'If you could freeze those moments ...' Yes, if only - NBC Sports

'If you could freeze those moments ...' Yes, if only
How Alex Rodriguez slipped from being perhaps the greatest player on the planet to one of the most reviled and ridiculed athletes in sports history
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Alex Rodriguez denied having ties to a Miami clinic that allegedly sold HGH to athletes last year.
March 27, 2013, 7:03 am

Allard Baird would say he was literally shaking. Baird is not a demonstrative person - he's the sort of man who would call the best meal of his life "good" or, perhaps, if he was feeling especially forthcoming, "really good" - and this is why the word "literally" matters. He would remember "literally" shaking as he sent in his report on a high school baseball player named Alex Rodriguez.

Baird was a young scout - this was before he became general manager of the Kansas City Royals, long before he became vice president of player personnel for the Boston Red Sox. It was 20 years ago. He had been coaching baseball - "on the field," as baseball people like to say. He grew used to locating players' weaknesses and working on them.

With Alex Rodriguez . Baird could see no weaknesses. The kid was perfect.

The 2012 National Sportswriter of the Year, Joe Posnanski comes to NBC Sports after writing for Sports Illustrated, The Kansas City Star and, most recently, Sports on Earth. He'll write three times a week, including a weekly Friday column called "The Big Read."

Nobody could miss the tools. Once Baird took a brand new scout, his friend Muzzy Jackson, to see Rodriguez play. They watched him for five minutes. "This scouting business is easy," Jackson said. "This kid's got everything."

Well, OK, Rodriguez was a true five-tool player. They are rare, but they happen.

This wasn't what unnerved Allard Baird. Rodriguez didn't just have tools - he had skill too. He knew what he was doing. And he loved to play. His teammates liked him. He wanted to learn. On the rare occasions when he failed - like when he would bounce the ball back to the pitcher - he would run his heart out to first base.

"When he took infield practice, he would show you his arm strength," Baird says. "When he hit in intrasquad games, he would run at 100 percent. He never took a play off, never, and you have to remember he was levels above everyone else. He enjoyed being on the field. He loved baseball. When you talked to him, he was pretty humble - he knew that he was talented but he didn't take anything for granted.

"Your job as an evaluator is to be positive. But it's also to understand that the player will ultimately show you his deficiencies. With Alex, I just kept going back, and let's just say it was pretty hard to dissect him."

Baird says something else, something that might be worth remembering later on: He says that Rodriguez would do ANYTHING for scouts. Anything. They wanted him to stay after games to hit with a wooden bat? He would do that. They wanted him to talk about himself? He would talk about himself. They wanted to get him away from the field. He would do that. "He was out there every day doing whatever scouts wanted him to do," Baird says. "He did it all with the joy of playing the game."

High school senior Alex Rodriguez poses during practice at Westminster High School in 1993 in Miami.
David Bergman / c David Bergman/Corbis

High school senior Alex Rodriguez poses during practice at Westminster High School in 1993 in Miami.

Yes, Baird would say he literally shook as he sent the report in.

That is how good Alex Rodriguez was when he was young.

* * *

So, how did he get here? How did the most extraordinary young player of his generation (at the time, Red Sox GM Dan Duquette predicted, not facetiously, that Rodriguez might have a year where he hit .400 with 60 homers), a handsome young man who three times (three times!) was named one of People Magazine's Most Beautiful People, a phenom who was the best shortstop in the game more or less the day he showed up - how did that guy become this A-Rod?

The hated A-Rod.

The disgraced A-Rod.

The PED-abuser A-Rod.

The choking A-Rod.

The A-Rod that no team in baseball really wants.

How? Duquette is now Baltimore's executive vice president of baseball operations, and it has been almost 20 years, but he still has this powerful memory of the first time he saw Rodriguez. He was GM of the Montreal Expos, and he remembers wandering around the minor league spring training fields in Lantana, Florida when he suddenly just stopped cold.

"Who," he asked the guys with him, "Is that playing shortstop over there?"

He said this just seeing the young Alex Rodriguez field a ground ball. One ground ball. From two fields away.

"He had such great size and such fluid actions at shortstop," Duquette says. "You just don't see that combination . he was just an extraordinary talent. He was so supremely gifted that it really catches the eye. You didn't even need a second glance to see it."

