After Roger Clemens's first start in the Atlantic League, the Associated Press sent across the wires a photo of him in the middle of his lumpy follow-through, pitching to an out-of-focus batter at the plate. The Hall of Famer, of course, had dropped in to pitch for the Sugar Land Skeeters; his opponents that day were the Bridgeport Bluefish.
The faceless blur in the Bluefish jersey is Bridgeport's everyday catcher, Luis Rodriguez. Atlantic Leaguers tend to fall into three categories. There are celebrity sideshows, like Clemens (and Jose Canseco and Rickey Henderson before him); there are marginal ex-major leaguers, like Bluefish outfielder Joey Gathright, who want one more shot at the bigs; then there are the lifers, like Rodriguez. He is 38 years old and has lasted 20 seasons in minor-league ball, the last five in Bridgeport. In that time, he has come close enough to the majors to have caught Clemens during a spring-training stint with the Blue Jays and to have struck up a boisterous friendship with Manny Ramirez, his former roommate. The AP photo is a nice summation of his career in baseball: a man standing in, on the blurry margin, while the lens locks its gaze on someone much more famous.
Rodriguez has stayed behind the plate for so long by being efficient and controlled. He rarely visits the mound and never removes his mask; when a pitcher gives up a home run (and there's been a lot of that in Bridgeport this season), he simply flexes his mitt up and down as if to say, "Calm down, it'll be OK." Rodriguez also keeps himself in incredible shape. Add that to a sly smile and it's easy to see why Bridgeport's female employees are always smoothing and adjusting their Bluefish polos before they approach.
Efficient and controlled is also how Rodriguez handles interviews. I talked to him one afternoon in Bridgeport's dugout, right after he'd pitched the first two rounds of batting practice, then hit in the third. Rodriguez grew up in Venezuela, in Charallave, a small town about 50 kilometers south of Caracas. With his parents and brothers and sisters, he lived in a squat cinder-block house with a leaky tin roof. But Rodriguez spent most of his time outside, anyway. "There was baseball all over," he said, "and I wanted to go the field every day."
Rodriguez was a small kid with a big arm, and that meant he played shortstop. Then one day he tried out for Charallave's top little league team. "The guy said, 'We only have room for a guy who can catch,'" he said. "So I say, 'I can catch.'" And he did, wearing a white T-shirt under his chest protector since every uniform had already been handed out.
The position turned out to be a perfect showcase for Rodriguez's arm, which was so strong he earned the nickname "The Machete." (In English, you say that guy's got a cannon for an arm; in Spanish, you say he's got a machete.) One person who noticed was Camilo Pascual, the Dodgers' famous international scout, and in 1991 he signed the 17-year-old Rodriguez for $2,500. "What I did was take my family to dinner," Rodriguez said, "and I bought everyone a pair of shoes. Then I told my dad, 'Buy some concrete, buy some blocks, let's build up this house.'" His dad's day job was making cinder blocks—it still is—and he got a good deal on the materials. It left just enough money for one more splurge: a plastic Christmas tree with lots of lights.
The whole family continues to live in that house, which now has a second story. But in 1992, Rodriguez left Venezuela for the Dominican Summer League. During his first year there, the Dodgers moved him back to shortstop; during his second, Wilton Guerrero bumped him to third. At that point, the Dodgers decided to make the Machete a pitcher, but he refused. "I like being in the field," he said. "I like being dirty." The Dodgers released him, and he returned to his parents' house until the Toronto Blue Jays called: "We're looking for a guy with an arm who can catch," they said. "Can you catch?"
And so, in 1994, Rodriguez came to America to play in Florida's Gulf Coast League. That's where he met the woman he would marry and have two kids with. It's also where he began working his way through Toronto's system, showing the skill set—a little average, a little power, a good eye, but most of all defense and game-calling and that right arm—that eventually got him to AAA. In fact, in 1998, the Blue Jays invited the 24-year-old Rodriguez to his first big-league spring training.
