No baseball player has been more lauded as a prep for his extraordinary talent than Alex Rodriguez, and no one has been more vilified than A-Rod after admitting in 2009 that he used banned substances from 2001 through 2003 when he toiled for the Texas Rangers.
In what has been a career that has included hitting 40 homers or more eight times, 50 or better three times, along with driving in 100 or more runs 14 times, Rodriguez’s legacy was forever tainted after Major League Baseball suspended the New York Yankees’ third baseman this past Monday for violating the anti-doping policy.
Rodriguez, the No. 1 overall selection by Seattle in 1993 out of Westminster Christian High in Miami, is going to appeal the suspension that would amount to 211 games, but was on the field in Chicago for the first time this season the same day when the Bronx Bombers lost to the White Sox, 8-1.
On Sunday, while driving to Tropicana Field to watch the Tampa Bay Rays, ESPN college basketball analyst and baseball fan Dick Vitale told a story about meeting A-Rod in 1996, his third season in the majors.
“He was such a nice guy,’’ he said. “Very friendly and well mannered. I just looked it up, he hit 36 home runs, and had a great year. And when you find out later that he was using drugs, it makes you wonder why? He was good enough that he didn’t need the stuff.”
Vitale went on: “In this week’s issue of Sports Illustrated, he talks about being a role model. He’s not a role model. He could have been one of the all-time greats like Hank Aaron and Willie Mays. But instead, he chose to do it the wrong way. That was his choice.”
Rodriguez’s career has been littered with many highs, but just as many lows. His tour with the Mariners lasted seven seasons, and along with Ken Griffey Jr., Edgar Martinez, Jay Buhner, and Randy Johnson, were the talk of baseball.
During that stretch, A-Rod established himself as an elite player, and helped lead the Mariners into the playoffs in 1995, 1997, and 2000, and twice advanced to the American League Championship Series, only to lose.
Rodriguez then departed Seattle for Texas, where the Rangers mostly floundered, never making the playoffs, but his numbers included seasons in which he bashed 57 and 52 homers, and was named the AL Most Valuable Player in 2003 when he ripped 47 homers and drove in 118 runs.
Losing gets old, so Rodriguez left for greener pastures, and eventually landed in the Big Apple. But he felt the sting in 2004, his first season in Pinstripes when he was part of the biggest collapse in postseason history as the Yankees dropped four straight ALCS games to the rival Boston Red Sox, after winning the first three.
In time, A-Rod, a three-time MVP, would finally be part of a World Series winning team in 2009, and would in some sense silence his many critics who said despite eye-popping regular-season numbers, shrank when it mattered most.
Not this time as Rodriguez drove in six runs, had four extra-base hits with five runs scored for the Yankees, who beat the Philadelphia Phillies in six games.
My encounter with A-Rod took place in 1997 at Dodger Stadium. There was a large media circus following the Mariners, and just as Vitale observed, Rodriguez came off friendly, polite and ready for conversation. He couldn’t have been more helpful, and it all seemed so genuine.
Rick Assad has been a sportswriter for more than two decades. He has a political science degree from UCLA, a journalism degree from CSUN, is a staff writer for diamondboxing.com, and is a columnist for socalboxing.wordpress.com. You may e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.