How Iván Rodríguez Captured an Era of Baseball
The all-time great catcher, soon to be inducted into the sport’s Hall of Fame, embodies the qualities of his time—for better and for worse.
Catchers are involved in every play of a baseball game. Good ones can embody the qualities of their teams, and great ones can embody the qualities of their eras. Iván “Pudge” Rodríguez, elected on Wednesday to the 2017 class of the Baseball Hall of Fame, belongs to the latter camp. Rodríguez is one of the undisputed best of all time at his position, and nobody who watched him play will forget the sight of him: his quickness and precision behind the plate, his uninvolved but effective swing, and most of all his otherworldly throwing arm.
For the better part of the 1990s and 2000s, trying to steal a base against Rodríguez ranked among the more foolish things a player could attempt on a field. Those runners bold or silly enough to try would get a close look at a process whose familiarity did nothing to dull its excitement. Rodríguez would snap his glove around the incoming pitch, jump to his feet, and send the ball blazing right to the second baseman’s glove. Watching him throw was like watching a meteor land in a teacup.
The 2017 Hall of Fame class is rounded out by two other inductees—the slugger Jeff Bagwell and the leadoff man extraordinaire Tim Raines, both fine players rightly beloved by fans in Houston and Montreal—but Rodríguez stands apart. It is not just that his numbers astound, though they do; over a 21-year career playing mostly for the Texas Rangers and Detroit Tigers, Rodríguez caught more games than anyone else ever has (2,427), tallied 2,844 base hits, knocked 311 homers, nabbed 661 would-be base-stealers, and won the 1999 MVP award and one World Series, in 2003 with the Florida Marlins. Rodríguez also seemed to distill the qualities of his time.
For reasons ranging from the strategic to the chemical, baseball during Rodríguez’s era was stronger and faster—bigger—than ever before. Home runs flew higher and more often, and pitchers lit up radar guns. Just as the happy-go-lucky Yankee backstop Yogi Berra stood in for the halcyon midcentury and Johnny Bench starred in the Cincinnati Reds-dominated ’70s, Rodríguez seemed to personify his period of the sport. He hit like few catchers ever had, batting above .300 for eight straight seasons in his prime, and threw like nobody before him. He brought the bold style permeating the game to its most essential position.
Rodríguez barely cleared the 75 percent threshold required for induction, likely because his missteps, too, were those of his peers. “Only God knows,” Rodríguez once said when asked if he had ever tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs, and though he may be correct, media members have a few ideas of their own on the subject. His body’s transformations over the course of his career fit a suspect pattern, and Jose Canseco, who played with Rodríguez in Texas, claims in his infamous steroid account Juiced to have personally injected his former teammate.
Rodríguez’s imminent induction, then, will not only be a celebration of one outstanding player; it will also mark increasing acceptance of a time when PED use ran rampant. If last year’s induction of Mike Piazza suggested that the Baseball Writers’ Association of America, the group responsible for Hall of Fame voting, was willing to disregard steroid rumor and hearsay, honoring Rodríguez signals that it will look past more convincing, if still circumstantial, evidence. Elsewhere on the ballot, Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens made massive gains, each securing over 50 percent of the vote for the first time. If and when they reach the Hall, the so-called “steroid era” will have been folded into the rest of baseball history.
This will rankle some—Rodríguez’s candidacy alone prompted concerns—but it portends good things for the Hall of Fame as an institution dedicated to the sport’s whole story, the sordid and glamorous elements that have sometimes gone hand-in-hand. The seasons around the start of the 21st century were home to all sorts of subterfuge, but they also produced some of the greatest players anybody has ever seen. In the coming years, the Hall will likely acknowledge them in full. For now, it recognizes a fitting early entrant in Rodríguez, a player as thrilling as any in his larger-than-life time.
“From day one, I loved the game of baseball and I took a lot of pride every single day and I was a winner,” he said after hearing of his good news. “That’s probably the bottom line from all of this.” That’s not the bottom line, of course—the effect of his nod will be felt in elections to come—but Rodríguez’s statement makes for a handy reminder that, behind all the speculation and hard lines drawn by voters, there’s still the basic fact of the game.