Detroit Tigers manager A.J. Hinch and left-handed pitcher Eduardo Rodriguez, wearing a gray short-sleeve quarter-zip hoodie and pinstriped baseball pants, entered an interview room beneath the stands of Comerica Park, a short walk from the clubhouse where Rodriguez addressed his teammates.
“Should I go first?” Rodriguez asked Hinch.
“Yeah, you go first,” Hinch responded.
Rodriguez, an unfamiliar face these days, stepped up to the lectern. He adjusted the microphone and spoke publicly for the first time since May 18. The conversation wasn’t nearly as awkward as it could have been, and although Rodriguez didn’t provide many answers, he handled an emotional situation with class.
“I feel happy to be back here,” Rodriguez said. “I went through a lot of things in this hard time for me, but it’s a good thing I’m back here.”
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What happened to Rodriguez and the Tigers — a situation in which a top player departed from the team for more than two months because of a personal issue — isn’t a common occurrence in Major League Baseball.
But it happened.
“It’s a reminder to all of us that these guys are human,” Hinch said. “They’re people. They have the same life experiences that anyone in any job does. It’s public, and that makes it very difficult. It’s a different job that we have.”
The on-field component of Rodriguez’s life is centered on wins and losses, good stretches and bad stretches and fierce pitching matchups, like Sunday’s anticipated duel with Los Angeles Angels superstar Shohei Ohtani at Comerica Park.
Rodriguez, amid the strikeouts and success, also has a personal life, away from baseball.
A marital situation led to his 67-day hiatus from his job in the big leagues.
“My family is the one that really has my blood, which is my kids,” Rodriguez said. “My second family is my teammates and everybody here in the organization. Those are the only ones that have to know what really happened in my life because I’m with them everyday. I want to keep it with them and my family in Miami.”
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‘Incredible with following the plan’
On Nov. 22, 2021, Rodriguez arrived at Comerica Park with his wife, Catherine, and two children, Annie and Ian. General manager Al Avila, who would be fired about nine months later, and CEO and chairman Christopher Ilitch introduced Rodriguez and his family to Detroit upon the agreement of a five-year, $77 million contract.
“Welcome to the Detroit Tigers’ family,” Ilitch said.
Rodriguez, who spent his first six MLB seasons with the Boston Red Sox, said then it was one of the best days of his life.
He also expressed his desire to compete for championships, an opportunity the Tigers — despite their optimism entering the season — failed to provide in 2022. Well before the All-Star break, the offense fell apart, the pitching staff was gashed by injuries and Rodriguez disappeared from the team.
“He went into personal mode and chose not to interact a lot while he was sorting through what he was doing,” Hinch said. “On the one front, I can respect that entirely because he’s going through something personal with his family, and his kids mean the world to him.”
He safely arrived in Miami to be with his family, and after learning that, the Tigers lost communication until Hinch broke the ice in the days leading up to the All-Star break. Very little is publicly known about his absence, although Rodriguez revealed he leaned on a psychologist to help him.
“I talk to him all the time,” Rodriguez said.
His last MLB appearance came May 18 against the Tampa Bay Rays at Tropicana Field, ended early by athletic trainer Doug Teter. A few days later, the Tigers placed him on the injured list with a left ribcage sprain. During the following weeks, he declined and ignored several requests for interviews about his health.
On June 13, Rodriguez became a mystery to the Tigers, as well.
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The club wasn’t sure when — or if — he would return from the restricted list.
“We needed to know what the game plan was,” Hinch said. “Once we got to the point of having contact with him, he’s been incredible with following the plan. We mapped it out, even all the way to today and how we were going to address this internally and externally.”
Rodriguez forfeited approximately $5 million — $74,866 per day — of his $14 million salary this season. He is set to earn $14 million in 2023, $18 million in 2024, $16 million in 2025 and $15 million in 2026, though he has an opt-out clause in his contract after next season.
After making contact in mid-July, Hinch and pitching coach Chris Fetter designed a throwing program. He then pitched in three minor league games: Aug. 6 for Low-A Lakeland and Aug. 11 and Aug. 16 for Triple-A Toledo. For the Mud Hens, he allowed one run on six hits and two walks with 17 strikeouts over 11 innings.
His fastball velocity resembles that of spring training, but the adrenaline of Sunday’s start against the Angels could deliver an immediate uptick.
“I feel really good,” Rodriguez said. “Everything is ready to go.”
He wouldn’t say if he ever considered missing the rest of the 2022 season.
“I was just thinking about my family,” Rodriguez said.
Hinch and Rodriguez met Thursday in Detroit to discuss Friday’s plan. The Tigers scheduled his media availability for 4:30 p.m. Friday in the dugout, giving him a 30-minute window to address the team beforehand.
Apparently, Rodriguez ran into travel issues.
Finally, at roughly 5:10 p.m., Rodriguez appeared in the interview room. An out-of-state reporter missed the news conference despite being at the ballpark.
Hinch spoke at the lectern after Rodriguez.
“You can be very supportive in what he’s had to go through and also very frustrated that we haven’t had one of our best pitchers,” Hinch said. “That’s OK. I told our guys that. We welcomed him back. We’re glad he’s back. He looks good. His tone, his demeanor, like things that I’m looking for as the human first, he’s in a much better place.”
Before meeting with reporters, Rodriguez stood in front of his teammates and shared the details of his personal life that contributed to his lengthy stint on the restricted list. He could have kept that information to himself, and Hinch gave him the option to do so, but Rodriguez chose to be transparent with the Tigers.
“He was emphatic that he wanted to,” Hinch said. “That means a lot to me, and that means a lot to the club.”
He was in a vulnerable position.
“It was good to see Eduardo back,” third baseman Jeimer Candelario said. “He’s part of our family, part of our team. We’re going to support him, and we’re going to go from there.”
Rodriguez said fellow players embraced him when he walked into the clubhouse for the first time. He thought his teammates, especially those with a wife and children, found a way to resonate with what happened in his home life.
Before Rodriguez’s arrival, he had a piece of luggage in the corner of his locker and a signed Miguel Cabrera “3,000-hit club” lineup card on his rolling chair. His locker has been organized and nearly untouched for months, but that changed Friday afternoon.
Now, Rodriguez is back.
Most importantly, he is in a better place mentally than he’s been in a while.
“A lot of stuff happens in life, man, and this is one of the things that happened to me and can happen to anybody in the world, no matter if it’s baseball or wherever you work,” Rodriguez said. “It was something I really had to resolve before I could get back here. Mentally, (physically) and everything, I feel glad to be here and good to go out there on Sunday.”
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