Anchors Aweigh After an off-season of cruisin', peerless--but oft-injured--Rangers catcher Ivan Rodriguez is eager to prove that he's shipshape

February 18, 2002

The dark clouds are coming, floating across the blue Miami sky
like oil spills on water. Ivan (Pudge) Rodriguez, the man whose
life has been more or less a glorious stroll on a warm summer
day, gazes upward and frowns. "Weather here, it's tough," he
says. "Unpredictable." On cue, the raindrops begin to fall.
Softly, at first, then a little harder. Suddenly Rodriguez is
caught in a deluge on the dock behind his new house. He does his
best Rickey Henderson, head down, arms pumping, legs
churning--whoosh! He darts to the left, to a small bungalow
adjacent to the house. Once inside, he takes a breath as he runs
his right hand through his saturated mop of black hair.

In no time the thump-thump-thump of rain pelting roof ceases.
It's beautiful outside again. "Never try to figure out Florida,"
he says. "It's sunny, then rain. Then sun, and more rain. You
have no chance." As he speaks, Rodriguez is leaning against a
spanking new pool table in the bungalow. A slot machine is near
the door, and on the walls are four paintings depicting
Rodriguez, the Texas Rangers' catcher, in action. He picks up the
cue ball and cocks his right arm. The runner, invisible to all
but Pudge, is dead meat.

To the 30-year-old Rodriguez, idle afternoons like these are ice
cream sundaes and fast cars and salsa music wrapped into one.
Later on he will take Dereck, his nine-year-old son, to Little
League baseball practice. Then he might take the cigarette boat
tied up behind his house ("It goes 90 miles per hour!" he brags)
for a cruise on Biscayne Bay. Or he could head for a nearby
marina and hang out on Maribella, the new 70-foot yacht he named
for his wife, Maribel. Or maybe he'll take his Bentley or his
Ferrari for a ride through South Beach. Perhaps he'll simply wait
for the next cloud. "Right now, my life outside of work is very
free," he says. "It's beautiful."

Rodriguez moved to Miami from Rio Piedras, Puerto Rico, last
April because he'd tired of the six-hour flights from his native
commonwealth to Dallas. The lavish, 15-room house isn't so much a
place to live as it is a choice of lifestyle. Every room is
decorated to the max with Persian rugs and oil paintings and
sculptures. The opulence isn't intended to impress visitors, it's
meant to be enjoyed. "I wanted all the rooms to be rooms where I
could sit down, relax and be comfortable with my family," Pudge
says. "Comfort is everything in a house."

That's why, in addition to Ivan, Maribel, Dereck, daughters
Amanda, 6, and Ivanna, 1, and Maribel's sister, Sandra, and
brother-in-law, Mariano, Pudge's place is home to three Colombian
immigrants who attend to the Rodriguezes' every need. Since
moving to Miami, Pudge hasn't changed a diaper, repaired a flat,
cut down a tree or cooked so much as a bowl of rice. Usually the
front gate is wide open, the front door unlocked. Nobody watches
the security cameras. Relatives come and go. "My focus is family
and baseball," Pudge says. "Everything else is taken care of for
me." When he was a kid, playing ball in the dusty streets of Vega
Baja, Rodriguez dreamed of one day living the good life. This is,
without question, the good life.

Yet earlier this off-season, life wasn't so good. On Sept. 8
Rodriguez had 35% of his damaged left patella tendon removed.
Exacerbated, along with the constant crouching, by the repeated
rubbing of the edge of Rodriguez's shin guard against his
kneecap, the tendinitis limited him to 111 games in 2001 but
didn't prevent him from batting .308--his seventh consecutive
season at .300 or better--or winning his 10th straight Gold Glove
or appearing in his 10th straight All-Star Game. It did, however,
introduce a small doubt into Rodriguez's otherwise paradisiacal
world.

