Our son was moonlighting as an assistant clubhouse man one summer in Peoria, Ill., where he went to college and worked for the Journal-Star. (He’s got lots of good stories about shagging flies when Jim Thome was visiting his home town, and chatting with Jimmy Piersall, the roving scout.)
One day the Appleton team bus arrived after a long haul from Wisconsin, and Dave was impressed that the young bonus baby sprang for pizza for the entire team. It was not hard to be impressed with Alex Rodriguez.
The Appleton hitting coach collected opposing ball caps, so Dave said he would trade one for an A-Rod ball. They walked into the visitors' clubhouse and the coach had A-Rod sign.
Dave still has it, on an official Midwest League ball – clearly from A-Rod’s first pro season. I emailed Dave the other day and said, the ball’s value has gone up.
* * *
Our older daughter, Laura Vecsey, became a sports columnist in Seattle as A-Rod arrived later in 1994, a slender kid with power. Nobody predicted 696 homers – but maybe 500? He couldn’t miss.
They got along, in a quirky kind of way, with A-Rod treating her like an older sister. He had mood swings, sometimes chatty, sometimes silent. When his contract was up, he insisted that his next move would not be predicated on money, but rather on comfort level, on loyalty, both ways.
When he signed with the Texas Rangers, Laura reflected the attitude of that lovely city that had fallen so hard for A-Rod. She gave him a new nickname - Pay-Rod. He did not much like that.
* * *
He could have led Seattle to the World Series but Texas was the wrong place for him. He jumped to the Yankees after three years, sticking a conversational shiv between the shoulders of his erstwhile pal, Derek Jeter. By this time, Laura and he were talking again.
“Dad,” she said, “he’s always asking what it was like to have a father in the same business. He doesn’t have a father. You ought to talk to him.”
She was talking about possible access to A-Rod – all journalists think like this – but she was also talking about a human being who, she felt, was trying to learn, to grow.
That spring in Yankee camp, I introduced myself to A-Rod, and we chatted for a while. Nobody is fooled about this dance, but I was always looking to write about the human side of players. When adults like Bob Watson and Curtis Granderson and Mark Teixeira came to the Yankees, I enjoyed learning about them.
In the early days of the first season, I was walking in the narrow corridors of the old Yankee Stadium, long before a game. A-Rod was walking toward me, nobody else around. I smiled, said hello. He never made eye contact. Just kept walking. Oh-kay. It was a small thing, but it told me he was in his world, I was in mine, and adult politeness was not part of the equation.
I never did see him open up in New York. Sometimes he pretended to open up, but he had too many secrets. His teammates seemed happy for him when he finally helped win a World Series in 2009, but I could not help noticing the disdain Derek Jeter let slip in spring training of 2009, when reporters came around to ask about A-Rod’s latest apology for drug usage.
“One thing that irritates me is that this was the steroid era,” Jeter said. “I don’t know how many people tested positive, but everybody wasn’t doing it.”
Jeter casually said he had been counseled by his parents as he was growing up.
“You’re educated,” he said, adding, “If you do some things, eventually the truth will come out.”
Jeter is not the type to let his feelings show. This time they did.
My feelings about Alex Rodriguez as he retires from the Yankees? I hope he will be all right.
David Vecsey's sweet tale of distant love before the Web, now NYT Podcast, narrated by Griffin Dunne. Please see:
George Vecsey is Hofstra University's Alumnus of the Month! Read a Q&A with George here.