Saturday afternoon, after Ivan Rodriguez swatted a single into right field, his teammates lined the top step of the Washington Nationals’ dugout as the crowd erupted.
A Hall of Famer in the winter of his career, Rodriguez has reached a ripe enough age that his teammates watched and adored him when they were kids. Fellow catcher Wilson Ramos grew up dreaming of playing with him. Drew Storen played catcher until he reached high school — “I wanted to be him,” said the Nationals’ closer.
His teammates do not know how many more chances they might have to savor wearing the same uniform.
“How many times do you get to play with an icon of the game?” Jayson Werth said. “He’s a first ballot Hall of Famer. He’s Pudge. As long as we live, I don’t know if we’ll ever see another player like that.”
Rodriguez accepted his diminished role this season for the Nationals without complaint, but he rejected the notion that time had drained him of his ability. For him, starting in the Nationals’ 4-1 victory over the Atlanta Braves was about playing rather than ceremony. He did not think that Saturday’s game before 33,986 was possibly, if not likely, his final home start in a Nationals uniform.
“I don’t think about that,” Rodriguez said. “If it is, it is. If it’s not, it’s not. I don’t think about that. I think about the game today. I think about doing my best today.”
In his first start since July 4, Rodriguez showed why three teammates described him with the word “remarkable.” He still possesses the arm that has made him one of the greatest catchers ever, and he threw out two runners trying to steal second, including the game’s most crucial out. He called pitches for Chien-Ming Wang (4-3), who in his last start of 2011 allowed one run on four hits in six strong innings, a final accomplishment in his comeback from major shoulder surgery.
In the seventh inning, National League steals leader Michael Bourn tried to steal second with the tying run standing at the plate. Rodriguez caught a fastball from Tyler Clippard and fired a missile to second baseman Danny Espinosa. Bourn slid in too late. Rodriguez pumped his fist then stuck his pinky and index fingers in the air — two outs.
“For me, it doesn’t matter who’s running,” Rodriguez said. “I was surprised, to be honest with you. I’m ready to throw in any situation. But at the same time, I didn’t think he was going to run.”
The throw answered any questions about rust. A strained oblique in early July cost Rodriguez almost two months. Since his return, the Nationals have sat him in favor of Ramos, their clear starter, and Jesus Flores. The ascension of Ramos had made Rodriguez a backup on opening day. This month, he became a full-fledged observer.
The Nationals’ clubhouse has remained harmonious all year, and Rodriguez’s compliance played a crucial part. “If he’s not complaining about his role,” Storen said, “who is complaining?”
It did not make his 20th major league season easy. Rodriguez played in his 43rd game Saturday. He had played less than 100 games only once before, and that came because of injury in 2000, the year after he won the American League Most Valuable Player award.
“It’s been different,” Rodriguez said. “I’ve never been like this where I haven’t played. I can’t do anything about it. I’m just going to prepare for today, go out there and do my job.”
Rodriguez, 39, aims to play two or three more years and wants to accomplish two goals: winning another World Series and smacking 157 more hits in order to reach 3,000. Despite his oblique injury, Rodriguez keeps himself in impeccable physical condition. He still performs the same five-days-a-week workout routine he honed in his first days in the major leagues.
Rodriguez remains an elite defensive catcher — he has thrown out 48 percent of base stealers this season, which would rank best in the majors if he had played enough to qualify. He’s hitting .215, with a .280 on-base percentage and .322 slugging with two homers in 134 plate appearances. The offensive struggles have not deterred Rodriguez’s belief in his ability.
“I want to keep playing,” he said. “I’m not retiring. I still have a lot of baseball in myself. . . . I can tell you that I still can play. If I get the opportunity, I would do a great job. I can produce for a team. That’s my goal. That’s something that I would like, to get an opportunity to play a little more and do my job.”
When Rodriguez arrived in Washington, young teammates expected a stoic professional. They came to know a man still playing a child’s game. He joked in the clubhouse and pumped his fist after throwing out base runners — “like Brett Favre without the retirements,” one Nationals pitcher said.
“From the first day of spring training, he showed up with the attitude of somebody like me, who’s just new,” Storen said. “He comes in and you can tell this is what makes him happy, being here. When people ask me about him, I say, ‘You should see how much fun he has.’ He gets the most out of it.”
Rodriguez has received multiple ovations at home this weekend — “Beautiful,” he said. Fans here wonder if they will see him again. Teammates are beginning to join them.
“Here we are, we’ve got five games left,” Werth said. “How many more times are we going to get to see him play?”