My favorite A-Rod story occurred in a Kansas City restaurant
I was having lunch at Houston’s in Country Club Plaza when one of the people at our table said, “Hey, look, that’s one of A-Rod’s guys.” He pointed to a man who was engaged in a hush-hush conversation with the restaurant’s host, pointing, gesturing, explaining. My lunch buddies—they covered the Texas Rangers—knew what was up.
“He wants to make sure A-Rod isn’t bothered during lunch,” one said.
Sure enough, after making sure A-Rod, then a Texas Ranger, would have a table in a corner of the restaurant, a table that would afford him some measure of privacy, a table that would keep him somewhat away from the screaming masses who were sure to lose their minds when he entered the restaurant, A-Rod walked through the front door and was guided quickly and quietly to a section of the dining room.
This seemed surreal since I had friends at a Kansas City rib joint a few years earlier who looked up to find the President of the United States standing at their table. Bill Clinton worked the room, smiling and shaking hands, then sat down with some baseball writers to have lunch.
Anyway back to A-Rod. There was just one problem with the care that was taken to guaranteed his security in Kansas City that day, and looking back on it now, it seems a little bit astonishing and a little bit sad. No one—and I mean no one—recognized him. There was zero buzz. There were no fans desperately trying to get a moment of his time. All that happened that day was A-Rod had lunch.
“He has to be crushed,” one of the guys at my table said.
For a lot of his 19 seasons in the Major Leagues, it has been like that with Alex Rodriguez. He has always seemed just a tad out of step, never really comfortable in a clubhouse setting where the best teams have a bunch of guys focused on winning baseball games.
I have no way of knowing how important winning is to A-Rod, and believe me, he’s not the first player with a healthy ego. It’s just that one of the beauties of being part of a team is that salary, race and all the other stuff that seems to separate us at times melts during the eight or nine hours when preparing for and playing a game is the sole focus.
Some of us thought A-Rod would change when he joined the Yankees. For the first time, he would not be bigger than the franchise. He’d be surrounded by players even more famous and part of a franchise that won before he arrived and would win once he departed.
The Yankees changed Roger Clemens, and not in a small way. He’d probably reject such a notion, but Clemens became a different guy with the Yankees. He was no longer the main player. Instead, he was part of something larger, and he understood it and absolutely loved it.
The Rocket misbehaved some early in his career, seemed to do things to draw attention to himself. Once he walked into the clubhouse doors at Yankee Stadium, he saw that it was no longer about him. It was about winning. It was about carrying himself a certain way.
He saw how Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera and Andy Pettitte and Joe Torre conducted themselves. He saw there was no drama in the clubhouse. He saw that only one thing mattered. As a result, The Rocket had a great six seasons with the Bombers. He was a beloved and respected teammate. He did charity work, befriended cops and soldiers and competed like hell on the field.
He may not enter the Hall of Fame as a Yankee, but I’m guessing that in his heart and his soul he’s a Yankee.
For whatever reason, A-Rod never seemed to find that same comfort level with being a Yankee. He was constantly making missteps or doing things that called attention—many times negative attention—to himself. Some people may have disliked him intensely, but there seemed to be more who just never understood him.
He had a wonderful career arc written for him long ago. He was the kid who showed up at Miami Stadium and befriended Cal Ripken Jr. during Spring Training one year. He wanted to be like Ripken, who tried to do everything right, signing every autograph, preparing and performing in a way that would influence others in a way more powerful than words.
All great players have special needs, and so it has been with A-Rod. If this is the end of his career or the beginning of the end of his career, he’ll go out with people remembering all the wrong things about him, not that he was an incredibly gifted player, but that the attention too often wasn’t on his playing.