In the end, after the most memorable phone call of his life and after all the hugs and after wiping away the tears, only one thing mattered to Ivan Rodriguez.
Not the narrow margin. Not how his name is engraved onto his plaque. Not the doubts voters had.
None of that mattered.
“That’s OK,” Rodriguez said. “I’m a Hall of Famer already.”
The Texas Rangers great, one of the game’s all-time best catchers, was elected into the National Baseball Hall of Fame on Wednesday in his first year on the ballot and will join right-hander Nolan Ryan as the second Hall inductee to wear a Rangers cap on his plaque.
Rodriguez, a 13-time Gold Glove winner and a 14-time All-Star, will be enshrined July 30 in Cooperstown, N.Y., along with Montreal Expos outfielder Tim Raines and Houston Astros first baseman Jeff Bagwell.
“It was great news. What can I tell you?” Rodriguez said. “As an athlete, when you work hard and when you wake up in the morning and train for three hours and then put your mindset for 162 games, an eight-month season, it’s a lot of grind, it’s a lot of baseball, and when you do that for 21 years, it’s hard.
“But those are the things that you want to see, that you want to hear at the end. How hard I want to work in my career to be the best and have the best award at the end of my career, five years later is being in the Hall of Fame.”
But, man, it was close.
Rodriguez, the 1999 American League MVP, appeared on 76 percent of ballots submitted by eligible voters from the Baseball Writers Association of America, just clearing the 75-percent hurdle. He received 336 of 442 votes submitted, a mere four more than was needed.
The slim margin matches Jackie Robinson in 1962 for the fewest for a player who was elected on the first ballot. But his first-ballot success marked only the second time for a catcher, joining his hero, Johnny Bench.
“Thanks to all the reporters, every single one of them,” Rodriguez said. “I have so much respect with all of them. It doesn’t matter. I’m going to be in Cooperstown in July. That’s all that matters. I’m very happy with that.”
Rodriguez was signed out of Puerto Rico by the Rangers in 1989 as at 16-year-old amateur and made his major-league debut in 1991 at age 19. In only his second season he launched a streak of 10 consecutive Gold Gloves and All-Star appearances.
He spent the first 12 seasons of his career with the Rangers before joining the Florida Marlins in 2003 and helping them win the World Series. Rodriguez, affectionately known as “Pudge,” also played for the Detroit Tigers, New York Yankees and Astros before returning briefly to the Rangers in 2009.
He finished his career with the Washington Nationals for two seasons.
Wearing a Rangers cap into the Hall is a no-brainer, though.
“Of course,” Rodriguez said. “The Rangers gave me the opportunity to sign at the age of 16, gave me an opportunity to come to the States and wear a professional uniform and play for a couple of years then play in the big leagues for 12 years.
“I feel very honored and just very happy to be part of the Texas Rangers organization. I know the Rangers are a huge part of this honor and this award that I received today, but I have to mention all the organizations that I played for. They’re a big part of it as well.”
Rodriguez will become the 18th catcher in the Hall of Fame after he collected 2,844 hits in a 21-year career and finished with a .296 batting average, 311 home runs and 1,332 RBIs. He also threw out 42 percent of attempted base stealers.
He notched 1,747 hits, 352 doubles, 217 homers and 842 RBIs with the Rangers while batting .304, and he helped lead them to the first three playoff appearances in franchise history as AL West champions in 1996, 1998 and 1999.
In his 1999 MVP season, Rodriguez batted .332 with 35 homers, 113 RBIs and 116 runs, and is the only catcher in MLB history to have a season with a .330 average, 35 homers, 110 RBIs and 110 runs scored.
Rodriguez remains the all-time MLB leader in games caught (2,427) and holds the record for most All-Star Game starts (12).
He is also one of only five players to achieve a .294 average, 2,800 hits, 550 doubles, 300 homers and 1,300 RBIs. The others in the group are Hank Aaron, Barry Bonds, George Brett and Stan Musial.
“His credentials are Hall of Fame credentials. I don’t think there’s any doubt about that,” said fellow Rangers Hall of Famer Michael Young. “I played with him. His arm strength and footwork was off the charts, and you combine that with he played 20 years in the big leagues.”
While his offense was elite for his position, his defense is what made him a star. He threw out two base runners in his debut June 20, 1991, and collected his final Gold Glove in his 17th season.
Only three players — pitchers Greg Maddux (18) and Jim Kaat (16) and third baseman Brooks Robinson (16) — have won more Gold Gloves than Rodriguez, whose defensive WAR of 28.7 is the highest of any catcher.
“When a base runner was on, I was begging for him to steal,” former Rangers right-hander Bobby Witt said. “He was just an amazing talent. By far the quickest release and quickest feet I have ever seen. He would physically shut down running games.”
Rodriguez’s credentials would seem to make him an easy choice for Hall voters, but some were swayed away from him because of alleged use of performance-enhancing drugs.
Jose Canseco wrote in his autobiography, Juiced, that he injected Rodriguez with steroids while Rangers teammates in the early 1990s. Rodriguez also showed a dramatic weight loss in 2005 after MLB started testing for PEDs.
Nevertheless, Rodriguez is Cooperstown-bound.
“He’s the best catcher of all time or in the top two,” Rangers catcher Jonathan Lucroy said. “Watching the game, he was one of those guys that was just the best at what he did. From my perspective, he was a guy you watched because he was just a Hall of Fame-caliber player.
“It’s amazing what he did from a physical standpoint. In my short career, I know how hard it has been on my body, and they didn’t have some of the same conditioning staff that we have now. I have a lot of respect for him.”
Class of 2017
Jeff Bagwell, first baseman (Astros): .297 batting average, 449 home runs, 1,529 RBIs.
Tim Raines, left fielder (Expos): 808 stolen bases, 2,605 hits, 980 RBIs, .294 batting average.
Ivan Rodriguez, catcher (Rangers): 13 Gold Gloves, 14 All-Star Game selections, caught an MLB-record 2,427 games, .296 batting average, 311 home runs, 572 doubles. Joins Johnny Bench as only first-ballot Hall of Fame catchers.
2017 Hall of Fame Voting
442 votes cast, 332 needed
By receiving fewer than 23 votes (less than 5 percent), Jorge Posada 17 (3.8); Magglio Ordonez 3 (0.7); Edgar Renteria 2 (0.5); Jason Varitek 2 (0.5); Tim Wakefield 1 (0.2); Casey Blake, Pat Burrell, Orlando Cabrera, Mike Cameron, J.D. Drew, Carlos Guillen, Derrek Lee, Melvin Mora, Arthur Rhodes, Freddy Sanchez and Matt Stairs 0 are no longer eligible for election by the BBWAA.
x-final year on BBWAA ballot