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Flashback Friday: Young Alex Rodriguez (1994)

November 15, 2013

In 1994, Alex Rodriguez was in his first year as a professional. He started his pro career as the starting shortstop of the Appleton Foxes.

About a month into his career, Rodriguez was the subject of a large article that appeared in the May 8 edition of The Post-Crescent. Jim Olski is the writer.

The main attraction
On and off the field Rodriguez gets attention
The Foxes shortstop has to deal with business as well as learning the game

The Appleton Foxes are taking batting practice during a chilly, overcast afternoon at Goodland Field. 

Alex Rodriguez is at shortstop when a sharply hit ball glances off the top of his glove and bounces into left field.

The error delights coaches Delwyn Young and Juan Eichelberger.

"Hey, Bootsie!" Young yells.

"We got him that time!" Eichelberger adds, standing on the mound.

Rodriguez grins.

Whatever complications he finds off the field, baseball is still just a game. A game he enjoys.

"I think I am still a kid and that's what makes it fun for me," Rodriguez said. "Baseball's just coming out and having a good time for three hours and at the same time having a chance to entertain people."

But the three hours open to public view are only part of the picture of Rodriguez's life.

He just plain stands out.

The Seattle Mariners assigned the 18-year-old Rodriguez to the Class A Foxes in his first full pro season for several reasons, according to Jim Beattie, the Mariners' director of player development.

One of the, Beattie said, is that "Appleton is a nice, cozy town. It's easy to get around. We think he will find it comfortable there."


In other words, quiet, slow, out of the limelight.

But trying to tuck the top pick in the 1993 June free-agent draft away - in Appleton or anywhere else - is like a circus keeping the elephant in a field down the road. Everybody still knows it's there.

Foxes general manager Frank Gahl said he's never seen a player at this level draw as much interest as Rodriguez has.

"If you go in and look at the top of his locker, it's almost stuffed full of requests for autographs," Gahl said. "A lot of kids just send in pieces of paper with return envelopes."

Gahl's staff is too small to deal with the requests for endorsements, promotional appearances and autographs, so he has to pass them on to Rodriguez.

"If they call, we've had people who have said, 'I'll buy a hat if you get him to sign it and send it back,'" Gahl said. "We don't really want to get into the autograph thing. We just say, 'Send your request. Write in. Write directly to Alex.'"

Rodriguez attracted national attention last summer when he went through a tough contract negotiation that ultimately earned him a three-year, $1.3 million deal, including a $1 million bonus.

It was a rude introduction to the business side of baseball, but Rodriguez seems determined to learn more about it.

"Everything in life includes business, unfortunately, but it's not as bad as people think," Rodriguez said. "It gets blown out of proportion."

The business complications didn't end there, though.

When he signed with the Mariners, Rodriguez hadn't officially hired agent Scott Boras yet. That way, Rodriguez could keep his college eligibility in case he wanted to turn down Seattle's offer and play for the University of Miami instead.

Consequently, last October, the Major League Baseball Players Association filed a grievance on Rodriguez's behalf, arguing that the Mariners "negotiated directly with a non-certified agent."

According to Beattie, both sides have agreed to postpone the grievance hearing indefinitely.

In another instance, even the simplest promotion becomes complicated.

Gahl wanted to print up 1,000 Rodriguez posters for a giveaway night.

"Basically, we can promote the heck out of him," Gahl said. "We were going to do that but Alex had gotten some bad information and he was like, 'Well, how much are you going to pay me for this?'"

So Gahl called the National Association and got a copy of the Minor League Uniform Player Contract.

"(The contract) says if he wears the Foxes' (uniform), we're entitled to his image," Gahl said. "That's part of the agreement that he signed."

Rather than railroad his position through, Gahl - who knew the nature of the misunderstanding - gave Rodriguez time to talk the matter over with Boras.

Then, Rodriguez wanted to do the poster - especially after seeing a similar one Ken Griffey Jr. did while at Class A San Bernardino - but Boras didn't want any sponsor's logo to appear [on] it.

According to Gahl, Boras says Rodriguez's major league contract supercedes the Minor League Uniform Player Contract. The National Association has its lawyers checking it out and tells Gahl to proceed cautiously. 

The matter will probably be hammered out before Rodriguez moves up - and out of Appleton.

In the meantime, the Fox Valley will have to be content with Rodriguez's image going out over the airwaves. By far, more television crews have shown up at Goodland Field this season than any other.

But Rodriguez is used to the attention.

"It has been happening for the last two or three years with all the hype coming out of high school," he said. "It hasn't bothered me any."

In fact, he says the media attention in the Midwest League hasn't been as intense as last year, when he hit .505 as a senior at Westminster Christian in Miami.

Outside of Appleton, he gets even less notice.

According to Foxes radio announcer Tim McCord, the press about Rodriguez on the road has generally included a newspaper feature but no television coverage.

That's too bad for the TV people, because Rodriguez, who plans to major in communications at Miami in the off-season, is a natural in front of the camera.

It brings out all his best qualities - he's thoughtful, gracious, even funny in a slightly self-deprecating way.

"For Alex, it doesn't matter how much money he has," teammate Brian Wallace said. "When he gets on the field, he's just another guy on the team. He doesn't act any differently."

For example, Rodriguez recently won a game for the Foxes with home runs in the seventh and eighth innings and , in the next game, homered in the eighth and 11th to tie the score both times.

Afterwards, he was willing to talk about his home runs, briefly and in a bit of a detached manner, but his face brightened when he was asked to translate for Giomar Guevara, and he eagerly helped the second baseman explain his role in the second victory.

Glimpses of what Rodriguez can do on the field have surfaced more and more. After finishing April hitting .288 with one home run and eight RBI, the 6-foot-3, 190-pound shortstop was among the league leaders through Friday with a .346 average, six home runs, and 23 RBI.

"He knows what he can do and what pitches he can handle right now," said Ken Griffey Sr., a roving hitting instructor for the Mariners. "So that's the important thing for him, just really getting his feet planted firmly on the ground. He's not big-leagueing anybody. I see he works just as hard as everyone else."

Though, occasionally, Rodriguez's great ability can stand in the way of consistency.

"He's such a good athlete that, sometimes, he can get away with certain things," Foxes manager Carlos Lezcano said. "His feet got a little lazy there at times. He was catching the ball flat-footed and letting it play him a little bit."

Beattie, the man who will chart Rodriguez's path through the minor leagues, maintains a realistic view of his phenom's development. He has said Rodriguez might stay in Appleton half the season, or longer.

"For an 18-year-old kid who's never played professional baseball before, it's a big challenge," Beattie said. "Baseball is a game of consistency, being able to do it over the course of five months, not a couple of weeks."

The challenge for Rodriguez is to find that consistency and control in all aspects of his sport.

There's baseball, the business; and baseball; the game; and for now Rodriguez has been able to keep the two separate. And maybe there's a good reason for that.

Although business doesn't have the luxury of practices to make errors in, and could be expected to be taken more seriously, it doesn't encroach onto the field because for Rodriguez the game simply comes first.

"If I wasn't even getting paid, I'll still get out there after my nine-to-five job and be in a 35-and-under league or whatever," Rodriguez said. "Because I really love the game and love competition."

Past Flashbacks:

Second Half Preview (1966)

How the Foxes Got Their Name (1958)

McKeon named Foxes Manager (1958)

Down to the Wire (1969)

First Half Playoff Game (1969)

Foxes win the Pennant (1969)

Rattlers v. Mariners HR Derby (1996)