The official announcement is about to be made in New York: Alex
Rodriguez and his $252 million contract did not kill major league
baseball as we know it. Rodriguez watches the press conference on
the giant television set in the giant living room of his
7,500-square-foot mansion in Dallas's Highland Park section.
Barefoot and dressed in basketball shorts and a T-shirt,
Rodriguez lounges on a sofa as commissioner Bud Selig and
players' association executive director Donald Fehr announce that
a strike has been averted. Players and owners have negotiated a
labor agreement without a work stoppage for the first time since
1970, this only 20 months after Rodriguez signed his contract
with the Texas Rangers, the one that was supposed to be the
asteroid that wiped out planet baseball.
As Rodriguez watches, his chef, his housemaid, his bodyguard, his
personal assistant and his landscapers discreetly attend to their
duties in and around the house. Using a computerized touch pad
that controls the television and four outdoor security cameras,
he mutes the sound of Fehr's voice. "I have enough [wealth to
last] forever," Rodriguez says. "Not one day goes by when I don't
remind myself of how grateful I am for those who came before me
over the last 25 years. When I see players like Mike Schmidt and
Johnny Bench, I thank them. They did all the work to get the
runner over to third, and all we need to do is hit a sacrifice
fly. We don't have to set a nice table. They did it. We just have
to keep the table set."
Ruth has the copyright on 60. DiMaggio has 56. Williams has .406.
Aaron has 755. Rodriguez has 252. It is the symbol of his
generation's prosperity and of the game's emphasis on finances.
His contract is the smoking gun for disillusioned fans in their
case against overpaid ballplayers.
And yet he is also the poster boy for those who cherish the game.
People who know baseball do not boo Rodriguez. Listen to an
opposing manager, Mike Hargrove of Baltimore: "Every big league
player should aspire to be like Alex Rodriguez, and I'm not just
talking about his talent. I'm talking about the way he goes about
his business, his attention to detail and his respect for the
Listen to his own manager, Jerry Narron: "He is without a doubt
the best player in baseball, but that's not what impresses me the
most. I only hope that someday he might be as good a player as he
is a person."
Listen to Rangers owner Tom Hicks, the man who enriched him:
"Michael Jordan made something like $30 million a year and was
celebrated as the greatest player in the game. Nobody made an
issue of his salary. Why is it that people want to criticize our
best player when he should be celebrated?"
Since Hicks gave him the 10-year contract, Rodriguez has played
298 straight games while hitting .317 with 100 home runs. At
week's end he led the majors this season in home runs (48), RBIs
(119) and total bases (340) while hitting .316 and playing the
best shortstop of his career. It is such a superlative
season--maybe the best ever by a shortstop--that Rodriguez could
join Ernie Banks and Cal Ripken Jr. among the rare players from
noncontending clubs to win an MVP award (chart, page 40).
Moreover, he is the unchallenged team leader who upbraids rookies
and veterans alike and is such a baseball junkie that he watches
games and highlights until 3 a.m., often eats his low-fat gourmet
lunch (perhaps baked Alaskan halibut or handmade tamales) on a TV
tray in front of the televised version of a New York sports radio
show and is jacked about a possible trip to St. Louis to watch a
postseason game next month. He is also a bookworm (currently
reading Jack Welch's autobiography) whose idea of fun is touring
elite college campuses. Last month he hit Harvard, stopping
students to inquire about their majors, their SAT scores and how
they were able to gain admission.
Only 27, Rodriguez is the ideal man to resuscitate baseball in
what will be the game's longest uninterrupted run of labor peace
since free agency began in 1976. But there is a hitch. Before he
can save baseball, Rodriguez has an even more difficult
challenge: He must save the Texas Rangers.
"Rodriguez is the best player in this game, and it feels like
nobody even talks about him," says one National League executive.
"Texas just isn't on the radar."
Rodriguez hasn't played a meaningful game after April in his two
years with the Rangers, who by that point have been buried in the
standings on their way to consecutive last-place finishes. This
year's outfit has a 5.22 ERA, the worst in the big leagues, which
means that the Rangers have a chance to become the first team
since the 1956-58 Washington Senators to finish with the highest
ERA in the majors for three straight seasons. Texas added
outfielders Juan Gonzalez and Carl Everett and pitchers Chan Ho
Park, John Rocker and Todd Van Poppel this year, and they have
all been busts.
