The first step of the fall was the money. Well, what else? Rodriguez wasn’t just amazing in Seattle … he was historically good. He hit .309 with 189 homers in 790 games as a young player. He hit 40-plus homers three consecutive years — only Ernie Banks, among shortstops, had ever done that. He was just 25 years old, just starting, and already Bill James in the New Historical Abstract ranked him the 17th best shortstop of all time, wedged between Hall of Famers Phil Rizzuto and Hughie Jennings. And, again, he was only just starting.
“When you look at it, he had the best production of any free agent in history at that time,” Duquette says. At this point, Duquete was GM of the Red Sox, and they wanted to be in the bidding for Rodriguez. Duquette soon realized they couldn’t afford to be in that game and instead spent a slightly smaller fortune to get the second-best hitter on the market, a guy named Manny Ramirez.
People forget that for a while it seemed a forgone conclusion that Rodriguez would sign with the New York Mets. Rodriguez had grown up a fan of the Dwight Gooden-Darryl Strawberry Mets of the 1980s. Also there was something appealing to him about playing New York, across the city from his close friend Derek Jeter. This is another thing that people forget; Rodriguez and Jeter – by all the reports and all appearances – were very close friends in those days. They talked at least twice a week year round. They each had numerous stories about how close they had become.
“I’m Alex’s biggest fan,” Jeter told Tom Verducci at Sports Illustrated. “I brag on him so much that my teammates are sick of me talking about him.”
Aaron Harris / ASSOCIATED PRESS
Derek Jeter, right, celebrates his solo home run with teammate Alex Rodriguez on July 12, 2008.
This was Alex Rodriguez then — handsome superstar, best friends with Derek Jeter, the very future of baseball. And, if you want to pick a moment when it began to change, you might choose the moment when Mets GM Steve Phillips announced he was pulling out of the sweepstakes.
Word had spread that Rodriguez and his agent Scott Boras had gaudy and unappetizing demands: Office space at the stadium, a marketing team dedicated just to him, a personal merchandise tent at spring training and so on. How had that word spread? Well, people disagree about that. Phillips announced the Mets were pulling out because he did not want a player who would foster a “24 plus one” team ecosystem.
“I don’t mean to cast aspersions on Alex Rodriguez,” Phillips told reporters, while casting aspersions. “But I don’t think you can give different rules and separate one player from the rest of the team.”
Boras would say there was a serious miscommunication and that everyone had misunderstood Rodriguez’s demands. Rodriguez would say that Phillips was flatly lying about him and what he wanted. Whatever the truth, though, something began to change about public persona of Alex Rodriguez. Up to this point, he wasn’t especially well known nationally – he was essentially the prodigy playing amazing shortstop in Seattle. But after the Mets pulled out, people started to wonder what was really driving Alex Rodriguez.
Then, roughly one month later, he signed the biggest contract in American sports history with the Texas Rangers — a $252 million contract that included millions in bonuses, several out clauses and a provision that he would be guaranteed $2 million more than any shortstop in baseball. After that, Alex Rodriguez became A-Rod, the richest player in baseball history.
“This will mark the beginning of a national prominence for a franchise,” Boras told reporters.
No, it wouldn’t.
“We will build our pitching,” Rangers owner Tom Hicks assured everyone.
No, they didn’t.
“We clearly have a crisis situation in the game,” said Sandy Alderson, then working for Major League Baseball.
That wasn’t true either. The game was fine. But A-Rod, from that day forward, would hear at least a smattering of boos in every ballpark in America.
* * *
The next step in the fall was the losing. The Texas Rangers had begun their freefall before Rodriguez arrived. In 1999, they won 95 games, most in team history to that point. But then they dropped to 71-91 in 2000, and in desperation they signed Alex Rodriguez and pronounced the beginning of a new era.
The A-Rod Era did begin. He hit 52 homers in 2001, the first shortstop ever to hit 50 homers in a season. He compiled 393 total bases, which remains the most ever by a shortstop. A year later, he hit 57 homers (most ever for a shortstop), drove in 142 RBIs, scored 125 runs and won a Gold Glove. One year after that, in 2003, he led the league in runs, homers and slugging and won another Gold Glove – his greatness was so overwhelming that he won the MVP even though the Rangers had lost 91 games and finished in last place.
Well, they finished in last place all three of Rodriguez’s years. Any fair viewing of Rodriguez’s performance and the performance of his teammates should make it clear that the losing wasn’t A-Rod’s fault … but he was blamed anyway. How could it be anything else.
Bill Janscha / AP file
Texas Rangers' Alex Rodriguez in a game July 3, 2001.
Of course, Rodriguez would say the quotes were taken out of context … but from that day on Alex Rodriguez and Derek Jeter would always be compared. And, A-Rod – though he was statistically the better player -- would suffer in the comparisons.
After the 2003 season, Rodriguez looked around and realized that he had to get out of Texas. The losing was draining him. The money wasn’t making him happy. There did not seem much love for him in the clubhouse … or out of it. The Rangers agreed to a trade with Boston, and Rodriguez was so desperate to get out he agreed to reduce his contract by a huge sum — as much as $30 million by some estimations — just to complete the deal. The players association nixed the proposal.
Then, New York Yankees’ third baseman Aaron Boone had the most famous basketball knee in jury in baseball history, and the Yankees, in their constant hunt for superstars, started to think about having Alex Rodriguez play third.
It’s easy, looking back, to overlook the huge sacrifice this would take on A-Rod’s part. He was a Gold Glove winning shortstop, and well on his way to being the best shortstop since Honus Wagner, maybe the best shortstop ever. Asking him to move at that moment would have been like asking Willie Mays, in his prime, to move from center field or Johnny Bench, in his prime, to move from behind the plate.
Rodriguez, so miserable and so eager to change his life, agreed to all of it. He even agreed to change his uniform number from 3 (not available in New York, obviously, since that was Babe Ruth’s number) to another number.
He chose number 13. Some signs are too obvious for words.
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