That was the year he caught Clemens, though it required some bad luck from Benito Santiago first. Santiago, who was Toronto's starting catcher, had gruesomely wrecked his Ferrari, and that meant Rodriguez got to catch the Blue Jays' best pitchers: Clemens, Pat Hentgen, Juan Guzman, Chris Carpenter, Roy Halladay. But near the end of spring training, the Blue Jays traded for another young catcher named Kevin Brown. It was Brown who got Santiago's roster spot, and Rodriguez soon found himself lost among Toronto's other, younger backstops—future big-leaguers like Sandy Martinez and Adam Melhuse and Josh Phelps, plus some more high draft picks who would ultimately flame out. At the end of the year, the Blue Jays offered Rodriguez a familiar choice: pitch or move on. Rodriguez's wife had just had their first child, and they needed the money, so he gave it a reluctant try. He threw 94 in his first bullpen session, then woke up the next day so stiff he couldn't brush his teeth. Pitching wasn't going to work, but someone in Toronto's front office mentioned that the Red Sox needed a catcher.
Rodriguez spent four years in Boston and earned a spring-training invite in each of them. He smiled when he recalls catching Pedro Martinez at his peak: "He says to me that first day: 'I'm working on fastballs in and fastballs away. My curveball is my best pitch. My changeup is my other best pitch.'"
But no other Boston memory measures up to Rodriguez's friendship with Manny Ramirez. In 2001, the first year of Manny's eight-year, $160-million contract, Rodriguez showed up for spring training with the other pitchers and catchers. "Manny was already there," he said. "He sees me and says: 'You look Spanish. You have a little afro, I have a little afro. Let's go hit.'"
Though they'd never met, the two quickly hit it off, getting in some long toss and alternating at the cages. They also talked, with Manny listening to Rodriguez's stories about Toronto, then telling his own about Cleveland. Eventually, Manny asked Rodriguez where he was staying. It was at a La Quinta Inn, with the other minor leaguers, and Manny offered to pick him up for dinner. On the way, though, they stopped to see Dan Duquette. Manny informed the Boston general manager that Rodriguez was going to live with him in his condo. Duquette refused, citing the team's policy about players not on the 40-man roster, but Manny was cunning. "This guy, he's like my brother," he told Duquette. "I know him for a long time." The GM continued to resist until an exasperated Manny asked: "What am I going to do, kidnap him?"
Manny and Rodriguez ended up living in the slugger's three-bedroom townhouse with another prospect, Izzy Alcantara. On the nights they didn't go out, Rodriguez would cook and Manny would do the dishes. On the nights they did, Manny insisted on paying for everything. "Whatever he bought for himself," Rodriguez said, "he'd buy me one. He liked crazy clothes, and he'd say, 'Give me two larges,' and then hand one to me."
Baseball took most of their time, but Rodriguez soon realized he had a problem: While Manny happily carpooled everyone to Boston's complex, he tended to be late. Really late. It got so bad that Jason Varitek pulled Rodriguez aside and told the younger catcher that he needed to stop skipping out on stretching. After some deliberation, Rodriguez confronted Manny: "I told him I can't be late all the time like you." Manny got up, walked over to the condo's table, and grabbed his car keys. "Don't drive this one," he said, jangling the keys to his black Impala. "Drive this one"—the white Mercedes.
At the end of spring training, Manny headed to Boston, while Rodriguez headed to the Triple-A team in Pawtucket. The catcher recalled: "Before he left, he said, 'What you going to buy your wife for Mother's Day?' I said I don't know. So he writes me a check and says, 'Whatever you buy her, buy it with that.'" Rodriguez protested—the check was well over $1,000—but Manny told him to relax.
The friends repeated their routine in 2002, right down to the ending: Manny in Boston, Rodriguez in Pawtucket. Then, in early May, Manny broke his finger sliding head-first into third. After a few weeks' rest, the Red Sox expected him to rejoin the big-league club. But Manny wanted to get some practice at-bats—and, truthfully, to see Rodriguez—and thus embarked on one of the most notorious rehab assignments in baseball history.
On Manny's first day in Pawtucket, the Red Sox called the ballpark three times to check on him. But Rodriguez had no idea Manny was even coming. When he walked into the clubhouse that day, early, as usual, he saw an enormous Red Sox duffel bag crammed in his locker. Then he heard Manny holler "Hermano!" and bound out wearing a pair of Rodriguez's shorts, a pair of Rodriguez's sneakers, and a shirt Rodriguez's wife had just bought him—and off of which Manny had decided to cut the sleeves. "His bag was full of clothes," Rodriguez said. "But what can you do?"