Next season doesn't look any better. Hicks has pledged to keep
his 40-man payroll under the new $117 million luxury tax
threshold. That will require cutting $14 million from his
payroll, which all but guarantees the departure of
soon-to-be-free-agent catcher Ivan Rodriguez, a 10-time All-Star.
This is Jordan playing for the Clippers, Tiger hitting the
Buy.com tour, Nelly doing the Catskills. "What A-Rod is doing is
even more impressive because he's never given in to losing,"
Orioles coach Sam Perlozzo says. Rodriguez, ever optimistic
before notebooks and cameras, says, "Sooner or later we're going
to get it together and turn it around here, and it will be
rewarding to be a part of that."
Few people see behind that public face. Eddy Rodriguez (no
relation) is one of them. Eddy, the chief counselor at a Miami
Boys and Girls Club has been Alex's close friend, unofficial
coach and father figure since Alex walked into his club at nine.
The 49-year-old Eddy often travels with Alex and stays with him
in Dallas. They speak three times a day when Eddy is in Miami.
Eddy knows when Alex is too tense at the plate (he bites his
lips) and when he's locked in (he blows small bursts of air from
his mouth). He knows Alex and his swing so well that a friend of
theirs called him into Pittsburgh this year to help rescue Alex
from a 3-for-34 slump. Rodriguez banged out three hits that night
and nine more over the next five games.
"Let me tell you, sometimes it's not just the losing, it's the
effort when they lose that bothers him," Eddy says. "He takes it
very personally. Alex is very emotional. And he wants to win more
than anything else."
Rodriguez didn't set out to play for the Rangers when he became a
free agent after the 2000 season. According to several of his
friends, Rodriguez, who was born in New York and moved to Miami
in 1984, wanted to play for the Mets, who were coming off a World
Series appearance, and was willing to give them a discount. New
York G.M. Steve Phillips, however, angrily broke off talks with
Rodriguez after claiming that agent Scott Boras had asked for
perks that would have created what Phillips termed "a 24 and one"
division in the Mets' clubhouse.
"We had heard for a while that we were his first choice," says
one Mets official, "but there was always some doubt as to whether
Boras would have allowed him to sign for the discount people
speculated about. Who knows, he might wind up here, though I'd
have to think it would be later rather than sooner."
The Mets are 143-153 since passing on Rodriguez. Last winter they
added Mo Vaughn, Jeromy Burnitz, Roger Cedeno and Robbie Alomar
to what had been the worst offense in the National League.
Through week's end those players had contributed a combined 48
home runs at a cost of $28.5 million this year.
Unlike the Mets, the Mariners have succeeded without Rodriguez.
They reached the American League Championship Series last year
and are contenders again this year. Asked if he ever harbored
second thoughts about leaving Seattle, Rodriguez quickly replies,
"Never. It was a chapter in my life I enjoyed, and it was time
for me to end it and move on. I wish them the best." Rodriguez,
who still lives in Miami in the off-season, never took to
Seattle's cool, wet weather nor its spacious, unheated ballpark.
"You know how much time I spent in Seattle in the off-season all
the years I played there?" he asks. "Three days. Total. I love
Dallas. It's a very underrated big city, and I'm a city person. I
have season tickets to the Mavs. I'm back here a lot in the
Rodriguez did not have have much enthusiasm for suitors Colorado,
Baltimore and the White Sox, none of whom had been consistently
successful teams. Atlanta showed interest, but not enough to give
him a no-trade clause. That left Texas, which had won three
American League West titles in the previous five years, and
Hicks, who wowed Rodriguez with his swagger and his money.
Critics rushed to compare Rodriguez's contract with the one the
NBA's Minnesota Timberwolves gave Kevin Garnett, which was
regarded as so over-the-top that it triggered the lockout that
led to a salary cap.
