Ivan Rodriguez takes his place among Rangers greats

Geovany Soto remembers growing up in Puerto Rico, and looking up to the countrymen who had gone on to stardom in the big leagues.

Nobody had reached greater heights than Ivan Rodriguez.

“Everybody wanted to be like Pudge,” Soto said. “He was a national hero, man. He was unbelievable, that ideal childhood icon you looked up to.”

Soto’s sentiment can be shared with countless kids growing up in the 1990s in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. Rodriguez established himself as a fan favorite and one of the game’s great players when he made his debut as a 19-year-old in 1991 with the Rangers.

He went on to become one of the all-time great catchers. By the end of his 21-year career, Rodriguez had won 13 Gold Gloves, the most by a catcher and tied for the fourth most at any position, won an MVP award in 1999 and played in 14 All-Star Games.

Rodriguez played for five teams in his career, but spent 13 years with Texas. He retired as a Ranger in April 2012, and rejoined the organization as a special assistant to general manager Jon Daniels in February.

Now, he’ll become the 16th member of the team’s Hall of Fame during an induction ceremony before Saturday night’s Rangers-Orioles game.

The pregame ceremony will begin at 6:25 p.m., and first pitch has been pushed back to 7:15 p.m. Rodriguez was such a no-brainer decision that the selection committee waived the standard two-year waiting period for retired players to be eligible for induction.

“It’s a heck of a moment for me,” Rodriguez said. “I cannot thank the Rangers’ organization enough and Major League Baseball for giving me an opportunity to play this game for such a long time.

“Of course I’ll get goose bumps [tonight]. You’re going to feel so happy for that because that tells you that the fans and the media and the people know what you did in the sport of baseball.”

The Hall of Fame festivities began for Rodriguez on Friday during a luncheon at the Omni Hotel in downtown Fort Worth.

He was praised by former teammates Rusty Greer and John Wetteland, as well as Rangers senior executive vice president Jim Sundberg.

Sundberg, a three-time All-Star and six-time Gold Glove winner, joked that he introduces himself as the “catcher before Ivan Rodriguez.”

Sandy Johnson, the team’s former scouting director who signed Rodriguez, also shared stories about Rodriguez.

The best, though, came from Rodriguez himself.

He recalled the day he found out he was getting called to the big leagues. Triple A Round Rock manager Bobby Jones, then managing Double A Tulsa, called him into his office and broke the news to him.

Rodriguez was supposed to get married to his now ex-wife the next day, but postponed that and caught up with the Rangers in Chicago.

Rodriguez said his then-bride-to-be wasn’t on board with the decision at first, but eventually accepted it.

“She went with me to Chicago and saw all those high rises and said, ‘We’re OK,’” Rodriguez said, smiling.

The next day, when he made his debut on June 20, 1991, against the White Sox, Rodriguez went 1 for 2 and threw out two runners trying to steal.

“I don’t know if they got a bad jump or I just have a good arm,” Rodriguez said, laughing. “But something happened.”

Rodriguez told the story about when he and Nolan Ryan were working together a few weeks later on a no-hitter on July 7, 1991, against the Angels.

Ryan hadn’t allowed a hit through seven innings, and started the eighth inning against Dave Winfield.

Winfield singled on an 0-2 pitch up the middle to break up the no-hit bid. Rodriguez and Ryan shared laughs when Rodriguez declared that Ryan shook off his original sign.

“That’s why I always say, ‘follow the catcher,’” Rodriguez said.

Rodriguez’s best moment in baseball, however, did not happen when he was with the Rangers. Instead, it came the year after he left the organization and signed as a free agent with the Florida Marlins, who wound up winning the 2003 World Series.

Rodriguez said winning a World Series outweighs all of his Gold Gloves, All-Star appearances, MVPs and any other accolades he earned throughout his career.

“That’s every player’s goal,” Rodriguez said. “A team effort since Day One in spring training, when we come in, shake everybody’s hands, ‘How’d your off-season go? Are you ready to go?’ From that day to October 25-26, that eight-month season that you grind out good and bad, ups and downs, we all stayed positive as a team and worked hard to win ballgames. To be able to catch the last out in the World Series, there’s nothing better than that.”

Still, Rodriguez made it clear that he associates himself most with the Rangers. That’s the team that signed him as a 16-year-old out of Puerto Rico, who called him up to the big leagues three years later and helped him grow into the player he became, a beloved figure in the Metroplex with the likes of Tom Landry and Roger Staubach.

“I think I earned or get all that because of the way that I approached the game of baseball,” Rodriguez said. “I approached the game of baseball very professionally, off the field and on the field as far as preparation to have a better year every single year and be associated with the community.

“In Puerto Rico and in Texas, I’m a person that loved to spend time and talk to people and take pictures and sign stuff for them. It’s something that I didn’t do it because I had to, I did it because I wanted to. And I enjoyed what I did, spending time with fans.”

The Rangers Hall of Fame is certainly a well-deserved honor, and there might be another Hall of Fame in Rodriguez’s future. But he isn’t thinking too much about a potential call from Cooperstown.

“I think about it, yes,” Rodriguez said. “You guys [the Baseball Writers Association of America] decide if I should be there or not. For me, I’m very happy. I had a great career, but Hall of Fame, Hall of Fame, and Cooperstown in four years, you decide.”

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