Pudge Rodriguez had a storied career, but the most impressive part might have been how (and when) it all started.
The San Francisco Giants drafted Buster Posey with the first pick of the 2008 draft, and he hit his way from the Cal League to the majors in just over a year. And even though the major-league roster of the Giants was filled with hitters who could hit two double plays in the same inning, the organization was determined to be cautious with Posey.
They didn't commit to him as the full-time catcher until July, 2010. His coach in Fresno, former major-leaguer Steve Decker, thought that was absolutely the right decision:
Posey could have hit in the majors but needed to learn more about catching, said Decker, who played the position in the majors. Decker said the education occurred in the dugout after every inning of every game that Posey caught in April and May.
"I'd ask him, 'Why did you do this or why did you do that?' This is the reason why you do this or do that," he said. "Do you want to establish the fastball in? What's the game plan? Are you going to establish the fastball up and in to their best hitter? How do you set up for the 'out' pitch?
The Giants were managed by an ex-catcher when Posey came up, partly the reason why the team wasn't ready to throw a kid into a starting job just a year after college. Catching, especially to ex-catchers, is something between an art and a faith. There are cold, technical details. There are intangible, effusive talents that are hard to just pick up. There is a leadership quality that's needed -- a pitcher-whispering that needs to translate to 11 to 13 different personalities.
Ivan Rodriguez made 14 All-Star teams. He also won 13 Gold Gloves, trailing only Brooks Robinson among position players. He had a magnificent career. In five years, the nonsense might be diluted enough for Pudge to go into the Hall of Fame on the first ballot. But of all the amazing things he's done in his career, the most amazing thing might be this:
That was the last season Pudge spent in the minor leagues. The important stat: 19. The dude was 19 years old. Of all the fantastical things he did, of all the awards and accolades, the most impressive thing he did was catch so well as a teenager that a major-league team didn't care about anything else. They just figured that he caught (and threw) so well, that they'd be negligent in not letting him ply his trade at the major-league level, regardless of what he hit.
He wasn't just called up in September to soak it all in for a couple of weeks. Rodriguez became one of only four teenagers since 1900 to get over 100 plate appearances as a catcher. He was called up in June, and he started right away, beginning his career trying to wrangle the freaky sinker of Kevin Brown and moving on to Nolan Ryan the very next day.
The Rangers were 34-27 and four games back when Rodriguez was called up. This wasn't a 100-loss team throwing things to the wall to see what would stick for the next five years. The Rangers were contenders, and when Geno Petralli went on the DL with a back problem, they needed help.
The Rangers knew that they might be taking a risk bringing him up early. General Manager Tom Grieve told Barry Horn of the Dallas Morning News as much just four days before Rodriguez was called up:
"We're not afraid to play him in the big leagues," Rangers general manager Tom Grieve said. "Everyone who has seen him says he can catch and throw in the big leagues today. But the safest thing would be for him to stay where he is and continue to develop. He is so young."
That feature on Rodriguez led with his youth. It was the opening hook.
He was in his second season as a professional baseball player, living far from home in a strange land. The time finally had come.
His teammates all had done it and poked fun at him for never having tried.
Already hailed as a sure-fire, can't-miss future major league star, he was, he decided, finally ready to take the leap.
Ivan Rodriguez went out, bought a razor and shaved for the first time in his life.
Two years before he was called up -- you know, when he was 17 -- Rodriguez allowed 34 passed balls. Over the next 730 days or so, he figured something out. He made the next ten All-Star teams and won the next ten Gold Gloves.
In 2009, Pudge Rodriguez said that "Only God knows" if he was on a list of players who tested positive for steroids. Besides totally botching the Beach Boys reference, it was also a pretty silly thing to say. And in five years, you can believe that there will be a lot of writers who will get their jollies by not checking the box next to his name on the Hall of Fame ballot.
But before all that, there was a teenager dropped into the majors as the starting catcher for a contending team. That's much more memorable and amazing than anything in that last paragraph. With Pudge Rodriguez, the Rangers tried something that no one else will try for another 20, 30, or 100 years. But when they did it, it worked. Man, how it worked. That's how good he was.