Born: November 27, 1971
I grew up in a small town in Puerto Rico called Vega Baja. It’s out in the country. My mom was a hairstylist back then. My dad, he was an electrician. Our parents worked hard for us. They didn’t make a lot of money. We lived day to day, but we were a family.
I was just a typical kid. For fun, I’d ride my bike in the neighborhood or skateboard. I played basketball with my friends. My parents made sure I tried out every sport I could before deciding on one. Believe it or not, I was a really good volleyball player.
Growing up, my parents were all about respect. And they were strict. My brother and I knew that when we came home from school, we had to go in and finish all of our homework right away. Then we’d have an hour or two when we could go outside and play. But it was a rule in my house that we all had to be together for dinner. That was mandatory. It wasn’t, One person is eating and then another one comes later. No. It was always 6:30, 6:45, we’d be eating dinner together, as a family.
I started really focusing on baseball at the age of seven. Pretty much my whole family played baseball, and at the time both my dad and my mom were playing in softball leagues. I loved the game from Day One. I actually used to be a pitcher and a third baseman. That’s how I started. But my dad was my first coach, and he noticed pretty quickly that I had a strong arm. So one day he sat me down and told me, “You are not going to pitch or play third base anymore, you’re gonna be a catcher. And I think you’re gonna be a good catcher.” I immediately started crying. I didn’t want to catch. I wanted to be a third baseman and hit home runs. He said, “You can cry as much as you want, but you’re gonna catch from now on.” I was eight years old.
I cried for about 15 minutes. But from that point on, I was a catcher.
Even before I started catching, my favorite player growing up was Johnny Bench. For some reason those Big Red Machine teams were always on TV in Puerto Rico. And as a kid, I loved to watch Bench play. He did everything well, and he wasn’t all that big. So watching him gave me some hope that I might have a shot. Once I became a catcher, it kind of all made sense why I had liked him so much as a little kid.
When I was 13, my dad moved me from my hometown to the San Juan Metroplex so I could train at the Raiders Baseball Academy. That’s where all the scouts were. I was on a traveling team, and we played all over the island. We also played some games in the States against American Legion teams. We had a really good team back then. We were very complete — good pitching, good offense, good defense. We’d usually win all those tournaments.
Funny story about the day that I signed with the Rangers. I was 16 at the time, and there was a big Prospects Showcase for a bunch of major league teams in San Juan. Sandy Johnson was scouting for the Rangers then, and he was there with Omar Minaya and Manny Batista, who were also scouts with Texas. Luis Rosa, the owner of the baseball academy, had three or four catchers who he was showcasing. The problem for me was that I was last on Luis’s list — fourth in line. Literally. He was focused more on a few other catchers at the time. But Sandy saw me warming up in the outfield — just throwing back and forth — and he asked about me. He told Luis that he wanted to see me before the other catchers there. So I started out as last in the group, but they jumped me to first. And after my first throw down to second base, like as soon as it got to the bag, Sandy turned to Omar and said: “Stop him. I don’t need to see another throw. Don’t let him throw down to second again. Go tell Luis that I want this kid.” He knew there were scouts from other teams there, and he wanted to get to me first. So I went out to the parking lot and signed a contract on the trunk of a car, and that was that.
My first trip to the U.S. after I signed was a disaster. I was all by myself, without my parents, and the plane was delayed. So I arrived in Miami late. Then I missed my connection to Sarasota, so I had to stay overnight in the terminal at the airport because the next flight wasn’t until the following morning. I slept on the floor. When I finally arrived in Sarasota, no one from the team was there to pick me up. I had to wait another two or three hours to get a ride. So that was my introduction to Florida. And the next morning, I was in Port Charlotte for spring training.
I got my nickname on the very first day of camp. People always think I’m called “Pudge” because of Carlton Fisk. That’s not the case. I’m a huge fan of Carlton Fisk. He’s one of the greatest to ever play the game. But he had nothing to do with me being known as Pudge. Chino Cadahia, who was a Rangers coach at the time, gave me that name. He saw that I was short and stocky, so, from Day One, he started calling me “Pudge.” It caught on, and the rest is history.
