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Pinstripe Alley Top 100 Yankees: #11 Alex Rodriguez

The Decline and Fall of Baseball’s Greatest Shortstop-Turned-Third Baseman is a story for the ages.

2009 World Series GM 6 - Philadelphia Phillies v New York Yankees Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images

Name: Alexander Emmanuel Rodriguez
Position: Third Baseman
Born: July 27, 1975 (New York, NY)
Yankee Years: 2004-16
Primary number: 13
Yankee statistics: 1,509 games, .283/.378/.523, 351 HR, 263 2B, 1,096 RBI, 779 BB, 152 SB, 136 OPS+, 138 wRC+, 9 DRS, 54.0 rWAR, 51.7 fWAR

Biography

Teenage superstar. Steroid user. Three-time MVP. Cheater. World Series champion. Postseason choker. All-time great. Disgrace. Baseball fanatic. Selfish narcissist. Overrated. Overpaid. Overhated. Cooperstown snub.

I do not know what baseball was like before Alex Rodriguez came on the scene. For as long as I’ve been alive, A-Rod has not only been one of the league’s premier players, he has been one of its faces. Every time the Texas Rangers came to town — I am too young to really remember his Seattle days — his plate appearances were much-watch television, and immense home run power that looked effortless was a sight to behold. When the Yankees acquired Rodriguez in that blockbuster deal, it seemed like a dream come true.

But along with the dream came a nightmare. Like Eurymachus lusted after Penelope in Homer’s Odyssey, controversy courted A-Rod throughout his entire Yankees tenure. A poorly-handled opt-out, two separate PED scandals, a season-long suspension, and multiple lawsuit threats cast a long, dark shadow over his 12 years in pinstripes. And yet, from within that shadow, A-Rod shone brightly time and time again, weaving together one of the most impressive Yankees careers in history despite it all.

When baseball historians look back on this period, they will look back upon the life and career of Alexander Emmanuel Rodriguez with befuddlement, asking themselves one question adapted from the historic musical The Sound of Music:

“How do you solve a problem like Rodriguez?”

Early Life

Born to an immigrant family in the Washington Heights section of New York City, A-Rod and his family moved back to the Dominican Republic when he was four years old before ultimately settling in Miami when he was nine. Soon after they arrived in Miami, his father Victor returned to New York, leaving his mother Lourdes to raise both the young A-Rod and his two elder half-siblings, Joe and Suzy.

With his mother working two jobs — and eventually owning two businesses — to make ends meet, Rodriguez joined a baseball team through his school.

While his first experience with the game had come in Santo Domingo and following the New York Mets, it was through this school team that A-Rod met Juan Diego Arteaga. According to Juan Pascual, a rival coach in that league, Arteaga took Rodriguez under his wing, instilling in him the discipline that would allow him to become the great player he became; as Pascual said, “Without J.D. Arteaga, there would have been no Alex Rodriguez.”

After spending freshman year at Christopher Columbus High School, A-Rod earned a scholarship to Westminster Christian School, where he played shortstop for the baseball team and both wide receiver and quarterback for the football team. While it was his prowess on the diamond that would earn him international acclaim and numerous accolades — he played for Team USA in the 1992 World Junior Championship — his performance on the gridiron was arguably even more impressive: although he had hardly played the sport before, he took to it like a natural. In fact, when the University of Miami came calling, offering him a scholarship to play shortstop, the football team was hoping to turn him into a two-sport athlete.

Seattle Standout

Like so many players of his caliber, however, A-Rod never made it to campus. On June 3, 1993, the Seattle Mariners called Alex Rodriguez’s name as the first overall pick of the 1993 MLB Draft. Foregoing his commitment to Miami, he signed a contract with the Mariners.

From the get-go, A-Rod lived up to his reputation as the first overall pick. He made his professional debut with the Low-A Appleton Foxes the spring after being drafted. Just a few months later, on July 8, 1994, his name was penciled in the lineup in Fenway Park.

Three weeks before his 19th birthday, A-Rod became the first player to debut at the age of 18 in more than 15 years. While he didn’t hit all that well in his first big league stretch, slashing just .204/.241/.204 without a home run in 17 games before he was sent down to Triple-A, he did manage to get his first career hit:

A-Rod spent the strike-shortened 1995 season bouncing between Triple-A and The Show. On June 12th, he hit his first of 696 career home runs, this one off future teammate Tom Gordon.

