Publish date:

Stumbling Start Already paying dividends for the Rangers off the field, Alex Rodriguez tripped all over himself during his debut with Texas

Alex Rodriguez, the man who signed the richest contract in
professional sports history, is synonymous with a number. That
figure is bigger in every way than the one on the back of his
Texas Rangers uniform. Now batting, number 252.... He wears it
wherever he goes, even to a back booth of a midpriced restaurant
on a weekday afternoon in Port Charlotte, Fla., as he did four
days before the start of the 2001 baseball season.

"Just wanted to tell you I think you're worth every penny!"
gushed an admirer who intruded on Rodriguez's otherwise quiet
lunch. The man, offering neither a greeting nor an apology to go
with his allusion to Rodriguez's $252 million, 10-year contract,
left as quickly as he had so rudely arrived. Rodriguez smiled
politely and then brushed away the interruption, as if it were a
speck of lint on his sleeve.

"If I told you that made me feel good, then every time somebody
tells me I'm not worth it, it should bother me, right?" he said.
"You can't have it both ways, so I don't take any of it to heart.
This is the first time I've been singled out like this. It's as
though I'm walking around with a sign around my neck that says
252. How will I react? I've never been in this position, so I
can't tell you for sure. I think I'll be fine."

Rodriguez is this year's version of Ken Griffey Jr., his former
Seattle Mariners teammate who spent last season in a petri dish
after his trade to and signing with the Cincinnati Reds. However,
Rodriguez's deal is worth $135.5 million more than the Reds
guaranteed Griffey over nine years. "Griffey got a message to me
over the winter telling me I was in for my most challenging
year," Rodriguez said. "I think he's right. That's why I worked
so hard over the winter. I turned down Leno and Letterman and
lots of stuff. It's like how I approach big games or RBI
situations. When the pressure's greatest, I go back to basics, to
the fundamentals. I'm ready."

Adding to his personal challenge, Rodriguez signed with a
franchise that hasn't won a postseason series in its 40 previous
years (including its 11 seasons as the Washington Senators) and
is coming off a 91-loss, last-place performance in which its
pitching was the worst in baseball. Rangers owner Tom Hicks gave
Rodriguez the $252 million to enhance the value of his club
(which, Hicks says, Rodriguez already has) and to help make
Texas "one of the elite franchises in the game."

The latter task officially began on Sunday in San Juan, where
Major League Baseball's road tour to promote the game (and sell
truckloads of T-shirts) brought the Rangers and the Toronto Blue
Jays for Opening Day. The first time Rodriguez touched the ball
at shortstop, he fired wildly to first base for an error. The
second time he touched it, he slipped on the artificial turf and
fell comically while trying to turn what should have been a
double play. The fifth time he touched it, his spikes caught in
his shoelaces and he fell face first while attempting to field a
grounder, botching what should have been another out.

Rodriguez played shortstop as you expect Cosmo Kramer would.
Depending on which side of the $252 million argument you
sit--prudent long-term investment or apocalyptic lapse in
sanity--unintended slapstick marked the start of what is either
the A-Rod Era or the A-Rod Error. Los Vigilantes, looking hardly
different from last season, made an ugly first impression, losing
8-1 to los Azulejos.

"You have to start somewhere," Rodriguez said after the game. He
did stroke two groundball singles and scored Texas's lone run on
first baseman Rafael Palmeiro's first-inning double. "[The first
game] had a little of everything: error, slip, hit.... You just
move on."

Mostly, the game had the feel of a homecoming celebration for
Rangers catcher Ivan Rodriguez and Blue Jays first baseman Carlos
Delgado, both immensely popular in their native Puerto Rico.
Rodriguez worked so tirelessly at playing the homecoming king
last Friday--visiting his elementary school, his Little League
field and coach, and breaking ground on his planned $16 million
baseball school--that he developed laryngitis. He smacked two home
runs in an exhibition game on Saturday night and then admitted to
being exhausted after an 0-for-4 showing on Sunday. "I felt it
today a lot," he said. "Anyway, I had a great time with my
people. If I had to, I'd do it all again."

With his trademark nonstop megawatt smile, Delgado seemed to
power the entire island, whether he was enthralling the media
with his bilingual feel-good interviews, donating money to help
residents of the adjacent island of Vieques (who claim their
health has been compromised by U.S. military bombing exercises),
advancing Toronto's bid for the 2008 Olympics, staging a youth
clinic with Ivan Rodriguez, hosting a team dinner or making
several public appearances to sign autographs. "I've had so much
fun," said Delgado on Sunday, before contributing a run-scoring
single in four at bats. "It's all been great, but I guess one
thing stands out: I had breakfast with my mother and father this
morning before Opening Day. That's priceless."

Like season openers in Mexico in 1999 and Japan in 2000, this
game was envisioned by Major League Baseball as a precursor to a
World Cup-type tournament, which would be a commercial boon to
the big leagues. Merchandising sales in Japan last year, for
example, rose 40% after the Chicago Cubs and the New York Mets
played their opening two-game series there. On Sunday three
announcements were made in the first five innings encouraging
fans to purchase T-shirts and caps.

