Cooperstown is Now Pudge’s ‘Casa’

How his induction speech changed everything for fans

Amid the moving speeches, the roll call of baseball legends and the massive crowds along Main Street in Cooperstown, I savored one unexpected moment.

Honestly, it was the last thing that I expected at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum’s weekend festivities: To have golf Hall of Famer Juan Antonio “Chi Chi” Rodríguez sitting side-by-side with the “Dominican Dandy,” Juan Marichal, for an interview with La Vida Baseball.

Yet there they were on the spacious, lush, green lawn separating the beautiful Otesaga Resort Hotel from Otsego Lake, a boricua and a quisqueyano reunited in an idyllic setting after years apart, happily talking baseball and sharing stories.

Induction weekend is a magical time for baseball fans. Yet it was taken to another level for the hundreds of Latinos from the Caribbean, New York, Texas and elsewhere who made the pilgrimage to see Ivan “Pudge” Rodríguez, the fourth Puerto Rican and 13th Latino enshrined — and only the second catcher voted in on the first ballot, after his childhood idol Johnny Bench.

And Pudge remembered where he came from, who he represented and why he should connect with the fans.

“Don’t feel intimidated to ask me for an autograph or a picture. You are not putting me out. It’s my honor,” he told a crowd that numbered in the thousands, all gathered on a warm, sunny day. “Tell me your favorite Pudge story. Chances are it’s going to put a smile on my face, and you know how much this Hall of Famer loves to smile.”

Pudge Rodriguez HOF Induction Speech
Puerto Ricans from the island and all over the mainland showed their support and love for Pudge throughout Induction weekend.

A Hall of Fame storyteller

In a half-hour speech that danced between English and Spanish, Pudge told stories. He made us crack up, reminisce and even cry. His stories pulled us through his journey, and pulled the rest of us along through our own journeys with our families, friends and partners. He stole the show.

We laughed when he shared his story about Hall of Famer Nolan Ryan’s near-eighth no-hitter. Asked in the postgame interview what happened on the pitch that broke up the no-no, Pudge said, “Nolan shake me off.” And when reporters went over to Ryan to tell him what his young, brash catcher claimed, Ryan’s retort was, “Looks like he learned to speak English pretty quickly.”

Pudge moved me and others in the crowd by recounting a familiar childhood dream for those of us who start out short and “pudgy.”

“Tell them about a short kid who was hanging from the rope, dangling there, trying to stretch himself and hoping to become as tall as the other boys,” Pudge said. “And when I step on the side and look at my size, I can say I’m a very tall 5-foot-9. But I got a cool nickname out of it: ‘Pudge.’ The little kid from Puerto Rico with a big dream. Yeah, with a big dream.”

He touched on the important theme of family and talked about the love and experiences that parents and children share, even after the children become adults and Hall of Fame players. He called his father papi and his mother mami, recalled meeting baseball idols like Bench, and of himself becoming a baseball hero.

And the fans — whether Puerto Rican, Latino or Rangers — got it. Speaking to them on stage was their Pudge, who had moved them, inspired them, and was doing so once again. But this time, the once soft-spoken rookie who was born in Manatí and raised in the neighboring town of Vega Baja was doing it with his words, in English and Spanish. This was his new house and he was telling them all: Bienvenidos, Pudge’s new house is tu casa.

Pudge Rodriguez HOF Induction Speech
Pudge’s family from left to right: wife Patricia, mother Eva, father José, oldest son Iván Derrek, and daughters Ivanna Sofía and Amanda Christine.

The Pudge effect

They came for Pudge from far and wide. For all different reasons, including honoring a countryman who turned a small island into a sporting giant. Félix Mercado, 53, of Bayamón, Puerto Rico, flew to New York City a week earlier and then drove four hours to Cooperstown on Thursday, just like he did in 2011 when Alomar was inducted.

Pudge Rodriguez HOF Induction Speech
Why did Félix Mercado travel from Bayamón, Puerto Rico, to attend Pudge’s induction: “Disney is for kids, Cooperstown is for us adults.”

“This is about baseball,” Mercado said. “Disney is for kids. Cooperstown is for us adults.”

For one West Texas family, Pudge inspired a nearly 2,000-mile, 3½-day car odyssey from Odessa to the upstate New York village that now serves as the home for Pudge’s plaque. That Tejana mom, Rosie Valles, came with her brother, her grown son, and her seven-year-old grandson. For her, the trip was all about family and Pudge — and in a certain sense, they are one and the same.

When I asked the son how the car trip was, he laughed, “Stinky. Yet so worth it, to see Pudge this day.”

But as Rosie and her family demonstrated, the Pudge effect went deeper. About 25 years earlier, she had taken her sons, then ages seven and five, to an autograph show in Midland. While that half-hour drive was much shorter, it was unforgettable.

