Wichita Wingnuts

John Rodriguez brings big-league credentials to Wingnuts’ lineup

Putting together a baseball roster essentially from scratch over a seven-month period can often be a painstaking process. Managers and front-office personnel welcome any chance for it to be made easier.

The Wingnuts got a brief break from the grind when former major-league outfielder John Rodriguez called manager Kevin Hooper, his former teammate in Triple-A, to see if a spot was available in Wichita.

The only time it took for Hooper to say “yes” was the time the word needed to travel from his brain to his mouth. Rodriguez hasn't played in the big leagues since 2006, when he helped the St. Louis Cardinals win the World Series, but he has continued to have success in the upper levels of the minor leagues since.

The opportunity for Wichita to add Rodriguez, who will add clout to the middle of the order while providing a veteran voice so Hooper doesn't have to use his as often, was a no-brainer for the Wingnuts' decision makers.

"I hadn't seen him, I hadn't talked to him in a while," Hooper said. "It's pretty special for him to pick up the phone and call me. It's pretty cool, it's pretty near. It's open arms for a guy like him."

The call wasn't easy for Rodriguez to make. Most players who hit .300 in the big leagues during the prime of their careers don't find themselves cold-calling ex-teammates looking for work six years later.

Rodriguez, a native of New York, doesn't worry about pride. At 34, he recognizes that his career is nearing an end, and as an aspiring hitting coach he is eager for the chance to help younger players while continuing to play.

"It's just a love of the game," Rodriguez said before adding with a laugh, "Obviously, it's a different type of pay here. But I don't go off of that."

Rodriguez will likely hit third for the Wingnuts in their season opener tonight against Lincoln at Lawrence-Dumont Stadium, and he'll become the seventh former major leaguer to play for the team.

But he has something none of the others possess — a World Series ring. Rodriguez wasn't a star for the 2006 team, but he earned his chance to contribute a season earlier, when he took the place of an injured Reggie Sanders and batted .298 in 56 games.

In the Cardinals' championship season, Rodriguez was relegated mostly to pinch-hitting duty, but he hit .301 in 212 at-bats over 102 games. He had hits against the likes of Greg Maddux and Roger Clemens during an abbreviated career.

"Anytime you're in the big leagues, either for an at-bat or for 10 years, it's always magical every second that you're there," Rodriguez said. "I had fun, I had a great time. It was definitely a dream come true. That ’06 season was one of the best years I've ever had, playing-wise and experience-wise."

The Cardinals were Rodriguez's third organization. He spent eight seasons in the Yankees system but didn't advance beyond Triple-A, being let go after hitting .294 with 52 extra-base hits in 2004.

A seemingly stalled career picked up momentum in 2005. Rodriguez started the year in the Indians chain but was traded to the Cardinals, who found themselves with a need for an outfielder, so Rodriguez got his chance.

Rodriguez had one at-bat in the World Series, striking out against Detroit's Fernando Rodney, but his contributions during the regular season helped St. Louis reach that point.

"It was definitely nerve-wracking," Rodriguez said. "The excitement — my adrenaline was flowing. Just being there was unreal. Until everything was over — that's when you realize that it all happened."

Those experiences are what could help Rodriguez become an effective coach. He'll get a start with the Wingnuts, and his credentials have already prompted some teammates to pick his brain about hitting.

Hooper has said that ex-big leaguers like Rodriguez don't belong in independent ball, but Rodriguez's willingness to teach show that the easiest addition of the Wingnuts' offseason doesn't feel above it.

"I'm definitely honored to be here," Rodriguez said. "But I'm more honored that they ask me to help them out."