The A-Rod Story
The A-Rod Story A-Rod Draws Strength from Roots
Daily News, New York - April 8, 2004
New York Daily News sports writer Wayne Coffey traveled from New York to Miami to Tampa and interviewed people around the country for his in-depth profile on Alex Rodriguez. Coffey takes you inside the life of the game's best player, a humble superstar whose work ethic has never wavered.
Miami - A home-run ball away from the drone of traffic on U.S. 1, dusk is falling and the lights are on, and two teams of 12-year-olds are ready to play ball in The House That The New Yankee Third Baseman Rebuilt.
The field has red clay and thick grass and an electronic scoreboard, and a public-address announcer in a shed behind the plate. A soft, cool breeze wafts through the palm trees that line the outfield fence, barely making an impact on the massive banyan trees, with trunks bigger than a Cecil Fielder thigh, that stand thickly behind third base.
Near the end of another day on the Alex Rodriguez 40/40 Field at the Hank Kline Boys and Girls Club, the lady who sells tropical fruit from an old white van on the side of SW 32nd Ave. has closed shop for the night. The 170 kids who are in the after-school program are done with their homework, their art projects. There are three baseball games going on outside, a basketball game inside, another teeming night in a five-acre sanctuary in south Florida, a place where Alex Rodriguez spent most of his youth, and where he is drawn back to as a bee is to a flower.
"When I was 8 years old it kept me out of trouble," Rodriguez says, sitting in the dugout of Legends Field last week. "And when I'm 28 years old, it's still keeping me out of trouble."
He smiles. "I like being around the kids. It's just a great place to be."
Hank Kline is housed in a boxy cement building, hard by the road, with a chain-link fence and barbed wire outside, and turquoise walls inside. It is maybe five miles from the South Miami home Rodriguez shares with his bride of 16 months, the former Cynthia Scurtis, and a socioeconomic galaxy from the income strata that the biggest contract in sports has placed him in. He comes back anyway, almost every day in the offseason, to field grounders and take batting practice, presided over, as always, by Eddie Rodriguez, Alex's longtime friend/mentor/surrogate father, the director of the Hank Kline Boys and Girls Club.
Eddie Rodriguez's nickname is El Gallo (the Rooster), and though there's no blood relation between him and Alex, there is a deep bond. On his first days off during this unimaginable spring, Alex Rodriguez came home to Miami, working out at the University of Miami, then heading straight for Hank Kline. El Gallo has known Alex Rodriguez since he was 9 years old, freshly arrived in Miami from the Dominican Republic, with his mother, Lourdes Navarro, and his sister and brother.
"I have never seen Alex so happy," Eddie Rodriguez says. "He's in the best shape of his life. When the Yankee deal happened, he was like a little kid he was so excited."
The Yankees are a team that creates sensations as readily as it wins world championships, and its owner opens his checkbook. Two years ago it was the signing of Jason Giambi. Last year it was the signing of Hideki Matsui.
Nothing since the purchase of Babe Ruth, though, compares to what transpired in February, when the Yankees dealt Alfonso Soriano for the best player in baseball in Alex Rodriguez, a guy who was born in Washington Heights in New York and did his first hitting with a big-barreled sponge bat in an apartment on 183rd St.; who scouts and coaches say could likely have been a big-time quarterback or point guard if he hadn't chosen shortstop; who was almost universally acclaimed to be on course to become baseball's greatest shortstop ever, until Aaron Boone played an ill-fated game of pickup basketball, and Rodriguez decided to relocate 20 feet to the right.
Alexander Emmanuel Rodriguez used to be No. 3 in Arlington, Texas, and is now No. 13 in the Bronx. He isn't known as A-Rod around here, only as Alex, a guy who friends say remains unchanged by stardom and doesn't want to foster a cult of celebrity so much as a cocoon of familiarity. They describe a man who likes his suits imported and his car and home spotless, and who gives back abundantly. He donated $3.9 million for the renovation of the Miami Hurricanes' baseball stadium, and is the force behind the Alex Rodriguez Education Center, a fully wired, $1.25 million, 10,000-square foot facility that will overlook the ballfields at Hank Kline, and should be in place late next year. Mostly they speak of a guy with an unquenchable appetite for work.
"All the guys who are hitting .240 aren't out there working for hours on their off day," says J.D. Arteaga, one of Rodriguez's best friends, a former Met farmhand and the current Miami pitching coach.
Rodriguez has a 46-foot Sea Ray motorboat called Sweet Swing II. He went out on it exactly two times this winter. Even before he commenced his crash course on third base, he spent hundreds of hours in this MVP offseason, lifting, fielding, hitting. James Colzie II, the new Florida State cornerbacks coach, is a former Miami prep standout who still likes to tease Rodriguez about beating him out for Dade County Athlete of the Year in 1992-93. Rodriguez was no less dedicated when he was 13, Colzie says.
"The park guys would turn out the lights after games and want to go home, and Alex would still want people to hit him ground balls in the dark," Colzie says. One of the few times Rodriguez went astray in school was in seventh grade at St. Thomas the Apostle. He would convince a succession of friends to join him in the schoolyard at 6:30 a.m. to hit him an hour's worth of grounders before homeroom.
