Nothing was ever simple or clear-cut with Ivan “Pudge” Rodriguez. For every pitcher who loved throwing to him, you could find one who hated it. For every manager who loved penciling his name into the lineup, you could find an ex-manager who hated dealing with his ego.
For all his immense, measurable defensive skills — such as his 45.7 percent rate of nabbing would-be stealers, during an era when the norm was somewhere closer to 30 — in other immeasurable ways, such as the ability to frame pitches or call a game behind the plate, anecdotal evidence suggested he was weak. In private, pitchers swore that Rodriguez would call for all fastballs with a runner on first, to give himself a better chance if the runner took off for second.
And as Rodriguez, 40, prepares to retire formally during at ceremony at Rangers Ballpark in Arlington, Texas, on Monday, the differences of opinion regarding his place in history are certain to live on, perhaps culminating in five years with his first appearance on a Cooperstown ballot.
Even at the tail-end of his career — the two seasons he spent in Washington from 2010-11 — the Pudge problem was never simple. On the surface, he didn’t contribute much — a .255/.291/.341 batting line, and nearly as many double-play grounders (31) as extra-base hits (32).
But the Nationals went out of their way to praise his contribution to the pitching staff and treated him with the sort of respect befitting an icon, assigning him to catch phenom Stephen Strasburg during the memorable summer of 2010, and sparing him the indignity of an outright release last season when it had become clear he simply couldn’t hit anymore.
It was Rodriguez who caught Strasburg on the final day of the 2011 season, guiding the young right-hander to a six-inning, one-hit, 10-strikeout performance that sent the Nationals into the offseason with some buzz. It would wind up being the final game of Rodriguez’s career.
The facts about Rodriguez’s career are stark and unassailable: His 304 home runs as a catcher rank fifth all-time, behind Mike Piazza, Carlton Fisk, Johnny Bench and Yogi Berra. He has more career hits (2,844) than all 16 catchers currently enshrined in the Hall of Fame. He was a 14-time all-star and a 13-time Gold Glove winner. His career, by any measure, is Cooperstown-worthy.
But as we well know, the Cooperstown debate is never that easy when it comes to players whose careers fell during the so-called Steroids Era, and especially those who were linked to performance-enhancing drugs.
In Rodriguez’s case, the “link” is pretty flimsy — a mention in Jose Canseco’s infamous 2005 book, “Juiced.” Rodriguez immediately denied the claim, but four years later when he was asked if his name was among the 104 who tested positive during the 2003 “survey” testing, Rodriguez said, “Only God knows.”
In the years to come, Rodriguez may come to regret that non-denial, since recent history has shown - most vividly in the case of Jeff Bagwell — that even the suspicion of steroids use is enough for Hall-of-Fame voters to keep a player out of Cooperstown.
Voters have five more years to sort it out, and the Bonds-Clemens-Sosa ballot of next winter may provide some clarity, but given the lack of hard evidence regarding Rodriguez it’s difficult to imagine a Hall of Fame without the greatest catcher of the last generation.