LOS ANGELES -- The five-year-old kid, or "nene" as his family called him, just wanted to throw the ball as far and as hard as he could. He massaged it in his tiny hands, looking at his uncle standing some 60 feet away, as if he was waiting for some greater power to take control of his right arm. There was no way he was going to get the baseball into his uncle's glove but like most boys holding a ball in a park anything seems possible. You always hit the last second shot, the walk-off home run and the game winning goal. So he gripped the ball, raised his left leg and threw the ball as hard as he could, his momentum spinning him around and causing him to fall as the ball flew then dipped, nearly reaching its intended target.
It wasn't a life-changing moment for Francisco Jose Rodriguez -- there aren't many eureka moments for kids more concerned with push-pops than pro prospects -- but looking back on it now he admits it was the first time he knew he had a gift. "That's when I first started to notice I was throwing differently than the other kids," he says. "After that I used to play with older kids because I would throw so hard that the kids in my league wouldn't play with me."
When he steps onto the mound now, far from the dirt fields he first played on in Barrio Kennedy, a slum in the hillside Macarao section of downtown Caracas, Venezuela, Rodriguez still throws each pitch like he did his first -- hard, fast and with a quirky rotation of his body that leaves him facing first base when he lets go of the ball. And if that pitch just happens to be the last out of the game, he'll slap his glove and scream as he points towards the sky like a kid who still can't believe he's pitching in a big league park.
Those final seconds of each one of Rodriguez's saves, from his unorthodox motion to his obnoxious celebration, says more about him than any modest sound byte you might get from him afterwards or any angry quote you might read from an opponent he rubs the wrong way. Through it all, Rodriguez stays the same, offering little analysis for his behavior and leaving the scrutiny and psyychiatry to others. Meanwhile, he just keeps contorting, throwing and celebrating just like "Nene" always has.
"I've been doing this since I was a little kid. I used to always have sore shoulders, arms and elbows because I would twist my body to throw it hard," says Rodriguez, who earned the nickname "K-Rod" after he joined the Angels in September 2002 and plowed down helpless batters who'd never seen him before during the Angels' run to their first World Series title. "I was really small and skinny but I wanted to throw the ball as hard as I could and the motion just came naturally to me. It's not something that I just learned a couple years ago, it's something I've been doing for the past 24 years or so."
It's odd hearing a 26-year-old player with a baby face that still elicit chants of "Nene Fran" from friends and family when he returns to Venezuela, explain something he's done for the past "24 years," but Rodriguez can't recall a moment when he wasn't throwing a ball, or whatever you'd call wadded up newspapers held together by electrical tape. He would watch his baseball-crazed uncles play as a kid, watching from a distance before getting a chance to throw as well when he was about three years old. "They didn't have anyone to baby sit me so they used to take me to all their games," he says. "They never treated me like a kid."
Baseball was the one thing that would never leave Rodriguez. Would never tell him he didn't matter. That it wanted nothing to do with him. If anything, it embraced him and made him feel special. It was a feeling that Rodriguez, the 14th child of Isabel Mayorca and Francisco Rodriguez Sr., never got from his parents, who were in the midst of a separation when he was born. When he was two months old he was left with his father's parents, Isabel and Juan Rodriguez. Despite living about 30 minutes away from him, Rodriguez parents rarely if every saw him and he grew up calling his grandparents "mom" and "dad."
"It was a real difficult time," says Rodriguez, who points up at his grandfather, who passed away in 1999 during his first spring training, after every save. "That's one of the reasons I always thank god that I'm able to be where I am now because I went through so many things growing up. It's really difficult to think about where I am compared to where I came from. I really had a difficult childhood and grew up in a rough neighborhood back home, I wasn't raised by my parents but my grandparents and it was a lot of ups and downs."
