Although his name can be found right below that of the already-legendary Alex Rodriguez in reference books like Total Baseball, he has been mostly forgotten since his playing days ended in 1983. That’s more than a bit sad, partly because the original “A-Rod” left such a distinct impression on me—first as an opposing player and then during a late-career turn with the Yankees.
Aurelio Rodriguez couldn’t hit like today’s more well-known “A-Rod,” but he was one of the most graceful defensive third basemen of the 1970s. Rodriguez had the range of a shortstop and the throwing arm of a right fielder; along with his smooth hands, those skills combined to form a delightful package at the hot corner. In fact, I’ve never seen an infielder with a stronger arm than Aurelio. (A list of such arms would have to include recent infielders like Shawon Dunston and Travis Fryman or current-day players like Rafael Furcal and Troy Tulowitzki. All terrific arms, but all a notch below that of Rodriguez. ) That cannon-like right arm, which Ernie Harwell often described as a “howitzer,” made him a treat to watch during his many stops with the White Sox, Orioles, Yankees, Padres, Tigers, Washington Senators, and Angels.
A product of Cananea, Mexico, Rodriguez struggled with English during his early major league career with the Angels. As Rodriguez once said without bitterness, he knew only three words of English during his first ten days with California. “Ham and eggs” became a frequent refrain, resulting in a less-than-balanced diet for the young Rodriguez.
Always a terrific defender at the hot corner, Rodriguez failed to develop offensively with the Angels—a problem that persisted throughout his career. He resisted repeated attempts by his managers and coaches to hit outside pitches toward the opposite field, stubbornly trying to pull the ball and hit home runs. Rodriguez was also the consummate free swinger, never one to take to pitches and work out walks. And I’ve heard at least one former front official with the Tigers describe Rodriguez as a player who simply didn’t work as hard as he should have.
Although Rodriguez never became the star that the Angels once predicted, he did enjoy a solid career, especially with the Tigers. With his rifle arm and silky soft hands, Rodriguez cemented the left side of the infield for the Tigers and would have won more than one Gold Glove if not for the presence of a fellow named Brooks Robinson. How good was Rodriguez in the field? Of all the third basemen I watched throughout the seventies, only two were better defenders: Brooksie and the Yankees’ own Graig Nettles. In a decade that overflowed with slick-and-smooth fielders like Buddy Bell, Darrell Evans, Doug “The Rooster” Rader, and Mike Schmidt, that should be taken as lofty praise indeed.
Rodriguez won only one Gold Glove during his 17-year career, that coming in 1976, mostly because he had the misfortune of playing at the same time as the two acrobats named Robinson and Nettles. “Brooksie” and “Puff” became far more famous—primarily because they could hit and launch the ball with power—and were better defensively at third, but not by much. If Rodriguez had ever developed into more than a mediocre hitter with only occasional power, he might have collected a few more Gold Gloves during his dynamic years in Detroit.
In addition to the legacy he left behind for his fielding abilities, Rodriguez will also be remembered for his involvement in two intriguing episodes of baseball history—one rather trivial and the other a bit more consequential. In 1969, the Topps Company issued Rodriguez’ rookie card. Or so it seemed. The picture on the front of the card did not actually depict Rodriguez, but rather the Angels’ youthful batboy, a young man named Leonard Garcia, who happened to be wearing Aurelio’s uniform. I’ve heard two theories behind this incident, which left Rodriguez with perhaps the oddest rookie card in Topps history. According to one story, it was a simple mix-up, caused by the similarities in appearance between Garcia and Rodriguez and exacerbated by Rodriguez’ limited abilities with speaking English. The other theory is more interesting: Rodriguez intentionally substituted Garcia for the photograph session, as a way of playing a practical joke on the people from Topps.
In 1971, Rodriguez found himself in the spotlight again when the Senators included him in a monstrous trade package that they used to acquire 1968 Cy Young Award winner Denny McLain from the Tigers. Although McLain was the headliner in the deal, the Tigers would emerge as the clear winner of the trade. Rodriguez and slick-fielding shortstop Eddie Brinkman, two of the players acquired by Detroit, would form an impenetrable left side of the infield, helping the Tigers to the American League East title in 1972. He would also become popular with Detroit fans, in part because of a nice, easygoing personality. Rodriguez would remain in the Motor City for the rest of the decade, eventually overseeing the arrival of two promising fellow infielders, Alan Trammell and Sweet Lou Whitaker.
Rodriguez would play nine seasons in Detroit before being sold to the Padres during the winter of 1979. In August of 1980, with the Yankees concerned about an aging Nettles become increasingly vulnerable to left-handed pitching, GM Gene Michael sent cash to the Padres for Rodriguez. He ended up doing nothing offensively for the Yankees down the stretch, batting a mere .220 with a slugging percentage of .323. With his career slope on a downhill path and now reduced to reserve status, Rodriguez returned to the Yankees in a limited role in 1981, the year of the Topps card shown above. Playing almost exclusively against left-handed pitching, Rodriguez made the most of his opportunities. Though he came to bat only 52 times, he batted .346 with a slugging percentage of an even .500. (I know about small sample sizes, but such numbers were simply unheard of for the offensively challenged Rodriguez.) He continued his monstrous hitting in the World Series, where he batted .417 against Dodger pitching, with five hits and a walk in 12 at-bats. His offensive performance would become obscured amidst the disappointment of four straight losses to Dodger Blue (and amidst the hubbub of George Steinbrenner’s alleged fight with two Dodger fans in an elevator), but Rodriguez couldn’t be blamed for the team’s shortfall. If only the Yankees had won the Series, then Aurelio might have been remembered as yet another October hero.
So how did the Yankees reward Rodriguez for his robust hitting in 1981? They traded him, of course, sending him to the Blue Jays for an obscure minor leaguer named Mike Lebo. And just that quickly, his days as a Yankee came to an end.
Most Yankee fans probably forgot about Rodriguez until picking up a newspaper in the fall of 2000. That’s when they would have seen the obituary. On a Saturday afternoon in September, the 52-year-old Rodriguez and a 35-year-old woman were walking on a Detroit sidewalk when the driver of a nearby car suffered a stroke, resulting in his vehicle jumping the curb and running into them. The bizarre accident killed Rodriguez, who was visiting Detroit because he was scheduled to appear at a card show the next day, along with another former Tiger and Yankee, Tom Brookens. At his funeral in Mexico a few days later, thousands of fans and friends attended the service of the likeable Rodriguez, including the president of the country.
Sadly, Rodriguez never received a last chance to reminisce with those fans, or Tiger fans, many of whom enjoyed watching him play third base with such flair and finesse. Those fans, like this Yankee fan, would have let Aurelio know that he was really not forgotten after all.