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The 13 essential moments in the career of Alex Rodriguez, baseball's Rorschach test

For almost a quarter-century, fans, media and even teammates have seen whatever they wanted to see in Alex Rodriguez. Here are the quintessential moments from his legendary and controversial career.

Alex Rodriguez will play his final game for the Yankees on Friday night, after which the team will release him, likely ending his major league career at the age of 41. If it is indeed A-Rod's last game, it will be the last we see of arguably the defining baseball player of his generation. Some combination of a baseball Zelig and a human Rorschach test, Rodriguez has represented both the best and worst Major League Baseball has had to offer during his 22-year career: Hero and villain, victor and victim, self-consumed egomaniac and unassuming baseball rat, glamorous superstar and awkwardly insecure media target, one of the game’s greatest players and one of its greatest scoundrels. His career touches on all the central components of the modern game: statistics, the labor wars, the steroid era, massive contracts and so much more.

Here, then, in honor of his uniform number, are the 13 key facets of Rodriguez’s star-crossed and self-sabotaged, yet ultimately tremendously successful career.

1. The Prodigy

In an era in which draft picks came to be valued more highly than ever, Rodriguez stands as the ultimate example of one fulfilling his potential on the field. Selected out of Miami’s Westminster Christian High School by the Mariners with the No. 1 choice in the 1993 draft just 54 days before his 18th birthday, Rodriguez was marked for greatness from the very moment he became a professional baseball player, drawing comparisons to Cal Ripken Jr. before he'd ever played a pro game.

Rodriguez, though, delivered upon that promise to a degree that no other No. 1 pick ever has. He was, at least according to the numbers, the greatest first pick of all time, leading those players—a group that includes former Mariners teammate and 2016 Hall of Fame inductee Ken Griffey Jr.—in Wins Above Replacement (117.9), hits (3,114), home runs (696), RBIs (2,085), stolen bases (329), total bases (5,811) and runs scored (2,021), among other categories.

2. The Phenom

Rodriguez signed a three-year, $1.3 million major league contract after being drafted by Seattle, one stipulation of which was that he would be called up to the major leagues by September of the following season. He didn’t need that guarantee: After Rodriguez tore up A-ball to start his first professional season in 1994 and got off to a similarly hot start after a promotion to Double A, Mariners manager Lou Piniella advocated for his promotion, which came in early July. It's a good thing Rodriguez didn't wait until September, because by then the season was over due to the player's strike that started on Aug. 12. Rodriguez struggled in his brief debut at the age of 18, batting .204 in 17 games, and again the next year, hitting .232 in 48 games—a season that began with him being named the top game's prospect by Baseball America.

In 1996, at the age of 20, he was named Seattle's Opening Day shortstop and responded with an MVP-worthy campaign. That year, Rodriguez led the majors with a .358 batting average and 54 doubles and the American League with 379 total bases and 141 runs scored; he slugged .631, posted a 161 OPS+ and proved to be an outstanding defensive shortstop. Only Griffey and Barry Bonds had higher WAR totals that season, and only 0.3 wins separated all three. Rodriguez finished second in the AL MVP voting that year to the vastly inferior Juan Gonzalez, then went on to average 7.7 bWAR per season in his age-20–24 campaigns. In 1998, his age-22 season, he became just the third man ever to hit 40 home runs and steal 40 bases in the same year.

Not counting 19th-century pitchers, only Ty Cobb (46.7), Mike Trout (45.1), Walter Johnson (44.9), and Mickey Mantle (40.9) compiled more WAR through their age-24 seasons than Rodriguez’s 38.0 bWAR, and only Eddie Mathews hit more home runs in those seasons (190 to Rodriguez’s 189).


3. The Contract

Rodriguez became a free agent after the 2000 season when he was just 24 years old. Given the quality of his performance to that point in his career, he was the most valuable free agent in major league history. Still, the contract he landed with the Rangers that December came as a shock to the sports world and unfairly branded Rodriguez as excessively greedy. His 10-year, $252 million contract was not only the biggest in baseball history, but it was also the largest in the history of team sports, doubling the six-year, $126 million extension Kevin Garnett had signed with the Minnesota Timberwolves three years earlier—one that prompted an NBA lockout and the implementation of a salary cap.

