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.

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

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