Alex Rodriguez began brand building in 1993
There is plenty of evidence to support Alex Rodriguez's oft-repeated claim of his love of baseball, and of his physical commitment to play the game at its highest level.
Not so convincing, though, have been his regular assertions of team-first priorities. Right from the start -- long before his 2001 declaration that Derek Jeter never had to be a team leader, long before his 2009 admission of doping, long before his handlers demanded during failed negotiations with the Mets that Rodriguez be provided a private jet, special hotel suite on the road and personal marketing staff -- Rodriguez gave a glimpse into an emphasis on monetizing his brand.
On his 18th birthday -- July 27, 1993 -- Rodriguez appeared at a small news briefing in San Antonio, Texas, to explain, essentially, that it was not in his best business interest to play for the U.S. national team.
At the time, baseball had just completed its first cycle as a full-medal Olympic sport (it would lose its Olympic status after 2008), and the Americans, who had a simmering rivalry with the Cubans, were beginning to assemble a talent pool for the upcoming 1996 Atlanta Games.
That Rodriguez still would have been Olympic-eligible three years later is doubtful. Fresh from hitting .505 in his senior year of high school, he had just been drafted No. 1 overall by the Seattle Mariners, with the unlikely option of playing college ball for the University of Miami.
Meanwhile, though, he spent 11 days as the starting shortstop for the U.S. team during its training camp in Millington, Tenn., with a fairly high-profile exhibition against the Cubans scheduled for July 28 in Wichita, Kan.
But in order for American baseball officials to finalize their roster before a series of international games, there was a minor marketing agreement that required their 23 players to sign a "likeness" waiver. The waiver simply allowed Topps to use each player's picture in its 1993 Team USA card series.
As part of the USA-Topps agreement, players were entitled to small residuals. Twenty-two of the 23 signed. Rodriguez declined, citing advice from his mother, sister and agent Scott Boras.
So Team USA reluctantly released Rodriguez, sending him to a grassroots competition in San Antonio as part of the since-discontinued U.S. Olympic Festival. There, Rodriguez argued that a successful major-league career would add tremendous value to his original baseball card, and he should be entitled to a significant piece of that pie.
"It was really tough leaving that clubhouse," Rodriguez said of his USA teammates at the time. "But my mom said, 'You've got to be treated fairly.' "
That 1993 card "could be worth a half-million, maybe a million dollars," he said then.
USA baseball officials were taken aback, insisting that they were not trying to take advantage of anybody and wanted to retain a good working relationship with Topps and other marketing partners. (That baseball card certainly would not reach Rodriguez's expectations in today's market. Since May, only a few highly graded limited-edition A-Rod Upper Deck rookie cards have sold on eBay for more than $500, and none above $1,000.)
Clearly, Rodriguez was entitled to protect his financial interests. At the time, he already had a Lloyd's of London insurance policy worth nearly $1 million.
But in hindsight, the incident seems to foretell how Rodriguez soon would read a statement calling the Mariners "low class" during his first contract negotiations, and how he repeatedly would hold himself above teammates and associates in cultivating fame and riches. There is plenty of evidence to support an all-about-me cynicism. And that the full Rodriguez legacy has been authored by himself.