At 18, the year after he was the No. 1 overall pick in the draft, Rodriguez moved from Class A Appleton to Class AA Jacksonville to Class AAA Calgary to Seattle. He hit .312 with 21 homers and 20 stolen bases in the minors that first year. Seattle manager Lou Piniella talked the Mariners into calling up Rodriguez - not because of his soon-to-be-famous bat but because at 18 he was already better defensively than anyone on the Major League team. "He was awesome," Rodriguez's minor league teammate Raul Ibanez says plainly.

Shortstop Alex Rodriguez of the Seattle Mariners fields a groundball
Stephen Dunn / Getty Images

Shortstop Alex Rodriguez of the Seattle Mariners fields a groundball during a 11-2 win over the California Angels on Sept. 25, 1996.

He flashed all those tools and skills and traits that had amazed Allard Baird: Everyone talked about his joy for the game, his deference to teammates, his innocence. "On July 27," Gerry Callahan wrote that year in a Sports Illustrated story called "The Fairest of Them All," "Alex Rodriguez will turn 21, making him old enough to have a beer with his Seattle Mariners teammates. He says he's not interested. `Can't stand the taste,' he says. Rodriguez has always felt more at home among milk drinkers."

The story follows hits all the touchstones. Rodriguez was innocent. Rodriguez was humble. He loved playing in Seattle ("I can't imagine playing anywhere else"). He was deferential to stars like Ken Griffey ("To me, Junior is just so special and so unique"). More than anything, he had his priorities straight ("My Mom always said, `I don't care if you turn out to be a terrible ballplayer, I just want you to be a good person. . Like Cal (Ripken) or Dale Murphy. I want people to look at me and say, `He's a good person.'").

Reading the story now, you can't help but wonder: Were there signs of the A-Rod who would emerge? The A-Rod who craved approval? The A-Rod who needed to be viewed as perfect? That's amateur psychology drivel, of course, but it is worth mentioning that the one somewhat sour note of the story came in a quote from an unnamed teammate:

"Well, he's definitely a good kid," the teammate acknowledged. "But you know all that stuff like, `Oh gee, I'm just happy to be in the big leagues?' Well, that's an act. Don't let him fool you. He knows how good he is. And he knows how good he's going to be."

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The first step of the fall was the money. Well, what else? Rodriguez wasn't just amazing in Seattle . he was historically good. He hit .309 with 189 homers in 790 games as a young player. He hit 40-plus homers three consecutive years - only Ernie Banks, among shortstops, had ever done that. He was just 25 years old, just starting, and already Bill James in the New Historical Abstract ranked him the 17th best shortstop of all time, wedged between Hall of Famers Phil Rizzuto and Hughie Jennings. And, again, he was only just starting.

"When you look at it, he had the best production of any free agent in history at that time," Duquette says. At this point, Duquete was GM of the Red Sox, and they wanted to be in the bidding for Rodriguez. Duquette soon realized they couldn't afford to be in that game and instead spent a slightly smaller fortune to get the second-best hitter on the market, a guy named Manny Ramirez.

People forget that for a while it seemed a forgone conclusion that Rodriguez would sign with the New York Mets. Rodriguez had grown up a fan of the Dwight Gooden-Darryl Strawberry Mets of the 1980s. Also there was something appealing to him about playing New York, across the city from his close friend Derek Jeter. This is another thing that people forget; Rodriguez and Jeter - by all the reports and all appearances - were very close friends in those days. They talked at least twice a week year round. They each had numerous stories about how close they had become.

"I'm Alex's biggest fan," Jeter told Tom Verducci at Sports Illustrated. "I brag on him so much that my teammates are sick of me talking about him."

Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez

Derek Jeter, right, celebrates his solo home run with teammate Alex Rodriguez on July 12, 2008.

This was Alex Rodriguez then - handsome superstar, best friends with Derek Jeter, the very future of baseball. And, if you want to pick a moment when it began to change, you might choose the moment when Mets GM Steve Phillips announced he was pulling out of the sweepstakes.