They knew I didn’t speak English very well when I arrived, but I told my coaches that I wanted to learn as quickly as possible. And I did. We took English classes every day from 6 to 7 p.m. back at our hotel. I studied hard, and that helped me a lot throughout my career. But at first when I went out to the mound, I’d be using a lot of hand motions, and just one or two words in English.
It was a grind waking up at 5:30 in the morning every day to be at the ballpark at 6 or 6:30. And at Port Charlotte, from our locker room to the main field where we would do our stretching was almost a mile. So we’d have to walk a mile even before we got started every morning. But as a 17-year-old kid, it was hard to complain. I’d have a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and then go out and do my work for the whole day.
There wasn’t much to do in Port Charlotte. There was one mall, but it wasn’t a very good one. The Rangers paid for us to go eat every day at a restaurant called Ponderosa. And other than Ponderosa there was a McDonald’s. That was it. Ponderosa was O.K. for two days, but after that, it started to get a bit old. So we’d have to go to McDonald’s … a lot. I can’t even tell you how many Chicken McNuggets that I ate back then. So many Chicken McNuggets.
I was 19 when I got called up. The Rangers were playing in Chicago at the time. I never expected to be in the big leagues so soon. I should’ve been happy. But it was actually a little depressing. Get this: The day they called me up I was supposed to get married on the field down in Tulsa where I was playing Double A ball. The night before, we had done some rehearsals with all the players out on the field, and it went great.
Then the next day my manager at the time, Bobby Jones, calls me into his office and says, “Hey kid, I think we have a problem.” I didn’t know what was going on. “You’re getting called up, so you have two choices. You can either get married here tonight, or you’re going to Chicago with the Rangers. But you can’t do both. If you’re headed to the big leagues, we’re going to have to delay the wedding.”
So I went to Chicago.
It was difficult to tell my fiancée that we couldn’t get married just yet. We ended up getting married the next year, in the spring, down in Port Charlotte. But not at the Ponderosa.
When people ask me for my favorite memories as a player, I always think of my defense first. Every time I threw out a runner, or picked someone off the base paths, I enjoyed that so much. I’ll almost never talk about my hitting. But the one exception would probably be my first major league hit, because that was special. It was my first game with the Rangers. We were playing the White Sox. I’d just called off a wedding and traveled hundreds of miles to make it to Chicago. I was dead tired. We were losing by a run in the top of the ninth inning and I singled to drive in two runs and help us win the game. It was like something out of a movie. I’ll never forget that as long as I live.
Tim Dipace/AP Images
Every time I threw out a runner, or picked someone off the base paths, I enjoyed that so much.
As a young player in Texas, I learned from so many veterans early on — Nolan Ryan, Julio Franco, Kenny Rogers, Rubén Sierra, Dean Palmer, Juan González, Kevin Brown, Tom Henke. That was my introduction to what it meant to be a major leaguer. They taught me from Day One to play the game hard. Those guys didn’t give a damn that I was young, that I was only 19 or 20. They expected me to do my job. They treated me like an adult. They didn’t treat me like a kid. And I learned from them. It’s not so much what they told me, it’s what I saw — it’s what they showed me by how hard they worked.
One of the things that I always tried to remember, and that I developed during my years with the Rangers, was the importance of respecting the fans. I always respected the 45,000 or 50,000 people who paid good money to watch us play. They paid to see a good show on the field. So I always wanted to play my very best every day. I felt that I owed it to the fans.
Catching Kenny Rogers’s perfect game on July 28, 1994, meant a lot to me. I’d rather help a pitcher do something like that than hit a thousand home runs. To me, calling a great game and helping a pitcher be at his very best is what being a catcher is all about.
