Back in Detroit, Pudge proud of Tigers' success
Ex-catcher throws first pitch before Game 4, recalls turnaround of franchise
DETROIT -- Former Tigers great Ivan "Pudge" Rodriguez hadn't been to Comerica Park since 2010 as a member of the Washington Nationals. But he made his long-awaited return Thursday to toss out the ceremonial first pitch for Game 4 of the American League Championship Series.
"It is an honor for me to come to the Motor City," Rodriguez said before heading out to the mound. "The fans here, they're unbelievable."
It was a familiar feeling being in front of the Detroit fans and media, just like he did for nearly five years of his career. But in some aspects it was also totally different, as he spoke for the first time as a former Major Leaguer.
Rodriguez, fresh off retiring in April, fielded all the questions on this year's Tigers, praising the greatness of Miguel Cabrera and Justin Verlander, as well as sharing his admiration for Detroit's new catcher Alex Avila.
"They've done hard work to become the organization and the team they have on the field right now," Rodriguez said. "[Tigers owner Mike Ilitch] deserves to be a world champion."
But when he finished, he stepped off the stage disappointed in the one question not asked.
"No one asked me about my beard," he said, jokingly.
He rarely, if ever, grew it out during his 21-year career. But the 40-year-old sported a fully grown beard Thursday, gray hairs and all.
And although there's little doubt he could put the uniform on, get back out there and catch Verlander while calling as good a game as Avila, he looked like a retired ballplayer.
"I don't have to hide my age anymore," said Rodriguez, smiling.
The backstop is most known around this part of the country as the first step in returning the Tigers to glory.
He arrived as a free agent in 2003 after the team's 119-loss season. His signing had a ripple effect as other stars like Magglio Ordonez and Kenny Rogers took notice and joined him a few years later.
As a result, three years after losing the most games in American League history, the Tigers reached the World Series.
"Everybody is telling me why did you come to this club," said Rodriguez, recalling the reaction to when he signed. "And the reason I came here is because I saw the talent. When I came here, they just tried to rebuild the team and bring in some new faces, new team, new players, and that's what they did."
One of those new faces is Avila, an All-Star catcher in 2011 who has often spoke about Rodriguez's impact had on his career. Not only was Rodriguez his idol, but his first catcher's mitt when he was making the transition to the new position at the University of Alabama came directly from Rodriguez.
"I think he was in college and [assistant general manager] Al Avila [Alex's father] asked me to see if I can get him a glove, and I told him why not," Rodriguez said. "I would just sign it and give it to him. And he calls me and thanks me and everything was good."
To have Avila catching his first pitch was fitting. And just to have Rodriguez back in Detroit seemed fitting as well, given the Tigers were up 3-0 on the Yankees and were on the verge of getting back to the Fall Classic for the first time since the '06 squad.
For the first time, however, he won't be impacting the outcome of any Tigers' games directly. But he's certainly left his imprint on the team and on the city.
"[Tigers president/general manager Dave] Dombrowski -- when we're talking in negotiations, he told me that he's going to put a winning team together," Rodriguez said. "I signed, you know, Magglio signed, they got a trade for [Carlos] Guillen to the ballclub. And you can see the results right now. ... The team has become a winning team, always in the pennant race."
Anthony Odoardi is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.