A certain inductee into baseball’s Hall of Fame in five years, Ivan Rodriguez, nicknamed Pudge, has decided to retire after 21 seasons in the major leagues, the final two with the Washington Nationals. He had an offer on the table from the Kansas City Royals, but decided to turn it down and hang up his powerful bat and catcher’s gear for good.
Over the next week or so, many will recall Pudge’s amazing baseball gifts. His 2,844 hits. His 311 home runs. His incredible defense. His powerful arm. His deft handling of a pitching staff.
I will remember him as a man of class and excellence who, by his arrival, immediately transformed the Nationals from joke to legitimate. It is no coincidence that Mike Rizzo’s first free agent signing as Washington’s general manager was Ivan Rodriguez. He respects Pudge so much that, as he told CSN Washington Nationals beat writer and Nats Insider blog author Mark Zuckerman, he has a Pudge jersey hanging in his office.
For me, three memories of Pudge are stored in my bank of wonderful moments since baseball blessedly returned to Washington eight years ago. The first was the 2010 Nationals fan fest (Nats management, please hold this event again next year for crying out loud!). Pudge had just been signed and agreed to appear at Nationals Park.
My then 7-year old son and I decided to go. We got into Pudge’s autograph line too late, however, and he had to depart for another commitment. But before he left, he signed at least 50 photo cards so everyone who missed him could get one. On his way out, he looked over at my son, nodded to him and smiled. What a moment!
That day and ever day as a Washington National, Pudge exuded confidence and presence — even greatness. No one else on the Nationals seemed to have his quiet assurance. From his first day he seemed to make every teammate better.
The second memory was a Nationals game in 2010. When the PA announcer asked fans to stand and cheer for the wounded veterans attending the game, the fans, in their usual show of class, did so. So did Pudge! He took off his mask, turned to the vets, pointed to them, applauded longer than anyone else, and thanked them. What class! For the first time in a long time, I stood proud as a Nationals fan.
The third and final memory is July 2, 2011. The Nationals and Pittsburgh Pirates were playing a single admission doubleheader. The stands were absolutely packed and it was a typical hot, sweaty day in D.C.
Surprisingly, many Pirate fans sauntered around Nationals Park. My young son and oldest son, home from college, sat in front of a particularly loud and vulgar group of young Buccos’ fans. They were “feeling their oats” from Pittsburgh’s Clint Hurdle-led vault to the top of the NL Central and realistic hopes for their first winning season since the time when Jim Leyland’s hair wasn’t gray.
Sure enough, Pittsburgh won the first game, mainly on a game-saving catch at the wall by Andrew McCutchen of a Danny Espinosa near game-changing home run. Pudge started game one and went a quiet one for four.
My sons and I moved to better seats with nicer fans for game two. Despite some excellent pitching by John Lannan, the Pirates led 3-2 going into the bottom of the eighth. With super-closer Joel Hanrahan looming, it was do or die for the Nationals.
With runners on first and second and one out, lead runner Brian Bixler (pinch running for Michael Morse) took off for third. He should have been out by 15 feet as he got a terrible jump, but the Pittsburgh catcher’s throw bounced off of Bixler and into foul ground. Super-fast, Bixler scored with ease even though the ball bounced only about 15 feet away. Tie game.
Wilson Ramos walked, but Ian Desmond struck out, bringing up the pitcher’s spot. Davey Johnson had already used most of his bench, so he sent Pudge up to pinch-hit. He fouled off pitch after pitch from tough Pirate set-up man Chris Resop.
Then, bam, an inside-out swing, a line drive single to right. Rick Ankiel scored from third with what proved to be the winning run. Pudge had done it! My sons and I leaped and yelled for joy. Drew Storen closed out the win and, for one more day, Pudge Rodriguez was the hero.
Enjoy your retirement, Pudge. Hopefully, my sons and I and a whole lot of Nationals fans will see you at Cooperstown in 2017.