At Deadspin, you can read my second dispatch about the Atlantic League and independent baseball — this time a profile of a catcher who’s in his twentieth season as a minor leaguer. (Here’s a link to the first Atlantic League dispatch, from earlier this year.)
The catcher’s name is Luis Rodriguez, and he ended up having quite a story to tell. One part I couldn’t really fit in — and a part that further proves how talented Rodriguez is, how easy it is to imagine a scenario where he played a few years in the big leagues — is his time in winter ball.
Early in my first interview with Rodriguez, I asked some silly question about whether or not baseball was still fun for him. “You go play winter ball in Venezuela,” he replied, “and you won’t talk about fun. You know how much money your team loses when you lose. You play winter ball and you face Johan Santana, you face Felix Hernandez. It’s a job.” Rodriguez returned to this idea of baseball as a job again and again in our conversations. I think it came partly from his hard-working father and partly from winter ball. Either way, when baseball is your job — your profession — you do it for as long as you can. Fun doesn’t factor in.
That isn’t to say Rodriguez didn’t enjoy winter ball. He began playing in 1991 and worked his way up to the top league and a starting job with the Caracas Leones. One year the Leones boasted big league regulars — Alex Gonzalez, Bobby Abreu, Marco Scutaro, and more — at almost every position. “It’s like a big league stadium in Caracas,” Rodriguez remembered. “When we went to the finals, it was Yankees-Boston.”
Rodriguez ended up winning several rings with the Leones. “I know what champagne tastes like,” he told me. He stopped playing winter ball three years ago because his body wasn’t recovering as fast as it used to. “But I’ve been talking about going back this winter,” he added. In fact, whenever he does retire — and good luck getting him to commit to an answer on that — he thinks it might be nice to do it in Venezuela, in the winter leagues: “I could retire in front of my players, in front of my family, and in front of my fans.”