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Ego Drives Alex Rodriguez's Pursuit of Greatness

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New York Yankees: Alex Rodriguez Should Give Fans a Break
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Alex Rodriguez of the New York Yankees.

COMMENTARY | I'm in the minority when it comes to my expectations for Alex Rodriguez when (not "if") he returns to the New York Yankees. I think he'll do alright. Seriously.

It's always been about ego for A-Rod -- the fancy cars, the supermodels, the Esquire magazine cover shoots. I don't think he'll battle back from hip surgery for the love of the New York fans but for the love of A-Rod, himself.

Rodriguez has always been out to make a name for himself.

Before his major league career even started at age 17, Rodriguez leveraged his negotiations with the Seattle Mariners, who had tapped him as the 1993 top draft pick, by not only signing a letter of intent with the University of Miami but also by telling reporters that he wanted to play football there. The Mariners didn't budge. Neither did A-Rod, who reportedly held out so he could get more than what Brien Taylor got from the Yankees two years earlier when New York selected Taylor first overall.

On the day Rodriguez was scheduled to start classes at Miami, thus making him ineligible to sign with a pro team until the following year, the two sides came together. Rodriguez eventually settled for a three-year, $1.3 million contract -- short of the $1.55 million that Taylor got. Deep down, that probably still burns him.

A few months after signing, Rodriguez tore through the minor leagues. That July, he was called up to the parent club.

When he was eligible for free agency, he wanted to be the highest-paid player in baseball, and he got that from the Texas Rangers, who (with the likely help of performance-enhancing drugs) created a monster when, in the winter of 2000, they signed Rodriguez to a 10-year, $252 million contract. At the time, Rodriguez was worth the money. Thing is, the Rangers weren't exactly drawing enough fans to Arlington to support the deal, leading to Rodriguez's "trade" to the Boston Red Sox.

Everything was set. Boston was preparing to send Manny Ramirez to Texas, and Rodriguez was ready to go to Boston. To make it happen, Rodriguez offered to knock off $12 million in salary costs in exchange for increased marketing and logo use rights, as well as an option to opt-out of the contract in 2005. Even then, A-Rod was preparing to cash in on chasing baseball immortality, a pursuit that would re-emerge years later. Alas, the players' union intervened and rejected the agreement, and A-Rod would soon be wearing a Yankees uniform.

To me, the defining moment of A-Rod's latest Yankees contract was how it began. During the final game of the 2007 World Series, in a move intended to steal part of the next morning's headlines from the history-making Boston Red Sox, Rodriguez's then-agent, Scott Boras, leaked the news that Rodriguez, who had 54 home runs and 156 RBIs for the Yankees that season, was opting out of his contract. The mid-game announcement caused such a stir, Major League Baseball later implemented a rule to prevent similar announcements during postseason play.

For months, Yankees officials had said that they were hoping to extend Rodriguez's contract and promised that, if A-Rod opted out, they would not pursue him as they'd lose $30 million in salary costs that the Rangers had agreed to cover as part of the 2004 trade that sent Rodriguez to New York for Alfonso Soriano.

The next day, as Rodriguez's formal announcement was in transit to the Bronx, Hank Steinbrenner maintained that the team would not attempt to re-sign their third baseman. "No chance. Not if it's made official," said Steinbrenner, who reiterated that the team wanted to extend Rodriguez's contract.

"We wanted him to stay a Yankee. We wanted to let him know how much we wanted him," Steinbrenner said. "The bottom line is ... do we really want anybody that really doesn't want to be a Yankee? How the heck can you do that?"

But Rodriguez was a shrewd negotiator and, where some saw him as handing the Steinbrenners a "Get Out of Jail Free" card, he was able to get the Steinbrenners to bid against themselves and offer an astonishing 10-year, $275 million deal that could reach as high as $305 million if Rodriguez breaks Barry Bonds' all-time home run record.

To me, that's what drives Rodriguez. He doesn't care about being a Yankee. He wants to be the best. That's why I'm not writing him off just yet. Yes, he'll be 38 in July and he's missed more than 100 games over the past two seasons, but I believe Rodriguez knows he still has a shot at being the best, and until that opportunity fades, I'm not counting him out.

Howard Z. Unger is a freelance journalist in Brooklyn, New York. For the past 15 years, he has written about sports, media, and popular culture. His work has appeared in The Village Voice, New York Post, and New York Times.

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