Ro­driguez brings Na­tion­als into Coop­er­stown

The Washington Post Sunday - - BASEBALL - BY ADAM KIL­GORE adam.kil­gore@wash­post.com

The Wash­ing­ton Na­tion­als have be­come em­bed­ded into their city, a fran­chise old enough now for a ball­park to have risen and a neigh­bor­hood to have formed around it, for teenagers not to know a Wash­ing­ton with­out base­ball, for lore to grow and heartache to fes­ter. The firsts that once came in a spigot now ar­rive hardly at all.

But the Na­tion­als are still new enough to have a few firsts left to ex­pe­ri­ence, and one of them will come this week­end in­side a sleepy town in Up­state New York. The word “Na­tion­als” does not ap­pear on any of the 317 bronzed plaques in­side the Na­tional Base­ball Hall of Fame. On Sun­day, it will.

Ivan Ro­driguez’s plaque will not show him wearing a Curly W cap — that’s an­other first, for a day well in the fu­ture (and not a bad bar­room dis­cus­sion in the mean­time). It would be too much to call Pudge the first Na­tional in the Hall. But his in­duc­tion will mark the first time a Hall of Famer played for the Na­tion­als.

“Re­ally?” said Ryan Zim­mer­man, the Na­tion­als’ first draft pick, who has seen all the firsts since. “Pretty cool.”

Ro­driguez left an im­pres­sion over his two sea­sons in Wash­ing­ton, the last of his ca­reer. He didn’t have much left as a hit­ter, but he show­cased his ri­fle arm and pro­vided an ex­am­ple to a way­ward fran­chise. He is a su­per­star with­out ego, a gen­tle soul and ma­ni­a­cal worker who saw his play­ing time — and chance at 3,000 hits — di­min­ish with­out com­plaint. He shep­herded Stephen Stras­burg through his whirl­wind first sea­son and tu­tored Wil­son Ramos, the man who would take his job.

“I thought it was an im­por­tant sign­ing for us at the time,” Gen­eral Man­ager Mike Rizzo said. “It turned out to be one of the best things we’ve done. He taught us to be a pro­fes­sional fran­chise.”

Ro­driguez spent a lot of time be­hind the plate in the sea­sons the Na­tion­als tran­si­tioned from dread­ful to de­cent. The Na­tion­als lost 103 games the year be­fore Ro­driguez signed, and they won 98 the year af­ter he left. He may not have been in­stru­men­tal in the shift, but he was there when the Na­tion­als started to turn.

“I’m very happy and proud now to say that I was a big part of that,” Ro­driguez said.

Ro­driguez, who joined the Na­tion­als at the 2009 win­ter meet­ings, was the first free agent Rizzo ac­quired as a full-time GM. The Na­tion­als had lost 205 games the pre­vi­ous two years, mis­ery that en­abled them to draft Stras­burg and Bryce Harper with No. 1 over­all picks in con­sec­u­tive drafts.

Ro­driguez was 38 and com­ing off a poor of­fen­sive sea­son, so he had lim­ited op­tions. But there was rea­son to be­lieve a player of his stature would de­cline an of­fer from the Na­tion­als, or at least those Na­tion­als.

“No­body thinks about it that way,” Zim­mer­man said, “so it’s hard to re­mem­ber when it was that way.”

But Ro­driguez took Wash­ing­ton’s two-year, $6 mil­lion deal. From the mo­ment he walked into the club­house, team­mates were awed. The Na­tion­als had a cal­low pitch­ing staff, and they had grown up watch­ing Ro­driguez play an­nu­ally in All-Star Games and con­tend for MVP awards. Some of them were ner­vous to even play catch with him. In an early spring train­ing game in Jupiter, Fla., Ro­driguez gunned out a run­ner try­ing to steal sec­ond against — here’s a blast from the past — Gar­rett Mock.

“I couldn’t do any­thing but laugh,” Mock said at the time. “It felt like a he­li­copter fly­ing right over my ear.”