The one constant through those ups and downs was baseball, which might explain why Rodriguez won't change his style for anyone. He simply smiles when asked if he might modify the mechanics of his delivery to prolong his career and prevent injury or if he would consider curbing his enthusiasm on the mound after every routine save. "I've been playing this game the same way since I played T-ball when I was three and half," he says. "I love it but it's also my job now. I want to enjoy myself but I want to play the game the way I know how because if I don't do my job they're going to find someone else to do it."
There is a quiet calm in Rodriguez's voice as he speaks. In the clubhouse, where he mostly keeps to himself, he is the antithesis of the fist-pumping, arm-waving, sky-pointing K-Rod seen on the field. "When [people] get to know me, they realize that I'm not the same person they see on the field," he says. "People think on the field that I'm arrogant and aggressive but I'm a different person off the field. I hear so many people say that I'm a prick or whatever but when they see me outside they say, 'Oh I'm sorry, I thought you had the same personality off the field as you do on it.' It's not that way at all. It's the opposite."
He admits he almost doesn't recognize himself on the mound when he sees his highlights, his demonstrative actions going against everything else he does when he leaves the field. "I become a different person on the field, that's my job, but when I'm off it, I'm a regular guy," he says. "If people don't believe that I can't do anything about that."
Nevertheless, if it seems that Rodriguez is cocky or arrogant on the mound, it's because he is. "It's that arrogance that I have on the field that you can't hit me," he says with a grin, his inner K-Rod coming out. "I want the hitter to hit the pitch that I want them to hit. I feel like I'm messing with them." Indeed, with his arsenal of pitches -- a curveball, fastball that regularly hits 95 mph and a change-up he's been incorporating since last season -- Rodriguez frequently makes batters look silly.
Rodriguez's signature pitch is as difficult to hit as it is to categorize. It's a pitch so distinctive, so devastating that it should really have its own name. Even Rodriguez has a difficult time finding a name for it, settling on calling what most refer to as his slider a "hard curve ball," before explaining his rationale. "The thing is, I throw it so hard and throw it with the same amount of speed as a slider that people call it a slider but its really hard curve ball," he says. "I really can't explain it. It's something I think I was born to do. I've been blessed to be able to pitch; I've been blessed with this arm."
The gift comes from the fact that Rodriguez naturally throws from different arm angles, a skill some pitching coaches unsuccessfully try to teach their pitchers to confuse batters. While a student of the game, Rodriguez has a difficult time explaining what he does and an even harder time teaching it to others. "It's difficult to teach what I do ... sometimes other players will ask you how to do something [and] honestly I don't know," he says. "It's a gift. It comes naturally to me so I don't know how to explain it. I've been throwing that way since I was nine years old and I've been improving ever since."
Rodriguez's superb season is a major reason why the Angels are on the verge of clinching their fourth AL West title in the past five seasons and why he will certainly garner big money on the open market when he files for free agency after the season. "I really don't know what's going to happen with me at all, I mean at all," says Rodriguez, who wishes the Angels would have offered him a fair long-term deal last winter instead of taking him to arbitration, which they won, paying him $10 million this season instead of $12.5 million. "I don't want to be a distraction so I'm not going to say anything one way or the other but when the time comes to worry about that I will."
As Rodriguez's name is called before another save opportunity at Angel Stadium, he hops out of the bullpen runs to the mound and grabs hold of the baseball lying on the grass. As he picks it up and rolls it around in his right hand and looks at Angels catcher Jeff Mathis kneeling some 60 feet away, he does the same thing he did when he first picked up a ball back in Venezuela and threw it at his uncles, lifting his left leg before firing a dart with no regard for his flailing arm or his catcher's hand. Except now the ball actually reaches its target and he's able to make the ball do just about anything he wants on the way there, including, as his predecessor as Angels closer, Troy Percival, joked, "throw that Bugs Bunny pitch that goes, stops in front of the plate and goes again."
Rodriguez can't explain how he does what he does. Then again how many kids in the park who've just hit that imaginary last second shot can? Sometimes it's just better not to know, and to just enjoy the show and the subsequent celebration instead, no matter how many times you've seen it before.