20 years ago today A-Rod made his return to Seattle after signing a record-breaking contract with the Texas Rangers. There used to be mad love between the player and the fans. Now, there was bad blood…and a lot of fake money.
He laughed it off. We were so mad, so hurt, so angry. And he refused to acknowledge what he had done.
He had the nerve, the gall! to joke about people wanting to kill him. “I may play with John Olerud’s helmet tonight,” he quipped.
He tried to smooth it all over. He rained praise and flattery upon the city and its fans. “The people of Seattle are among the classiest I’ve ever seen…I’m in love with this city and in love with the way people are in this city. It’s a great place,” he cooed.
He spoke indulgently about the current iteration of the Seattle Mariners. “They have the opportunity to win 110 to 115 games the way they’re going right now.” He wistfully assured us, “If you had to make a decision based on people, management and players, I would be here until I was 60 or 70 years old.”
But we’d been through the contract negotiations. We knew that the smooth words spoken by his pretty face were lies. Whether he was lying to himself or to us made no difference. He was as sincere as a politician on the campaign trail.
He also had a way of completely missing the point. “I don’t think they’re booing me, really. They’re booing the uniform. If I was wearing a Mariners uniform, they would cheer me.”
But he wasn’t wearing a Mariners uniform. He was wearing the cold blue and blood money red of the Texas Rangers.
On April 16th, 2001, Alex Rodriguez returned to Seattle.
It ain’t me, it’s ain’t me, I ain’t no prodigal son, no.
For all its stretches of games that melt and twist together, baseball has a way of making a random Monday night in April feel like an Event. This particularly Monday was a date Mariners fans circled in their pocket schedules and flocked to Fan Fest on February 3rd for the first chance to purchase tickets.
Sports radio callers and letters to the editors debated how fans should approach the return of Alex Rodriguez. Some asked that fans cheer him for the good times we had together. Some advocated for giving him the silent treatment. Most urged that we boo until our lungs give out.
“I don’t care what comes out of their mouths,” Rodriguez told reporters. “I still love ‘em.”
The return of A-Rod was an Event. Fans showed up early, streaming into the ballpark when the horn signaled the gates were opening. We booed when he stepped into the cage for batting practice. We threw back his BP home runs. We waived signs, broadcasting our disgust.
A-Rod’s agent, Scott Boras, the only man in baseball as despised at Rodriguez, was in attendance and unamused by the antics, per The Seattle Times:
Thirteen-year old Aaron Morse of Phinney Ridge scrambled through the seats near the Texas dugout during batting practice trying to get Rodriguez’s attention. His sign read: “A-Rod: Buy me a house, and a car, and five dogs and pay for my college education.”
Said Morse, “Texas looks like a team that won’t go very far.”
On the field a few feet away, Rodriguez’s agent, the vilified Scott Boras, found no humor in Morse’s sign.
“Why don’t you scratch out `A-Rod’ and write in `Dad?’ “ he said.1
It’s likely that Dad or another adult bought the ticket that night for Morse to attend the game. Even before Rodriguez signed the richest contract in sports history with Texas, the Mariners announced that the prices of single-game tickets were raising between $1 and $4 for the 2001 season. In each of the past three seasons, the Mariners had lost a superstar. Now our wallets were being squeezed to support lesser players.
It was hard not to see Alex Rodriguez as a symbol for everything that was wrong in sports. He was an athlete who hit the genetic lottery, from his good looks to his natural baseball talent. Now, he’d had a quarter billion dollars bestowed upon him while it became more expensive for a family to watch the game he played. Meanwhile, Mariners fans watched as the “have” teams scooped up the free-agent talent while the “have not” teams, the Mariners included, floundered in small-market purgatory. During the golden age of the mid-90s, the Mariners ownership refused to spend the money to improve the bullpen and give the team a real chance at a championship, then let Randy Johnson and Ken Griffey Jr leave without so much as a pursuit.
We were told ad nauseum that baseball was a business. In business there is no room for sentimentality. No room for the pursuit of baseball feelings over baseball profit. No room for loyalty to anything other than money. No room to think that maybe the athletes we loved, loved us back.
The memory of the 1994 baseball strike lingered as another possible work stoppage hovered in the coming season. It’s hard to say whether fans were truly more angry with owners or players, but it was clear that something was rotten in the state of baseball.
Maybe it was in the time between the announcement of his signing with Texas and his first game back in Seattle that we irrevocably began to see Alex Rodriguez less as an athlete and more as a symbol. Maybe this is when he subconsciously began to lean into being something other than himself, when he saw this space as the place he belonged. Maybe he didn’t mean to treat us bad, but he did it anyway.
