Ivan "Pudge" Rodriguez, who finished his Hall-of-Fame-worthy career with two years in the nation's capital catching for the Washington Nationals, made his MLB debut at 19 in 1991, three years after he signed with the Texas Rangers as a 16-year-old amateur free agent out of Puerto Rico in 1988. In his second major league campaign, the then-20-year-old catcher made the first of fourteen career All-Star appearances after a first half of the season with the Rangers in which he put up a .278/.323/.435 line with seven doubles, eight home runs and 28 RBI's in 63 games and 229 plate appearances. The second half of that 1992 season didn't go as well for Rodriguez, as he posted a .242/.276/.289 line with nine doubles, but no home runs in 60 games and 225 plate appearances to finish his first full MLB campaign at .260/.300/.360 with 16 doubles, eight home runs and 37 RBI's in 123 games and 454 PA's.
So what does the catcher who went on to play 19 more seasons in the majors in a career that will likely earn him induction into the Hall of Fame think about 19-year-old Washington Nationals' outfielder Bryce Harper making his first All-Star appearance after a half of a season in the majors in which he's put up a .282/.354/.472 line with 15 doubles, four triples and eight home runs in 63 games and 277 PA's?
"I'm very happy for [Harper]," Pudge Rodriguez said in an interview this morning from Kansas City, Missouri, "We knew that he is a very special kid, a very special player and I'm very happy for him that he's already in the All-Star Game at such a young age. I think the talent is there. He proved that he can play at this level at such a young age, and look at [him], he's already in the All-Star Game at 19-years-old. He's a great kid, he plays the game hard and when you play the game hard good things are going to happen. And there you go, good things are going to happen, he's in the All-Star Game and participating and being in the clubhouse with all those superstars."
As for what advice he'd give Harper if he got a chance to speak to him in Kansas City this week, Rodriguez said simply, "Keep doing what he's doing, and don't do anything different. Just play the game like he always plays and basically, nothing, he's doing a great job. I think if you're in the All-Star Game it's because you did pretty good for the first-half, so you need to do the same [thing] in the second-half and end up having a great year."
Rodriguez signed a 2-year/$6M dollar deal with Washington in December 2009 and played his final two major league seasons in the nation's capital as the Nationals finally started to turn things around under D.C. GM Mike Rizzo and later Davey Johnson's guidance. The catcher who was able to win two World Series Championships and make four postseason appearances total over the course of his twenty-one year career, said he saw signs of the Nationals turning it around when he was in Washington, so he's not surprised at the first half the team has put together, which has them 49-34 at the break in first place in the NL East.
"When I got there I knew that the team was going to be a very, very good team very soon," Rodriguez explained, "and they're proving it right now. They have a great pitching staff, they have great, great players and play the game hard and when you do that, you're going to win a lot of ballgames and that's what they're doing right now."
After the Nats' success in the first half of the season, the question of whether or not the team will eventually shut right-hander Stephen Strasburg down when he reaches the limit of what they think he can do in his first full-year back following Tommy John has once again come up in the press with writers, radio and tv analysts and players publicly wondering whether or not Nats' GM Mike Rizzo will follow through on what he's said he plans to do. Just last week in an appearance on the MLB Network, the Nationals' general manager reiterated his position, but even Rodriguez, who has a good relationship with the former GM who signed him to his final contract in D.C., expressed some skepticism about the team following through with the plan.
"I think that all depends [on] where the team [is] going to be at the end of the year," Rodriguez said, "My opinion, they're not going to shut him down if the team is in the race at the end of the year. I think this all depends on him. I know him, he's a very competitive kid and player and I think if you see the team in the pennant race at the end of the year he's going to ask the team to continue to let him pitch. I think he works hard. I've seen him, the way he works, he's a workaholic, so I think he's going to be fine. Let's see what's going to happen with the team in the second-half. I think the team [is] going to have a great second half too with the pitching staff that they have, with the relief pitchers that they have and now the offensive team that they have. So, I think good things are going to happen, but we have to wait until the end of the season, like in September, late-September, so I think if the team is in the race, they're not going to let him shut it down, they're going to let him keep pitching."
Rodriguez had only good things to say about the time he spent in the nation's capital with the Nats. When he officially announced his retirement, Mike Rizzo wrote a letter to the catcher in which he thanked Pudge for the role he played not only in the GM's career, but in the development of the pitchers and teammates he worked with during his two seasons in D.C. Pudge Rodriguez was equally impressed with what he saw from the general manager during his time in Washington. "Mike is a very professional guy," Rodriguez said, "And a very nice guy. We talked a lot about baseball and I appreciate everything that he did for me."
"I think he's one of the best GM's in baseball," the catcher continued, "That knows how to take care of the players. He's always around talking to the players in batting practice, being very friendly with all the players, and being in the clubhouse. When you have a GM like that it makes playing the game easier and better because you have a GM that is going to back you up 100% and he's one of them. So, he's a great guy, great person, a very humble guy and he's doing a great job for the Nationals right now, bringing all those young, superstar talents into the organization and you can see the changes right now. They're in first place and they're doing a great job."
Rodriguez is in Kansas City this week to participate in the All-Star festivities before Tuesday night's 2012 edition of the mid-summer classic and also to promote his participation in Head & Shoulders' "Mane Man Competition" which pits him against the Yankees' Nick Swisher and Hall of Fame closer Dennis Eckersley in a series of odd competitions and a virtual campaign to find the next Head & Shoulders' "Mane Man." Asked if he enjoys doing this sort of thing and staying involved in the game and whether or not he plans to return to the game as a coach or a manager at some point in the future, the 40-year-old catcher said he's just relaxing now and spending time with his family, but one day it's possible he'll get back in the game.
"It's been fun being involved in this. The promotion that we are doing is fun and competing with two great gentlemen, Mr. Eckersley and Swisher is great. We have a blast. The things that we did and all the competition that we did is fun." As for potentially coaching, Rodriguez said, "It could be possible. Right now I'm spending quality time with my family. So I look forward to this, for a little bit, and doing other things. But baseball is something that is going to be with me for life and definitely I'm going to be involved doing baseball and either work for an organization or who knows, maybe later on I'll be coaching somewhere."
For now, Rodriguez is participating in the MLB FanFest, the All-Star festivities and the Head & Shoulders campaign and remaining part of the game in any way he can. Check out the videos he's done on YouTube and check out the promotion's FaceBook page.