April 24, 2009
The New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox renew their rivalry this weekend without Alex Rodriguez, who is rehabbing from hip surgery at the Yankees' training facility in Tampa, injury merely the latest twist in his tortured saga in pinstripes. But what if A-Rod had never become a Yankee and ended up in Boston instead? History might be telling this story.
BOSTON – Take the word of Johnny Pesky, who turns 90 in September. There has never been a ballplayer who owned the town the way this guy does.
"You can talk about Ted, Yaz, Tony C., The Rocket, Mo, Pedro, Nomar, Big Papi … name 'em all,'' Pesky said, rolling a fungo bat in his hands and spraying tobacco juice for emphasis. "This kid, he's beyond special. I'll tell you who I think of when I see the way people have fallen for this kid. John Kennedy. And I don't mean the utility shortstop.''
Arrivals at Boston's Logan Airport hear Alex Rodriguez's voice welcoming them as they walk through the terminals. His face is everywhere: on Dunkin' Donuts ads chugging Coolatas with David Ortiz, on A-Rod for ALS billboards with Curt Schilling, on A's-for-A-Rod posters in schools throughout the commonwealth. He performed The Night Before Christmas with the Boston Pops, dropped the puck at a Bruins' game and took a turn on stage with guitar-playing Theo Epstein at Peter Gammons' charity concert.
New England Little Leaguers wear their stirrups to the knees, just like A-Rod. Fans on the Green Monster keep a running tally of his home runs, holding up the numbers every time a ball soars onto Lansdowne Street. The diners at Davio's stand and applaud when A-Rod and his wife Cynthia, who has numerous relatives in town, walk into the restaurant. Waiters sidle up for an autograph.
Face of the franchise? Three World Series titles in five years, and Boston mayor Tom Menino is already floating a proposal to rename Storrow Drive after A-Rod.
Life for the Boston Red Sox has not been the same since Epstein pulled off what even old-time wheeler-dealer Trader Jack McKeon called the greatest off-season a general manager has ever had. The 2003 season had just ended in another Red Sox disappointment. Bold action was necessary.
It started with the Thanksgiving Day Special, when Epstein and sidekick Jed Hoyer went to dinner at Schilling's house, a tin of cookies from Starbucks in hand. Even though Schilling periodically excused himself to take phone calls from Yankee GM Brian Cashman, Epstein convinced him that he could make history in Boston.
Next came the free-agent signing of closer Keith Foulke, a deal consummated over a hockey game and more beers than anyone cared to remember the next day.
And then came the 24 hours that shocked the baseball world: Epstein secretly slipping away from the winter meetings in New Orleans for a hush-hush meeting at the Four Seasons in New York with Rodriguez, who at 1:30 a.m. answered the door of his suite impeccably dressed in a suit, his hair freshly moussed. Before dawn Rodriguez agreed, in exchange for a couple of player options inserted in his contract, to give up millions to escape the purgatory of the Texas Rangers. Rodriguez even pledged to send some under-the-table money back to Rangers owner Tom Hicks to make the deal work.
That morning, after some hard bargaining, players' union lawyer Gene Orza signed off on the deal, and a day later at a hastily called press conference in the .406 club at Fenway Park, Epstein announced that the club had acquired Rodriguez for outfielder Manny Ramirez, who had worn out the club with his trade demands, and a left-handed pitching prospect named Jon Lester.
Then Epstein leaned into the microphone to announce the second part of his bombshell: Nomar Garciaparra, the incumbent shortstop who had interrupted his honeymoon to call a Boston sports-talk show and complain about the A-Rod rumors, had been traded to the White Sox for outfielder Magglio Ordonez and a pitching prospect Brandon McCarthy.
A-Rod was fretting about how Nomar would handle him being on the same team until Epstein told him about the trade for Ordonez. A-Rod's eyes got as big as silver dollars. Ordonez was one of his best friends. "You don't understand,'' he'd told Epstein. "Magglio and I are tight. We work out all winter together. I taught him how to hit.''
Before Epstein had left New Orleans, he'd knocked on the door of Terry Francona, the manager he'd just hired after the debacle of the 2003 ALCS. Francona had already gone to bed.
Epstein told him about the pending trades for A-Rod and Ordonez.
Francona leaped on the bed. In his pajamas, bad knees and all, he broke into an impromptu dance.
There was never any question that A-Rod would fit in with the Red Sox. Not after the first day of spring training, when Millar, wearing A-Rod's uniform jersey and with a sock stuffed in his protective cup, pantomimed A-Rod's home run swing, then stuck a cream pie in his face. "You're with the idiots now,'' Millar said.
