Alex Rodriguez, the man who signed the richest contract in professional sports history, is synonymous with a number. That figure is bigger in every way than the one on the back of his Texas Rangers uniform. Now batting, number 252.... He wears it wherever he goes, even to a back booth of a mid-priced restaurant on a weekday afternoon in Port Charlotte, Fla., as he did four days before the start of the 2001 baseball season.
"Just wanted to tell you I think you're worth every penny!" gushed an admirer who intruded on Rodriguez's otherwise quiet lunch. The man, offering neither a greeting nor an apology to go with his allusion to Rodriguez's $252 million, 10-year contract, left as quickly as he had so rudely arrived. Rodriguez smiled politely and then brushed away the interruption, as if it were a speck of lint on his sleeve.
"If I told you that made me feel good, then every time somebody tells me I'm not worth it, it should bother me, right?" he said. "You can't have it both ways, so I don't take any of it to heart. This is the first time I've been singled out like this. It's as though I'm walking around with a sign around my neck that says 252. How will I react? I've never been in this position, so I can't tell you for sure. I think I'll be fine."
Rodriguez is this year's version of Ken Griffey Jr., his former Seattle Mariners teammate who spent last season in a petri dish after his trade to and signing with the Cincinnati Reds. However, Rodriguez's deal is worth $135.5 million more than the Reds guaranteed Griffey over nine years. " Griffey got a message to me over the winter telling me I was in for my most challenging year," Rodriguez said. "I think he's right. That's why I worked so hard over the winter. I turned down Leno and Letterman and lots of stuff. It's like how I approach big games or RBI situations. When the pressure's greatest, I go back to basics, to the fundamentals. I'm ready."
Adding to his personal challenge, Rodriguez signed with a franchise that hasn't won a postseason series in its 40 previous years (including its 11 seasons as the Washington Senators) and is coming off a 91-loss, last-place performance in which its pitching was the worst in baseball. Rangers owner Tom Hicks gave Rodriguez the $252 million to enhance the value of his club (which, Hicks says, Rodriguez already has) and to help make Texas "one of the elite franchises in the game."
The latter task officially began on Sunday in San Juan, where Major League Baseball's road tour to promote the game (and sell truckloads of T-shirts) brought the Rangers and the Toronto Blue Jays for Opening Day. The first time Rodriguez touched the ball at shortstop, he fired wildly to first base for an error. The second time he touched it, he slipped on the artificial turf and fell comically while trying to turn what should have been a double play. The fifth time he touched it, his spikes caught in his shoelaces and he fell face first while attempting to field a grounder, botching what should have been another out.
Rodriguez played shortstop as you expect Cosmo Kramer would. Depending on which side of the $252 million argument you sit—prudent long-term investment or apocalyptic lapse in sanity—unintended slapstick marked the start of what is either the A-Rod Era or the A-Rod Error. Los Vigilantes, looking hardly different from last season, made an ugly first impression, losing 8-1 to los Azulejos.
"You have to start somewhere," Rodriguez said after the game. He did stroke two groundball singles and scored Texas's lone run on first baseman Rafael Palmeiro's first-inning double. "[The first game] had a little of everything: error, slip, hit.... You just move on."
Mostly, the game had the feel of a homecoming celebration for Rangers catcher Ivan Rodriguez and Blue Jays first baseman Carlos Delgado, both immensely popular in their native Puerto Rico. Rodriguez worked so tirelessly at playing the homecoming king last Friday—visiting his elementary school, his Little League field and coach, and breaking ground on his planned $16 million baseball school—that he developed laryngitis. He smacked two home runs in an exhibition game on Saturday night and then admitted to being exhausted after an 0-for-4 showing on Sunday. "I felt it today a lot," he said. "Anyway, I had a great time with my people. If I had to, I'd do it all again."
With his trademark nonstop megawatt smile, Delgado seemed to power the entire island, whether he was enthralling the media with his bilingual feel-good interviews, donating money to help residents of the adjacent island of Vieques (who claim their health has been compromised by U.S. military bombing exercises), advancing Toronto's bid for the 2008 Olympics, staging a youth clinic with Ivan Rodriguez, hosting a team dinner or making several public appearances to sign autographs. "I've had so much fun," said Delgado on Sunday, before contributing a run-scoring single in four at bats. "It's all been great, but I guess one thing stands out: I had breakfast with my mother and father this morning before Opening Day. That's priceless."