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anchors Aweigh
Jeff Pearlman
February 18, 2002
After an off-season of cruisin', peerless—but oft-injured—Rangers catcher Ivan Rodriguez is eager to prove that he's shipshape
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February 18, 2002

Anchors Aweigh

After an off-season of cruisin', peerless—but oft-injured—Rangers catcher Ivan Rodriguez is eager to prove that he's shipshape

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CATCHER

SEASONS

GAMES

BA

HRS

RBIS

SLUG. PCT.

Bill Dickey

1937-39
1940-42

400
297

.316
.273

80
18

353
162

.551
.382

Ernie Lombardi

1942-44
1945-47

326
251

.294
.297

31
35

155
130

.424
.472

Yogi Berra

1955-57
1958-60

421
373

.274
.275

81
56

295
221

.481
.460

Jonny Bench

1975-77
1978-80

419
364

.265
.263

75
69

293
221

.487
.474

Carlton Fisk

1981-83
1984-86

369
380

.274
.230

47
72

196
213

.435
.432

The Dark Clouds are coming, floating across the blue Miami sky like oil spills on water. Ivan (Pudge) Rodriguez, the man whose life has been more or less a glorious stroll on a warm summer day, gazes upward and frowns. "Weather here, it's tough," he says. "Unpredictable." On cue, the raindrops begin to fall. Softly, at first, then a little harder. Suddenly Rodriguez is caught in a deluge on the dock behind his new house. He does his best Rickey Henderson, head down, arms pumping, legs churning—whoosh! He darts to the left, to a small bungalow adjacent to the house. Once inside, he takes a breath as he runs his right hand through his saturated mop of black hair.

In no time the thump-thump-thump of rain pelting roof ceases. It's beautiful outside again. "Never try to figure out Florida," he says. "It's sunny, then rain. Then sun, and more rain. You have no chance." As he speaks, Rodriguez is leaning against a spanking new pool table in the bungalow. A slot machine is near the door, and on the walls are four paintings depicting Rodriguez, the Texas Rangers' catcher, in action. He picks up the cue ball and cocks his right arm. The runner, invisible to all but Pudge, is dead meat.

To the 30-year-old Rodriguez, idle afternoons like these are ice cream sundaes and fast cars and salsa music wrapped into one. Later on he will take Dereck, his nine-year-old son, to Little League baseball practice. Then he might take the cigarette boat tied up behind his house ("It goes 90 miles per hour!" he brags) for a cruise on Biscayne Bay. Or he could head for a nearby marina and hang out on Maribella, the new 70-foot yacht he named for his wife, Maribel. Or maybe he'll take his Bentley or his Ferrari for a ride through South Beach. Perhaps he'll simply wait for the next cloud. "Right now, my life outside of work is very free," he says. "It's beautiful."

Rodriguez moved to Miami from R�o Piedras, Puerto Rico, last April because he'd tired of the six-hour flights from his native commonwealth to Dallas. The lavish, 15-room house isn't so much a place to live as it is a choice of lifestyle. Every room is decorated to the max with Persian rugs and oil paintings and sculptures. The opulence isn't intended to impress visitors, it's meant to be enjoyed. "I wanted all the rooms to be rooms where I could sit down, relax and be comfortable with my family," Pudge says. "Comfort is everything in a house."

That's why, in addition to Ivan, Maribel, Dereck, daughters Amanda, 6, and Ivanna, 1, and Maribel's sister, Sandra, and brother-in-law, Mariano, Pudge's place is home to three Colombian immigrants who attend to the Rodriguezes' every need. Since moving to Miami, Pudge hasn't changed a diaper, repaired a flat, cut down a tree or cooked so much as a bowl of rice. Usually the front gate is wide open, the front door unlocked. Nobody watches the security cameras. Relatives come and go. "My focus is family and baseball," Pudge says. "Everything else is taken care of for me." When he was a kid, playing ball in the dusty streets of Vega Baja, Rodriguez dreamed of one day living the good life. This is, without question, the good life.

Yet earlier this off-season, life wasn't so good. On Sept. 8 Rodriguez had 35% of his damaged left patella tendon removed. Exacerbated, along with the constant crouching, by the repeated rubbing of the edge of Rodriguez's shin guard against his kneecap, the tendinitis limited him to 111 games in 2001 but didn't prevent him from batting .308—his seventh consecutive season at .300 or better—or winning his 10th straight Gold Glove or appearing in his 10th straight All-Star Game. It did, however, introduce a small doubt into Rodriguez's otherwise paradisiacal world.

In 2000 he had missed 65 games after fracturing his right thumb, but that was a freak injury—he cracked a bone on the bat of Anaheim Angels slugger Mo Vaughn while throwing to second. The thumb required only light rehab, and Rodriguez suffers no aftereffects from the fracture. The knee injury was different. After the surgery Rodriguez spent two weeks on crutches and the ensuing two months in rehab, working every weekday morning to strengthen the knee using weights, exercise bikes and treadmills. He says he has been pain-free since December and that he will be at full strength when Rangers pitchers and catchers report to spring training this week in Port Charlotte, Fla. "I feel great," he says. "The left knee actually feels stronger than the right one, so that's a very good sign."

Certainly it's a good sign for the Rangers. Over Rodriguez's two injury-plagued seasons, Texas, which had won the American League West in three of the previous four years, went 144-180 (98-104 when Pudge was in the lineup, 46-76 when he wasn't). "The losing hasn't been fun," Rodriguez says. "I love to play baseball more than anything, but to not compete—it's difficult and it hurts. But I'm a professional. A leader. I can't show pain. My job is to go to the park every day and do everything to help us win." Last season Rodriguez did all he could with the Rangers' horrific pitching staff (a major league-worst 5-71 ERA), playing Mr. Mom to Texas's hurlers and throwing out 23 of 46 base runners attempting to steal. His main backups, Bill Haselman, Marcus Jensen and Doug Mirabelli, caught 22 of 71 would-be stealers.

This year might be easier on Rangers catchers. In a busy off-season new general manager John Hart accomplished what his deposed predecessor, Doug Melvin, never could: He revamped the staff. Free-agent righthanders Chan Ho Park (five years, $65 million), Dave Burba (one year, $2 million) and Ismael Valdes (one year, $2.5 million) top a renovated—if not fear-inducing—rotation. Free-agent righthanders Jay Powell (three years, $9 million) and Todd Van Poppel (three years, $7.5 million) and lefty John Rocker (acquired in a trade with the Cleveland Indians) are among the additions to the bullpen.

Texas's already potent lineup has been augmented by the return of free-agent right-fielder Juan Gonzalez, who spent his first 11 big league seasons with the Rangers and who hit .325 with 35 homers and 140 RBIs for the Indians in 2001, and by the acquisition of temperamental but talented centerfielder Carl Everett from the Boston Red Sox. "We're not the same group of players from the past two seasons," says Rodriguez. "I believe we can compete for the division title. I just hope for...."

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