When you’re a diehard fan of a team, you inevitably feel a sense of attachment to the players that comprise it every season. It’s a special kinship unlike any other. You likely don’t know any of these guys on a personal basis, yet they keep you consistent company through the ups and downs of life through the heart of the year.
Granted, these attachments can be somewhat irrational given how much rosters change year by year. Yet it’s precisely that transience that makes them so profound. The time spent watching them play becomes even more precious knowing they could be gone the very next year, or even at the July deadline.
Personally, my strongest attachments tend to be with the more peripheral members of the roster. The guys whose name you only know if you watch or follow every game, immersing yourself in nonstop blog and media coverage. Most eminently, relief pitchers. I have a fascination with the art of relief pitching, of being able to warm up quickly enough and take on a high leverage situation any given day, however brief. Relievers are invaluable to a team going far, yet outside of the closer, their names are usually known only by the diehards.
Granted, I have a predisposition to focus on supporting characters in general. One of my greatest writing influences, Jimmy Breslin, used his pen to spotlight the overlooked and forgotten everyday heroes, rather than the famous ones. When he was assigned to cover JFK’s funeral, he opted instead to profile the man who dug his grave. So it’s understandable why a relief pitcher or an afterthought trade acquisition might command my imagination more than a marquee slugger or ace starter.
This week’s Random Dodger of the Day is perhaps my favorite obscure player attachment of my life as a Dodgers fan: reliever Steven Francis Rodriguez, better known to fans as Paco. From 2012-2015, Paco livened up an often troubled bullpen with a quirky sidearm delivery. Yet his full potential would unfortunately be stunted by injuries.
Paco’s time in the majors certainly couldn’t have started any more promisingly. He was originally drafted by the Houston Astros in the 2009 MLB Draft just after his high school graduation, although he didn’t sign. However, he didn’t have to wait too long to be drafted again, this time by Los Angeles in 2012.
Incredibly, 2012 would be the same year he made his MLB debut. He blazed his way through the minors all season, earning a September call-up to the Dodgers. This made him the first 2012 draftee to reach the majors, before the likes of Carlos Correa, Byron Buxton, Andrew Heaney, Michael Wacha, and another guy named Corey Seager.
With such a quick rise to the top, Paco unsurprisingly was an asset all year for the team in 2013. After a shaky April, he was untouchable from May through August, with a 1.31 ERA and two saves during that span. His first career save was especially memorable, coming on June 25 at home against the defending champion Giants. After yet another awful showing by closer Brandon League, Rodriguez came on to put out the fire. After allowing a baserunner, he retired the next three Giants for a nail-biting 6-5 victory, the final out secured on a sprawling catch by Matt Kemp at the warning track. Paco’s reaction to that game-ending catch also resulted in one of my favorite Dodger GIFs ever:
The heavy workload of the season caused him to break down in September, and his limited action in the NLDS against Atlanta didn’t yield any better results. Regardless, he helped stabilize the bullpen during the unforgettable 42-8 run, which lifted the team out of last place in June to its first N.L. West title in four years.
Dodgers fans weren’t the only ones excited by Paco. Former MLB ace Mark Mulder, inactive from the majors since 2008 chiefly due to injury, started to imitate his unorthodox delivery after watching it on television. That delivery inspired Mulder to attempt a comeback with the Angels in 2014, albeit one cut tragically short when he tore his achilles tendon during leg drills in Spring Training. While Mulder didn’t get a chance at the comeback, that he was inspired to do so by none other than Paco Rodriguez is worthy of recollection.
After having grown apathetic towards the franchise during the McCourt fiasco, the 2013 team reignited my passion for Dodger baseball, the 42-8 run happening during none other than the greatest summer of my life. My appetite for the 2014 season was whet, during which I followed the team with even greater intensity and immersion.
In a season dominated by Clayton Kershaw’s historic MVP campaign, one might think Paco would be a footnote. But he continued to become one of my favorite players, despite spending most of the season with AAA Albuquerque. I even coined Paco Bell, including a truly awful photoshop with his visage slapped on the Taco Bell logo that I shared at True Blue L.A. Unsurprisingly, it never caught on.
One of my happiest memories of the 2014 season was the chance to see him play in person, albeit a bit unexpectedly. My father, two sisters and I made our annual pilgrimage to Dodger Stadium in early August for the first game of a series against the Cubs. On a perfect Friday night, we watched the Dodgers fall to the Cubs, thanks in part to some awful baserunning by Adrian Gonzalez. Saturday was devoted to other activities, although we were probably better off seeing them that night as they won on a Hanley Ramirez walk-off homer in the rain.
As we started our return home to Sacramento on Sunday, my father determined we had a couple hours we could spare for one more fun stop. We whittled our choices down to either Downtown Disney, or the last Dodgers-Cubs game. So we made the obvious choice of the Happiest Place on Earth…Dodger Stadium.
We pulled up to the stadium with the game already underway, and another one of my 2014 favorites, Josh Beckett, starting for Los Angeles. Beckett managed to go into the fifth inning, but came undone on a tiebreaking two-run homer in the fifth.
Don Mattingly went to his bullpen, and as the ebullient strains of “Armanda Latina” by Cypress Hill filled the stadium, I jumped out of my seat to see Paco’s grinning face on the Jumbotron. It was a joy to see a favorite player in person at last, and he didn’t disappoint, throwing two perfect innings with two strikeouts. I even snapped a picture on my phone, immediately shared to Facebook. On a more somber note, this would turn out to be Beckett’s last MLB game, mere months after he threw the 24th no-hitter in Dodgers history.
While Paco pitched well in this particular game, his season totals weren’t enough to make the playoff roster that October. It was probably for the best, given the bullpen was largely torched by St. Louis and then controversially (albeit correctly) underutilized in the infamous Matt Adams game. What, was Mattingly really going to trust Brian Wilson or Jamey Wright over Kershaw in the seventh?
Unfortunately, Paco Bell wouldn’t stay open in Los Angeles for much longer. July 2015 was the first trade season for the new Friedman/Zaidi regime, and their big move was a three-team trade with the Braves and Marlins close to the deadline. In a dizzying set of transactions, Mat Latos, Alex Wood, Jim Johnson, Luis Avilan, Michael Morse, Bronson Arroyo, and Jose Peraza came to L.A., although some were immediately moved. Paco was dealt to Atlanta along with Hector Olivera and Zachary Bird. He had ridden the disabled list since May due to a bone spur, but was expected to recover in time to pitch for the Braves by September.
Sadly, he never got the chance, instead undergoing Tommy John surgery in September rather than pitch. As of now, Rodriguez is still floating around the lower echelons of the pros with the Sugar Land Skeeters of the Atlantic League of Professional Baseball. I hope he finds his way back to the majors soon, as every inning he pitched was a fun one. His time in 2013 ensures he’ll remain beloved by diehard Dodgers fans.Random Dodger of the Day: Brian Holton