DETROIT -- Ivan Rodriguez was the superstar who led the Tigers' charge from worst to first in just three years. He needed only one year on the Baseball Hall of Fame ballot to get into Cooperstown.
For the first time in 37 years, a former Tiger will be inducted into the Hall of Fame on the writers' ballot. On Wednesday, Rodriguez became a first-ballot inductee by receiving 76 percent of the vote. Players needed to be selected on 332 ballots for induction; Rodriguez made it at 336.
Two of Rodriguez's teammates from his Detroit days received votes, but not nearly enough for induction. Gary Sheffield received 59 of a possible 442 votes, while Magglio Ordonez received just three votes. Carlos Guillen did not receive a vote. Players who receive votes on less than 5 percent of the ballots submitted are removed from future consideration on the Baseball Writers' Association of America vote.
Rodriguez punched his ticket as one of the best defenders to ever don catching gear, having earned a record 13 Gold Glove Awards over his 21-year Major League career. Combined with a quick swing and power bat during his peak years, his two-way play won him American League Most Valuable Player honors in 1999 in Texas, where he spent the first dozen years of his career.
"I just wanted to keep my defensive part of the game every day," Rodriguez said during a Wednesday evening conference call. "Being able to shut down the running and blocking and throwing guys out and trying to kill the other team's rally, I think that's one of the things that I feel most proud of. I know, offensively, I had a great career, but my main game was defense, and that's why I take a lot of pride in being a defensive catcher."
Yet as strong as his arm, as quick as his swing, Rodriguez will be forever remembered in Detroit for the stroke of a pen. His agreement to a four-year, $40 million contract in 2004 awakened a Tigers team coming off 119 losses the previous season. Rodriguez, coming off an '03 World Series title with the Marlins, brought instant credibility to a reeling franchise.
"They said, 'Why are you going to Detroit? They lost 119 games the year before, and you won the World Series,'" Rodriguez said in 2014. "I always told the media and my family, 'That's the reason I want to go.' Somebody had to start it."
Rodriguez started it, he said Wednesday, because the Tigers convinced him.
"During that offseason, we had a very good conversation with [then-general manager] Dave Dombrowski," Rodriguez said Wednesday, "and Dave told me and my agent, 'I promise you that I'm going to put a really good team together and in three years you're going to be in the World Series again.' And that's exactly what happened."
Other stars followed, including Ordonez, but Rodriguez was the heart of the team as it climbed out of the cellar to an AL pennant in 2006. Pudge provided individual stardom as the team experienced growing pains, reclaiming his All-Star starting nod behind the plate and keeping it for each of his four full seasons as a Tiger. He hit .500 for a full month in June '04, and he finished runner-up in the Home Run Derby at the All-Star festivities in Detroit in '05. He threw out more than half of the baserunners who dared to try to steal on him in '05 and '06, leading the league both years.
But when the Tigers charged out of mediocrity in 2006, Rodriguez's impact went far beyond the numbers. He was 34 years old, and he had transitioned away from hitting for power, but his belief that the Tigers could win never waned. His .300 (164-for-547) batting average ranked second on the team, but his strong arm, stronger will and instinctive pitch calling led a young pitching staff that included a confident rookie named Justin Verlander and a hard-throwing kid named Joel Zumaya.
"He's a winner," then-manager Jim Leyland said Wednesday. "He just came off a World Series not long before in Miami. He was a big influence. Everybody got on the same page."
Rodriguez is the first Hall of Fame inductee by the BBWAA to have played for the Tigers since Al Kaline was selected in 1980. A bevy of greats from the 1984 World Series champions have been bypassed in the interim, from perennial candidates Alan Trammell and Jack Morris to one-and-done candidates Lou Whitaker, Lance Parrish and Kirk Gibson. Their manager, Sparky Anderson, was inducted by the Veterans Committee in 2000. The veterans also selected third baseman George Kell in '83, Hal Newhouser in '92 and Jim Bunning in '96.
Unlike Kaline, who spent his entire career in Detroit, Rodriguez bounced around near the end of his career, traded to the Yankees in 2008 ahead of stops in Houston and Washington, as well as a return to Texas. He has been a presence around the Rangers in retirement, but he has returned to be justly honored in Detroit, including this past year during the 10th anniversary celebration of the 2006 AL pennant win.
"The city, the stadium, the ballpark, the uniform that I wore for five years -- I feel very, very honored to wear that English D for five years," Rodriguez said Wednesday. "For me, it was an amazing five years of my career."
His influence on the franchise lasted much longer.
"When people ask me where we started to climb from and started to turn the corner, there's no question it started on one very important day, heading into the 2004 season," former Tigers general manager Dave Dombrowski said during ceremonies honoring Rodriguez in '14.
"We're very fortunate this gentleman joined us. Once that took place and we got a chance to see one of the best players in [this] recent timeframe, that started the comeback for the Detroit Tigers."
Jason Beck has covered the Tigers for MLB.com since 2002. Read Beck's Blog, follow him on Twitter @beckjason and listen to his podcast. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.