Looking Back at Alex Rodriguez, the Young Seattle Mariner: 1993 Through 1995
I recently looked through the news archives for information about Alex Rodriguezâ€™s introduction to Seattle as a 1993 draftee from Miami, then as a minor leaguer, a rookie in 1994, and a backup in 1995, to see what foreshadowings of his future controversies and successes were present when he was still a teenager. Rodriguezâ€™s seasonal return to Seattle has been accompanied by heavy booing for over a decade now, as heâ€™s steadily accumulated greater and greater statistical totals in Texas and New York City and been a constant source of drama and dispute over his personality and his merits as a ballplayer.
This article attempts to explore the roots of Rodriguezâ€™s lightning rod status by looking at the early indications of both his talent and his personality, from the time he was drafted up through the 1995 season. Editorializing will be kept to a minimum.
The 1993 Draft
Rodriguez was chosen national high school baseball player of the year for 1993 by Scholastic Coach magazine as he was drafted by the Mariners that June. His Westminster Christian High School coach, Rich Hofman, said: â€œHeâ€™s got the five attributes you look for in a ballplayer and can do all of them above average. Combine that with his work ethic and determination to succeed and that translates into the best player in America.â€ Rodriguez hadnâ€™t just dominated the local baseball teams while at Westminster Christian; he also quarterbacked the schoolâ€™s team and nearly won the Florida football championship.
Rodriguezâ€™s public response to getting drafted was, â€œIâ€™ll be relieved when itâ€™s over and I take the next step in my career.â€ But an hour before getting drafted, heâ€™d called up Roger Jongewaard, Mariners VP for scouting and player development, to say, â€œI donâ€™t want you to draft me.â€
Instead, Rodriguez hoped to be picked second, by the Dodgers: if he was going to move from Florida to the West Coast, he preferred the National League and a big market team to moving to Seattle. Heâ€™d delivered a sign, even before he began playing professional ball, that he was too savvy for his own good. Already he was planning the calculated, image and money-driven strategies that were only going to alienate him from fans in Seattle and elsewhere.
Rodriguez had signed a letter of intent to play baseball at the University of Miami in fall 1993, which he claimed was a real possibility. He said: â€œMoney is not everything, just being treated fairly. A UM scholarship can last you for the next 60 years.â€
In late August of â€˜93 Rodriguez threatened to enroll at Miami imminently if his non-negotiable contract demands werenâ€™t met. That didnâ€™t happen, and Rodriguez, after also threatening to become a free agent, signed a $1.3 million deal with Seattle. Still, heâ€™d created an impression that he cared about money and the terms of the deal almost as much as he did about just playing and getting up to the major leagues. In fact, the contract included a clause requiring him to get called up to Seattle by the end of the 1994 season.
Rodriguez in the Minors
A Seattle Times profile of Rodriguez in Appleton, Wisconsin, playing for the Marinersâ€™ A affiliate in the spring of 1994, emphasized how evident his talent was, how clear it was that heâ€™d be on his way up to higher levels very soon. Matt Raleigh, the third baseman for a Midwest League team in Burlington, Iowa, said: â€œHis body is perfect for a baseball player. You donâ€™t even have to know what position he plays. Heâ€™s like a league above everyone else. Someday I can say I played against him.â€
James Clifford, the first baseman for Appleton, said: â€œWhat Iâ€™ve seen Alex do in a half year, since the (fall) Instructional League, is even more amazing. His confidence really came out. You see why he was taken when he was taken. Heâ€™s truly a blessed athlete.â€
Itâ€™s not exactly a revelation that Rodriguez was much better than his temporary cohorts in A ball, but it was interesting to find out that his first professional homer came against the Springfield, Illinois Sultans, a Padres farm team, in his first week with Appleton. The homer was estimated at 440 feet, and Rodriguez watched it go before taking his time circling the bases.
The Springfield manager, Ed Romero, responded by telling his pitcher to hit Rodriguez in the next game. When the Springfield pitcher got ejected, his teammates made a line of high-fives for him coming back to the dugout. Brian Doughty, a Rodriguez teammate, said: â€œThey all want a piece of him. Theyâ€™re jealous. If anyone else had done that, no one would say anything.â€ Whether or not Doughty was right, Rodriguez had already set himself apart from his peers.
And not just his baseball peers. He explained: â€œItâ€™s weird to be a professional. Iâ€™ll call my buddies on a Friday night after a game and ask how theyâ€™re doing. They say, â€˜Hey, weâ€™re at this party and just drinking beer. Weâ€™re going to go mailboxing or throwing eggs.â€™ Thatâ€™s when I knew I was a professional. If I threw an egg, the minor leagues would be over for me.â€
Rodriguez continued: â€œAt least once every town, girls are coming up to my room, knocking on the door, asking for autographs. All the other guys are saying, â€˜Send them to my room.â€™ Thatâ€™s not what gets me happy. Itâ€™s living a decent life, and playing my best.