A-Rod got to spend the magical ‘95 stretch run with Seattle and though he only had two at-bats in the playoffs, he was right there when Ken Griffey Jr. scored his winning run in the ALDS.

Rodriguez opened the 1996 season as the Mariners’ undisputed starting shortstop. Although he batted ninth to start the season, A-Rod found himself slotted into the two hole, right before the Hall of Famer Griffey Jr., after just a month. He was nothing short of outstanding at an absurdly young age, slashing a ridiculous .358/.414/.631 with 36 home runs, 123 RBI, 9.4 rWAR, and a league-leading 54 doubles and 141 runs scored. A-Rod was already flashing the kind of jaw-dropping power that would define his career.

Just 21 years old at the end of the season, Rodriguez was the third youngest player to win the AL batting title in history. He finished just three points shy of Juan González in the AL MVP race, one of the closest races in baseball history (and worst votes).

A rib injury derailed A-Rod’s 1997 campaign, limiting him to just 141 games and clearly bothering him throughout the second half of the season. Despite this, A-Rod continued to add to his legend, hitting for the cycle on June 5th and earning his first career All-Star start — even in a down year, he was still one of the more valuable players in the league, accruing 4.3 fWAR. He went 5-for-16 with a long ball in the ALDS against Baltimore, but the Orioles beat up on the M’s pitching to win in four.

Rodriguez bounced back in a monster way in 1998, becoming the third member of the 40/40 Club, before replicating that season in every way except stolen bases in 1999. In both years, however, Seattle struggled, failing to even finish above .500. A monster walk year from A-Rod — he slashed .316/.420/.606 (158 wRC+) with 41 homers — helped power the M’s back to the postseason. Despite a strong October from their star shortstop (A-Rod had a 1.021 OPS), the M’s fell to the Yankees in the ALCS, en route to their Subway Series victory over the Mets. He did at least deliver one of the most majestic dingers ever seen at the remodeled Yankee Stadium.

Despite having a lineup that boasted Alex Rodriguez, Ken Griffey Jr., and Edgar Martinez, the Seattle Mariners failed to even make the World Series.

Setting Records in Texas

Heading into free agency, Rodriguez had one major goal: to go to New York and play for his childhood team, the Mets. Early on, they seemed like the early favorites. In early November, however, in one of free agency’s most stunning plot twists, the Mets stepped away from the negotiating table due to “[Scott] Boras’ desire to have a separate marketing staff and an office for Rodriguez at his home stadium,” among other things; general manager Steve Phillips was allegedly afraid that these demands would turn the Mets into a 24-player team, that also had A-Rod.

Instead, the superstar shortstop signed a mammoth 10-year, $252 million deal with the Texas Rangers, whose owner Tom Hicks “fell in love” with A-Rod. This deal did not merely break records — it shattered them, then shattered the pieces a second time. It doubled the previous contract record in North American sports, Kevin Garnett’s $126 million deal with the Minnesota Timberwolves. It was more than $90 million more than the contract Manny Ramirez would sign with the Red Sox the next day. Its annual value was more than the payroll of multiple teams. Its total value exceeded the amount of money Hicks spent to buy the Texas Rangers. Even without adjusting for inflation, it would easily rank within the 20 largest contracts active today.

For his part, A-Rod absolutely held up his end of the contract.

From 2001 to 2003, he slashed .305/.396/.615, hit 156 home runs, went to three All-Star Games, received two Gold Gloves and three Silver Sluggers, won the 2003 AL MVP despite playing on a last-place team, and even managed to turn the trick of sending El Duque’s then-famed eephus pitch into the stratosphere. Only Barry Bonds outperformed him.

The Trade Heard ‘Round the League

Despite having the American League’s best player, the Texas Rangers were absolutely dreadful in 2001, 2002, and 2003, winning 73 or fewer games each season. Looking to spread out their payroll more, the Rangers put A-Rod on the trade block, and the Red Sox were more than eager. While the two sides came together on a deal that would have sent Rodriguez to Boston in exchange for Manny Ramirez, Nomar Garciaparra, and Jon Lester, the Major League Baseball Players Association nixed the deal, unwilling to let A-Rod renegotiate his contract and set the precedent that, well, players could be forced to give up guaranteed money.

