“It’s not going to be long,” Rodriguez said. “I’m going to be doing it in English and Spanish, because my parents are going to be there. I’m looking forward to it, to holding in my feelings, because it’s not going to be easy.”
This summer could have easily been different for Rodriguez. He writes in his book that he badly wanted to be elected on the first ballot so he could match his boyhood hero, Johnny Bench, who is the only other catcher to have done so. He made it by collecting 336 of 442 votes, just four over the minimum needed to reach the 75 percent threshold for election. (The New York Times does not allow its writers to vote for the Hall of Fame.)
The election was more than a referendum on Rodriguez’s career; it was a reflection of the voters’ confidence in Jose Canseco’s claim that he had injected Rodriguez with steroids when they were teammates on the Texas Rangers. Canseco wrote that in “Juiced,” his explosive 2005 account of baseball’s steroids era.
Rodriguez, in his book, wrote that he holds no grudges. Though most of Canseco’s claims turned out to be true, Rodriguez uses his first chapter to dispute the accusation against him.
“I never took steroids,” he writes. “Let’s make that as crystal clear as possible — I never took steroids. If anyone says differently, they are lying.”
Just after the publication of Canseco’s book, Rodriguez reported to the Detroit Tigers’ spring training camp with a starkly leaner physique, leading to speculation that he had suddenly stopped using steroids. In his book, Rodriguez explains that he lost 25 pounds that winter because he was mentally and physically drained by going through a divorce, which had caused him to alter his diet and conditioning.
“I didn’t even hit 20 home runs in a single season after turning 30,” Rodriguez writes. “My career followed the path it should have, and I worked damn hard in the off-season to stay in the condition I needed to.”
Asked if he had relished the chance to counter Canseco in print, Rodriguez replied succinctly: “Everything that I did, I tell you how I did it — with a lot of discipline, a lot of conditioning, a lot of passion about the game. And I was very happy to say that.”
Rodriguez’s induction comes one year after that of another catcher, Mike Piazza, who was often suspected of steroid use despite a lack of convincing evidence. Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens, who had stronger links to performance-enhancing drugs, passed the 50 percent mark in last year’s voting for the first time in five tries. As the Hall of Fame electorate gets younger, it seems, many voters seem more willing to reward the greats of the era, regardless of doping suspicions.
And Rodriguez, clearly, was a giant of his time — a 14-time All-Star who hit .296, won a Most Valuable Player Award and caught those record 2,427 games. He has occasional back soreness, he said, but his knees and his elbow are fine and he has no lingering effects from playing baseball’s most demanding position. He still works out five times a week.
“The conditioning part of it, I love it — it’s not something that I have to do, it’s something that I love to do,” Rodriguez said. “I always enjoy working out, every time, and that’s probably the reason that I feel great right now.”
Rodriguez, 45, will be the second member of the Hall of Fame to be depicted in a Rangers cap on his plaque. The first was Nolan Ryan, who worked five seasons in the majors before Rodriguez was born and ended up pitching to him 46 times.
Ryan wrote a foreword to Rodriguez’s book, but he was not the hardest thrower Rodriguez ever caught. Neither was Justin Verlander in Detroit nor Stephen Strasburg in Washington. It was a Tigers reliever, Joel Zumaya, who Rodriguez said threw 105 miles per hour.
The most dangerous pitcher to catch, for Rodriguez, was probably Kevin Brown, whose hard sinkers bore in on his thumb. But Zumaya, he said, was easy.
“When I catch the ball in my glove, it feels light,” Rodriguez said. “It didn’t feel heavy.”
A different kind of lightness should prevail in Cooperstown next weekend. The heaviness — a snub of a worthy candidate because of claims by Canseco — never happened.
Choking Up Helps a Slugger
Joey Votto, who will begin a visit to the Bronx with the Cincinnati Reds on Tuesday, is among the National League leaders in slugging percentage and a participant in the home run bonanza that has taken over the game. But Votto still prioritizes simply making contact, and it shows in the way he chokes up on the bat.
Votto is not alone in this; Barry Bonds was known to choke up, and current players like Hunter Pence and Anthony Rizzo do it, too. But in an age when many hitters accept strikeouts as a necessary trade-off for power, Votto thinks choking up actually helps his power while giving him better bat control.
“I like the feeling of knowing that if I swing, the ball’s going to make contact with the bat,” Votto said recently. “I don’t know why other guys don’t. They probably feel like it makes them slower or less powerful. But for me, if I put the barrel on the ball, then I feel like I have a chance for the ball to go out of the ballpark.”
