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It wasn't just physical. For baseball men, the kid was Christmas in July. Rodriguez's first manager, Carlos Lezcano, had him for 65 games in Class A Appleton in 1994, and he's never seen anyone translate instruction to action faster. Raised after the age of 10 by a single mom, Lourdes Navarro, Rodriguez carried himself with more maturity than players five years his senior. "At one point he was getting to the ballpark, not late, but cutting it close, and I said, 'You want to be a professional, you want to get here on time—and your mother's coming. I'm going to call your mother,' " Lezcano said. "He was never even close to being late again."
Narron, his Rangers manager in 2001 and '02, has rarely seen a player so prepared than the shortstop who stayed late game after game to talk baseball—history, strategy, team-building—and came earlier and worked harder than anyone. The Rangers didn't win much, but one afternoon in Anaheim, A-Rod insisted on drills that called for him to lay his body out in a dive and throw to first off one knee; that night he pegged a runner on the exact play. "He came to the park every day," Narron says, "like he was the 25th guy trying to make the ball club."
And then there was the last hot day of the 2002 season, Rodriguez hitting .300 exactly, and Barry Zito in his prime on the mound. Narron gave him the choice to take the day off, making out two lineup cards: one with Alex Rodriguez batting third and playing shortstop; one without. It was a test of sorts, a way to see if he'd follow old-line baseball code, and Rodriguez refused to back in. "I'm playing," he said.
It might be his favorite story about himself. That Rodriguez told it in Moosic, unprompted, raised all the old hackles; great ones aren't supposed to point out their own heroics. "He said, 'Man, I'm so f-----' proud of you,' " Rodriguez said of Narron. "He gave me a big old hug and kiss." Then came his Ted Williams moment, and Rodriguez can recount every detail: He went 0 for 3 to start. Down to .298 and an 0-and-2 count in his final at bat of the year against fireballing reliever Billy Koch, he lashed a two-RBI double to center and finished the season at .300.
"I'm a baseball player," he said. "They tell me to play, and I play."
That he can still say this without irony is his problem and ours, too, at least until Rodriguez is gone for good. Because seven years after his shot off Koch he admitted that he had been juicing during that 2002 season, heroic end and all, taking injections of the testosterone and the anabolic steroid Primobolan. Even now, he doesn't get that all the home runs, the timely hits, the whole career can't matter if the means bring shame.
Asked, last week, if he understood Cashman's famously profane rip, Rodriguez shot back, "Do you understand it?"
Yes. Because Cashman knows: Rodriguez's gift, his unprecedented completeness, was never really his; it's called a gift for a reason. Sports is a collective of time as well as talent. Six generations of baseball players and fans, billions of dollars worth of stadia and TV time, an infinity of minor and major leaguers working for untold lifetimes—all of it combined to create the game, the numbers, the interest and hothouse environment in which Alex Rodriguez was going to be the best.
People care so much about sports greatness because, deep down, they know that it's a reflection; something there belongs to them. We gave Rodriguez his chance. We urged him not to waste it. Cashman knows, better than anyone: We hate when we make so big a mistake.