Starting for the Mariners that Monday evening was Aaron Sele, himself a former Ranger. He was a native of Poulsbo and a Washington State Cougar, pitching for the team he watched growing up. Now he was pitching for us—to avenge us—against the man who had done us wrong.
Rusty Greer led off the game with a 5-pitch walk. Randy Velarde stepped up to the plate, and Alex Rodriguez took his place in the on-deck circle. A fan sitting behind him in the first row extended a fishing pole with a single dollar bill out behind A-Rod. The dollar bounced through the space between Rodriguez and the fans, drawing howls of laughter from one side, and complete oblivion from the other.
Safeco Field security removed the pole as quickly as Velarde flew out. There was one on and one out.
45,000 fans stood and a roar erupted from the crowd. It wasn’t a cascade of boos; it was an avalanche, a flood, a tsunami that poured from the seats behind home plate and the furthest reaches of the stands. Seven years spent cheering for this man. Seven years of seeing his success as our success. Seven years of love turned to crushing betrayal. A-Rod, the despised A-Rod, was walking up to home plate.
The Mariners organization was worried about this game. They had put a lot of effort into crafting their vision of a family-friendly baseball atmosphere. They issued directives and reminders of the Safeco Field Code of Conduct. Remember, there are no obscene gestures or foul or abusive language allowed, they chided. To be sure, a number of signs were removed for inappropriateness.
Still, the full stands displayed epitaphs for the devotion we once had for our shortstop:
- Mi$$ion Accompli$hed
- We are SOOOOOO over you
- Go Home, Pay-Rod
- A-Rod Lost His Mojo
- Need a loan? Call 1-800-252-ALEX
(An unfortunate bank in Jacksonville, FL was at the receiving end of that last sign. The next day, they received about 100 calls asking for Alex Rodriguez. They had no idea what was happening until a Seattle sports writer called and explained the situation.2)
Rodriguez walked to the plate, enveloped in boos. Monopoly money featuring A-Rod’s face rained down from the 300-level. A lemon was hurled behind home plate. The fans booed lustily with everything they had for nearly an entire minute.
For all the disappointed feelings around the departures of Randy Johnson and Ken Griffey Jr, they were mostly welcomed back. For all the players who had elicited strong feelings from the fans, not even Bobby Ayala was ever the object of ire like Alex Rodriguez was that Monday.
It must have reached the summit of Mount Rainier and disturbed the tides in Grays Harbor. It was the vocal embodiment of a fanbase that had loved like we had never been hurt, only to feel the hurt a thousand times over.
Amid the boos, A-Rod took two called strikes to go 0-2. Only then did he start to hear the cheers. “A-Rod! A-Rod! A-Rod!” the crowd chanted. Where once we applauded his offensive prowess, now we applauded the bat that lay idly upon his shoulder.
We loved him so much it just turned to hate.
He was 25 years old. He was as good as, or better than, the best players in baseball history at this age. He was only 25 and he was on the free agent market.
He scared most teams away simply by virtue of demanding a long-term contract that paid excruciatingly well. (He scared the New York Mets away by demanding office space and his own marketing team.)
It wasn’t like Scott Boras didn’t warn the baseball world what was coming when his client hit the market, “Remember we are not talking about a 30-year-old free agent who is regarded as a quality player, but a 25-year-old who is one of the top performers in the game and at one of the most demanded positions. There will be clauses totally different from any seen before.”
Obviously money was going to be a huge factor in where A-Rod ended up. Despite Boras warning that no discounts would be given, the Mariners seemed to hope they’d get a break. They were the team who made him the #1 overall pick in the draft. The team that brought him to the big leagues just over a year later. The team who gave him three tastes of the postseason.
He made sure everyone understood that money wasn’t his only consideration. He wanted to win. He wanted a ring to match the four rings adorning the fingers of his friend and fellow shortstop Derek Jeter. The 2000 season seemed to convince A-Rod that the organization was in it to win it. Although Alex never said so himself, Boras said, “From my point of view, his confidence in the Seattle organization is there.”
Still, he wanted to test the waters of free agency because, as Boras explained, Rodriguez “is intrigued by the idea of seeing the mystery of free agency from the inside.”
The Mariners did what they could do to convince their star shortstop that they were planning to keep the winning momentum going. Manager Lou Piniella was signed to a new contract. The Mariners picked up the option for Edgar Martinez, who had joked with A-Rod that if Edgar came back, Alex had to as well. The Mariners big wigs, including Howard Lincoln, flew to Japan to meet with the Japanese superstar Ichiro Suzuki.
But money was the star in the negotiations. Two years before, Kevin Garnett signed a 6-year $126 million contract with the Minnesota Timberwolves to become the best paid athlete in sports history. Before free agency began following the 2000 season, Carlos Delgado signed a 4-year $68 million deal with the Toronto Blue Jays, making him the highest-paid player in baseball on a yearly basis. Kevin Brown still owned the highest total money thanks to his 7-year $105 million deal with the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1998.
