Before there was Steve Bartman, a National League Championship Series MVP and Josh Beckett clinching a World Series championship on three days’ rest, there was the best 24 hours of Ivan Rodriguez‘s Hall of Fame baseball career, one of the most amazing series of moments for a player in the history of the sport.

Games 3 and 4 of the 2003 NL Division Series between Rodriguez’s Florida Marlins and the San Francisco Giants will form the centerpiece of Rodriguez’s Cooperstown highlight reel.

Setting the scene

Rodriguez hit .314 with 19 home runs with the Texas Rangers in 2002, but it was his third consecutive season of playing 111 games or fewer due to injury.

When Rodriguez hit free agency, the same suitors who were willing to commit four years or more to Jim Thome, Cliff Floyd, Edgardo Alfonzo and David Bell were not knocking on Rodriguez’s door. Come January, Rodriguez, 31, was still waiting to be signed.

Meanwhile, the Marlins were locked into a budget in the mid-$30 million range, content to acquire young talent such as center fielder Juan Pierre and starting pitcher Mark Redman via trade in an effort to improve a team that went 79-83 the previous season under Jeff Torborg.

In eyeballing the remaining free agents just after the new year, members of the Marlins’ front office realized Rodriguez was still available. The Marlins still needed a catcher after trading Charles Johnson to the Colorado Rockies to get Pierre. The only catchers on their roster were Mike Redmond and Ramon Castro.

“We felt [Rodriguez] was the crowning piece who could help lead the team, lead a young pitching staff to where we wanted to go,” then-general manager Larry Beinfest said.

After speaking with other members of the front office, Beinfest went to owner Jeffrey Loria to ask for “special money” in the event he could coax Rodriguez into a one-year deal.

It turned out that Rodriguez, who lived in Miami Beach at the time, was persuadable. He signed a one-year, $10 million deal, picking the Marlins over the Baltimore Orioles. It was special money for a special player. The $10 million was the highest average annual value the Marlins had committed to anyone, and it accounted for more than one-fifth of their payroll.

“The goal for me is to put the Florida Marlins into the playoffs,” Rodriguez said at his introductory news conference.

Said then-vice president of player personnel Dan Jennings: “Now you look at the team on paper and you say, ‘That’s a good team.’”

But what was on paper didn’t translate to the diamond at the beginning of the 2003 season. The Marlins started 16-22 under Torborg, who was fired and replaced with 72-year-old Jack McKeon.

“I don’t know what the Marlins are doing,” Tim Kurkjian said on ESPN’s Baseball Tonight a few days following Torborg’s dismissal. It was a legitimate point, considering the team went 3-7 in its next 10 games. The Marlins were 19-29, 11½ games behind the Montreal Expos for the wild card.

“We knew we were better than that,” said third baseman Mike Lowell, pointing out injuries to a couple of pitchers and the soon-to-come presence of rookies Miguel Cabrera and Dontrelle Willis.

Rodriguez had gotten off to a slow start, hitting .250 with a .774 OPS through his first 41 games. On May 19, he went back to Puerto Rico to tend to his ailing father-in-law. He returned to help the team to record a pair wins over the Cincinnati Reds, but fouled a ball off his foot in the second game.

Rodriguez missed the next three games. McKeon said it was to give him time to recover, but others familiar with the moment say Rodriguez was benched because he was in the clubhouse rather than available to pinch-hit during one game.

“Jack sent a tough-love message, and Pudge responded the right way,” Jennings said.

Said Beinfest: “They had a special relationship after that.”

When Rodriguez came back, he was a different player. He began a 44-game tear in which he hit .387 with a 1.085 OPS and 41 RBIs. The Marlins went 30-14 in those 44 games, entered the wild-card race, got closer Ugueth Urbina in one deal and brought back outfielder Jeff Conine in another, and stormed past the rest of the league into the wild-card spot, clinching it in their 160th game of the season.

“He was the little train that could,” Jennings said of Rodriguez. “He was small, but he played bigger than his stature. He had a knack for being clutch. He made pitchers think they were better than they were that night. He had a way of getting the best out of himself and the pitchers that he was leading on any given night.”

Rodriguez had a reputation for being selfish and was not considered the most likable teammate, but McKeon spoke of him with the highest praise.

“He was the key to our success that year. He was the leader of that club,” McKeon said. “When I took over, everyone was talking about how he was going downhill, negative stuff. He was a superb leader, a guy that handled the pitching staff tremendously. He was always unselfish in working with the Latin American players, always encouraging in helping them, giving them advice. He was like a captain.”

The Marlins’s division-series opponents were the defending league champion Giants, who won 100 games in the regular season, including five of six against the 91-win Marlins. The teams split the first two games in San Francisco, with the Marlins rallying from three runs down to win Game 2.

Rodriguez had a hit in each of the first two games, but there was nothing foreshadowing what his role would be in the next two.


Game 3: The hit

The series changed for the Marlins and Rodriguez in his first at-bat in the first inning of Game 3, on Oct. 3 at Pro Player Stadium, against Giants starter Kirk Rueter.

The Giants’ strategy against Rodriguez was well defined. They were going to pitch him away, away, away. Rueter executed that strategy for three pitches, with Rodriguez fouling off the latter two. On the next pitch, however, Rueter came inside and Rodriguez turned on it.

Kaboom.

“As soon as [Rueter] came in, [Rodriguez] was ready. He got the barrel to the ball and hit it out of the ballpark,” said then-ESPN baseball analyst, the late Tony Gwynn.

