No end in sight for energized Pudge

No end in sight for energized Pudge

LAKELAND, Fla. -- Ivan Rodriguez playing to 40? Not a problem, he says. Biking to 40? Apparently no big deal, either.

For such an intense competitor, the Tigers catcher and future Hall of Famer is looking relaxed in camp. The only challenge for him so far is staying on schedule.

After catching Tigers pitchers on Monday morning, Rodriguez was off to the track early in the afternoon for sprint work. After that, he had an hour and a half of weight work awaiting him at a gym. That's his routine for three days a week. On three other days, he's on a bicycle for about two hours, covering about 40-45 miles.

Rodriguez doesn't know how many more years he'll be in a Tigers uniform. But he has no problem seeing himself playing more than a few years before he even considers retirement. He has too much work invested to think otherwise.

"Not a problem," he said. "Every year that I play baseball, to be honest with you, I'm feeling better and better and better. My workout program is outstanding. I follow that day in and day out. When you love to work out and you concentrate and do the things that you have to do in the offseason to prepare for a 7 1/2-month season, that's why you always end up having good years and healthy seasons.

"During the season, all of you guys see that I'm in the weight room and running. Sometimes I'm out in the field during the season, running sprints. It's part of my routine. I have to do it. If I want to play this game longer, if I want to play this game for the years I want to play, I have to work harder. Because, we've got to be honest, I'm not 25 anymore. I'm 35 years old, but 35 doesn't mean anything if you work hard and you prepare yourself physically and mentally."

He's a different player now than he was at 25. In the few years since he incorporated running and sprints into his workouts, Rodriguez has transformed from the body form that spawned his nickname into an efficient, mobile athlete. Though his power numbers have fallen over the last couple years and he's coming off of a difficult postseason slump at the plate, his athleticism shows no drop-off. Even at 35, he's considering one of the best runners on the team by manager Jim Leyland, who still calls him an option to bat leadoff against left-handed pitchers.

Defensively, there has been no drop. Rodriguez's 12th career Gold Glove Award, most among catchers in Major League history, capped a 2006 season in which he threw out nearly half of all would-be baserunners. With just two errors in 123 games behind the plate, he posted a .998 fielding percentage, the highest of any full season in his 16-year career. Rodriguez's slimmed-down frame has made him a massive presence behind home plate once again.

"You'll never see anyone more proud of the way he keeps himself in shape than him," Leyland said. "He works. But for the most part, they all do. Sure, some work a little harder than others, but some have to. I mean, there's a reason you've caught that long and you look that good."

For Rodriguez, it's a matter-of-fact answer. While Tigers pitchers have grown up in three years, Rodriguez has largely avoided the breakdown of growing old.

"The only way I can play at the level I'm playing at right now," he said, "is to keep doing what I'm doing."

Rodriguez means his workouts, not necessarily his numbers. His contract numbers are a different issue.

When he signed his four-year contract as a free agent just before Spring Training in 2004, Rodriguez was the first star player to make the jump to the Tigers. But beneath the motivation was the question of whether he could catch for the duration of the contract. At this point, he seems not only set to fulfill that, but to spend 2008 behind the plate should the Tigers pick up his $13 million option, as expected.

It's not impossible that he could get another contract beyond that. The Tigers have no obvious replacement in their farm system, and Rodriguez has no other place he wants to go after this.

"I have one more year left in my contract," he said, "and I would love to stay here until I retire. I still have a lot of baseball in me. The way I take care of myself, the way I feel right now, I feel very good. No pain, no nothing. I just want to focus on playing the game of baseball."

He has five years left to fill before he turns 40.

"Not a problem," he repeated. "I love this game. I want to play this game as long as I can. I don't know until what year I'm going to play, but as long as I'm healthy and keep doing what I'm doing, I'm going to be in this game."

Jason Beck is a reporter for This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.