ARLINGTON, Texas – Ivan "Pudge" Rodríguez, a 14-time All Star catcher, ended a 21-season playing career doing what he does best from behind home plate.
Pudge made one last throw to second base at Rangers Ballpark in Arlington, Texas.
The Rangers then honored him with a pregame ceremony that ended with the unique first pitch. Rodríguez initially went to the mound while Michael Young, the team's longest-tenured player, set up to receive the pitch. But that didn't seem right, so Young ran out to second base and Rodríguez, already wearing a catcher's mitt, went behind the plate to a huge cheer and made a familiar throw across the diamond.
The first time I threw to Pudge and saw him, I really thought he was going to be a good receiver, and he had a great arm, we all knew that.
- Nolan Ryan, Texas Rangers President
Earlier in the day, his eyes glistened and Rodríguez spoke slowly at first when he said he wouldn't play again. It came nearly 21 years after the fan favorite known as Pudge made his major league debut as a 19-year-old with the Rangers and later played for five other teams.
"It's a very hard day for me," Rodríguez said. "It's been a great, great run. ... It's been beautiful."
Rodríguez was surrounded at the podium by his wife and his three children, including his 19-year-old son who is a prospect in the Minnesota Twins organization. He thanked his parents and brother who sat in the front row for supporting him since he started playing baseball at age 5 in Puerto Rico.
Rodríguez plans to remain in baseball in some capacity, and Rangers president Nolan Ryan said there have already been some preliminary discussions about making that happen.
"I'm always going to be in baseball the rest of my life," Rodríguez said. "I'll be in baseball, and I'll be active and I'll be doing things, you'll definitely see me around."
Rodríguez caught a major league record 2,427 games, surpassing Carlton Fisk's record of 2,226 during a game for the Houston Astros three years ago at Rangers Ballpark. It was later that season that Pudge returned briefly to the Rangers, the team he played for the first 12 of his 21 seasons.
"It was interesting to have witnessed Pudge's career and be involved in it at the start and see the player that he grew to be and the impact that he had on our organization," said Ryan, the Hall of Fame pitcher who was still playing when Rodríguez made his major league debut on June 20, 1991.
The pregame ceremony before the series opener against the New York Yankees included a video of highlights from the 13 seasons Rodríguez spent in Texas. They included his first major league hit, his first home run, catching Kenny Rogers' perfect game in 1994 and some of his All-Star plays, among them the 1995 game in the stadium where he was now saying goodbye.
Rodríguez hit .296 with 311 home runs and 1,332 RBIs in 2,543 games overall with Texas (1991-2002, 2009), Florida (2003), Detroit (2004-08), the Yankees (2008), Houston (2009), and Washington (2010-11). His 13 Gold Gloves were the most for a catcher.
"The first time I threw to Pudge and saw him, I really thought he was going to be a good receiver, and he had a great arm, we all knew that," Ryan said. "I never anticipated or expected, I don't think, for him to have the career that he had and have the impact on the organization that he had. It was really exciting and fun to watch."
Rodríguez, who didn't take questions during the news conference, was part of the Rangers' first three AL West titles in a four-year span in the late 1990s. He later appeared in two World Series, with the champion Florida Marlins in 2003 when he was MVP of the NL championship series, and Detroit in 2006.
Texas won its first three AL West titles in a four-year span in the late 1990s, but didn't win a playoff series then. Rodríguez hit .332 with 35 home runs and 113 RBIs in 1999, when he was the American League MVP.
The two-time defending AL champion Rangers have no immediate plans to retire his No. 7 jersey, but have discussed the possibility. The team did present him with a framed jersey and a crystal piece recognizing his career.
Rodríguez was only 16 years old when the Rangers signed him after a tryout camp in Puerto Rico in July 1988. Less than three years later, he was in the major leagues.
Tom Grieve, now a Rangers television broadcaster but then the team's general manager, said scouts at that camp put a radar gun that showed the short, stocky catcher throwing about 93 mph from behind the plate to second base.
Rodríguez was quickly among the team's top prospects. He was the youngest player in the Texas League when the Rangers brought him up after getting constant reports that he made contact and was ready to catch in the big leagues.
"We decided to see for ourselves," Grieve said. "After five or six games, it because obvious to us that, if anything, the scouting report under-estimated how good he really was."
Ryan talked about how he initially communicated with Rodríguez, who then spoke little English. Ryan wouldn't shake his head or do anything until Rodríguez had called the pitch he wanted.
A couple of months later, Ryan took a no-hitter into the seventh inning before giving up a hit.
"After the game, one of the reporters asked Pudge about the pitch I threw," Ryan said, starting to chuckle.
''He shook me off," the Hall of Fame pitcher said the young catcher responded.
Based on reporting by the Associated Press.
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