Even 16 years later, Rodriguez's deal stands as the third-richest in baseball history. Of the two contracts to surpass it since, one of them was the deal he signed with the Yankees after opting out of his first paradigm-smashing contract. That deal, agreed to after he won his third MVP award in 2007, was also for 10 years, but this time for $275 million, despite the fact that Rodriguez was 32 years old.

It wasn't just the money that made A-Rod's deal with Texas revolutionary. The opt-out clause, which allowed him to void the final three years and $81 million of it, was also groundbreaking. The year before, fellow Scott Boras client J.D. Drew had become the first major leaguer to opt out of multiple years of an eight-figure salary, voiding the final three years and $33 million on his contract with the Dodgers. Rodriguez, though, had his clause in place four years before Drew signed his controversial pact with Los Angeles. At the time, it seemed unthinkable that anyone would opt out of a contract that still owed them tens of millions of dollars. Now, it’s become almost a given that any player with an opt out in his contract will use it provided he is still capable of delivering something close to a league-average performance when the clause comes due, yet opt-outs have become a common feature of elite free agent contracts.

Did A-Rod ever wind up earning his two mega contracts?

4. The Superstar

As ludicrous as Rodriguez’s contract seemed at the time, he actually earned it on the field. In his first three seasons with the Rangers, Rodriguez hit .305/.395/.615 (155 OPS+) and averaged 52 home runs, 132 RBIs, 127 runs, 15 steals and 382 total bases per season, all as a Gold Glove-quality shortstop (he won the award twice in those three years). That performance translated to an average of 8.5 WAR per season. Rodriguez wasn’t the best player in baseball during those seasons because of the unreal things Bonds was doing with the Giants, but he was the second best by a safe margin.

As great as Rodriguez was in his early 20s with the Mariners, he was even better in his prime with the Rangers and Yankees. From 2001 to '07—his age-25 to -31 seasons—Rodriguez hit .304/.400/.591 (154 OPS+), averaging 47 home runs, 130 RBIs, 125 runs scored, 19 steals, 357 total bases and 8.0 WAR per season. That last number is even more impressive consider he had agreed to move to third base out of deference to Derek Jeter when he joined the Yankees before the 2004 season despite coming off a deserving Gold Glove performance at shortstop in '03. In those seven years, Rodriguez led the major leagues in WAR four times and the major leagues twice, winning three AL MVP awards (2003, '05, '07).

SI VAULT: 1996: Young star | 2004: Hello, New York | 2006: Lonely Yankee | 2013: Last Days

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5. The Traitor

Even with those astonishing statistics, the Rangers finished in last place in the AL West in each of Rodriguez's first three seasons in Texas. Then general manager John Hart, who had joined the club the year after A-Rod, informed Rodriguez that after the 2003 season, the Rangers would need to pursue a more deliberate rebuild. Rodriguez, in possession of a full no-trade clause and eager to play on a winning team, told Hart he would approve a trade to the Yankees or the Red Sox, who had just played a scintillating seven-game ALCS that October. Two months later, at that year’s winter meetings, Hart worked out a deal to ship Rodriguez to Boston for leftfielder Manny Ramirez and pitching prospect Jon Lester as the Red Sox worked out a simultaneous trade that would send incumbent shortstop Nomar Garciaparra, who was entering his walk year, to the White Sox for outfielder Magglio Ordoñez and pitching prospect Brandon McCarthy.

But even with the last five years of Ramirez’s eight-year, $160 million contract heading the other way, Boston couldn’t afford the $183 million remaining on Rodriguez’s deal. He agreed to rework his pact to reduce his salary, but the players’ union—which is fundamentally opposed to a player reducing the value of his contract—objected, killing the deal.

What if Alex Rodriguez had been traded to the Red Sox after all?

In January 2004, Yankees third baseman Aaron Boone tore the ACL in his left knee in a pickup basketball game. By mid-February, Rodriguez was a Yankee, sent to New York in a trade for All-Star second baseman Alfonso Soriano and minor league infielder Joaquin Arias; Texas also agreed to pay $71 million of the money remaining on Rodriguez’s contract.

The reality of the situation did not match the perception. The Rangers had actively sought to get out from under Rodriguez’s contract, and he had agreed to reduce his salary to play for the Red Sox only to have the union object, but A-Rod was nonetheless perceived as having forced his way out of Texas and betrayed Boston. That led to him being branded as Public Enemy No. 1 in both regions.

