'Hart of the Order'
By Sean Hartnett
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At the tender age of 21, Alex Rodriguez was baseball's most glittering young jewel to come along in a very long time.
In his first full season in 1996, A-Rod established himself as the game's most exciting player to emerge since Seattle Mariners teammate Ken Griffey, Jr.
Rodriguez lead all major leaguers with a .358 average and 54 doubles in 1996. He smashed 36 home runs, drove in 123 runs, collected 215 hits and his 141 runs scored was the highest in the American League. His .631 slugging percentage, 141 runs scored and 91 extra-base hits still stand as single-season MLB records among shortstops.
It seemed that A-Rod was destined to dwarf all of Griffey's tremendous accomplishments through his incredible raw talents.
Meanwhile, on the East Coast, close friend Derek Jeter had quickly tapped into the national consciousness through his inspirational play and professional approach during his rookie campaign. Jeter had earned himself the 1996 American League Rookie of the Year Award and shined brightest on the October stage, helping the Yankees earn their first World Series title since 1978.
Fans from coast to coast embraced Jeter and A-Rod as the two stars that would lead baseball into a new "Golden Era." Both played shortstop and stood at 6-foot-3, and every move made by the duo was met with packs of out-of-control, screaming young girls.
On top of it, they were good friends who stayed at each others' apartments while visiting Seattle and New York. The fans and media ate it up. America loved the A-Rod/Jeter "bromance."
It was long before the term "bromance" came along. I don't remember what we called it at the time, but Jeter and A-Rod were inseparable friends and two of a kind. It was everything that baseball wanted and needed during the recovery from the PR nightmare that was the 1994 playoff-cancelling strike. What could be a better remedy that two tall, good-looking, exceptionally-talented shortstops vying for Cal Ripken, Jr.'s throne and leading the game forward?
Jeter would go on to add an incredible four World Series titles in his first five full seasons in Major League Baseball. While Jeter became the toast of New York, A-Rod was showing the baseball world that the sky was his only limit.
In 1998, Rodriguez became a member of the rare "40-40 club" at 23. In his final season in Seattle in 2000, A-Rod became the only shortstop to record 100 RBIs, 100 runs scored and 100 walks in the same season.
A-Rod teamed with super-agent Scott Boras to procure the contract that would smash all previous contracts seen in baseball history. A-Rod walked away from the Mariners and presented the New York Mets with a reported list of demands that then-general manager Steve Phillips scoffed at.
Rodriguez's list of perks allegedly included: a Shea Stadium office, a full marketing staff, a personal merchandising tent at spring training, billboards around the city, luxury boxes and a private jet that allowed him to travel separately from his teammates.
Dollar figures weren't even discussed. The Mets were said to have simply told A-Rod "no thanks" and walked away.
Boras and A-Rod continued to search for the most desperate owner in all of baseball. Their search ended when a man known for a history of bad, overenthusiastic investments finally caved to their demands. Former Texas Rangers owner Tom Hicks won the A-Rod lottery by signing him to an unprecedented 10-year, $252 million contract. Along with all the perks, it included a clause that would guarantee he would be paid $1 million higher than any player in baseball.
Fans in Seattle waved Monopoly money in the on-deck circle when A-Rod returned to Safeco Field wearing the rival uniform of the Rangers. One even stuck out a fishing pole with a dollar attached.
We live in a capitalist society, yet the hate toward A-Rod wasn't confined to the jilted city of Seattle. Rodriguez became a target in many stadiums around the league.
A-Rod is greedy. So what? A lot of ballplayers are.
AN OUT-OF-CONTROL EGO
The first real glimpse fans got of Rodriguez's out-of -control ego was when his infamous 2001 Esquire interview was published.
''Jeter's been blessed with great talent around him; he's never had to lead," A-Rod told Esquire. "He can just go and play and have fun. He hits second -- that's totally different than third or fourth in a lineup. You go into New York, you wanna stop Bernie and O'Neill. You never say, 'Don't let Derek beat you.' He's never your concern."