In 2000 he had missed 65 games after fracturing his right thumb,
but that was a freak injury--he cracked a bone on the bat of
Anaheim Angels slugger Mo Vaughn while throwing to second. The
thumb required only light rehab, and Rodriguez suffers no
aftereffects from the fracture. The knee injury was different.
After the surgery Rodriguez spent two weeks on crutches and the
ensuing two months in rehab, working every weekday morning to
strengthen the knee using weights, exercise bikes and treadmills.
He says he has been pain-free since December and that he will be
at full strength when Rangers pitchers and catchers report to
spring training this week in Port Charlotte, Fla. "I feel great,"
he says. "The left knee actually feels stronger than the right
one, so that's a very good sign."

Certainly it's a good sign for the Rangers. Over Rodriguez's two
injury-plagued seasons, Texas, which had won the American League
West in three of the previous four years, went 144-180 (98-104
when Pudge was in the lineup, 46-76 when he wasn't). "The losing
hasn't been fun," Rodriguez says. "I love to play baseball more
than anything, but to not compete--it's difficult and it hurts.
But I'm a professional. A leader. I can't show pain. My job is to
go to the park every day and do everything to help us win." Last
season Rodriguez did all he could with the Rangers' horrific
pitching staff (a major league-worst 5.71 ERA), playing Mr. Mom
to Texas's hurlers and throwing out 23 of 46 base runners
attempting to steal. His main backups, Bill Haselman, Marcus
Jensen and Doug Mirabelli, caught 22 of 71 would-be stealers.

This year might be easier on Rangers catchers. In a busy
off-season new general manager John Hart accomplished what his
deposed predecessor, Doug Melvin, never could: He revamped the
staff. Free-agent righthanders Chan Ho Park (five years, $65
million), Dave Burba (one year, $2 million) and Ismael Valdes
(one year, $2.5 million) top a renovated--if not
fear-inducing--rotation. Free-agent righthanders Jay Powell (three
years, $9 million) and Todd Van Poppel (three years, $7.5
million) and lefty John Rocker (acquired in a trade with the
Cleveland Indians) are among the additions to the bullpen.

Texas's already potent lineup has been augmented by the return of
free-agent rightfielder Juan Gonzalez, who spent his first 11 big
league seasons with the Rangers and who hit .325 with 35 homers
and 140 RBIs for the Indians in 2001, and by the acquisition of
temperamental but talented centerfielder Carl Everett from the
Boston Red Sox. "We're not the same group of players from the
past two seasons," says Rodriguez. "I believe we can compete for
the division title. I just hope for...."

He pauses. Hope for what? Good health? A quick recovery? An
injury-free season? Rodriguez suddenly seems to be a distant
cousin of the What? Me, worry? guy of moments earlier. It's a
stunning change in mood. Ordinarily he doesn't lack confidence,
just as his belongings don't lack dozens of reminders that
baseball's best backstop pays the bills. Painted on the side of
his cigarette boat is a lifelike image of him, in Rangers uniform
and catching gear, firing a laser cannon. In the corner of his
backyard, rising from a mound of thick green grass, is a
larger-than-life bronze sculpture of Rodriguez, crouching behind
a plate. So to witness him appearing timid or worried, even for a
moment, is startling.

Rodriguez glances at the scar on his left knee. His ever-present
smile takes a break. "Well, I don't want to be foolish," he says.
"I want to make sure that when I come back, I'm back for good.
I'm a catcher. I want to be ready to catch every day. It's
important to be the same player I was before the operation."

Rodriguez's five-year, $42 million contract expires after the
2002 season. Before Melvin was fired in October, he said that
Rodriguez would have to prove himself before the Rangers would
offer him a new deal. "He's not washed up," Melvin said, "but how
long will his career last, and at what performance level? It
makes sense to want to see him play."

Hart shares Melvin's opinion, even though the Rangers are thin at
catcher: Haselman, the only other catcher on the roster from last
season, is a career backup, and Texas's best minor league
prospect, 2000 top draft choice Scott Heard, hit .228 in a stint
with Class A Savannah last year. "Pudge is obviously a huge piece
here, and I'm very respectful of that," Hart says. "But this is
not the time or place to begin contract talks, or even think
about it."

