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Don’t Pudge An Inch

Richie Whitt, CBSDFW.COM
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ARLINGTON (CBSDFW.COM) – I hate that it’s there. But, oh yeah, it’s there.

It’s the elephant in the corner of Rangers Ballpark in Arlington. It’s the deafening whisper. It’s the asterisk, floating around Ivan “Pudge” Rodriguez’ legacy, threatening to land any second like a fly ruining a picnic.

With exactly zero apologies to Nolan Ryan, Pudge is the greatest player in the history of the Rangers. That isn’t even up for debate. But, unfortunately, his place in baseball’s Hall of Fame is.

Why? Because of his alleged use of performance enhancing drugs. Pudge played in Texas alongside known users such as Jose Canseco, Juan Gonzalez and Rafael Palmeiro. In Canseco’s infamous book Juiced, he alleges to have used steroids with Rodriguez.

But Pudge never tested positive. Never showed up on baseball’s dirty list in the Mitchell Report. And in the last five years, has never been directly attached to any wrongdoing. Considering his body and the way it suddenly shrank when random testing began, I’d bet a $1 Pudge juiced during his career.

And his only comment on the subject doesn’t exactly resonate as a resounding “No.” Asked in 2009 if he used steroids or if his name would appear on any PED list, Pudge shrugged, “Only God knows.”

We’ll live it to Peter at the Pearly Gates as to which list ultimate list Pudge might be on, but here on Earth it’s clear that rumors aren’t enough to convict him, or prevent him from baseball’s hallowed shrine. With so much concrete evidence on so many players (Barry Bonds, Alex Rodriguez, Palmeiro, et al), Pudge, relatively speaking, is squeaky clean.

Good. Because I want to believe Pudge’s unprecedented talent was in his DNA, not his syringe.

Number 7 – sorry, David Murphy – was back in Arlington Monday night to retire as a Ranger. Back where it all started in 1991. Flanked by his family and former agent Scott Boras and former teammates including Palmeiro, Pudge fought back tears during his farewell press conference, rode onto the field in a convertible and then – fittingly – delivered a “first pitch” not from the mound, but from behind home plate down to Michael Young at 2nd base.

“It’s a very hard day for me,” said Rodriguez, wearing a red tie and blue coat. “It’s been a great, great, run. Twenty one years has been beautiful. To see teammates of mine, thank you guys for coming. I want to thank the fans here from Texas and fans from all over baseball. Thanks to the all the organizations I’ve played with.”

The crowd stood. Even the Yankees emerged from their dugout to salute.

In a season that’s seen the Rangers jump to a franchise-best 13-4 record, Pudge trumped all the highlights.

“He was the best I’ve ever seen,” said Rangers’ manager Ron Washington. “He had the quickest release and accuracy I’ve even seen. He was the scariest guy to have back there when you were at first base. He could beat up with the bat big-time. He was a special catcher.”

While popular opinion is that Ryan is the greatest Ranger because of his milestones (300th win, 5,000 strikeout and 2 no-hitters) achieved in Texas, fact is that he only played in Arlington 5 years as a .500 pitcher who never led his team to the playoffs. Young and Gonzalez are better Rangers. And Pudge trumps them all.

Signed by the Rangers as a 16-year-old in Puerto Rico – where he earned “Pudge” as a stocky kid – Rodriguez rocketed through the organization and debuted in ’91 at age 19. I’ll never forget the first time I saw him gun down a base-runner – from his knees, as if to enhance his degree of difficulty in an attempt to make it a fair fight.

His resume reads like a legend: 13 Gold Gloves. 14 All-Star Games. MLB record for games caught. 7 Silver Sluggers. 3 Playoffs with Rangers. 1999 AL MVP. A World Series ring with the Florida Marlins. He hit .300 or better 10 times and had 5 years with 20+ homers.

But the two things I’ll most remember about Pudge: An arm that changed the way teams played against Texas, and a smile that transcended language barriers. One night at old Arlington Stadium he chased a foul ball near the stands and playfully “borrowed” a nacho from the lap of a stunned kid. He played baseball the way we all did as little boys – with passion. With a smile.

Only with a stronger cannon.

In an era when catchers threw out 31 percent of attempting base-stealers, Pudge nailed an incredible 50 percent. Only Johnny Bench might have been better defensively. Only Mike Piazza topped his offensive numbers. You can argue that Pudge isn’t only the greatest Ranger, but also baseball’s all-time best catcher.

Best of all Pudge, like the Mavericks’ Dirk Nowitzki and the Cowboys’ Emmitt Smith, is ours. Drafted by the Rangers, we witnessed his debut and helped raise him into a mature person and unparalleled player. He’s the Rangers’ first-born immortal player. He’s a local treasure.

“I’m walking out of the white lines, but I’ll always be in baseball,” said Rodriguez, who will likely find a place in the Rangers’ organization. “You guys will see me around.”

Here’s hoping he gets into the Hall of Fame on his first attempt in 2017.

Here’s praying that his legacy is as clean as his trademark throws were pure.

(©2012 CBS Local Media, a division of CBS Radio Inc. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)

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