Alex is going to be among the elite. If he comes even close to the season he had last year, he’ll be in his own league. You try to compare him to somebody, but you can’t. He is the only one who has done what he has done. – Alan Trammell
There are few players in baseball today who can claim to be as talented as Alex Rodriguez. In fact, there are few players who have ever played the game with the ability to do as many different things to the level that Rodriguez does. Still only 32, there is little that he hasn’t achieved and he proved during the 2007 season that he is still very much in his prime and yet there are few players in any sport who generate as much ambivalence as Alex Rodriguez.
There was never any question of his playing ability. A dazzling array of achievements at High School led to him being drafted by Seattle first overall, aged just 17. He got his first taste of the Major Leagues days before his 19th birthday, getting his first career hit in his second AB on the job against Red Sox pitcher, Sergio Valdez.
He would bounce between The Mariners and their AAA club in Tacoma before sticking for good in 1996 with an epic season. Rodriguez led the American League in hitting with a .358 average, the third youngest AL batting champ in baseball history. His 36 home runs made him the third youngest player to hit more than 35 in a season. So good was his season that he was almost declared the league MVP even while playing on the same team as Ken Griffey Jnr, widely regarded at the time as the best player in the game.
1997 saw a slight dip but if anyone had any doubts about whether he was a flash in the pan or the real deal, they were about to be given a very definite indication that he was a genuine superstar. He would bat .300 with 42 home runs (a record for AL shortstops and the third player at that position to hit 40 hr in a season) and stole 46 bases, becoming the third member of the 40/40 club.
He would begin an impressive stretch of consecutive All Star selections and Silver Slugger Awards (an award given to the player deemed to be the top hitter at their position) but Rodriguez would also find that The Mariners were starting to find it difficult to hold onto all of its stars especially with his own free agency on the horizon.
The Texas Rangers and The Contract
In 2000, baseball was very much in the ascendancy, with attendances at a high, leading to an off-season of record signings. With notorious sports agent Scott Boras negotiating on his behalf, the scene was set for A-Rod. He signed a 10 year $252m deal to make him the highest paid in sports history and pave his way on the path to infamy.
In the hitter friendly Ballpark at Arlington, Rodriguez went about trying to repay the team for its investment almost straight away. He would twice set a Major League record for home runs by a shortstop, hitting 52 in 2001 and 57 the following year and was amongst the leaders in almost every offensive statistic. He would also win a Gold Glove (an award for fielding excellence) and an MVP award in 2003 as the leagues most valuable player, but in each of his three seasons in Texas, The Rangers would finish in last place in the AL West. Many of the fans started viewing A-Rod and his contract as an albatross around the Rangers’ neck.
The New York Yankees and A Change of Position
With A-Rod’s sizable contract, few teams were able to act when the Rangers showed signs that they were willing to trade him. A deal to Boston fell through due to a technicality and soon after, the Yankees were quick to pounce, offering a package including All Star Alfonso Soriano. The move forced him into a change of jersey number from 3 (Babe Ruth’s long since retired number) to 13 and with Derek Jeter incumbent at short and as the face and leader of the franchise, Rodriguez would be forced to move to third base.
His first season in pinstripes was met with some indifference. Even though he continued his streak of seasons with at least 35 home runs, 100 RBI and 100 runs, the demanding Yankee faithful expected more from Rodriguez than a .286 average and 36 home runs off the back of his monster seasons in Texas but it was in the playoffs where things would really get interesting. In the first round he dominated Minnesota’s pitching and was the driving force for the team’s advancement to the American League Championship Series which would see New York matched up against arch rivals Boston: a rivalry that had been given extra spice after Rodriguez was involved in an altercation with Red Sox catcher, Jason Varitek, earlier in the year.
The Yankees shot out to a 3-0 series lead before the Red Sox mounted a comeback, taking the series to a sixth game. With New York looking to win the game and get to the World Series, and Boston attempting to force a deciding game seven, the contest was finely balanced going into the eighth inning. Rodriguez was at the plate with a runner at first, when he hit a soft ground ball that was fielded by the first baseman.
The baseman tossed the ball towards the pitcher, who was running to cover the base and get the out. The ball, the pitcher and Rodriguez all arrived at the same time and the ball became loose, allowing the runner to score and Rodriguez to advance to second, thanks to an apparent error by the pitcher. However, the officials came together to rule that Rodriguez had illegally slapped the ball out of the pitcher’s glove and was declared out. The runner was forced to return to first and the run did not count. The Red Sox would go on to win the game, the series and ultimately the World Series and that play and Rodriguez’s perceived poor sportsmanship, was seen as the real turning point for Boston.
Alex Rodriguez has continued to make his mark, not only as one of the top hitters in the game today but also as one of the greatest of all time. He won his second MVP award in 2005 and became the youngest player to reach 500 career home runs during the 2007 season but still fans seem reluctant to sing his praises. In recent years a lack of production in the playoffs has led to cries of Rodriguez not being ‘clutch’: that is to say that people believe that he doesn’t put up his impressive numbers in the big games but instead, builds them against lesser opponents or when the result of a game is already determined. These claims, however, could be considered somewhat tenuous.
What can’t be denied is how much Rodriguez has achieved at such a young age and many are already predicting that he will be the next man to claim the all time home run record. Coming off a tremendous 2007 season, which will likely see him win his third MVP award and with probably another ten years left in his career, there is no telling how many records he might end up setting. The controversy and consternation will undoubtedly continue but with the Yankees he will get plenty of chances to keep proving his doubters wrong. The intense media spotlight placed on him will surely make sure that when he does, everyone will know.