1. A-Rod (2003) A-Rod
Alex Rodriguez was a member of the Texas Rangers when we interviewed him in August of 2003. Always savvy, Alex was well aware of the power of the YES Network, and I think he already had thoughts of being in the media postcareer. He quickly agreed to do the show when asked. To intimate that he foresaw eventually ending up with the Yankees the very next year would be false. How could he have known that Aaron Boone, then the Yankees’ third baseman, would tear up his knee in January of 2004 and clear a road from Texas to the Bronx that might have previously seemed impossible? After Boone’s injury, it was certainly convenient that the Rangers decided to get out from under Rodriguez’s record-breaking contract, which the player had signed three years prior, and that the Yankees were interested in bringing him over and asking him to shift his position from shortstop, where he was a Gold Glove winner, to third, just to the right of Derek Jeter. But that’s how it came down.
This interview is fascinating when you consider all that has taken place in the years since. No one knew that A-Rod would be embroiled in scandal after scandal, eventually serving a shocking full-season suspension for using performance-enhancing drugs. Try to read between the lines of this interview with the young A-Rod for clues of what was to come. When you read his answers, can you picture a man who had it all, lost it, and then ultimately grabbed a shot at redemption and engineered one of the great resurrections in sports history? Many years later I made A-Rod laugh when I dubbed him “Lazarod” for how insanely he’d risen from all of his missteps.
But at the time of this interview, he was the golden boy, putting together his third straight amazing season with the Rangers and making more money than any other pro athlete had ever earned. He had it all. Prodigious talent, matinee-idol good looks, and a glittery future that seemed certain to take him to the Hall of Fame.
But a funny thing happened on the way to Cooperstown: A-Rod’s incredibly bad judgment almost brought him down to a place from which it seemed impossible to get up.
Incredibly, the only bad judgment on Alex’s part back then was what he’d chosen to wear to the show. Although he knew of CenterStage, he likely didn’t realize that most every guest wore a suit and tie. Alex showed up in jeans and a T-shirt. All these years later he laughs at his sartorial choice.
Here is the conversation we had with A-Rod, an hour of mostly sunny optimism that preceded the nightmare his life eventually became. His answers from that day are illuminating when read through the prism of what was to come.
MICHAEL KAY: Alex Rodriguez came from humble beginnings to sit atop the world of baseball. With the rare combination of size, speed, and power, the man they call A-Rod may be the greatest player who ever played the shortstop position. Alex achieved success early with the Seattle Mariners, playing in the shadow of Ken Griffey Jr. and Randy Johnson. But Alex persevered and emerged as a true star. As one of the youngest and most accomplished free agents in baseball, A-Rod signed the largest contract in sports history with the Texas Rangers, and that’s where he currently plies his trade. Talented, charitable—and well-dressed [laughter]—we welcome superstar shortstop Alex Rodriguez to CenterStage. [Applause]
ALEX RODRIGUEZ: Thank you.
MICHAEL KAY: I always feel a little awkward saying this, but Alex Rodriguez playing in Arlington, Texas, is like hanging the Mona Lisa in a garage. And that’s not knocking Texas. I like Texas. [Laughs] But it’s not New York, it’s not LA.
ALEX RODRIGUEZ: [Laughs] Well, Dallas is a big town, it’s a great town, I’m comfortable there. I love the heat. I love where I am. I love our neighborhood. And the only thing missing in Texas is winning. And I think that’s gonna come shortly. We have an incredible core of young players, as good as anyone, and I think we’ll win. We still have room for growth.
MICHAEL KAY: We’ll get back to that in a moment. Now, you were born in New York, and then you moved to the Dominican Republic. Is that where you learned how to play baseball?
ALEX RODRIGUEZ: I think I started here in New York early on. Ever since I was two or three years old I can remember my father having the Yankees games on and even the Mets. And my father had a baseball background. But when I was four, we moved down there, and I started playing with kids that were about two or three years older, so as a young man I was always overmatched.