Word had spread that Rodriguez and his agent Scott Boras had gaudy and unappetizing demands: Office space at the stadium, a marketing team dedicated just to him, a personal merchandise tent at spring training and so on. How had that word spread? Well, people disagree about that. Phillips announced the Mets were pulling out because he did not want a player who would foster a "24 plus one" team ecosystem.

"I don't mean to cast aspersions on Alex Rodriguez," Phillips told reporters, while casting aspersions. "But I don't think you can give different rules and separate one player from the rest of the team."

Boras would say there was a serious miscommunication and that everyone had misunderstood Rodriguez's demands. Rodriguez would say that Phillips was flatly lying about him and what he wanted. Whatever the truth, though, something began to change about public persona of Alex Rodriguez. Up to this point, he wasn't especially well known nationally - he was essentially the prodigy playing amazing shortstop in Seattle. But after the Mets pulled out, people started to wonder what was really driving Alex Rodriguez.

Then, roughly one month later, he signed the biggest contract in American sports history with the Texas Rangers - a $252 million contract that included millions in bonuses, several out clauses and a provision that he would be guaranteed $2 million more than any shortstop in baseball. After that, Alex Rodriguez became A-Rod, the richest player in baseball history.

"This will mark the beginning of a national prominence for a franchise," Boras told reporters.

No, it wouldn't.

"We will build our pitching," Rangers owner Tom Hicks assured everyone.

No, they didn't.

"We clearly have a crisis situation in the game," said Sandy Alderson, then working for Major League Baseball.

That wasn't true either. The game was fine. But A-Rod, from that day forward, would hear at least a smattering of boos in every ballpark in America.

* * *

The next step in the fall was the losing. The Texas Rangers had begun their freefall before Rodriguez arrived. In 1999, they won 95 games, most in team history to that point. But then they dropped to 71-91 in 2000, and in desperation they signed Alex Rodriguez and pronounced the beginning of a new era.

The A-Rod Era did begin. He hit 52 homers in 2001, the first shortstop ever to hit 50 homers in a season. He compiled 393 total bases, which remains the most ever by a shortstop. A year later, he hit 57 homers (most ever for a shortstop), drove in 142 RBIs, scored 125 runs and won a Gold Glove. One year after that, in 2003, he led the league in runs, homers and slugging and won another Gold Glove - his greatness was so overwhelming that he won the MVP even though the Rangers had lost 91 games and finished in last place.

Well, they finished in last place all three of Rodriguez's years. Any fair viewing of Rodriguez's performance and the performance of his teammates should make it clear that the losing wasn't A-Rod's fault . but he was blamed anyway. How could it be anything else.

Bill Janscha / AP file

Texas Rangers' Alex Rodriguez in a game July 3, 2001.

Of course, Rodriguez would say the quotes were taken out of context . but from that day on Alex Rodriguez and Derek Jeter would always be compared. And, A-Rod - though he was statistically the better player -- would suffer in the comparisons.

After the 2003 season, Rodriguez looked around and realized that he had to get out of Texas. The losing was draining him. The money wasn't making him happy. There did not seem much love for him in the clubhouse . or out of it. The Rangers agreed to a trade with Boston, and Rodriguez was so desperate to get out he agreed to reduce his contract by a huge sum - as much as $30 million by some estimations - just to complete the deal. The players association nixed the proposal.

Then, New York Yankees' third baseman Aaron Boone had the most famous basketball knee in jury in baseball history, and the Yankees, in their constant hunt for superstars, started to think about having Alex Rodriguez play third.

It's easy, looking back, to overlook the huge sacrifice this would take on A-Rod's part. He was a Gold Glove winning shortstop, and well on his way to being the best shortstop since Honus Wagner, maybe the best shortstop ever. Asking him to move at that moment would have been like asking Willie Mays, in his prime, to move from center field or Johnny Bench, in his prime, to move from behind the plate.

Rodriguez, so miserable and so eager to change his life, agreed to all of it. He even agreed to change his uniform number from 3 (not available in New York, obviously, since that was Babe Ruth's number) to another number.

He chose number 13. Some signs are too obvious for words.

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Step 3 in the fall of Alex Rodriguez was simply joining the New York Yankees. It put him in the pinstripes so many people in America love to hate, and it put him under the most intensive media microscope in baseball.

