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Rodney pulling no punches as Rays' enforcer

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Published:   |   Updated: March 18, 2013 at 08:13 PM

Fernando Rodney wanted to be a boxer.

"I think I could have kicked Mike Tyson's (butt)," Rodney said.

But only days before his first fight, Ulise Rodney stepped in and said the only glove he would allow his son to wear was a baseball glove.

"He told me, 'No boxing.' Just baseball," Rodney said.

The world will never know if Rodney could have whipped the former heavyweight champ 11 years his senior. But the world knows this: Ulise was on to something.

Tonight at Kaufman Stadium in Kansas City, Rodney will stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the best players in the major leagues at the All-Star Game. At 35 and with 10 seasons in the big leagues, Rodney finally realized a dream of becoming an all-star.

"Really I don't know what it means, but I know it's something special," Rodney said. "It's a moment in your career you're never going to forget. It means a lot to your family. It's something you worked hard to try and make."

Rodney earned his spot on the team by making the most of an opportunity presented on Opening Day when Rays closer Kyle Farnsworth was placed on the disabled list with a right elbow strain that forced him to miss the first 77 games. Rodney stepped into the ninth-inning void and quickly proved he was not the same pitcher as during his days with the Tigers and Angels.

Oh, Rodney had been effective in the ninth inning. But he was maddeningly effective, throwing nearly as many balls as strikes and putting the lead in jeopardy before finally nailing down the save.

Now, Rodney is all about control of his fastball, something he achieved by changing his leg kick in his delivery to more of a slide-step. That high-90s fastball – it reached 100 on Sunday afternoon in Cleveland – and a low-80s changeup helped Rodney convert 25 of 26 save opportunities this season.

The Rays reached the All-Star Break a half-game out of the American League Wild Card due in large part to Rodney's ability to bring home the victory.

At the time of Farnsworth's injury, manager Joe Maddon listed his ninth-inning options as such: Joel Peralta, J.P. Howell, maybe Jake McGee and possibly Wade Davis.

Rodney, who signed a $1.75 million contract on Jan. 4 with a $2.5 million club option for 2013 to add bullpen depth to the seventh and eighth innings, was never mentioned. Yet, he was Maddon's first option during the first save opportunity of the season and his success has made Farnsworth a seventh- and eighth-inning pitcher.

Where would the Rays be without Rodney?

"I have no idea," Maddon said. "The other guys have been good, but Fernando's been putting the nails in the coffin."

After two rocky seasons in Anaheim, where he lost his role as the closer, Rodney found a home in the Tampa Bay bullpen. He joined former Rays Grant Balfour, Joaquin Benoit and Raphael Soriano as relievers who flourished in Maddon's bullpen, along with Peralta and Farnsworth, who saved a career-high 25 games last season.

Rodney amuses his teammates with his birdcalls and his stock answer to every question his bullpen mates ask him about pitching: "It's all mental."

He's known to suddenly bark, "Yup … 99," while playing catch before a game, meaning he's throwing 99 mph fastballs.

Early in spring training, Peralta began calling Rodney "Kimbo," because Rodney resembles MMA fighter Kimbo Slice. The nickname, plus a silhouette of Rodney firing his trademark imaginary arrow after a save, appears on T-shirts worn around the clubhouse by the players and coaches.

Equally as important as feeling at home in Tampa Bay, Rodney feels respected.

Maddon had Rodney warm up at Texas in late April but didn't bring him into the game, a move that often sends a temperamental closer into a tizzy. After the game, Maddon sought out Rodney in the clubhouse.

"It was important to make him aware that I had messed up," Maddon said. "It's about trust."

Take that trust and mix in an adjustment to his mechanics and a ninth-inning need, and Rodney is an All-Star.

In his native Dominican Republic, Rodney was a point guard in basketball and caught and played third base in baseball. He was 19 when he decided to give pitching a try.

"I wasn't going to make it as a catcher or third baseman and I always had a good arm," he said.

He was 20 when the Tigers signed him for $3,000 and assigned him to their Dominican Summer League team. Tigers scout Ramon Peña offered this advice: "Forget about what I gave you and work hard."

"I looked around and I saw a lot of guys who could play baseball," Rodney said. "A lot of them (worried) about their money. Me, I just worked hard every day. I didn't think I wasn't going to make it."

Ulise was always there for his son, steering him away from boxing and back to baseball, teaching him to fish, watching as Rodney developed as a pitcher.

But Ulise died of cancer on April 28, 2002, a week before his son made his major league debut.

"I'd like him to be here with me because we're good friends," Rodney said. "Everything we do together."

Rodney wears his baseball cap pulled slightly to the left to honor Ulise. When Maddon told Rodney he had made the All-Star Team, Rodney cried because Ulise won't see him pitch.

But father and son made it to Kansas City together.

Rodney had the name "Ulise" sewn on the back of his light blue American League All-Star Game practice jersey.

"This," Rodney said, "is going to be for my dad."


rmooney@tampatrib.com

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