July 27, 1975 • New York, New York
Baseball fans say that Alex Rodríguez may just break a number of career records in the game. Before he joined the New York Yankees in 2004 he had already achieved the famous "40-40" number: forty home runs and forty stolen bases in one season. He was the first infielder in the history of the game to achieve it. But "A-Rod," as fans call him, also broke another significant record off the baseball diamond. In 2000 the Texas Rangers signed him to a record $252 million, ten-year contract. It made him the highest paid athlete in American sports history.
The future baseball great was born Alexander Emmanuel Rodríguez in New York City in 1975, and had two older siblings. His father, Victor, had been a baseball player back in the Dominican Republic, but was running a shoe store in Manhattan by the time the third Rodríguez child was born. In 1979, when Rodríguez was four years old, Victor retired and took his family to the Dominican Republic. The family lived there for three years, and moved back to the United States when Rodríguez was seven. They settled in Miami, Florida, but Victor, who had taught his son the basics of baseball, left the family a few years later.
With the family finances tight, Rodríguez's mother, Lourdes, had to work two jobs. By day she was a secretary at the local immigration office. At night she waited tables in a restaurant. "When Mom got home, I'd always count her tip money to see how good she did," Rodríguez recalled in an interview with People writer Alex Tresniowski. "She taught me the meaning of hard work and commitment."
Lourdes also encouraged her son's love of baseball. He played for the local Boys & Girls Clubs of Miami teams, where a coach, Eddie Rodríguez (no relation to the family), pushed him to excel and came to serve as a father-figure. At Miami's Westminster Christian High School, Rodríguez emerged as an outstanding athlete in both football and baseball. Scouts for Major League Baseball (MLB) teams came to see him play, and he became the top pick in the June draft of 1993.
Rodríguez was signed by the Seattle Mariners, but he and his mother had also hired a hard-nosed agent, Scott Boras, to hammer out the details of his contract. The negotiations lasted all summer. He was all set to put his backup plan in motion and enter the University of Miami, but just hours before his first class was about to start, the Mariners agreed to a $1.3 million, three-year contract.
"I don't get caught up in the hype. I'd play even if I had to pay someone to let me play."
During his first season Rodríguez played for all the teams in the Seattle organization. He first played in Appleton, Wisconsin, and then went on to a Class AA team in Jacksonville, Florida. Then the Mariners' coach, Lou Piniella (1943–), decided to bring him in for his first Major League game. Rodríguez was just eighteen years old when he played in his first MLB game at Fenway Park in Boston on July 8, 1994. He was the youngest player in ten years to make his Major League debut.
Alex Rodríguez was nine years old when his father, Victor, left the family. The former Dominican Republic ball player and shoe store owner reportedly wanted to move back to New York City, while Rodríguez's mother, Lourdes, wanted to stay in Miami. The boy was not told at first about the split, although his older brother and sister knew the truth. "I kept thinking my father would come back, but he never did," Rodríguez recalled in an interview with Sports Illustrated writer Gerry Callahan.
Rodríguez inherited his love of baseball from his father. But because his mother worked two jobs to support the family, it was hard for her to come to watch his youth league games. Rodríguez recalled the sadness he felt when he saw his teammates' fathers cheer their sons. "After a while, I lied to myself," Rodríguez admitted in a 1998 Seattle Times interview. "I tried to tell myself that it didn't matter, that I didn't care. But times I was alone, I often cried. Where was my father?"
Rodríguez emerged as a talented high school player and was drafted by the Seattle Mariners. The news of the draft was chronicled in the newspapers, and Rodríguez's father finally contacted him that same week. "I didn't even know where he was calling from," Rodríguez told the Seattle Times. "I didn't know what to think. It was nice, but it didn't make much impression on me, not after all that time." The next year, when Rodríguez had been sent down to the Dominican Republic to play in its winter baseball league, his father showed up one day at batting practice. "When this man told me who he was, I almost broke down," Rodríguez told the Seattle Times. They talked and made plans to meet the next day, but Rodríguez cancelled their lunch appointment.