MICHAEL KAY: At what age did you think, “I’m pretty good at this, I can make a living at this”?
ALEX RODRIGUEZ: It’s funny, because between the ages of twelve and fourteen [after his family moved to Miami] I quit baseball completely. I was a big NBA fan, I wanted to be the next Larry Bird or Michael Jordan. But then my mom bought an NBA roster, and she said, “Okay, pick out how many Dominican or Latino players you have in the roster.” So I looked for about twenty minutes and I found none. [Laughs] So then she pulled out a Major League Baseball roster and she says, “Now do the same.” And of course about thirty or thirty-five percent were Latinos, and she said, “Well, there’s your answer. You need to start playing baseball again.”
MICHAEL KAY: So she actually thought that you could be a professional baseball player?
ALEX RODRIGUEZ: Well, she thought because my father almost made it to the big leagues [when he played baseball in the Dominican Republic], she felt my talents were in baseball.
MICHAEL KAY: Now, when you were nine, your father left you. But your mom was the rock.
ALEX RODRIGUEZ: [Pauses, clears throat] She was a great role model. I remember her leaving for work at six in the morning and coming back at midnight, working hard to support me and my [half] brother and [half] sister. She was a secretary during the day and then she was a waitress at night. It was very tough. I would go right from school to the Boys and Girls Club and stay there until midnight until my mom could pick me up. It was tough, but the Boys and Girls Club was an incredible avenue for me, and that’s why I’m the spokesman for the Boys and Girls Club today.
MICHAEL KAY: Now, from what I hear, you were like a rail. Really skinny. But before you were a junior in high school, you started to lift weights, and eventually you could bench-press three hundred pounds.
ALEX RODRIGUEZ: Yeah, which benefited my baseball game. Because I got stronger. I got more confident. I started hitting the ball out of the park.
MICHAEL KAY: [With you as the star shortstop, your high school, Westminster Christian School, in Palmetto Bay, a suburb of Miami, wins the high school national championship, you bat .505 as a senior, you’re voted USA Baseball Junior Player of the Year, among other honors.] You’re the object of every scout’s desire, people are calling you the next Cal Ripken Jr. You’re in high school, and you’re signing autographs. How does a sixteen- and seventeen-year-old kid process all that?
ALEX RODRIGUEZ: Obviously it was an exciting time in my life. It was crazy. We had fifteen scouts just kind of hanging around, not in the locker room but the hallways. I just felt that was bizarre. But the most exciting time I’ve ever had in high school was when one of my teachers called me out of class and said, “Hey, Cal Ripken is on the phone in the coach’s office, he wants to talk to you.” And he was my all-time favorite player. So I said, “Yeah, Cal Ripken, right,” and the teacher said, “No, it’s for real. And if you don’t hurry up, he might hang up.” So I had to run about two hundred yards to my coach’s office, and I almost pulled a hamstring. [Laughter] And I got on the phone, and sure enough, it was Cal, and we spoke for about five or ten minutes.
MICHAEL KAY: Why did he call you?
ALEX RODRIGUEZ: Well, he knew he was my favorite player, and he was just kind of calling me to give me some words of encouragement. Kind of like LeBron James was called by a few NBA guys. It was very nice of him, something that I’ll never forget.
MICHAEL KAY: Now, you were going to go to the University of Miami [on a baseball scholarship], but you were the first pick in the 1993 draft by the Mariners, and you end up not going to the university. But it was a close call, right?
ALEX RODRIGUEZ: Well, I wanted to go pro. I felt like with the Mariners, here’s my chance to be in the major leagues, and obviously being the number one pick, you can’t go any higher than that. But my mother was really into me going to the University of Miami—and you know, she’s my mother. So I bought all my textbooks, and I’m walking toward my first class—
MICHAEL KAY: And once you go in the class you can’t be signed for at least three years.
