Pudge retiring reminds us how far team’s come

Ivan “Pudge” Rodriguez retired from baseball Monday, returning to a home team he had never wanted to leave and to once again do what he did best.

There would be no ceremonial first pitch on this day at The Ballpark in Arlington. Pudge was and always will be a catcher. So he did what catchers do, perfectly executing a throw from home plate to second like he had so many times before free agency took him elsewhere, playing in foreign uniforms and winning a World Series ring.

“He’s going to go down as one of the greatest catchers of all time.” Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter said, a genuine compliment from a former teammate.

Pudge was, for a brief time, a Yankee and the fact this is not held against him in Texas is proof of how much he is loved here. For fans of a certain vintage, Pudge always will be the greatest Ranger that ever was, an easily defensed position. He won an AL MVP and 13 Gold Gloves and was the heart and soul of what had until recently been the best Texas team in franchise history.

In 10 or so years, I am not sure Pudge will hold this distinction. It is hard to be the best Ranger ever and not have been a part of this group of players that has reached back-to-back World Series and looks only to be getting started.

This is not a knock on Pudge, but rather a sign of the changing criteria of how Rangers baseball is judged. It also says a lot about the changing face of what qualifies as a successful offseason.

What used to qualify for great in Texas has changed. And how the Rangers got great was by starting to “lose” offseasons.

We spend a lot of time in sports talking about who wins offseasons. In a couple of days, we will judge NFL teams based on the draft. What we judge in baseball is who spends the most money in free agency.

We praise the Angels for signing Albert Pujols and C.J. Wilson. A couple of years ago, Philly and Boston were all the rage for getting Cliff Lee and Carl Crawford, respectively.

The Rangers played this game for a long time, too, most famously (and idiotically) signing Alex Rodriguez to an absurdly ridiculous $252 million contract and then doubling down on that stupidity with big cash for right-hander Chan Ho Park and aging slugger Juan Gonzalez. And they were a rousing failure at it.

The truth is it is easy to fall in love with someone else’s players, to fall in love with the guy everybody else covets — Prince Fielder or Pujols or C.J. Wilson — and quite another to have faith in your guys, those on the field and those responsible for choosing and coaching them.

And therein lies the real genius of Rangers general manager Jon Daniels.

He and his team — assistant GM Thad Levine, special assistant Don Welke, baseball savant A.J. Preller and on and on — have built a team that lacks “the guy” and therefore can withstand losing just about anybody. They have said “no thanks” to Lee and Wilson in back-to-back seasons when the price grew too high.

Yes, they have spent money, on Adrian Beltre and Yu Darvish. This is not the Royals. But more than free-agency craziness or money whipping, this Rangers team became the best team in baseball at the moment — a sentence made more crazy by the fact the Yankees were in town — one Ian Kinsler, Elvis Andrus and Colby Lewis at a time.

“We can’t afford nor do we want to go out and sign every free agent out there,” Daniels said on Monday. “We want to selectively add a guy here or the future core of the team has to come from the system.

“Our mindset always has been evaluating free agents and we try to stack our own guys up, ones that we are going to have decisions over the next two years to make see how they line up so we don’t put ourselves in a position where we can’t retain our own.”

I’d say this is how the Rangers have become the best team in baseball, but Daniels eschewed almost all of this team. In fact when I texted him to say I was running late for our interview because the parking lot was jammed and teased him this was technically his fault for making Texas so good, he quickly texted back.

“Don’t drink the Kool-Aid.”

He repeated probably 10 times that it is the players who win and he credits “my team” of scouts and assistants and player personnel guy again, telling of how they talked him into having faith in Neftali Feliz, Mike Napoli and an A-ball player hitting .210 named Elvis Andrus. Only when prodded does Daniels admit how personally rewarding this has been for him.

“Very rewarding, very, very rewarding,” Daniels admitted. “It feels great. I am not going to lie. It is great to see the Ballpark like this.”

To understand his effusive praise for jammed entry gates, you have to understand there were lines at the gate three years ago because the Rangers did not have enough money to hire enough personnel to man the gates. They literally did not have the money, which is why Major League Baseball was footing bills and there was the day in bankruptcy court and how Daniels learned to survive with few resources.

There were problems of his own making, too, as he tried to figure out what he wanted to be. They were calling for his head, a fact he told at least one GM he reached out to who had been getting killed by the media.

“Our first year, the biggest issue we had was we lacked direction,” Daniels admitted. “After that first year, we locked into an identity and purpose and decided we were going to do this our way, by building a team from the bottom up.”

This is how they became the best team in baseball. And one day, a player or two from this team will come back and don the jersey and be remembered as the best Rangers ever.