That MVP season was probably the most fun I ever had playing baseball. People remember the 35 home runs that year, and the high batting average. But a lot of people forget about the steals. People think that because my nickname is Pudge, that I was a slow guy. Now, I’m not saying I’m fast. But I stole 25 bases that year. That’s pretty cool.
I have no regrets about leaving the Rangers. Of course, I had wanted to play my whole career there. That was always my goal. But sometimes baseball is a business. A few years earlier, the Rangers had signed Alex Rodriguez to that $252 million contract. So with paying him that much money, they couldn’t really afford me. That’s part of baseball. I understand it. But I played hard every day for that team. I did my job. I worked my butt off. So … no regrets, and no hard feelings. Plus, it definitely helped that the Marlins thing worked out pretty good that next year.
Game 1 of the World Series. Marlins vs. Yankees. At Yankee Stadium. Tie game. 1–1. Nick Johnson is on third base and is the go-ahead run.
Well, Nick Johnson was on third base … until I picked him off to end the inning.
We went on to win that game by one run, and that victory set the tone for the entire series. I’m pretty sure that’s my favorite play of my career. If I don’t make that throw and nail Nick Johnson, maybe that run scores and we lose that game, and who knows what happens in that series? But I got him. And that one felt so good.
The last game of the 2003 World Series, Game 6, Josh Beckett was on the hill on just three days rest, and he threw a complete game. That was incredible to be a part of. And being able to celebrate in New York was amazing. To me, there’s no bigger stage in the world than Yankee Stadium.
You know, that year, we never really got all that nervous during the World Series, because no one ever gave us a chance. We never felt like we had a ton of pressure on us. We were underdogs the whole playoffs — every series. No one expected us to win a single series in the playoffs. So we were beating the odds the whole time. We just had fun. We were loose. And I’m pretty sure that’s why we won it all.
Playing in Detroit was pretty special for me. That Old English D is iconic. There’s so much history there. A ton of Hall of Famers have been a part of the Tigers organization. And that meant something to me. I was proud to put on that uniform. I just have one big regret about my years as a Tiger….
I still can’t believe we didn’t win the World Series in 2006. It was really painful for me when we lost in five games to St. Louis. I was heartbroken — because we had such a good year. We had the perfect group of players. But everything fell apart. I still think about that one all the time. Baseball is crazy. You just never know.
When I got to the Yankees, I remember being kind of in awe. It was just so cool to be able to put those pinstripes on and that Yankee Stadium was my home field. I really felt like I was part of history. Knowing all the great players who had been in that clubhouse was inspiring to me as a player. I wasn’t there long, but I’ll never forget it.
During my final year with the Nationals, I realized something had changed. By that time, I was only playing one or two times a week. And that was very hard for me. Sitting on the bench was tough. And when I got my two days to play, everything was so different. The game had become much more difficult for me. It wasn’t the same anymore. Everything was faster and more mechanical. So I became frustrated, and it started to bring me down. I had a feeling it was going to be my last season, but when the off-season came, it was hard. I didn’t really want to end my career, but at the same time my mind wasn’t ready to go back to another spring training. I had some opportunities with some clubs. But I didn’t have the same passion anymore. And that’s when I decided to retire. It was time.
There’s nothing I would change about my baseball career. No changes. Nothing. I’m very pleased with the career that I had. All the organizations I played for were first-class all the way. I’m proud to have played for all of them. And I’m proud of the respect that I showed for the game. Now … I guess if I could do one thing over again, or go back, I would say that I’d love to have 156 more hits, for 3,000. But, you know, 2,844, that’s a lot of hits. That’s not too bad.
Everything that I’ve become and everything I’ve accomplished starts with my parents, Jose and Eva, Mom and Dad. Those two taught me everything in life. For me, everything starts at home, and I still, to this day, apply what they taught me growing up. I’m 45 years old … and I’m still getting advice from my mom. I’m still taking lessons from my dad. You should see me when those two are talking. I shut my mouth and listen, even at my age. And, you know what, to be completely honest, I have no complaints about that at all.