By Rich Coutinho
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In every person’s life, there are those crossroads moments where we must decide which way we’re headed. Francisco Rodriguez’s came late last season when he lost his temper and came close to losing everything he worked so hard to achieve.
“In a sense it taught me so much about myself,” said Rodriguez. “But most importantly taught me I had the strength to change. It has been a tough road and I must admit it has been tougher than I thought, but I am a much better man now than I was 6 months ago. That’s for sure.”
Many who go through anger management counseling keep it under wraps, but Francisco was very open about his journey for the benefit it might have on others.
“I decided the top priority in my life was to be a good father, because despite what people might think, that is a much more important job than being a baseball player,” said K-Rod. He smiles broadly when he speaks about his children. He misses them during the baseball season when he spends most of his time away from home.
“Sure I am away from my children for most of the summer, but I have a whole offseason to be with them. And to tell you the truth, being home with my children is like my sanctuary. I treat every single moment with them as a gift,” he said.
Many critics of K-Rod complain that anger management counseling might strip him of his biggest asset on the mound — passion and competitive fire to win. But from the moment he arrived in Port St. Lucie for spring training, he dispelled that notion.
He came to camp in the best shape of his career and looked as sharp as ever in a Mets uniform. Most importantly, that competitive fire that many have come to admire was there on the mound. So, it begs the question: How does he balance that with his counseling?
“It is really a separate thing in that I was taught there is nothing wrong with being competitive. In fact, the counseling has taught me how to channel my energy in a positive way actually making me a better competitor—one that is focused with structure and discipline,” said Rodriguez.
When he burst onto the scene in 2002, he set up for Troy Percival, forming a duo that proved too tough for the mighty Yankees in the playoffs and the talented Giants in the World Series.
“When I think of all the hitters I faced in those playoff games from Jeter, and Matsui, to guys like Barry Bonds as a rookie I have to pinch myself,” said K-Rod. “And those are the showdowns we live for as closers with everything on the line and no margin for error.”
Talking to him, you get the distinct notion that he misses those moments. The Mets have spent the last 2 seasons suffering with injuries that have stripped the team of its core, leaving K-Rod disappointed.
“I have not been as sharp a pitcher as I know I can be in the last 2 years, and I am also well aware how disappointed Met fans are about that. Our goal is to get to the playoffs which I firmly believe we can do despite what the media or anyone else thinks.”
Being a closer in the biggest sports metropolis in the league puts K-Rod in the proverbial fishbowl every single night. He knows that you are only as good as your last save, but he also knows winning in New York is the ultimate dream of every player. Coming here as a high-priced free agent only intensifies the pressure — but it comes with the territory.
“The thing I like most about New York,” he said, “is that the fans know the game and you can’t fool people here. They are loyal but demanding but they also want to see passionate players who care. That is why I never take the booing personally. It is a lot like tough love.”
Pitching in New York also has its responsibility, dealing with the media day in and day out. Often times that can be exhausting.
“Look at this room,” said K-Rod. “We have 20-30 people in here and it is 3 hours before the game and they all need to get a story. I respect that they have a job to do and most of them are very professional but the reality is as a closer, you are a bigger story when you blow a save than when you don’t, and so you do have to be careful in what you say. I learned it is much easier to take accountability for your performance and never point fingers or make excuses. Because of that, I think the media and I have a pretty good relationship.”
He added: “That is why I really respect a guy like David Wright, because he talks to the media after every game and even if he says the right thing almost every day, they will only remember the one time he slips up. But he never does.”
Rodriguez has shut the door on hundreds of games as a professional pitcher and is in an elite class as one of the top 3 closers in the sport. He proudly owns a World Series ring he earned while setting up for Percival in 2002 — but yearns to put a ring on his other hand as the guy who closes for the Mets.
“To do that in New York, especially after everything that has happened,” said K-Rod, “would be the ultimate. And I look around this clubhouse and I know we have the talent to do it. In one corner I see Jose Reyes, in another Carlos Beltran and I look down the center of the room I see David Wright, Jason Bay and budding young superstars like Ike Davis. That is more talent than most teams have and I firmly believe we will be in the mix come October.”
After everything that has happened to him in the past 10 months, K-Rod has clearly shown he has the strength to change. It has made him both a better man and a better father. And for that alone he deserves a lot of credit.
The baseball chapter of his comeback has yet to be fully written, but it would not be surprising if he has a big season in a tough town like New York. A town that demands winning — but also lets rehabilitated players back into their heart after a massive misstep.
How about the job that K-Rod has done on and off the field? Be heard in the comments below…