The Rodriguez whose name is atop the batting leaders in the American League is not the guy playing third base for the Yankees. It is the Rodriguez whose first name makes one think of Cossacks, answers to Carlton Fisk's old nickname and is best known in New England as the player who beat out Pedro Martinez for AL MVP five years ago.
Oh, one more thing. Ivan "Pudge" Rodriguez is a catcher -- not a typical position for batting champions. If Rodriguez finishes the season where he is now, he would be the first AL catcher to win a batting crown.
Only two catchers have won batting titles. The Reds' Bubbles Hargrave led the National League with a .353 average in 1926. And Hall of Famer Ernie Lombardi, perhaps the slowest runner in baseball history, led the NL in hitting twice, batting .342 for the Reds in 1938 and .330 for the Boston Braves four years later.
"You know he didn't get any 'leg' hits," Yankees Manager Joe Torre said. "I didn't either."
As a former batting champion (1971) who had caught earlier in his career, Torre fully appreciates what Rodriguez is doing this year.
"The physical demands of the position are such that it is amazing to see the numbers he's putting up," Torre said. "And Pudge is as physical a catcher as there is. He controls the running game like no else in the game. There is so much concentration involved working behind the plate. It's the mental part of catching that wears you out, and it often shows up at bat. I remember Del Crandall, who was an all-star catcher, would get so frustrated. He was so caught up in working with his pitcher that he felt he was giving away at-bats because he couldn't focus at the plate."
There's no doubt that Rodriguez, who is batting .370and has a 27-point lead, is focused. He was the AL player of the month for June, when he hit .500 with 43 hits in 86 at-bats.
The rigors of their position make catchers unlikely challengers for a batting title. Only three have been runners-up -- Spud Davis (.349) with the Phillies in 1933, Ted Simmons (.332) with the Cardinals in 1975 and Mike Piazza (.346) with the Dodgers in 1995. Piazza finished third in batting twice and fourth once and is the only catcher to rank in the top five four times.
Rodriguez has never finished in the top five in batting. His highest average in a season in which he had the required plate appearances for a batting title was the .332 he hit in his MVP year of 1999 for the Rangers. That placed him seventh among the league's top hitters.
"It's very tough what he is doing," Yankees catcher Jorge Posada said. "You have so much to think about when you're catching a game that hitting is the last thing you do. You'll be talking with a pitcher about opposing hitters or warming someone up or checking with the pitching coach about something, and then someone will tap you on the shoulder and tell you it's time for batting practice. Oh, yeah, that's right. I have to hit, too. For a catcher to win a batting title, that's a tough task. Skip did it, though."
Posada was half right. Torre led the NL in hitting with a .363 average for the Cardinals in 1971, but he played third base exclusively that year. He was the Braves' regular catcher for eight years before being traded to St. Louis for first baseman Orlando Cepeda in 1969 and inheriting his position. Torre divided time between catcher and third base in 1970 and shifted to third full time the next year.
As a catcher, Torre had some strong offensive seasons. Twice he hit over .300, including .321 in 1964, when he finished fourth in the batting race won by Pirates right fielder Roberto Clemente (.339).
"As a manager, I feel whatever the catcher gives me offensively is gravy," Torre said. "I know when I was a catcher I felt if I did a good job behind the plate and helped guide my pitcher to a victory, then it didn't matter if I got a hit. I could go 0 for 4 in those circumstances and still feel I contributed something to a victory. I lost that when I went to the infield. Your at-bats stay with you at positions other than catcher."
"Just watching what Georgie [Posada] goes through makes me appreciate what a catcher does," said Yankees batting coach Don Mattingly, the 1984 AL batting champion. "It's still too early in the year to be talking about batting titles. We're not really into the heat yet."
As the temperatures rise in July and August, Rodriguez could watch his average drop, although Torre is not so sure.
"Don't forget, Pudge was in Miami all last year," Torre said. "Detroit might seem like a vacation to him."