There they met the then 20-year-old Puerto Rican, who had already made such an impression on this mother and Rangers fan that she had to take her boys to meet him. And they got more than an autograph. Pudge took a photo with Rosie’s two little boys on his lap while flashing that Pudge smile. That day, he won a family of Latino fans.

Fast-forward 25 years. Rosie recalled waiting anxiously to hear the results of the Hall of Fame voting. Her son had been following the voting trends on social media. They were all nervous. Then came the televised Baseball Writers’ Association of America results: Pudge was IN.

They knew right then that they, too, were Cooperstown-bound. They would make the pilgrimage. Moreover, for their family, 2017 was a two-fer. Rosie’s brother was a diehard Astros fan. Not only would they have another driver to rotate on their journey, he was going to see Jeff Bagwell enshrined.

Yet, just as significant to Rosie, her grandson would also be on the trip to see Pudge inducted at the same age his father was when he met Pudge.

A Reason for reunions

Three generations of the Calderón family shared a similar story in speaking to La Vida in Cooperstown. Their journey was different, but the reason for their travels was the same: family and Pudge.

Grandpa Jorge flew in from Puerto Rico. His son Jorge came in from Texas. And two grandsons, including Jorge III, took a flight from Florida. Departing from three different destinations, they had a family reunion at the Albany International Airport. There, three generations of Calderóns shared a family hug, excited for the opportunity to partake in the Cooperstown magic together as a family.

At the hotel breakfast area on Sunday morning, I heard the familiar lilt of Puerto Rican Spanish being spoken. I walked over and asked the group enjoying its breakfast: “¿De qué parte de Puerto Rico son?

Vega Baja. Where Pudge grew up and learned how to play baseball.

They had made the journey to see their favorite son, who had left as a teenager and made good on his baseball dream of becoming a star. And how could Elmer Gautier Rodríguez, Pudge’s junior high school teacher, make the journey from Puerto Rico without his son and family friend?

Why were they all there? Pudge is the immediate reason, of course. But, as Pudge himself said, and as he illustrated through his words and the range of emotions he exhibited in his speech: Baseball is family, and for many Latinos, family is baseball.

Pudge Rodriguez HOF Induction Speech
Every time Pudge spoke in Spanish, fans stood up and waved the Puerto Rican flag.

A special journey

Love of family and love of the game were the powerful themes threaded through Pudge’s speech. And it was so clear that he was speaking to his people. They waved their Puerto Rico flags, their Texas flags; they sported the No. 7 Rangers and Marlins jerseys, the No. 12 Astros jersey, and the jerseys of Team Puerto Rico and the Pirates’ No. 21, cheering even louder when he spoke in Spanish.

“Quiero que levanten las banderas bien alto ahora mismo porque me siento bien orgulloso de ser puertorriqueño y de ser el cuarto Hall of Famer que sale de Puerto Rico” — “I want the flags waving up high because I feel real proud to be Puerto Rican and to be the fourth Hall of Famer to come out of Puerto Rico,” said Pudge as he mentioned the other three: Roberto Clemente, Orlando Cepeda and Roberto Alomar.

An even smaller set waved the yellow bandera of the town of Vega Baja, where Pudge was raised. One New York-based Puerto Rican attendee explained to me that he had to special order his flag from the island — but he had to have it, to wave proudly at Pudge’s induction.

Pudge himself had one in hand as he and his wife Patricia rode in the Hall of Fame Parade on Saturday. Both sides of the streets were lined with fans wearing their team’s colors, many waving Puerto Rican flags and cheering as the Hall of Fame inductees rode down Main Street to the red-carpeted steps of the Hall.

The magic of Induction weekend in Cooperstown goes beyond what you see on a television. It’s seeing, up close, the twinkle in Marichal’s eyes. It’s hearing Chi Chi — who played amateur baseball with Clemente and Cepeda in Puerto Rico’s Béisbol Doble A — share stories about time spent with Clemente and visiting Cepeda when he played with the San Francisco Giants.

Here was a golfer spouting baseball knowledge that had me stumped. Chi Chi knew many of the Dominican Dandy’s stats and achievements, including the number of pitches Marichal threw in his legendary 16-inning victory against Warren Spahn, a 1-0 game that Willie Mays won with a home run. The answer — inconceivable in today’s game — is 228.

It’s sharing a table with Maria Morales, who works for Rodríguez, and hearing her share her philosophy of baseball and family.

The magic of these Latino sporting heroes, Morales explained eloquently, “is not just about them personally, and it’s definitely not about their stats. It’s what they mean to us and our families, the journey that seeing them carries us through, and all the parts of our pasts with our family they (the players) take us on.”

Pudge gets it.

And that’s why he’s so happy that he now has a casa in Cooperstown to summer in with his fans each July.

Featured and Inset Images: Clemson Smith Muñiz / La Vida Baseball