Diamond In The Rough

Ivan “Pudge” Rodriguez is a big league baseball star and the most popular Texas Ranger. But if he’s loyal to his team, his heart and soul still lie in his hometown of Vega Baja, Puerto Rico.

June 1998By Comments

HE’S STILL DRAWN TO THIS PLACE after all these years: a crumpled patch of grass and dirt in the desperately poor countryside of Vega Baja, Puerto Rico. To get here today, he leaves his $1.8 million San Juan home and heads for the main strip of Route 2. Twenty minutes later he’s bumping along deserted back streets, passing abandoned sugarcane fields and rusted, rotting mills long shut down, and navigating narrow, winding dirt roads, past bent rows of shotgun shacks that seem on the verge of collapse. Chickens and dogs run loose on all sides.

Ivan Rodriguez wants to show me this place before any other, this empty Little League baseball field on the edge of his old barrio of Algarrobo. It is the field, he tells me later, where he played from age seven to fifteen and where he learned to play the game not only the “right way” but also with the same pit bull determination as his old man and where he often pitched against a tall, thin kid named Juan Gonzalez from the neighboring barrio of Alto de Cuba and where, ultimately, Rangers scouts first laid eyes on him and saw a budding major league star.

As the afternoon sun washes over his angry bulldog of a face, his intense brown eyes narrowed hard, Rodriguez leans with both elbows atop the fence surrounding the field and gazes outward, not saying a word for a long while. Which, I’m told by all those close to him, is a perfectly normal state, that he can easily go for long stretches in absolute, unnerving silence, even among family and friends. “It’s like he’s always thinking about something,” his wife, Maribel, says. It is a trait he inherited from his father, who, says Rodriguez, is “even quieter than me.” This has led some outsiders to judge Rodriguez as somewhat cold and distant and difficult to get to know.

Suddenly, as if struck by a revelation, Rodriguez points to a white building over the right center field fence, and his lips finally part. “That . . . that church over there . . . that wasn’t there,” he says in the brusque way he speaks, almost grunting out the words, as if the whole process of talking were somehow painful to him. “Everything else, the same. It has always looked like this.”

The team benches, each shielded by a cutoff fence, are nothing but concrete slabs painted over in yellow and green, chipping everywhere and covered with graffiti. In the thick grass in the foul territory behind home plate lie crushed beer cans, broken soda bottles, and twisted-up cigarette butts. Large patches of grass are missing down the right field line, and the infield is mined with large clumps of dirt and tons of scattered pebbles.

“Nice infield,” I say tongue in cheek.

He responds with a heavy snicker. “It made you always be ready,” he says in his thickly accented English. “The ball, it could bounce anywhere. It could hit you right in the face. It taught you to be ready for anything.”

He says he won many championships on this field and, at one point or another, played every position here. He says he can’t remember how many no-hitters he pitched from this mound. “I just know I had four in one year,” he says. That was when he was eight, the same year his coach seriously considered stopping him from pitching altogether, fearful that the kid’s arm was simply too powerful for the others and that one day he just might kill somebody.

Rodriguez remembers that on the days of some big games the rickety wood stands behind home plate would fill with around 150 locals; his parents would bring chairs from home and plunk them down behind the backstop. He says that while his mother would rarely make a peep during the games, other than to loudly oppose an umpire’s call, his father—once a slugging left fielder but always a painfully shy man who rarely said anything at home—could never keep his mouth shut, shouting stern instructions such as “Think, Ivan!” and “Be aggressive, Ivan!” and “Play hard, Ivan!” And Ivan always did exactly what he was told. “I wanted to make him happy with me,” Rodriguez explains quietly, pausing to turn his head and look straight into my eyes for the first time today. “My father is who made me what I am.”

AT ONLY 26 YEARS OLD, THE TEXAS Rangers’ Ivan “Pudge” Rodriguez is already regarded by many as the Johnny Bench of the nineties, arguably the best all-around catcher in baseball—an All-Star as well as a Gold Glove fielder in each of his six full big league seasons. And after begging the Rangers not to trade him last July (following a public and protracted series of contract negotiations), he became the richest player in the club’s history, signing a five-year deal worth $42 million. The math, even to Rodriguez, is staggering. The average annual income in Vega Baja, for instance, is $7,662—less than what Rodriguez now earns for one of his at bats.

“I never thought I would ever have all this,” he says, shaking his head softly. “Never, never.” We’re back at his San Juan home now, sitting poolside on an overcast Monday afternoon. As soon as the season ends, Rodriguez leaves his residence in Colleyville, twenty minutes from the Ballpark in Arlington, and returns here, to the poshest real estate development on the island, the gated and heavily secured community of Monte Hiedra. He and Maribel and their two children, Dereck and Amanda (aged seven and four), live in a tan-colored, palm-shaded villa with six bedrooms, a living room with Greek columns, marble floors, and crystal chandeliers, and an enormous, sloping backyard garden.