Things weren't much better in New York. Rodriguez was perceived by some as attempting to glom on to the Yankees’ success. He was also cast in an unfavorable light relative to fellow shortstop and former friend Derek Jeter, whose relationship with Rodriguez became strained after Rodriguez insulted Jeter in an Esquire profile in April 2001. In the eyes of many Yankees fans, Rodriguez would, in direct contrast to Jeter, never be a “true Yankee,” an absurd and undefinable distinction that nonetheless painted Rodriguez as an outsider or even an intruder on the team.

As great as he was on the field for New York and as selfless as he was in offering to move to third base to accommodate an inferior fielder in Jeter and as beloved as he was by younger players such as Robinson Cano and Melky Cabrera, there would often be tension between Rodriguez and the Yankees’ management and fans. Meanwhile, his status as the richest player on baseball’s richest team would only intensify his role as a villain around the game and increase the number of eyes waiting to point out and exploit his every failure. Little did anyone know how much material he would give them.


6. The Choker

Rodriguez hit .363/.414/.648 in his first 100 postseason plate appearances, including a .395/.465/.763 line in the first eight games of the Yankees’ ill-fated October run in 2004. After Mariano Rivera failed to complete the Yankees’ sweep of the Red Sox in the ninth inning of Game 4 of that year’s American League Championship Series, however, nearly all the Yankee bats went cold, and Rodriguez managed just four more hits in his next 47 postseason at-bats through Game 2 of the 2007 Division Series against the Indians. In the eight years before he came to New York, the Yankees won four World Series and six pennants. In Rodriguez’s first five years with the Yankees, they failed to reach the World Series even once: They became the first major league team ever to blow a 3–0 lead in a best-of-seven series in 2004, suffered three straight first-round exits from '05 to '07, and in '08, New York failed to make the playoffs for the first time since 1993.

Much of that failure was placed upon Rodriguez’s shoulders, with two particular moments serving as flashpoints for the idea that he was a postseason choker. In the bottom of the eighth inning of Game 6 of the 2004 ALCS, with the Yankees trailing 4–2, one out, and Jeter on first via an RBI single, Rodriguez hit a weak dribbler up the first base line. When Boston reliever Bronson Arroyo, who fielded the ball, attempted to tag him out, Rodriguez reached out and slapped the ball out of Arroyo’s mitt. The play was obvious interference on Rodriguez’s part, a call the umpires got right after conferencing, and it reeked of desperation. Rodriguez didn't help matters by incredulously putting his hands over his head and saying, "What?" when he was called out.

The second moment came two years later. With New York facing elimination in Game 4 of the Division Series against the Tigers, Rodriguez arrived at the park to find himself slotted eighth in Joe Torre’s lineup despite not having started a game lower than fifth since 1996. He then went 0 for 3 in the Yankees' season-ending loss.

A-Rod, Legend: The case for appreciating Alex Rodriguez's greatness

Rodriguez appeared to reverse his postseason fortunes in 2009, batting .365/.500/.808 with six home runs to help New York win its 27th and most recent title. But over his final four Octobers, from 2010 to '15, he hit just .152/.250/.177 with just two extra-base hits (both doubles) in 92 plate appearances. In 2012, he once again found his role diminished. First, he was pinch-hit for by Raul Ibañez in the ninth inning of Game 3 of the ALDS against the Orioles (Ibañez hit a game-tying home run and then a game-winning homer in the 11th). Then in the ALCS, he was benched for the final two games of the Yankees’ sweep at the hands of Detroit.

Altogether, Rodriguez hit .259/.365/.457 with 13 home runs in postseason play. That's not that far a cry from Jeter’s .308/.374/.465 career October line, but whereas Jeter’s postseason OPS was actually higher than his regular-season mark, Rodriguez’s .822 OPS in the playoffs was well shy of his .930 mark in the regular season.

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7. The Lightning Rod

In New York, Rodriguez was a tabloid writer's dream come true. He drew criticism for such innocent acts as sunbathing in Central Park and sharing popcorn with his girlfriend at a football game (okay, it was Cameron Diaz and at the Super Bowl, but still). His more outlandish behavior—such as reportedly commissioning a paintings of himself as a centaur and appearing in a magazine photo spread kissing himself in a mirror—were obvious targets, as were his legitimately scandalous acts, such as going to a strip club with a “mystery blonde” who was not his wife prior to his 2008 divorce.

