COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. — It had become evident over the weekend that Houston Astros fans had taken over the Hall of Fame. They had descended on the little village with their orange T-shirts, their rainbow jerseys and their Texas flags perverted with a navy, orange and white scheme.
And then Ivan Rodriguez did what Ivan Rodriguez has seemingly always done.
He stole the show.
First it was with the electric smile that hasn't dimmed a bit in the 26 years since he made his major league debut as a 19-year-old, then with playful jokes at the expense of baseball royalty: Nolan Ryan and Ken Griffey Jr, and finally with a moving tribute to his family and his island home of Puerto Rico in Spanish.
When he finished his 30-minute speech after being inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame Sunday by thanking Rangers fans for their love, Puerto Rican flags waved freely amid the standing ovation from the crowd of about 27,500 gathered in a meadow behind the Clark Sports Center for the 2017 induction ceremonies.
"I appreciated seeing that," Rodriguez said afterward. "I saw flags (Saturday) during the parade and I saw them again today. To be the fourth Hall of Famer from Puerto Rico means so much. We are a small island with only three million people. It tells you how good and how respected we are in baseball. Seeing the support in Cooperstown makes me continue to want to do everything I can to be the best for Puerto Rico."
Rodriguez joined the late Roberto Clemente, Orland Cepeda and Roberto Alomar as Puerto Ricans enshrined in the Hall of Fame. He is the first elected by Baseball Writers Association of America in his first year of eligibility. Clemente was added immediately after his tragic death on New Years Eve 1972 by special appointment.
As he took his seat Sunday afternoon for what became a marathon three-hour ceremony, he was seated directly in front of Johnny Bench, the only other catcher to gain enshrinement on his first year of eligibility. Over the weekend, Bench had made a special visit to the party the Rangers threw in Rodriguez's honor and, as he traditionally does, he sat down with the new induction class of Rodriguez, Bagwell and Tim Raines to explain the significance of the Hall of Fame.
As Rodriguez launched into his speech, Puerto Rico and Bench became intertwined.
"Growing up in Puerto Rico, there was no greater joy than watching the Game of the Week," Rodriguez said. "My favorite team was the Cincinnati Reds because their catcher was my hero, the great Johnny Bench. And now I am standing here with him."
Rodriguez hit all the right notes in the speech from playful to poignant, having to stop briefly to gather himself when talking about his family. He gave nods to both the Miami Marlins, with whom he won a World Series in 2003 in a career rebirth season, and the Detroit Tigers, with whom he went to a second World Series in 2006.
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But he spent much of his speech on his career with the Rangers, which spanned 15 seasons of his professional career. It is a Rangers "T," after all that adorns the bronze plaque of him that was installed in the hall of plaques Sunday evening.
He talked of the scouting director who signed him (Sandy Johnson), the teammates with whom he broke in and made special note of Juan Gonzalez, whom he called a "brother," hitting instructor Rudy Jaramillo, then-GM Tom Grieve and managers Bobby Valentine and Johnny Oates.
"I grew up there," Rodriguez said. "And I'm proud to wear their cap forever in the Hall of Fame. The Rangers always treated me first class and I did everything in my power to return the gesture. I hope the team and fans feel I accomplished that."
He wrapped all of this inside a speech that began and finished with an anecdote about an undersized kid, who used to hang from a rope in hopes of stretching himself out a little bit more. That didn't work. But also, Rodriguez was never dissuaded.
"Do what makes you happy," Rodriguez said. "The kids out there playing baseball, you should be happy, you should have passion. Enjoy the game, respect the game and most importantly, love this great game of ours. Dream big and know that those dreams do sometimes come true because, well, look at me. The kid hanging from that rope, the kid they call Pudge, I'm here on this stage, in this special place, this baseball heaven called Cooperstown, and my dream has become a reality."
Then he smiled again.
It gets them every time.