In 1998, Kevin Garnett signed a 6-year, $126-million-dollar contract with the Minnesota Timberwolves, the biggest contract ever given to a professional athlete. Following the 2000 season, Scott Boras engineered a $252-million-dollar contract with the Texas Rangers for Alex Rodriguez. It was not a coincidence that A-Rod's contract was exactly double Garnett's. (Interesting how, even now, both those guys have long been considered among their respective games' best players, yet neither has won it all.)
Going into the winter of 2000, A-Rod was already widely regarded as not only the best all-around player in baseball at the time, but since he was only 25, the fact that he had not even entered his prime yet made him possibly the most attractive free agent ever. Numerous teams went after him hard; the Mets made a particularly strong effort under the leadership of their impossibly brilliant GM, Steve Philips (who went on to give truly, truly dazzling analysis on ESPN's Baseball Tonight). This push made sense, since 1. The Mets had just been to the World Series, clearly an attractive team that was there to win; 2. As a big-market team, the Mets had the money to compete with anyone; and 3. A-Rod grew up a Mets fan. All logic led you to believe--especially if you were a Mets fan--that we were gonna get him.
Regardless of what Steve Phillips did and said ("Signing him would make this a 24-and-1 team," describing what A-Rod/Boras was allegedly demanding), the Mets did not acquire A-Rod. He went to the Texas Rangers, who were willing to give him that unprecedented (and, unmatched since) contract. I was really pissed at the time--especially considering our then-shortstop (Rey Ordonez)
couldn't get a hit even if the opposing fielders were blind, mosquito-sized girls--because everything led me to believe that this A-Rod guy, the best player in baseball, really wanted to be here. I couldn't see what the breakdown was. Was it just the money? Really?
Eventually I got over it, and Steve Philips soon got the boot when the Mets followed their World Series appearance by making a series of terrible decisions. From Mo Vaughn to Roberto Alomar to Art Howe, everything Philips did turned to shit. A World Series-caliber team became a joke awfully quickly. The ensuing years were very painful. You go to hell, Kevin Appier.
But during that time, Alex Rodriguez was a Texas Ranger, and his team did about as well as we did. But on an interesting note, immediately after A-Rod's flight to Arlington from Seattle, the Mariners managed to win 116 games in 2001, tying the highest win total in baseball history (Cubs of 1906). 116 wins. Right after A-Rod left.
When A-Rod arrived to great fanfare in Texas, he managed to lead the Rangers to three straight last-place finishes from 2001-03. After (somehow) winning the AL MVP award in 2003, A-Rod wound up being traded to the yankees (I wonder how players have been traded following an MVP season.), following an bizarre and controversial negotiation with the Red Sox, the commissioner's office, and the player's union.
Between the end of the 2003 regular season and the 2004 World Series, several noteworthy things happened, directly related to A-Rod:
- A-Rod's Ranger team went from 71 wins and 91 losses in 2003 to 89 and 73 in 2004--an 18-game improvement after he left; keep in mind that the season after A-Rod left the Mariners, their win total jumped an astonishing 25 games (91-71 to 116-46)
- By 2004, A-Rod had been to the playoffs twice, both with the Mariners, in 1997 and then 2000, advancing to the ALCS in '00, only to lose to the yanks. His play during both of those postseasons was unremarkable--not terrible, not great, but definitely unmemorable.
- On July 24, 2004, at Fenway Park when the Red Sox were reeling and in danger of falling out of contention, Jason Varitek blatantly picked a fight with A-Rod and single-handedly turned around the Red Sox season. This isn't really A-Rod's bad; Varitek just went after him. It led to the whole Pedro-throwing-Don-Zimmer-to-the-ground thing, taking a rivalry that had already reached the boiling point to a bloodthirsty Athens-vs.-Sparta-level affair.
- By the grace of God, the two teams met in an ALCS rematch. In the first three games, A-Rod tore it up, and the yanks took a seemingly unbeatable 3-0 lead. A-Rod's performance was impressive: 6 for 14 (.428 avg.), 7 runs scored, 3 RBI's. BUT...
- When the Red Sox somehow (thank you, Dave Roberts) managed to win Game 4, A-Rod disappeared. His stats in the final four games were 2 for 17 (.118 avg.), 1 run, 2 RBI's.
- Perhaps the most memorable A-Rod "achievement" in the 2004 ALCS came during Game 6, when he ran down the first base line and tried to slap the ball out of Bronson Arroyo's hand as he ran to first base. According to the rules of baseball, you're not allowed to do that--it's cheating--and when the umps made the call, A-Rod got upset and slumped off to the dugout. Why he didn't just try to run Arroyo over like Albert Belle did to Fernando Vina in 1996, I don't know. As fucked up as what Belle did was, it's within the rules. Trying to knock the ball out of a guy's glove with your hand is not only against the rules, it is...how to put this...one of the most pussy things I've ever seen.
The 2004 postseason, A-Rod's first year as a yank, will go down in history for two things. It depends on your prior perspective to determine which is more important, more memorable, more unbelievable. But there are two facts that must be observed:
- Champs. For the first time in 86 years, the Boston Red Sox won the World Series. Obviously, A-Rod had nothing to do with the Curse of the Bambino, but the fact is, a long-suffering franchise overcame its demons, and did it against the tallest odds you can imagine.
- Chokers. The 2004 New York yankees committed the biggest choke in baseball (sports?) history. No Major League Baseball team had ever blown a 3-0 lead in any postseason series. On top of that, there was the memory of the 2003 Game 7 Red Sox collapse. Then there's the fact that the yanks were Sox' longtime rival, having repeatedly inflicted severe heartbreak upon the citizens of New England. And finally, the yanks had a 3-2 lead in the 9th inning of Game 4--on the verge of an utterly dominant sweep--with the greatest closer in baseball history on the mound. Without a doubt, God put the Red Sox--and their fans--on the very edge of the cliff. But then came the walk to Millar, the Roberts steal, the Mueller single, and the Papi home run. The rest is history.
In 2005 and 2006, the yanks didn't even get that far into the postseason, and A-Rod's numbers have been just as pathetic. In a preseason interview this past March, A-Rod apparently "came clean" about his troubles with Derek Jeter and how they don't have as many sleepovers anymore, and many a yankee writer declared that as being the cure-all for A-Rod's problems. To date, this prediction looks accurate. But will it in October? September? May?
The biggest reason the yanks sit at 8-9 at this point has been their atrocious pitching, which even the biggest offensive season in history couldn't overcome. But eventually their pitching will come around and A-Rod will come back to earth, and the yanks will be trying to win games 3-2, rather than 8-7. When that happens, will A-Rod still be the man yankee fans want up there in the bottom of the 9th down by 2? History says probably not.
And following this season's inevitable early playoff exit by the yanks (if they even make it that far), A-Rod's subsequent opting-out of his contract, and his arrival in L.A. or Chicago for the 2008 season, will the yanks finally make it back to the World Series? I still hope not, but I think history shows us it's fairly likely.