- The Washington Times - Monday, April 23, 2012

In Mike Rizzo’s office at Nationals Park, only one jersey is displayed. Signed and framed, Ivan “Pudge” Rodriguez’s No. 7 adorns a wall. There’s a reason for that.

“He’s the first real free agent I signed as a general manager,” Rizzo said last week. “It’s no coincidence.”

Turns out, the two-year deal Rizzo signed Rodriguez to in December 2009 — a deal that was roundly criticized — was the last real one the 40-year-old will sign. Rodriguez announced his retirement Monday in Arlington, Texas, retiring with the Texas Rangers, where he spent the first 12 years of his All-Star, Gold Glove, Silver Slugger and MVP career.

It marks the end of a storied career, presents a strong case for the Hall of Fame in five years and makes Washington — a team that possesses one of the best catching corps in the majors — the final stop in his 21-year tour. Rodriguez began his career catching Nolan Ryan. He ended it in catching Stephen Strasburg.

“I’m walking out of the white lines,” an emotional Rodriguez said Monday, after thanking all of the organizations he played for. “But I’m always going to be in baseball for the rest of my life. You guys are going to see me around … It was a great run.”

The Nationals came in at the end of it. The two-year, $6 million pact Rizzo gave Rodriguez before the 2010 season was panned almost immediately. Rodriguez was 38, coming off a year in which he’d hit just .249 with a .280 on-base percentage. Some felt it wasn’t just his offensive skills that were eroding but his sterling defense as well.

His reputation as a lightning rod preceded him. And for every pitcher who loved what he provided behind the plate, plenty of others were skeptical he could be the mentor to a young pitching staff and young catchers the Nationals needed. But Rizzo didn’t see it that way.

“I remember we took a lot of heat for the second year of the deal,” Rizzo said. “But I knew what he was going to bring to the organization … The timeline was such where I thought we needed two years of Pudge to put things in place. What he did with Wilson Ramos and Jesus Flores was tremendous. In that sense, he meant a whole lot to us.”

Now, a few feet from where Rodriguez’s locker sat for two years in the Nationals’ clubhouse is the man who essentially took his job — the man he helped train to do so. Rodriguez was the Nationals’ starting catcher for much of 2010, the man behind the plate for Strasburg’s electric debut, but the acquisition of Ramos that July made it all but certain Rodriguez’s role would transition to that of a backup eventually. It was a conversation then-manager Jim Riggleman dreaded having with Rodriguez. And Davey Johnson, too, when Flores supplanted Rodriguez as the team’s backup. Rodriguez started just two games after July 6 last season.

“It could have been ugly,” Rizzo acknowledged. Instead, it was anything but.

Ramos grew up idolizing Rodriguez, who helped the 2003 Florida Marlins win a World Series with Ramos’ best friend, Miguel Cabrera, and his eyes light up at the mention of his former teammate now. Rodriguez has offered a room in his home to the 24-year-old, invited him to work out with him in Miami in the offseason and checks in with him often via text and the occasional phone call.

Nationals pitchers rave about Ramos’ game-calling abilities. He credits Rodriguez — a player not always as widely preferred by pitchers for that aspect of the game.

“Work hard behind the plate,” Rodriguez repeatedly told Ramos during their time together. “Know the pitcher, know the situation, know the hitter.”

“I have to say ‘Thank you,’ for everything he [taught] me,” Ramos said last week, surprised by the news of Rodriguez’s retirement, knowing how badly he wanted to reach 3,000 hits [he is 156 away] and his desire to play three more years in the big leagues.

“Maybe he wants to teach me more,” Ramos said. “I’m excited to get that.”

Rodriguez’s legacy will be left to those who debate Hall of Fame credentials, one that rages in particular for players whose careers reached their echelon during a time when performance enhancers were rampant.

Rodriguez’s 2,844 hits are more than any catcher in major-league history. His 311 home runs rank 118th all time, his 46 percent success rate against attempted base stealers is 15 percent higher than the major league average during his career. Johnson called him “arguably the greatest defensive catcher I’ve ever seen.”

Rodriguez’s final inning in uniform was spent catching Drew Storen, one of the youngest pitchers on the Nationals’ staff and perhaps the one Rodriguez had the most effect on. Their mutual affection was obvious with each save they collected.

After eight pitches, two strikeouts and a scoreless ninth in the Nationals’ final game of the year, Rodriguez squeezed Storen’s final pitch of the season and came out to congratulate the young closer. Storen put his right hand up for a high five. Rodriguez went in for a hug.

That was it.

Johnson didn’t need to see anymore.

“I’ve admired Pudge for a long time,” he said. “He’s a Hall of Famer.”

• Amanda Comak can be reached at acomak@washingtontimes.com.

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