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, below).
It was not until January that Tigers owner Mike Hitch 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."
[This article contains a table. Please see hardcopy of magazine or PDF.]