BALTIMORE -- Stories about Fernando Rodney are believable because they include Fernando Rodney, owner of The Lucky Plantain, dancer, reliever, impressionist, baseball’s oldest active player.
Was he once locked in the bullpen bathroom at Oakland Coliseum for two innings, almost missing a save opportunity? Maybe. Someone had heard that. They were going to ask. Did he once try to convince a coach to let him fly to the Dominican Republic for a single off-day? Probably, because, why not? Does he bark at teammates? Yes. Confirmed. Multiple times over.
All of these things -- the mystery, light-heartedness, 17 years as a reliever -- come together with his pitching to form what’s become known as the FRE: Fernando Rodney Experience.
Rodney is 42 years old. He expected to pitch this year, but not for the Nationals. Season 17 started in Oakland. It did not go well. Rodney did not pitch often, he walked almost as many as he struck out and the A’s let him go May 28. Six days later he signed with the Nationals.
They needed to talk first. Manager Davey Martinez asked Rodney what was wrong in Oakland. They knew each other from Rodney’s 2012 peak in Tampa Bay, when Rodney put together a devastating season: 0.60 ERA, 48 saves, 76 strikeouts, 15 walks, 43 hits allowed, 641 ERA-plus (for a comparison point, Mariano River’s best single-season ERA-plus was 316). So, Martinez was aware of what Rodney could do at his best. The question was what could he do now? Was he finally burned up after all these years? Rodney threw his 16,000th major league pitch this season. What could be left in there?
Martinez knew if Rodney had anything near his career normal (3.84 ERA), the Nationals had a space for him. He explained pitching irregularly in Oakland was the culprit. Martinez told him lack of frequency would not be an issue in Washington. So, Rodney packed for Fresno.
Rodney was back on a major-league mound less than three weeks later. Martinez immediately began using him in high-leverage situations in the eighth or ninth inning. And, Rodney looked like himself: nothing easy, nothing stressful (for him), a changeup that travels like a river bends and a mid-90s fastball. He is prone to putting a runner on base. He is also as likely to get out of it. Such is his pitching life for almost 20 years.
“Kind of an erratic-type good pitcher,” Brian Dozier said. “He’s not always going to paint, paint, paint. Changeups are effective.”
This is not an insult. Martinez has mentioned Rodney’s propensity to allow baserunners and his big-league life proves it to be true. Rodney has allowed a hit or walk in 28.8 percent of his 920 big-league appearances. He has thrown 9,910 strikes and 6,172 balls, according to Fangraphs. The only thing typically easy about a Rodney appearance is his trip to the mound in the bullpen cart.
His fastball speed fluctuates -- on purpose. Last year in Minnesota, he began throwing a two-seam fastball more often to go with his four-seam fastball and changeup. Since joining Washington, Rodney has thrown 99 mph, stating afterward, “Sometimes you have to let the hitter know.”
That sentence made closer Sean Doolittle laugh out loud. “Love it,” he said. Dozier giggled, too. These are common reactions around Rodney.
Wednesday in Baltimore, he explained his view of marital challenges to Justin Miller (and a reporter). Who knows what portion of what was said is true, but he was having fun, Miller was laughing, so off he went.
Rodney has six children -- four boys, two girls (“lots of rice and beans,” he says) -- and uses as many voices when speaking. He doesn’t change tense, he changes the sound. Why? Why not?
“What I love [laughs], I love how he does a lot of different voices,” Dozier, who was also teammates with Rodney in Minnesota, said. “He’ll come in one day talking like somebody and spend the whole day talking like that. He’ll do these different voices all the time.
"Some people think he’s serious, but nothing’s really serious that he talks about. It’s so light. He’s an interesting cat. He’s an amazing teammate. What I love about him in that regard is, he’ll pitch six days in a row if you allow him to.”
Rodney’s regular voice is deep and he is husky. His new teammates have been impressed by his power in the weight room, and those who did not know him prior weren’t sure about his approachability because he is a stern physical figure at 5-foot-11, 240 pounds. Any concern quickly melts when Rodney starts to joke in Spanish or is walking to left field at Citizens Bank Park shimmying to K.C. and the Sunshine Band’s “My Boogie Shoes”, a dance routine which ends with him hopping into the air for a final kick. This is not someone here to menace.
Why so much fun? Why not? Rodney has made nearly $50 million living the volatile life of a major-league reliever. It beats the hard work his father put in fighting the elements as a fisherman in the Dominican Republic. As the sun rotated during the day, so did his hat, starting a natural-born trend his son carried into the major leagues. Rodney also thinks the askew lid makes a runner on first think he is looking that way when he is not. So, there’s that, too.
He feels well. The years haven’t dampened his spirit or fastball much. Maybe one more in the major leagues, he thinks. Then off to Miami with the kids. They like to play baseball in the Dominican Republic and Rodney is ready to be an out-of-the-ordinary shuttle service.
“I think that’s a blessing,” he said.
For now, his 2.84 ERA in early work for the Nationals has him occupied. Rodney can be seen daily with a neon green ball about the size of a softball. He throws it off the outfield wall to help his grip of a normal-sized baseball be “more powerful.” He’s advised Wander Suero on his changeup. The veteran relievers have crossed paths with him somewhere along the line. They respect his work.
He could have stopped. But, he loves baseball. He loves pitching. Rodney debuted May 4, 2002. For him, there has been nothing else. Not yet.
“I feel today like 29,” Rodney said. “Feel good. My body feel good. A lot of rice and beans. A lot of fish. A lot of meat. Milk. Over medium eggs.”
Then he laughed, because why not?
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