PUDGE FACTORILITCH THINKS HE HAS FOUND HIS YZERMAN FOR THE TIGERS

Until Monday, Comerica Park was a big building with a home plate. Now the Tigers have something to put behind it.

His name is Ivan (Pudge) Rodriguez, he’s a catcher, a leader, a newly minted world champion — and he just became the face of Detroit baseball. With his stocky build, shiny black hair and big-toothed smile, he does not look anything like Steve Yzerman, the Red Wings’ charismatic captain.

But he does to one man: Mike Ilitch, the guy who signs the checks.

He just signed his baseball Yzerman.

He’s betting $40 million on it.

“One thing I’ve learned in pro sports, there’s not a lot of guys who want to step up and lead,” Ilitch said Monday, after doing the biggest thing he has ever done in baseball, inking last year’s World Series hero to a four-year contract. “Pudge does. He leads by example, he leads with enthusiasm.

“I learned from (Yzerman) how important it is to have that on your team.”

And just as fans think of Yzerman when they head to Joe Louis Arena, so, too, will they think of Rodriguez when they head to Comerica Park — if all goes according to plan.

Did the Tigers overpay for him? Yes. And they don’t care. Did they take a chance on his questionable back? Yes. And they don’t care. Did they run the risk of over-hype at his news conference, playing “Eye of The Tiger” and bringing him out like a guest on “The Tonight Show”?

Yes. And they don’t care.

This is a franchise that had no identity, a roster even locals couldn’t identify. Let’s face it. When the most popular player on your team is the manager, you’re in trouble.

“If you don’t mind for a moment, I’m going to soak this up a little bit,” Alan Trammell said, beaming at his new acquisition. He has not looked this happy since he was flipping balls to Lou Whitaker for double plays.

“This,” Trammell said, looking over at Rodriguez, “is how it starts.”

A lesson in chemistry

Let’s hope so. Baseball has been so comatose in Detroit, there were days when you wondered if it was being played at all. And that’s if you were in the stadium.

Does Rodriguez change that by himself? No. Nobody can do that. But he’s the toll fare the Tigers need to get on the highway. Not only will he make the players around him better, he may attract some other free agents who figure,
“If it’s good enough for Pudge . . .”

“I know the team had a bad year last year,” Rodriguez said, “but this year is going to be completely different. There will be different chemistry. Things start in the clubhouse. You establish good relationships in the clubhouse and then you take it onto the field.”

And that is the reason Rodriguez is here. Remember, the Tigers didn’t list catcher as their biggest need in the off-season. It isn’t Rodriguez’s ability to call pitches or throw out runners that made Ilitch salivate.

It was the idea of putting someone in place to be the catalyst, the inspirational leader — the Yzerman, if you will. The hockey analogy is not overworked. Ever since Ilitch bought the Tigers, he has been looking to replicate his hockey blueprint — beginning with the front office. He looked for a general manager with the eyes of a Ken Holland. He looked for a scouting department that could do what the Red Wings’ scouts do.

Finally, he took that approach to the actual locker room. He hired Trammell and Kirk Gibson and Lance Parrish to clean up what had become the wild west a few years ago. They did. The clubhouse dramatically improved.

But managers and coaches can only inspire so much. Rodriguez is that rare player who can do it with his play and his words. His smiling face and burning intensity were the top features of the World Series broadcasts last fall — they got almost as much attention as Janet Jackson’s blouse — and this was not wasted on Ilitch. If there was one guy in baseball whom fans identified as
“motivational” last season, it was Pudge.

Like a shopper who finds the perfect suit — no tailoring required — Ilitch moved to the cash register and took out his wallet.

From Florida to Michigan

“I’m here for four years,” Rodriguez said Monday. He said it numerous times.
“I’m here for four years.”

That, too, is no accident. The length of the commitment was critical to the 32-year-old, particularly since his now former team, the Florida Marlins, had promised to take care of him financially if things went well last year, and then, according to his agent Scott Boras — and this is an agent talking, remember — lowballed him both in price and in length of deal.

“That’s why the relationship with the owner was so important to Pudge,” Boras said. “Did he take the deal for security and for money? Of course, he did. But he also did it for an owner who believes in him.”

Ilitch has little choice. Most everything else he has tried the last 10 years has gone askew, so much so, that even he joked Monday, “I prefer not to talk about the last 10 years.”

Ilitch has to believe his eyes. He has to believe that Rodriguez, a 10-time All-Star, a former American League MVP and a career .300 hitter, is going to be here in Detroit what he has been everywhere else.

If this doesn’t work out, could you blame Ilitch for feeling cursed?

Right now, he’s feeling lucky. His new star is wearing No. 7. He’s saying the right things. And while others may scoff that Rodriguez came to a last-place team only for the money, the simple fact is, for the first time in a while, there are people talking about buying tickets to Comerica Park to see something besides the little Ferris wheel.

“When Pudge talked to me about the Tigers and the American League Central,” Boras said, “he told me, ‘I know that division, and it can be mine.’ “

Why not?

In one day, he already owns the city.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or albom@freepress.com. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760).

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