On baseball's biggest stage, Rodriguez sure to succeed

February 16, 2004|By Laura Vecsey

THE MOST impressive thing about Alex Rodriguez -- and there's plenty -- is that he has always understood exactly what he's worth. He also has understood exactly where he belongs -- even if it took a banana-peel Texas two-step to finally get him into pinstripes.

So he can't have No. 3, because Babe Ruth's number has been retired by the New York Yankees. Instead, Rodriguez just might get Hank Aaron's number -- the career home run record -- and do it in pinstripes, years after Derek Jeter has moved from New York heartthrob and shortstop to after-thought and utility infielder.

No offense to Jeter, a terrific pressure player with all those World Series rings, but we didn't really think a guy as willful, smart, talented and glamorous as A-Rod was going to languish in Texas purgatory forever, did we? Welcome to immortality, A-Rod.

Now he's heading for The House That Ruth Built, where he belongs, because he's not going to Boston, like he was supposed to after working the phones and negotiating with everyone from the commissioner to the players' association like a slick Washington lawyer.

That plot was good. This one's far better, if you can succumb to the notion that baseball, particularly in the American League East, is now the theater of the absurd.

Oh, how we will ponder the psyches and fates of the many supporting actors in the new Broadway drama, "The Curse of the Bambino II: How The Red Sox Were Punked Again By The Yankees," which Texas Rangers owner Tom Hicks is so graciously underwriting for George Steinbrenner.

Quick, what's more insane? Paying A-Rod $252 million, which was about $100 million more than the next-highest bidder, or paying the Yankees $67 million to take Rodriguez off your hands? You get the picture. It's all insane. This A-Rod trade is the biggest thing since Babe Ruth. It's so big that we will spend every waking moment over the next nine months -- until the $200 million Yankees do or do not win the World Series -- dissecting every major and minor plot line and character of this blockbuster bonanza.

There's Jeter's future at short; Steinbrenner's unquenchable desire to win; Steinbrenner's unquenchable thirst to tick off the Red Sox. There's the prospect of what Red Sox honchos Larry Lucchino and Theo Epstein can or will do to counter this massively embarrassing and backbreaking move by Steinbrenner.

There's Aaron Boone killing the Red Sox twice, with the homer and the knee injury.

There's Buck Showalter, getting canned by the Yankees after losing to the Seattle Mariners in the 1995 AL Division Series, only to wind up as manager in Texas, where Showalter became the bane of A-Rod's existence -- the final straw that drove A-Rod to work the phones all winter. Help! Get me out! Will defer money. Will switch to third base. Anything.

Also, by adding $16 million a year more to their payroll for A-Rod, the Yankees again raise the question: Will baseball face a decision to split into two divisions, the haves and have-nots, with the Yankees, Red Sox and Mets in one Eastern Super Division and the Blue Jays, Orioles, Devil Rays, Phillies, Pirates, Marlins, Expos and Braves left to consider consolidation?

All these subplots and characters are interesting, but none of them would rise to tabloid fodder if it weren't for A-Rod, who has always known where he belonged.

In 1995, when the Mariners were the hottest team in baseball aiming toward that Yankees-killing playoff run, Rodriguez was playing 35 miles south of Seattle for the Tacoma Rainers.

Boy, was A-Rod mad. He also was bewildered and insulted. Tacoma? What were the Mariners thinking, using him for only 48 games? Here he was, a No. 1 pick who had already attempted to show the Mariners how lucky they were to get him after threatening to enroll at the University of Miami.

There was little question, even then, that A-Rod was going to possibly be one of the best to ever play baseball, but the Mariners were using Felix Fermin at short.

Felix Fermin, who could barely hit his weight! The look in A-Rod's eyes that day in Tacoma was enough to let you know that one day he would prove this was beneath him.

This is the will and this is the way of this shrewd, determined young man.

When A-Rod spurned the Mariners four years later and went for the record contract with the Rangers, I swear part of the reason was that he resented being held back that first year, especially since his buddy Jeter had been installed at shortstop for the Yankees.

A-Rod also would show hints of resentment toward Ken Griffey Jr. and the way Griffey was viewed as the best player in Seattle, if not the game. That pecking order and perception absolutely cost A-Rod the 1996 AL Most Valuable Player Award.

So A-Rod set out to prove his value and his worth and found the perfect foil in Hicks.

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