What can you do? That question hovered over Manny's time in Pawtucket. On that first day, he had arrived in a silver Cadillac and left it idling outside the clubhouse—assuming, presumably, that a valet would park it. Then there were the $15,000 diamond earrings. During one game, Manny decided (naturally) to slide head-first into third. The finger did fine, but one of his earrings popped out. "Oh my God," he told Rodriguez, "my wife got me these." The game paused while players and grounds crew crawled around the infield, looking for the diamond.
No one ever found it. Still, Manny loved Pawtucket, a place where the single weirdest thing he could do was fit in. While he ended up getting only three hits in 30 at-bats, he took extra batting practice every day and ran tons of wind sprints. He bought his fellow PawSox food—P. F. Chang's one day, Chick-fil-A the next. And he continued hanging out with Rodriguez, taking him and his kids, who were visiting from Florida, to see Spider-Man at the mall.
Rodriguez still keeps in touch with Manny and thinks most people misunderstand his old roommate. "I get mad when I hear the stories that Manny's a cancer. Those people didn't live with him. How do they know?" he said. "He's a good guy. He's a clown, but he's a good guy." Rodriguez also said that, after last fall's domestic-abuse charge, Manny has become productively religious: "He goes to church, talks to God, and wants to retire in the right way."
That retirement plan has gotten off to a slow start, but Rodriguez still believes in his friend. After the A's let him go, Manny returned to his Florida home, but he's still hitting, lifting, and throwing. Rodriguez even called him and said, "You want us to sign you? You can come to Bridgeport and hit." Manny just laughed, but Rodriguez thinks he'll try to catch on with a new big-league team next spring. "He sent me a picture last week," he told me, and before I could even ask he grabbed his iPhone and pulled up a full-body shot of Manny Ramirez at the gym, looking very sweaty and wearing a DayGlo orange shirt and a big loopy grin.
Rodriguez's stint with Boston ended up being a lot like his time with Toronto: solid play from him, seemingly pointless shuffling from the organization. To try and make sense of it, I tracked down another former Boston catcher, Steve Lomasney. There was a time when Lomasney, a local kid who turned down a Boston College football scholarship to play for the Sox, was the team's top prospect. Then in 2000 he took a line drive to the face and was never the same.
Today, Lomasney runs a baseball academy in Lawrence, Mass., and that's where I called him to ask about Rodriguez. "Ahhh, The Machete," he said, though his Boston vowels left it sounding quite different than Rodriguez's Venezuelan ones. "He was a good kid. Well, I shouldn't say kid since he was older than me. But Luis was friendly with everybody." According to Lomasney, Rodriguez made everything from bus rides to blocking drills more tolerable. "I remember him talking to me about being behind the plate," he said. "He showed me that with a fastball in the dirt you didn't pick backwards, but forwards, through the ball."
One of baseball's most daunting statistics is that 90 percent of minor leaguers never make it to the big leagues. But Rodriguez seemed to have it all—or at least enough to profile as the perfect backup catcher. Why didn't he get a chance?
"It had a lot to do with service time," Lomasney said, blaming Boston's pre-Theo Epstein front office. "One day made you a veteran-type guy in the eyes of the hierarchy." Those veterans included Varitek, of course, and Scott Hatteberg, who was slowly morphing into Moneyball's "catcher who couldn't throw." Later came Doug Mirabelli and, in a bizarre twist, a second chance for Kevin Brown. But while Rodriguez lasted later and later into March, he never got the call. In 2002, he was the final position player cut, with Duquette opting for Carlos Baerga instead. "Those guys weren't better than us," Lomasney said. "They just had more service time. There's no doubt in my mind that Luis Rodriguez could have caught in the big leagues."
But he never did—not with Toronto, not with Boston, not with St. Louis, and not with Detroit. He spent spring training with those last two teams, as well, giving him seven invites in all. But he never got a single MLB at-bat. In 2004, the Tigers signed Pudge Rodriguez for $40 million, bumping every catcher down a slot on the depth chart. Luis Rodriguez was getting too old for Double- and Triple-A, and once the Tigers released him he drifted to independent ball. He's been there ever since.
