It’s one thing for Alex Rodriguez to have rehabilitated his public image somewhat, during his final major league playing season and in his life since then as a broadcaster who’s owned up to his baseball sins. Including those that made him persona non grata for 2015 and finished the reputation wreckage from which a comeback then seemed only slightly less likely than Richard Nixon’s was once upon a time.
But it’s something else entirely that A-Rod and his paramour Jennifer Lopez now seek to become baseball owners. They can well afford to be, of course, but red flags hoist. The couple is in play to buy the New York Mets. Wherein lies a tale I’ve told before, elsewhere. It’s worth revisiting, because had he gotten what was once believed his career wish he might (underline that) have resisted the temptations to which he became prone in due course.
When Alex Rodriguez the player arrived at his first major league free agency, in 2000, he let it be known that the team he wanted to play for more than any on the planet—if his now-former Seattle Mariners were disinclined to re-sign him for the dollars he was sure to command as baseball’s greatest all-around shortstop—was the Mets. He grew up a Met fan (his idol was said to be first baseman Keith Hernandez) and, as I wrote once upon a time, there wouldn’t have been a structure big enough to contain his happiness if he could suit up for them beginning in 2001.
The dollars in play weren’t disclosed, but know this: the Mets then could have had A-Rod for a decade, and for two-thirds or a little less of the money for which he’d sign in due course. Coming off a 2000 World Series loss to the Yankees that was closer than the five-game Series looked on the surface, the Mets would have loved nothing more than to dress baseball’s best shortstop cross town from the Yankees’ Derek Jeter—who just so happened to be A-Rod’s best friend in the game at the time.
The Mets’ then-general manager Steve Phillips went to the December 2000 winter meetings to meet Rodriguez’s then-agent, Scott Boras, believing he was going in with A-Rod on the hook over very succulent bait. Phillips came out of that meeting without his stomach. It went AWOL. A decade later, ESPN’s Ian O’Connor ran it down:
A-Rod’s agent was telling the team’s general manager his client needed perks that would have made the world’s greatest divas blush . . . The list included a Shea Stadium office, a marketing staff, a merchandise tent at spring training, a luxury box, use of a private jet, and more billboards than Jeter could count.
The agent said some of the perks, not all, were absolutely required in any deal worth A-Rod’s signature. Boras never mentioned a dollar figure in the meeting, and he didn’t need to. The Mets wouldn’t even be offering Rodriguez cab fare home.
Nobody knew for dead last certain whether Boras’s laundry list was composed in any part by Rodriguez himself, and Rodriguez wasn’t known to have spoken of it publicly. “I remember Steve coming back to our suite and telling everyone, ‘You’re not going to believe it, but this is what Boras wants for Alex Rodriguez’,” another former Met executive, Jim Duquette, told O’Connor. “All of our jaws just dropped. We kept hearing how this was the place Alex wanted to play, but we knew then it wasn’t going to happen.”
Phillips then made a grave mistake. He spoke publicly about the Mets wanting to avoid a 24-man-plus-one roster, even though he never knew how much of the perk list was far more Boras than A-Rod talking. He lived to regret his remark.
That label stuck to Alex, and I didn’t mean for that to happen. But I just thought the rules had to be the same for everybody. Mike Piazza was the most low-maintenance superstar there was, with no entourage, only his brother and dad coming around once in a while. Mike always had the prettiest girl waiting for him after the game, and that was it. It was just Mike.
Not only was Rodriguez not going to become a Met, he inadvertently tore it with his BFF Jeter, who was going through his own contract haggle with the Yankees at the time. When A-Rod finally signed his precedent-busting deal with the Texas Ranger ($250 million), he also commented on the Jeter haggle. Oops.
“Jeter’s been blessed with great talent around him; he’s never had to lead,” Rodriguez said. “He can just go and play and have fun. He hits second—that’s totally different than third or fourth in a lineup. You go into New York, you wanna stop Bernie [Williams] and [Paul] O’Neill. You never say, ‘Don’t let Derek beat you.’ He’s never your concern.”
He didn’t mean for it to sound as though he’d just reduced The Captain to a mere ship’s mate. But there was a right and wrong way to say aloud that you thought Jeter was only one of a pack of leadership-quality Yankees who didn’t have to take the whole thing upon himself. Which is probably what A-Rod tried to say. Seeing it in cold print, he knew it meant trouble.
Assorted stories then and since have said Rodriguez hustled it to Jeter’s Tampa spread post haste to straighten it out and got a closed door to greet his arrival. The worse news for Rodriguez was that Jeter did have one thing in common with the Yankees’ Hall of Fame legend Joe DiMaggio, or so it was said: if he thought you did him dirty, even once, you might as well remove him from your address book. Permanently, perhaps. (Since 2010, their first spring training together after a Yankee World Series win, A-Rod and Jeter have patched up their once-fractured friendship.)
The Rangers didn’t exactly blow up the league with A-Rod. It wasn’t exactly A-Rod’s fault that the pitching-challenged Rangers of the time thought the solution to their most glaring problem was to spend the equivalent of a solid pitching staff on . . . one shortstop. The worse news was A-Rod’s insecurities kicking his insides out. “You wonder now about the real impact all that had on A-Rod,” I wrote upon his finalized suspension.
