An accidental audience: Chi Chi Rodriguez can still hold court with anyone

Chi Chi Rodriguez was my favorite golfer as a kid, with his flair and ever-present smile (Photo Credit: Mike Powell).

Sometimes, there really is no substitute for being in the right place at the right time, through no good deed of your own.  Random dumb luck is a powerful force within the universe, and exactly how I came to enjoy an impromptu audience with golf legend and Hall of Famer Chi Chi Rodriguez.

On Demo Day, which is the Tuesday of the PGA Merchandise Show week,  I headed out to Orange County National early to take in all the new products’ glory, in hopes of finishing my day early and joining The Wife and The Boy for lunch.  Having walked a few laps around the sprawling practice range and having seen all I wanted to see, by 11:30, it was off to the shuttle bus lanes to see about catching a ride back to the Convention Center.

At this time of the day, there were literally still bus loads of convention goers arriving to marvel at the splendor of Demo Day, but there were literally only two of us waiting for a ride back to downtown Orlando.  Just as we prepared to load onto an empty bus, none other than Chi Chi, his wife Iwalani, and Chi Chi’s handler politely cut in front of me to get on the bus.

I instantly knew it was Chi Chi Rodriguez because underneath his signature Panama fedora, the slightly built, tanned older gentleman looked and sounded exactly like Chi Chi Rodriguez.

To his credit, there was nothing condescending or “Big Timer” about this small entourage cutting in line, but rather the simple matter of an 81 year-old man wanting to sit in the front row because it’s the easiest place to get to and get off of the bus from.

At the moment, I had to make a decision.  Would I go full fan-boy and ask for an autograph?  Maybe a selfie? I mean, really, how many times am I going to be face-to-face in a confined space with a World Golf Hall of Fame member?  So what if the rest of the bus ride would have been a little awkward?

No, that’s just not me.  Instead, I decided to play it cool and observe and enjoy the 45 minute bus ride in the company of one of golf’s most charismatic superstars from across the aisle, one seat back.

And despite only having an audience of three (including the equally charismatic bus driver, whom I’m quite sure had no idea who Chi Chi Rodriguez is), what a show did Chi Chi put on!

The least surprising thing about Chi Chi Rodriguez was that he was just as comfortable in front of a crowd and microphone as he was with one or two other people.

The least surprising thing about Chi Chi Rodriguez was that he was just as comfortable in front of a crowd and microphone as he was with one or two other people.

He started out venting his apparent frustration with his morning at the Demo Day exhibitions.  His belief that the whole spectacle was a waste of time, and his low opinion of a lot of the equipment that was on display that morning, was made abundantly clear before we’d left the parking lot.

However, as we drove past the droves and throngs of golf professionals and media members still streaming into the Demo Day facilities, his mood lightened and the real performance began.  He quickly delved into his seemingly bottomless bag of one-liners and short stories, which I suspect would be familiar to any dedicated Rodriguez fans.

Interspersed between the jokes new and old were stories about growing up poor in Puerto Rico and his colorful methods of surviving and thriving as he eventually found his way off of the island.

There were tall tales and anecdotes about his and Lee Trevino’s separate but similar struggles against racism that they encountered in their early PGA Tour days.

Most importantly, Chi Chi’s unmistakable smile appeared at the end of each story and every joke.  He could have just as easily been entertaining a crowd of hundreds with his yarns, but for us few fortunate interlopers, it was riveting.

The liveliest of Chi Chi’s talking points, and the most interesting to this lifelong, die-hard baseball fan, were his stories about his involvement in baseball over the course of his life.

Given the clarity and intensity of his memories, and his enthusiasm in the re-telling of the stories, and knowing the time and the place from which Chi Chi came, I think he may have preferred to have been a professional baseball player.

There were the stories of attending and interacting with the Marlins’ players during both of their brief but glorious runs to World Series titles.  The behind-the-scenes anecdotes about Jim Leyland and Jim McKeon were hilarious.

He beamed with pride at the group’s discussion of Ivan Rodriguez’s recent election to the Baseball Hall of Fame.  So much so, that Chi Chi at once pulled out his cell phone in the middle of our bus ride to call Ivan to congratulate him, Chi Chi having realized he’d forgotten to do so days prior.

With all that charm and charisma, it really is hard to fathom anyone not adoring Juan

With all that charm and charisma, it really is hard to fathom anyone not adoring Juan “Chi Chi” Rodriguez.

As apocryphal as this may seem, I could clearly read “Ivan Rodriguez” and a real phone number on Chi Chi’s phone as his call, on speakerphone, rang and rang until it eventually went into an overly full voicemail inbox on the other end.  (Publisher’s Note: Ivan Rodriguez and Chi Chi Rodriguez are both from Puerto Rico, though we are unaware of any familiar connection between the two).

Chi Chi was obviously a big fan of Pete Rose’s playing career, as his pontificating included the opinion that Rose should absolutely be in the Hall of Fame and that a great, great many ballplayers would have benefited from styling their swings more like Rose’s.  He recalled conversations he had with superstars like Bobby Bonilla and Darren Daulton on the benefits of keeping their bats, hands, and swings more horizontal, a la Rose and Hall of Famer Rod Carew.

In those moments, talking baseball with the guys, Chi Chi ceased to be a retired Hall of Fame golfer in his early 80’s, becoming at least 20 years younger in spirit and mannerism.  The shtick and the jokes slowed down, as the memories and stories just poured out of him.

Once we arrived back at the Convention Center, with new bus loads of show-goers waiting in line to board the bus to the Demo Days extravaganza, Chi Chi turned on the charm and the one liners for the adoring public as he went about his the rest of the day.

I’m quite certain that if asked today to identify who was on the bus with him on the ride back from Demo Days, he couldn’t pick me out of a lineup of two people, and rightly so. I saw Chi Chi (and Iwalani, and Chi Chi’s handler) the next day, as he did a radio hit for Golf Talk America.  While Chi Chi told stories and cracked jokes on the air, I quietly approached Mrs. Rodriguez and made sure to thank her for sharing her husband with us the prior day.

Rodriguez could have just as easily sat quietly and ignored his small audience, but instead he displayed the grace and playfulness for which he was so well-known during his playing career.

It was such an incredible treat to witness and participate in a casual conversation with Chi Chi Rodriguez that it will be the most indelible memory of my initial PGA Merchandise Show experience, one I will cherish for a lifetime.

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