“But the money,” Rodriguez continues, slumped in a lounge chair like a little kid and sipping on a huge glass of iced tea, “it will never change me.” At five feet nine and 205 pounds, he is dressed in black spandex shorts, a gray No Fear T-shirt, and a black Nike baseball cap that he keeps turning backward and forward. “It is good for my kids, good for my wife. It is nice to do things for them, to give them a nice life. But I will always be the same person. Always trying hard to stay out of trouble and be the best player I can be.”

Some insiders are convinced that if Rodriguez had just held out a little longer last summer and become a free agent not only would he have been the hottest thing on the open market this winter but also he would have commanded something between $10 million and $12 million a season. Pondering that, Rodriguez calmly takes a long swig from his iced tea. “Yes,” he says, “I think I could’ve gotten more money somewhere else. But I don’t think I would’ve been happy. And if I were a free agent right now, I don’t think I could’ve concentrated on getting myself in shape for the season. I wouldn’t be as relaxed as I am now.” He pauses, his voice—and whole stiff demeanor—softening dramatically. “The Rangers, they are my family. I grew up in this organization. They gave me the opportunity to play in the major leagues. I will never forget them for that.”

The landmark deal almost didn’t get done. At nine in the morning last July 31, a mere fourteen hours before the trade deadline, Rangers general manager Doug Melvin and team president Tom Schieffer were huddling in Melvin’s office to go over a trade proposal that would have sent Rodriguez to the Yankees that afternoon. “We’d given up hope at that point of getting anything done with Ivan,” Schieffer says. “We were just trying to figure out the right time to call the press conference.”

An urgent call came into Melvin’s office from Schieffer’s executive assistant, who told her boss that Rodriguez was in the building and that he wanted to talk with him as soon as possible.

After weeks of anxiety over the troubled negotiations and no sleep the night before, Rodriguez was doing the unthinkable for a pro athlete: Unannounced, he showed up alone for one final meeting, without his agent, Jeff Moorad, who was en route to Texas from his California office. There were reports that the Players Association, the union for major league players, was pressuring Moorad to push Rodriguez toward free agency to hike the pay scale for catchers across the board. Maribel says, “We were having people decide for us [what to do].”

The contract talks had led Rodriguez to lose his focus on the field, at one point sinking into a three-for-twenty slump. “He was definitely distracted,” says his wife. “He wasn’t playing like himself,” agrees his teammate Rusty Greer. Luis Mayoral, a Rangers broadcaster on Spanish radio and the team’s Latin American liaison, says, “You could see it in his eyes before games—completely spaced out.” “The more I tried not to think about it,” remembers Rodriguez, “the more I thought about it. It kept coming into my mind.”

On that fateful morning, Rodriguez came quickly to the point. (He would later admit that he was as nervous and as scared as he’d ever been in his life.) “I can’t sleep,” he told Schieffer. “I’m really worried about this. I don’t want to be traded. I love playing here, and I want to stay here. I want to work out a deal.”

Schieffer says, “He was very sincere. It was obvious to me that it really meant something to him to be a Texas Ranger.”

They spoke for an hour together, until Schieffer finally scribbled down a dollar amount on a slip of paper and passed it across his desk, saying, “If you could live with this . . .” To which Rodriguez replied quickly that he could but would still need to go over it with Moorad. Schieffer agreed.

Moorad arrived later and negotiated with Schieffer for two hours by phone, and by two that afternoon the deal was finalized: $6 million in 1998, $8 million for each season from 1999 to 2001, $9 million in 2002, a $1 million signing bonus, and $2 million in severance pay whenever he leaves the club, whether by trade, free agency, or retirement. “We went further on the money than we really wanted,” Schieffer admits.

Rodriguez wound up the season with career highs in homers (20) and batting average (.313, tenth in the league overall and the best by an American League catcher since Carlton Fisk in 1977) and led all major league catchers in cutting down runners trying to steal (40 caught stealing out of 77 attempts for 52 percent). He was also one of only a handful of reliably productive Rangers last season, as the club, which won the division title for the first time ever in 1996, fell to a disappointing 77—85 and third place in the A.L. West—done in by a lethal combination of atrocious fielding, an aceless starting rotation, and a slew of major injuries.

This year Rodriguez is the Rangers’ hottest (batting over .400 in April) and most popular player (loved as much for his old-fashioned loyalty as his catching and hitting prowess). The team got off to a great start too, going 20—13 through early May. Former Rangers general manager Tom Grieve, now the team’s TV color analyst, says, “That’s what the Rodriguez signing means most of all. It’s an investment in the future of winning.”

BORN ON NOVEMBER 30, 1971, the second of two sons, Rodriguez was raised in a wood-and-cinderblock house in tiny Vega Baja, nicknamed Molasses-Molasses for once being the leading source of sugarcane in Puerto Rico. His parents—mother Eva, a second-grade schoolteacher, and father Jose, who has worked for an international construction company for more than a quarter century—divorced when he was twelve.