In stepped the Yankees, who suddenly needed a third baseman now that Aaron Boone had torn his ACL playing pickup basketball. And so, the Rangers called the Yankees up once again, who had annoyingly rejected to discuss A-Rod when Texas had first put him on the block right after the World Series. Sensing an opportunity, A-Rod expressed a willingness to switch positions if it meant heading to the Bronx — which the Gold Glover would take to quite smoothly — and the two sides quickly came together on a blockbuster trade that sent Alfonso Soriano back the other way.

Alex Rodriguez Signs With Yankees Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

Taking No. 13, the number he wore as a high school quarterback in tribute to Miami icon Dan Marino, A-Rod joined an already stacked lineup that included Derek Jeter (best friend-turned-rival-turned-vague frenemy), Jason Giambi, Bernie Williams, Hideki Matsui, and free agent acquisition Gary Sheffield. Despite managing to win 101 games, that 2004 squad was a paper tiger, and wound up being eliminated in the ALCS in a heartbreaking fashion that we don’t need to elaborate about here.

That October included the seedlings of the later narrative that A-Rod struggled in the postseason. Although his overall numbers that postseason were very good — 16-for-50 with three home runs — he went 2-for-17 in the final four games of the ALCS. Additionally, in a play as controversial as it was utterly ridiculous, he swatted the ball out of Bronson Arroyo’s hand; somehow, this would not be the last time he was involved with an interference play of this ilk.

When viewed in the aggregate, over the next three seasons, Rodriguez reinforced the Yankees’ decision to trade for him. In that time, he posted an unbelievable .309/.412/.593 slash line with 137 home runs, and he only missed a dozen games total. He was named to the All-Star team all three times, won two AL MVPs (2005 and 2007), and accrued an absurd 22.5 fWAR. A-Rod had some very memorable moments, including a three-homer/10-RBI game on April 26, 2005, his 2,000th career hit and 450th career home run on July 21, 2006, and two amazing walk-offs in early 2007 that were part of a record 14 homers in April.

On August 4, 2007, A-Rod became the youngest player to hit 500 home runs.

Even so, cracks had begun to appear in the foundation. For a three-month span during the summer of 2006, he posted just a .257/.357/.438 slash line, and while that’s a perfectly acceptable performance for the average person, it was less than stellar for a player paid so much that the movie Night at the Museum comments on his salary. The perfectionist let his struggles at the plate get into his head, and his defense took a nose dive during that time as well. On top of that, he began to build a reputation as a postseason choker, as he had just seven hits in 54 plate appearances across 13 postseason games.

And then, A-Rod stumbled upon the first extended self-created controversy of his career: on October 28, 2007, during Game 4 of the World Series, Rodriguez’s agent Scott Boras announced that his client had opted out of his deal and would become a free agent. Everybody was pissed, most of all Major League Baseball. COO Bob DuPuy would say in response:

“We were very disappointed that Scott Boras would try to upstage our premier baseball event of the season with his announcement. There was no reason to make an announcement last night other than to try to put his selfish interests and that of one individual player above the overall good of the game.”

After a season in which A-Rod repeatedly said that he intended on remaining with the organization, the Yankees were pissed. Hank Steinbrenner and Brian Cashman stated that the team would not negotiate with him if he opted out. To this day, Rodriguez claims that he did not intend to opt out, and that Boras and his agents acted out of their own accord.

While it’s unclear what exactly happened, two things are certain. One, that the opt out controversy ruined the already fragile relationship between A-Rod and Boras. And two, that teammate Mariano Rivera, ever the closer, was the one who finally patched things up and saved their relationship, encouraging A-Rod to bypass his agent and work things out with the front office directly. Jay-Z, Warren Buffett, Goldman Sachs executives, and personal apologies by A-Rod eventually smoothed things out, and the two sides agreed to a 10-year, $275 million contract to keep their third baseman in New York for the rest of his career.

2009: From Controversy and Championship

Alex Rodriguez Press Conference Photo by Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images

Heading into the 2009 season, Rodriguez found himself in the second self-created controversy of his career. On February 7, 2009, Sports Illustrated released a report identifying A-Rod as one of the 104 players who tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs in 2003. The report shook the nation. Hicks, the owner who signed him to his original massive contract, said he was blindsided and betrayed. Even President Barack Obama, in office for just a few short weeks, commented: “And if you’re a fan of Major League Baseball, I think it tarnishes an entire era, to some degree. And it’s unfortunate, because I think there were a lot of ballplayers who played it straight.”

