(This is the seventh episode of Tigers by the Numbers, where we take a look at a current or former player that wore each uniform number. If you want to find the list so far, click here to find the others.)
With the Tigers clinging to a three-game cushion in the AL Central race on the season’s final off-day, I decided that I needed a break from the pennant race and have turned my attention to a player who perhaps more than anyone else was responsible for bringing winning baseball back to Detroit.
There were others who wore No. 7 for the Tigers before him, and there will certainly be others to wear it in the future, but perhaps no one will bring as much to Detroit as Pudge Rodriguez did.
So, with apologies to Billy Rogell (SS, 1930-39), Harvey Kuenn (SS/OF, 1952-59), Rocky Colavito (OF, 1960-63), Rick Leach (1B/DH, 1981-83), and Dean Palmer (3B/DH, 1999-2003), all of whom were at least briefly considered for this spot, we now present No. 7: Ivan “Pudge” Rodriguez.
Ivan Rodriguez first appeared in a major league game at the tender age of 19 as a catcher with the Texas Rangers in 1991. He made his debut on June 20 of that season, batting ninth in a game in Chicago against the White Sox. Rodriguez went 1-for-4 and caught both runners that attempted to steal against him.
In the ninth inning, Rodriguez lined a sharp single to right field against Melido Perez, scoring two runners to give the Rangers a 7-3 lead. It was the first hit and pair of RBI of what would surely become a Hall of Fame career.
As the seasons rolled along, Pudge became a household name. He caught Nolan Ryan at the end of his career, he caught Kenny Rogers’ perfect game in 1994. He made 10 consecutive All-Star Games and won 10 straight gold gloves. In 1999, Rodriguez won the AL MVP award, hitting .332 while pounding out 35 home runs and knocking in 113.
When Pudge became a free agent following the 2002 season, he was looking for a big deal, but he had back problems and had already caught more than 1,400 big league games. Conventional wisdom was that it was unwise to commit to a catcher on the wrong side of 30. Pudge had to instead settle for a one-year deal from the Florida Marlins.
The Marlins may have kept Rodriguez fore only one season, but what a season he turned in. Fueled by a desire to prove his doubters wrong, Pudge caught 144 games for the Fish that season and helped to turn around a franchise that had been, ahem, floundering, for the previous several seasons. The young Marlins caught fire in June of that season, following a managerial change that brought in veteran skipper Jack McKeon.
Pudge did his part as well, batting .297 and knocking in 85 runs for the eventual World Series champions. Unlike prior years, Rodriguez excelled in the playoffs in 2003, taking home MVP honors as the Marlins bested the Cubs in the NLCS.
Again a free agent, Rodriguez shocked the baseball world by agreeing to sign a four-year, $40 million deal with the Detroit Tigers. The Tigers were coming off the worst season in American League history, having lost 119 games in 2003. The Tigers were an absolute laughing stock and had just one winning season since 1989.
At the press conference announcing the deal, then-manager Alan Trammell took pause to reflect on the situation, having endured what he had the season prior. “This is how it starts,” he said. “This is how we get better.” Perhaps truer words were never spoken by the manager.
Shortly after the Rodriguez deal, the Tigers were able to lure Fernando Vina, Rondell White, and Jason Johnson on free agent contracts. Suddenly, players who would never consider choosing to play for the Tigers were at least taking time to consider the possibility. Things would get better from there.
The 2004 Tigers were drastically improved from the '03 version. While still a below-average club, the Tigers added 29 wins to their total from 2003 and climbed out of the cellar to finish third in the division.
Along with new shortstop Carlos Guillen, Pudge helped to immediately stabilize the defense and provided veteran leadership to a young team. It didn’t hurt that he hit .334 and made his 11th All-Star team while winning his 11th gold glove.
Spurred by their increased success, the Tigers were able to again make a splash during the offseason prior to 2005, signing another superstar with injury concerns, Magglio Ordonez. While Ordonez missed much of the '05 campaign, and Rodriguez’s numbers slipped a bit, a midseason deal to acquire second baseman Placido Polanco from Philadelphia set the stage for improvement in 2006.
But no one saw this coming.
The 2006 Tigers were the surprise team of baseball. The raced out to wins in each of their first five games under new manager Jim Leyland. They spent 147 days in first place and at one time held a 10-game lead on the division.
Again, it was Rodriguez driving the bus.
At age 34, Pudge recorded his 10th season batting .300 or better, and he lead the pitching staff to the league’s best ERA. The Tigers limped into the playoffs as the wild card team, but Pudge and the pitchers stymied the Yankees in the ALDS before sweeping the A’s for the AL pennant, the first in 22 years for the Tigers.
The Tigers fell back to earth in 2008, struggling from the outset. A team that many had pegged as a probable playoff team would languish in mediocrity the whole year. Knowing his club was in trouble, and amidst rumors that his star catcher was unhappy, general manager Dave Dombrowski traded Rodriguez at the deadline to the New York Yankees, getting journeyman reliever Kyle Farnsworth in exchange.
In 2009, Rodriguez signed a free agent deal with the Houston Astros and was later traded back to the Rangers. Reports are that Texas would like to re-sign him for next season.
Dombrowski is a very smart baseball man, and one of the most well-respected GMs in the game. While you could easily point to bad decisions made and money lost by throwing it at aging or under performing players, the fact is that there were times, many in fact, that the Tigers had to overpay to acquire talent.
Pudge Rodriguez did not sign a market-value deal in 2004, reports were that no team was willing to commit more than two years to him. The Tigers committed four years, plus an option year that they exercised. If they had not offered what they did, Pudge likely never would have signed.
Without Pudge to bring some sort of credibility to the franchise, the Tigers likely would not have been able to sign Ugueth Urbina, whom they traded for Polanco, or Ordonez, or convinced Gary Sheffield to waive his no-trade clause to come to Detroit.
When Ivan Rodriguez enters the Hall of Fame, he won’t do it wearing a Tigers’ cap, but if not for his time in Detroit, the Tigers would never have been where they were in 2006, or where they might be in 2009 and beyond.