Alex Rodriguez was 17 years old when the Seattle Mariners chose him as the first overall selection of the 1993 baseball draft.
For a kid a few weeks removed from high school, the idea of accepting a seven-figure signing bonus to pursue a game he was born to dominate might have been a dream come true. But the contract talks between the Mariners and Rodriguez’s family hit some snags, foreshadowing a career full of them.
I remember asking the late Roger Jongewaard, the Mariners’ scouting director, how the negotiations were going. Jongewaard was a straight-talking baseball guy, constitutionally incapable of blowing smoke. While he had no doubt Rodriguez was a superior talent, he had trouble fathoming how a 17-year old’s chance to play pro baseball had turned messy.
“The negotiations,” said Jongewaard, “are a nightmare.”
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Under the direction of agent Scott Boras, using a baseball-football scholarship from the University of Miami as leverage, Rodriguez kept the Mariners at bay until the eve of the fall semester. Had school started, the team would’ve lost its rights to the star shortstop, who had the luxury of declaring himself draft-eligible in 1994.
Rodriguez finally agreed to a $1.3 million signing bonus. A year later, he made his big-league debut at Boston. Two years later, he was seen in the Kingdome dugout, consoling a tearful Joey Cora after the “Refuse to Lose” Mariners were beaten in the American League Championship Series. Three years later, newspaper headlines proclaimed him to be “Alexander the Great,” a legitimate MVP candidate whose case fell short, in a historically close photo finish, only because some voters — disinclined to rank teammates 1-2 on their ballots — thought the award belonged to Ken Griffey Jr.
There was always something that made Alex Rodriguez’s life more complicated than it needed to be. He had it, and he seemed to have it all: Rare athletic skill, a face fit for billboards and TV commercials, an elegance off the field that suggested he was a man of wealth and taste.
And yet here we are today, contemplating an astonishing reality: The 20-year-old baseball player who had it all has become, at 38, a pariah whose only allies are the agents he pays to represent him. (Rodriguez fired Boras three years ago.)
The late Joe Jackson, banned for life after he was acquitted of charges that he conspired with gamblers to fix the 1919 World Series, was depicted in “Field of Dreams” as a misunderstood character worthy of sympathy. All-time hits king Pete Rose was similarly punished for gambling on baseball while managing the Cincinnati Reds. Even though Rose admitted culpability in the worst way — he wanted to sell his ghost-written autobiography — most fans believe he should be eligible for the Hall of Fame.
Rodriguez commands no such respect. Four years after admitting he used performance-enhancing drugs from 2001-03 — he was young and naive, he explained, and desperate to justify the $252 million free-agent contract the Texas Rangers gave him — Rodriguez was among 13 players suspended Monday for using performance-enhancing drugs.
While 12 others were slapped with 50-game bans for their association with the Biogenesis of America anti-aging clinic, Rodriguez’ suspension is the most severe: 211 games through the 2014 season. He’s appealing the penalty, and will be eligible to compete with the Yankees until his case is judged by an arbitrator.
According to a news release from the commissioner’s office, the suspension of baseball’s highest-paid player is “based on his use and possession of numerous forms of prohibited performance-enhancing substances, including testosterone and human growth hormone, over the course of multiple years.” In addition, Rodriguez is alleged to have “engaged in a course of conduct intended to obstruct and frustrate the Office of the Commissioner’s investigation.”
Commissioner Bud Selig considered a lifetime ban on the Miami clinic’s most famous client, but apparently realized a penalty that severe was fraught with the potential of a lawsuit — not to mention risking the wrath of the MLB Players Association, which has generally cooperated with Selig on his get-tough-on-juicers stance.
Although Rodriguez has been spared the humiliation endured by Jackson and Rose, the penalty announced Monday amounts to a de-facto lifetime ban. It’s difficult to envision Rodriguez capable of contributing anything other than a circus atmosphere to the Yankees in 2015, the season he turns 40.
“I am mentally prepared to play for five more years,” Rodriguez insisted the other night. A veteran vowing to endure despite serious injuries — he underwent hip surgery over the winter — is usually cause for applause. But for Yankees ownership, which still owes about $100 million, through 2017, on a contract that broke the stupid barrier, Rodriguez’ retirement can’t come soon enough.
Aside from his teammates in the clubhouse, where any animosity toward the embattled third baseman figures to be conveyed in whispers not intended for publication, Rodriguez is facing grief in every direction. He’s reviled by the dunderheads who still owe him $100 million, by peers unaffiliated with Yankees pinstripes, by the commissioner’s office, by fans throughout baseball.
Once upon a time, the only negative reception Rodriguez encountered was in Safeco Field, where spectators taunted him for leaving Seattle to sign with the Rangers. The chiding, more playful than bitter, usually was answered with the hint of a smile.
As Rodriguez prepares for his A-Rod Against the World defiance tour, as he appeals the case the commissioner’s office has assembled against him, there will be no smiles. The forecast is calling for several weeks of ugly.
“I’ve always said the happiest I’ve ever been is when the Mariners signed me and gave me my first million dollars,” Rodriguez remembered in 2001. “At 17 years old, I thought that was pretty scary.”
Imagine, Alex Rodriguez was at his happiest the summer he put the Seattle Mariners through a nightmare.
Behind eyes as green as the color of money, behind the Cosmo-cover face and the forced smile we’ll have to consign to memory, it must be lonely in there.