At first little Ivan played the poor boy’s game of hitting bottle caps with a broomstick, but at seven, after entering Little League, “it was baseball, baseball, baseball,” says Eva. “You could hardly get him to do anything else, including go to school.” He watched every game he could on TV, practiced for hours daily with his father, and would often fall asleep dressed in his Little League uniform. “When we were teenagers,” recalls his 28-year-old brother, Jose Junior, once a shortstop prospect but now a nose guard—shaped factory worker for Playtex, “I’d sometimes come home from a party at five in the morning, and he’d be there in the living room swinging a bat in front of a mirror with all the furniture moved around.”

Rodriguez developed swiftly. Signing with the Rangers at sixteen, he played two and a half years on class A and AA teams in the organization’s minor league system (he was the Florida State League’s all-star catcher in 1990) and was called up to the big leagues on June 20, 1991, his wedding day. He was nineteen, and in his second game he caught for Nolan Ryan. In 88 games that first year, he batted .264 with eight homers. Always known less for his skills at the plate than for those behind it, he worked hard on his hitting and has averaged .300 or better in each of his past three seasons. His home run production has also climbed steadily. “Which is a total surprise,” says Tom Grieve. “When we drafted him, we knew he’d be a force defensively, but he was much harder to predict offensively.” Last year, on September 11 against the Twins, Rodriguez hit three homers in a single game for the first time in his career. And in 1996 he set a record for doubles by a catcher with 44, breaking Mickey Cochrane’s mark of 42 set in 1930; his 116 runs scored tied for the second most ever by a catcher in a single season.

But it’s the arm that everyone buzzes about. The cannonlike power of his throws. The blazingly quick release. The artfulness of his balance and footwork throwing from a crouch.

Rangers manager Johnny Oates, a former journeyman catcher of eleven big league seasons, is still stunned by what he saw Rodriguez do on opening day last year. The Rangers were leading the Brewers 4—2 in the top of the fifth inning with two outs. Jose Valentin was the runner on first base. Rodriguez deftly blocked a Ken Hill slider in the dirt; the ball ricocheted off his shin guards and skipped toward the on-deck circle, about 15 feet to his right. Valentin was off and running—against any other catcher he would have coasted into second base standing up. But, leaping to snare the ball, Rodriguez zipped a ninety-mile-per-hour fastball to the bag and nailed Valentin with a split second to spare. “I mean, Ivan threw a pea right on the money!” says the normally sedate Oates, nearly jumping from his chair in the manager’s office. “Valentin had this look on his face like, ‘Something’s wrong here. Who threw that ball? Was that a relay?’”

What Rodriguez does, like no other catcher in recent memory, is all but shut down the opposition’s running game. Rangers first baseman Will Clark calls it the Drop Anchor Effect, as in runners get to base and simply stay put. In fact, in a whopping 76 games in which Rodriguez caught last year, the opposing team didn’t even try to steal a base. “I thought if we kept the pressure on him we could break him,” Brewers manager Phil Garner once said. “But we tried and we couldn’t. It takes a man to admit when you’re wrong, and trying to run against Ivan Rodriguez is just plain wrong. It’s not worth the risk.”

IT’S TUESDAY NIGHT AT ANOTHER BASEBALL diamond in Vega Baja, and gusts of wind are whipping a warm mist around the field and stands. But it would take nothing less than a monsoon to send the locals home: Tuesday night is softball night, and there’s a game about to take place between La Familia, a team made up of mostly blood relatives, and the bakery-sponsored El Mangó. Both rosters are mainly manned by out-of-shape guys holding on to the last shreds of their youth, with flabby bellies rolling over belts worn painfully low. One obvious exception is Rodriguez, who, like his brother and fifty-year-old beer-bellied father, will play for La Familia tonight.

Rodriguez plays the six-inning game every week during the off-season, on a field that would give Rangers management minor coronaries. A horse is grazing unconcernedly in right field; center field is home to a sumidero, or natural hole, which, according to locals, sometimes emits ashy volcanic smoke. And there is a deep pit around home plate that has caused dozens of runners trying to score to break a leg.

Tonight’s contest starts badly for La Familia. By the end of the first inning the team is down 7—0. “It reminds me of the Rangers,” says Rodriguez with a chuckle as he returns to the dugout. He adds quickly, “But you’re going to see. I’ll hit the ball over the left field fence.” The sullen, serious Rodriguez is many miles away; here he is relaxed and playful, a prankster. In the sixth inning he launches a ball over the left field fence, a shot of approximately four hundred feet. Many, on both teams, break into uproarious laughter and bow with outstretched arms.

Rodriguez loves these games, loves calling out homers and then hitting them, loves being with these people he has known all his life. He says that no matter how much money he makes he will never outgrow them and that there will always be a big part of him that stubbornly remains here. He’ll always get his hair cut in Vega Baja. He’ll always practice his hitting in the batting cage at his father’s home. He’ll always visit the elementary school where his mother has taught for more than twelve years. He’ll always go see his old Little League coach, the 78-year-old Julio Pabon.

Yet inevitably, after his team loses 22—11, Rodriguez makes his exit from the field in a way that can’t help but create a stir among the small crowd. He zooms out the gate and through the heart of darkness in his sparkling steel-gray Porsche 911.

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