07/12/07 9:30 PM ET
Nothing slowing A-Rod's historic march
Yankees slugger still in prime as he nears 500 career homers
By Bryan Hoch / MLB.com
From deafening roars after 450-foot home runs to ever-present tabloid turmoil that follows the slugger's every movement, noise is a constant of A-Rod's existence. It's anticipated and expected, with the only sure bet that there will be plenty of it.
Perhaps that's why a man who strides to home plate behind Mims' "This Is Why I'm Hot," a modern rap anthem, spends so much time blocking the world with rubbery plastic earphones, sending his iPod back to a simpler decade with the musical styling of Pat Benatar, John Cougar Mellencamp and Hall & Oates.
Musically, and figuratively, A-Rod can be at once intriguing, fascinating, frustrating and electrifying. He's destined to go down as one of the most talented hitters who ever lived, one of the richest men in the game's history and the youngest player to reach baseball's hallowed 500-homer plateau.
Yet his existence, particularly the hours of his life in a city swelled by more than eight million people, thousands of aggressive taxi drivers and hundreds of hardy shutterbugs, has not been a simple adjustment.
"It took me a while to kind of get used to New York a little bit. I kept banging my head into the wall for three years, and after a while I stopped," Rodriguez said recently. "I love New York, and I've always said that. I know there's a lot of speculation going on, but New York is a special place. I think it brings out the best in you. Again, it's taken me three years. It hasn't been easy."
Before Rodriguez was a centerpiece of the Yankees' efforts toward an elusive 27th World Series championship, before he offered a swirling signature to the most lucrative agreement in sports history -- before there was an A-Rod at all -- Alexander Emmanuel Rodriguez played his first innings on the bodega and tenement-lined streets of Washington Heights, a neighborhood in the northern reaches of Manhattan.
Born on July 28, 1975, Rodriguez's original New York stay was short-lived, relocating to the Dominican Republic with his parents at the age of four. With his mother, Lourdes, Rodriguez would move to Miami, Fla., three years later, where his passion for youth baseball -- later captured in fleeting glimpses by his 2007 children's book, "Out of the Ballpark" -- would develop him into a standout prep star at Westminster Christian High School, earning the first overall selection by the Seattle Mariners in the 1993 First-Year Player Draft.
Rocketing through the Seattle farm system, Rodriguez made his Major League debut on July 8, 1994, at the tender age of 18, the youngest player in the big leagues at the time.
Years later, Rodriguez points to childhood idol Cal Ripken, Jr., as one of the driving forces that eventually led him to become well-accepted in a great shortstop debate of the 1990s, winning in many circles of friendly sports bar arguments that pitted him against the Yankees' Derek Jeter and Nomar Garciaparra, then of the Boston Red Sox.
"He gave me hope to play shortstop," Rodriguez said of Ripken. "Many people said I was too big or too tall to play the position. Cal gave me that hope, and I always said, if Cal can do it, I can do it. It worked for a long time."
It was quick for Alex Rodriguez, hot Minor League prospect, to become A-Rod, Major League standout. Offering Rodriguez regular duty as a starting shortstop in 1996, he led the American League with a .358 batting average and became the youngest shortstop in All-Star Game history.
A down 1997 delivered the opportunity to exhibit his still-developing athleticism in multitudes of manners, becoming just the third member of the 40-40 club with 42 home runs and 46 stolen bases in 1998. By now, Rodriguez had emerged as one of the game's broadest marquee talents and an icon of life in Seattle, helping ring in the city's sparkling Safeco Field by shouldering the load of a Mariners club suddenly devoid of stars like Ken Griffey, Jr. -- whose presence likely once saved baseball in Seattle -- and Randy Johnson, a future New York teammate whose glory years were still in full bloom.
But like Griffey and Johnson, Rodriguez's days in Seattle were soon to end. Rodriguez was the prize of the free-agent market after the 2000 season, and after a brief first flirtation with New York -- the Mets, who eventually backed away -- Rodriguez relocated to Texas, with agent Scott Boras and Rangers owner Tom Hicks concocting a stunningly lucrative 10-year contract worth $252 million.
Rodriguez's Rangers never fared better than last in the AL West, winning totals of 73, 72 and 71 games in his three seasons. A game of pickup basketball played in Newport Beach, Calif., the following January ensured that Rodriguez once again would be changing addresses, and A-Rod was nowhere near the city limits.
Two months removed from a dramatic extra-inning, ALCS-clinching home run at Yankee Stadium, reducing pitcher Tim Wakefield (and most of Red Sox Nation) to sobbing tears, the Yankees' Aaron Boone injured a knee while shooting hoops and was lost for the season.
Short a third baseman and with Boone's injury a wide-eyed whisper in the hallways at Yankee Stadium, general manager Brian Cashman quietly began working the telephones. The Red Sox had expressed interest in dealing for Rodriguez by involving their own mercurial slugger, outfielder Manny Ramirez, but had backed off due to a number of concerns.
Dangling promising infielder Alfonso Soriano, the Yankees pulled off their second defeat of Boston in the postseason, acquiring Rodriguez from the Rangers and installing him as their new third baseman. As part of the transaction, the Rangers were coerced to throw in $67 million of Rodriguez's remaining salary.