The tension of Garciaparra brooding at his locker over his contract, or the uncertainty of whether Manny would feel like playing on a given day, was gone. A-Rod basked in the attention, but surrounded by outsized personalities like Ortiz and Damon, Pedro Martinez and Schilling, there was plenty to go around. Ortiz was like a big brother, Millar the constant needler. And when A-Rod approached Schilling about working together on the charity dear to the pitcher's heart, Schill was won over.
The Yankees, blindsided by the season-ending knee injury third baseman Aaron Boone suffered while playing basketball in his driveway, never recovered. The Red Sox, their offense scoring over 1,000 runs, won the division going away, then ran the table in the postseason, winning their first World Series in 86 years. A-Rod was named MVP. Yankee owner George Steinbrenner, appalled that his team had missed out on both Schilling and A-Rod, fired GM Brian Cashman, who could have had Schilling but didn't want to trade Nick Johnson.
Epstein would turn over the roster – Pedro would go, and Damon, Millar and Billy Mueller, and eventually Schilling would retire, but the middle of the lineup remained the same – A-Rod, Ortiz and Magglio. In 2007, A-Rod willingly volunteered to move to third base to make room for Boston's top prospect, shortstop Hanley Ramirez, who tagged along after A-Rod everywhere he went. "This kid will be as good as me,'' A-Rod boasted of his protégé.
It came as a shock this spring when Selena Roberts reported that A-Rod had used steroids while in Texas, but after the press conference in which A-Rod tearfully spoke of how sorry he was and vowed that for every home run he would hit, he would make a donation to the Taylor Hooton fund, Red Sox fans gave him a standing ovation on opening day.
A month before he'd been traded to Boston, A-Rod had run into Bud Selig at Sammy Sosa's birthday party in the Dominican Republic, and had told the commissioner that it was his dream to play for the Red Sox.
Now, on the eve of this weekend's series with the Yankees, Rodriguez said his expectations had been exceeded.
"I've never been happier,'' he said.
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FACT OR FANTASY--THE A-ROD QUIZ
Any good fantasy contains elements of truth. We invite you to take the following true-false quiz about our A-Rod-with-the Red Sox story.
Johnny Pesky compared A-Rod to John F. Kennedy.
False. Pesky's favorite ballplayer remains Ted Williams, though he was very fond of Nomar Garciaparra when he was here.
Cynthia Rodriguez, A-Rod's ex-wife, had many relatives in the Boston area.
True. Cynthia once estimated that between her grandmother and grandfather on her mother's side of the family, she must have 200 cousins in the area, mostly around Lowell, Mass.
Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer brought cookie's from Starbucks to Curt Schilling's house for Thanksgiving.
True. Hey, it was a last-minute invitation, and nothing else was open. Curt's wife, Shonda, cooked the turkey--it was her first T-giving dinner--and yes, Curt took calls from Brian Cashman, who was no doubt calling to wish him a happy holiday.
Alex Rodriguez was willing to send cash back to Texas owner Tom Hicks to make the deal to the Red Sox happen.
True. But good luck ever getting anyone to admit it.
Trader Jack McKeon called Theo Epstein's 2003 offseason the greatest ever.
False. But if Theo had been able to complete those trades, Trader Jack undoubtedly would have loved the action.
Manny Ramirez and Jon Lester would have gone to Texas for A-Rod, and Nomar Garciaparra would have gone to the White Sox for Magglio Ordonez and Brandon McCarthy.
True. Manny might have spent the rest of his days in Arlington and never gotten to Mannywood. If Lester threw a no-hitter, it would have been for the Rangers, not the Red Sox. And Magglio would have been united with one of his best friends and workout partners in A-Rod.
Terry Francona jumped up on his bed and danced when he heard of the pending trades.
True. If you'd just been named the manager of the Red Sox and learned you were getting A-Rod and Magglio, you'd have been boogeying, too.
Kevin Millar stuck a cream pie in A-Rod's face.
False. But had A-Rod come to the Red Sox, Millar would have been all over him, which would have been good for all parties involved.
A-Rod told Bud Selig at Sammy Sosa's party that he wanted to go to the Red Sox.
True. That's one of the reasons why Selig took the unusual step of allowing Red Sox owner John W. Henry to meet with A-Rod while he was still with the Rangers to discuss a trade and a restructuring of his contract.
A-Rod recently said, "I've never been happier.''
False. Or, if it's true, it comes as real news to us.