Sarah's Take: Defense defined Pudge's career

Sarah's Take: Defense defined Pudge's career

Sarah's Take: Defense defined Pudge's career
Ivan "Pudge" Rodriguez retired last week after a 20-year Hall of Fame-worthy career. During the 1990s and most of the 2000s, baseball considered him to be the best defensive catcher in the Major Leagues. Although he has played for many teams, people will remember him as a Texas Ranger.

The native of Puerto Rico brought speed and superior defense when he reached the Majors in 1991 as a 19-year-old. When he made his debut with the Rangers, he became the youngest catcher in the Majors. The next season, he still was the youngest player in the Majors, and he finished fourth in the American League Rookie of the Year balloting.

Any time a catcher steals many bases, it is a rarity. In 1999, as an experienced catcher, Rodriguez stole 25 bases, and that year he won the AL MVP award. His amazing proficiency to throw out potential base stealers surpassed a 35-year mark. Throughout his long career, he possessed one of the strongest throwing arms for a catcher in Major League history.

Since Rodriguez played for the Rangers until after the 2002 season, he didn't receive as much media attention as he should have, but he did play in 14 All-Star Games.

Rodriguez's catlike reflexes didn't allow many passed balls and prevented many wild pitches. His quickness and his strong throwing arm that discouraged most basestealers from attempting to swipe a base enabled him to win 13 Gold Glove Awards. This is an all-time record for catchers.

Although many casual baseball fans often ignore defensive prowess of any position player, a team can't win with poor defense. Poor defense gives the opposition extra scoring opportunities, and baseball games are difficult enough to win that a team doesn't need to help the opposition at all. Catching is the most important defensive position on the field, because the catcher is involved with every pitch thrown in the game. Usually, the catcher relays defensive positioning messages from either the manager or the bench coach to his teammates. Having an excellent defensive catcher is a key to success for any team.

The catching position demands the most physical output from a player in baseball. The constant squatting requires strong leg muscles and puts unusual stress on knees, hips, and lower back. Catchers must be strong and durable, because the pitchers want to throw to the same catcher every time they enter a game. Catchers get countless foul tips and when they must block a ball in the dirt, they must sacrifice their body for the good of their team. During his career, Rodriguez averaged catching 120 games a season, and this is a lot for a catcher. Rodriguez was only on the disabled list three times during his career -- an amazing feat for any Major Leaguer, but for a catcher, it is almost unthinkable.

Although most baseball people don't think of Rodriguez being a good catcher to work with pitchers, he guided a young Florida Marlins pitching staff to win the 2003 World Series. Rodriguez earned the MVP of the NLCS. Although his teams often went to the postseason, he participated in the World Series just once.

Although people should remember Rodriguez for his extraordinary defense, he contributed to all of his teams' offense. He hit 311 home runs, fourth most by a catcher. He had a .296 career batting average, which is high for any player who participates in Major League Baseball for 20 years, but for a catcher, it is truly remarkable. He drove in 1332 runs. Seven times, he earned the Silver Slugger Award, given to the best offensive player at each position.

Rodriguez always looked like he enjoyed playing baseball. His smile would brighten any clubhouse. His teammates respected him for his hard work and knowledge of the game. Often he was a leader in the clubhouse, especially among Latin-born players. In 2009, Rodriguez represented Puerto Rico in the World Baseball Classic.

When Rodriguez retired last Monday in Texas, he threw out the ceremonial first pitch from behind the plate, and longtime Ranger Michael Young caught it at second base. Baseball will not have a better defensive catcher than Rodriguez for a long time.

Sarah D. Morris can be reached at This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.