But Victor Rodríguez also read the Seattle Times article, and was saddened. The superstar athlete also felt a little bit of remorse, and arranged to have a satellite television dish delivered to his estranged father's house so that he could watch the Mariners' games. They met the following winter, and had another reunion that took place on Father's Day of 2000. "I wish I could tell you I had planned it that way," Rodríguez told the Seattle Times afterward, about the symbolic holiday meeting. "But I only thought that it was time, that I was ready and that I wanted to see my dad."
After a few more Mariners' games, Rodríguez was sent to play winter baseball in the Dominican Republic for extra practice. He did poorly in that 1994-95 season, batting just .179, and went up against many young and talented players from around the world. "It was the toughest experience of my life," he told Sports Illustrated 's Gerry Callahan. "I just got my tail kicked and learned how hard this game can be. It was brutal, but I recommend it to every young player."
Rodríguez played again with the Mariners during the 1995 season. He was thrilled when they beat the New York Yankees for the American League East title, though he made few post-season appearances on the field. He finished the year with a batting average of .232. But in 1996 Rodríguez began to shine as the Mariners' shortstop in his first full season in the majors. He also was the season base leader in the League that year, at 379, breaking a record that had held since 1955. In the Most Valuable Player (MVP) contest, one of the League's most coveted awards, he lost out by just three votes to Juan González (1969–).
However, the sports journalists who cast their ballots for the MVP award also began to describe Rodríguez as one of the most promising new athletes in the game. Sports Illustrated magazine featured him on the cover in July of 1996, and in the accompanying article Gerry Callahan wrote that the six-foot, three-inch Rodríguez was "195 pounds of pure skill and grace, an immensely gifted shortstop who routinely leaves baseball people drooling over their clipboards. He can run, hit, hit for power and make all the plays in the field." Sporting News named him Player of the Year after the regular season finished. Shortstop Ernie Banks (1931–), who had set the 379 bases record back in 1955, was enthusiastic about Rodríguez's future. "Alex Rodriguez is going to do things I never came close to doing," Banks told Sporting News writer Rob Rains. "I don't want to put pressure on him, but he's going to set a new standard for shortstops."
With such numbers, Rodríguez—now known among baseball fans by his nickname "A-Rod"—and his agent had little trouble negotiating a new contract with the Mariners, one that gave the player $10.6 million over the next four years. But Rodríguez hit a rough patch the next year, with just a .300 batting average and only 23 home runs for the season, although the Mariners finished the 1997 season once again in first place in the American League West. He had a better year in 1998: he became only the third player in MLB history to achieve the 40-40 number, with 42 home runs and 46 stolen bases. Only Jose Canseco (1964–) and Barry Bonds (1964–) had attained 40-40 before him, and Rodríguez was also the first infielder in baseball history to hit that mark.
Rodríguez's second contract expired at the end of the 2000 season and he became a free agent, which left him free to sign his own deal with any other team. There was talk that he might join the New York Mets, but the negotiations stalled. He was on a December vacation in Las Vegas with some friends when Boras, his agent, phoned him to tell him the news that made headlines soon afterward: Boras had negotiated a contract for Rodríguez with the Texas Rangers that gave him $252 million over ten years. It was a baseball and professional sports record that amounted to about $170,270 a game for Rodríguez.
But Rodríguez was joining a troubled team that usually finished in last place in their league's division, the American League West. The Arlington-based team was owned by a Dallas investor named Tom Hicks. In 1998 Hicks had paid $250 million for the Rangers. He bought the team from a group of investors that included Texas Governor George W. Bush (1946–). Rodríguez's record salary deal was announced in December of 2000, just as Bush was about to leave the governor's office for the White House. The newest Texas Ranger was the talk of Texas, and even the president-elect weighed in on the matter. "When you pay more for your shortstop than you paid for your team, that ought to be a warning sign that your labor costs are out of control," Bush told Texas Monthly 's Paul Burka.
Rodríguez was deemed the man to lead the team to victory in 2001. The Rangers, it was said, were buying not only Rodríguez's impressive athletic talents, but also some of the A-Rod star power that would bring more fans to games at the Rangers' ballpark in Arlington. Others criticized him for setting an entirely new record in baseball as the highest paid player in a sport that already signed astronomical paychecks. At the Rangers' first game at Safeco Field, his former Seattle fans jeered him. Some even held up signs with nasty comments and a new nickname: "Pay-Rod."
