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Pudge Rodriguez: Cash grab or not, his signing helped lift Tigers back to relevance

Ten years ago, a 32-year-old, unemployed catcher and a 43-119 team were on a collision course.

Jason Miller

Maybe he was just chasing the money after all. Maybe he was nothing more than a desperate player who was afraid he was about to price himself out of a job, so he told his agent to sign with Detroit before the Tigers came to their senses.

Maybe there wasn't a lot of nobility and it shouldn't be romanticized.

Regardless, catcher Ivan "Pudge" Rodriguez helped legitimize the Tigers franchise at a time when the mere mention of the organization elicited guffaws.

It happened 10 years ago.

Pudge was coming off a World Series championship with the Florida Marlins in 2003, a team that upset the mighty New York Yankees. Part of that upset was authored by a 20-year-old kid named Miguel Cabrera, who rocketed (pun intended) a homer off Roger Clemens in Game 4 to help tie the series, 2-2.

Rodriguez had signed with the Marlins in January 2003 after 12 seasons in Texas, a team he broke in with as a 19-year-old in 1991. Pudge was 31 and elected to sign a one-year deal with the Marlins, a risk at his age, considering the position he played -- and considering that the Baltimore Orioles had offered him three years for $21 million.

Florida nabbed Pudge for one year at $10 million. And he didn't exactly make the Marlins feel warm and fuzzy from Day One.

The Marlins won just 79 games in 2002, so it wasn't as if Rodriguez was chasing a ring. Rodriguez was further enticed by the Marlins' promise not to trade him during the year, and to not offer him salary arbitration after the season.

It was a one-and-done thing, shamelessly so.

But to his credit, the 1999 American League MVP took his catcher's wares to Florida and gave the Marlins a solid season in 2003, batting .297 with 16 homers and 85 RBI. And the risk paid off for him, as the Marlins shocked baseball by winning 91 games and making it to the World Series as a Wild Card.

In the Fall Classic, Pudge and Company took the Yankees down in six games, winning the whole enchilada at Yankee Stadium with a 2-0 win.

The one-year deal fulfilled, his first World Championship in his hip pocket, Pudge was again a free agent, by design.

Meanwhile in Detroit, Tigers fans in 2003 wondered if their team was going to break the 1962 New York Mets' record for losses (120) in the modern era.

At one point the Tigers were 80 games below .500 (38-118). They had to play their butts off to finish the season with a 5-1 spurt to avoid lapping the Mets in the record book.

Still, 43-119 wasn't met without derision.

It's almost unfathomable, even for those of us who witnessed it first hand, to imagine that a non-expansion team could lose 119 games. But the Tigers did, stinking like garbage on a hot day.

When Josh Beckett tagged out Jorge Posada to clinch the Marlins' second world championship in their 11-year existence, the 43-119 Tigers and the World Series champion Pudge Rodriguez were on a collision course, even if neither of them knew it.

The Tigers needed a star player to rebuild around. Pudge needed a team. His risk in taking the one-year deal with Florida would end up rearing its head.

The offseason moved along, Pudge still unsigned. The Marlins made some overtures but nothing came close to being serious.

The calendar flipped to 2004 and for Pudge, it must have felt like déjà vu. Here he was once again, unsigned and worse, a year older. A 32-year-old catcher who wanted a multi-year deal, Pudge found out, wasn't terribly enticing to big league clubs, regardless of his above-average offensive numbers.

The Tigers began to be rumored as being a potential Pudge suitor, sometime in mid-January, 2004.

When the Tigers' interest proved to be serious, and when Pudge seemed to be reciprocating that interest, his manager in Florida, Jack McKeon, publicly dissed the Tigers and urged his former catcher to seriously re-consider any notion of signing with Detroit.

But it was February and only one other team, the Chicago Cubs, was rumored to have even the slightest interest in inking Rodriguez for anything longer than two years.

Tigers GM Dave Dombrowski threw four years, $40 million at Pudge, and agent Scott Boras leaped at it.

The deal was signed on February 6, 2004, just a couple weeks before spring training.

At the presser, Pudge spoke of the AL Central and did some dissing of his own. He wasn't very impressed with the competition.

"I look at the division and I feel like it's there for the taking," Rodriguez said, words that I'm sure went over big in Chicago, Kansas City, Cleveland and Minneapolis.

Dombrowski, who started the Tigers' climb from the abyss earlier in the offseason by signing free agents Fernando Vina (2B) and Rondell White (OF), smiled like a Cheshire Cat when Pudge held up his brand-new Tigers jersey with RODRIGUEZ stitched on the back.

Did Dombrowski know something that no one else -- including Jack McKeon -- knew?

Rodriguez was everything the Tigers could ask for: he was a big name, he played arguably the most important position on the team and he was returning to the American League, whose pitching he had torched while playing for Texas.

And, let's face it, Pudge got people talking about the Tigers again, and in ways other than in jokes. No doubt he sold some tickets, too.

He sure sold some in June.

In that month, Rodriguez, swinging the bat like a man possessed, batted an even .500. For the entire month. He was the league's Player of the Month, and it probably was unanimous.

Pudge finished his first year in Detroit with a blistering .334 average, 19 homers and 86 RBI, playing 124 games behind the plate for the Tigers, who improved to 72 wins.

Two years later, Pudge was back in the World Series with the Tigers. Jack McKeon's feelings about that, sadly, were never recorded for posterity.

Pudge's signing in 2004 begat more fortune for the Tigers as their resurgence continued in subsequent years. Maybe if Pudge doesn't sign, the Tigers don't sign Magglio Ordonez the following year. Maybe Kenny Rogers doesn't come aboard one year after that.

Some have glorified Rodriguez's decision to sign with Detroit, crediting him with giving a storied franchise its dignity back.

But let's face it; Pudge didn't come to Detroit out of charity. He saw spring training on the horizon and only two teams willing to sign him for longer than two years. And the Cubs' interest has never been tested for its seriousness.

No matter. Regardless of his motive, Ivan Rodriguez did indeed legitimize the Tigers when so many baseball folks -- not just Jack McKeon -- roasted Pudge for his decision.

Was it a cash grab? Probably. But Pudge was 32 years old, on the older side for a catcher but not so much for a player of his caliber, in general. He knew he had a lot of baseball left in him. He played hard for the Tigers. He gave a crap.

In a blue collar, shot-and-beer town like Detroit, that's all the fans really want anyway.

Just ask Prince Fielder.