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Pudge is a hit with the Tigers |

Pudge is a hit with the Tigers

The Associated Press
| Tuesday, July 6, 2004 12:00 a.m

DETROIT — Ivan Rodriguez hit .500 in June and started Tuesday with a .377 average, easily the best in the major leagues.

He was voted to the All-Star game for the 11th time and is the man most responsible for the transformation of the Detroit Tigers from a record-setting loser to a team in the middle of the pack in the AL Central.

“I’m very happy and pleased with the season,” he said. “We’re playing great baseball. We just have to keep playing.”

The Detroit Tigers showed a lot of faith in Rodriguez when they gave him a $40 million, four-year contract in February.

The star catcher has been worth every penny.

“I played with Vladimir Guerrero and Sammy Sosa,” teammate Rondell White said. “And I’ve seen Bernie Williams get as hot as anybody, but what Pudge is doing is unbelievable.”

Many thought the same of Rodriguez’s decision to sign with the Tigers this offseason after being the MVP of the NL championship series and helping the Florida Marlins win the World Series last season.

Detroit lost an AL-record 119 games last year — one short of the modern-day record set by the 1962 New York Mets — and hasn’t had a winning record since 1993.

But Rodriguez focused on the positive things about the once-proud franchise, which has produced numerous Hall of Famers and won four World Series in nine appearances since 1901.

Granted, the Tigers offered the 32-year-old catcher more money than any other team was prepared to. But Rodriguez’s performance thus far has justified the team’s confidence.

During spring training, Lance Parrish, Detroit’s bullpen coach and an eight-time All-Star catcher, said Rodriguez was arguably the best player ever to play behind the plate.

Could he make a stronger argument now?

“Absolutely,” Parrish said.

“He’s probably not going to hit as many home runs as Johnny Bench or Carlton Fisk,” he said. “But Pudge is probably better than the best I’ve ever seen defensively. And obviously, he can do some things at the plate.”

After the misery of last season, Detroit now has a chance in every game — thanks in no small part to Rodriguez’s bat, 10-time Gold Glove arm and fiery leadership.

“We are doing pretty good,” he said.

Entering last night’s game against the New York Yankees, the Tigers had 37 wins. They had 43 all of last season.

Manager Alan Trammell said Rodriguez, the AL player of the month for June, deserves a lot of credit.

“He’s an elite player who continues to amaze even myself,” he said.

And the fans. Attendance at Comerica Park is up 32.4 percent over last year after three straight years of declines. The team has already sold more tickets, including advance sales, than it did all of last season when it drew just 17,103 fans per game.

People around the state that are not going to games are talking about the Tigers. And they’re not making jokes.

“This guy has been great for the franchise,” Trammell said.

He is the first Tiger to be voted into the All-Star Game since Trammell in 1988, and he was Detroit’s first AL player of the month since Cecil Fielder in 1990.

On the field, and behind the scenes, Rodriguez is a strong presence.

“When we were really struggling last month, he called a team meeting in the clubhouse before a game,” White said. “He told us to turn it up a notch and to focus because he said, ‘We can do it.’ When he talks, we listen.”

Rodriguez is doing what many thought an aging catcher couldn’t. He’s playing like a star in his prime, and he rarely misses a game.

He also has a chance to become the first catcher to win the AL batting crown.

Since 1900, a catcher has been the NL batting champ three times, but none since 1942, according to the Elias Sports Bureau. The best batting average by a catcher who caught at least 100 games was .361 by Bill Dickey of the New York Yankees in 1936, according to Elias.

Before Rodriguez, Colorado’s Todd Helton was the last player to hit .500 in a month, four years ago. During Detroit’s weekend series in Colorado, Rockies manager Clint Hurdle said Rodriguez’s feat was more impressive.

“He’s a catcher doing it,” Hurdle said. “And it’s not like he’s only catching every other day.”

Besides his gaudy batting average, Rodriguez started the series in New York with 57 RBI and 10 home runs.

“Every time he gets an at-bat, I know I’m getting up there, too,” said Dmitri Young, who hits in the cleanup spot behind Rodriguez. “There haven’t been too many catchers winning batting titles, but he might just be able to add that to his resume because he hits everything.

“It’s just another phenomenal thing he’s doing on his way to the Hall of Fame.”

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