For his part, Rodriguez owned up to the mistake, acknowledging that, although it was a different era, he was “stupid” and “naïve.” Perhaps, if this was the end of the controversy, he could have rehabilitated his reputation, gotten his number retired by the Yankees, and ended up in Cooperstown.

And had that been the end of the controversy, 2009 would have been the feather in the cap of A-Rod’s career. In a vacuum, his numbers that year aren’t the most impressive of his career — after missing the first month of the season with a torn labrum, he slashed “just” .286/.402/.532, which led to “just” a 141 wRC+, and he accrued “just” 4.1 fWAR — albeit while reaching 30 homers and 100 RBI for the 12th of 13 years in a row with a seven-RBI finale.

More importantly, he absolutely dominated in the postseason, going 19-for-52 with six home runs and 12 walks. This included a massive two-run homer in Game 3 of the World Series and a game-winning double in Game 4.

To this day, it remains A-Rod’s pièce de résistance on the field, and without him, the Yankees’ championship drought would be sitting at 24 years.

While he won neither the ALCS MVP (that went to CC Sabathia) or the World Series MVP (Hideki Matsui), the New York chapter of the BBWAA named him the postseason MVP. When receiving the award, A-Rod spoke about finally getting that World Series off his chest.

“I’ve been to these dinners a couple of times to receive MVP awards and those, I’m very proud of those accomplishments. But none of those accomplishments will ever compare to the feeling you get from being part of a team that won a world championship.”

The Decline and Fall of Alex Rodriguez

Across the three seasons following the 2009 World Series, Rodriguez reached another few milestones, adding to an already-impressive Hall of Fame resume. On August 4, 2010, three years to the day of his 500th home run, he joined the exclusive group of inner-circle Hall of Famers to have hit 600 career home runs.

On June 12, 2012, he tied Lou Gehrig for the most grand slams in baseball history with the 23rd grand slam of his career.

As A-Rod reached these milestones, though, his career came crumbling down around him, the cracks in the foundation that had first been seen in the mid-2000s finally reaching critical mass. On the field, injuries began to rob Rodriguez of his range on defense and some of his power at the plate, causing him to miss extended time in 2011 and 2012. His performance and health declined so much in 2012 that Joe Girardi benched him in favor of Raúl Ibáñez and Eric Chavez at critical moments in the intense ALDS matchup with the Baltimore Orioles. Even worse, as the Yankees were swept by the Detroit Tigers in the ALCS, he was spotted flirting with fans during the game.

Things only got worse from there. In December 2012, it was announced that A-Rod would undergo hip surgery in January that would sideline him through the All-Star break. Days after that surgery happened, the Miami New Times reported that the Biogenesis Laboratories had supplied many professional baseball players, including Alex Rodriguez, with performance-enhancing drugs. At this point, A-Rod began picking fights with everybody who he felt was out to get him — including his union and his own team, who he felt had mishandled his hip injury the previous year. Despite the possibility of legal action against his own ballclub, he ultimately returned to the diamond on August 5th, the same day that Major League Baseball levied a 211-game suspension that would keep him out through the end of the 2014 season.

Rodriguez still had some highlights in 2013. He returned to a sluggish Yankees lineup and provided a spark in August. On the 18th, Ryan Dempster struggled to plunk A-Rod, Joe Girardi melted down after Dempster wasn’t ejected, and A-Rod had a big night.

Then, on September 20th, A-Rod passed Lou Gehrig for most grand slams in baseball history.

Following the 2013 season, A-Rod went off into his suspension, able only to get it reduced to 162 games; eventually, he was convinced to forego the legal system and to accept the consequences of his actions. Undoubtedly, Major League Baseball expected that suspension to end in retirement — after all, who expects an often-injured 39-year-old infielder with a bad hip to successfully return after missing a season, which itself came after a season where he only played 44 games. To an extent, I wonder if A-Rod himself thought the same thing, because he went back to school, prompting a whole bunch of confused 18-year-olds to wonder “What the hell is A-Rod doing in my marketing class?

(Writer’s note: if you have the time, I encourage you to read the article linked there; it provides some fantastic insight into A-Rod during his forced sabbatical)

Retirement and Legacy

A-Rod re-entered the baseball community with a handwritten note apologizing for his mistakes and taking full responsibility for his actions. Heading into the 2015 season, nobody expected anything of Rodriguez. The Yankees had gone out and acquired Chase Headley to man the hot corner, opting to make A-Rod a full-time DH (with a plan, quickly aborted, to try him out as a backup first baseman). What we got, though, was one last ride, a reminder of why Rodriguez had become such a legend to begin with, how he had risen so high he could fall as far as he did. Slashing .250/.356/.486 with 33 home runs, Rodriguez had his best season at the plate since 2009, helping power the Yankees to their first postseason berth in three years.