"People get sticker shock from the 252," Hicks says. "Alex is
being paid $21 million this year. If you compare him to other
people getting 20, 19 and 18, there's no comparison at all. We
couldn't be happier with Alex. Listen, they wanted to do a three-
or four-year deal. I gave him 10 years because I want him here
that long. We have the luxury of building a team around the best
player in baseball."
Rodriguez has an out clause after the 2007 season, when he will
be 32. That puts Hicks's guaranteed investment at seven years and
$171 million--hardly cause for sticker shock when compared with
the $189 million the Yankees gave Derek Jeter (over 10 years) and
the $160 million the Red Sox gave Manny Ramirez (eight years).
Meanwhile, Rodriguez tries to impose his will upon a flawed team.
He frequently and forcefully scolds second baseman Michael Young
and rookie outfielder Kevin Mench for impatience at the plate.
Last Thursday, Mench began a two-out winning rally against
Baltimore with a well-earned single. Rodriguez hugged him after
the game, saying, "You won the game for us." Only the night
before, Rodriguez delicately chided Everett for bunting with two
strikes, no outs and a runner at second. Everett, who had been
riding a hot streak, struck out. "If I was swinging the bat like
you," he told Everett, "I'd like to hit there."
"He's much more outspoken this year," Young says. "There's no
doubt this is his team."
When Rodriguez opens the door to his bedroom's walk-in closet,
it's immediately clear that his wardrobe resembles his game. It
is short on flash, long on polish. Rows and rows of dark,
understated suits and crisp dress shirts hang in perfect order,
set off against honey-colored wood paneling, approximating an
Armani boutique. Polo shirts are stacked on shelves in neat
rectangles like giant decks of cards.
"It's his one vice," his fiancee, Cynthia Scurtis, says of his
clothes. "He used to be much worse until I made him aware of it.
He at least thinks before he buys something now."
A Chagall oil painting hangs over the bedroom fireplace. The
house has a warm, neoclassical feel, with wool rugs, gold and
burgundy upholstered furnishings and French country pine.
Rodriguez spent hours with an interior designer choosing colors
and fabrics for every room in the house. Pointing to the yellow
wallpaper of a guest bath, Rodriguez says, "It matches the
[guest] bedroom, the way I wanted it." Only behind the closed
double doors of his office, where baseball memorabilia and awards
fill shelves and wall space, is there any evidence that the best
player in baseball lives here.
Eddy believes Alex might hit 60 home runs this season (his career
high is 52, last year), including the 300th of his career. (He
ended the week with 289.) He believes Alex eventually might hit
"I can't get caught up in numbers," Rodriguez says. "As soon as I
do that, I lose focus. My focus is on winning. I feel I have an
incredible responsibility to Tom Hicks and the Texas Rangers. I'm
consumed with that 24/7."
At precisely 3 p.m. Rodriguez opens the 12-foot-high front door
and steps from the dark, cool comfort of his house into the
sunshine and Texas heat for his commute to work. His black
Suburban sits at the foot of the short semicircular drive, engine
already running and air conditioning humming, like a horse that's
been saddled by a groom. The lone Ranger rides again. Alex will
hit his 48th home run tonight. And Texas will lose to Tampa Bay,
the worst team in baseball.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY CHUCK SOLOMON LIGHTNING ROD Baseball fans' anger about spiraling costs has focused on Rodriguez and his $252 million deal.
COLOR PHOTO: JOHN IACONO ALEX THE GREAT Rodriguez is on pace for career highs in home runs, RBIs, total bases and slugging percentage.
COLOR PHOTO: BRAD MANGIN THROWBACK Rodriguez (in '61 Senators garb) has an an old-school work ethic and an appreciation of the game's history.
COLOR PHOTO: TONY GUTIERREZ/AP (LEFT) A WHOLE NEW BALL GAME The fans got their wish because Fehr (right) eschewed the hard-line negotiating tactics of his predecessor.