Here's a short, incomplete and fairly revealing list of Alex Rodriguez headlines to appear in the New York Post and New York Daily News.

  • A-Fraud
  • A-Hole
  • Stray-Rod
  • Go A-Way
  • A-Roid finally tells ugly truth. LIAR. CHEAT.
  • D-Rod (after his divorce announcement)
  • Justify My Glove (Rodriguez and Madonna)
  • "A-Who?"

He had some amazing seasons with the Yankees. He won the 2005 MVP when he led the league in slugging, homers, runs scored and OPS. In 2007, he won another MVP - in the process becoming the first right-handed hitter in Yankees history to hit 50 homers in a season, this was something even Joe DiMaggio couldn't do (though, to be fair, DiMaggio played in old Yankee Stadium, which was a tough place for right-handed power hitters).

Alex Rodriguez Signs With Yankees
Ezra Shaw / Getty Images

Alex Rodriguez attends a press conference announcing him as the newest New York Yankee on Feb. 17, 2004.

One former girlfriend said that Rodriguez had a painting over his bed of himself as a centaur, something Rodriguez denied (unquestionably one of the oddest denials in baseball history).

Along the way, Rodriguez also developed a reputation as someone who came up small in the postseason. It wasn't entirely fair. Yes, he did struggle against the Angels and Tigers in 2005 and 2006 playoff series, and again last year as he dealt with a hip injury that probably should have prevented him from playing at all. Take those dreadful series away (something A-Rod would love to do), A-Rod is a .300 postseason hitter and has slugged .545 - essentially his career numbers. But those bad series locked in the perception of A-Rod as a postseason failure . or, as the New York Post put it on their back page: "Bronx Bum$."

More, playing third base in New York meant playing next to the man he had once called his mirror image: Derek Jeter. They still had so many similarities. Jeter was also one of People Magazine's most beautiful people. Jeter dated models and actresses too. Jeter signed an astonishingly expensive contract. Jeter, like most great ballplayers, also had some epic failures in individual postseason series. He could be aloof and off-putting at times.

But Jeter was respectful and he personified winning . and throughout the game he was respected, admired, commended. The stories about him tended to gush to the same extremes that A-Rod stories tended to malign. His New York persona was almost unmatched. When Curt Schilling ripped Rodriguez for trying to slap the ball out a glove during the 2004 ALCS, he added: "Would Derek Jeter ever do that? No chance." When Dallas Braden ripped Rodriguez for walking across the mound when returning to first base on a foul ball, he added "(Rodriguez) might watch his captain a little more often." People saw praising Jeter as a way to get at Rodriguez. And people for a long time wanted to get at Rodriguez.

Or, as one leading crisis manager says: "If people think you're a jerk and a phony in America, they're going to make you pay for your mistakes or your perceived mistakes. It isn't fair, but it's a simple fact. People think Jeter is real and classy. People think Rodriguez is a jerk and a phony."

* * *

Step 4 in the fall: The PED connection. The one thing that Alex Rodriguez maintained - through the tabloid scandals, through the boos, through the embarrassments and jokes and disdain - was his baseball performance. That could not be denied. Three-time MVP. Five-time home run champ. Two-time Gold Glove winner.

At 25, he already had 241 homers - more than anyone, 62 more than Henry Aaron at the same age.

At 30, he had 464 career homers - still more than anyone ever, 170 more than Barry Bonds, the eventual home run champ, had at the same age.

At 31, he became the fastest man to 500 homers. There seemed almost no doubt at all that he would soon hold the home run record himself. He hit 35 more homers the next year, then 30, then 30 more to surpass 600 homers. Yes, people could deny him his respect. They could deny him the affection and admiration he seemed to hunger for. They could deny him the standing ovations and love. But, no, they could deny the brute power of what he did on the baseball diamond.

"For the record," Katie Couric asked him on 60 Minutes. "Have you ever used steroids, human growth hormone or any other performance-enhancing substance?"

"No," Rodriguez said.

Alex Rodriguez admits taking 'boli'
Al Messerschmidt / Getty Images

Alex Rodriguez talks during a news conference on Feb. 17, 2008 at which he admitted taking a substance known as "boli" acquired with his cousin in the Dominican Republic in 2001.

"No,' Rodriguez said.