"They thought I was a lunatic," Rodriguez says. "After three months I ran out of friends to hit to me. It finally had to stop because (school officials) said I was getting too sweaty and smelly before class."
He pauses. "I've always enjoyed practice more than playing games. Practice to me is where you hone your craft. I have a great passion for trying to improve."
Rodriguez's athletic prowess manifested itself early. As a freshman at Columbus High School, he was the first ninth-grader to play varsity basketball in some 20 years. He concluded his prep basketball two years later at Westminster Christian, a 6-3 point guard who went for 42 points against a regional powerhouse called Jamesport. He was no less dynamic as a quarterback, taking his team within a down of the state title as a junior, a mobile, strong-armed passer who directed an explosive run-and-shoot offense and was heavily recruited by Miami, among others.
His senior year was cut short when he injured his thumb trying to make a tackle on special teams - an injury that rapidly accelerated the heartbeats of the 15 to 20 baseball scouts who would attend his football games.
"He definitely could've been a big-time college quarterback or point guard," Colzie says.
Baseball was Rodriguez's love, though, and it flourished when he transferred to Westminster Christian and played for coach Rich Hofman. Rodriguez hit only .270 as a sophomore, batting seventh. But Hofman was so convinced of his talent that he promised Rodriguez that if he kept working he would be the nation's top pick in his senior year. In the summer before his junior year, Rodriguez lifted weights diligently and went from about 6-1, 150 to 6-3, 175.
"Scouts showed up and said, 'What happened to your skinny shortstop?'" Hofman says. Westminster Christian won the mythical national championship that season, and by his senior year, Rodriguez was LeBron James with a glove, more than 100 scouts turning out for his games, fans and autograph seekers descending on him by the hundreds. Scouts told Hofman that their radar guns showed that opposing pitchers got so cranked up to face Rodriguez - who hit leadoff - that they would throw four to five mph faster to him.
He hit .505, with nine homers and 38 steals in 38 attempts, but remembers the ending of his high school career most vividly.
It came in the regional semifinals, against West Palm Beach Cardinal Newman. Rodriguez hit a two-run homer with two outs in the seventh to put Westminster Christian ahead. Cardinal Newman tied it up.
Two innings later, Rodriguez threw a ball into right field on a simple force play, the runner scoring, the year over, the chance for a second straight national title shot.
It was Rodriguez's third error of the game. He sat in the dugout and cried.
"It was probably the most crushed I've ever been on a baseball field," Rodriguez says. "That was my last memory before going off to major-league baseball. It was one of those situations that humbled me so much that I felt that 'hey, even when you think you are the very best in the country, the No. 1 pick, you can still make the biggest goofball mistake to lose the most important game of the season.' I think God was telling me, 'I've given you a lot, but don't forget who's in charge.'"
Rodriguez has had other trials in his life, to be sure. The family moved around a lot, and money was tight. His father left when he was 9, and Colzie, for one, remembers feeling sad that most other kids had parents at their youth-league games, and Rodriguez did not, his mother working, his father not around. Though friends say that Rodriguez seems more inclined toward reconciling with his father, the relationship is still very much a work in progress.
"I felt I always had good male leadership and mentorship around me," Rodriguez says. "I prefer to look at the glass as half full."
Just this offseason, Rodriguez's beloved dog, Gypsy, a German shepherd with a little wolf mixed in, developed cancer and died at age 5. Rodriguez had had Gypsy since he was a puppy. The dog was always there to greet him when he came home. Rodriguez calls the loss "devastating."
While his nascent Yankee career is a vastly happier development, that, too, has come with complication. Rodriguez admits the microscope he is under now is unlike anything he's ever had to deal with. It has made him a bit wary, more self-protective, more jealous of his time and his privacy.
As the morning fog burns off over Legends Field, Rodriguez is wearing sky blue warmup pants and a navy blue Yankee shirt. Even near the end of a spring in which he has fielded more questions than ground balls amid a relentless glare, Rodriguez is affable and patient, devoid of the eyes-glazed, not-this-again demeanor that characterizes the behavior of so many megastars. He has big, strong hands, and shakes yours strongly. He has striking green eyes, and they look right into yours. He calls you by name, and likes to ask questions himself - a quality that Dave Valle, the one-time Bayside High School star who was the Mariners catcher when Rodriguez arrived in the majors 10 years ago, was struck by immediately.
"Baseball wise and personally, he was very inquisitive," says Valle, now a Seattle broadcaster.
"He wanted to learn from everyone around him. He asked me about what it was like when I was drafted. He was always taking as much from Edgar (Martinez) and Junior (Griffey) as he could. With as much talent as he had, he never acted in a way that said, 'I don't need anybody's help.'"