Rodriguez caught similar flack for his on-field transgressions. There was the slap play in the 2004 ALCS; the time he tricked Blue Jays infielder Howie Clark into dropping a pop-up by shouting “Ha!” at him as he rounded third base in '07; the time he walked across the pitcher’s mound after making an out on the bases, to the fury of Athletics starter Dallas Braden, in '10; and the time he used his benching in the 2012 ALCS as an occasion to pass his phone number to a couple of attractive women behind the Yankees' dugout by scrawling his digits on a baseball.


8. The Cheater

As disliked as Rodriguez may have been in certain pockets of the baseball community and as awkward as his public persona had become, he had a trump card in his back pocket: He was going to break Bonds’s career home run record of 762, thereby rescuing one of baseball’s signature accomplishments from the taint of performance-enhancing drugs. With Griffey falling short due to a cascade of injuries, Rodriguez was baseball’s Great Clean Hope.

Then, in a February 2009 cover story for Sports Illustrated, Selena Roberts and David Epstein revealed that Rodriguez had been among the players to test positive for anabolic steroids during MLB’s supposedly anonymous '03 survey testing. Confronted with this evidence, Rodriguez held an awkward press conference at the Yankees’ spring training complex and admitted to taking a substance he called “boli”—most likely the Primobolan he had reportedly tested positive for—during his three years with the Rangers, but not before or since, calling that period in baseball a “loosey goosey era.” Rodriguez’s admission suggested that PED use in baseball was even more widespread than the December 2007 Mitchell Report (which did not name Rodriguez) had suggested, and it erased the belief that any player could be beyond suspicion of steroid use.


9. The Champion

Rodriguez opened the 2009 season at his lowest point in his career. Not only had he been outed as a steroid user, greatly undermining the tremendous accomplishments of his career to that point and putting in doubt what had once been assumed to be his automatic first-ballot induction into the Hall of Fame, but he was also coming off surgery to repair a torn labrum in his right hip and ended up missing the first month of the season. Undeterred, Rodriguez homered on the first pitch he saw when he returned to action on May 8 and still managed to scratch out a 30-homer, 100-RBI season in just 124 games. Buoyed by the free-agent additions of first baseman Mark Teixeira and starting pitcher CC Sabathia, the Yankees won the AL East with 103 victories, then tore through the postseason, with Rodriguez as their most valuable hitter.

In three of New York's first four postseason games, Rodriguez delivered game-tying home runs in the seventh inning or later, twice doing so with his team one inning from defeat. He hit .438 with five home runs to help the Yankees beat the Twins and Angels to capture the AL pennant. He then got off to a slow start in the World Series against the Phillies, but in Game 3 he not only homered again, but he also did so into a Fox TV camera, prompting the first replay review in World Series history. In Game 4, he delivered a two-run, tiebreaking double in the ninth inning of the Yankees' 7–4 win. Rodriguez wound up posting a .973 OPS as New York beat the defending champions in six games for the franchise's 27th title, and the only one of Rodriguez’s career.

10. The Falling Star

As great as Rodriguez’s performance in the 2009 postseason was, he was already in decline by that time. Age and injury had begun to sap his performance the previous season as the leg injuries began to mount. First it was a quad strain in May 2008, a couple of months before his 33rd birthday, then the hip labrum surgery after that season, followed by a calf strain in '10 and surgery to repair a torn meniscus in his right knee in July the next year. A pitch broke his left hand in July 2012, and labrum surgery on his other hip cost him the first four months of the '13 season.

From 2000 to '07, Rodriguez had averaged 158 games per season, never playing in fewer than 148. But from 2008 to '13, he averaged just 111 games per season, never playing in more than 138. Meanwhile, his OPS+ declined in every season from 2008 to '12; having not posted an OPS+ below 120 since he was a teenager, he failed to reach that mark for three straight seasons from '11 to '13, his age-35–37 seasons.

