All these years later, the salary still looms over the game, a contract so out of step from all others that when Texas Rangers owner Tom Hicks lavished the $252 million on his new shortstop Alex Rodriguez in the winter before the 2001 season, it turned out to be $2 million more than he paid for the team. Rodriguez has now changed teams, moved positions and even as he further solidified his credentials as the game's best player by winning his second most valuable player award in three years yesterday, it is the contract that continues to define him.
He came to the phone in his Miami home and straight into another set of questions about the contract that won't go away.
As in does he finally think he has justified so much money?
"I think the book is still in the middle," he said on a conference call yesterday. "Everyone will decide who I am when I'm 40 years old. The contract is something I am very proud of, so it doesn't bother me. It's the product of my hard work."
The MVP award Rodriguez received yesterday was one of the most hotly debated in recent memory. Though the Yankees slugger hit .321 with 48 home runs, had 130 RBI, played all 162 games and made just 12 errors at third base -- one of the most difficult positions to master -- there were many who thought he didn't deserve the award. At least not compared to Boston designated hitter David Ortiz, who hit for a lower average (.300) and hit 47 home runs, but had 148 RBI and was considered the better clutch hitter with 34 RBI that put his team ahead in games, 21 of which were his team's game-winning hit.
Still, it seems Rodriguez got credit for fielding his position almost flawlessly, while Ortiz was punished somewhat for not having a position. The only designated hitter to win an MVP was California's Don Baylor in 1979. Always careful to be diplomatic, Rodriguez gently danced around the issue of position player vs. designated hitter, saying "how many runs is this guy saving with each day as opposed to a DH?" This could be interpreted as a gentle suggestion that he saved many while Ortiz saved none.
For such a contested award, the voting wasn't all that close. Rodriguez had 16 of the 28 first-place votes, Ortiz had 11 and Angels outfielder Vladimir Guerrero had one. Rodriguez won in overall points, 331 to 307. He is one of four players to win MVPs at two positions -- his first award was as a shortstop -- and also is one of four to have won the award for two different teams. His 2003 award came before his trade to New York.
It probably should have been his third award for three different teams. In 1996, his first full season with the Seattle Mariners, Rodriguez seemed a certain selection with a .358 batting average and 36 home runs, but two Seattle writers voted Ken Griffey Jr. first that year and another writer voted him seventh. This was enough to cost Rodriguez and give the honor to the Rangers' Juan Gonzalez.
But as the MVP awards pile up, the World Series rings do not. Rodriguez was criticized heavily in New York for hitting just .133 without an RBI in a playoff loss to the Angels this year. He forced the trade from Texas in part because it did not seem the Rangers were close to winning a World Series and when pressed about the subject yesterday, he said he would gladly swap his newest award with Ortiz for the world championship the Red Sox won last year.
Instead there was more talk about his millions and in a brief moment of frustration he said: "We can win three World Series and with me [the criticism] will never be over. Maybe when I retire is when all the criticism will end."