If you grew up in Texas during the ‘90s, Iván "Pudge" Rodríguez was probably your favorite baseball player.
I did, and he was.
In 1988, when the Rangers signed a 16-year-old catcher from Puerto Rico, they hit the jackpot. Three years later, Pudge was in the big leagues as Texas' everyday catcher. He would remain entrenched there for 12 seasons.
The Rangers could not have dreamt up a better player. All can agree that he's one of the best catchers of all time. But, I'll flat out say it: Pudge Rodríguez is the best catcher of all time.
I really don't see how there's any debate either. For over a decade, he was the best catcher in baseball. Then he played for another decade after, picking up a World Series on that second tour. And he did it among a legion of roided-out gorillas. (I hope most would agree that Pudge was not one of them either).
Older readers and baseball historians are probably grumbling about my claim, yelling about Johnny Bench and Yogi Berra. But when you consider a greatness equation that factors not only stats and accolades, but the era in which the player competed as well, it's really no contest.
Pudge is the best defensive catcher EVER. He has more Gold Gloves than any catcher with 13, three more than second place Bench. During his decade of dominance, Pudge won 10 Gold Gloves in a row from 1992-2001. He gunned down 51% of all base stealers during that streak. The league average over that same timespan was almost 20 points lower at 31.8%.
He's a career .296 hitter, better than both Bench (.267) and Berra (.285). Sure, Bench and Berra may have more home runs than Pudge, and did it in fewer seasons. But Pudge also has the most games caught all time, and played in an era with incredibly more (steroid-enriched) talent than the other two. AND he did it while catching summer after summer in the brutal Texas heat.
Pudge even ranks sixth amongst catchers with 127 stolen bases in his career. He swiped 25 during his '99 MVP campaign.
To me, when you consider when he played, and factor in his offensive and defensive accomplishments (and the heat), Pudge is hands down the best catcher of all time. If I need an eccentric quote or access to Pete Rose's bookie, I'll take Berra or Bench. If I'm starting a franchise, 19-year-old Pudge is behind the plate.
He could do it all. Catch, throw, hit, hit for power, and even run. He's one of the only five-tool catchers ever to play the game. On any given day he was knocking in runs or picking off daydreaming runners from his knees. And he did it all with that infectious smile.
That was Pudge. The greatest of all time.