Ro­driguez started the 2010 sea­son on a sur­pris­ing tear, his bat­ting av­er­age sit­ting at .340 in mid-June. It was a mi­rage, of course, and as his ground­balls started find­ing gloves and soft lin­ers turned into outs, his num­bers plum­meted.

But he re­mained, on a team go­ing nowhere, a player of cru­cial im­por­tance, never more so than on June 8, the day Stras­burg ar­rived in the ma­jors. Pitch­ing coach Steve McCatty, want­ing to limit the frenzy for Stras­burg, re­fused to give him a scout­ing re­port of the op­pos­ing Pitts­burgh Pi­rates. In­stead, he in­structed Stras­burg to throw what Ro­driguez called, no mat­ter what. Aside from his very first pitch — Ro­driguez wanted a curve­ball — Stras­burg didn’t shake once. Af­ter­ward, Ro­driguez joined Stras­burg at a postgame news con­fer­ence.

“He brought a calm­ness to an ex­tra­or­di­nary day,” Rizzo said.

The Na­tion­als would tally 93 losses in Ro­driguez’s first sea­son. Jayson Werth joined in the off­sea­son. He had grown up play­ing catcher, idol­iz­ing Ro­driguez. He had played against Ro­driguez enough not to be starstruck, but he revered Ro­driguez. “I kind of still felt like I was a kid com­pared to this guy,” Werth said.

Im­me­di­ately, Werth iden­ti­fied what had made Ro­driguez spe­cial. At the end of an early-spring work­out, Werth watched one un­ac­com­plished young team­mate cheat on the end of his daily sprints. Next to him, Ro­driguez ran ex­tra.

“You could see why he was so good, even at that age, still work­ing so hard,” Werth said. “It wasn’t about the play­ing at that point. Just the type of guy he was, in that role, af­ter that type of ca­reer, that wasn’t what im­pressed me. It was his work ethic. I bet he’s still work­ing hard, what­ever he’s do­ing. If it’s busi­ness or tak­ing the kids to school, he’s on it.”

Ro­driguez started on Open­ing Day of his sec­ond sea­son, purely as an honor. The Na­tion­als gave their reg­u­lar catch­ing job to Ramos, whom they had ac­quired from the Min­nesota Twins the year be­fore for Matt Capps. Pri­vately, Man­ager Jim Rig­gle­man won­dered and wor­ried how Ro­driguez would take to a re­duced role, es­pe­cially as he closed to within 200 hits of 3,000. Ro­driguez never said a word, in­stead fo­cus­ing on stay­ing pre­pared and school­ing Ramos.

“He was an up­stand­ing cit­i­zen,” Werth said. “He just got along. I don’t think he was here to change cul­ture. There’s noth­ing wrong with that. A lot of times, in the club­house, that’s what you want — you want ev­ery­body to get along. Pudge could get down with any­body.”

Look­ing back, Ro­driguez ap­pre­ci­ates his Na­tion­als ten­ure. He men­tioned Zim­mer­man, Werth and Adam Dunn as mem­o­rable team­mates. He played with Bryce Harper at spring train­ing in 2011 but never as a big league team­mate. “A cou­ple of the guys that I helped,” Ro­driguez said, “they’re su­per­stars right now.”

Werth, Zim­mer­man and Stras­burg are the only re­main­ing Na­tion­als from Ro­driguez’s ten­ure. As he en­ters the Hall of Fame, there are few re­main­ing con­nec­tions be­tween Ro­driguez and the Na­tion­als. One of them will last for­ever, a name on a bronze plaque in Coop­er­stown.

“Hav­ing him be part of the fran­chise was a great thing,” Rizzo said. “Hav­ing his plaque on the wall with the Na­tion­als name on it is a great thing for the city and the or­ga­ni­za­tion. Hope­fully, it’s one of sev­eral.”

JOHN MCDONNELL/THE WASH­ING­TON POST

Ivan Ro­driguez played for Wash­ing­ton in 2010 and 2011 and will be­come the first for­mer Na­tional en­shrined in the Hall of Fame.

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