MIAMI – Alex Rodriguez treated Sunday's exhibition against the Miami Marlins like a homecoming. He praised the team's new stadium. He professed his love for the city. Suddenly, imagining A-Rod in orange and black with that unsightly enormous 'M' on his cap someday wasn't a hallucination, it seemed prophetic.
"I never imagined as a child that such a beautiful stadium would be built in the middle of Miami," he said. "So I’m very proud of the city of Miami and the Marlins that they’ve been able to achieve this in my hometown."
A-Rod was so thrilled by Marlins Park that he held a news conference at the stadium to let everyone know just how thrilled he is. He grew up in nearby West Kendall and keeps his offseason home in Miami. As a Westminster Christian High senior in 1993, he was an avowed fan of the first-year expansion Marlins. He told everyone he wanted to play for the home team, but as the draft approached it became obvious he'd be the first or second pick, and the Seattle Mariners and Los Angeles Dodgers held those.
Soon Rodriguez changed his tune to, "I'd like to play on the West Coast," displaying a precocious chameleon quality at an early age.
He said all the right things again Sunday, unless a listener happened to be a Miami taxpayer peeved over city officials kowtowing to Marlins owner Jeffrey Loria and green-lighting public funds to pay for the stadium even though the team was already making a solid profit. Rodriguez, the highest-paid player in baseball history, seemed smitten by Loria.
"This is like, hello Major League Baseball, we're here," Rodriguez said. "Jeff Loria and his staff worked very hard with the city of Miami. I'll tell you, I get chills, I get a little emotional. I'm right down the street and get to share this with my family and friends."
He won't touch the topic publicly, but it seemed as if one day A-Rod wouldn't be averse to being traded to the Marlins. Now that they play in a gleaming, temperature-controlled domed stadium 10 miles from his house, the appeal is understandable. If the National League ever adopts the designated hitter, watch out.
His contract runs through 2017, and even though Rodriguez is owed at least $20 million in each of those years, money wouldn't seem a deterrent, especially if the Yankees picked up part of the tab to unload him. Loria spent wildly even while the stadium was under construction – paying $191 million for free agents Jose Reyes, Heath Bell and Mark Buehrle in December.
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Rodriguez said he'd tour the stadium with his two daughters Monday. Meanwhile, he reminisced about taking four buses as a teenager from West Kendall to the Orange Bowl and sneaking in to watch Dan Marino and the Dolphins or the University of Miami football team. Of Marlins Park, he said, "This is the 'hood. This is our neighborhood.
"I don't want to be corny or cheesy and I know it's a spring training game and all that but to me it's a very special day. I grew up on these streets, in these square blocks."
The hosannas kept coming for the team Rodriguez would take the field against Sunday. Maybe if he's unable to play for Miami, he'd consider becoming part of the ownership group when he retires. Maybe he envisions the role Magic Johnson just assumed with the Dodgers.
"The Marlins do a phenomenal job with the front office and farm system," Rodriguez said. "But the bottom line is that without a building like this, you really can't compete the way MLB is right now. The game is exploding. Look at what the Dodgers just sold for. And you need a venue like this to compete."
The exhibition was sold out. Rodriguez received polite applause when he came to the plate. He's involved in the Miami community, making significant contributions to the Boys and Girls Club and donating $3.9 million toward renovations of the University of Miami baseball stadium.
No doubt, A-Rod considers himself part of the fabric. Like so many before him, he makes his money in New York and prefers to spend it in Florida. His childhood memories include bartering with neighbors around the Orange Bowl to park for $4 instead of $8. Asked about his most memorable Orange Bowl moment, he mentioned the Dolphins spoiling the Bears' unbeaten aspirations in an epic 1985 "Monday Night Football" game.
"That was one of my great childhood memories," said Rodriguez, who was 10 at the time. "One of the classic nights at the stadium."
He was asked if that was one of the games he'd remembered sneaking into.
"I watched it that night at home," he said. "But that's one of the Monday nights I remember. It was past my curfew."
So he wasn't actually there; a minor quibble. To the point, Rodriguez was all about the Dolphins. He was all about Miami.
As he was Sunday, even while wearing a Yankees uniform. He drove in a run with a single. He soaked in the freshness, the sparkle, the opening of the first decent baseball stadium ever in Florida. Perhaps his thoughts were of a future here.
As a high school senior in 1993, Rodriguez was a guest of Marlins second baseman Bret Barberie before a game at Joe Robbie Stadium. A-Rod, widely regarded as the best amateur player in the country, was introduced to manager Rene Lachemann.
''I don't know why I'm saying hi to you,'' Lachemann said, teasingly. ''You're not going to be with us. We'll never have a chance to get you.''
Thanks to the craftiness of Loria, the gullibility of the Miami populace and the resulting Marlins Park, Lachemann might have spoken a couple decades too soon.
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