ovations you'll ever hear in your life for an opposing player -- and well-deserved."
Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.