I lived in Atlanta in the late 60's and early 70's. I got to see Hank Aaron, a true star, play. Phil Niekro, Filipe Alou, Clete Boyer, Joe Torre, Orlando Cepeda and other very good players were on those teams. We all knew though that Hank was the only true superstar. Eddie Matthews and Warren Spahn were already gone from the Braves by then. Willie Mays came to town a couple of times each year. That was exciting. He'd been my favorite player since I was about five years old. He played a different game than other players. Roberto Clemente, Johnny Bench and Pete Rose were around as was Don Drysdale and a few others. You can look up your favorites from about 1968 to 1972. Of course we never saw any American League stars and there were a few (Mantle, Frank Howard, Carew, Killebrew). The point of this is that there are very few extraordinary players in each generation. If you are a baseball fan or just a sports fan it's fairly easy to spot the few truly exceptional athlete. The rare ones like Mays or Clemente or Aaron who play a completely different game than the rest of those on the field. Like a Jim Brown in football, a Magic, Bird, Jordan in basketball, a Jack Nicklaus or Tiger Woods in golf, Bobby Orr or Wayne Gretzky in hockey and a very few others. These are people who changed the way we looked at a certain sport. Things we never dreamed of were being done by these athletes. Pick your own favorite athlete or game changing event. Sports are very personal. Favorite teams and players often have absolutely no basis in logic. Did you follow the family tradition or rebel against it? Did some player or incident turn you against a once favorite team? I do think though that despite our prejudices we can all recognize the real greats.
All that being said leads up to my point of this blog. Just as I lived in Atlanta in the late 60's and saw Aaron and some pretty good teams, I've also lived in the D/FW area since the mid 80's. I'm a baseball guy and went to a million Rangers games at the old Arlington Stadium. Even a pretty bad Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium was plush compared to that old dump. Don't get me wrong, there are no bad times at a ballpark watching a baseball game. Me and my 3,500 closest friends enjoyed many games. We got very good seats and the beer lines weren't usually too bad. The men's room was always a mess and I've been told the women's room may have been worse. Not a first class major league facility. Unfortunately the team was not a first class major league outfit either. Maybe not even a first class Triple A team. Once in a while a decent player would stop by the Rangers roster for a couple of minutes and there were stars on the visiting teams.
In 1989 the Rangers signed Nolan Ryan . There was a ray of hope for the future. Sure, Nolan was getting old but he was still effective (he'd only get two more no-hitters and reach the 5,000 strikeout milestone while he was with the Rangers) and his clubhouse presence had to help. The Rangers began acquiring a few better players to go with Nolan and a couple of the good younger guys like Ruben Sierra. Then in 1991 they brought up a short, stocky 19 year old catcher nicknamed Pudge.
Former Rangers, GM Tom Grieve told a story at the press conference Monday afternoon. The Rangers were in Puerto Rico looking for young prospects. Pudge was not one of the prospects they were scouting. One of the scouts on a back field happened to put a radar gun on a 16 year old catcher's throw to second base. It was 93 mph. There is no way a 5'9” (a big stretch) 16 year old can do that. They signed Pudge. It was a good call. That radar gun might have been slow. Pudge usually threw the ball back to the pitcher faster than it came into the hitter and his throws to second seemed impossible.
Ivan “Pudge”Rodriguez burst on the scene with a great big smile and a cannon attached to his right shoulder. They would both endear him forever to the people of D/FW. He was our favorite Ranger almost from day one and we were his favorite fans forever. He threw out base runners, picked off those who strayed off first, third and even second. Even a passed ball or wild pitch was not a safe steal. Don't make a short bunt, Pudge would throw out the lead runner even if he was running on the pitch. If the foul pop-up was in play, he caught it.
It didn't take long for even the Rangers fans to realize this was a special player. No one, not Johnny Bench, Yogi, Roy Campanella, or Bill Dickey ever played the catchers position like Pudge. He had no fear. He'd throw to any base at any time with an arm never seen before. Mostly with good results. He changed the game. Teams didn't run on the Rangers. They didn't even take big leads. Within a year or two, the best defensive catcher ever began to hit too. Catchers don't need to hit much. The best catcher maybe ever certainly doesn't need to hit much above the Mendoza Line.
No one played harder or with more joy. Pudge was always smiling, always interacting with the fans. He'd hand that caught pop-up to a kid. He'd take a sip of someone's drink in the front row. He even stole what we all thought was a french fry from a front row fan after a pop-up. He said the night of his retirement celebration (4/24/12) during the game broadcast that it was actually a hot jalapeno and he suffered until the end of the half inning before he could get some water. He was still smiling though.
I could go on forever. Pudge fits every definition of a star. He was dominant at his position during his career. He changed what we expect from a catcher. He was an all-star (14 times), a gold glove winner (13 times), silver slugger (7 times), an MVP, a World Series ring and all with a smile. You can click on the link above and find many of his records. You can also if your lucky like me, close your eyes and remember that perfect throw to second base or the pickoff behind the runner at first. No catcher ever did it better. That's a Hall of Fame Career.
One more note. Pudge was the first star player that my son Matt identified with when he was very young. Matt was always #7 and because of Pudge he wanted to play baseball. That love of baseball continued through high school and to this day. We have never had a bad day together at the ball field. Just like Willie Mays inspired me, Pudge inspired Matt. For that I'll always be thankful.
Embrace and enjoy the few special ones that cross your path.