â€œYou have to watch who youâ€™re hanging out with. You have to watch what youâ€™re doing at all times. I donâ€™t need a way to get into trouble.â€
He said of Appleton: â€œI really feel, without playing a day in the big leagues yet, Iâ€™m going to have most of my fun down here. Here is where itâ€™s at, the jokes, the fun. Iâ€™ll never forget Appleton.â€
In late May, Jim Beattie, the Mariners player-development director, said about the teamâ€™s plans for Rodriguez: â€œThis is not the year he needs to rush. Weâ€™re very happy with him at Appleton. He feels good about himself, he feels he belongs, heâ€™s challenged and heâ€™s playing on a winning team.
â€œHe has had a good month (hitting .455, or 20 of 44, with 10 home runs and 25 RBIs, from May 2 through May 13 alone), but we want to see what he does over five or six months. Weâ€™re not going to help him by rushing him to the big leagues this year. If heâ€™s going good at this time next year, then maybe we can rush him.â€
Despite Beattieâ€™s words, Rodriguez made his major league debut in 1994, not 1995.
The Big League Debut, and 1995
Rodriguez had hit the ball pretty well in the minors, but in 65 games for Appleton, he committed 19 errors. He had three more in 17 games for Jacksonville, in AA. Still, Mariners manager Lou Piniella blew up on July 4th, 1994, after seeing his infield commit three errors in a 9-3 loss to the Orioles. Heâ€™d been asking for Rodriguez for a month, and after the three-error game he finally got him.
Communicating the news of Rodriguezâ€™s call-up, Piniella said: â€œIâ€™ll have a nice little chat with him, and weâ€™ll give him a day to acclimate. On Friday, heâ€™ll be our shortstop.â€ And: â€œMaybe heâ€™s the spark we need. Weâ€™ve been misfiring in a couple of areas, and defense has been one of them.â€
Rodriguezâ€™s debut was at Fenway on July 8, 1994, in a 4-3 loss that featured an unassisted triple play by shortstop John Valentin in the sixth inning, who caught a liner from Marc Newfield on a hit-and-run, stepped on second to put Mike Blowers out, and tagged Keith (not Kevin) Mitchell coming from first. The Red Sox hit three homers in the bottom of that sixth inning, all of them into the net over the Green Monster (including one by Valentin), for their first three-homer inning in a decade.
Rodriguezâ€™s first chance came in the fifth inning on a grounder by Scott Fletcher that he flipped to Felix Fermin at second to start a double pay. Rodriguez followed that by scooping up a Tim Naehring grounder in the hole and making a strong throw to Mike Blowers at first to end the inning.
Batting ninth for surely one of the very few times in his career at any level, Rodriguez went an uneventful 0-3 against Chris Nabholz: two grounders sandwiched around a fly ball to center. Other names from the past playing at Fenway that day included Rich Gossage, Dave Fleming, Andre Dawson, and Tom Brunansky. At a glance, it seems like one of the most compelling games of the ’94 MLB season.
Rodriguez didnâ€™t start his big league career off with memorable quotes: â€œIt was a good game. It was a great game, except that we lost. I had fun, but Iâ€™m glad to get the first one over with.â€ Talking about Valentin: â€œIâ€™d like to have a game like that someday. Heâ€™s a good player.â€ And: â€œIâ€™ll never forget it. I loved everything but the score (again: Red Sox 4, Mariners 3).â€
Heâ€™d get his first hit the next day in a win, and his first steal too, but his first homer had to wait until 1995. Meanwhile, in February 1995, when the strike was still going on, Jose Canseco, a South Floridian like Rodriguez, gave a quote in which you canâ€™t help put intimate certain things about using steroids, and predicted: â€œWeâ€™re good friends. We work out together. I try to educate him about major-league baseball. He is a great athlete. I see a future superstar. Heâ€™s one of the most talented players Iâ€™ve seen in 10 years. He could hit 30 home runs and steal 30 bases every year.â€
In 1995, Rodriguez bounced up and down between AAA Tacoma (where he dominated) and Seattle (where he struggled), alternating with Luis Sojo and terribly weak-hitting Felix Fermin at shortstop before landing on the postseason roster as a backup. He was on deck when Edgar Martinez hit his double to give the Mariners the ALDS win over the Yankees, and he (famously, at least in Seattle) comforted a crying Joey Cora when the Mariners exited the postseason by losing game 6 of the ALCS to Cleveland at the Kingdome. By 1996, Rodriguez was ready to emerge as a superstar.