When was the last time that a Washington baseball team had a future Hall of Famer who batted and fielded at a Hall of Fame level? Harmon Killebrew slugged like a Hall of Famer in 1959, but he also led all American League third basemen in errors that year. Perhaps we must go back to Joe Cronin in the 1930s, before even my time.
But now that has changed. For in April 2010, Ivan “Pudge” Rodriguez, certainly a future Hall of Famer, played catcher for the Washington Nationals at a Hall of Fame level. Pudge didn’t just bat .400 for the month; he fought off tough pitches to deliver clutch RBIs. Pudge didn’t just throw out lead runners on bunts when ordinary catchers would have taken the easy out; the zip on his throws convinced opposing runners not to even attempt stealing a base (only three runners tried to steal off of him; he gunned down two of them). And Pudge’s ability to work with pitchers helped revitalize (at least for now) the career of the “washed-up” Livan Hernandez and successfully launch (at least for now) the career of Pudge’s fellow Puerto Rican, Luis Alitano.
It’s almost certain that Pudge will not continue to hit at anything approaching a Hall of Fame level. Last year he batted only 249 and this year he’s fighting a bad back. Moreover, if he continues to excel for the Nats, there’s a good chance they will trade him to a contender during the summer.
But these realities do not detract from the pure pleasure of watching, however briefly, a great player demonstrate on a daily basis what it means to perform at the very highest level. I had that privilege with Cal Ripken and Eddie Murray in the 1980s, though I took them for granted after a while, and with Robbie Alomar, worthy of the Hall of Fame I believe, in his first year with the Orioles (1996).
Now, at long last, I’m seeing it again, and this time for the team I root for. It’s no substitute for championship baseball, but it may be the next best thing.
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