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