Monday, February 02, 2009

Pudge Still Looking For Work; His Search May Be Fruitless

Five years ago, almost to the day, Ivan "Pudge" Rodriguez put on a Detroit Tigers jersey, flashed that famous smile of his, and put legitimacy back onto a once-proud franchise that had just suffered through a 119-loss season.

It was February 6, 2004.

That's when Pudge, fresh off a World Series win with the Florida Marlins, made like Woodward and Bernstein in "All the President's Men" and followed the money. Out of work and with few teams looking to give a 32-year-old catcher a long-term contract, Rodriguez and the Tigers found each other to be willing participants in an arrangement that was, all at once, praised and derided.

Rodriguez came to Detroit, over the objection of his manager in Florida, Jack McKeon, who worried that Pudge was putting his Hall of Fame potential in jeopardy by toiling for such a bad team at that stage of his career. But McKeon's words were mostly the juice of sour grapes, and not taken very seriously -- least of all by Pudge himself.

So in an off-season that saw the Tigers having already signed OF Rondell White and 2B Fernando Vina, the capper was Rodriguez's signature on a multi-year deal, ladened with legal language, to protect the Tigers against a possible flare-up of Pudge's at-the-time tender back.

It was a bold, yet safe move for the organization.

Five years later, to the day, will be this Friday. And Pudge is again unemployed.

But this time he's 37, and coming off a not-so-stellar season in which he was traded in late July to the Yankees. His numbers in New York were paltry. Before the trade, they weren't so good in Detroit, either. He was splitting time with Brandon Inge at the time of the deal, and not very happy about it.

The sharing of catcher duties with Inge was rife with irony. For it was upon the news of Pudge's signing with the Tigers that Inge, at the time a younger, more immature player, complained with a sour puss that the team didn't need a "defensive" catcher after all, because they already had a fine one: Brandon Inge.

You probably could have heard howls of laughter from Detroit to Timbuktu. Mine.

Inge, when he bellyached about the Pudge signing, was a limp hitter who needed breaks and luck to manage even a .200 batting average. It was hilarious, to me, that Brandon Inge left out the discrepancy in hitting ability when he made the comparison between Rodriguez and he.

But there they were, four-plus years later, platooning, in a sense, at catcher. And Inge's offense, though still not terrific, was catching up to Pudge's. But then again, Rodriguez was past 36.

Rodriguez is not close, that I know of, to signing a contract with any MLB team. Thirty-seven year-old catchers aren't at the top of many teams' shopping list. Even the Yankees, who burn through cash faster than a teenager does with his allowance, have shown no inclination to toss any dough Pudge's way, even as a backup. There's talk the White Sox might have some interest, but who knows how much?

We may have seen the last of Ivan Rodriguez in an MLB uniform. Unless he reinvents himself as a DH or a part-time first baseman.

Johnny Bench retired at age 35. Bill Freehan was even younger (34) when he announced his quitting. Playing catcher is unforgiving to the human body. It's true that Pudge keeps himself in supreme physical condition, but the calendar eventually catches up; it always does. Often, it overtakes you in a flash.

Pudge is unemployed in early February, again. This time, it might be for good.


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