It'd be easy to interpret Rodriguez's career as a soul-crushing series of close calls and contingency. What if the Blue Jays hadn't drafted so many catchers? What if Varitek hadn't stayed so healthy? What if the Sox had found a taker for Hatteberg sooner rather than later? But while he's certainly disappointed he never made the majors, Rodriguez refuses to see it that way. "If it's not going to happen, it's not going to happen," he said. "I just want to be in the game."
One reason Rodriguez can be content is winter ball. He's played 14 years in Venezuela's top league, always as a starter, and that's allowed him to spend time with his family, to befriend big-leaguers like Bobby Abreu, and to make some serious money. One year, winter ball even let him upgrade his mom to a real Christmas tree. He bought it in Caracas for $150, then strapped it on his car and drove it to her house. "She didn't want to throw that one away," he said. "We were close to Carnivale in February and she still didn't want to take it down."
But the main thing for him was (and is) staying on the field. Most players tire of the minor-league lifestyle. Lomasney, for instance, retired back in 2006. "I started treading water a bit," he said. "I'd come home and my daughter didn't know who I was. And I was like, man, this is is tough."
Rodriguez made a different choice. As his kids got older, and his career began to stall, he and his wife started fighting. Rodriguez took a year off to try and work things out, but loading packages during the Tampa airport's second shift couldn't compare to catching. "That was not my profession," he said. "Baseball is my profession. I knew I wasn't going to quit." Finally, his wife told him to choose: baseball or his family. He chose baseball.
Now, several years later, Rodriguez lives in upstate New York with his new fiancée. They met in the friends-and-family section at a Yankees game—he was in Abreu's seats; she was with her father, a minor-league exec—and Rodriguez said her family's baseball background has helped the couple set the right expectations. During the offseason, he works in a Best Buy warehouse. "The manager of the store, he's a huge Boston fan," he said. "He sees my résumé, and he just hires me."
During the season, however, Rodriguez goes to the ballpark. He gets there at 10:30, long before Bridgeport's other players and coaches, and runs from foul pole to foul pole and back, 10 times in all. Then he soaks in a hot tub, for his hamstrings, and studies the opposing team's stats. After the game, he opts for a cold bath—though how cold depends on the interns' ambition, as they have to fetch the ice from concessions. (The ice machine in Bridgeport's training room has been broken for a while now.)
Rodriguez designed the regimen himself, and it works. The worst injury he's ever had came during that first spring training with Toronto, when he was breaking in a new catcher's mitt. The guy feeding the pitching machine was goofing around, and he dropped in a new baseball while Rodriguez was bent over. The Machete stood up just in time to take a fastball to the face. But he didn't have surgery on his newly broken nose until after the season—and after winter ball, as well.
Other than that, he's never let anything keep him off the field. I asked the Bluefish's trainer about this, and she chuckled and repeated the instructions Rodriguez gave her when he first showed up in Bridgeport, five years ago: "Don't come out on the field," he told her, "unless I'm passed out and bleeding."
The press box was standing-room-only on the day the Clemens sideshow came to Sugar Land, Texas. ESPN's cameras were there, too. There aren't many Big Games in the Atlantic League, games that are events unto themselves, but this was one of them. During warmups, Luis walked out on the field to say hello to Clemens, his old spring-training batterymate. "I said, 'Hey, remember me from back in '98?,'" Rodriguez told me. "And he said, 'There's been a lot of guys, and you Spanish guys all look alike'—you know, as a joke." Clemens never could place Rodriguez, but the two still hugged and wished each other luck.
Once the game started, Rodriguez's teammates went right after Clemens. "Everyone wanted to hit a home run on TV," he said. When he came up in the third, however, he took the first two pitches—a cutter, a slider—for balls. In Toronto, Clemens threw those same secondary pitches, but with a 97 MPH fastball. In Sugar Land, Rodriguez said, "It was the same, but he just throws 10 miles less. That's a lot less." With the count at 2-0, he knew a fastball was coming and hit it hard—but right at the diving third-baseman.
Rodriguez didn't get a hit against Clemens, much less a home run. But what did he get out of a game that must have felt like a circus? The same thing he always gets, he told me: a chance to play baseball. "For me it was like a normal day," said the man with more than 5,000 minor-league at-bats. "I'm always excited to play."
Craig Fehrman is a writer who lives in Milford, Conn. You can read more of his work at his website. His first story for Deadspin was about Jericho Scott, the youth-league pitcher who, as a 9-year-old, was supposedly banned for being "too good."