Sunday, February 1, 2004

Pudge to Tigers: Astonishing move

The Detroit News

DETROIT - Ultimately, neither side had a choice. The Detroit Tigers needed Ivan Pudge Rodriguez desperately. Pudge needed the Tigers, finally.

So here comes the Pudge, carrying the credibility of a downtrodden franchise on his broad, tricky back. For two weeks, legitimate skepticism slowly peeled away, leading to a deal that should stir the passion of Detroit baseball fans craving to be stirred.

This was owner Mike Ilitch's personal, imperative crusade, his best chance to obscure the biggest embarrassment of his career, last season's 119-loss fiasco. The Tigers and Rodriguez, a 10-time All-Star, have an oral agreement, and barring an unforeseen change, will make it official Monday.

Somehow, the Tigers are being bold and cautious at the same time, an amazing feat, frankly. Somehow, they're pulling off a public-relations bonanza that actually makes some baseball sense.

The overriding concern about a four-year, $40 million deal was Pudge's lower spine, which has idled him twice in his career. But General Manager Dave Dombrowski expertly walked the line, waiting out agent Scott Boras' flirtations with other teams, then apparently nailing down escape clauses that essentially make it a two-year guaranteed contract.

Smart. Aggressive. Innovative. When was the last time those words were associated with the Tigers?

Of course, the injury clauses confirm the fears about Pudge's back. That also explains why no team came close to matching the Tigers' offer. Don't kid yourself. For all the excitement, there's major risk. By most indications, Rodriguez, 32, didn't want to come here. Maybe the Tigers' additions of six other solid major-leaguers convinced him. Maybe it was the challenge of helping turn around a franchise, a possible capper to a Hall of Fame career.

Maybe it was just the money. That's a bit troublesome, but I'm guessing once Rodriguez sees how Detroit embraces him, he'll be sufficiently motivated.

This really is an astonishing move, this marriage between one of the worst teams in the history of baseball and one of the greatest catchers in the history of baseball.

From World Series champion in Miami to a team that hasn't had a winning season in a decade, Rodriguez is making multiple leaps. Leap of faith, leap for the cash, leap because there was nowhere else to leap.

It's easy to question his motives. It's easier to understand the Tigers' motive. Ilitch had to make a splashy move, and put his money where his pride was. After last season's disaster, he was pushed by embarrassment, even fear. Season tickets weren't selling. Luxury boxes were sitting empty. Ilitch had to prove to fans he cared about the Tigers, that he wasn't just a hockey owner who dabbled in baseball.

The key was Dombrowski's steady tempering of Ilitch's impetuousness. This franchise has been burned by lengthy contracts before. The Tigers needed a P.R. move that also made baseball sense, if not complete business sense.

Sure, they're overpaying. Sure, this could fall apart with Pudge's next back twinge. But somehow, the Tigers convinced a premier player there's baseball hope in Detroit. And maybe, finally, there is.

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