Pudge has his eye on 3,000
After 21 seasons, veteran catcher still has stuff left in the tank
There are 13 catchers in the Hall of Fame. These players -- from Berra and Bench to Cochrane and Carter, from Dickey and Hartnett to Ferrell and Fisk -- excelled at baseball's most demanding position. Eventually, Ivan Rodriguez will join that exclusive club, and when he does, he wants to do it with a special distinction.
"Three thousand hits," the man they call Pudge said. "That's the goal."
Just two months shy of his 40th birthday, Rodriguez plans on playing next year, maybe another year or two after that. Whatever it takes to reach that magic number. With two weeks left in this season, he was 158 hits away. He thinks the goal is manageable, although it may take some time.
"I've got a lot of baseball left in me," he said. "I'm always in shape. I will play winter ball. I can still play pretty good."
Rodriguez will be a free agent at season's end and does not seem to be in Washington's plans, where he has spent the last two seasons. Nationals manager Davey Johnson, planning for the future of the franchise, intends to use Wilson Ramos and Jesus Flores to catch the rest of the way.
"Pudge is a first ballot Hall of Famer," the manager said. "He can still play, but they need to play."
So Rodriguez, who has caught more games than anyone in Major League history, will probably go shopping for a team looking for a wise, old head -- a sort of catcher-coach. That's been his role lately with the young National catchers.
"I help him as much as I can," Pudge said of Ramos. "He's a good player. He has a good idea how to call a game. We talk a lot."
Like any smart, young catcher, Ramos takes advantage of the opportunity to pick Rodriguez's brain. There is plenty of knowledge locked in there after 21 Major League seasons. Pudge was the American League MVP in 1999, led Florida to a World Series championship in 2003 and owns 13 Gold Gloves and 14 All-Star Game selections.
But Pudge's priority now is those 158 hits. A long stretch on the disabled list with an oblique injury limited his opportunities this season. Still, he thinks he will be able to find a job some place.
"I don't have to prove anything," he said. "Teams know what I can do."
The resume writing will begin at season's end when Rodriguez heads for Puerto Rico to play winter ball.
"I'll play a few weeks in November, take a couple of weeks off and then play for a few weeks after that."
He will have a special teammate in winter ball. His son, Ivan Derrek, an outfielder, was a sixth-round Draft choice by the Twins last June. He played rookie league ball last summer and is headed next to the Instructional League, natural progress for a promising prospect. He is probably a few years away from a Major League chance. But, in the meantime, he will play on the same winter league team as his father.
"I am looking forward to that," Pudge said. "That will be the thrill of a lifetime. It will be fun."
Rodriguez is well aware of the father-son legacy set by Ken Griffey Jr. and his father, Ken Griffey Sr., when they played together with the Mariners. He also knows that they hit back-to-back home runs on Sept. 14, 1990, the first father-son combination to accomplish that feat.
So could big I-Rod and little I-Rod duplicate that accomplishment some day?
Rodriguez just smiled at that thought, mulling it over in his mind. He was thinking of another target, though, one he thinks about frequently these days, one no other catcher has ever approached.
"Three thousand hits," he said, repeating himself. "That's the goal."
Hal Bock is a freelance writer based in New York.
This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.