He was our baseball bridge from the horrible to the possible, the guy who lays his coat over a dirty puddle of water and allows you to safely walk across. Pudge Rodriguez may not have lived up to his Hall of Fame reputation every single at-bat as a Tiger, but he was the first superstar willing to come to a franchise that was threatening to fall off the major league map.
When no one else wanted to be here, Rodriguez held up a Tigers jersey on a cold February day in 2004 and smiled that gleaming smile and said he was happy to be in the Motor City and added, “We’re gonna see this Detroit Tiger team in the playoffs pretty soon.”
Two years later, Detroit was in the World Series. No matter how you judge this guy, he will always be the catalyst between those two moments, between being out of the conversation and being in it. Pudge Rodriguez make it OK for other stars to join this team, guys like Magglio Ordonez and Gary Sheffield. He took the loser’s “L” off the franchise’s forehead. Pudge put the Tigers back in the conversation. Don’t anyone forget it.
He goes to the Yankees now, in exchange for relief pitcher Kyle Farnsworth, who, ironically, was here three years ago, briefly. Pudge even caught his pitches. Farnsworth was traded back then for Zach Miner, and now Miner is struggling to find his place in the rotation and Farnsworth returns to the bullpen.
He comes to a team desperately in need of relief pitching, while Rodriguez goes to a team desperately in need of a catcher. Both the Tigers and Yankees are making a run for the playoffs. Both players have contracts that expire this season. It seems like the Tigers got the lighter end of the deal, giving up an almost-everyday player, a 14-time All Star hitting near .300, for a middle reliever. But that’s how it goes when you’re trading for needs and you’re trading for short-term fixes. You get what you can and what you need.
My guess is the Tigers didn’t want to or didn’t think they were going to sign Pudge back for a long-term deal after this season, so making a move now was less risky.
“Pudge has done a fine job, there’s no question,” Dave Dombroskwi, the Tigers GM, said in a TV interview, “ but we like Brandon Inge a great deal. We think he gives us a quality chance to win.” Darn those Yankees
Brandon Inge? Isn’t baseball funny? When this season began, all anyone talked about was how Inge had no place, how he wanted to be traded, how he didn’t want to catch, how the Tigers had little use for him after Miguel Cabrera was acquired and would take over third base.
Now Cabrera is at first base, Pudge is gone and Inge remains. He will have to squat down again and be the Tigers’ everyday catcher.
And it’s still July.
But things change all the time in baseball. And so Rodriguez, the face of the Tigers for several years, is now in pinstripes. He sounded a bit stunned when TV interviewed him Wednesday.
“I never expect for me to leave the Tigers,” he said. “I always believe I’m gonna be with the Tigers until I retire. But I guess five years is enough.”
Rodriguez will play a lot for the Yankees, who have lost catcher Jorge Posada for the year to injury. And we’ll see how Pudge’s 36-year-old body holds up in the late months under that kind of workload. He has needed more games off as he has aged, and perhaps the Tigers sensed that in August and September they would have been using him less.
Meanwhile, they get Farnsworth, a 32-year-old with a 3.65 ERA and a few temper issues on his resume. He has pitched 44 innings this year, averaging a hit and a strikeout for every inning thrown. He’s solid, and with the Tigers’ bullpen, solid can get you far. I wouldn’t be shocked if he wound up the closer before too long. “He gives us depth in the bullpen,” Dombrowski told the media.
Personally, I think Detroit fans like this move less because it involves the Yankees than they would if Pudge were traded to, say, the San Diego Padres. First off, everyone hates the Yankees. Plus it’s possible (although a long shot) the Tigers could play the Yankees in the playoffs. If so, seeing Rodriguez play against his old team would feel like watching your older brother lead a hostile takeover of your business. He was an inspiration
As he prepared to leave his team of the last five years, Pudge was asked by a TV reporter for his memories of Detroit.
“Absolutely awesome,” he said.
What’s funny is that while Pudge was undeniably popular here especially with kids and female fans, perhaps owing to his size and his smile few in Detroit really knew him. His English was never good enough to discern his personality. And he kept his off-the-field stuff very off-the-radar, including a messy divorce and the specter of the steroids scandal.
Either story in a town like New York might have been daily headlines (and has been with players like Alex Rodriguez and Jason Giambi). But Pudge skirted those issues in Detroit. He kept to himself, even as the Tigers marketed him to everyone.
But interviews are one thing, clubhouse is another. And when the Tigers were searching for a path out of a stormy 119-loss season, they found their beacon when Rodriguez signed as a free agent, after winning a World Series with the Florida Marlins.
Nobody wanted into Detroit back then. Most guys wanted out. Pudge came – yes, they paid him a lot, but what else is news? – and he led and worked hard and inspired a lot of players, especially the Latin ones.
He picks up his coat now and heads off to Broadway. But the dirty puddle that was once underneath it has dried up and disappeared, replaced by a respectable franchise that expects to win. Pudge Rodriguez was the first step. If you thank him for nothing else, thank him for that. It is no small deal.
Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 5-7 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760). Also catch “Monday Sports Albom” 7-8 p.m. Mondays on WJR. To read his recent columns, go to www.freep.com/mitch.