Tiger turnaround started at catcher

Pudge's signing two years ago brought Detroit credibility.
DETROIT (AP) -- The Detroit Tigers have relied on every player to reach the World Series for the first time in more than two decades.
Yet the Tigers' turnaround, just three years removed from an AL record 119-losses, doesn't seem as if it would have been possible without Ivan Rodriguez.
When Rodriguez -- arguably the best all-around catcher in baseball history -- signed a 40 million, four-year contract in 2004, it surprised the baseball world.
First, it struck many as odd that Rodriguez would go from being the MVP of the NL championship series and helping the Florida Marlins win the World Series to playing for the laughingstock of the majors.
Second, it seemed strange that the Tigers would pay many millions more than any other team was willing to for an aging catcher in the twilight of his career.
Nobody is raising those same questions now about the bold move made by Tigers owner Mike Ilitch, just a few days away from Detroit's first World Series appearance since winning it in 1984.
"Mr. Ilitch gave me the opportunity to come here and he told me he was going to put a good team together," Rodriguez said. "And, he did it."
Pieces of the puzzle
Magglio Ordonez, who hit the AL-pennant clinching homer against Oakland last week, signed a year after Rodriguez. Pitchers Kenny Rogers and Todd Jones followed the rebuilding effort last winter.
"Signing Ivan Rodriguez, without question, was huge for us because it represented the start of what we've done by coming back as an organization," Tigers general manager Dave Dombrowski said. "Whenever you can add a future Hall of Famer, it can only help you."
Teams were scared away from Rodriguez's age -- 32 when he signed -- and by a back problem that put him on the disabled list in 2002 and 1992, when he was playing for Texas in his first full season in the majors.
Those fears have been unfounded.
He hit .334 in 2004 and after a down season last year, with a divorce contributing to his struggles, Rodriguez hit .300 this season for the 10th time in his career and broke a record with his 11th All-Star start.
More importantly for the Tigers, he led all catchers by throwing out 45.7 percent of runners trying to steal and helped get the most out of a pitching staff relying heavily on two rookies: Justin Verlander and Joel Zumaya.
Helping pitchers
"I have total faith in his pitch-calling behind the plate," Verlander said. "It's hard to say how much he's helped me this year, but I know he has a lot.
"There are catchers that are great behind the plate, but can't hit a lick, and there are catchers that can hit, but aren't as good defensively. He gives you the best of both worlds."
The sure-handed and strong-armed Rodriguez has 11 Gold Gloves, one more than any other catcher in baseball history, and likely will pick up his 12th after his best season behind the plate in years.
His accomplishments behind and at the plate have put him in elite company. Rodriguez, Willie Mays and Roberto Clemente are the only players in baseball history with at least 11 Gold Gloves and a career .300 batting average.
"He's got so many gifts, plus he works hard and has sharpened his gifts," Jones said. "It's not like he just rolled out of bed and went to the big leagues.
"He might be one of those guys that just has that type of body that can weather years and years of abuse behind the plate."
Copyright 2006 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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