PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. -- When the Detroit Tigers and New York Mets meet at Tradition Field in Port St. Lucie, Fla., on Thursday, two of the greatest players ever to put on a mask and chest protector will cross paths one more time as Detroit's Ivan "Pudge" Rodriguez and New York's Mike Piazza are expected to see action.
You have to wonder if this will be the last time these two great catchers, one arguably the greatest defensive catcher (Rodriguez) and the other one of the best hitting catchers (Piazza), will be on the same field.
Both come to this South Florida meeting from career paths that have been parallel in many ways.
Mike Piazza and Ivan Rodriguez have combined for nearly 3,900 hits and more than 600 homers. (AP; Getty)
Piazza, 36, was taken in the 62nd round of the draft by the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1988. Rodriguez, 33, wasn't even drafted and instead signed a free agent contract with Texas a month after the '88 draft.
Yet here they are, 17 years later, having amassed nearly 3,900 hits and more than 600 homers between them. They come from different backgrounds and cultures, but the two achieved greatness in their craft. Some of it was obvious talent, but work ethic and choice played a hand as well.
Perhaps there is one key factor that has made Pudge and Piazza so successful for so long?
"I don't know. Little bit of luck, lot of hard work, health, determination, focus -- [catching] is a skill you can't take for granted," Piazza said. "I've seen guys with natural talent and even guys like Benito Santiago who has been catching a long time who has to work on his craft, has to work on blocking balls. It's a position you never really perfect, that's the best thing about it."
Talent can take you only so far. It takes hard work and dedication to keep the skills sharp and to last as long as Piazza and Rodriguez have at the most demanding position on the diamond.
"[You have to] keep working on it, that's the beauty of it," Piazza said. "Does it get tiresome? Sure it does. It's a physical position. You don't have the liberties that others guys have. You get knocked out earlier and you have to take care of yourself more and eat right, do all those things.
"I've been fortunate throughout my career to really have concentrated on that. If you're going to catch every day, you have to prepare yourself every day. Everything revolves around the game, you have to get rest more and take of yourself. I've always been fortunate to be able to pick my days off and recuperate and get physically ready."
The two stars came to catch by choice, if not with the same motivation.
"I always played catcher since I was a little kid; I think it's a fun place to be," Rodriguez said. "You're always in the game with signals and setting the defense. I think [that] probably was the key to [making the] change from infield to catcher. I still like it."
Piazza said he chose catching because he felt like it was the only thing he could do to become a Major Leaguer.
"That's pretty much the truth," Piazza said.
There are those days, however, when both men wish they had chosen another position. Both have plenty of scars to prove how tough catching can be. The price to be paid for the catching grind is measured in broken digits and number of stitches. Collisions and concussions are part of the workday and the errant foul ball can be just a pitch away.
After a year or two you can tell the catchers in the clubhouse without a program. Just look for the most black and blue marks.
"Pretty much everything hurts," Rodriguez said. "You're using your legs a lot. You get hit by a foul ball. But you can't think about it. You have to do your job."
The hands and knees take the worst beating, but it's a tossup as to which part of the body gets the most abuse.
"It's just a physically demanding position," Piazza said. "Everything gets sore and I've been very fortunate to prepare myself every year to get my body in shape to catch every year. I've been fortunate to have good health. It's tough everywhere. Your knees get sore and your legs get sore. It takes a toll on your lower half. You just find a way, adrenaline takes over and you find a way to make it through."
Piazza and Rodriguez say that doesn't mean they would dissuade their sons from following in their footsteps if catching is really what they wanted to do.
"I would tell him the pitfalls of it," Piazza said. "If he really wanted to do it, I would help him."
Said Rodriguez: "I just let him play wherever he wants to play."
Over the years, the two have faced and caught All-Stars and future Hall of Famers. Rodriguez and Piazza have each been on 11 All-Star teams, which means they have had a unique perspective of seeing some of the greats of the game from the best seat in the house.
When asked who was the best pitcher he ever caught, Rodriguez said Hall of Famer Nolan Ryan. Piazza couldn't name only one.
"I don't know, there are a lot of guys, I caught future Hall of Famers in All-Star games and those are always fun for me, they are the best of the best that year," Piazza said. "It's hard to narrow it down to one; there are a lot of guys. Caught Greg Maddux in his prime, he was a lot of fun to catch. He was a really accomplished guy with the control that he had, he was a lot of fun to catch."
Both men wouldn't say which pitcher or pitchers they like hitting against.
"There are guys I've hit better than others over the years [and] I know there are a few guys I don't like to hit," Piazza said. "If I'm swinging well, it really doesn't make a difference."
Jim Molony is a reporter for MLB.com. MLB.com reporters Kevin Czerwinski and Jason Beck contributed to this article. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.