PORT CHARLOTTE — After thirty-some years playing and coaching baseball, from high school to the majors and everything in between, Johnny Rodriguez knows things.
Sure, he put in so much time working with his son Sean, making him swing the heavy 30-inch bat with the weighted doughnut as a 4-year-old, throw balls from the outfield fence all the way to the plate at age 8, field hard-hit ground balls until he fell over at age 10.
He had pushed him to be better, to be more prepared and more confident than anyone else, saying, proudly, "I always treated him like a player, never as a son."
And he was the proudest papa, absolutely beyond-words elated when Sean finally got called up to the big leagues for the first time by the Angels in April 2008. "Just an indescribable moment," he said.
But he also knew that Sean wasn't ready for the big leagues.
Nor was he any of three other times he was called up that season. Or when he got another shot in June of last year.
It wasn't until the next time, at the end of July 2009, when Johnny was sitting in front of his laptop in the Appalachian League outpost of Johnson City, Tenn., watching the Angels telecast of a weekend series in Minnesota, that he knew something had changed. He knew.
"It was just his demeanor," Johnny recalled. "You could see that he said, 'I belong.' I saw it the first game when they were showing him, and then the third game he hits this home run to straightaway centerfield and I said, 'I was right.' "
Johnny called Sean that night — as dads do — to tell him what he thought. And Sean — as sons don't always do — agreed.
"Every time I got called up I felt better and better and better, and when I got called up in Minnesota, I was like, 'Man, I really feel good right now,' just slowing the game down," Sean said. "I was really starting to get a feel for how this is supposed to be, and it felt good."
Just when he felt comfortable, he was sent back to Triple A, then traded in the Aug. 28 Scott Kazmir deal to the Rays, who left him to finish the season in the minors.
But the imprint was made, and when he showed up this spring Rays manager Joe Maddon, who knew him from his early days with the Angels, said his readiness was obvious.
All Rodriguez needs now — at age 24, in his eighth season of pro ball — is a chance, and the Rays are giving it to him, either at second base or the 2010 version of super-utility man Ben Zobrist.
Rodriguez's sizzling spring start, with homers in his three games and an .833 average, has made it look good so far. The Rays rave not just about his power but the improvement he has shown thus far cutting back on chasing pitches and increasing contact. Plus, Maddon notes, unlike some players with strong paternal influence, Rodriguez is "very open" to input, part of his "whatever it takes" approach.
"He's got an intensity, and he's passionate," Maddon said. "This kid is definitely driven."
Rodriguez says he is ready, "physically, mentally and spiritually," and his former Angels mates are confident he'll make the most of the opportunity.
"He has the talent and the mind-set to be an everyday player," infielder Brandon Wood said. "He just needs an opportunity. Give him 500 at-bats and he'll show everybody."
Triple-A Salt Lake coach Jim Eppard said Rodriguez has the ability, that his issues have come from trying to do too much, thinking he can make every play and hit any pitch. "He's a monster on the field," Eppard said. "He's very aggressive. He doesn't back down from any challenge. He's not intimidated by anything. I think he's at the right place right now to challenge for a major-league job."
The competition has noticed as well. "He's pretty impressive," said Yankees star Alex Rodriguez, who has worked out with Sean in Miami. "He looks like he's maturing. The ball's really jumping off his bat. He's definitely going to make the team, right?"
The Rays decide that for a few more weeks, as they sort between Rodriguez, Matt Joyce and Reid Brignac, and maybe a few others, for what look like two spots.
But Johnny, who left Saturday for spring training and a new gig managing the Cardinals' Class A Quad Cities team, knows.
"He's ready," Johnny said. "He's ready to help a ballclub."
Marc Topkin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.