“He’s what we needed,” said LaTroy Hawkins, a special assistant to baseball operations for the Twins and one of their former pitchers. “If he can do what he’s done the last few years, it’ll be a lot of fun.”
Hawkins was the majors’ oldest player when he retired in 2015, at 42. Bartolo Colon now holds that distinction, but Colon, 44, signed a minor league deal with Texas and is trying to make the Rangers’ staff. The Twins, who made a surprising appearance in the playoffs last year, are counting on Rodney.
After struggling last April, Rodney had a 2.38 earned run average the rest of the way for the Diamondbacks. The Twins, who also added the veteran relievers Addison Reed and Zach Duke, join Detroit, the Angels, Tampa Bay, Seattle, the Cubs, San Diego, Miami and Arizona on Rodney’s career itinerary.
“Sometimes you see the roster and you say, ‘Why am I here?’ ” Rodney said. “I say, ‘I don’t know, maybe I can control the game.’ ”
Last season, Rodney became just the fifth pitcher to earn 30 saves after age 40, joining the Hall of Famers Dennis Eckersley and Trevor Hoffman, as well as Mariano Rivera and Doug Jones. Rodney has 300 saves in his career, and with four more, he will pass Jones and move into the top 25 on the career list.
Rodney could never have imagined this future as a boy in Samaná, a mountainous beach town in the Dominican. He did not consider a future in the game until his late teens, when a friend signed a professional contract, and Rodney started pitching only about a year before he signed, at age 20.
He started for a bit but preferred the bullpen, inventing his changeup when he tried to find a grip for a two-seam fastball. With Santiago, his teammate throughout the minors, Rodney brought some of Samaná to their diet, cooking fish regularly. His father, Ulise, was a fisherman who wore his hat sideways to block the sun.
Rodney was pitching for Class AA Erie when his father died of cancer in April 2002. Just three days later, the Tigers promoted Rodney to the majors. He lost his debut — on an unearned run at the old Metrodome in Minneapolis — and soon decided to wear his hat askew, as his father had done.
That tribute remains part of Rodney’s inimitable style, along with his bow-and-arrow celebration after closing out wins. Rodney devised that in 2012 with the Rays, gathering with teammates on the mound and pointing to an imaginary landing spot for the arrow.
The archery theme aligns with a legend about Rodney’s hometown. As the story goes, natives of Samaná greeted Christopher Columbus with arrows after he arrived on their shores in 1493, inspiring the nickname Golfo de Las Flechas, or Bay of Arrows, for the area. But there was another reason for Rodney’s ritual.
“I watch a lot of the Animal Channel, and you see the guy get the arrow and shoot,” he said. “When they shoot it in a good spot, they can run, but you know they’re going to be dead. So that’s how the idea got in my mind: When I shoot the arrow, the game is over.”
The antics are charming and harmless, but in a game that often values conformity, Rodney’s showmanship stands out. He says he simply wants teammates to share in his joy.
“When you show your teammates your love and passion for the game, that’s the only way you can express yourself, to try to be comfortable, to have fun everywhere,” Rodney said. “I want the guy behind me and in front of me to know I’m happy, I feel good, and I’m here for the same reason.”
Derek Falvey, the Twins’ chief baseball officer, said he was struck by Rodney’s authenticity — “This guy cares very deeply about people,” Falvey said — and his physical condition. Rodney is listed at 5 feet 11 inches and 230 pounds, much of that weight in his legs, shoulders and upper back.
“Look at his body, man,” said Hawkins, who is six inches taller than Rodney but weighs less. “He’s built like a tank. He’s not that tall guy like I was. He’s a cinder block.”
Rodney, who had Tommy John surgery in 2004, said he stayed strong by working with a weighted ball in the winter, emphasizing shoulder exercises and eating healthily. While younger flamethrowers increasingly dominate bullpens in the steroid-testing era, Rodney has never been implicated in scandal.
He has pitched in every major league city, closed out the 2013 World Baseball Classic and pitched in all four of Detroit’s losses in the forgettable 2006 World Series. He said he preferred the frenzied atmosphere of the W.B.C., during which teammates rallied around the lucky plantain Rodney brought to the dugout.
“You want to be around Fernando Rodney because he’s going to be the same guy every single day,” said the Mets’ Jose Reyes, a Dominican teammate in the W.B.C. “Great attitude, big smile, he always has a joke — and he’s always going to do something weird.”
Rodney likes to sneak up on teammates in the weight room and surprise them with voices: the deep, affected baritone of a broadcaster, a rooster’s, Kermit the Frog’s. He thrives on crowd noise and particularly favors Fenway Park’s bullpen because of its proximity to the fans.
“When they’re close like that, I have more concentration on what I’m going to do because they yell a lot of things,” Rodney said. “You have to make sure you do your job because if you don’t do your job, the next day you come out, they say, ‘O.K., here he comes again!’ ”
Some players have enjoyed seeing Rodney coming in. He considers Derek Jeter (5 for 10) and Justin Morneau (7 for 17) some of his toughest outs, but he has owned Ben Zobrist (0 for 12) and Alex Rodriguez (2 for 14). His favorite catcher was Jose Molina, who kept a statue-like frame while stealing strikes on the corners.
After signing with the Twins, Rodney made plans to see the Super Bowl in Minneapolis. He does not follow football closely, but he wanted to see what the fuss was about. He flew in from the Dominican and wore a vintage Rob Gronkowski jersey, shooting imaginary arrows from his seat at U.S. Bank Stadium.
Rodney would like to see more physical contact in baseball. He lamented recent rule changes aimed at curbing collisions on the bases.
“In football, if you’re not ready, they’re going to hit you — that’s what they do, and that’s why the fans yell,” Rodney said. “That’s a special moment in football, and the fans want to see that. They want to see you break up the double play. I know at home plate sometimes it’s a little hard, but that’s what the fans want. They want to see the catcher hold the ball when you push him — ‘He keeps the ball! He’s out!’ ”
Rodney’s enthusiasm has never waned. You hear it in his voice and see it in his actions.
“One day I’m going to wake up in my bed and say, ‘Hey, I think that’s enough,’ ” Rodney said. “But I don’t feel that way right now.”
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