Somewhere at Yankee Stadium in the cool October night, a boy waited for a promise to be kept.
His father had made the pledge before the playoffs.
PUDGE BY THE NUMBERS
.375 -- Batting average with runners in scoring position last year for the World Champion Florida Marlins. Suffice it to say: Pudge is clutch.
3.82 -- ERA of Marlins' pitching staff in 2003 with Rodriguez catching.
4.80 -- ERA of Marlins' pitching staff without him.
10 -- All-Star appearances, Gold Glove awards and seasons with a .298 batting average or higher.
45.2 -- Career percentage of base runners caught trying to steal.
1,132 -- Innings caught last season, most since his MVP season in 1999. Despite being a 31-year-old catcher, he did not go on the DL all season.
"If we win the World Series, we're going to walk around the bases, and we're going to get down on our knees and pray," the father said.
Now, with the stands emptying and the clubhouse rollicking, the youngster sought out his father to remind him.
For the father, catcher Ivan (Pudge) Rodriguez, the night was still a blur of tension, heroics and disbelief. But it really happened. The Florida Marlins had won the World Series. Defeated the New York Yankees, four games to two.
Had a beautiful ring to it, almost as wonderful as his son's voice.
"Let's go out," said 11-year-old Dereck Rodriguez.
The father grabbed his son's hand and headed onto the field to walk the bases. They stopped at each one, bending down to kiss the residue of a dream fulfilled. First to second, second to third, third to home.
When they finally reached home plate, they knelt one last time, kissed the plate and prayed.
There are other stories. But for Rodriguez, that was it.
His best moment in baseball. Probably ever.
You know this because he has just lifted his pen and pivoted slightly to his left, temporarily halting the stream of fans awaiting his autograph to look you straight in the eye. He is 15 minutes into a 45-minute signing session with his new teammates in the concourse at Marchant Stadium, the Tigers' spring training home in Lakeland, Fla.
The line of well-wishers stretches along a folding table, then makes a hard right and juts straight out, forming an L -- the first letter of the word that represents the Tigers' recent past (119 losses in 2003), but not their future if their biggest catch in more than a decade has anything to do with it.
"Mr. Ilitch is tired of losing," Rodriguez said of owner Mike Ilitch, whose club has produced one winning season since he took over nearly 12 years ago. "He wants to put a good winning team together, little by little. I think he's going to get there."
Since Rodriguez arrived in Detroit, signing a four-year contract worth $40 million Feb. 2, he has been lauded as the most important free-agent signing in club history.
Certainly of the Ilitch era.
The two met for the first time in January, shaking hands in a doctor's office off M-59 and Dequindre Road. Pudge had arrived for a day with his wife, Maribel, on a private jet sent by Ilitch as the deal drew closer.
The Tigers had been a game away last season from tying baseball's modern record for futility, and Ilitch clearly had seen enough.
After obtaining shortstop Carlos Guillen in a trade with Seattle in early January, Tigers president and general manager Dave Dombrowski received a call from Ilitch.
"Well, now what about the catcher Rodriguez?" Ilitch asked, referring to the 10-time Gold Glove winner and likely Hall of Famer.
Dombrowski replied: "If we're going to take those steps forward, let me, before I answer that, I'd like to do some homework."
Like many fans, Dombrowski could recall the superlative moments from Rodriguez's outstanding postseason with the Marlins as if they were clips from an Oscar-winning movie.
"The big tag play against San Francisco, for the last out on a throw from (Jeff) Conine," Dombrowski said. "No question he was going to block the plate."
Dombrowski remembered another night, when he was out to dinner with his wife and a few friends at Mitchell's Fish Market in Birmingham.
"I kept sneaking over to watch the game in the bar area," he said of Game 3 of the Marlins' first-round playoff series against the Giants. "And I remember thinking, 'He keeps getting one big hit after another.'
"All of those moments were stuck in my mind."
Rodriguez won the game that night, too. His two-run single with two outs in the 11th inning capped Florida's rally and 4-3 victory.
Afterward Rodriguez, as usual, sought his father's advice. Jose Rodriguez was Pudge's first baseball coach.
"Nobody in this game can tell you, 'I know everything,' " said Rodriguez, 32. "The guy who tells you that is lying to you. I'm a player who likes to learn every single day because I want to get better. So my father tells me more about what I do wrong than right. The success of my career is because of my father."