Rodriguez admits the club's position is understandable if
disheartening. In July 1997, when he was on the verge of becoming
a first-time free agent, Rodriguez stuck with Texas, even though
the market would have offered greater riches elsewhere. At one
point negotiations between Melvin and Jeff Moorad, Rodriguez's
agent, nearly fell apart, and Rodriguez was on the brink of being
dealt to the New York Yankees for catcher Jorge Posada. On his
own, Rodriguez went to see Tom Schieffer, the Rangers' president
and general partner at the time, and a deal was worked out. "I
believe in loyalty," Rodriguez says. "Texas is the organization
that signed me. I've always been a Ranger, and my first choice
would be to always be a Ranger. But I know they need to see that
I'm back, and I believe they will."

To this end, Rodriguez says, he works out harder now than ever
before. He has not only a desire but also a physical need to stay
in shape. He believes that he has another seven or eight seasons
of Grade A catching in him. "Everybody gets old at some point,"
he says, "but my love of baseball motivates me."

Still, what if Rodriguez, approaching a point in his career when
Johnny Bench and Yogi Berra (chart, page 66) and other elite
catchers began to decline, is never the same as he was before
knee surgery? He says he won't move to another position, despite
rumors that he would work out at second base in spring training
and despite manager Jerry Narron's idea to rest Rodriguez's knees
with a dozen or so starts in the outfield during the season. "My
goal is to finish my career as a catcher," says Rodriguez, who
has been a DH but has never played any other position in the
field. "I'm Pudge Rodriguez, the catcher. It's the position I
love."

One day, Rodriguez says, he will simply take a walk, away from
the game and toward the water. Recently he and Maribel took
delivery of their Italian-made Uniesse motor yacht. The $2.9
million vessel has a U-shaped lounge, four state rooms and dual
1,300-horsepower diesel engines. In January, Rodriguez, his
family and a hired captain (Rodriguez plans to become a licensed
skipper) made a voyage from Miami Beach to Paradise Island in the
Bahamas. Eventually he and Maribel want to take their children on
an around-the-world voyage. "The best part about sailing, the
beauty, is when it feels like the ocean is yours," he says.
"You're alone, on a boat, happy and free. Far away from the
world."

Life, for Pudge, would be but a dream.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY JEFFERY A. SALTER The fleetest Though idling here, skipper Pudge can push his cigarette boat to 90 mph. COLOR PHOTO: JOHN W. MCDONOUGH COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY JEFFERY A. SALTER Full cycle Evidence of Rodriguez's love for art and artifacts abounds at his new house.

Can He Keep It Up?

Season-ending injuries in 2000 and '01 interrupted the most
productive offensive stretch of Ivan Rodriguez's 11-year career.
In 346 games since the start of the 1999 season, he has batted
.328 with 87 home runs, 261 RBIs and a .581 slugging percentage.
Last year, however, Rodriguez (above) caught his 1,300th game--a
milestone after which the production of some stellar catchers has
declined. Here's how five Hall of Famers fared in the three
seasons up to and including their 1,300th game behind the plate
and in the three seasons thereafter. --David Sabino

CATCHER SEASONS GAMES BA HRS RBIS SLUG. PCT.

Bill Dickey 1937-39 400 .316 80 353 .551
1940-42 297 .273 18 162 .382

Ernie Lombardi 1942-44 326 .294 31 155 .424
1945-47 251 .297 35 130 .472

Yogi Berra 1955-57 421 .274 81 295 .481
1958-60 373 .275 56 221 .460

Johnny Bench 1975-77 419 .265 75 293 .487
1978-80 364 .263 69 221 .474

Carlton Fisk 1981-83 369 .274 47 196 .435
1984-86 380 .230 72 213 .432

"My goal is to finish my career as a catcher," says Rodriguez,
who has never played anywhere else in the field. "It's the
position I love."

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)