Twenty years ago this week, Ivan Rodriguez walked into Comerica Park and introduced himself as a Detroit Tiger. To some, he might as well have announced he was landing on the moon.
Around baseball, people were stunned that a former MVP and future Hall of Famer -- fresh off leading the Marlins to a World Series title -- would sign with a club that lost 119 games in 2003. Around Detroit, people reacted in awe, his arrival tracking like a celebrity sighting.
The match changed the course of the franchise.
“We had been down in Detroit for such a long time, baseball-wise,” former Tigers president/general manager Dave Dombrowski recalled last week. “Detroit is such a very good sports city and a very good baseball city. They love the Tigers. They were looking for a reason to get excited. We hadn't given them a reason. They were looking for some hope and encouragement, and I believe Pudge's signing enabled that to happen.”
The roots began after the 2003 season. Dombrowski and owner Mike Ilitch held a season-ending press conference, when Ilitch announced his resolve to turn the club around, including adding free agents.
“I remember sitting down with Mike Ilitch,” Dombrowski said, “and one of the things he said was, ‘If we're going to get better, we need to add some talent to the club, and if we can add a free agent, that would be great.’
“The difficulty, of course, is that we were not a free-agent destination.”
A Sports Illustrated survey a couple years earlier rated the city among the least popular among players. Rodriguez’s former Texas teammate, slugger Juan Gonzalez, had a frustrating 2000 season at Comerica Park and left in free agency.
The Tigers tried to set the table, signing second baseman Fernando Vina and outfielder Rondell White to two-year contracts. But top free agents like Vladimir Guerrero Sr. and Miguel Tejada weren’t listening.
“Prior to Pudge, you'd call agents for free agents and try to get them to call you back,” said John Westhoff, the Tigers’ baseball counsel and chief negotiator for nearly 20 years. “And they wouldn't call you back.”
Meanwhile, Rodriguez was on a World Series run in Miami. The one-year deal he’d signed the previous winter paid off, and he was ready to stay for the long term. That didn’t happen.
“The Marlins offered me two years at the same money I made before, which was 10 million per year,” Rodriguez wrote in his autobiography in 2017.
The concern with Rodriguez wasn’t just age -- he turned 32 that November -- but a lower back injury that sidelined him at the start of 2002 with the Rangers.
Rodriguez hired Scott Boras to handle his free agency. Boras had an interested market, including the Mariners, Cubs and Orioles, but all short-term offers.
“We reached out later in December,” Dombrowski said. “We were interested in him, and I know he was interested in trying to find a good, solid contract where he could call home. We were not in a position to be overly aggressive at that point, because he was looking for a better club.”
Said Boras: “Mike and I met. Mike told me about his vision for the club. I could see the passion he had, and I went to Pudge and said, ‘You have a ring on your finger already, and this is an owner who believes in you and in your future.’”
Said Dombrowski: “January was very rare for signing free agents then. We were in a spot where we were looking to go four years.”
The $40 million offer included a fifth-year club option. Rodriguez liked the offer and also the challenge.
“Dave, one of the best in the game, promised me before I signed that we would compete for a championship within a few years,” Rodriguez wrote.
Said Dombrowski: “I remember getting on the phone and thinking things were going to happen. And one of the things that we needed to make sure about was the physical aspect of it, because he had some back issues at that point. I remember there were some issues that came up.”
“And the word [of the deal] was leaking out,” Westhoff said.
Said Boras: “You had functional fitness, and you had an MRI that couldn't explain it. And so, we had to craft language that protected the team initially but also gave the player protection if he proved to be healthy.”
Together, they worked out a deal: If Rodriguez missed 35 days on the injured list in either the first or second season due to a lumbar spine injury, the Tigers could exit the deal early.
“It was a very unique clause,” Dombrowski said.
The clause needed approval from both MLB and the Players Association. Westhoff took care of the former; Boras, the latter.
Said Dombrowski: “To his credit, Pudge was not only a good player, he was a tough player. He said, ‘I'll sign the deal. I'll show that I'm healthy.’”
Rodriguez caught at least 123 games in each of the next four seasons. The Tigers picked up his option. He never went on the injured list with the back issue, and retired following the 2011 season.
“In retrospect, it held up to be great,” Westhoff said. “Pudge knew his body.”
Rodriguez hit .334 in 2004 with 19 homers, 86 RBIs and a 137 OPS+, including a .500 average that June. He batted .300 with 13 homers and 69 RBIs in 2006.
“I think the Pudge signing was the start for us,” Dombrowski said. “It showed that there was a star player that was willing to come to Detroit to sign a contract.”
Said Boras: “Pudge opened the door for Detroit. Mike Ilitch built the house.”