There was a time in Puerto Rico, perhaps for the generation and its sons that came after Roberto Clemente, when to be a ballplayer often enough was to be a catcher.
So the posters on the walls of the bedrooms for the little boys and girls who would grow strong and clever, who would come to love the heft of the task, might have been of the great Sandy Alomar Jr., of Benito Santiago, of the Molinas three, of Javy Lopez and Jorge Posada and Ozzie Virgil and the best of them all, Ivan Rodriguez.
The island offered others. Orlando Cepeda, a first baseman, was a Hall of Famer. So, too, was Alomar’s brother, the second baseman Roberto. The outfielders Carlos Beltran, Bernie Williams and Juan Gonzalez. The second baseman Carlos Baerga.
There became, however, something about being a catcher, and being a catcher from Puerto Rico, and maybe that was the pride in being the next tough kid from the next tough neighborhood to take on the game’s toughest job.
When he was a boy in Puerto Rico, Christian Vazquez felt the pull of the game, and then of the position. His father saw it in him, and felt it too. One day, Rafael Vazquez handed his son a small box. In it was a tape for the VCR. When the screen lit up, there was Ivan Rodriguez, the famous catcher from Vega Baja. This is how to be a catcher, he said. These are the drills. This is the path. This is the sacrifice.
Years later, Vazquez reached into his locker. He tugged the sleeve of his Boston Red Sox jersey so it twisted on its hanger, revealing its number.
“That’s why I got 7,” Vazquez said. “Because of him. You know?”
On Sunday, Ivan Rodriguez will be inducted into the Hall of Fame. He played 21 seasons, caught nearly 2,500 games, won 13 Gold Gloves, threw out close to half the baserunners who dared to steal and had 2,844 hits, 311 of those home runs. He was an MVP once, a World Series champion once. For that, he will stand on a stage beside Jeff Bagwell and Tim Raines in a field, 1,800 miles and almost four decades away from the fields where he first clothed himself in armor.
When Pudge raises his plaque, there will be young men in major league clubhouses, in minor league dugouts, and boys and girls on the fields in Vega Baja and Vazquez’s Bayamon, some of them Puerto Ricans, some of them catchers, all of them proud, who’ll share in the gesture.
“So many will have a small piece of it,” Vazquez said. “Everybody feels a part of it. Same with Alomar when he went in. Everybody will feel that.”
Martin Maldonado, the Los Angeles Angels catcher from Naguabo, was a Benito Santiago man. Yet, to idolize one catcher from Puerto Rico, he said, was to idolize them all. So they chase the careers of Yadi, Bengie and Jose Molina, and of Santiago, and of Pudge.
“Because of them,” he said, “I think every player down there wanted to be a catcher. I think they say it’s the easiest path to the big leagues.”
The men in the gear likely know better. There is little easy in what they do.
“If you’re Puerto Rican and a catcher,” said Enrique Hernandez, the infielder/outfielder from San Juan, “people are going to look up to you. And of all the Puerto Ricans in the big leagues, there’s only been a handful in the Hall of Fame.”
Pudge will be the fourth, behind Cepeda, Clemente and Alomar. He is the first catcher, meaningful in an era that inspired so many others to the same.
Vazquez, for one. He saved that tape. Still has it. Hasn’t watched it in years, but it pleases him to know it is near. Like the number. Like the man himself.
“Everybody wanted to be a catcher then, in Puerto Rico,” Vazquez said.
“Now,” he said, “they all want to be like Carlos Correa.”
*** WHAT ELSE:
Kyle Schwarber since returning from the minor leagues: .238 batting average, .319 on-base percentage, three homers, three RBI, an .843 OPS, 12 strikeouts and five walks in 47 plate appearances. So, maybe, progress?
Zach Britton’s season has been a bit erratic, both in the trainer’s room and on the mound. Still, of course, he’s an attractive pitcher in a market desperate for relief pitching and particularly for a guy with high-end closing experience. He also won’t be a free agent until after next season. The prevailing opinion is Britton will either stay in Baltimore or move to the back end for the Houston Astros.
The Texas Rangers have fielded calls on Yu Darvish and Adrian Beltre. That, you know, and decisions on those players likely will run to Monday’s deadline. The club might move Jurickson Profar, still attractive to others after all this time. He’s still only 24. Also, there’ve been inquiries about Rougned Odor, whose offense has fallen off but is under a reasonable contract through 2023.
The Red Sox were under the impression Beltre would not be available at the deadline, but wondered if that would change should Beltre reach 3,000 hits. As of Wednesday morning, he was seven away. Meantime, 20-year-old Rafael Devers started at third base for the Red Sox on Tuesday night. He’d played in nine games over the Double-A level and 86 higher than A-ball, was excellent in those 86, and here he is. The move reminded some of 2013, when the Red Sox promoted Xander Bogaerts as a 20-year-old. He played out of position – at third base – on top of it. And then the Red Sox, with Bogaerts playing third and batting .296 in the postseason, won a World Series. All that said, the Red Sox acquired Eduardo Nunez from the San Francisco Giants anyway. He’s not Beltre. He’s also not a guy with half a season past A-ball. Maybe this means Nunez will be the Red Sox’s next third baseman, at least for the next two or three months. Maybe he’s a good platoon mate. We’ll see.
The Chicago Cubs have become a regular in this space, mostly because we couldn’t believe they were going to be so mediocre for so long, and therefore we continued to wonder whether the next series, whichever one it was, would bring the urgency.
Turned out the Cubs were just waiting for the first half to end, and it would have been nice if they’d notified us. They blew through the Baltimore Orioles, Atlanta Braves and St. Louis Cardinals out of the break. They were gifted four games against the Chicago White Sox. And now, starting Friday, they’ll be in Milwaukee, home of the Brewers, leading the NL Central since before Memorial Day. We must say no one watches the clock quite like a front-running, smaller-market team in July.
Anyway, here’s how it’s going to look at Miller Park this weekend:
Friday: Jose Quintana vs. Brent Suter
Saturday: Kyle Hendricks vs. Junior Guerra
Sunday: John Lackey vs. Zach Davies