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He pauses. Hope for what? Good health? A quick recovery? An injury-free season? Rodriguez suddenly seems to be a distant cousin of the What? Me, worry? guy of moments earlier. It's a stunning change in mood. Ordinarily he doesn't lack confidence, just as his belongings don't lack dozens of reminders that baseball's best backstop pays the bills. Painted on the side of his cigarette boat is a lifelike image of him, in Rangers uniform and catching gear, firing a laser cannon. In the corner of his backyard, rising from a mound of thick green grass, is a larger-than-life bronze sculpture of Rodriguez, crouching behind a plate. So to witness him appearing timid or worried, even for a moment, is startling.
Rodriguez glances at the scar on his left knee. His ever-present smile takes a break. "Well, I don't want to be foolish," he says. "I want to make sure that when I come back, I'm back for good. I'm a catcher. I want to be ready to catch every day. It's important to be the same player I was before the operation."
Rodriguez's five-year, $42 million contract expires after the 2002 season. Before Melvin was fired in October, he said that Rodriguez would have to prove himself before the Rangers would offer him a new deal. "He's not washed up," Melvin said, "but how long will his career last, and at what performance level? It makes sense to want to see him play."
Hart shares Melvin's opinion, even though the Rangers are thin at catcher: Haselman, the only other catcher on the roster from last season, is a career backup, and Texas's best minor league prospect, 2000 top draft choice Scott Heard, hit .228 in a stint with Class A Savannah last year. "Pudge is obviously a huge piece here, and I'm very respectful of that," Hart says. "But this is not the time or place to begin contract talks, or even think about it."
Rodriguez admits the club's position is understandable if disheartening. In July 1997, when he was on the verge of becoming a first-time free agent, Rodriguez stuck with Texas, even though the market would have offered greater riches elsewhere. At one point negotiations between Melvin and Jeff Moorad, Rodriguez's agent, nearly fell apart, and Rodriguez was on the brink of being dealt to the New York Yankees for catcher Jorge Posada. On his own, Rodriguez went to see Tom Schieffer, the Rangers' president and general partner at the time, and a deal was worked out. "I believe in loyalty," Rodriguez says. " Texas is the organization that signed me. I've always been a Ranger, and my first choice would be to always be a Ranger. But I know they need to see that I'm back, and I believe they will."
To this end, Rodriguez says, he works out harder now than ever before. He has not only a desire but also a physical need to stay in shape. He believes that he has another seven or eight seasons of Grade A catching in him. "Everybody gets old at some point," he says, "but my love of baseball motivates me."
Still, what if Rodriguez, approaching a point in his career when Johnny Bench and Yogi Berra (chart, page 66) and other elite catchers began to decline, is never the same as he was before knee surgery? He says he won't move to another position, despite rumors that he would work out at second base in spring training and despite manager Jerry Narron's idea to rest Rodriguez's knees with a dozen or so starts in the outfield during the season. "My goal is to finish my career as a catcher," says Rodriguez, who has been a DH but has never played any other position in the field. "I'm Pudge Rodriguez, the catcher. It's the position I love."
One day, Rodriguez says, he will simply take a walk, away from the game and toward the water. Recently he and Maribel took delivery of their Italian-made Uniesse motor yacht. The $2.9 million vessel has a U-shaped lounge, four state rooms and dual 1,300-horsepower diesel engines. In January, Rodriguez, his family and a hired captain ( Rodriguez plans to become a licensed skipper) made a voyage from Miami Beach to Paradise Island in the Bahamas. Eventually he and Maribel want to take their children on an around-the-world voyage. "The best part about sailing, the beauty, is when it feels like the ocean is yours," he says. "You're alone, on a boat, happy and free. Far away from the world."
Life, for Pudge, would be but a dream.