As a boy growing up in Venezuela, Francisco Rodriguez played baseball because he enjoyed it.
Then he got good at it. Really good.
And as a result, he says, baseball’s not so much fun anymore.
“It’s not sad,” he says, looking sad. “But it makes you realize a lot of things.”
It made Rodriguez realize that, at the major league level, baseball is a business, not a game. Made him realize that loyalty doesn’t always follow a player from the field into contract talks. Made him realize that nobody, not even the season record-holder for saves, is irreplaceable.
“It opens your eyes a little bit,” says Rodriguez, who parted company with the Angels last winter after seven seasons in Anaheim and signed a three-year contract with the New York Mets as a free agent. “Now you’re not playing for fun, you’re playing for your career. Pretty much you’re an employee. Sometimes you don’t want to see it that way. But that’s pretty much the reality.
“The day you don’t get the job done, the day you get hurt, the day you, basically, [don’t] do what they ask you to do, they’re going to throw you away and they’re going to get somebody else to do your job. That’s how it is.”
That fate doesn’t figure to befall Rodriguez any time soon.
Rodriguez was selected to the National League team for tonight’s All-Star game in St. Louis. The Mets’ new closer has 23 saves, tied for best in the league and second-best in the majors, and is on pace for a fifth consecutive season with at least 40 saves. His 217 saves since 2005 are tops in the majors.
“He has been all we thought he would be. And even more,” Mets Manager Jerry Manuel says. “We feel very good, obviously, when we get the ball to him. His instincts have been off the charts. [He] can read swings and misses and those types of things.
“He’s been much more than I anticipated.”
For that, the Mets will pay Rodriguez at least $37 million -- or about half what the right-hander was looking for last winter. And therein lies the reason for his discontent -- and the reason he’s no longer an Angel.
The Angels tried to sign Rodriguez to a multiyear contract after the 2007 season, offering him $34 million over three seasons. But when the Yankees signed their closer, Mariano Rivera, to a three-year, $45-million deal a month later, the talks between Rodriguez and the Angels broke down and they eventually ended up in arbitration, where Rodriguez was forced to settle for a one-year, $10-million contract for 2008.
And Rodriguez, only 27, proved well worth the price, saving a record 62 games last season before entering the free-agent market in search of $75 million over five seasons -- he hoped from the Angels.
The Angels, after all, gave outfielder Torii Hunter $90 million for five seasons a year earlier. And they were about to offer Mark Teixeira $160 million for eight years.
But to Rodriguez they said no.
“They told me that I wasn’t their priority. Their No. 1 priority was to sign Mark [Teixeira],” Rodriguez says. “When we tried to get back to them and see where we were, that’s pretty much what they told us. I was in their plans, but right now their priority was to sign Tex.”
A closer was a priority, though, for the Mets, who blew 29 saves and lost 19 one-run games in 2008, when they finished three games behind the NL East champion Philadelphia Phillies. But even the Mets weren’t willing to guarantee Rodriguez all he wanted, offering three years and $37 million -- although that could grow by a year and $17.5 million with an option for 2012.
Rodriguez settled for that and the Angels replaced Rodriguez with free agent Brian Fuentes -- who will make $17.5 million over the next two seasons and has made the American League All-Star team while racking up 26 saves, tops in the majors this season.
“We were very upfront with Francisco. We told him what our position was,” says Angels General Manager Tony Reagins, who confirmed that the Angels did not make Rodriguez an offer before he signed with the Mets last winter. “We told him [that] what we wanted to accomplish could take some time. He was a free agent and he had opportunities to explore.
“We had several attempts -- they were well-documented -- over the course of the last three years to come to an agreement. We were not able to do that. That happens.”
Rodriguez’s contract was the most lucrative free-agent deal signed by a reliever last winter. But while the process padded his bank account, it left him feeling empty inside.
“Before last year, I was seeing everything differently,” he says, sitting before his locker at Citi Field, the Mets’ new home. “Last year made me realize this is a business. When they took me to arbitration, and then made me go through a lot of processes. And then after the season they pretty much told me I wasn’t their priority.
“So I realized that I was not, I guess, good enough to stay with them.”
Rodriguez insists he is not bitter, though his words suggest otherwise. “You cannot mix relationship with a job. They’re two different sides,” he says.
Nor, he says, is he upset with the Angels, the team that signed him as a 17-year-old, giving him a way out of the dangerous, drug-infested Caracas slum where he lived with his grandparents and 13 siblings.
“They gave me the opportunity,” he says. “And I respect them a lot and I really care about that. . . . I still have people there that I care about. And they treated me well, I can’t deny that.”
But he’s a Met now, which not only means new teammates but also a whole new league to learn. It’s a transition Rodriguez has made seamlessly, says Mets catcher Brian Schneider.
“He pitches to his strength. And his strengths are pretty good,” Schneider says of Rodriguez, who has given up an earned run in only six of 41 appearances. “The thing with him is, you can’t look for one pitch. He has four-plus pitches. So, as a hitter you’re going to have your hands full.”
As for Rodriguez, he just wants the game to be fun again. And for that to happen, the Mets (42-45) have to play better.
“I’m not the kind of the guy that worried about just my numbers,” he says. “I like to win. Obviously, right now we’re not doing well. Hopefully, we can turn it around and start doing better.”
Times staff writer Bill Shaikin contributed to this report.