Suddenly, A-Rod was taking shots at his friend. It was at that point that Jeter dissolved their friendship.
It would be a sign of things to come, as A-Rod was on his way to the Bronx after Aaron Boone tore a knee ligament on the basketball court and a trade to the Boston Red Sox collapsed. While A-Rod pulled on the pinstripes at his 2004 unveiling at old Yankee Stadium, Jeter had to put on a fake grin for the flashbulbs.
The New York media picked up on a lot of mistimed and unusual comments as Rodriguez showed a tendency to put his foot in his mouth.
It became abundantly clear that A-Rod and Jeter were no longer kind bedfellows. Jeter went out of his way to support Jason Giambi through his steroid mess and didn't offer the same public support to Rodriguez during his struggles as boos rained down the stands and reporters besieged A-Rod following his failures in the clutch.
Depending on who you believe, a massive fight between the pair may or may not have unfolded in the Yankees clubhouse in 2005 after Jeter made a costly throwing error in a tight loss to the Tampa Bay Rays.
Radar Online reported that Jeter and A-Rod engaged in a locker-room dividing fight after a TV producer in the locker room spilled the beans to their website.
From Radar Online: "A-Rod walked past Jeter's locker and mumbled something about his (game-costing error), then Jeter told him to go f--- himself and all hell broke loose. Their teammates were pulling them away from each other."
A Yankees spokesperson called the story an "absolute fantasy."
In the years that would follow, the duo attempted to repair their relationship, starting when they made a very public attempt to "get on the same page" in 2007. Eventually, Jeter and A-Rod drove together to spring training in 2010. They began playing long-toss together and ran in the outfield together during the year. Their bond wasn't as close as it was during their formative years in the majors, yet they weren't delivering cold stares at each other from across the locker room.
A-ROD'S SHATTERED LEGACY
In Texas, A-Rod looked across the locker room and observed a clubhouse culture that certainly did not discourage performance-enhancing drug use. If we can still take A-Rod at his word, he began using PEDs in 2001.
One can only hope that his Seattle years were clean. After all, PEDs have been around baseball since the 1960s.
In February 2009, A-Rod admitted to Peter Gammons that he had only used PEDs between 2001 and 2003. He took pride during the interview that his MVP years of 2005 and 2007 were clean.
"I've played the best baseball of my career since," he told ESPN in 2009. "I've won two MVPs since and I've never felt better in my career. Of that I'm very proud of."
All of Rodriguez's accomplishments in New York have been nullified by the alleged Biogenesis findings. Who knows how frequently A-Rod sought an edge to cheat? Did he use PEDs during part of his Yankees career or throughout its entirety?
No one is shedding a tear for A-Rod. Whether he misses 150 games or two seasons through a deal cut with MLB, engages himself in a long, bitter legal fight or finds himself with a Pete Rose-like lifetime ban, it doesn't matter. His reputation cannot be restored.
WHAT IF A-ROD TOOK 'THE JETER ROUTE, AS OPPOSED TO THE PED/BIOGENESIS ROUTE?
For the sake of baseball, one wishes that A-Rod had a little bit of Jeter's intelligence when the temptation of PEDs surrounded him. Unfortunately, you can't turn back time and make things right.
Bud Selig, the owners and everyone involved turned a blind eye and raked in the millions before baseball's dirty secret of widespread use was exposed.
The real victim is baseball history. Record books have become useless and require asterisks all over the all-time and single-season leaderboards.
A-Rod's legacy will go down in baseball history similar to that of Barry Bonds'. Both were supremely talented in their youths and chose to (allegedly, in Bonds' case) illegally boost their performance as a steroid culture grew around them.
I would have loved to have seen what "Seattle A-Rod" would have went on to accomplish had he not turned to PEDs. Maybe he wouldn't have smashed over 600 home runs, but he certainly would have been a special player.
Follow Sean on Twitter @HartnettHockey.
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