COLOR PHOTO: SCOTT OLSON/AFP
B/W PHOTO: HERB SCHARFMAN
EVERYTHING TO FEHR
Baseball's last-minute labor deal was made possible by Donald
Fehr's willingness to break with the past
Amid all sorts of predictions before the Aug. 30 strike date, New
York Yankees manager Joe Torre nailed it when he said there would
be no walkout because the people involved in these negotiations
had seen the wreckage caused by the 1994-95 strike, a stoppage
that wiped out more games and covered more days than the previous
seven shutdowns combined. Torre, reading both sides correctly,
sensed that "the need to be right doesn't take precedence over
the importance of the game." No one deserves more credit for
taking that high road than Donald Fehr, the union's executive
"You know this was not the deal Fehr wanted to make," says one
American League general manager. "No way." The settlement is,
after all, "essentially what the [owners'] Blue Ribbon committee
recommended" two years ago, says Texas Rangers owner Tom Hicks.
The owners got the structure of the deal they wanted, if not the
exact numbers (see "Keeping Score," page 78). In a gripping
moment of live TV on Friday morning, Marvin Miller, Fehr's iconic
predecessor, first scolded ESPN in the manner of an angry
journalism professor for passing along a rumor about three teams
refusing to strike. Then he criticized the union not just for
this deal but also for the one Fehr made in 1995, which included
a luxury tax. In Miller's view that's when the players bit into
the poison apple.
Fehr deserved better. This is not 1972, when Miller's background
with the steelworkers' union enabled him to gain basic rights for
the players. But the economic landscape is now so favorable to
the players that Fehr realized he had ground to give.
With this deal Fehr moved totally out of the long shadow of the
undefeated, unyielding Miller. Owners long suspected that Fehr
felt pressure to preserve Miller's ideology and shared what Torre
called "the need to be right." That theory, if ever true, holds
absolutely no validity today.
"We never wanted to strike and made that clear to Don," one
veteran star player said. "If it were left to him, he would have
taken us out. But this time I think the players spoke up more
than ever. And he listened to us."
Consider steroid testing. Fehr has adamantly opposed any kind of
random testing, believing it is un-American to test without
cause. The players, wanting to clear their reputations, pushed
for testing. Fehr heard them.
Consider the luxury tax. Fehr said as recently as July that "the
players are not enamored with a luxury tax. A luxury tax is
something which effectively and intentionally penalizes someone
for hiring someone." But Fehr gave in on a tax, including one in
the pivotal fourth year of the agreement, to get a deal done. His
leverage was diminished because he knew that his players did not
want to strike over that issue.
This is no longer Miller's union, and it hasn't been for a long
time. The players are, on the whole, a sated bunch living a
privileged life that has blunted their inclination to fight. Was
this the best deal for the union? Of course not. Was it the best
deal for baseball? Yes. And Fehr deserves enormous credit for
making it happen. --T.V.
GREAT PLAYER, LOUSY TEAM
Alex Rodriguez entered September as the major league leader in
home runs (48) and RBIs (120), and a serious candidate for AL
MVP. Since the award was first presented in 1931, only one MVP,
Cal Ripken Jr., has played for a team with a winning percentage
lower than that of the Rangers, who were at .448 (61-75) through
Monday. The Cubs produced four MVPs on teams that were .500 or
worse, including two-time winner Ernie Banks (right). --David
SEASON MVP CREDENTIALS TEAM W-L PCT.
Cal Ripken Jr., Orioles
1991 .323 BA, 34 HRs, 114 RBIs, 210 hits 67-95 .414
Ernie Banks, Cubs
1958 .313 BA, 47 HRs, 129 RBIs, 119 runs 72-82 .468
Andre Dawson, Cubs
1987 .287 BA, 49 HRs, 137 RBIs 76-85 .472
Ernie Banks, Cubs
1959 .304 BA, 45 HRs, 143 RBIs 74-80 .481
Hank Sauer, Cubs
1952 .270 BA, 37 HRs, 121 RBIs 77-77 .500
Robin Yount, Brewers
1989 .318 BA, 21 HRs, 103 RBIs, 101 runs 81-81 .500
Only 27, Rodriguez is the ideal man to resuscitate baseball in
what will be the game's longest uninterrupted run of labor peace
since free agency began.
"He is without a doubt the best player in baseball," says
Narron, "but I only hope that someday he might be as good a
player as he is a person."