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February 17, 2004

Breaking Balls

The Price of Diplomacy

by Derek Zumsteg

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Alex Rodriguez has always been a strange duck. When the Mariners drafted him, Scott Boras advised him not to sign, and to instead go to a junior college where he could re-enter the draft and hope for a richer team. He signed anyway, deciding he wanted to play baseball more than he wanted a substantial amount of additional money. Then he signed a deal through his arbitration years, which we heard was also against the advice of Boras, who felt the arbitration process would get his client more money.

While in Seattle, Rodriguez gave generously of his time and money, and said all the right things about wanting to play for one team his whole career. He then left for Texas and much, much more money, while citing his desire to play for a contender. (At that point it was reasonable to see Texas as a contender, with the Rangers winning three of the last five AL West titles heading into 2001, four of the last seven). In Texas, Rodriguez gave generously of his time and money and said all the right things about his commitment to the franchise. He did the generous things quietly, even while his name changed to "$252 million dollar shortstop Alex Rodriguez" (sometimes as "Alex Rodriguez, who signed a $252 million..."), when his charitable contributions could possibly have bought him respite from the criticism.

And now he's a Yankee, and his timing is awful. It wasn't two weeks ago the Rangers had a little song-and-dance routine that named him their captain after the botched attempt to get a trade done that would have sent him to Boston. Alex said the right things:

"This is kind of like a double crowning for myself and my family. I feel very, very excited and very honored; one, at being recognized as the MVP of the American League and representing the Texas Rangers team, and almost equally important, if not more important, to be named the captain of the Texas Rangers and Mr. Hicks' team and Buck Showalter's team and John Hart's team."

And he started to break out the lines the lines we'd heard in Seattle:

"I definitely hope I'll be here for at least seven years and hopefully I'll be knocking on Mr. Hicks' door and asking to do a little renegotiation to play here into my 40s."

In accepting a trade to the Yankees, Rodriguez makes a liar out of himself. Back when he was a free agent, he said this:

"I would like to sign with another team and help dethrone the Yankees--they've won too much already."

Reports of his trade to New York had him accepting a move to third base as part of the agreement. If Rodriguez wasn't lying when he said he didn't want to move from short, he certainly backtracked from previous statements:

"I like playing shortstop and I'm young. I want to play it until I'm 35 and then I'll study the possibility of being moved."

So he lied, or waffled, and hoped for a chance at a World Series and the recognition so long denied him that he might well have been aching for Boras to call him during the Rangers' new captain press conference and tell him there'd been a breakthrough to send him to New York, or Boston, or anywhere.

Rodriguez has always spoken in the kind of modest, bland, good-hearted way that we expect and roll our eyes at. This has now come back to bite him badly, as he's now the perceived betrayer of two cities.

Now, I don't know if Alex believed any of what he was saying. And I don't know that it matters. Right now, players are forced to behave in certain ways if they want to be marketable commodities. Shaq's a good-natured giant, for instance, and pro athletes often have a schtick they run with--only Michael Jordan was able to make a ton of money without really having one ("I'm the greatest basketball player ever, can be a jerk sometimes, and I like Gatorade!"). Alex Rodriguez sees what happens to players like Barry Bonds who are great and unafraid of showing it: While Bonds has worked hard to re-shape his image, he doesn't make what say, Derek Jeter--an inferior player--makes in endorsement deals. Alex joined the Mariners in the shadow of Ken Griffey Jr., who owned the town and was beloved by all because he (and the team) kept his bad moments out of the public light and tried to keep his fun-loving "Kid" persona going.

Alex may have been lying, and he may have been sincere each time he said what he thought people wanted him to say. I know that people in Seattle who talked to him before he decided to take Texas' offer were convinced that he wanted to stay, that he seemed thoughtful and honest when talking about it. I don't know if he's that good of a liar.

In Seattle, he knew that the fans who saw his ascent to greatness wanted to hear him say he appreciated them, and he said it. Coming to Texas, he said he wanted to win a World Series for the team. If Alex's advance scouts discover that what people in New York want is papayas, I have no doubt Alex will come out and declare that he hopes that being in New York will get everyone more papayas.

If he's honest throughout his career and didn't want to stay in Seattle, or even acknowledged that there was a price at which the value he attached to being a one-team player became trivial, he'd have been hated for the remainder of his time there, and possibly have closed the door to a graceful re-signing.

If he acknowledged that money made a difference in his decision, he'd endure even more criticism as being responsible for all that's wrong in the game. David Justice once admitted he played baseball because of the money and didn't really enjoy it, and there are people who still hold it against him.

If he was honest in Texas, if he blasted Tom Hicks for the continual lying about how it was Alex's contract (and not the assorted other blunders that franchise made) confining the team to the cellar, he'd be viewed as a whining prima donna.

If Alex was honest about being the greatest player in the game, deserving the MVP awards that went to lesser players with better teams (or just lesser players), he'd be tarred as an arrogant jerk who thinks he's better than everyone.

Alex is unfortunate, in that almost everything he says is noteworthy enough for someone to write down, and that there is almost always someone there to write it down. It's the price that high-profile professional athletes must pay, as they toe the line between image maintenance and enhancement vs. sincerity. I don't know that anyone would look good if someone went through everything they'd ever said and ran the kind of extended compare-and-contrast pieces Alex has to endure.

Alex Rodriguez may have rendered himself a liar by making the decisions he's made. The question is: Did he have a choice?

Related Content:  Alex Rodriguez,  The Who,  Texas

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