|Wednesday, November 27
Once a hero, Pudge now just an afterthought in Texas
By Phil Rogers
Special to ESPN.com
Cruise any corner of the Dallas-Fort Worth area, from the new George Bush freeway to the old Jacksboro Highway, and chances are you'll see one of the bumper stickers. They carry the simplest of messages: "Sign Pudge.''
You won't find them on new cars, however.
These faded and worn messages are relics of another period. It was a time when the Rangers were the hottest franchise in North Texas and the Gold Glove catcher was its most popular player.
Ivan Rodriguez's impending free agency evoked a widespread passion back in 1997. But now that Rodriguez has finally reached the marketplace, after three consecutive last-place seasons, the deification of Alex Rodriguez and the rise of the NBA's Dallas Mavericks and NHL's Dallas Stars, he twists in the wind as little more than an awkward public spectacle.
Ivan Rodriguez has Cooperstown numbers -- 10 Gold Gloves, a .305 career batting average, the American League record for homers in a season by a catcher (35) and an AL Most Valuable Player award.
He's no old man, either. He'll play all of next season at 31. Yet these days all conversations about him start with his four trips to the disabled list in the last three years.
There is no outcry for owner Tom Hicks to do whatever it takes to let Rodriguez continue his march toward the Hall of Fame with the only team he has known. General manager John Hart hasn't even made Rodriguez a contract offer, inviting him to shop himself elsewhere first before seeing if Texas can squeeze himself into an already overloaded payroll.
Baltimore and the Cubs are the only teams that have expressed any interest and they aren't likely to make a move until after Dec. 7. That's because many suspect the Rangers will formally sever ties by declining to offer salary arbitration to Rodriguez.
"The arbitration process usually results in artificially high salaries,'' Hicks said. "We'll just have to wait and see.''
Who thought it would come to this?
Not Rodriguez. He said all the right things when Hicks signed A-Rod two years ago, even though it precluded him from getting the contract extension he deserved. Now he must feel duped.
Rodriguez, who had knee surgery in 2001 and was sidelined with a herniated disc early in 2002, is especially sensitive about concerns that he's headed toward a short career. Some believe he's worn himself thin by starting an average of 135 games a year from 1991-99.
"These people keep saying that nobody is going to sign me for more than two or three years because it's risky,'' Rodriguez told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. "That's OK. They can say whatever. I don't care. I'm going to work so hard this offseason, and then next year I'm going to stick it to them and show them what I can do.''
Don't bet against Rodriguez. There's probably no other free agent on the market who can bring as much of a return on investment.
Rodriguez is a two-way terror when he's healthy. His arm, one of the best in baseball history, is almost as strong as ever. He's a terrific run-producer with the bat, generating power (at least 19 homers a year for seven consecutive years) without the tradeoff of high strikeout totals.
Scouts and even some teammates have long whispered that Rodriguez is too preoccupied to bring out the best in the pitchers he catches. But he didn't seem to handicap a constantly changing pitching staff in 1996-99. The Rangers won three AL West titles with John Burkett as the only pitcher on hand for every playoff run.
Health is the only reason Rodriguez didn't join Jim Thome as this winter's premiere free agent. But when the smoke clears, agent Jeff Moorad is likely to have found a team willing to give him $8-10 million a year for three or four years, possibly with vesting options that could make it even longer.
Rodriguez's run of injuries started with a piece of bad luck in 2000. Mo Vaughn caught him in the hand as he followed through on a wild swing, sidelining him for the last two months with a broken right thumb. He was sidelined with a bruised heel and patella tendinitis in his right knee in 2001, again missing the end of the season, and then was sidelined by lower back trouble early in '02.
But despite all the injuries, he did average 98 games behind the plate over the last three seasons. At the end of last season, he appeared as sturdy as any catcher in the majors.
Rodriguez played 96 of the Rangers' last 104 games after coming off the disabled list on June 7. Los Angeles' Paul Lo Duca was the only catcher to miss fewer than eight games from that point. Lo Duca, Oakland's Ramon Hernandez and Rodriguez were the only catchers who didn't miss back-to-back games in that period.
And Rodriguez wasn't just taking up space, either. He batted .325 with 19 homers and 55 runs batted in over those 96 games. Sound like a washed-up catcher to you?
Rodriguez's downfall may come from setting such high standards for himself.
Consider there was little mention about health concerns when the Cubs traded for Arizona's Damian Miller earlier this month. Yet Miller is two years older than Rodriguez, was bothered by back spasms in July and August and wound up starting seven fewer games than Pudge.
Because there is no designated hitter spot to act as a safety net, the risk in signing Rodriguez to a long-term contract is greater for a National League team. But at least one NL team is intrigued with the possibility that Rodriguez could be a bargain.
Despite the addition of Miller and Paul Bako in recent trades, the Cubs have targeted Rodriguez. "This would not inhibit us from getting another catcher if it makes sense,'' Cubs general manager Jim Hendry said after the Bako trade.
Hendry bought Rodriguez and Moorad lunch last week, when Rodriguez was in town for a card show. "It was a very pleasant visit,'' Hendry told the Chicago Sun-Times. "I was very impressed with him, and he's in great shape.''
Hendry is expected to open negotiations with Rodriguez after Dec. 7. Hendry will be in better position if he finds a taker for Todd Hundley, who still has two seasons left ($12.5 million) on the contract he received two years ago.
Few of the teams that need to improve the most at catcher -- Cleveland, Detroit, Milwaukee, Atlanta, the White Sox and San Diego -- have money to throw at the position. Many of them believe they have internal options to fill their needs.
The Indians are probably set with prospects Victor Martinez and Josh Bard. The White Sox believe Miguel Olivo is close to being a major contributor in the majors and San Diego recently acquired Michael Rivera from Detroit.
Texas, on the other hand, has almost no idea who will catch if Rodriguez leaves. It has explored trades for Montreal's Michael Barrett and Cleveland's Einar Diaz and would be interested in Miller if the Cubs signed Rodriguez.
You'd think this would be a big deal in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. But it isn't.
Nobody ever accused fans of having long memories.
Phil Rogers is the national baseball writer for the Chicago Tribune, which has a web site at www.chicagosports.com.