Pudge best ever all-around Ranger

There was a time, sitting on a barstool in some cozy pub on a cold winter's night, I might have argued that Ivan Rodriguez was a great catcher but he wasn't the best defensive catcher ever to put on a Texas Rangers uniform.

I'd have been dead wrong -- and you're right, not for the first time -- but that's the great thing about baseball: my opinion is just as good as yours and vice versa.

After the guy sitting next to me had punched my lights out for outright heresy, I'd have phoned Jim Sundberg for sympathy.

I make no apologies for believing that Sundberg was a tremendous defensive catcher and I was privileged to watch much of his career unfold on a daily basis between 1974 and 1983. I'll never forget Kansas City manager Whitey Herzog telling reporters that Sundberg simply changed the way the Royals, a dominant team in those days, played the game by taking away their speed with his incredible arm.

But with all due respect to Sundberg and his defensive greatness (six straight Gold Gloves), we're here today to honor one of the top five catchers in major league history. If you want to join me on the next barstool and contend that Ivan "Pudge" Rodriguez was the greatest of all-time, you'll get no argument from me.

We may have a little difficulty convincing folks that Pudge was better than Johnny Bench, but that doesn't mean we couldn't make a pretty convincing case.

Besides, when you're in the argument with Bench, Yogi Berra, Roy Campanella, Carlton Fisk, Mike Piazza (greatest hitting catcher ever) and Mickey Cochrane, you're automatically in Hall of Fame territory.

Pudge is definitely in the argument when it comes to comparing offensive and defensive numbers. But the number that matters most as far his Hall of Fame hopes is this: one.

One reference to steroids by Jose Canseco in his tell-all book Juiced, in which Canseco says he injected Pudge, Juan Gonzalez and Rafael Palmeiro with PEDs until they were able to handle it on their own.

Most of us have already made the mistake of dismissing Canseco's claims out of hand, figuring he was just trying to juice (pun intended) book sales. Too much of what he said has proven to be true to continue making that mistake.

Palmeiro eventually tested positive for steroids. PED paraphernalia was found in Gonzalez's luggage and he was mentioned prominently in the Mitchell report, baseball's official investigation of the steroids epidemic in the '90s.

But the only steroids reference to Pudge was in Canseco's book. Pudge did, however, fail one other critical test: the eyeball test. He bulked up a lot in the late 1990s and, after MLB cracked down with a stringent drug testing program, he showed up the next season looking like a shadow of his former self.

I remember a trip to Puerto Rico one winter to do stories on Gonzalez and Pudge. I watched first-hand the offseason workout regimen Pudge was on with friend and then Yankees catcher Jorge Posada. It's entirely possible that the weight he put on was legitimate muscle.

All I know for sure is that Pudge Rodriguez had a first-ballot Hall of Fame baseball career.

The Hall of Fame voters, and I'm one of them, will have to sort out the evidence, or lack thereof, and determine if there's reason to blackball Pudge. I don't think there is. I've always based my vote, or lack of it for Juan and for Raffy, on whether there's a preponderance of evidence that indicates steroids use. Canseco cast suspicion on Pudge, but I won't leave him off my ballot on that alone.

Nor will I condemn him because when he was asked whether he was one of the 103 players who tested positive for steroids in 2004, Pudge replied
"Only God knows."

Actually, only God knows what that was supposed to mean. A semi-confession? A slippery side-step? Who knows?

As for the eyeball test, well, maybe he decided to try Weight Watchers to get some of the weight off his aching knees.

Here is what we know for sure:

Pudge won a record (for a catcher) 13 Gold Gloves. He holds the major league record for games caught (2,377). He started a record 12 All-Star Games. He won seven Silver Slugger Awards (second only to Piazza's 10).

He led his league in caught-stealing percentage eight times and the majors five times. In an era when the league average for throwing out baserunners was 31 percent, eight times he threw out more than 50 percent of the runners who tried to run on him.

His 1999 season, when he was the AL MVP after hitting .332 with 116 runs scored, 35 homers and 113 RBIs, rivals the best any catcher ever recorded. With five more stolen bases (he had 25), he would have put up the first ever 30-30 season by a catcher. He threw out 41 in 75 (55 percent) steal attempts that season.

Ten times Pudge hit .300 or better.

Only Bench might have been a better all-around catcher. Piazza was the greatest offensive catcher, but not in the same conversation with either Pudge or Bench defensively.

Pudge retires as a Ranger on Monday, which officially brings closure to an incredible career. I contend that as an all-around everyday player, he was the greatest in Texas Rangers history.

Not even Sunny would argue with that.