He already had an AL MVP award, 10 Gold Gloves and 10 All-Star appearances when the Rangers let him go 12 seasons later. But there were more Gold Gloves and All-Star Games to come, plus a World Series title with Florida in 2003, the year after he left Texas.
Now he's caught more games than anybody else -- and fittingly, he set the record in Texas.
Rodriguez, now with the Houston Astros, tied Carlton Fisk -- a Hall of Fame catcher also nicknamed "Pudge" -- when he caught his 2,226th game Tuesday night in the opener of an interleague series at Texas. Rodriguez set the record on Wednesday.
"To be able to play so many games behind the plate, it's unbelievable," Rodriguez said. "It's been a long time. But I'm still feeling the same way [as] when I was 19. I love this game. I love what I do."
That is a lot of squatting, hot summer games behind the mask and foul tips off the body.
"It's an incredible accomplishment," said Los Angeles Angels manager Mike Scioscia, who caught 1,395 games for the Dodgers from 1980-92. "The erosion rate of catchers has really accelerated because of the demands of the position. Those catchers who have caught a long time and maintained their skills is extraordinary."
Rodriguez was promoted from Double-A to make his debut with the Rangers on June 20, 1991, at the Chicago White Sox when Fisk was the opposing catcher. One of Rodriguez's teammates was Nolan Ryan, though the Hall of Famer who pitched a record 27 seasons wasn't on the mound that day.
"I had no expectations of him being the caliber of player he turned out to be. ... It didn't take long to see how quick a feet he had and how good an arm he had," said Ryan, now the Rangers president. "He was younger at that time than my oldest son Reid. It was pretty bizarre when you start thinking about it."
Fisk, who played for Boston (1969-80) and the White Sox (1981-93), made his final appearance behind the plate on June 22, 1993, against Texas. The younger Pudge made his 263rd career appearance that night.
Rodriguez caught 1,426 games in Texas, second in club history to Jim Sundberg's 1,495, and was part of the Rangers' three AL West championship teams in 1996, 1998 and 1999. He was the AL MVP in 1999, when he hit .332 with career highs of 35 home runs and 113 RBIs.
Sundberg, a six-time Gold Glove winner who caught 1,927 games in 16 seasons with the Rangers, Milwaukee, Kansas City and the Chicago Cubs, was a Rangers television analyst when Rodriguez made his debut.
"I heard about him when I was still playing, that we had a young catcher coming up in the minor league system that was really good," Sundberg said. "I was anticipating his arrival, and once I saw him knew that there was something very special there."
Rodriguez stayed until the Rangers refused to offer salary arbitration after the 2002 season. He won the championship in Florida then spent five seasons in Detroit before being traded to the Yankees for the second half of last season. He signed a $1.5 million, one-year deal with the Astros during spring training.
Pudge now has 13 Gold Gloves, and Hall of Fame third baseman Brooks Robinson (16) is the only position player with more. Rodriguez has been an All-Star four more times since leaving Texas.
"It was amazing when I came to Detroit, to see the program, how hard he works," Tigers manager Jim Leyland said. "He's obviously going to the Hall of Fame where he belongs."
Every season since leaving the Rangers, Rodriguez has played as an opposing player in Texas. This is the Astros' only series at Rangers Ballpark this season, and the timing was perfect.
"It couldn't have worked out any better. I think the baseball gods are looking down on us with a big smile," said Astros outfielder Hunter Pence, an Arlington native who grew up watching Rodriguez play. "It's a little strange seeing him in an Astros jersey here in this stadium. He's a big part of what the Rangers are."
The Rangers planned to recognize Rodriguez's accomplishments with a video tribute during Wednesday night's game. When he homered for Houston's only run Tuesday night, he got a standing ovation.
"Nolan and Pudge are the two guys here, and rightfully so. I'm really glad he's getting the opportunity to break that record here," Texas infielder Michael Young said. "It never gets old. [The fans] love him here."
Reflecting before Wednesday's game, Rodriguez said he never set any goals of wanting to play a certain number of games or break any records.
"I just wanted to play hard and stay healthy and play as many years as I can. Here we are," he said. "As long as I'm thinking and feeling the way I am right now, I'm going to keep playing."