Boras had his finger firmly upon the pulse of baseball money. He was not just looking for a contract that looked good in the winter of 2000. He wanted a contract that still looked good down the line. “We all know that the minute Alex signs a contract, the market will be different again in another year, and again when he’s 30. We want what’s fair over the length of the contract.”
As negotiations got underway, Alex made it clear that Seattle was the favorite to sign him. Perhaps the Mariners read too much into his pandering. Pat Gillick, citing A-Rod’s leadership position with the Mariners, his relationship with Lou Piniella, and the team’s success in recent years, told Seattle media “I don’t think we have to sell Alex on the Seattle Mariners.” Gillick was also eager to add that Rodriguez had told the team he wanted to come back to Seattle.
On December 10, 2000 newspapers reported that the Mariners were one of 3 or 4 teams still in the running for A-Rod. The others were Atlanta, Texas, and the Chicago White Sox. The next day Gillick described talks as “delicate.” A day later, it was over.
Just like that Alex Rodriguez signed the biggest contract in American sports history. 10 years and $252 million dollars to play in the sweltering strip mall and water tower utopia of Arlington, Texas.
Mariners fans and Seattle sports media erupted with anger and betrayal.
Steve Kelly sums up much of the popular sentiment in The Seattle Times:
He can’t win in Texas, but he can sell himself. He can be bigger than George W. Bush; bigger than Troy Aikman and Mike Modano. Bigger than J.R Ewing.
That’s what A-Rod wants.
He is all about T-shirts and sports shoes and television commercials. He is all about selling himself. And we should know by now, A-Rod is as good a salesman as he is a shortstop.
He sold Seattle on the idea he was different from Ken Griffey Jr. He made this city believe he was a team guy. He made us believe he was the clubhouse leader—the Mariners’ New Millennium Man.
Turns out, Griffey was more honest. He wasn’t, like Rodriguez, a one-man public-relations firm. He wasn’t a human spinmeister. Griffey told you what he felt, even when he knew you wouldn’t like it.
He didn’t give us a lot of A-Rodian fluff. He wore the truth on his sleeve.3
The Mariners made their best offer on a Sunday before learning on Monday morning that it wasn’t enough. 5 years and $19 million a year. The contract only guaranteed $60 million over 3 years; the rest was a 2-year option. Pat Gillick admitted later, “I don’t believe they were particularly happy with our proposal. We had some inclination it wasn’t too well-received.” Gillick also confirmed the Mariners weren’t going anywhere near 10 years.
At the press conference announcing his signing, A-Rod took some shots at the Mariners’ offer. “They were never an option… I’m glad they didn’t make it a close call.”
“Strategically, I wanted to give Seattle the last chance, to give them the opportunity to bring me back because I felt I owed it to them,” Rodriguez said. But he concluded, “Texas really made it easy for me.”
Boras and Rodriguez contended that the Mariners were out of the running before they made their final offer. Mariners president Chuck Armstrong and CEO Howard Lincoln took off for a vacation in Hawaii in the middle of the negotiations. Boras had made it clear from the beginning that the A-Rod negotiations were not typical contract talks involving the team general managers. He wanted the negotiations to happen directly with team ownership. In seven years with the Mariners, Alex Rodriguez had never met Mariners owners.
But if they had to have a proxy, Armstrong and Lincoln were the ones who should have been present. And they left on vacation, putting the entire burden on Gillick.
Rodriguez was upset the team didn’t seem to value him more. “The place where you start is very dear, very special, but when they offered five years, with a three-year guarantee and a two-year out, I was in disbelief. I was a little hurt and disappointed, because they made better deals with other players. Then, when I saw our president and owner were in Hawaii, I just walked away from it.”
Lincoln argued that A-Rod was misrepresenting the situation. “Chuck called Scott at the winter meetings Saturday morning and said if you need me to be there, I’ll come. And Chuck was told by Scott that it wasn’t necessary. Chuck also gave him his and my cell phone numbers. Our phones never rang.”
“This vacation had been planned a full year,” Lincoln whined. “If I thought it would have made a bit of difference in bringing Alex Rodriguez back, I’d have canceled it.”
“He went for the money,” Lincoln bitterly concluded.
Texas owner Tom Hicks received a lot of criticism for offering the contract. Scott Boras was already seen as hellbent on destroying the financial balance of baseball. Major league baseball was generating more money than ever. But for fans who saw only ticket prices rising and the men playing the game become less relatable, it was Alex Rodriguez who bore the burden of the changing financial reality. It was he alone standing on the field, feeling the full wrath of baseball’s evolution.