Along the way, he joined the 3,000-Hit Club in the most A-Rod way possible: a home run.

Unfortunately, that would be the end for him. He never quite got his feet under him in 2016, and his inability to perform at the plate was a major reason why the Yankees were sellers for the first time in two decades at the trade deadline. Rather than have him clog up roster space, the Yankees announced that they would release him following the game on August 12th. That day, in front of a sell-out crowd, the Yankees honored their longtime third baseman in a ceremony interrupted by some bad weather.

John Griffin

During the game, he went 1-for-4 with a double, made one final appearance at third base, and left the field to thunderous applause. Despite some interest from other teams, and despite being just four home runs shy of 700, he never played again.

Since retirement, Rodriguez has stayed within baseball. He is most often seen as an analyst for ESPN, replacing Aaron Boone for the second time in his career. To a large extent, the fact that he remains such a public face within the game is a testament to the apology tour he went on after returning from his season-long suspension in 2015 — I am still amazed that a man who once sued Major League Baseball is now presenting some of the league’s biggest events of the year.

Despite this incredible turnaround, Alex Rodriguez by no means has achieved absolution, as can be seen by his fairly poor showing in the Hall of Fame vote and the fact that the Yankees still have the No. 13 in circulation. Even so, it’s hard to argue that A-Rod doesn’t deserve to be counted among the Yankee greats. For better or for worse, so long as he played, he defined the game of baseball. If that doesn’t get you counted as one of the all-time greats, then well, I don’t know what does.

Staff rank: 10
Community rank: 29
Stats rank: 9
2013 rank: 10

References

Anderson, R.J. “Alex Rodriguez makes bold Mets claim about 2000 free agency, says he would’ve taken ‘50% less’ money.” CBS Sports. October 20, 2023.

A-Rod admits, regrets use of PEDs.” ESPN.com News. February 9, 2009.

A-Rod issues hand-written letter of apology to fans.” MLB.com. Accessed January 26, 2024.

A-Rod to have hip surgery, will miss start of 2013.Sports Illustrated. December 3, 2012.

Baseball Almanac — Alex Rodriguez

Baseball Reference — 1996 Awards Voting

Baseball Reference — Alex Rodriguez

Before pro baseball, Alex Rodriguez was a high school football star.FOX Sports. August 12, 2016.

BR Bullpen — Alex Rodriguez

BR Bullpen — Biogenesis Laboratories

Chass, Murray. “BASEBALL; Rodriguez Strikes It Rich in Texas.” New York Times. December 12, 2000.

Cohen, Alan. “Alex Rodriguez.” Society for American Baseball Research. Accessed January 24, 2024.

Diemart, Joshua. “25 Smartest Moves of the Past 25 Years: The Alex Rodriguez trade.” Pinstripe Alley. January 26, 2022.

Elfrink, Tim. “Alex Rodriguez, Gio Gonzalez, Wayne Odesnik, Anthony Bosch Deny Miami New Times Biogenesis Report UPDATED.” Miami New Times. January 30, 2013.

Hartwell, Darren. “Alex Rodriguez explains why he wanted to join Red Sox (not Yankees) in 2003.” NBC Sports Boston. December 5, 2018.

Hermoso, Rafael. “BASEBALL; Mets Pull Out of the Rodriguez Sweepstakes.” New York Times. November 14, 2000.

FanGraphs — Alex Rodriguez

Marchand, Andrew. “A-Rod grievance process started.” ESPN. August 18, 2013.

MLB Contracts.” Spotrac. Accessed January 26, 2024.

Moehringer, J.R. “The Education of Alex Rodriguez.” ESPN: The Magazine. February 18, 2015.

Neumann, Thomas. “Fifteen things to know on 15th anniversary of Rangers’ $252 million megadeal with A-Rod.ESPN.com. December 11, 2015.

Roberts, Selena and David Epstein. “Sources tell SI Alex Rodriguez tested positive for steroids in 2003.” Sports Illustrated. February 7, 2009.

Waldstein, David. “Hitched to an Aging Star: Anatomy of a Deal, and Doubts.” New York Times. March 30, 2013.

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