"You never felt like: `This guy's doing it maybe I should look into this, too? He's getting better numbers, playing better ball ."

"I've never felt overmatched on the baseball field," Rodriguez said. "I've always been a very strong, dominant position. And I felt that if I did my work as I've done since I was, you know, a rookie back in Seattle, I didn't have a problem competing at level. So . no."

In 2009, Sports Illustrated broke the story that Alex Rodriguez tested positive for steroids in 2003. Rodriguez soon came out and, in a shaky voice, admitted to using steroids the three years he played for Texas. "Back then, it was a different culture," he said. "It was very loose. I was young."

And, like that, Alex Rodriguez was stripped bare of his baseball performance in the minds of so many. "I feel personally betrayed. I feel deceived by Alex," Tom Hicks the Ranger owner who gave Rodriguez the big deal, told reporters. Well, everyone was piling on, even owners who drove their team into bankruptcy. There were those who, for a while, gave some credence to the idea that Rodriguez had only used PEDs in the early 2000s, before official testing.

Then, in the last few weeks, the Miami New Times wrote a story that Rodriguez's name was all over the records of the Biogenesis anti-aging clinic in Miami, and that many of those records allegedly connect him to PEDs. Rodriguez has said that the records are "not legitimate."

Shortly after the report, anonymous New York Yankees officials leaked to numerous reporters that the team would explore opportunities to void the contract of Alex Rodriguez or get some relief. Rodriguez, who renegotiated his deal in 2008, and still has five years and $114 million left on it.

* * *

And finally, Step 5 in the fall of A-Rod: He just got old. This happens to every ballplayer who ever played the game, and yet it always comes as a surprise. Through age 32, Alex Rodriguez was a lifetime .306 hitter. He has not hit.290 since then. He has not played 140 games in a season since then. The injuries have piled up. He has not managed 20 homers in either of the last two seasons.

"He got old very fast," one scout says, but I don't think that's true. Rodriguez has been in the big regularly since he was 20 years old. He has more than 11,000 plate appearances - more plate appearances than Ernie Banks or Babe Ruth or Tony Gwynn. He has played more than 10,000 innings at shortstop, stolen more than 300 bases, scored almost 1,900 runs. The body only has so many games.

That's where we are now. Alex Rodriguez is injured - he had hip surgery in the offseason - and nobody is entirely sure when he might return. MLB is investigating Biogenesis. Rodriguez is being excoriated everywhere and, more to the point, being written off. His baseball achievements put him with the giants of the game, and people talk about him never reaching the Hall of Fame.

Rodriguez himself has stayed out of the public eye, though various reports emerge of him being alternately defiant and enraged and paranoid. No matter what, it's hard to find the kid who loved baseball. It's hard to find the talent who was going to change the game. It's hard to find the joy that once made him unique.

And even going step-by-step, through the fall, it still defies belief that it ended up like this for one of the most extraordinarily talented young baseball players in the history of the game.

* * *

"Let me just say this," Allard Baird is saying now. "I wasn't the only one who felt that way watching Alex Rodriguez. I am speaking for all the scouts who saw him. He was a joy to watch play baseball. He was one of those guys who was just really, really special."

Rapper/producer Jay Z and Alex Rodriguez of the New York Yankees talk
Gregory Shamus / Getty Images

Rapper/producer Jay Z and Alex Rodriguez of the New York Yankees talk before Game 5 of the Eastern Conference finals between the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Orlando Magic on May 28, 2009.

He wanted to be famous. He became famous.

He wanted to date movie stars. He dated movie stars.

He wanted to hit a lot of home runs. He hit a lot of home runs.

He wanted to make more money than anyone who ever played the game. He did that.

He wanted to be the best player. He was a three-time MVP.

He wanted to be a star in New York. He became a star in New York.

These are not sinister motives. They are the dreams of a lot of 17-year-olds.

"Whatever he has done since then," Baird says, "it does not take away from what he was at that particular time when he was 17 years old in Miami . if you could freeze those moments ."

Joe Posnanski is the national columnist for NBC Sports. Follow him on Twitter @JPosnanski. Click here to subscribe to Joe's stories.

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Joe Posnanski is the national columnist for NBC Sports. Follow him on twitter @JPosnanski

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