The culmination came in a vaunted Yankee Stadium press conference, Rodriguez tightly knotting a pinstriped tie, the top button of his home Yankees jersey askew as he grinned for what seemed to be an eternity of flashbulbs, with Joe Torre by his right side and Jeter flanking A-Rod on his left -- the latter of which was soon to be quite the telling pose for Rodriguez, who would be looking left and seeing plenty of Jeter.
Away from the field, the relationship with Jeter was different; once considered a close friend, who, as Rodriguez would reveal in spring 2007, they had seen their relationship cool considerably. The rift likely began with a 2001 magazine article in which Rodriguez said opposing teams didn't fear Jeter.
|"He gave me hope to play shortstop. Many people said I was too big or too tall to play the position. Cal gave me that hope, and I always said, if Cal can do it, I can do it."|
-- Rodriguez, on|
Though it made for great tabloid speculation, Jeter and the Yankees cared far more about Rodriguez helping them continue their pursuit of that feeling of unbridled World Series joy that had eluded them ever since Mike Piazza's fly ball landed in Bernie Williams' glove to end the 2000 Fall Classic at Shea Stadium.
To this day, Rodriguez still can't claim an idea of what winning a World Series title in New York feels like, an unfulfilled task he often speaks of as the main reason he agreed to bring his star power to the Big Apple -- and one reason why he may stay past 2007.
Rodriguez's years in New York have been terrific and tumultuous, and at times, both. For every gleeful moment of Rodriguez's second year with the Yankees, a campaign that carried him to his second MVP Award after leading the AL with 48 home runs and 130 RBIs -- a season that included a 10-RBI game against the Angels -- there have been crater-sized potholes of controversy, derision and criticism.
On sidewalks bordering Fenway Park, fans still eagerly purchase laminated photographs of Rodriguez's encounter with catcher Jason Varitek in July 2004, and his nullified interference play on pitcher Bronson Arroyo in Game 6 of the American League Championship Series, a heated playoff series that eventually concluded with the Yankees on the losing end after assuming a 3-0 series lead.
But nothing compared to Rodriguez's trying 2006 campaign, in which even a good amount of his home fans turned on him. In retrospect, Rodriguez sees that season -- including a 1-for-14 showing in the AL Division Series against Detroit, a set that concluded with Torre causing Rodriguez embarrassment by dropping him to the eighth spot in the batting order -- as one of the best things that ever happened to him.
"It was probably the most difficult year of my career, but it was also the greatest time of my career," Rodriguez said. "I had an opportunity to learn and to grow, both as a player and a human being."
The new-look A-Rod arrived at Legends Field in Tampa, Fla., vowing that he had tried too hard to please too many people at various times in New York. Already an intensely motivated performer, Rodriguez's winter workload and motivation crested to new heights, as did his knit uniform socks.
"You can't really describe it," said Doug Mientkiewicz, a high school teammate of Rodriguez's who checked in on A-Rod's training regimen before Spring Training. "The guy lived, ate and drank conditioning himself. He kills himself every winter, but I would say that the attention to detail this winter was insane. If I did that one day with him, I wouldn't have been able to walk for three weeks."
Far less accessible to the media and, some say, far more focused on his own performance, Rodriguez single-handedly saved the Yankees from an even more dismal first half of the 2007 season by twice securing AL Player of the Month honors, slugging a league-leading 30 home runs (including seven in the ninth inning, dispelling some notions of A-Rod not being a so-called 'clutch' player) and 86 RBIs to help keep the Yankees one game below .500 amid fading playoff hopes.
"If he makes contact, it's usually a home run," Jeter said, with some measure of hyperbole that somehow seemed appropriate, given Rodriguez's propensity for heroics.
His production remained unaffected even through off-field controversies involving his personal life and one on-field altercation in Toronto, when he shouted at Blue Jays third baseman Howie Clark in a play that Toronto manager John Gibbons called "bush league."
Rodriguez's response, largely, was to shrug and laugh. Long a master of his athletic and professional endeavors, Rodriguez appears to have finally figured out what works for him in New York. Ed Whitson -- the frazzled icon of the Yankees' free-spending 1980s gone wrong -- he is not.
"You just figure out that's not the way to go," Rodriguez said. "The way to go is to play baseball, kind of put this in a box over here, deal with it and move forward. There's no need to explain myself to any of you [reporters]. That's been a big key for me."
Teammates, like catcher Jorge Posada, know exactly what Rodriguez means.
"I see him a little happier," Posada said. "I think he understands what's going on in New York and he's taken off with the challenge. He's doing an amazing job."
The future, like much of Rodriguez's past, is unpredictable. The monstrous contract negotiated by Boras in the winter of 2000-01 also contains treacherous escape clauses that ensure Rodriguez's free agency freedom, if he wants it, and only assures that his family will be wealthy for generations -- not locales or destinations.
If Rodriguez's next seasons play out in New York, as the Yankees appear to want to secure, he may continue to be one of the most intensely scrutinized stars Gotham has ever seen. Only time will tell if Rodriguez needs to file a U.S. Postal Service change of address form, calling a new city like San Francisco, Chicago or Anaheim home.
A-Rod and his legions of supporters -- and detractors -- can count on one thing: his next days, wherever they lie, will provide much to talk about.
Bryan Hoch is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.