A native of Vega Baja, Puerto Rico, Rodriguez learned to play with his older brother, Jose, improvising with a stick and wad of tape. With his quick feet and cannon arm, Rodriguez progressed so quickly he caught the eye of the Texas Rangers when he was in high school.
When he signed with the Rangers as a non-drafted free agent in July 1988, his parents bought him his first car, a red 1984 Honda Prelude.
Rodriguez's mother, Eva Torres, was a second-grade teacher for 21 years. She recently became a school principal in Puerto Rico, Pudge said. His father was an electrician.
"He's on top of me all the time," Rodriguez said of his father. "My father always tells me the truth -- even the World Series. First of all, he hates it when I'm hitting and I swing at the first pitch. And if I'm trying to hit a ball that's out of the strike zone, he gets mad at me.
"He tells me, 'You're a great hitter; let the pitcher work a little bit.' "
Rodriguez's postseason performance alone proved he was worth the one-year, $10-million deal the Marlins gave him for signing as a free agent after 12 years in Texas.
But there were concerns.
In the three seasons before joining the Marlins, he went on the disabled list four times because of various injuries, including a broken thumb and herniated disk in his lower back. But Rodriguez reported to spring training injury-free last year and remained that way through his last game with the Marlins.
He played 144 games in the regular season, 17 in the postseason. In Game 6 against the Yankees, Rodriguez was the catcher in Josh Beckett's five-hit shutout victory. He won his first World Series ring.
Rodriguez compiled solid statistics at Florida -- .297 with 16 homers and 85 RBIs during the season, .313 with three homers and 17 RBIs during the postseason. He was voted most valuable player of the National League championship series (hitting .321 with a record 10 RBIs) as Florida came back from a 3-1 deficit to beat the Chicago Cubs in seven games.
"Just his presence alone really makes this team feel different," Florida general manager Larry Beinfest told the Miami Herald in October.
A few weeks later, though, Rodriguez was a free agent after failing to agree on a contract.
When that happened, Eleno Ornelas, announcer for the Rangers' Spanish broadcasts, said he was secretly hoping Rodriguez would return to Texas.
"He has a connection here" with the fans, Ornelas said. "The times when he was injured, he came up to the booth and participated in our broadcasts. He raised so much money for hospitals and children. He gave poor people tickets to the games. He built a ballpark for Little Leaguers in Dallas-Ft. Worth."
In a dozen seasons with Texas, Rodriguez helped lead the team into the playoffs three times and won the American League MVP award in 1999.
"When we knew he was going to leave Texas, his son made a sign that listed his accomplishments, and he put it above his locker in the clubhouse," Ornelas recalled. "Pudge was a player who never gave up. He was always screaming in the clubhouse, 'We can win! Don't give up!'
"In this community, everybody still misses him."
When Dombrowski called Tigers Hall of Famer Al Kaline and told him the team was pursuing Rodriguez, Kaline was skeptical. But he kept those thoughts to himself.
"My original thought was, 'There's no way you're going to get this done; there's no way you're going to get a superstar like that to come to Detroit right now,' " Kaline said.
Even as other clubs such as the Mariners and Orioles entertained the Rodriguez sweepstakes with varying degrees of interest and intensity, Dombrowski and his staff continued their homework. Scott Boras, Rodriguez's agent, suggested that Dombrowski call Harvey Dorfman, one of the premier sports psychologists in baseball, to question him about Rodriguez.
Dombrowski called the resulting 45-minute cell phone conversation "one of the important parts of the signing for me. One of the questions I had was, 'OK, he went to Florida and was on a one-year deal with a club that had a chance to win,' " Dombrowski said. " 'Here we are, we're talking about a four-year deal, with the first year in all probability not being a championship club.
" 'Will he be as driven to succeed and play as hard and do everything else, just like he did in Florida?' "
Dombrowski got his answer.
"What came through loud and clear was that there had been adjustments made by Pudge throughout his career, but especially the last year, in becoming a complete player," Dombrowski said. "And he was driven to be a complete player in handling the (pitching) staff and how important that had now become to him."
During spring training in Lakeland, Dombrowski and others witnessed Rodriguez's leadership and work ethic almost daily.