Rodriguez’s two-run home run gave the Marlins an early lead, one that held until the Giants got two runs back in the sixth inning. Each team had at least one baserunner in the seventh, eighth, ninth and 10th innings, but neither could score. The Marlins missed a great chance to win, leaving the bases loaded in the 10th against Giants closer Tim Worrell.

The Marlins would get another opportunity, but first the Giants took a 3-2 lead in the top of the 11th on Edgardo Alfonzo‘s bloop single. It could have been worse, but Braden Looper got Jose Cruz Jr. and J.T. Snow out with the bases loaded to end the inning. Remember those last two names, because they’re important to the rest of the story.

Cruz became a bigger part immediately when he dropped Conine’s fly ball along the right-field line to start the bottom of the 11th. After a walk to Alex Gonzalez, rookie third baseman Cabrera bunted the runners to second and third (yes, Miguel Cabrera really bunted!). The Giants walked Pierre to pitch to Luis Castillo, who hit a grounder back to the mound. Worrell made a terrific, bare-handed play, falling over to field the ball, and was able to get the forceout at home.

The bases were loaded with two out and the Marlins down 3-2. The game came down to a matchup of Worrell versus Rodriguez; as ESPN’s Rick Sutcliffe put it, “Your best versus our best.”

Rodriguez had been 0-for-4 that season against Worrell, including a pair of game-ending outs, so it seemed to be advantage Giants. Again, the call was to pitch Rodriguez away. Of the first four pitches Rodriguez saw, three were on the outside part of the plate and one was unhittable, over his head. The result was a 1-2 count (with one of the pitches fouled away with two strikes). It wasn’t hard to predict where the next pitch would be.

Rodriguez had trained all season to handle the pitch that was coming.

“I was always impressed by how deliberate he was in his approach during batting practice,” Lowell said. “Most guys are trying to hit the ball hard, wherever it is. Pudge, in his last round, he’d stay right-center, right-center, right-center. He [had] a disciplined work ethic about the mechanics of his swing. He was focused on repeating the same path, over and over.”

Rodriguez swung at the next outside pitch and lined it to right, scoring both the tying and winning runs. Rodriguez finished with all four RBIs in a 4-3 victory to put the Marlins ahead 2-1 in the best-of-five series.

“I was working with [hitting coach] Bill [Robinson] and [special assistant] Tony Perez about staying back,” Rodriguez said afterward, explaining his opposite-field approach. “They’ve been helping me out all year.”

It marked the second time in postseason history a player recorded a walk-off hit with his team one strike from losing the game. The other was Kirk Gibson’s dramatic home run in Game 1 of the 1988 World Series for the Los Angeles Dodgers.

Rodriguez’s hit might lack the mystique of Gibson’s blast, but the impact might have been just as big.

Game 4: The play(s) at the plate

Speaking of impact …

Game 4, the following afternoon, was all about impact, and we can fast-forward to the bottom of the eighth inning, after the Marlins had blown a four-run lead and were tied with the Giants 5-5. With two out, Rodriguez singled and went to second when Derrek Lee was hit by a pitch from Felix Rodriguez (no relation).

Cabrera wasn’t bunting this time. Instead, he singled to right. Ivan Rodriguez, not as fast as he was in his Rangers days, hustled around third. He and the ball arrived in Giants catcher Yorvit Torrealba‘s face at the same time. As Torrealba tried to catch the ball on the bounce, Rodriguez’s shoulder jostled it away. The ball rolled far enough from Torrealba that Lee scored, too. The Marlins led 7-5.

What’s fascinating is how few people remember this play. When we brought it up with those we interviewed, we had to verbally recreate it for almost all of them.

That’s because of what happened in the Giants’ half of the ninth.

Snow’s RBI single cut the lead to 7-6 and though Urbina got two outs, he looked shaky. He hit Ray Durham with a 2-0 pitch to advance Snow to second.

The next batter was Giants center fielder Jeffrey Hammonds. On the first pitch, Hammonds singled to left; Conine charged and fielded it on one hop.

So now the game came down to Conine and Rodriguez versus Snow, for whom the Giants would probably have pinch-run had their bench not been limited because they were carrying 12 pitchers.

Conine’s throw home was up the third-base line, but Rodriguez was ready and waiting for both it and Snow, the son of former NFL wide receiver Jack Snow.

Snow barreled over Rodriguez, like a running back trying to find the end zone in a goal-line situation. Rodriguez stood his ground, then toppled over, with the force of the collision driving him back a couple of feet past home plate. Snow fell on top of the plate as Rodriguez somersaulted over, and Urbina saw something that others couldn’t: that Rodriguez had the ball in his right hand. He fell on top of Rodriguez in an embrace around the neck.

As Rodriguez went down — again — he raised his right arm, the ball firmly within his fingers. Snow was out. The series was over. The Marlins players erupted out of the dugout and piled onto Urbina and Rodriguez.

“The most important thing about the collision is that [Rodriguez] had two hands on the ball, with the ball in his bare hand, so when there was contact made, the ball wouldn’t come flying out of his glove,” Gwynn said.

This is the only time in postseason history a series ended with a player being thrown out at the plate.

The aftermath

Chances are you remember Bartman, the fan who became infamous for playing a role in the Chicago Cubs blowing a 3-1 lead in the NLCS. And maybe you remember that it was Rodriguez, who had 10 RBIs, who was named series MVP. The Marlins then went on to win the World Series, upsetting the New York Yankees in six games, with Rodriguez kissing home plate during the celebration.

But the moment McKeon most remembers from those final two series was when he returned to the locker-room celebration after Game 7 at Wrigley Field, it was Rodriguez leading the team in a toast to their manager.

“Without Jack, we wouldn’t be here,” Rodriguez said.

The same could have been said about Rodriguez.