It was a splendid April 1 in San Juan, sunny and warm. Major League Baseball had come to Puerto Rico for Opening Day of the 2001 season, hoping to expand its Latino fan base. One day earlier Texas Rangers owner Tom Hicks stood in his soaked swimsuit at a resort hotel and declared his team a lock to win the American League West. ESPN was onsite to broadcast the debut of Alex Rodriguez with his new club.
The atmosphere was electric. Crowds formed on the roads leading to the teams' hotel, hoping to get a glimpse of the players. As the buses of the Rangers and the Toronto Blue Jays were escorted by police through the city, pedestrians clapped and cheered. "You felt like the President was coming," recalls Alex Gonzalez, who had played youth ball with Rodriguez in Miami and would start at shortstop for Toronto that day. "It was overwhelming."
A-Rod was visibly nervous as he took grounders before the game. He misplaced his batting glove, talked a little too fast and chewed his gum a million times a minute. "I think he was feeling the pressure to come out and make a statement on Opening Day," says Gonzalez. "He was under the magnifying glass."
Before the game, writers referred to A-Rod, who had left the Seattle Mariners to sign a 10-year, $252 million contract with the Rangers, as Mr. Two-Fifty-Two. After the game they would call him something worse: a flop. He botched a throw for one error, slipped on the artificial turf to foil a double play and then tripped on his shoelaces fielding an infield hit. The Fort Worth Star-Telegram summed up his fiasco this way: "The $252 million man wasn't even the best shortstop on the field Sunday. That distinction, at least for the day, belonged to the Blue Jays' Alex Gonzalez."
Afterward there were parties for both teams back at the resort hotel. But Rodriguez was a no-show. He was in shock. On the Mariners, his first major league team, he had played in the shadow of Ken Griffey Jr., and he suddenly missed that cover. "Alex Rodriguez is not a leader," says the Rangers' former closer, Tim Crabtree. "[He's] in his own world. There's no question about his work ethic, but as far as looking for a guy to lead a ball club, that's not him. He had too many things going on, too many priorities in his life."
That "252" became an inescapable reproach to everything Alex did. "How much is A-Rod making per strikeout? Per hit? Per trip over shoelaces? Per sunflower seeds spit or not spit?" asked Los Angeles Times columnist Diane Pucin after Rodriguez struck out three times during the Rangers' home opener two days later.
A-Rod had his motivational guru, Jim Fannin, on speed dial. Fannin, a mental coach who had worked with Orel Hershiser, Randy Johnson and Alex's Seattle teammate Joey Cora, used visualization techniques to help athletes reach what Fannin called "the zone," a perfect state of mind for performance. "Pressure is good. Pressure is fun," Alex kept telling himself, but the heightened expectations made him pace around the clubhouse, grip his bat tighter and rush throws. In his first 10 games he had only 11 hits, two RBIs and no home runs.
"He felt it," says his former Rangers teammate Bill Haselman. "He had the mentality of somebody trying to hit a three-run homer with nobody on base."
Alex had always worked hard, but he worked even harder now. He would often be in the batting cage for an hour after games. He studied all the scouting reports and exhibited a voracious appetite for the nuances of the game. From his position at shortstop he stole the opposing team's signs to detect when a hit-and-run was on. He practiced throws from every conceivable position, right down to a bare-handed dive for the ball followed by a twist and throw from his knees. "I'm like, 'Wow, dude, why would you even practice that?'" recalls former Rangers teammate Mike Lamb. "And then, that night, the exact play happens. You watch stuff like that, and it ruins it for us mere mortals."
In the Rangers clubhouse Alex was in constant motion from the moment he arrived—at noon for a 7 p.m. game—until well after the last out. He'd sometimes watch game film till 3 a.m. One ex-Ranger says Alex was "the only player I ever knew who would turn up the volume on a game tape to hear what the commentators were saying about him. If they said he was great, he'd hit the rewind button to listen to it again."