Pittsburgh Pirates players were fans. Here’s who they grew up idolizing

The baseball card is neatly taped inside Sean Rodriguez’s locker at the Bill McKechnie Clubhouse at Bradenton’s LECOM Park.

The card Rodriguez chose isn’t of himself. Rather, the 10-year Major League Baseball veteran, who previously played with the Tampa Bay Rays, selected Cal Ripken Jr.

Cal Ripken Jr.
Cal Ripken Jr. broke Lou Gehrig’s streak of consecutive games played during his career. That earned him the “Iron Man” nickname, and he was a player Pittsburgh Pirates utility guy Sean Rodriguez grew up idolizing. Dennis Paquin AP

Baseball’s “Iron Man,” was the player Rodriguez, a Miami native, grew up idolizing.

“The sheer grit, that’s not something you kind of see nowadays,” Rodriguez said. “I know some guys say they want to play 162, but to see that guy do it? That was pretty darn impressive.”

Rodriguez and the rest of the Pirates players are no different than any current fan catching a game this spring in Bradenton or throughout the regular season at PNC Park in Pittsburgh.

They were once fans, too.

The Bradenton Herald caught up with some veteran players to see which players they grew up cheering for and what non-baseball sports teams they root for prior to Pittsburgh’s 4-3 victory over the Philadelphia Phillies on Saturday.

The picks for baseball players that they enjoyed watching as youths range from a family connection to rare pitching dominance during baseball’s “Steroid Era,” and a recent first-ballot Hall of Famer.

Josh Harrison, Pittsburgh’s spark plug infielder over the past few seasons, didn’t have to look far to pick his baseball inspiration.

Josh Harrison
Pirates second baseman Josh Harrison points to his older brothers and uncle as his baseball favorites when he was growing up. His uncle, John Shelby, won the World Series with the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1988. Keith Srakocic AP

His uncle, John Shelby, and older brothers were his choice. Harrison said his brothers were outstanding athletes playing basketball, football and baseball. Shelby won the 1988 World Series with the Los Angeles Dodgers.

“I didn’t get a chance to see him play,” Harrison said. “I think I was 1 (years old) when he was on the World Series team in ’88 with the Dodgers.”

Pirates pitcher Ivan Nova, who began his career with the New York Yankees, pegged countryman Pedro Martinez as his favorite growing up.

Pedro’s career, specifically what he accomplished during the height of the Steroids Era in the late 1990s and early 2000s, was something Nova marveled at in his youth in the Dominican Republic.

Pedro Martinez
The way Pedro Martinez dominated hitters in the late 1990s sparked current Pittsburgh pitcher Ivan Nova’s interest at an early age. Charles Krupa AP

“He had the attitude on the mound,” Nova said. “He always competed. ... To do what he did in those days when guys were hitting a bunch of homers, that for me was real baseball.”

Nova was fortunate to meet Martinez at the tail end of his career, and still has communication with him to this day.

Nova said Vladimir Guerrero and Sammy Sosa, also of the Dominican Republic, were favorites, too.

Jordy Mercer grew up an Atlanta Braves fan and watched their games on cable channel TBS.

That led to a player he tries emulating with his lead by example play on the field.

Chipper Jones, who was elected to baseball’s Hall of Fame in January, was Mercer’s pick.

“He was always the quiet guy,” Mercer said. “He never really spoke much. Never really said much. Just put his head down and played. That’s kind of how I am.”

Chipper Jones
Chipper Jones was the favorite choice for Pirates shortstop Jordy Mercer, who grew up an Atlanta Braves fan and enjoyed Jones’ quiet approach to the game. John Bazemore AP

Playing against Jones’ final season in 2012 was a special for Mercer.

“He signed a jersey for me,” Mercer said. “Kind of all my dreams came true in that little three-day series.”

Rodriguez said he’s never met Ripken, but did see him warming up when he threw out a first pitch at Camden Yards when Rodriguez was with the Tampa Bay Rays.

Sean Rodriguez
Pittsburgh utility player Sean Rodriguez has Cal Ripken Jr.’s baseball card taped to the inside of his locker this spring at Bradenton’s LECOM Park. Tiffany Tompkins

Aside from the players they cheered as they grew up, the quartet of Pittsburgh players are also sports fans.

For Harrison, he doesn’t root for teams. Rather, he said he roots for players, whether it’s basketball, football or any other sport.

“I’ve never had favorite teams, even when I was growing up,” Harrison said. “I had guys from each team that I liked. I always felt like teams can break your heart.”

Angels outfielder Mike Trout showcased just how rabid a baseball player can be in his fandom of other sports during the Philadelphia Eagles march to a Super Bowl title over the New England Patriots this year.

Mercer calls himself a sports junkie, and he attends many Oklahoma City Thunder games during the offseason.

Jordy Mercer
Pittsburgh shortstop Jordy Mercer is an avid Dallas Cowboys fan, and attended many Thanksgiving Day games when he was growing up. Gene J. Puskar AP

“Them coming in made (Oklahoma City) so much better,” Mercer said. “It seems like our city has grown so much.”

Mercer also is a diehard Dallas Cowboys fan, and said he went to Thanksgiving Day games for so many years back when Troy Aikman and Deion Sanders were playing.

Nova said he’s a big basketball fan and cheers for the Cleveland Cavaliers and Miami Heat. His favorite players are LeBron James and Dwayne Wade.

Rodriguez likes a variety of sports, but said he grew up a Los Angeles Lakers fan and is a Kobe Bryant fan.

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