(This is part of a series of posts about the 2017 Hall of Fame inductions. Read them all here.)
When Ivan Rodriguez first came on the scene in the very early 1990s, he brought a lot of hype with him.
But Rodriguez’s advance billing came with a grain of salt.
Sure, he was a great defensive catcher, but no one was quite sure if his bat could stand up to Major League pitching.
Unlike most young players, though, Rodriguez lived up to his promise and then some.
Not only did he develop into one of the best catchers ever behind the plate, he also built himself into a force at the plate.
Thanks to those efforts, Pudge will be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, NY, during the summer of 2017.
For longtime collectors, Rodriguez’s enshrinement brings back great memories of our hobby before the bust. He’s one of the last players from our youth who will make it to Cooperstown through the writer’s ballot — most of the rest will need help from the Veterans Committee.
To help you get in the mood for some old-time collecting with a Pudge-y flair, here are seven (in honor of Pudge’s uniform number) great Ivan Rodriguez cards from the early days of his career.
Back in the late 1980s, dedicated minor league cards staked their claim to the pre-rookie market much as Bowman would do a few years later.
When Rodriguez made his minor league debut for the Gastonia Rangers in 1989, both the Star Company and ProCards were there to chronicle the event on cardboard.
If you want a pure 1980s Pudge card complete with a back that looks like it came straight off your high school typewriter, though, the ProCards issue is the one you need.
And it can be yours for less than $50 most of the time, and occasionally less than twenty.
In 1991, Topps was still trying to figure out what to do with the resurrected Bowman line.
The set had debuted two years earlier as an oversized nod to the hobby’s past but, while collectors enjoyed the large and colorful photos, we were less enthused by the cards’ refusal to play nice with the rest of our 2-1/2″ X 3-1/2″ treasures.
The Bowmans were too big!
Topps trimmed the cards down to a standard size in 1990 and, in 1991 hit on the formula that would carry the set so far in subsequent years: rookie cards!
For just a few bucks, you can have the first widely distributed Major League card of a Hall of Fame catcher … what could be better than that?
The more you look at the 1991 Topps base set, the more you realize it could have been a Bowman issue from the same era.
For their 40th anniversary set, Topps dropped all the garish borders and wild colors of the 1980s and went with a simple design that emphasized the player photo — and the company’s own celebratory logo.
Today, even the glossy “Tiffany” version won’t set you back more than $10 unless you opt for a PSA 10 — then you’re looking at several hundred dollars.
Fleer helped kick off the era of “ultra premium” baseball cards with their 1991 issue named, appropriately enough, “Ultra.”
After a few years, it became apparent that Ultra was not really very limited, but this Pudge card is still one of his rookies and represents a piece of hobby history — the first card of a Hall of Famer in a groundbreaking set.
Even if it is just an “Update.”
Today, this card can be yours for less than $20 in even the highest grades.
In 1992, Fleer caused a hobby “sensation” by issuing one of 20 “Rookie Sensations” cards in each of its jumbo packs of 35 cards.
Featuring big names like Jeff Bagwell and Frank Thomas, Sensations also offered up the first card of slugger Phil Plantier.
The cards were thick and shiny, and pretty limited, at least compared to most of the other material being pushed out by the millions that summer.
While the Rodriguez card never got the kind of love that Plantier’s did, it’s still a solid early-career issue that you can buy for a buck or so on eBay.
This one is all about aesthetics.
By 1993, virtually every card was being produced in quantities large enough to paper your office walls, and you can pick this one up for less than a dollar these days.
But when it comes to a striking visual of a modern catching great, this one is hard to beat.
You can’t see much of Rodriguez’s face on this card, but you do get his intense eyes and a hint of teeth. Is he going to catch the ball with his mouth? Bite the batter?
Like the ’93 Upper Deck above, this Stadium Club issue won’t break your bank and it won’t give you much return on your investment down the line.
But, also like the UD card, Topps gave us an awesome glimpse into the on-the-field life of one of the game’s great catchers with this beauty.
Someone has just popped up, and Rodriguez is blasting out of his crouch to give chase.
If I had to bet, my money would be on this play ending in an out.
Another Rodriguez play — and card — worthy of the Hall of Fame.