Bizarre as it may be, the accepted wisdom that a woodchuck can
make an accurate long-term weather forecast seemed more
believable than another Groundhog Day head-scratcher: a run on
Tigers tickets. Telephones in the Detroit ticket office rang so
incessantly on Feb. 2--after the team had signed free-agent
catcher Ivan Rodriguez--that supervisors from other departments
were summoned for backup. The Tigers sold $160,000 worth of
tickets, a one-day record for the franchise.
The fans' reaction confirmed why a team that lost an American
League-record 119 games last season would, belatedly, pay an
average of $10 million a year to a 32-year-old catcher who has a
history of back trouble and is past his prime. The Tigers may
still be awful in 2004, but Rodriguez brings an identity to a
team that has lost 1.1 million paying customers in the three
years since Comerica Park opened.
"He steps in as our leader," Detroit president and general
manager Dave Dombrowski says. "We have Dmitri Young, and Rondell
White was an All-Star last year, but nobody else has the
credentials of Pudge Rodriguez."
When he arrived before the 2002 season, Dombrowski planned to
rebuild the team from within. But after last year's debacle he
realized that the organization lacked even a potential impact
performer and that some of the young players given major league
jobs in '03 weren't ready for them.
Still, when Scott Boras, Rodriguez's agent, called in November to
express his client's interest in the Tigers, Dombrowski did not
make signing the catcher a priority. He instead tried to upgrade
a woeful rotation, but he whiffed on attempts to sign Brian
Anderson and Jeff Suppan. Dombrowski did succeed in revamping his
middle infield and later landed righty Jason Johnson (box,
It was not until January that Tigers owner Mike Ilitch saw an
opportunity to sign Rodriguez, who had dismissed offers of about
$7 million per year from the Marlins and the Orioles. He saw no
reason to take a pay cut from the $10 million he earned last
season, when he hit .297 with 16 homers and 85 RBIs.
Thus was born a marriage of convenience: The Tigers get a star,
and Rodriguez gets his money (sort of). Though he could earn $40
million over four years, only two years and $20 million are
guaranteed. Detroit can void the contract after 2005 if Rodriguez
spends 35 days on the disabled list in '04 or '05 because of a
lumbar injury. "We know we're not getting the Pudge Rodriguez
from four or five years ago, but we're still getting a very good
player," says Dombrowski.
"What the Tigers are doing reminds me of what Tampa Bay did a few
years ago, signing a bunch of old guys after a bad year," one
National League G.M. says, referring to the Devil Rays'
ill-advised investments in Jose Canseco, Greg Vaughn and Wilson
Alvarez. "[Rodriguez] was out there this long for a reason: He's
a 32-year-old catcher who's had back trouble."
COLOR PHOTO: LEON HALIP/WIREIMAGE.COM (TOP) Detroit admits Pudge's best days are behind him, but the club was desperate for a star.
COLOR PHOTO: JOHN BIEVER VInA
Longer in the Tooth
The average age of the Tigers' projected Opening Day lineup in
April will be 29.5 years, compared with 26.1 for 2003 regulars.
POS. 2003 LINEUP (AGE) 2004 LINEUP (AGE)
C Brandon Inge (25) Ivan Rodriguez (32)
1B Carlos Pena (24) Carlos Pena (25)
2B Warren Morris (29) Fernando Vina (34)
SS Ramon Santiago (23) Carlos Guillen (28)
3B Eric Munson (25) Eric Munson (26)
LF Craig Monroe (26) Rondell White (32)
CF Alex Sanchez (26) Alex Sanchez (27)
RF Bobby Higginson (32) Bobby Higginson (33)
DH Dmitri Young (29) Dmitri Young (30)
Ace Mike Maroth (25) Jason Johnson (30)
Closer Franklyn German (23) Fernando Rodney (27)