ALEX RODRIGUEZ: Right. So it was a very slow walk for me. [Laughs] And then one of the Mariners’ scouts, one of the guys who had scouted me locally, caught up to me and said, “Alex, the Mariners brass is here and they want to meet with you one last time.” So I called my mom and we go to a nearby hotel, and [finally she came around and] we signed a [three-year] deal for $1.3 million.
MICHAEL KAY: Did you ever regret not going to school?
ALEX RODRIGUEZ: Not at all. I figured that $1.3 million would be enough for me to go back to school someday. And I promised my mother I would go back and get my college degree.
MICHAEL KAY: How much pressure was it to be the number one draft pick? That’s a lot of heat.
ALEX RODRIGUEZ: I was always under a lot of pressure, even in high school. And I always felt like that was great motivation to not let people down.
MICHAEL KAY: [So you played briefly for the Appleton Foxes of the Class A Midwest League and then the Jacksonville Suns of the Class AA Southern League] and then you were sent up to the Mariners as a starting shortstop [and the youngest position player in team history]. Did it happen quicker for you than you thought?
ALEX RODRIGUEZ: [Mariners manager] Lou Piniella, who I love like a father, gave me an opportunity very early on, at age eighteen. I was just a few months removed from high school and I wasn’t ready—emotionally and physically and mentally I wasn’t ready. [So I struggled a little bit.] But it was a great experience and it got me ready. The next year I won the batting title, so it was a good preparation.
MICHAEL KAY: Was it tough being on a team with two not-just-stars-but-megastars in Ken Griffey Jr. and Randy Johnson? Was that a benefit or a detriment?
ALEX RODRIGUEZ: It was an incredible benefit for me. Because I had an opportunity to see how major superstars handle their business, on the field, off the field, behind the cameras, on the cameras. And I had an opportunity to learn from both of them. As a young man, to learn from these guys was great.
MICHAEL KAY: Now, Seattle is a great city, with a great ballpark, but a lot of people felt that it was a waste for Alex Rodriguez to be playing in the Pacific Northwest three hours after everybody [on the East Coast] has gone to sleep. Did you feel that way?
ALEX RODRIGUEZ: [Laughs] I love Seattle, but let’s just say I felt that seven, eight years was a long time for me in Seattle. I was born in New York, I live in Miami, I’m an East Coast person, and in my heart of hearts I knew that I wanted to come closer to home.
MICHAEL KAY: Okay, you’re in Seattle, and you become a free agent. [After a lot of back-and-forth with various teams] you sign with the Texas Rangers for $252 million for ten years [at the time the most lucrative contract in sports history]. What’s that like?
ALEX RODRIGUEZ: So once I got it, I was like, “Thank God that’s over, now let’s continue to play good baseball and go on to the next stage of my career.” I mean, when I signed for $1.3 million in 1993 I felt like, “My God, I won the lottery.” And that was probably a more joyous moment for me than even when I got two fifty-two. The thing the money gives you is a great opportunity to help out a lot of people. I’m able to help with the Boys and Girls Club and the Alexander Rodriguez scholarship fund and other things. But let me just say this: there’s not a day that goes by that I don’t realize that I’m the luckiest man in Major League Baseball, and maybe in the whole world.
MICHAEL KAY: April 2003. You hit your three hundredth home run. You’re the youngest player ever to get to that point. Is that something you were keenly aware of and is it important to you?
ALEX RODRIGUEZ: It is important because it’s a testament to all my hard work and my dedication and my love for the game of baseball. It was a special day, but it’s also something that motivates me to keep getting better every year.
MICHAEL KAY: Do you think of Hank Aaron’s [career record of 755 home runs] because you got there sooner than anybody else?
ALEX RODRIGUEZ: I kind of see that as a long ways away still. I mean, when I’m thirty-three, thirty-four, I want to sit down and see where I am and hopefully, uh, I might make a good run at some of those things.