"Every drill that the catchers have done, he's been the first," manager Alan Trammell said. "He has taken the initiative, 'Here, follow me.' That's a beautiful thing."
Sitting on a desk in Trammell's office in Lakeland is a coffee mug that bears an inscription: "20th Anniversary World Series Champions."
Trammell was the starting shortstop on that 1984 Tigers team. Rodriguez was 12 turning 13 that year, about the same age as his son, Dereck, who will be 12 in June.
Pudge and Maribel have two other children -- Amanda Christine, 8, and Ivanna Sofia, 4.
The Rodriguezes were married in a brief civil ceremony in 1991 in Tulsa, Okla. They were scheduled to be married between games of a doubleheader between the Tulsa Drillers and Shreveport Captains, but Rodriguez, 19 at the time, was called up by the Rangers after catcher Geno Petralli was placed on the disabled list because of a back injury.
Rodriguez made his major league debut that night.
"My wife is my best friend," Pudge said. "We're together all the time. But now we have to be separated because we have kids in school. She's going to come (to Detroit) during the season when we play at home, and then, when we're on the road, she'll go back to Miami."
Tigers vice president Al Avila escorted Pudge and Maribel on the flight to Detroit to meet Ilitch. Over breakfast on the plane, they spoke mostly about the challenges of raising a family, Avila said.
Especially during baseball season.
"He's such a family guy," Avila said. "One of the first questions he asked was, 'Who's married on the team?' He believes in the maturity and focus that comes with that."
Tigers pitcher Al Levine and Rodriguez were Texas teammates in 1998. A few weeks ago, they played golf together in Florida, and Levine said he instantly noticed that the way Rodriguez conducts himself behind the plate is similar to how he manages his golf game.
"Basically, he has his game plan and sticks by it," Levine said. "He doesn't try to crush the ball. I'm pulling out my driver on every hole and there he is, hitting three-wood. We played 18. He beat me."
Much has been made about Rodriguez's lavish lifestyle -- of his nine-bedroom Miami Beach mansion and its 11 bathrooms. Of the boats he owns, including a 118-foot yacht. Of the one-ton bronze statue he commissioned of himself, in a Texas uniform, that stands tall in his backyard.
"The guy who made it is from Colombia," Rodriguez said with a smile. "It took him a year. We gave him an 8-by-10, something like that, and he did a very nice job."
Once his children are out of school this spring, Rodriguez said, his family will move into their new home in Bloomfield Hills. Their primary residence will remain Miami Beach.
"It's going to be nice," he said.
Rodriguez fancies himself as a student of the game, and he said he's familiar with the Tigers' bright moments of their past and the players who helped get them there.
Kirk Gibson, a Tigers World Series hero of '84, remembers confronting Rodriguez -- in a good way, he said -- during Rodriguez's second full season with the Rangers, in 1993.
"I remember going up to the plate and turning around and asking him why he wasn't playing yesterday," Gibson said. "I said, 'Because when you're young, one of the things you have to realize is that you have to push yourself to play every day unless you're injured. Your teammates are counting on you.' "
Asked how Rodriguez responded, Gibson said: "He looked at me. He was receptive. I was a veteran; he was young."
These days, Rodriguez is the one who does the pushing.
"He knows that we're trying to reverse a 10-year losing trend, and he wants to be part of turning it around," Avila said. "That's how he wants his success to be measured here. It's not about him; it's about the team."
A few weeks ago, when the pitchers and catchers reported to spring training, Rodriguez and Kaline shared a laugh. Rodriguez told him that, by accident, he had pulled his black Bentley into Kaline's reserved parking space one morning. He said he backed out immediately once he realized the error.
"He was saying, 'I had to move out of there!' " Kaline said with a laugh. "You know, Pudge's locker is right next to mine, and we've had a chance to talk a lot. To me, he has changed the whole face of this organization. He really has.
"I try to explain it this way: The flame in Detroit had gone down to just a little spark. Once he signed, the flame lit up again. It's not as bright as we want it yet, but it's gotten a lot brighter since he signed with us."
Sitting on a bench outside the clubhouse, Kaline, a special assistant to Dombrowski, heard the footsteps of a player approaching. He turned to his right and saw Rodriguez coming up the sidewalk. He was dressed in all white.
"This is the morning of a new day," he said.
The last one ended with a kiss and a prayer.