Ballot 9: Ivan Rodriguez


Ivan Rodriguez

Played 21 years with six teams

Fourteen-time All-Star won 13 Gold Gloves and played more games at catcher than any player in baseball history. 68.4 WAR, 33.1 WAA

Pro Argument: MVP and good hitter who might have been best defensive catcher ever.

Con argument: PED rumors.

Deserves to be in Hall?: Yes.

Will get elected this year?: 75-80%.

Will ever get elected?: 98%.

* * *

"Only God knows."

-- Ivan Rodriguez on whether or not he tested positive for PEDs.

I have a friend ... was a big baseball player, back in high school. He could throw that speedball by ya, make you look like a fool, boy. Saw him the other night at this roadside bar ...

Oh, wait, sorry about that. Every time I start a sentence with "I have a friend," the words from "Glory Days" just come rushing out. It's an involuntary tick. Sorry. Let's start again.

I have a friend (was a big baseball player, back in high school ... OK, that joke got old fast). I have a friend who was not a big baseball player, who is not even American, who has an interesting theory about the rage surrounding baseball's steroid era. I don't exactly buy the theory, but I find it very interesting and provocative and timely relates directly to Ivan Rodriguez.

His theory is this: Most Americans don't care about steroid use at all. He insists on this part: People do not care AT ALL about steroid use. He says, "Hey, how could people care about performance enhancing drugs? In America, 60% of all adults use some form of prescription medication. In America, every third commercial on television is for a drug that you cannot buy without a prescription, a drug that is illegal to use unless you get it from a doctor, a drug with potentially horrendous, horrifying, life-altering side effects from dizziness to internal bleeding to depression to hallucinations to actual death."

You can't get more life-altering than death.

Some of these drugs, we all know, deal with terrible diseases, diseases so awful that any drug that can lessen the pain is worth whatever side effect might come. Some drugs, though, deal with somewhat minor diseases or aches or something else entirely Most of the commercials, let's be honest, push drugs that exist just to help people have sex. These, I've written before, are the very definition of "performance enhancing drugs." Estimates I've seen say that 25 to 35 million Americans use Viagra or Cialis or one of those drugs, by the way.

Anyway, back to my friend's theory: He says Americans don't care about steroids. He points to our rampant American drug use. He points to how hard Americans worked to defend and believe Lance Armstrong (and, let's be honest, it was only after it became clear how he grotesquely bullied his friends and critics that people did care). He points to how few people seem to care about steroid use in football.

"What people care about," he says "are HOME RUNS. What people care about are OLYMPIC GOLD MEDALS. What people care about are WORLD RECORDS. What people care about are very specific things inside sports that they see being ruined by steroid use."

In other words: He says the steroid fury is visceral. It's not about the drug, not even about cheating so much. It's about this anger we feel when our illusions are shattered. "That's why nobody really cared when Andy Pettitte admitted using HGH," he says. He says there is nothing about the way Andy Pettitte pitched that touched the PED nerve. Pettitte didn't throw 100 mph. He didn't win Cy Youngs in his late 40s. He didn't break any strikeout records. So he used HGH to recover from injury? Nobody cares.

Now, obviously, my friend makes a lot of generalizations. "People" do not think just one thing. There are plenty of people who ARE angry at Andy Pettitte, plenty of people who do care about steroids in football and so on.

But I think there is something to what he says.

I think you can see it in the way the BBWAA votes for Ivan Rodriguez.

There is no proof that Ivan Rodriguez used steroids, but I suspect most people think he did. There is enough smoke that just about every Hall of Fame story about Pudge out there makes at least some reference to it.

Headline: Manny Ramirez, Ivan Rodriguez on HOF ballot despite steroid cloud.

Headline: Ivan Rodriguez dogged by Suspicions at Cooperstown's Door.

Headline: Controversy Surrounds Ivan Rodriguez HOF Vote.

There are dozens and dozens more. Steroid rumors have long been part of Ivan Rodriguez's life and legacy. The evidence is thin, but of course it is. In his literary masterpiece "Juiced," Jose Canseco -- not the most trustworthy of sources, but still -- said Rodriguez used steroids. People around the game quietly and on background only nod. And Pudge's various denials about whether or not he used steroids have been tepid at best, including his famous "Only God knows" quote listed above.

But here's the thing: Pudge may have used steroids. But the headlines are wrong. Controversy does not surround his vote. He's not being dogged. There appears to be no cloud at all over the Pudge Rodriguez vote. According to Ryan Thibodauz's Hall of Fame tracker, which has more than 50% of the voters, Pudge is at 78.7% of the vote. I voted for him, so you can tick it up a tenth of a point or so. He might or might not get elected, it will be very close, but that's the point. It will be very close.

You might say: Well, without the steroid thing he would be at 95%. Maybe. But history suggests otherwise. Catchers almost never do well on their first Hall of Fame ballot. Only one, Johnny Bench, was ever elected. Carlton Fisk needed two ballots. Gary Garter needed five, Mike Piazza four. Bill Dickey was on seven ballots, plus a couple of couple of run-off ballots, before finally getting elected. Even Yogi Berra -- the ultimate baseball legend, a war hero, the most quotable star of them all, the most successful player in baseball history if you count the World Series rings -- was not elected first ballot.