MICHAEL KAY: In 2001 People magazine named you one of the fifty most beautiful people in the world. How did that go over in the clubhouse?
ALEX RODRIGUEZ: Not good. [Laughter] Considering I’m not really one of them. I get teased all the time about stuff like that.
MICHAEL KAY: Did you go look in the mirror and go, “Yeah!”
ALEX RODRIGUEZ: No, I looked in the mirror and said, “No, they got that wrong.” [Laughter]
MICHAEL KAY: Can you go out in public? Do you get besieged by fans?
ALEX RODRIGUEZ: Sometimes, but usually in a nice way, though. People are very friendly. They come up, they always have nice things to say. And I’ve been very lucky my whole career as far as that goes.
QUESTION FROM AUDIENCE: Hi. Guys like you, Piazza, Jeter, you’re constantly under the media microscope. How on earth do you tune it out, how do you stay focused?
ALEX RODRIGUEZ: Well, that’s a good question. It’s tough at times. But I think the number one thing is the love of the game of baseball. I mean, that’s the thing I think about when I wake up and when I go to bed at night. I understand fully that that’s what I do for a living. And that’s what I want to continue to do, to hone my craft every day. Everything else is kind of like a bonus. Like being here today with Mike is a bonus.
MICHAEL KAY: Some bonus. [Laughter]
ALEX RODRIGUEZ: Everything else kind of surrounds my game. Baseball comes first, and I try to do my best at it.
MICHAEL KAY: Who was the first one to ever call you A-Rod?
ALEX RODRIGUEZ: I think it was [Mariners play-by-play announcer] Dave Niehaus.
MICHAEL KAY: Cool nickname.
ALEX RODRIGUEZ: Yeah, and it stuck. Especially in the Northwest, the kids absolutely loved it. I went two years and no one knew who Alex Rodriguez was. But they all knew A-Rod. That was cool.
QUESTION FROM AUDIENCE: Who is the toughest pitcher you’ve ever faced?
ALEX RODRIGUEZ: You know, that’s a funny question. When you’re struggling, they’re all tough. And when you’re locked in, they all look like they’re throwing beach balls. The toughest pitcher that I’ve ever seen for one game was Roger Clemens in the postseason in 2000. I mean, it was unbelievable. I went into the game thinking I was locked in. I felt like everybody was throwing beach balls that postseason. And then when Roger pitched, it looked like a golf ball! [Laughter] It was unbelievable.
QUESTION FROM AUDIENCE: I want to ask about your life after baseball. Do you see yourself staying involved with baseball like your idol Cal Ripken?
ALEX RODRIGUEZ: I don’t know. I don’t see myself coaching or managing after baseball. But if I can take some of the things I’ve learned in baseball and put my philosophies to work, whether it’s being a president of an organization, or perhaps owning a small portion of a team, that’s something I might consider at some point. More than anything I’d like to get into the business world a little bit. And like I said, I promised my mother I would finish school, so that’s something I want to do at some point.
MICHAEL KAY: I heard you can get a scholarship at the University of Miami. [Laughter] How about being an announcer? I don’t know if you realize this, but I have a similar contract to yours, so there’s good money in this. [Laughter] And you have all the tools.
ALEX RODRIGUEZ: [Laughs] I would consider that, probably years after I retire. I enjoy the game. I love analyzing the game, I really do enjoy breaking down the game. A lot of athletes nowadays, they don’t like watching the games, they just like playing. But it’s just fun for me.
MICHAEL KAY: Final thing. Is your life as perfect as it seems?
ALEX RODRIGUEZ: No, I don’t think so. I mean, we’re all human beings and we go through ups and downs. You go through struggles, and I think that’s what in general makes life good. You go through peaks and valleys. And I always say the mark of any true man, any true person, is, how do you react when the bad times are here? But I am very thankful to be in the position I’m in right now, and every day I count my blessings.
MICHAEL KAY: Alex, it’s been a pleasure.
ALEX RODRIGUEZ: Thank you.