IHS grad had 3-year grind in minors
Seldom in sports do deals made half a decade earlier than a current season have much lasting impact in a present tense; players are often dealt like blackjack cards in favor of more attractive exchanges after initially being traded from one team to another.
In professional baseball, Kansas City fans could hope – if not assume – moves made way-back-when set in motion the events producing the Royals’ American League championship and World Series appearance in 2014 – the franchise’s finest campaign since the Brett (third baseman George) & Bret (pitcher Saberhagen)-bolstered bunch took the whole taco an even 30 years ago.
Such acquisitions, allocations and alleviations certainly would – if the publication was truly prophetic – help justify Baseball America’s January 2011 declaration of K.C.’s farm system as being the minor leagues’ best.
For three seasons Ignacio High School alumnus Derek Rodriguez was part of that system.
But after having helped short-season Rookie-level Burlington, NC, clinch its first playoff berth in 17 summers, Rodriguez was also part of a late-September 2010 roster purge in which he and eleven other big-league hopefuls within the system were released to their varying destinies.
For the former Bobcat it was unfortunately, as time would tell, the end of the line.
No promotions to Double- or Triple-A, no running out before Kauffman Stadium supporters to play in the Royals-hosted 2012 Major League Baseball All-Star Game, not even a ‘cup of coffee’ at the sport’s highest level.
But since central La Plata County in southwestern Colorado hasn’t exactly been a scout’s fantasy, the fact a small-school product like Rodriguez, now 26, not only received the honor of being drafted [37th round in 2007, 1,109th overall] but then stuck in the pro game longer than a year deserves a last look.
Considering MLB’s mandated five years – between a player’s retirement and eligibility for Hall of Fame status (pitching greats Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez and John Smoltz joined infielder Craig Biggio in Cooperstown, N.Y., on July 26 as the ‘Class of 2015’) – have passed … it’s time “D-Rod” gets his due.
‘ANY BALL ALL THE TIME’
Himself a former Royal as well as a two-time (1993-94, 1998) Colorado Rockies infielder during a lengthy major-league run that also saw him with the Toronto Blue Jays, Minnesota Twins, Pittsburgh Pirates and Los Angeles Dodgers, Nelson Liriano seemingly never lost his own youthful enthusiasm.
He would probably have loved to see that though Rodriguez could be taken out of the game, the game can probably never be taken from Rodriguez, whom he managed at Burlington in 2009 and ’10 – when the team went 34-34 during the season and finished second in the Appalachian League’s Eastern Division before a best-of-three loss to Western winners Johnson City, Tenn., ended the team’s first postseason since 1993 (when it was called the Burlington Indians, and part of the Cleveland organization).
Recently seen leaping at the centerfield fence to rob a foe of a sure home run during Fort Lewis College’s day-night-day ‘Softball Under the Stars 2015’ slow-pitch tourney (a FLC Women’s Fastpitch fundraiser, held July 10-11), it was reminiscent of a try – albeit unsuccessful; his glove went over the wall – which Liriano loved.
“He goes after any ball all the time,” Liriano told the Burlington Times-News, singling out the August 19, 2010, effort to deny Princeton (W.Va.) Ray Todd Glaesmann rather than dwelling upon the 7-3 home loss – in which Rodriguez took Ray left-hander Jacob Partridge deep for his second-ever pro homer.
No report of the size of Rodriguez’s grin, whether after his tater or his humorous climb over and back to retrieve his missing mitt, was given in the article, but it’s a safe bet it was a mile wider than following a 12-0 shutout courtesy Eastern rivals Danville, Va., twelve days later.
Still, via 1-for-3 batting at the plate Rodriguez not only ended the regular season on a five-game hitting streak, but helped the Royals finish 7-4 during the campaign against the Appalachian’s defending champs (whom they’d beaten the previous day to secure a spot in the playoffs, with Rodriguez going 1-3 with a walk and two stolen bases in a tight 3-2 triumph).
Rodriguez added another knock in his only at-bat in Burlington’s playoff opener, and also stole one base before being pinch-hit for in the sixth inning, but Johnson City prevailed 8-4. With Rodriguez not in the lineup for Game 2, the Cardinals emphatically eliminated the Royals by a bloated 20-2 margin.
SORTA LIKE MIKE
Still remembered for his high-flying Bobcat Basketball days in addition to his IHS Baseball attributes, it’s fairly fitting that Rodriguez’s career numbers on minor-league diamonds closely resemble those of NBA icon Michael Jordan’s.
Even his birthday (Feb. 13th) is in the ballpark – pun intended – with that (Feb. 17th) of His Airness.
Starting with a 1-for-1, one-run, one-RBI showing in his June 22, 2008, pro debut for the Rookie-level Arizona League Royals in a 3-2 loss to the AZL Rangers, Rodriguez registered batting averages of .213, .243 and .195 from ’08 to ’10, making for a career .214 mark (MJ’s was .202).
Having played for not only the AZL Royals and Burlington, Rodriguez also saw a short Rookie-level Pioneer League stretch in ’09 with the Idaho Falls Chukars while amassing 75 total hits (including nine doubles, two triples and two homers), scoring 48 runs and swiping 34 bags.
For comparison’s sake, Jordan cracked 88 hits in 127 games (Rodriguez played in 129), with 17 doubles, one triple and three homers. He scored 46 times and stole 30 bases during his lone season (1994, Double-A Birmingham, Ala.), while drawing just twelve more walks (51-39) in 90 more plate appearances.
Defensively, Jordan’s outfield efforts yielded a .952 fielding percentage in 230 total chances, while Rodriguez was .965 in 226 while patrolling all three outfield regions.
FIRST TIME GOING DEEP
If a sign of one’s arrival in the pros is one’s first home run, then Rodriguez will always remember his. Though nobody could really blame him if that memory ever becomes somewhat hazy and its details somewhat blurred; heatstroke could be the culprit.
Playing for the AZL Royals against the AZL Athletics on August 23, 2008, Rodriguez decked his first dinger – a solo shot – off lefty Anvioris Ramirez with one out in the third inning. He also ripped a double and scored again as part of a 2-for-4 outing…which unluckily wasn’t enough as the A’s prevailed 6 to 5 in a sizzler held in reported 104-degree heat (with only a 4-mph breeze for relief).
And that, fans, sounds like a nutshell summary of minor-league baseball life.
Which few in Ignacio before or since Derek Rodriguez have, or ever will enjoy experiencing.