Growing up idolizing Clemente inspired catcher to excel
By Joe Posnanski
Some years ago, I was in Manati, Puerto Rico, and I watched Carlos Beltran take batting practice on a high school field. In between pitches, he was trying to explain what it was like growing up as a baseball player in Puerto Rico.
"The first gift I got," Beltran said, "was a ball and a bat.
"I grew up," he said, "hearing stories about Roberto Clemente.
"And my hero, when I got to the Major Leagues," Beltran said, "was Ivan Rodriguez."
There are four players in the Hall of Fame from Puerto Rico. Pudge Rodriguez just became the fourth -- and the first one elected on the first ballot. Clemente was, of course, the first in; he was elected on a special ballot after his tragic death. Orlando Cepeda was elected by the Veterans Committee in 1999. Roberto Alomar was elected five years ago.
In time, Edgar Martinez will likely join them. Beltran might join them. Yadier Molina might join them. Bernie Williams and Carlos Delgado and Juan Gonzalez fell a bit short of the Hall of Fame line, but they're awfully close. Young Puerto Rican players like Francisco Lindor and Carlos Correa and Javier Baez promise to become some of the biggest stars in the game.
It's not bad for an Island with roughly the population of Connecticut.
And that success is because baseball is a way of life in Puerto Rico -- and not just any kind of baseball. Everyone who grew up playing ball in Puerto Rico in the past 40-plus years will tell you just how much Clemente still means. He died on the last day of 1972. But Clemente still lives in Puerto Rico because the dream that thrives in young players is simply this: Play like Roberto.
That means doing everything well. What couldn't Clemente do? He hit. He ran. He threw -- nobody threw like Clemente. He fielded like a dream. He slammed balls over fences and off them. He played hard. He rose to the occasion. To grow up playing baseball in Puerto Rico, as Beltran and so many others have said, is to grow up with the dream of doing everything well. Like Roberto.
Rodriguez was less than 2 years old when Clemente died, but he still grew up with that dream in his mind, day after day. When he was very young, he wanted to play in the infield or outfield. Rodriguez's father saw that arm of his and determined that Ivan would become a catcher. The young Pudge had absolutely no say in the matter.
"I immediately started crying," he wrote in The Players' Tribune. "I didn't want to catch. … He said, 'You can cry as much as you want, but you're gonna catch from now on.' I was 8 years old. I cried for 15 minutes. But from that point on, I was a catcher."
Rodriguez grew to love catching … and that arm his father saw developed into what is probably the greatest throwing arm in the long history of Major League catchers.
Rodriguez told a funny story Thursday at the Hall of Fame news conference. He was sitting next to fellow Hall of Fame inductee Tim Raines, and Raines was saying that he played in Rodriguez's first game, which is true. Pudge's Rangers played Raines' White Sox on that June day in 1991. Rodriguez was 19.
"He didn't really say anything," Raines said.
"You don't remember, but I told you something in Spanish," Rodriguez said. "I said, 'I've got a good arm. Don't try to steal on me.'"
Rodriguez wasn't kidding -- that first game, two Chicago White Sox players tried to steal. Pudge threw them both out. The White Sox, Raines included, didn't try to steal on him the next two games. Few would try to steal off Rodriguez. Why bother? He threw out more than half the players who tried to steal on him in eight seasons.
When listing the greatest arms for fielders in the history of baseball, Pudge's arm and Clemente's arm would both be on the list. Well, then Pudge … like Clemente … like Alomar … like Molina … like Beltran … like Lindor, controlled games with his defense. The legacy of great defenders from Puerto Rico staggers the mind.
Puerto Rican players have won more than 50 Gold Gloves. Rodriguez has the most for catchers, Clemente the most for outfielders, Alomar the most for second basemen.
Rodriguez hit, too. No, he was not the hitter Clemente was, but he was of the same style -- lots of line drives, lots of balls into the gaps. Rodriguez hit double-digit home runs for 15 straight seasons, and his 572 career doubles is far and away the most for a catcher. He swung freely, just like Clemente did; both looked at walks as wasted opportunities. And while I-Rod couldn't run much -- they didn't call him Pudge for nothing -- he still managed to steal 25 bases one season.
A fun statistic: In 1999, Rodriguez stole those 25 bases. That same year, he allowed the entire league to steal 34 bases.
We could be beginning a golden era for Latin American Hall of Famers. There are only eight in the Hall of Fame now, not counting Rod Carew, who was born in Panama, but went to high school in the United States.
Pedro Martinez, from the Dominican Republic, went in two years ago, Pudge this year. Dominican Vladimir Guerrero fell just 15 votes short this year and will likely be elected next year. Edgar Martinez, who was born in the U.S. but moved to Puerto Rico when he was young, has a chance to get elected in the next couple of years. Panama's Mariano Rivera will be elected on his first ballot. Johan Santana and Omar Vizquel, both from Venezuela, have their Hall of Fame supporters. Dominican David Ortiz comes on the ballot in five years. Beltran will have a shot when and if he ever retires.
Each of those countries has their own particular baseball character, their own particular baseball style.
The style of Puerto Rico, as Beltran told me, is to play complete baseball, to follow in the footsteps of the icon, Clemente.
When asked about that, Rodriguez smiled. "To come from Puerto Rico," he said, "is to play in a way that would have made Roberto Clemente proud."
And when asked how Puerto Rico shaped his baseball game, he quietly said, "In every way."
Joe Posnanski is a No. 1 New York Times best-selling author, an Emmy Award-winning writer and has been awarded National Sportswriter of the Year. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.