You wonder how his own agent botching a deal with the team of his dreams ate away at him. You wonder how deeply costing himself his best friend in baseball haunted him. You wonder what that cost him in a time when Jeter could have given Rodriguez critical moral support and steerage, when—slapped hard across the face with the reality of his off-the-chart deal, and the expectations attached to it, actual or suggestive — Rodriguez instead drove himself toward the netherworld of actual or alleged performance-enhancing substances, out of a quiet desperation to live up to his deal that equaled not trusting the talent that put him in position for the deal in the first place . . . Even if you acknowledge the Rangers bid against themselves to give one shortstop the money that would have built a long-term competitive pitching staff, you can’t lay that kind of responsibility upon his head.
Which brings us now to Rodriguez’s public suggestion that major league baseball players need—wait for it!—a salary cap. Especially after the owners tried to strong-arm them into a virtual one during the haggling over when and whether to open a 2020 season during the coronavirus world tour. A-Rod sounds only slightly less hypocritical than the Congresspeople standing foursquare for the balanced budget on the campaign trail but standing for glandular deficit spending in office.
As happened with his ancient observation of Derek Jeter, Rodriguez probably stumbled over his own tongue. He wasn’t wrong to suggest as he did concurrently that baseball would be wise to “get to the table and say the No. 1 goal, let’s get from $10 to $15 billion [total value of baseball] and then we’ll split the economics evenly.” But sports circles tent to interpret that as code for salary capping. A man who earned almost half a billion dollars playing the game and now implies it’s time for a salary cap looks too deeply to be saying, “I got mine, the hell with yours.”
Which is exactly how a number of players and other officials representing them see it. A-Rod’s one-time Yankee teammate, now-retired pitcher Brandon McCarthy, practically called for a little cancel culture sent his way. “I hope to god he’s shouted out of every clubhouse he attempts to enter in this and future seasons,” former 13-year pitcher Brandon McCarthy said in a Thursday tweet. “Call him a self-serving liar and make him explain himself to a room full of his former peers if he wants broadcast content.”
Tony Clark, the executive director of the Major League Baseball Players Association, wasn’t quite inclined to go there. “Alex benefited as much as anybody from the battles this union fought against owners’ repeated attempts to get a salary cap,” said Clark a little more reasonably. “Now that he is attempting to become an owner himself his perspective appears to be different. And that perspective does not reflect the best interest of the players.”
Before you decide that A-Rod is unique in threatening to graduate from a player to a potentially odious owner (assuming J-Rod become the winning bidders for the Mets), hark back to some baseball history. It’s strewn with players who became snakes in the front office. Eddie Lopat (pitcher), Paul Richards (catcher), Ralph Houk (catcher), and Al Campanis (second baseman and, incidentally, eventual provocateur of Andy Messersmith’s successful reserve clause challenge) were just four such reptiles known to screw players on contracts and other things.
It also features Al Rosen. The power-hitting Cleveland Indians third baseman of the 1950s became a very generous general manager in the 1980s, having learned from the ever-spending Yankee owner George Steinbrenner. Rosen injected a steroid shot (no pun intended) into salary escalation when, running the San Francisco Giants in 1990-91, he signed decent but no great shakes pitcher Bud Black to the kind of deal you’d have expected the Orel Hershisers and Dwight Goodens of the time to sign first.
The same Al Rosen who lamented runaway salaries to reporters at the December 1990 winter meetings, saying, “For a hundred years we couldn’t find a way to destroy this game, but now I think we’ve found the key.” John Helyar (in The Lords of The Realm) wasn’t the only observer wondering whether Rosen’s listeners should laugh, cry, or drop a hood over him and a final cigarette between his lips before a firing squad.
Now, along come J-Rod. Seeking to own the team for whom A-Rod once wanted in the worst way possible to play, until he did or didn’t freeze himself out of the chance. Bear in mind, too, that power couples owning sports teams doesn’t always mean joy to the world, or at least their teams and fan bases. Just ask former Los Angeles Dodgers owners Frank and Jamie McCourt.
With Rodriguez speaking of salary caps after earning about half a billion uncapped balloons during his own playing career, Mets fans and observers may not be the only ones pondering whether they’ll have to laugh, cry, or bring in the firing squad. If not pondering whether A-Rod has some sort of peculiar revenge in mind.
Rodriguez the boyhood Mets rooter might care to know that there is a one-time Mets pitcher named Bill Denehy living in southern Florida. He’s the man the Mets traded to the second Washington Senators to obtain manager Gil Hodges. Injuries (and a grave misdiagnosis or two) shortened Denehy’s career to portions of three major league seasons with the Mets, the Senators, and the Detroit Tigers. Excessive cortisone injections likely contributed to Denehy’s near-total blindness today.
The affable Denehy (fair disclosure: we have become friends over the past year plus) is one of 600+ short-career former major league players who were left out of the 1980 player pension realignment that vested players for pensions after 43 days’ major league service time and for health benefits after one day’s time.
Since 2011, when then-Players Association leader Michael Weiner and then-commissioner Bud Selig hammered out one small adjustment, those players get $625 per quarter for every 43 days’ major league time, up to four years. It was a start Weiner didn’t live long enough to pursue further.
Denehy, former Rangers pitching phenom David Clyde, former Atlanta Braves pitcher Gary Niebauer, and former Chicago Cubs third baseman Carmen Fanzone, are just four of those players. They and dozens more such as them, all whose careers proved short for assorted reasons, also hit the hustings for the Players Association to get among other things the free agency that brought Rodriguez his un-capped millions.
J-Rod (and Clark, for that matter) might want to lend them even a small eye and ear about that.