Entering the weekend, Votto, who turns 34 in September, had 26 homers this season and 247 in his career, and more walks than strikeouts over the last five seasons. He said he did not need to choke up when he was younger because generating power came more easily. Now, conceding that his skills have slightly eroded, he tailors his approach.
“I don’t think it’s about actually choking up,” Votto said. “I think it’s where my mind is. For example, if I hit a ball really hard before two strikes, depending on the pitcher, I’ll choke up either at one strike or two strikes if I think that pitcher’s really challenging or I’m worried about getting a swing and miss. We’ve got the exit velocity thing at our ballpark, and usually, if I hit the ball hard with two strikes, I almost never get too much above 101 or 102 miles an hour off the bat. But if I let it go before two strikes, I can hit the ball hard and far. It’s just all about making contact.”
Votto said teammates often ask him about the strategy, and some, like third baseman Eugenio Suarez, have tried it. Shortstop Zack Cozart has not, but said he understood the advantages.
“If you’re comfortable with it, it’s not a bad idea,” Cozart said. “You control the bat better, and he does it better than anybody.”
The Majors, Not Medicine
When Paul DeJong enrolled at Illinois State in 2011, he expected to prepare for a career in medicine, as a family practitioner. An uncle was a doctor, DeJong said, and he thought he would like the lifestyle. He took all the undergraduate classes he needed to qualify for medical school and prepared for the standardized admissions test, the MCAT, but never followed through.
“I had no idea what the work entailed, honestly,” said DeJong, whose major — biochemistry — was challenging enough. “The last semester was brutal, just taking my 300-level classes and playing baseball with the draft coming up. It was a real nightmare, but I got through it.”
By the time DeJong completed his degree — with a 3.76 grade-point average — baseball had finally decided it wanted him, after all. Coming out of high school, he was not drafted, and he received no scholarship offers; he made the Illinois State team as an invited walk-on.
He got a sniff after his first year of college draft eligibility, when Pittsburgh chose him in the 38th round as a catcher. He was still a long way from what he is now: the slugging rookie shortstop for the St. Louis Cardinals.
“His home run power to right-center and left-center is pretty awesome,” said Adam Wainwright, the veteran Cardinals pitcher. “You don’t see many guys come up with a controlled, nice, easy swing with good balance who can drive the ball out to right field. The last guy I saw do that was Allen Craig. David Freese could do that when he was a younger player, and still can, but it doesn’t happen often. It’s pretty special.”
Craig and Freese helped power two Cardinals World Series lineups, and the team hopes DeJong, who turns 24 next month, will be part of the next. A right-handed hitter, he was batting .280 with 10 homers in 43 games entering the weekend, after wresting the shortstop job from Aledmys Diaz, who was an All-Star last season and is now in Class AAA.
“The way he’s playing defense, making some tough plays, I think he’s getting better all the time,” Manager Mike Matheny said of DeJong. “He just looks more natural at shortstop. He hasn’t had that many repetitions, and you wouldn’t know by watching him play. He’s a guy that has always got his antenna up to learn something new. He has a good baseball I.Q. already.”
Actually, DeJong said, he is a natural shortstop — he just took a few years to settle into the position. He barely played it at Illinois State but did play there in high school, at least when he could get on the field.
DeJong tore his right anterior cruciate ligament as a freshman and missed half of that season. He grew six or seven inches the next year, he said, and tore the ligament again while playing basketball as a sophomore, wiping out that season. But his speed stayed intact — his grandfather was a collegiate sprinter at Wisconsin — and so did his athleticism; DeJong, who is 6 feet 1 inch, can dunk a basketball.
“I always knew I was a great baseball player, I just needed the opportunities to show that I could do it,” DeJong said. “That was the tough part, and maybe I lost faith a little bit back in high school when I was just sitting on the sidelines, but I got my opportunity at Illinois State and didn’t look back.”
Specifically, DeJong said, it was a stint in the summer Northwoods League in 2014 that attracted scouts to him. Playing for the Wisconsin Woodchucks in Wausau, he hit 20 home runs to set a single-season record that still stands. The Cardinals drafted DeJong in the fourth round the next spring, and this May he homered on his first major league swing.
“Sometimes it’s kind of surreal, still,” he said. “I’m almost past that moment, but walking outside and seeing these stadiums I get to play in every day, it’s pretty sweet.”
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