FORT MYERS, FLA. – During the Twins’ organizational meetings last winter, Paul Molitor made a request of the team’s front office: Don’t leave me without a closer.
“I said, ‘Closer is important for me,’ ” the Twins manager recalled. “It’s easier to build outs to the closer than to try to have competition for a closer in the spring.”
But when Chief Baseball Officer Derek Falvey and General Manager Thad Levine presented Molitor with their solution for that notable vacancy, the manager suddenly had second thoughts. Fernando Rodney? Molitor was skeptical.
“All I knew about him was what I saw from afar. The hat, the antics. In my day, that wasn’t something you’d be comfortable with,” Molitor said. “To me, it seemed gimmicky.”
Then he spent some time with the 40-year-old Dominican at the winter meetings. He learned why Rodney wears his cap skewed to the left, and why he mimes an archer launching an arrow into the sky upon retiring the final batter of a game. And he got to know the man behind the image, the hard worker who keeps himself healthy enough to still be playing 15 years after reaching the majors, the father of six who spends part of each winter working with teenage ballplayers back in his homeland.
Now Molitor can’t wait to hand him the ball in the ninth inning.
“I was impressed when we had a chance to sit down and talk. You look for character almost as much as leadership, and I believe we’re going to be well-covered there,” Molitor said. “People draw conclusions without really knowing someone. I was guilty of that a little bit, but he’s much more than what you might think if you didn’t know him.”
If you only saw the crooked cap, for instance, you might think it’s merely an attempt to get attention. Actually, Rodney adopted the look in 2004, he said, as a tribute to his father, Ulise.
“He wore it that way on fishing boats, because the sun was right there, in his eyes,” Rodney explained, his hand in the air to illustrate the angle of the sun. “When he died, I wanted to wear it that way for him.”
And the archer? That also began as a tribute to his father — Rodney used to point toward heaven, he said, upon recording the final out — but it evolved into a bow-and-arrow motion, to the delight of teammates, to mimic shooting a bird.
“He’s dead. That’s it. The game is over when I shoot,” said Rodney, wearing bow-and-arrow bling on a chain around his neck. “I didn’t know the fans were going to like it. I didn’t do it to offend anyone, but nobody complains about it. My teammates think it’s fun.”
Trevor Hildenberger said he appreciates Rodney’s flair — “We could use a little more of that in the bullpen,” he joked — and his passion for mixing fun while still accomplishing the work. “He’s full of energy. When we’re doing [fielding drills], he’s throwing bullets all over the field, hustling to cover first. And he’s also an incredibly nice guy.”
“I see him dancing in the clubhouse, having a lot of fun in [fielding practice],” Molitor agreed. “But he also works on his fundamentals. He’s not cutting any corners, he’s trying to do what we ask him to do. Those are things that people observe, people that are trying to climb the food chain.”
Of course, even the most glowing testimonial won’t matter if he can’t get people out, and Rodney has plenty of skeptics there, too. Despite saving 39 games in 45 tries, the Diamondbacks let him go last winter, just as the Marlins, Padres, Cubs and Mariners had — all in the past three years. His ERA of 4.23 last year is inordinately high for a closer, and it was even higher in 2015 (4.74). And while only Craig Kimbrel (244) and Kenley Jansen (221) have saved more games over the past six seasons than Rodney’s 213 (in roughly the same number of innings), he has put 170 more runners on base than either of them.
“They don’t all have to be beauties,” Molitor said. “Staying calm, working out of trouble, he’s proven he has that ability.”
An ‘out’ pitch
But Rodney believes his mid-90s fastball, and especially his mid-80s changeup, are still plenty potent — and he’s convincing the Twins, too.
“That changeup, you could tell the hitters it’s coming. It’s that good,” Hildenberger testified. “He’s still got bullets in that arm.”
Rodney thinks so, too. He focused this winter on his control, and “it’s really good on the changeup, lefty and righty. If I’ve got good location, I’m at my best,” he said. “Sometimes I know they’re sitting on changeup but I throw it anyway, to show I’m not afraid to throw it. Even if you’re expecting, it can be tough to hit.”
Even at his advanced age. Rodney said he contemplated retirement a couple of times in recent years, but “I feel really good. I’m healthy,” he said. “I think I can keep doing my job for one more year, maybe one more after that.”
But it’s rarefied air. Only five pitchers have posted a 20-save season after their 41st birthday, a mark that Rodney hits March 18, and four of them — Hoyt Wilhelm, Dennis Eckersley, Trevor Hoffman and Mariano Rivera — are in the Hall of Fame, now or soon.
The fifth member of that group, a Twins special adviser, sees Rodney as a lock to join them in the 41-20 club.
“If I had [Rodney’s] changeup,” said LaTroy Hawkins, who saved 23 games for the 2014 Rockies when he was 41, “I’d still be pitching, too.”