He was a superstar whose arrival in Detroit 13 years ago was as astonishing as it was fundamental to a baseball renaissance at Comerica Park.
And now Pudge Rodriguez’s amazing skills and baseball majesty, which Detroit’s faithful marveled at during the catcher’s five-year stint at Comerica Park, have earned him a plaque in Baseball’s Hall of Fame.
Rodriguez was elected Wednesday alongside blazing outfielder Tim Raines and slugging first baseman Jeff Bagwell, all of whom will be placed in baseball’s eternal chapel during July’s induction.
“I loved the game of baseball,” Rodriguez said Wednesday night during a teleconference interview with national media. “And I was a winner. That was probably the bottom line.”
Each of the players elected appeared on at least 75 percent of ballots, the minimum required, from Baseball Writers Association of America voters, with Rodriguez reaching 76 percent.
Not so fortunate were others bidding for enshrinement this summer at Cooperstown, N.Y.
Trevor Hoffman (74 percent) missed baseball’s grand prize by five votes. Vladimir Guerrero (71.7) was short by 15.
Others were in range, but ultimately failed. Edgar Martinez was at 58.6 percent, up 15 points from a year ago. Roger Clemens (54.1), and Barry Bonds (53.8) each rose 10 points from a year ago but were far from the finish line.
Rodriguez prevailed because of his extraordinary longevity and steady excellence, all of which was displayed with the Tigers. His ties to Detroit are in fact historic and borderline astounding.
Rodriguez came to the Tigers in February 2004, four months after he had helped the Marlins to a world championship, and four months after the Tigers had nearly broken a modern-day record for losses in a season during a 2003 nightmare.
He was a free agent with some concerns about back issues. Tigers owner Mike Ilitch had other thoughts. Tired of his franchise’s disgrace, Ilitch got enough assurance from doctors to make an unemployed superstar a sign of Detroit’s baseball revival.
He signed Rodriguez to a four-year, $40-million deal, with an option of $13 million for 2008, which the Tigers later accepted.
There was an instant payoff. Season tickets were purchased. A moribund baseball town came to life. Rodriguez homered in his first game for the Tigers, at Toronto. During June he put together one of the most remarkable 30-day efforts in Tigers history when he batted .500 via a 43-for-86 burst that awed Detroit’s baseball devotees.
Rodriguez explained Wednesday that it was a one-on-one conversation with Ilitch that persuaded him to join a team that a year earlier had been a pole apart from the Marlins.
“I’m very proud,” Rodriguez said, explaining how Ilitch had assured him.
“Look, you come in, and I promise you I will put together a very good ballteam,” Rodriguez quoted Ilitch as saying.
“And two years later we were in the World Series.”
Rodriguez played only five of his 21 seasons with the Tigers. But the imprint was deep, on all parties.
“The history, the city, the stadium, the uniform — I was very honored to wear that Olde English D,” Rodriguez said. “Playing in Detroit was great. The fans were great, and then to be in the World Series, even though we lost (to the Cardinals).
“That was pretty great.”
Rodriguez maintained throughout a rare skill set that explained why Wednesday he joined Johnny Bench as the only catcher in baseball history to have been elected on his first ballot appearance. And why, at 45, he is the Hall of Fame’s youngest entrant.
After breaking in with the Rangers as a 19-year-old, Rodriguez quickly unholstered a remarkable weapon: his ability to spring from a crouch, after taking a pitch, and wheel a laser-throw to first that often picked off a runner.
His arm made him a near-death experience in attempting a steal of any base. His bat, meanwhile, exploded with steady base hits and power that made him a nightmare for outfielders trying to best-position him.
He worked well with pitchers. He defended in sentry-like fashion. And, as he reminded his audience Wednesday, he was indeed a winner, playing in 40 postseason games.
A few of his extraordinary career numbers:
Rodriguez, who had a career batting average of .296 and an OPS of .798.
He had more hits (2,749) and extra-base hits (906) than any catcher in big-league history. His overall hit total (including times as a designated hitter): 2,844.
Rodriguez made 14 All-Star teams and 13 times won a Gold Glove. He led the league in caught-stealing percentage nine times. No other catcher has exceeded six.
He caught more games than any man in history (2,427) and his WAR (Wins Above Replacement) score of 68.9 has been beaten by only two other catchers: Bench (75, and Gary Carter (69.9), each of whom is in Cooperstown.
Rodriguez played 13 years for the Texas Rangers and will be wearing a Rangers cap on his Cooperstown plaque. He also played for the Marlins (World Series championship in 2003), Yankees, Astros, and Nationals.
Another point emerged Wednesday that Rodriguez, as well as Clemens and Bonds, might have made clearer. An unsettling time in baseball’s timeline has perhaps passed. Suspicions about performance-enhancers appear to have waned as a prominent voter issue.
The game was pock-marked by PED and steroids use in the 1990s and past 2000 until serious drug-testing all but abolished it as a common influence in big-league games and life.
Rodriguez, minus any definitive evidence, was nonetheless tied by perception and by insinuations to have been part of the PED culture, at least for a time. Jose Canseco’s tell-all book in 2005, “Juiced,” accused him of being a user.
But in the same manner that two men more directly tied to PEDs, Bonds and Clemens, rose significantly in this year’s voting, Rodriguez, appeared to have been all but absolved of sins by voters who have often used PED suspicion as a basis to exclude.
“I’ve had trouble sleeping for three days,” Rodriguez said, a reference to Wednesday’s buildup. “I’ve been very anxious about the whole situation. I’m just glad to be there, in Cooperstown with the rest of all those tremendous Hall of Famers already on that wall.
“I can’t wait till July.”