Nonetheless, beneath the quaint corrugated roof of tiny Hiram
Bithorn Stadium, the 19,891 fans showed a respect for the game
that is seldom seen anymore in major league ballparks. The game
was played to an impromptu soundtrack of joyful singing to the
sounds of trumpets, bongos and maracas while vendors shouldered
trays of pina coladas and concession stands served shots of hard
liquor without incident. The highlight of the sun-scorched
afternoon occurred after one spectator in the bleachers quickly
put an end to that favorite diversionary pastime of bored fans,
the batting around of a beachball. After the ball had popped into
the rightfield bullpen area, which was not enclosed, and was
returned to the seats by Blue Jays reliever Kelvim Escobar,
something wonderful happened: As the fan held the ball to the
ground instead of directing it elsewhere, the rest of the crowd
cheered with delight. "Can you imagine what would have happened
in the States?" Rangers manager Johnny Oates said after the game.
"These are good baseball people. They want to see baseball."

Nary a boo was heard during the afternoon, not even when Alex
Rodriguez seemed to be playing shortstop in his socks on freshly
waxed linoleum. Though Texas signed two other free-agent hitters,
third baseman Ken Caminiti and DH Andres Galarraga, to join
holdovers Palmeiro, leftfielder Rusty Greer and Ivan Rodriguez,
it's A-Rod, the youngest among those veterans, who's putting his
stamp on the Rangers.

For instance, righthander Rick Helling, Texas's Opening Day
starter, who took the loss, says he's impressed by how much time
Rodriguez gives to "mentoring the young players." John Blake,
the team's public relations director, says Rodriguez has
flawlessly handled a media crush even larger than the one that
Nolan Ryan faced as a Rangers icon. "And he's 25; Nolan was in
his 40s," Blake says. Then last Thursday, during a workout in
Port Charlotte, Rodriguez gave a 15-minute pep talk to Tim
Crabtree, the righty reliever trying to graduate from setup man
to closer. "When I was with Seattle, we used to say you were the
last guy we wanted to see coming out of the bullpen," Rodriguez
was seen telling Crabtree. "You've got closer's stuff." Says
Oates, "Unless you're around players all the time, you don't
understand what winning means to them. That's what I've been
most impressed about with A-Rod: just how committed he is to
winning. He's not afraid to pull people aside if they're not
pulling their weight and say, 'Hey, you're not just messing with
your career. You're messing with my career.' He's always talking
baseball. What's the pitcher trying to do? What pitches are you
looking for? He walks through the dugout and people listen.
That's something we haven't had around here for the past couple
of years."

Still, Texas did virtually nothing to improve its dreadful
pitching over the winter. Rodriguez signed with the Rangers--after
the Mets had stunned him by disavowing interest in him three days
into the free-agent period--largely on the faith that Hicks can
address that shortcoming by spending more money. Hicks is a
globe-trotting leveraged-buyout specialist who built the Dallas
Stars into Stanley Cup champions.

"At one point last December it was only me and him sitting on a
couch in the clubhouse, and he told me he wanted to sign me and
Mike Hampton," Rodriguez says. "I said, 'You mean me or Hampton?'
And he said, 'No, both.' I liked the look in his eye. I said,
'Mr. Hicks, if you're as serious as you seem, we have a good
chance of getting a deal done.' He's an owner for the right
reason. He's trying to win a championship." (Free agent Hampton
met with the Rangers but ruled them out early before signing an
eight-year, $121 million contract with the Colorado Rockies.)

Hicks says that "the cachet Alex brings" already is making him
money. For instance, group sales have risen 41% from last year,
merchandising revenue has increased 25%, and the 1.6 million
advance tickets sold before the season began were the most since
1994, the honeymoon season for The Ballpark in Arlington. Based
on that preseason sale, Hicks says the Rangers could draw three
million fans for the first time in franchise history. "Our
revenues are up nine million to 10 million dollars, without
factoring in the playoffs," he said. "Our [payroll] for the year
is 81 million to 83 million dollars, our revenues are 155 million
to 160 million dollars; assuming 55 percent to 60 percent of
total revenue goes toward payroll, we can still make a 10 percent

Moreover, Hicks's efforts to secure corporate naming rights for
The Ballpark and to develop land around it for entertainment use
"have become an easier job for us because of A-Rod." Forbes
recently listed the Rangers as the sixth most valuable franchise
in baseball, worth $342 million. (Hicks paid $250 million for
them four years ago.) "We were never that high without A-Rod,"
Hicks says. "What I don't understand is people bashing the
contract. This guy is the best asset in our game. We should be
celebrating the deal. It's a big number because it's long-term."

Says Rodriguez, "People criticized me for coming to Texas and
saying we don't have pitching. I didn't sign for one year. I saw
what happened in Seattle when we were close and management didn't
get the big player that can put you over the top. I'm convinced
Mr. Hicks will do what it takes to win. There is nothing I would
like to do more than to prove him right about my contract."

Hicks advanced Rodriguez $1 million of his $10 million signing
bonus "so he could buy a house in Dallas and become part of the
community," Hicks says. Rodriguez complied, settling into a $2
million home in posh Highland Park, the same Dallas suburb as
Hicks. Rodriguez would still like to buy the Ferrari convertible
he's always desired as well as an apartment in New York City, his
birthplace and one of his favorite cities. As his first day as a
Ranger hinted, however, turning Texas into an elite team won't be
as easily attained. This much already is clear for Mr. 252:
Rodriguez needs Hicks as much as Hicks needs him--not to mention a
new pair of shoelaces.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY CHUCK SOLOMON Fall guy A-Rod lost a double play chance when he slipped after catching second baseman Randy Velarde's toss in the second inning.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY CHUCK SOLOMON Foot fault Caminiti was another new Ranger to take a tumble on the unfamiliar field.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY CHUCK SOLOMON Out at home Puerto Rico native Rodriguez admitted that his promotional duties slowed him.

Rangers owner Hicks says that "the cachet Alex brings" already
is making him money.