NEW YORK – On the day Alex Rodriguez was the No. 1 pick in the baseball draft two decades ago, his high school coach predicted a flashy future.
“He has a great work ethic, humility, confidence,” Rich Hofman said. “He’ll be an example for Seattle and Major League Baseball. I hope success will not spoil that.”
Three MVP awards, 14 All-Star selections, two record-setting contracts and countless controversies later, A-Rod has become baseball’s marked man, the biggest and wealthiest target of an investigation into performance-enhancing drugs that’s likely to culminate with a lengthy suspension Monday.
Instead of following the record-setting paths of Babe Ruth and Hank Aaron, Rodriguez even faces the outside chance he could wind up in permanent baseball exile along with Pete Rose and Shoeless Joe Jackson.
When Rodriguez first admitted in 2009 that he had used PEDs, he apologized repeatedly and called himself “young and stupid” three times.
“I’m in a position where I have to earn my trust back,” he said at Steinbrenner Field in Tampa, Fla., back then. “The only thing I ask from this group today and the American people is to judge me from this day forward. That’s all I can ask for.”
Now 38, his rise and fall is water-cooler discussion across America.
Monday’s decision by baseball Commissioner Bud Selig will define A-Rod’s career, overshadowing his 647 home runs, his repeated postseason failures, his October of triumph in 2009 with the New York Yankees, even his romances with Madonna, Kate Hudson, Cameron Diaz and Torrie Wilson.
And it’s not as if he is lacking in labels.
Teammates call him “A-Fraud” behind his back, according to a book by former Manager Joe Torre.
Fans hold up signs deriding him as “A-Roid” and “Cheater.”
Throughout Rodriguez’s 19 major league seasons, teammates have repeatedly praised his work ethic. He’s the first player on the spring-training fields after daybreak, taking extra grounders, perfecting his craft.
At the same time they roll their eyes at his behavior, which is said to border on obsessive narcissism. He dresses in the back rooms of the clubhouse and emerges only when every hair is perfectly in place for the cameras and the collar of his leather jacket drapes just so.
Has any other athlete been photographed kissing his reflection in a mirror, as A-Rod was by Details magazine in 2009?
He didn’t protest when he was photographed with a stripper at a Toronto hotel or reported to be at a swingers’ club in Dallas and at an illegal poker club in New York.
But he did make fans grouse last year when his awful postseason slump didn’t stop him from chatting up two women in seats behind the dugout at Yankee Stadium during a game.
Since Rodriguez joined the Yankees in 2004, he’s never come to terms with why fans openly adore Derek Jeter and not him.
“Derek has four world championships and I want him to have 10,” Rodriguez said at his introductory news conference. “That’s what this is all about.”
Once they were pals. But Jeter began to distance himself after Rodriguez was quoted in a 2001 Esquire article saying “Jeter’s been blessed with great talent around him” and “he’s never had to lead.”
Then Rodriguez joined him on the Yankees in 2004. Unwanted by Texas, A-Rod pushed for a trade to Boston. When that fell through, he wanted New York — even agreeing to move from shortstop to third base because of Jeter.
A-Rod tried to make it appear they were still buddy-buddy. But by 2007, Rodriguez publicly conceded the friendship had faded.
“People start assuming that things are a lot worse than what they are, which they’re not,” A-Rod said. “But they’re obviously not as great as they used to be. We were like blood brothers.”
Attention on Rodriguez had increased exponentially when he signed a $252 million, 10-year deal with the Rangers before the 2001 season. But it wasn’t enough.
After Rodriguez famously opted out of his contract during Boston’s 2007 World Series win over Colorado, Yankees General Manager Brian Cashman was prepared to let the then 32-year-old leave. Less than two months later, New York gave him an even more lucrative agreement: $275 million over 10 years.
But in the wake of Rodriguez’s drug admission, the Yankees started to worry. And that was before his first major injury.
“He’s a huge investment. So he’s an asset, and this is an asset that’s currently in crisis,” Cashman said. “So we will do everything we can to protect that asset. … If this is Humpty Dumpty, we’ve got to put him back together again, to get back up on the wall.”
Rodriguez overcame right hip surgery that March and helped the Yankees to their first World Series title since 2000. As the music played loudly and a crowd christened the first season of the team’s new ballpark with a championship, A-Rod thought back to that sorry day of apology in Tampa.
“I just knew then when I had the 25 guys there standing next to me, and organization and my general manager, they meant the world to me,” he said. “I said that day that this is going to turn out to be maybe one of the most special years of our lives, and it sure has.”
It remains to be seen whether many of those same people will distance themselves from him. People’s opinions have changed. Rodriguez has changed.
“It’s really difficult for people to understand what happens to a player or an athlete — I don’t care if it’s baseball, football, whatever — when they ascend to such a level,” Hofman, the high school coach, said. “It’s a very difficult position because the adulation is so great, and the need for it usually accompanies it.”