The Rangers did poorly, despite Rodríguez's impressive statistics. The team remained in fourth place in the American League West
But Rodríguez's talents could not save a struggling team, and attendance at the ballpark plummeted during 2003. With ticket sales down, Hicks was forced to trade Rodríguez, whom he could no longer afford to keep. There was talk that Rodríguez might sign with the Boston Red Sox, but instead the Rangers traded him to the legendary New York Yankees in February of 2004. Since his friend, Derek Jeter (1974–), was already the shortstop for the New York team, Rodríguez was hired to play third base at the famous Yankee Stadium in the Bronx.
New York's large Dominican-American community was over-joyed by the news. Rodríguez had spent the first four years of his life in Washington Heights, the section of Manhattan where a large number of Dominican Americans live, and had cousins who still lived in the area. He was also happy to be playing for a powerhouse team. The Yankees' owner was a fierce, vastly wealthy business mogul named George Steinbrenner (1930–), and the team was known as the richest in baseball. Steinbrenner regularly sought to sign the top players in the game, and it showed. Since 1996 the Yankees had made it to six World Series playoffs and won four of those contests.
Rodríguez is married to Cynthia, a school teacher, and has said that he still hopes to earn his college degree and perhaps even a graduate business degree some day. One of his dreams is to own a small Italian restaurant. Fast Company writer Alan Schwarz asked Rodríguez, the son of immigrants from one of the poorest countries in the Western Hemisphere, if he thinks he is "living the American dream." The highest paid athlete in professional sports said no, not yet. "To me," he replied, "the American dream is all about having a family, raising kids, spending time with them at the end of the day, and sending them to college."
Burka, Paul. "Spare the A-Rod." Texas Monthly (February 2001): p. 7.
Callahan, Gerry. "The Fairest of Them All." Sports Illustrated (July 8, 1996): p. 38.
"For Alex, Move to New York Has Taste of Home." New York Daily News (February 16, 2004). This article can also be found online at http://www.nydailynews.com .
Knisley, Michael. "All A-Rod All the Time." Sporting News (June 28, 1999): p. 12.
"Missing Dad in the 13 Years Since His Father Left, Alex Rodriguez Has Found Fortune and Fame in Seattle, But Has Been Unable to Reconcile with the Man Who Vanished. (Sports.)" Seattle Times (March 22, 1998): p. D1.
Rains, Rob. "A New Standard. (Player of the Year Winner Alex Rodriguez.)" Sporting News (October 14, 1996): p. 19.
Ribowsky, Mark. "The Ancient Mariner?" Sport (July 2000): p. 32.
"Rodriguez, Estranged Father Take Steps to Restore Bond." Seattle Times (June 23, 2000): p. D8.
Schwarz, Alan. "60 Seconds with Alex Rodriguez." Fast Company (September 2003): p. 44.
Stein, Joel. "Lord of the Swings: It's Hard Not to Like A-Rod, Baseball's Best, Best-Paid and Most Diplomatic Player. Except That He's a Yankee." Time (April 5, 2004): p. 68.
Tresniowski, Alex. "Golden Guy: The Big Bucks Stop Here, in the Sure Hands of Texas Shortstop Alex Rodriguez." People (April 16, 2001): p. 83.
Verducci, Tom. "Stumbling Start: Already Paying Dividends for the Rangers off the Field, Alex Rodriguez Tripped All over Himself During His Debut with Texas." Sports Illustrated (April 9, 2001): p. 56.
Verducci, Tom. "The Lone Ranger: Everyone Knows Alex Rodriguez Is Baseball's Highest-Paid Player, but Unless You're a Die-Hard Fan of Last-Place Texas, You Might Not Realize He's the Best Player in the Game." Sports Illustrated (September 9, 2002): p. 34.
"Timeline: Alex Rodriguez." SI.com: Sports Illustrated. http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/baseball/mlb/features/Rodriguez/timeline/ (accessed on June 12, 2004).