Carlos Lezcano was Rodriguez' first pro manager, with the Wisconsin Timber Rattlers of the Midwest League, and recalls how quickly Rodriguez was able to assimilate instruction into his game. Rodriguez made his pro debut against Joe McEwing's Madison team. McEwing was struck by a dazzling play Rodriguez made in the hole, and by his learning curve. "I think he struck out twice on breaking balls and looked absolutely terrible," McEwing says. "The next night he hit a home run to left and a double off the right-center field wall on the breaking balls he looked silly on the night before. You could tell he was pretty special."
Says Colzie, "He's very confident and very humble at the same time. He's the best baseball player in the game, and you could never tell."
Not long after the Mariners made Rodriguez the No. 1 pick in the country in 1993 and signed him for a $1.35 million bonus, Rodriguez and Arteaga went out to an area golf club. The owner wanted to comp Rodriguez the round. Rodriguez said thanks, but no thanks.
"He wants to earn everything he gets," Arteaga says. Adds Eddie Rodriguez, "He doesn't have an extravagant life or an (entourage). He doesn't have 55 cars or a $40 million house. He has nice cars and a nice house, but doesn't believe in throwing his money away on material things." Rodriguez's grounded demeanor seems to come straight from his mother, who worked two and sometimes three jobs to raise three children as a single parent. Rodriguez would sometimes be at Hank Kline until 10 p.m. or later, until his mother, who did secretarial work by day and waitressed by night, could pick him up. He was never charged program fees and hasn't forgotten, which explains why he has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to improve the club's facilities and why he's building the educational center - a program he also wants to launch in New York.
Almost everyone, it seems, has a story to tell about Rodriguez's generosity. At Hank Kline, the big fundraiser every year is a Christmas tree sale, a labor-intensive drive that can yield sales of up to 5,000 trees. In December, not long after the Red Sox deal unraveled, Rodriguez showed up unannounced with trays and trays of food for all the staffers and volunteers. When the Rangers visited Seattle last summer, Rodriguez sat down with Philip Valle, Dave's son, a highly regarded prep shortstop who may get drafted, for 45 minutes. It was Rodriguez's idea.
"I'll be forever grateful to him for the time he gave my son," Valle says. "Not too many guys would do that."
It was 11 years ago that Valle first met Rodriguez, in the spring of 1993. Rodriguez was 17, and hadn't even been drafted yet. The Mariners were trying to decide whether to use their No. 1 pick on pitcher Darren Dreifort or Rodriguez. There was much support within the organization for Dreifort. The club brought Rodriguez into the Kingdome and he worked out with second baseman Harold Reynolds, took some batting practice.
"You don't see many guys when they're 17 years old who can walk on a big-league ballfield and look like they should stay right there," Valle says. "He looked like he was born to be there. He was a big-leaguer, and there was no two ways about it. And after he made it, he worked even harder. As a player, as a competitor and as an opponent, one of the things people respect about him most is that he shows up to play every day."
Eddie Rodriguez believes that anyone who wants insight into Alex Rodriguez need only look at where he is: in a new position, a new uniform, starting a new career chapter, with no apparent concern over his place in history as a shortstop. "I really think if this was any other person, he would've been content to make his money in Texas, hit his 60 home runs and be out of the pennant race in April," Eddie Rodriguez says. "This is the challenge Alex wanted to take on - switching positions, going to New York."
"He would catch if they asked him to - that's how much he wants to win," J.D. Arteaga says.
It's getting past 11 a.m. and the Yankees are on the road in Bradenton to play the Pirates. Sitting at a stool in front of his locker, Rodriguez says that being with the Yankees is even better than he thought it would be - that the commitment to winning is unlike anything he has ever seen. It has made him even more excited about this new era.
Like Valle, Yankee coach Luis Sojo was a teammate of Rodriguez's with the Mariners. At 20, Rodriguez told him his goal was to be the best shortstop in the game. When Sojo first saw him this spring, he said to Rodriguez, "You are not a shortstop anymore. Rodriguez said, 'You're right, I'm not. And I'm going to be the best third baseman in the game.' You see, this guy, baseball is his life."
Alex Rodriguez pulls on his gray uniform pants and a blue No. 13 jersey over his muscled torso. It is time to stretch, to run, to take batting practice and learn a little more about his new position. He grabs a glove and heads out to the field, the same as he did over so many days and so many years at the Hank Kline Boys and Girls Club on SW 32nd Ave. It was time to play some ball, and for the new Yankee third baseman, that made it the best kind of day of all.
All about Alex
Born: July 27, 1975, New York, N.Y.
Weight: 210 pounds
Drafted: By the Seattle Mariners in the 1st round (1st pick) of the 1993 amateur draft
2003 stats: .298 BA, 47 HR, 118 RBI
2004 Yankee salary: $16 million
Career BA: .308 (10 seasons)
Awards: 2003 AL MVP, Seven-time All-Star, Two-time Gold Glove winner
Status: Married wife Cynthia on Nov. 2, 2002 in Dallas
High School: Westminster Christian Prep School (Miami)
Favorite N.Y. restaurant: Nello's
Favorite baseball team growing up: Mets
Favorite movie: Wall Street
Favorite baseball player: Cal Ripken Jr.
(c) 2004, New York Daily News. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service.