8/1/2014 9:15 P.M. ET
Pudge happy to be back 'home' in Detroit
Former All-Star catcher takes part in two Q&A sessions as part of ¡Fiesta Tigres!
By Chris Vannini / Special to MLB.com
DETROIT -- As Ivan Rodriguez and Tigers president/general manager Dave Dombrowski walked to the Tiger Club at Comerica Park on Friday, the catcher known as Pudge stopped and looked over the field.
"This is my home," he said.
Rodriguez is being honored this weekend as part of the ninth annual ¡Fiesta Tigres! celebration at Comerica Park. A Q&A between Rodriguez and MLB.com's Jesse Sanchez was the focal point of the event's fifth annual luncheon on Friday, bringing together leaders from Detroit's Hispanic and Latino community. Sanchez also hosted a Q&A with Rodriguez on the Comerica Park concourse before Friday's game between the Tigers and Rockies.
"It means a lot," Rodriguez said. "All the memories from here, to be able to play with the organization with a lot of memories and a lot of players in the Hall of Fame, and the fans, some of the best fans in baseball, it's unbelievable. To be able to wear that uniform for five years, it was an unbelievable feeling."
Rodriguez played in Detroit for almost five seasons, winning three Gold Glove Awards, a Silver Slugger Award and making four All-Star Game appearances as part of an illustrious career.
Throughout the day, Rodriguez reflected on his career, from coming to the United States from Puerto Rico as a teenager as part of the Texas Rangers organization, to becoming one of the game's greatest catchers. That Rangers team included Hispanic players like Rafael Palmeiro and Julio Franco who helped Rodriguez with his transition in the early 1990s.
"It was a great time," Rodriguez said. "They welcomed me very warmly when I got there in '91. They taught me, from day one, to play the game for nine innings as hard as I can. That's what you see in those highlights. Those guys taught to play like that. It doesn't matter if we're losing or winning by 10, you have to respect the game of baseball and perform 100 percent. I came up in an era where that's how they played at that time. … That's why I feel so lucky. I came up in the '90s playing with and against a lot of players that did that."
Rodriguez joined the Florida Marlins in 2003 and won his only World Series championship that year. But in the prime of his career, Rodriguez opted to join the Tigers, who had lost an American League-record 119 games in 2003. The current Tigers have reached the AL Championship Series in three straight years, but the turnaround began with Rodriguez's signing.
"When people ask me where we started to climb from and started to turn the corner, there's no question it started on one very important day, heading into the 2004 season," Dombrowski said. "We're very fortunate this gentleman joined us. Once that took place and we got a chance to see one of the best players in recent timeframe, that started the comeback for the Detroit Tigers."
Rodriguez's move coincided with the addition of infielder Carlos Guillen, who is Venezuelan. Fellow Venezuelan Magglio Ordonez signed with Detroit the next year, and the Tigers reached the World Series in 2006.
"It was confusing in Miami [after 2003]," Rodriguez said. "They said, 'Why are you going to Detroit? They lost 119 games the year before and you won the World Series.' I always told the media and my family, 'That's the reason I want to go.'
"Somebody had to start it. Dave had a nice conversation with us and said, 'If you come aboard, we're going to have some great players play with you and you're going to be in the World Series.' Guess what? We did. … He told me he would put a winning team in town. After I signed, Guillen came in, Magglio came in, we brought Justin [Verlander] from the Minor Leagues."
The Tigers have nine players with Hispanic and Latino heritage on their 25-man roster. This weekend marks the ninth annual ¡Fiesta Tigres! celebration. For the second year in a row, the Tigers will wear special "Tigres" uniforms on Saturday. It's the second time since 1960 that the Tigers will wear something other than the Old English D on the home uniform.
The first 15,000 fans 21 and over at Saturday's game will receive a Rodriguez figurine, and Latin music will be featured on the concourse.
In addition, J.D. Martinez, who is of Cuban heritage, participated in a ballpark picnic Friday at Brushfire Grill for 50 youth baseball and softball players from Detroit.
"Throughout the years, our ballclub is heavily made up of people from Latin America," Dombrowski said. "I think it's been a real good marriage. Many of the players have felt comfortable to come here, with the support of the clubhouse, the community, coaching staff and front office. It's a wonderful place, with some of the greatest stars in the game from Latin America."
Whether it was offering to help at-risk youth in Detroit during his first Q&A or telling a young girl to come up and take a picture with him during the second, it's not hard to see why Rodriguez -- who now works as a TV analyst in Texas -- remains a fan favorite in Detroit.
"I feel honored to be part of the Detroit organization for five years," Rodriguez said. "On the way over here, [Dombrowski] and I were talking. I stopped and looked at the field and said, 'This is my home.' I'm happy I'm back here and honored. It really is my home."
Chris Vannini is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.