January 26, 2001: Texas signs free agent shortstop Alex Rodriguez.
Throughout the 1990's, talented young shortstops dotted the landscape as far as the eye could see.
Two players burst onto the scene in Derek Jeter of the Yankees and Nomar Garciaparra of the Red Sox, winning American League Rookie of the Year honors in 1996 and 1997, respectively. Then there was Cleveland's Omar Vizquel, who picked right up where Ozzie Smith left off defensively winning Gold Gloves from 1993 all the way through the end of the decade.
But possibly no player who debuted during the 1990's had the type of earth-shattering effect on the game of baseball as Alex Rodriguez.
A draft pick of the Seattle Mariners in 1993, Rodriguez rose rapidly through the organization and made his major league debut a little under a year later on a steamy evening in Boston. At just 18 years, 11 months, and 11 days of age, he became only the third 18-year old shortstop to play the game since 1900.
Rodriguez experienced brief stints in the majors in 1994 and 1995, but put together one of the great offensive years of any era just one year later.
Following the relegation of Luis Sojo back to the bench, Rodriguez took over the starting job at shortstop fulltime beginning with the 1996 season. His bat erupted in the process as Rodriguez connected on 36 homeruns, drove in 123 runs, and paced the American League with a .358 batting average, the highest for a right-handed batter since Joe DiMaggio hit .381 in 1939. He also posted the highest totals ever for a shortstop in runs, hits, doubles, extra base hits, and slugging, tied for most total bases, and established club records for batting average, runs, hits, doubles, and total bases - all in a season that statistical analysts consider the best ever by a shortstop.
Rodriguez ended the season selected as Major League Player of the Year by both The Sporting News and Associated Press. But despite the accolades, he was not a recipient of the league's Most Valuable Player award. The honor instead went to Rangers outfielder Juan Gonzalez, who clubbed 11 more homeruns and had 21 more runs batted in than Rodriguez. It was a close but controversial vote with Gonzalez winning by a mere three points, but with most voters figuring Rodriguez would light up the stage again in the future, it was also a sure sign of things to come.
After a sophomore "slump" that saw Rodriguez's numbers fall to just 23 homeruns, 84 RBI, and his average slip to an even .300, the shortstop exploded back onto the scene in 1998 and stayed there throughout the end of the decade. Even though he missed more than five weeks of the 1999 season with torn cartilage in his left knee, Rodriguez still managed drive in 111 runs. He also clobbered 42 homeruns while playing the second half of the season in brand new Safeco Field, a considerably less hitter-friendly park than the old Kingdome.
Soon, Rodriguez found himself the cornerstone of the Mariner franchise. Thanks to the trades of Randy Johnson and Ken Griffey Jr., the shortstop was thrust even further into the limelight in Seattle. But although the Mariners were hoping to lock up Rodriguez to a long term deal, he had other plans.
With the backing of hardball agent Scott Boras, Rodriguez was urged to forego any contract talk with the Mariners and test the market following the 2000 season. That year, the shortstop continued to pummel the league, surpassing 40 homers for the third season in a row. In the absence of Griffey, he was viewed as the main offensive threat in the lineup for Seattle.
Then, the rumor mill began to churn with reckless abandon.
It started when Rodriguez appeared in a front row seat at Shea Stadium during the 2000 World Series. Though he insisted that he was there to root for his friend Derek Jeter, conventional wisdom told everyone that the Mets were wooing the free agent shortstop. When bidding for the young superstar's services came around that winter, however, the Mets and General Manager Steve Phillips were put off by Boras' demands for his client, and impolitely backed off from negotiations.
But not everyone was scared away.
The Texas Rangers were in the midst of one of their busiest off-seasons. With the Dallas skyline in the background, general managers from around the league convened in Big D for that year's winter meetings. Over the first three days of the meetings, the Rangers were handing out contracts as if they were Halloween candy: First baseman Andres Galarraga was signed to a $6.25 million contract, third baseman Ken Caminiti signed a $3 million and right-hander Mark Petkovsek inked a deal worth over four million a year.
Although the club would certainly benefit from another year with Ivan Rodriguez and Rafael Palmeiro, their starting pitching was coming off a season that featured the worst earned run average in the league.
But the biggest move of the off-season would have zero impact on the pitching ranks of the Texas Rangers. On December 11, 2000, Alex Rodriguez signed the most lucrative deal in professional sports history - a ten-year deal with the Rangers for $252 million.
Upon joining the lineup, Rodriguez delivered the earth-shattering numbers he was being paid so much money for. In his first season in Texas, he produced one of the top offensive seasons ever for a shortstop, leading the league with 52 homeruns and 133 runs scored. He also became the first player since 1932 with 50 homers and 200 hits in a season, and was just the second American Leaguer in the last 34 years to lead the league in runs, homers, and total bases.
There was a great deal of weight on the shoulders of the superstar to lead the Rangers to the top of the AL West, justifying his eye-popping contract in the process. Unfortunately, by June his old team in Seattle had built an insurmountable lead in the division and the Rangers were floundering in the basement, finishing a downtrodden 44 games behind the Mariners for first place in the West.
Rodriguez torched opposing pitching again one year later, unloading for 57 homers and 142 runs driven in, but again the Rangers failed to make a dent in their division. In 2003, statistically speaking his worst season in Texas, Rodriguez still led the league in home runs, runs scored, and slugging percentage en route to picking up his first ever Most Valuable Player award. But that off-season, just three years into his massive ten-year contract, the Rangers sought to deal the shortstop and his expensive deal. The losing had begun to take its toll on Rodriguez, who told the club he'd be willing to waive his no-trade clause for a few select teams.
The Boston Red Sox were the first to show a fair amount of interest in Rodriguez. Talks between the two clubs progressed and a deal was eventually struck that would involve the exchange of Boston outfielder Manny Ramirez. But the player's association stepped in to veto the trade because it called for a voluntary reduction in salary by Rodriguez. Despite the failed deal with the Red Sox, the Rangers named him team captain during that off-season.
But the new title didn't lost long as the New York Yankees had taken notice of the sudden trade availability of Rodriguez.
New York was in need of an extra infielder following the season-ending injury to the their third baseman, Aaron Boone. On the morning of February 14th, 2004, the Rangers and Yankees hammered out final details on a trade that would send the shortstop to New York in exchange for two players: Alfonso Soriano and a player to be named later (Joaquin Arias).
Baseball commissioner Bud Selig had his concerns about the deal.
"I want to make it abundantly clear to all clubs that I will not allow cash transfers of this magnitude to become the norm," he would state following the deal.
"However, given the unique circumstances, including the size, length and complexity of Mr. Rodriguez's contract and the quality of the talent moving in both directions, I have decided to approve the transaction."
There certainly was more to the deal than just players. In Soriano, the Rangers would be getting a two-time All-Star at the time whose narrowly missed having 40 homers and 40 stolen bases two years in a row. But more importantly to the Rangers would be the flexibility trading away the best player in the game would give them. The club agreed to pay $40 million of the $179 million in salary that Rodriguez would have been owed over the final seven years of his contract, but had gained about $120 million in breathing room.
Still, the trade was, and continues to be, viewed by many as an absolute disaster. Most would argue that had Texas merely swapped Rodriguez for Soriano straight up, they could have excused the deal as a pure salary dump. But Rangers agreed to pick up the tab on most of the remainder of Rodriguez's remaining salary, and the total amount of money owed to the Yankees for a player they no longer had approached $85 million dollars before Rodriguez opted out of his contract late in 2007.
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