Rodney honors late father after game
Rays closer always took his parents' advice to heart
Rays closer Fernando Rodney's father, Ulise, was with him when he dreamed of being a boxer, and when he decided he might be a pretty good pitcher.
And Ulise was with Fernando -- in spirit -- when he became a Major Leaguer with the Tigers in 2002 and an All-Star with the Rays 10 years later, and he's with him every time Fernando puts on his cap a bit off-center and when he celebrates a save by shooting an invisible arrow skyward.
"I had a lot of good things happen in my life," said the bearded 35-year-old right-hander from Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic. "And I thank my father and I say, 'Thank you, God' for giving me the education to do a lot of things. My father always told me. 'Keep working and things will work out OK.' I still do that.
"I've seen a lot of guys who don't listen to their dad, don't listen to their mom," he said in his rich Dominican accent. "I don't know why, but a lot of times they don't have a very good life. I believe in what my dad and mom (Idalia) taught me at home. I'm proud of that, and I think that's why I'm up here today."
When Rodney was about 16, he wanted to box.
"That's what all the guys do (at that age in Santo Domingo) -- boxing, karate, taekwondo," he said. "But my dad told me, 'I don't like boxing for you. I don't like that sport. Keep working on practicing baseball.' And I listened to my dad."
He wears his cap with the brim a few degrees to the left because, "that's how my dad used to wear his all the time. I liked how it looked like that." He began copying it in 1997, the year the Tigers signed him as a free agent.
On April 28, 2002, Ulise Rodney succumbed to cancer, just one week before Fernando was called up to the Majors for the first time. Fifteen days later, he was back at Triple-A Toledo with orders to work on a pitch to go with his fastball.
He'd experimented with a changeup. Now, he got serious about it. Rodney's delivery is virtually identical with either pitch, but while his heater averages 95.6 mph (and routinely hits 98-99), the changeup averages 82.2 mph and can drop as many as 16 inches as it approaches the plate. If a batter guesses wrong, he's pretty much toast.
The Rays saw something in Rodney that the Angels didn't. He'd signed with the Angels in 2010 after eight seasons with the Tigers, sitting out all of 2004 following Tommy John surgery. Early in 2011, the Angels lost faith in him and gave the closer's job to Jordan Walden.
Rodney wasn't even supposed to be the Rays' closer. But a right elbow strain put Kyle Farnsworth on the disabled list before the season began. Even then, manager Joe Maddon said he would choose his closer from among Joel Peralta, J.P. Howell and Jake McGee.
But Rodney saved two games in the season-opening series against the Yankees, and Maddon never looked elsewhere for a closer except to save him from overwork. Farnsworth, who returned on July 4, is the Rays' setup man.
At the All-Star break, Rodney had saves in 25 of 26 chances and an ERA of 0.93 for Tampa Bay. Walden, meanwhile, had one save and a 3.86 ERA.
When Maddon told him he'd been named to the All-Star team, Rodney said he wept because his father wouldn't be with him. To honor him, Rodney had "Ulise" stitched onto the back of his All-Star workout jersey.
He pitched the top of the ninth, retiring the side in order, but there was no save. The National League won, 8-0. Still, Rodney mimicked shooting an arrow into the air, another way he has honored the memory of his father this season.
"I still don't know what it means," Maddon said shortly before the All-Star Game. "But I love it, absolutely love it."
Bruce Lowitt is a freelance writer based in Tampa, Fla.
This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.