11. The Pariah

While Rodriguez was recovering from his January 2013 hip labrum surgery, a new steroid scandal exploded in his back yard. That month, the Miami New Times reported that a Coral Gables anti-aging clinic known as Biogenesis had been providing major league players with performance-enhancing drugs. Among the players listed in the clinic's records was Rodriguez, whose relationship with the clinic and its quack-doctor/founder, Anthony Bosch, began in July 2010, according to Bosch. As MLB conducted its investigation into the scandal that spring and summer, Rodriguez became its primary target, with the league ultimately handing him a 211-game suspension in August.

Rodriguez appealed the suspension, repeatedly proclaiming his innocence and ultimately returning to the field in defiance of his ban after recovering from his injuries in August. Though Rodriguez was clearly lying—something that would become official when he confessed to Drug Enforcement Administration investigators in January 2014—his appeal and his return to action made for a surprisingly delightful heel turn as his opponents sank to his level. MLB’s investigation, which included paying disreputable characters for stolen evidence, was no more above-board than Rodriguez’s drug use. The villain-you-love-to-hate act spilled onto the field at Fenway Park on Aug. 18, when Red Sox starter Ryan Dempster took it upon himself to hit Rodriguez with a pitch, only to have Rodriguez homer off him later in the game in a 9–6 Yankees win.

Rodriguez’s sentence was ultimately reduced to 162 games, wiping out his entire 2014 season and making him the first player ever to be suspended for a full year for performance-enhancing drug use.

Alex Rodriguez's playing career ending, but infamy will follow him forever

12. The Comeback

When Rodriguez returned to the Yankees in the spring of 2015, he did so as an unwanted man. New York had tried to void the remainder of his contract when the Biogenesis news broke in early 2013, and when they were unable to do so, the team contested the $6 million marketing bonuses in the deal that were tied to his reaching several career home run milestones, claiming the steroid revelations rendered those accomplishments meaningless. The Yankees ultimately settled with Rodriguez, turning the $6 million bonus into a $3.5 million charitable donation.

As a 39-year-old who had not played competitive baseball in 16 months and had been hurt and in decline for years, Rodriguez seemed as likely to be released in spring training as to contribute to the 2015 Yankees. Instead, the time off appeared to be exactly what Rodriguez’s mind and body needed: He hit .250/.356/.486 (130 OPS+) that season with 33 home runs and 86 RBIs and played in 151 games, starting 135 of them at designated hitter. With his help, New York returned to the postseason for the first time since 2012. Along the way, Rodriguez surpassed Willie Mays for fourth place on the all-time home run list with his 661st homer and collected his 3,000th hit, a home run off Detroit's Justin Verlander on June 19. It was far from Rodriguez’s greatest season, and it ended with another October letdown, as the Yankees were knocked out of the playoffs in the wild-card game by the Astros. Still, his comeback—which included the mending of his relationship with MLB, the Yankees and the team's fans—stands as one of the most impressive accomplishments of his career.

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13. The Baseball Man

Impressive as it was, Rodriguez’s comeback was short lived. He struggled down the stretch as the wear and tear of the season accumulated on his aging, chemically ravaged body, hitting .191/.300/.377 after July 31. In 2016, he never got his bat going at all, hitting just .199/.247/.348 through the penultimate game of his Yankees career and again missing time due to a leg injury, this time a hamstring strain in May. Demoted into a platoon role as a DH against lefties only, then losing playing time even in those situations, Rodriguez became dead weight on a roster that general manager Brian Cashman began rebuilding at the trade deadline, leading to owner Hal Steinbrenner's decision to release the veteran at the end of this week. Rather than simply cutting him loose, however, New York signed him to a personal services contract as an instructor and advisor for the 2017 season.

In the press conference announcing the move and Rodriguez’s quasi-retirement (there’s still the possibility that he will play for another team to finish out this year), the Yankees praised Rodriguez’s gifts for identifying talent and mentoring young players, suggesting the move was more than just for show. Indeed, Rodriguez, for all of his faults, has long displayed a love of baseball and an unquenchable desire to observe and analyze the game matched by few of his peers. With Mark McGwire (now in his seventh season as a major league coach) and Bonds (in his first year as the Marlins’ hitting coach) back in uniform, there’s no reason to believe that Rodriguez won’t one day follow suit. His playing career may be drawing to a close on Friday, but one suspects he still has a long career ahead of him as a coach, scout, front office executive or even—in an ambition he and Jeter share—as a team owner.

Rodriguez has been many things in his major league career, but while his playing career may be ending, that list is far from complete.