Alex Rodriguez stood in the batter’s box with a 2-2 count against Aaron Sele. On the fifth pitch, he hit a dribbler toward third base for a fielder’s choice.
He stood on first base, alone on the field that was once his home.
It’s impossible, of course, to know what Alex Rodriguez was thinking as he stood on first base. Whatever his public thoughts were, they were always filtered through the image he had conceived of himself before they were spoken. He measured each word, paying as much attention as a novelist to their meanings.
Did he think about the 2000 season? The Mariners had just lost Ken Griffey Jr. A-Rod stepped into the open leadership role. He made t-shirts for the team that read, “We Are One A Mission.” He was part of making “Who Let the Dogs Out?” by the Baja Men an unfortunate early 2000s relic and the theme song for the season. He set a Mariners record with 5 walks in a game and joined Edgar Martinez as the only Mariners to ever bat .300 with 100 runs, RBI, and walks in one season.
We could have been watching the beginning of the Mariners as A-Rod’s team. Instead all the walking was just foreshadowing that he was going to walk away.
Did he think about how badly he wanted to please the people in his life? He wanted to protect his family financially. He wanted to sculpt an impeccable baseball career. He wanted to prove that he could do everything right, that he was worthy of love and adoration. But in free agency, he couldn’t please everyone. Did it wear on him? Did he feel the absence of love more than the accomplishment of his goals?
Did he think about the 1998 season? He became only the third player in baseball history to join the 40-40 Club? He was only 22, but he was in the record books alongside Jose Canseco and Barry Bonds. He won his second Silver Slugger Award. He published a children’s book.
Did he think about hitting for the cycle in 1997? Or the 4-year contract he signed before the season for $10.7 million that gave him the confidence that he could set up his mother, sister, and brother for life? Did he remember the hype about the new age of shortstops? He was photographed in Sports Illustrated alongside Derek Jeter, Nomar Garciaparra, Alex Gonzalez, Edgar Rentaria, and Rey Ordonez as the new wave of shortstops. Although he was often compared to Jeter and Garciaparra, it was clear from the beginning that he was in a class of his own.
Maybe he thought about his first full season in the major leagues. Being named the opening day shortstop. Worrying that after he got to a slow start, he would be sent back to AAA Tacoma. Instead he finished the season as the third youngest American League batting champion in history. He won a Silver Slugger Award. He was named the Sporting News and Associated Press Player of the Year. He was the Mariner team MVP. Yet he finished second in the American League MVP voting, behind Juan Gonzalez.
Maybe he thought about the end of the magical 1995 playoff run, his arm around a sobbing Joey Cora in the dugout. Maybe he thought about bouncing between AAA and Seattle four times that season. Maybe he thought about how he wanted to quit baseball that season, so dismayed with being unable to stay in the major leagues.
Maybe he thought about his major league debut on July 8, 1994 at Fenway Park. He was still 18. He’d started his first minor league season that April.
Maybe he thought about signing his first contract with the Mariners on August 30th, 1994. It was 3 years worth $1.3 million. The contract stipulated that he would be called up to the majors by September 1994.
Maybe he thought back to the day it all began. On June 3rd, 1993 the Mariners made him the #1 overall pick in the draft.
Maybe he thought about his childhood, moving from New York to the Domincan Republic to Miami. Maybe he thought about his father leaving his family when Alex was 10 years old, the absence briefly interrupted by a solitary phone call that didn’t come until the draft day. Maybe he thought about his mom working multiple jobs and how he was driven to succeed so that she would never have to do that again.
The Alex Rodriguez standing on first base, alone, and the Alex Rodriguez picking up the phone on draft day are not the same person. They have 8 years of baseball and unrelenting public pressure and opinion between them.
The 17-year-old kid with the smile and the smoothness and the staggering talent. He was heaved into the world of professional baseball, a stat-generating and money-making machine who was more a super hero than a human to the vultures of baseball.
Maybe from the beginning we knew.
It was going to be a love story between a city and a player that got the ending we wanted so badly with Ken Griffey Jr.
Or, it was going to go down in flames.
- Romero, José Miguel. “`Who let the dog in?’ fans wonder – M’s boo birds make sentiments clear in Rodriguez’s return.” Seattle Times, The (Seattle, WA), April 17, 2001: D6.
- Hicky, John and Andriesen, David. “Wrong Number, Right Institution – 1-800-262-ALEX Rings Florida Bank.” Seattle Post-Intelligencer (Seattle, WA), April 18, 2001: C3.
- Kelley, Steve. “Rodríguez is all about one thing: Big numbers.” Seattle Times, The (Seattle, WA), December 12, 2000: C1.