Farewell to the assassin

I can’t deny the greatness of Pudge Rodriguez. He’s the Johnny Bench of his generation, the player by which future catchers will be measured against. We’ll see him again in five years when he’s inducted into Cooperstown, no doubt.

But I’m going to depart from the career retrospective approach that others might take. For me, as a Cubs fan, the 2003 NLCS is Pudge’s legacy. His role in that series cannot be overstated, and–as painful as it may be–I want to describe the moments where he earned his MVP award, and snuffed out the hopes of Cubs fans everywhere.

In Game one, the Cubs jumped out to an early 4-0 lead. Carlos Zambrano was on the mound, and all was good in Wrigleyville. But Pudge came up in the third inning, with two runners on base, and smashed a home run to get the Marlins back in the game. This got inside Zambrano’s head, as he surrendered two more home runs that inning, and gave up his big lead. The Marlins won that game in extra innings, which kept them in the series after the Cubs won the next three games. If the Marlins lose Game one, perhaps there would have been a sweep, and the nightmarish last two games in Wrigley could have been avoided. But this was not to be.

Game six, which I have written about many times, was the game that Pudge really came through for his team. In the ill-fated eighth inning, there was a diversion created by Moises Alou and the incident that we all know about. And in the confusion this created, a walk and a wild pitch to Luis Castillo were the first signs of Mark Prior’s unraveling. Up stepped Pudge Rodriguez.

The count went to 0-and-2 on Rodriguez and Prior, perhaps in an attempt to get his groove back, served up a big meatball. And Rodriguez, like the man behind the fence on that grassy knoll in Dallas, didn’t miss. He singled to left, plating Juan Pierre and continuing the meltdown that didn’t end until 8 runs had crossed the plate. The World Series dream, in retrospect, died at some point in the eighth inning of Game six, and Rodriguez’ single was the esoteric moment when that came to pass.

In the aftermath of that game, the media had their Oswald, their fall guy. Everything that went wrong was blamed on him. But the real culprit, the one that fired the equivalent of the Zapruder film’s kill shot, was Pudge Rodriguez. It didn’t so much as tie the game, but it further dazed Mark Prior, to the point that he should have come out of the game immediately after this at-bat. But Dusty Baker left  Prior in the game too long, and we all know how that story ended.

In Game seven, with the World Series on the line, Rodriguez delivered again. In the fifth inning, after Kerry Wood had issued two critical walks to put the tying run on base, Rodriguez came up and delivered a huge double on the first pitch he saw. And, more importantly, he became the lead run at second base. When he scored on Derrick Lee’s single, the Marlins never trailed again.

Rodriguez wasn’t the only Cubs killer in that series, but he was the primary one. So as Pudge Rodriguez hangs up his catching gear, I tip my cap and give him his due. He beat the Cubs more than anyone else did in that series, with the possible exception of Dusty Baker. The fans of the Marlins, and the other teams that he played for in his career, will remember him fondly. But Cubs fans like me can’t do that.

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