When a fellow stands on the edge of history, it is only natural to study what he did to get there. In the case of Alex Rodriguez, who last night was again shooting for his 600th home run, it is a chance to figure what he didn’t do, too.
Ten years ago, that had looked like something between a strong possibility and a cinch. Back then, he was the most prized free agent in the big leagues since Mike Piazza, whom the Mets had re-signed. The Mets were somewhat accomplished yet still hungry — coming off a climactic loss to the Yankees in Game 5 of the World Series, which Rodriguez attended.
That night, hours before he officially became a free agent, he told reporters about his plans, “To be honest with you guys, I have no idea.” We just didn’t believe him. We knew he was born in New York and never shook that fact out of his bones. We heard him tell people that he was a big Mets fan when he was growing up in Miami.
This particular observer could report on conversations with him in the Mariners clubhouse in 1998. This reporter was there to do a story on a home run chase — not one involving Rodriguez, who had just turned 23, but teammate Ken Griffey Jr.’s pursuit of a record 61 home runs. At about that time, Jon Heyman had reported in Newsday that the Mets were interested in Rodriguez. All that this reporter can tell you about conversations back then is that Rodriguez was really, really excited about it.
But when the chance arrived, talks never got as far as the four balls Rodriguez hit over the centerfield fence during batting practice at Progressive Field last night. At the time, the Mets said they couldn’t abide the demands for perks (a personal merchandise pavilion, a private public relations staff). His agent charged that the Mets just didn’t want to pay the $252 million that the Rangers ultimately paid.
Given the current vantage point, more than 400 home runs later, the whole thing sure does make you think.
Would A-Rod have been just enough to push the Mets over the top? Would he have been a beloved New York institution instead of being just the generally respected celebrity he now is?
Would he have come anywhere near 600 home runs if he had played eight seasons at Shea Stadium? Would he have even stayed with the Mets that long?
What would have become of either Jose Reyes or David Wright or both, if Rodriguez had been the Mets’ shortstop or later their third baseman? Don’t you think the dimensions of Citi Field would have looked a whole lot different (i.e., much less of a pitcher’s park) if the Mets had a candidate to become the all-time home run king?
What haymaker signings might George Steinbrenner have made if the sport’s No. 1 star were across town?
What would Mets games look like now if Rodriguez were chasing history in one of their many uniforms?
Those all are unanswerable questions, but sure fun to think about as he keeps swinging for 600. Last night, excitement and camera flashes filled the park as he hit a single in the first inning, popped to second in the second, struck out in the third and hit a double in the sixth.
As it stands, things have worked out for Rodriguez. He has a World Series ring and a shot at breaking Barry Bonds’ home run record. He dates actresses, and is on such a star-filled team that he can fade into the plush clubhouse woodwork when he feels like it — and he feels like it every day, except for a few minutes after a game. He muted the steroids storm by a public apology. And he does make a big difference on his team.
The Yankees looked immensely different after he came back from hip surgery last year, going 90-44 with him after having started 13-15 without him. He is a New York fixture, 10 years later and across the bridge.