- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 21, 2011

On a summer day in 1991, Jerry Hairston Jr. made his way into the stands at Comiskey Park. The starting catcher for his Naperville, Ill., high school team, Hairston’s interest was piqued when he heard there was a 19-year-old making his major league debut behind the plate for the Texas Rangers.

Ivan Rodriguez remembers the day well. Kevin Brown pitched, Rodriguez threw out two base runners - including current teammate Alex Cora’s brother Joey - and he drove in two runs with a ninth-inning single. He also recalls, with a smile, that the Rangers won and he caught the whole game.

Twenty years and one day later, Hairston reminded the Nationals catcher that June 20, 1991 was a day he remembers vividly, too: It was the day Hairston decided he may need to become an infielder if he wanted to make it to the major leagues. Rodriguez was that good.

“It was great,” Rodriguez said, sitting in the Nationals’ dugout Tuesday afternoon and thinking back to that day in Chicago.

“Sometimes, I sit with myself and start thinking about the career that I have, and it’s pretty amazing. It’s pretty good … I’m very happy with the career that I have. It’s not over yet. I still have plenty left.”

That might be an understatement for the future Hall of Famer, who entered Tuesday 161 hits shy of 3,000 with 14 Gold Gloves, seven Silver Sluggers, 14 All-Star Games and one American League MVP award to his name. He also has a 2003 World Series ring, won as a member of the Florida Marlins.

“It’s amazing,” said Nationals manager Jim Riggleman. “It kind of rolls off your tongue, 20 years in the big leagues, but that is amazing. Ten years is huge. How many players get 10? And he’s got 20. I don’t know how they do it.”

He joins a group that includes Willie Mays and Harmon Killebrew, along with the catcher for the White Sox that day, Carlton Fisk, as players who have spent 20 years in the majors. In his second game, Rodriguez caught the longest-tenured major leaguer in history, Nolan Ryan (27 years).

“It’s nice,” he said. “To be able to play 20 years in the big leagues is great. To be honest with you, that’s every player’s dream. Time goes by very quick.”

The day that Hairston witnessed Rodriguez’s youthful talent, George H.W. Bush was in his third year as the president, gas cost $1.14 per gallon and the New York Giants were the reigning Super Bowl champions. A lot has changed, but Rodriguez has a good idea as to why he’s been able to stick around as long as he has.

“When I came in back in ‘91, my goal was just to play hard every day,” Rodriguez said. “I never think that I’m going to play 10, 15, 20 years. I was taking it one game at a time. The only thing I was thinking about was the 100 percent effort I wanted to put in. That’s what I’ve been doing for 20 years.

“That’s what I always teach [young players I’ve played with since]. I put it in those young kids’ mind. It’s very important in this sport: You have to have discipline in yourself to keep yourself in good shape and play the game hard, 100 percent. You’re going to play for years. That’s the way I played. Today, that’s the way I play.”

Rodriguez is hesitant to put an expiration date on his career. He maintains that he feels good and loves to play - the only two things he needs to keep strapping on that catcher’s gear. A few more years, and he could play in the major leagues at the same time as his 19-year-old son, Ivan Dereck, who was drafted as an outfielder by the Minnesota Twins earlier this month. They will play together in the Puerto Rican Winter League this offseason.

“I’m just going to take it year by year,” Rodriguez said. “As long as I love what I do, I have the passion to play the game, I’m just going to keep playing.”

NOTES: The Nationals agreed to terms with 18 of their selections from the draft, the highest being fifth-round selection Matt Skole, a third baseman out of Georgia Tech. Two local products also signed: Erick Fernandez, a catcher from Georgetown, and George Washington left-hander Bobby Lucas, the 25th- and 27th-round selections.

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