By Ross Newhan
I first met Alex Rodriguez in 1996. I was the national baseball columnist at the L.A. Times and he was 21 and in his first full season as the Seattle Mariners shortstop. He was in the process of hitting 36 home runs and 54 doubles, driving in 123 runs to finish second in Most Valuable Player voting behind Juan Gonzalez. Rodriguez had been the first player selected in the 1993 June draft, leaving the Dodgers, drafting second, to select Darren Dreifort, and wouldn't history have been different if it had been the other way around?
I had made arrangements with the Mariners and Rodriguez's agent, Scott Boras, to meet with the young player early in the Kingdome clubhouse, long before batting practice started, and after first introducing myself, Rodriguez asked, "can I get you a chair and a soft drink?" I had been covering baseball for 35 years and that was a first. No player before or since had or has offered me a chair and drink in a clubhouse interview.
Rodriguez was that nice, but he had already been prepped.
Boras and the major league PR department had arranged for the media trainer, Andrea Kirby, to meet with the talented and touted Rodriguez to work on his speech patterns and the expected onslaught of TV and newspaper reporters.
Over the course of his celebrated career and subsequent interviews with Rodriguez, some long and some just a question or two, I have aways tended to drift back to that first interview, to that one and only time I was asked if I would like a chair and drink before we started. The point being, the thought that has stayed with me, is that the media readied Rodriguez, now 37, a three-time MVP who has hit 647 home runs, initiated his career as something of a facsimile and has never changed.
Does anyone know the real Rodriguez?
Can anyone be sure how much of his otherwise Hall of Fame caliber career has been built on his admitted (for a time with the Texas Rangers) use of steroids?
While acknowledging his baseball gifts, who can say that his mind has always been on the game, or are we apt to think more of the stars and starlets he has dated? Are we apt to think of the recent New York Post story claiming that the benched Rodriguez, during the league championship series with the Detroit Tigers, sent a baseball to a pair of attractive fans on which he asked for their phone numbers?
What are we to make of Rodriguez after this latest post-season failure and benching that followed an injury marred and subpar regular season with the Yankees still owing him $114 million over five more years as part of their wacky 10 year, $275 million renewal in 2007?
Can he be the player he once was or ever was free of steroids? Would any team risk taking him even if the Yankees pick up most of that $114 million? How can the Yankees put him back at third base now that they have started Eric Chavez--his star long dimmed--in the most meaningful games of the season?
There are no clear cut answers to any of it, primarily because no one can say they have a clear cut vision of Alex Rodriguez.
It would take a soft chair and something stronger than a soft drink to unwind the facsimile.