An American Association championship shouldn’t mean much, by comparison, to John Rodriguez.
After all, Rodriguez earned a World Series ring after hitting behind future Hall-of-Fame slugger Albert Pujols for the St. Louis Cardinals in 2006.
Rodriguez, though, isn’t playing like he’s chasing a secondary prize. At 35, Rodriguez is the Wingnuts’ oldest player, and his body has betrayed him at times this season. He hasn’t missed a game, though, and his recent burst of energy has helped the Wingnuts surge into the postseason having won nine of 11 games.
Wichita begins the postseason Wednesday night at Grand Prairie in Game 1 of a best-of-five first-round series. The series stays in Texas Thursday before coming to Lawrence-Dumont Stadium for Friday’s Game 3.
Rodriguez’s attitude toward a championship that won’t necessarily complete his resume is prevalent within the Wingnuts clubhouse and partially crafted by Rodriguez, their emotional leader.
“It’s still a championship, it’s still a championship,” Rodriguez said. “The only difference is we’re not around 50,000 fans. Besides all that glamour, it’s still the same thing. Wherever you play, you want to win a championship, and it feels the same way. Popping (champagne) bottles is popping bottles. If you do it with guys that you love, it’s even better.”
That love is reciprocated among the teammates he constantly looks out for. The Wingnuts have celebrated their chemistry over the last two seasons, and the common bond has been veteran players such as Rodriguez, C.J. Ziegler, Ryan Khoury, Jake Kahaulelio, Josh Dew and others who find the optimal balance between having fun and treating each game with a business-like approach.
Rodriguez learned that approach as a Yankees fan, watching notorious hustlers such as Derek Jeter, Bernie Williams and Paul O’Neill.
“Watching them and seeing how they play and go about the game every day, you try to emulate that and play hard all the time,” Rodriguez said. “You try to emulate that and provide that to the younger guys. Seeing those guys all the time, seeing that they were going into their late 30s and were still doing that, it was impressive.”
For Rodriguez, leadership is not all about walking the walk. He debuted in the major leagues in 2005 at 27 after more than 750 games at Double- or Triple-A. He calls himself a diamond in the rough for reaching the big leagues after signing with his hometown New York Yankees for $1,000 in 1997, then spending eight years in the minors with three organizations before the Cardinals called him up.
The Wingnuts reached a league-record 68 wins this season with six position players (and Rodriguez, the designated hitter) who have played in Triple-A or the big leagues. Rodriguez believes they deserve another chance in affiliated ball, so he’s trying to do something about it.
“I see guys that shouldn’t even be in this league but are in this league, and I tend to wonder, what are scouts looking for,” Rodriguez said. “Like (Ziegler) – what are scouts looking for? Give the guy a chance. You can go up and down our lineup, you can go up the All-Star team they put together and ask why are these guys still here.
“Everybody on this team should almost get a chance. I try to tell them, ‘Listen, don’t get discouraged.’ I told a couple of guys that I would be making phone calls this offseason to a couple of scouts that I know, and see if they could do that – sign them for a grand and see what they can do. I signed for a thousand dollars, and look at my career.”
Rodriguez reached 1,500 career hits and 900 RBIs this season, and he has more than 230 professional home runs. He was second on the Wingnuts in batting (.337) home runs (19) and RBIs (86) this year, all while battling various injuries.
Rodriguez joined Ziegler as Wingnuts who played all 100 games, but at one point he was taking it easy on the bases due to a strained hamstring. The rest of the time, though, he runs out groundballs, steals bases and legs out extra bases, like when he hit a late-inning triple Friday against Kansas City.
“That’s just me,” Rodriguez said. “There’s days where I might look like I let up, but it’s probably because something is tweaked. It’s never that I’m not giving it my full effort. Even if I feel 75 percent, I give it my all, still. My legs are feeling great right now. I like showing the younger guys, too, it doesn’t matter how old you are – hustle doesn’t have an age.
“Getting to the bad, running through hard, playing the game the right way doesn’t have an age. It’s all about what’s upstairs.”