Even if I-Rod doesn't make it first ballot, he will come startlingly close. And I think he WILL make it. It sure looks like in his case, for whatever reason, most people don't really care about his probable PED use.

"I'm not a homerunner," I-Rod once said when confronted with Jose Canseco's charges. "What was I going to use (steroids) for? To keep hitting doubles?"

In that one quote, you probably see the exact reason WHY so few people care about his PED use. It utterly fits in my friend's PED theory: I-Rod will not go into the Hall of Fame because he hit 311 home runs. That's a lot of home runs for a catcher, but it's not at the core of the Pudge Hall of Fame case. He will not go into the Hall of Fame because he played more games at catcher than anyone in baseball history. He will not even go into the Hall of Fame because he hit .316 over a decade in the prime of his life.

No, Rodriguez will go to the Hall of Fame because he was a defensive maestro, a base-stealer's nightmare, perhaps the most brilliant catcher in the history of baseball. There is a great legend about Rodriguez; he was apparently a pitcher while growing up in Puerto Rico. His father, as coach, made him a catcher ... because he was throwing the ball so hard that it frightened the other players. Anyone who saw him throw to second or whip a pickoff throw from his knees understands the story to be true. That Pudge arm was, for a time, the eighth wonder of the world.

It wasn't just the arm either. He did not field bunts so much as strike them, like a cobra. He was a joy for pitchers. He utterly controlled the game when he was behind the plate. In 2003, after injuries seemed close to ending his career, he signed with Florida and completely changed the entire team. He was behind the plate for Game 6 when a very young Josh Beckett shut out the Yankees, and it was clear the role he had played. Later he went to Detroit and that team went to the World Series too.

The mind does not naturally connect steroids to any of these remarkable talents -- leadership, baseball genius, defensive brilliance. I think this gets to the heart of why Rodriguez is doing so well in the voting. He may have USED steroids but, as the story goes, his excellence had little to do WITH steroids. That's how most choose to see it.

With Mike Piazza, you could draw a straight line from the rumors of his steroid use to the reason why he was a Hall of Famer in the first place -- hitting, power, long home runs.

With Ivan Rodriguez, it's harder to draw that straight line.

OK, another question: How good would Ivan Rodriguez's 2000 season been if he had not gotten hurt. You might remember, he was coming off his MVP season -- in 1999, he hit .332, slugged .558, scored 116 runs and drove in 113. Pedro Martinez really deserved the MVP that year, and if you were going to pick an every day player you probably should have chosen Derek Jeter, who hit .349 or MannyBManny who drove in 165 runs. But Pudge's year was still pretty darned good.

But I-Rod's 2000 season was going to leave no doubts whatsoever about his greatness. In just 91 games, he hit .347, slugged .667, smashed 27 homers, drove in 83 runs. It's a foolish thing to prorate that over 150 games ... so let's do it!

Rodriguez's 2000 season over 150 games: .347/.375/.667, 208 hits, 45 doubles, 7 triples, 45 homers, 109 runs, 137 RBIs, 399 total bases. That would have been, by far, a catcher's record for total bases.

Even so, it would not have been the greatest offensive season by a catcher -- it might not even have been in the Top 5. And this is because, while I-Rod certainly had some good attributes as a hitter (he hit for average, hit with some home run power) he had some significant flaws. He did not walk, for starters. In 2000, he walked just 19 times, 14 times unintentionally, and even prorated over 150 games that adds almost no value at all. He hit into a lot of double plays. And he got a lot out of his time and ballpark; his career 107 OPS+ is certainly good but it's not legendary.

My hope this year -- a hope I fully admit is unlikely to be fulfilled -- is that the five players who are on the Hall of Fame borderline all get in. I think it's pretty clear that Jeff Bagwell and Tim Raines will get elected, which is great. Ivan Rodriguez, as mentioned, is more likely than not to get elected. Vlad Guerrero and Trevor Hoffman are borderline.

I'd love to see them all get elected for various reasons -- one being that we could thin out the ballot a little bit so that voters don't have to leave off players they believe are fully qualified Hall of Famers. Two, I see no reason at all to make players wait when it's obvious that they will EVENTUALLY be elected into the Hall of Fame. All five of them will get elected, it's clear they will have the votes, so let's stop going through this every year.

But three, I think getting I-Rod and Bagwell in is another step to moving us away from the steroid era. Once players who are suspected of using steroids -- like Rodriguez and Bagwell, and you could probably throw in Piazza or anyone else you like -- are in the Hall, it's pretty likely that Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens will be elected.

Yes, I know some people will say that will be the end for them, they will stop caring about the Hall of Fame immediately if Bonds and Clemens get in. They might. But I can't help but wonder if the opposite is true. Once Bonds and Clemens are in, we basically will stop talking about them. They will just be flawed Hall of Famers, like so many other flawed Hall of Famers. The conversation will shift to new things.

I suspect that's what most of us really want.