DETROIT -- This year marks the 10-year anniversary of the 2006 Detroit Tigers team. Ten years since meaningful baseball came back to the city of Detroit. Ten years since Ivan "Pudge" Rodriguez fulfilled the promise owner Mike Ilitch made him two years earlier. Pudge now works for the Texas Rangers doing pre- and postgame segments for Fox Sports, but the sentiment for his old team, and the environment he fostered, remains.
There are no shortage of memories, but what stands out most in his mind, was where it all started. A record of 43-119. The worst in baseball during the 2003 season. There wasn't a player around who wanted to risk signing with the Tigers, and presumably for good reason. Except Pudge. The team simply stunk.
"I think the first thing that comes to my mind was when Mr. I and (then-general manager Dave) Dombrowski told me to come on board," Pudge said. "I remember, I'll never forget it, Dombrowski told me 'If you come on-board I'm gonna build a very good team for you, and in two years we are gonna be in the World Series.' And exactly in two years, in '06, we were in the World Series. It's hard to believe that it's been 10 years."
Someone had to take the chance. In doing so, the team, the city, and its fans became "home" for him. Without him, the team likely wouldn't have recovered in the same way. Even Pudge's own family didn't understand the logic behind choosing Detroit over other higher-profiled locations. For them, he was choosing the worst team in baseball with little chance of positive exposure.
But for Pudge, coming to the Tigers was about more than picking a team down in the gutter. It was a chance to lead a team put together specifically to win around him. His focus would be to lead the pitching staff entrusted to him, and drive them to win. The organization was giving him an opportunity to be secure in one location on a larger contract and there was no reason for him to turn it down.
At the time, Pudge was a rare acquisition given the team record and reputation, so Mr. Ilitch was closely involved during the process of bringing Pudge to Detroit. It was a gesture he greatly appreciated when the claustrophobic catcher had to undergo his routine MRI.
It took two years, but bringing Pudge to Detroit sparked a World Series-caliber team and 10 years of quality baseball. The team went to the playoffs four seasons in a row, made it to the World Series twice, and produced a Cy Young pitcher in Justin Verlander. The city to avoid became a prime location to sign a long-term deal.
So, it came as a surprise to Pudge when he was traded to the New York Yankees in 2008. He had been red-hot at the plate (May excepting) leading up to the trade deadline. But the team wasn't doing well that season and Pudge's contract was up at the end of the year. Trading Pudge to the Yankees required he waive his no-trade clause, which he ultimately did, to go to a team that was contending.
For a player who has never placed his offense as a priority, the 13-time Gold Glover set the bar high for how a catcher should perform both behind the dish and at the plate. Even now, fans are often remiss with the lack of offense at catcher and often the conversation goes back to either him or former Tiger Alex Avila's career-year in 2011.
Looking back on his career, though, Pudge admitted he would prefer to be remembered for his No. 1 MLB all-time games caught record (2,427), and the aggressive nature with which he played on the field. As he approaches eligibility for being in the MLB Hall of Fame, these are the qualities by which he hopes he'll be remembered.