Without serious injury or incarceration being the driving force, greats of the MLB game don’t just disappear like a Rolex wrist watch in a Bronx bar lounge.
When a player’s at near-peak performance as Milwaukee Brewers closer Francisco Jose Rodriguez is in 2009 when he converts 35 out of 42 opportunities (his fifth consecutive season of 30 or more saves) and then sort of falls off the MLB map – there’s usually an underlying reason.
It was 12 years ago when Rodriguez burst onto the scene as a 20-year-old, blazing chumps with a 95 mph untouchable slider. He lifted the Los Angeles Angels to their only World Series championship in 2002, winning five games in 11 appearances during the playoffs.
He became an overnight celebrity and by 2008, the Venezuelan hurler was the most dominant closer in the game outside “The G.O.A.T.” Mariano Rivera. Rocking his signature goggles, Rodriguez set a MLB record with 62 saves, which gave him a remarkable 194 over a four-year span. He was a workhorse, appearing in an AL-leading 76 games. It was his fourth consecutive season of recording at least 40 saves. He had officially morphed into “K-Rod" by then and finished third in AL Cy Young Award voting.
The four time MLB All-Star (2004, 2007, 2008, and 2009), three-time MLB saves leader (2005-2006, 2008) and two-time Rolaids Relief Man of the Year is 15th on the all-time saves list with 324.
It was 2½ years ago when he was last employed as a closer. After getting dumped by New York and then ignored as a viable closer each of the past three winters, K-Rod spent much of his time wondering why he couldn’t get any burn in the role that he so masterfully performed just a short time ago.
It was no mystery that Rodriguez’s wildly emotional antics and over-the-top fervor on the mound rubbed some players the wrong way. If he was pleased with his performance, he’d more than let the stadium know about it and if he was displeased with an infielder, he wouldn’t hesitate to break one of baseball’s cardinal rules and show his teammate up. Still, his pitching did most of the talking and it was always lethal with zest. Maybe it was the way his character and his velocity took a precipitous fall after signing a lucrative three-year, $39 million contract with the NY Mets in December of ‘08.
The incident that nailed K-Rod’s NY coffin and changed the course of his career occurred on Aug. 11, 2010 following another tough loss. Words were exchanged between K-Rod and his wife’s father Carlos Pena, which resulted in the Mets pitcher putting a backyard beatdown on the 53-year old man in the Citi Field clubhouse.
Rodriguez was arrested and remained in police custody at Citi Field on a charge of third-degree misdemeanor assault and was arraigned that afternoon. He was released without bail, and ordered by a judge to stay away from his girlfriend and her father. The Mets suspended him and placed him on the team's restricted list for two days and to make matters worse, Rodriguez suffered a torn ligament in his right thumb, requiring season-ending surgery.
Then in September Rodriguez was back in Queens Criminal Court facing seven counts of criminal contempt after sending numerous text messages to Daian Pena in violation of the order of protection.
After returning from a suspension in 2010, K-Rod pitched well for the Mets, but management was moving in another direction and shipped him to Milwaukee for the first time, after the 2011 All-Star break. By 2012, K-Rod was unhappy with being demoted to a setup role and by 2013 he signed with Baltimore and met the same fate. His circumstances were wild like Rihanna at a Playboy Mansion hookah party. The man who was among the three best at his position, couldn’t find a team that would entrust its ninth-inning lead to him.
Just when it looked like K-Rod was on his way out of MLB, he turns a one-year, $3.5 million contract to return to Milwaukee into a desperate rebirth. K-Rod is back in a familiar and comfortable place – as the MLB leader in saves with 20. He had to get a particular rush out of shutting down his former Mets team in the ninth-inning of a 3-1 Brewers win at Citi Field on Wednesday.
Ironically, it’s been reported that the Mets are in hot pursuit to get K-Rod back in the bullpen and have been for some time. K-Rod’s receptive to returning to the scene of the crime next season. The Mets have already lost closer Bobby Parnell to injury and released old slippers like Kyle Farnsworth and Jose Valverde. To the Mets, K-Rod is the seven that grew breasts, got ass implants and lost the braces.
“I didn’t have any issues other than the one I had personally,” Rodriguez said. “[The Mets] treated me really good and gave me the support I needed to get.”
In fact, at one point during the offseason, Rodriguez thought he was headed back to Queens.
“We had serious discussions, this year and the year before, too,” Rodriguez said. “Milwaukee offered me more money. We decided to take it.”
Sports – baseball in particular – has a way of reversing history and changing favor to failure and disgrace to diamond-studded destiny with the bounce of a ball. Rodriguez has paid his debt to the baseball gods and now the pendulum is swinging back in his favor as he is once again a stud closer for an elite squad with World Series aspirations.
"I never went away,” K-Rod said in April. "But I think a lot of people forgot about me.''
Brewers manager Ron Roenicke, who took over in 2011 and won a franchise-record 96 games, isn’t one of those flat-leavers. He didn’t hesitate to call on Rodriguez to save the 2014 opening-day game against Atlanta.
Last season, the Brewers changed closers after one week. This season, they changed closers before the season's first pitch. Roenicke, in a move that will only enhance his reputation as a rising MLB skipper, saw something in the supposed “washed up” – or maybe even -“blackballed” closer. And he’d certainly seen enough of projected closer Jim Henderson whose spring training troubles ousted him from Roenicke’s circle of trust.
at the time, the move perplexed players and fans, but Roenicke explained:
"We had a conversation about Henderson yesterday, and until we feel like he's throwing the way he can and was last year, we're going to put him in a role that we can give him a couple outings to get his stuff back and his confidence going. That's just a decision we had to make. I talked to him about it and I talked to Frankie today about closing. We feel good about it."
Now he's probably saying, "That's why they pay me the big bucks."
Roenicke did his part. Now, the rest is K-Rod’s opportunity to rewrite history.
Rodriguez no longer throws in the high 90s. He’s tossing it around 89 mph, but he he’s reinvented himself, replacing his go-to slider with one of the most explosive changeups in the game. He’s a main reason why the Brewers (39-27) lead the tough NL Central by five games over the pitching-rich St. Louis Cardinals. Milwaukee’s bullpen has cooled off a bit, but is much improved thanks to K-Rod’s effectiveness and his leadership. Yes, the Venezuelan Devil is all grown up and imparting wisdom on younger Milwaukee arms.
"People forgot how great he's been throughout his career,'' Brewers right fielder Ryan Braun said. "They're remembering in a hurry. What he's done, and what our bullpen is doing, is amazing.''
His changeup has a whiff rate of close to 50 percent since 2007, which is in the top five among all changes thrown by relievers. Despite his velocity dip, K-Rod still has 35 K’s in 31 innings of work. He’s definitely getting it in and getting the job done. This kind of re-emergence changes everything for Milwaukee. If K-Rod is going to throwback his performance and rack up saves like Dr. Dre stacks racks, then this could be a pleasant ending after all for Milwaukee and K-Rod, who are both in a way, chasing accolades of the past.