June 20, 1991. I was getting ready to watch another Rangers game on TV, this one a road contest against the Chicago White Sox. It was the first full year of the Bobby Valentine era.
Rangers fans had some hope in 1991. Nolan Ryan was heading the rotation. Jose Guzman was having a good year and Kevin Brown was coming off back to back 12-win seasons. The offense was shaping up as one of the more prolific ones the Rangers had ever had, with Juan Gonzalez in his first full season as a Ranger, teaming up with veterans Rafael Palmeiro, Julio Franco and Ruben Sierra.
Overall, the Rangers were doing OK. They were in third place in the West at 33-27, but only four games off the lead. They did have a weakness, though, at catcher. The names Geno Petralli, Mike Stanley, Chad Kreuter and Mark Parent weren’t making anyone forget Jim Sundberg, the best catcher in Rangers history.
It was on June 20th, 1991 the Rangers decided to make a change. They called up a 19-year-old catcher and announced he would be in the starting line-up against the White Sox that game. This youngster, who had just gotten married in celebration of the call-up, was a kid named Ivan Rodriguez.
I had no idea who this kid was. I was a Texas Rangers fan, but I’d never paid real close attention to what was going on in the Rangers minor league system. The TV announcers at the time (Merle Harmon and Norm Hitzges maybe?) said Rodriguez, like Juan Gonzalez and Ruben Sierra, was part of the Rangers new pipeline of talent from Puerto Rico. That was the extent of my knowledge.
What I did know was it was a pretty decent pitching match-up: Kevin Brown for the Rangers vs. Black Jack McDowell for the White Sox. For awhile, it was a pitcher’s duel. Through six innings, the Rangers were nursing a 1-0 lead. Rodriguez flied out and grounded out in his first two at bats.
More importantly, Rangers fans saw something in the top of the 5th inning. With one out, Joey Cora was hit by a Kevin Brown pitch. Cora decided to try to steal second two pitches later. Cora failed. Rodriguez fired a perfect strike to second to nail him, keeping the Rangers on top, 1-0.
Texas would up the lead to 2-0 in the top of the 7th on a Juan Gonzalez home run, but Brown ran out of gas in the bottom of the inning. The Chisox tallied three runs to go up 3-2.
In the 8th, Chicago got a 1-out single from Warren Newson. Looking for an insurance run, Newson took off on the next pitch. Another perfect throw from Rodriguez to second. Newson was out. The kid was 2-2 throwing out runners in his major league debut and looked to have a cannon for an arm.
Top of the 9th, White Sox still up 3-2. Bobby Thigpen walked Rafael Palmeiro, then gave up back to back bombs to Ruben Sierra and Julio Franco to put Texas up 5-3. Two outs later, with runners on 2nd and 3rd, the rookie stepped to the plate and hit a single on a 2-1 pitch to plate the final two runs of the game.
1-4 with 2 RBI and two runners caught stealing. That was the first time I saw Ivan Rodriguez play. 21 years later, Pudge will be honored today at Rangers Ballpark in Arlington and throw out the first pitch in his official retirement ceremony. Sometime in the near future, his #7 is bound to be retired (sorry, David Murphy).
Nolan Ryan was the first man to enter baseball’s Hall of Fame wearing a Rangers uniform, but much of his glory came before he even donned a Rangers uniform. Five or six years from now, Pudge Rodriguez will become the second man to wear a Rangers uniform to the Hall, but he’ll be the first to do so after coming through the Rangers system first before entering the Rangers dugout.
Pudge spent the first 12 years of his career with the Rangers and had a brief stint at the end of the 2009 season. With Texas he had a career .304 average with 217 Home Runs, 842 RBI, 81 steals, an MVP Award in 1999, 10 of his 13 career Gold Gloves, six of his seven Silver Slugger Awards, ten of his 14 All-Star Games berths and for his career caught 46% of all runners who tried to steal on him. That stat doesn’t even cover the number of runners he picked off first before they even had a chance to steal. He is baseball’s all-time leader in games caught.
Tonight he receives the first official thanks for a job well done. The next official one will be in Cooperstown.
Thanks for the memories, Pudge.