Finding Love and Happiness in Milwaukee: The Renaissance of Francisco Rodriguez

Scott Miller@@ScottMillerBblNational MLB ColumnistSeptember 5, 2014

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Used to be that Francisco Rodriguez was done. Right?

Sizzle slipping from his heater. Relegated to then-closer John Axford's setup man in 2011 and '12, and Jim Henderson's in '13. Going, going...

"That's the funny thing about everything," Rodriguez says while sitting at his locker during a recent trip to San Diego and staring back at a 13-year career that has him, at the moment, 11th on the all-time saves list at 343 and back at the top of his game. "I was supposed to suck. I wasn't supposed to be in this situation anymore. Not saving games for people.

"For me, I know what I had left and what I didn't. I never lost confidence at all. I patiently waited for an opportunity. And when it came, I took advantage of it.

"That's all."

On Thursday, Milwaukee opened an enormous four-game weekend series against St. Louis, a meeting made all the more important by the Brewers' ill-timed eight-game losing streak. Now they desperately need to get a few more save opportunities in front of K-Rod, pronto. This September swoon is threatening to wipe out a summer in which they've spent 150 of 158 days in first place.

If they can just regain their balance and composure the way their closer has regained his, there is still time to author a meaningful and happy baseball ending in a city Rodriguez has come to know and love.

"Adversity," says Rodriguez, tied for third in the National League with 39 saves. "Every single ballplayer's been through it in different ways. That's part of life.

Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

"One day you're raising your arms. They can't beat you. The next day, you're on your knees.

"After the storm, the calm arrives. That's what you wait for. As a human being, everybody goes through it, passes through it, and then there's a bright future ahead."

A few years ago, a hot-blooded and cocky Rodriguez would have had neither the minutes for reflection nor the patience to wait for that bright future.

After bursting into the game during the 2002 postseason with the brilliance of the North Star, Rodriguez took over as Angels closer in 2005. He immediately reeled off four consecutive seasons of 40 or more saves, setting the major league record with 62 in '08 before signing a three-year, $37 million free-agent deal with the Mets prior to the '09 season.

You may have heard how that one turned out: The Mets flamed out, and in August of 2010, K-Rod was arrested and hauled away from Citi Field after an altercation with his father-in-law became physical just outside of the team's clubhouse.

The Brewers acquired him the night of the All-Star Game in '11. Rodriguez, a man in desperate need of a fresh start, didn't just spend the rest of that summer as Axford's setup man, but he also went 2-7 with a 4.38 ERA and only three—count 'em—saves in '12 while setting up again.

He had lost significant velocity on his fastball (from an average of 96 mph to 91), a significant chunk of his reputation and, by all appearances, any chance at a significant future.

Storms? Yeah, he's hoisted the umbrella to weather a few.

NEW YORK - JUNE 19:  Francisco Rodriguez #75 of the New York Mets celebrates after defeating the Tampa Bay Rays on June 19, 2009 at Citi Field in the Flushing neighborhood of the Queens borough of New York City. The Mets defeated the Rays 5-3.  (Photo by
Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

"It was tough," he says of his arrest and family problems in New York. "Challenging. Painful. Any bad word you can use to describe it. Only God and I know what I was going through every day and night.

"Looking back, it made me stronger. It was difficult. You have to walk in other people's shoes."

Iced out of the game during the winter of 2012-13 following his highly disappointing summer of '12, he remained unsigned until the Brewers extended a branch on April 17 last year.

No, it's no coincidence that Rodriguez, right now, is on a mission to put Milwaukee's name on the October map.

"They gave me an opportunity last year when nobody wanted me," he says. "They opened the door again even after I was horrible in 2012.

"The only way I can repay them is by getting the job done."

He wasn't even supposed to close this summer. That was going to be Jim Henderson's job. But when Henderson couldn't get things going this spring, Milwaukee manager Ron Roenicke approached Rodriguez the day before the season started and said, "Hey, what would you think of closing?"

Roenicke didn't have to ask twice.

"Over the years, his fastball has dropped in velocity," says Roenicke, who was the Angels' third-base coach in '02 when Rodriguez first stepped into the majors. "Last year, he started throwing the changeup, and it immediately was a great pitch for him."

That is the pitch that, at 32, has put K-Rod back on top. According to the charts at FanGraphs, he is throwing it 30.3 percent of the time this year, with his overall fastball usage dropping to 54.9 percent.

Francis Specker/Associated Press

During his 62-save 2008 summer in Anaheim, he used the changeup only 16.8 percent of the time, his fastball 50.7 percent of the time and his slider 31.6 percent.

He has found peace, contentment and success in Milwaukee, to the degree that when the Brewers traded him to the Orioles last July because they were out of the playoff race, he knew he would re-sign with the Brewers for '14.

"We like having him here," Brewers outfielder Ryan Braun says. "He's been incredibly successful, and he's been great for us. I think people forget how successful he's been.

"He's one of the best closers of all time, and he's young. I think people think of him being older than he is because he got to the big leagues so young. But he's been so great for us all year, so consistent for us, and for us, we need to win the games we're supposed to win.

"When we get to the ninth inning with a slim lead, we feel really good about our chances."

Rodriguez, who has converted 39 of 44 save opportunities, always has been comfortable with Roenicke. He still remembers that Milwaukee general manager Doug Melvin was in attendance the first time Rodriguez threw for pro scouts in Venezuela when he was 15 (Melvin was the Texas Rangers' GM at the time).

"It's a nice family," Rodriguez says of Milwaukee. "The trainers, coaching staff, equipment guys, clubhouse guys, players...everything is nice, and it makes you feel good.

"They've treated me and my family extremely well here, and you cannot put a price tag on that at all. You cannot buy peace and tranquility, and that's what I've got here. I don't have to worry about things."

He and his wife have two children (a two-and-a-half-year-old and one-and-a-half-year-old) with another due in November.

"At this stage of my career, you want peace and a city you can enjoy with your family," Rodriguez says. "A city that's a nice place to be."

Jun 5, 2014; Minneapolis, MN, USA; Milwaukee Brewers relief pitcher Francisco Rodriguez (57) pitches in the ninth inning against the Minnesota Twins at Target Field. The Milwaukee Brewers win 8-5. Mandatory Credit: Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

Milwaukee is it. He talks of spending rare off-days shopping with his family, walking around the city, at the Wisconsin Dells water parks or even driving to Chicago for a visit.

"Always, there's something different," he says.

Same as in his career. He talks about "always reinventing yourself, year in and year out," and as the Brewers battle and K-Rod leads, there are few truer examples of what can be one of the game's hoariest cliches.

"I always look at the negative of my outing and try not to do it for the next one," he says in a season in which there have been precious few negatives. "At the end of the day, I ask myself, 'Was I prepared for the game or not? Did I need more stretching? Did I need more long toss? Did I need to throw more fastballs?'

"You try to get better, instead of going backward."

In Milwaukee, he's done a marvelous job of that. And now comes his most delicate save opportunity of the year: to help keep the slumping Brewers doing the same.