Richard Justice

Pudge unquestionably a Hall of Famer

Pudge unquestionably a Hall of Famer

Pudge unquestionably a Hall of Famer
Ivan Rodriguez made throws that took your breath away: laser-like throws to second base, snap throws to first. For a lot of us, his legacy begins there. When you went to see him play, you hoped to see one of those throws -- not a home run or a game-winning hit, but one of those amazing throws.

Other than maybe Ozzie Smith and Brooks Robinson, I'm not sure there has ever been a great player who thrilled fans more with his defense than his offense. Make no mistake: His defense sold tickets.

Rodriguez became a huge star in Dallas-Fort Worth. It was the things he accomplished on the field, but it was the way he did them. He played hard, played with passion and fans appreciated him. He became one of the faces of the franchise and helped the Rangers to their first three postseason appearances in 1996, '98 and '99.

He led the American League in throwing out basestealers nine times, including eight times when he got more than 50 percent.

But those numbers don't tell the whole story. For one thing, most bases are stolen because the pitcher isn't paying attention. For another, some teams stopped challenging Pudge's arm.

Opposing teams attempted 110 steals in Pudge's first full season of 1992 and 115 in his second. In his third and fourth seasons, those numbers were down to 77 and 94.

There was some flash to his game in that he knew he did something spectacularly well and loved showing off. His offensive numbers can be debated. Defensively, though, he had few peers.

Still, it's those offensive numbers -- a .296 career batting average, 1,332 RBIs and 572 doubles -- that'll probably get him into the Hall of Fame. (He's one of five players who batted at least .290 with 2,500 hits, 550 doubles, 300 home runs and 1,300 RBIs. Hank Aaron, Babe Ruth, George Brett and Barry Bonds are the others.)

Johnny Bench might be the only catcher with decidedly better numbers, but there are others in the conversation. Regardless of how Pudge stacks up on the all-time list, he was one of the great players of his era, which is the definition of a Hall of Famer.

He was a 14-time All-Star, including 10 selections in a row. His 13 Gold Gloves were three more than Bench won. He's first with 2,427 games as a catcher and fifth with 304 home runs. He batted .300 10 times and was named the American League Most Valuable Player in 1999.

He was a legend in baseball circles before he played his first Major League game in 1991. He was just 17 when he played his first professional game, and it wasn't long after that scouts began spreading the word. The Rangers learned his name long before they ever laid eyes on him.

He was in the Major Leagues at 19 and wasn't a great offensive player in those first few seasons. But his glove work, his throwing and his overall impact on games made him special even then. He made his first All-Star appearance at 20, and from that point on, evolved from very good into great.

In terms of credentials, there's no question he's a slam-dunk, first-ballot Hall of Famer. Unfortunately, it may not be that simple.

He's likely to lose some votes because he played in baseball's steroids era, and Jose Canseco claims to have injected him.

But Pudge never failed a drug test and was never implicated in any of the various criminal investigations. He wasn't named in the Mitchell Report and isn't known to be one of the 103 players who tested positive in the first year of the program.

He's not unlike Jeff Bagwell, who has definite Hall of Fame credentials, but hasn't been voted in because some voters suspect he used steroids. Whatever happened to judging a player by the facts?

Bagwell has steadfastly denied the charges, and like Pudge, he never failed a drug test or was implicated in a criminal investigation. As Bagwell once said, "Are you telling me that every player of my generation who did great things is under a cloud of suspicion?"

One answer would be that Bagwell was part of a union that strenuously objected to steroid testing and kept it out of the game until owners drew a line in the sand in the 2002 negotiations.

On the other hand, it's silly to believe that every player used steroids. Some voters seem to fear voting for a player and then discovering he used steroids.

My answer to that is, "So what?"

Let's judge players on what we know instead of what we suspect. If a Hall of Famer is found to have used steroids, his eligibility can be addressed at that time.

What if Pudge didn't use steroids? What if his 304 home runs were a product of hard work and plenty of God-given talent. To throw him in with the players known to have used is terribly unfair.

Or to make the matter even more complicated, what if he did try steroids for a time? What if they're responsible for only a small part of his success?

There's no easy answer, but the bottom line is that Pudge was (a) great player and (b) hasn't been tied to steroids in any credible way.

That debate won't be part of the story Monday in Arlington when Pudge will hear the cheers when he makes his retirement official and throws out the ceremonial first pitch.

Here's hoping he makes that first pitch from behind home play. It was there that he was so good. It was there that he began writing his legacy that will be celebrated once on Monday and hopefully five years later in Cooperstown.

Richard Justice is a columnist for Read his blog, Justice4U. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.