By his coach's recollection, when Alex Rodriguez debuted on the Westminster Christian varsity as a sophomore in 1991, he gave little indication that he was destined for home run-hitting greatness. Rodriguez was tall and lean when standing in the batter's box and smooth and slick while fielding grounders at shortstop. He primarily batted seventh and only hit about .270.
"I saw him as more of a defensive player then than an offensive player," said Rich Hofman, then the coach at Westminster Christian in south Florida and now in the same position at nearby University School. "[When he was] a sophomore, I didn't see him as the alltime home run leader."
The coach wasn't the only one who felt that way. "We knew he'd be a good player, but no one saw him being what he is," said J.D. Arteaga, A-Rod's best friend and a high school teammate who is now the pitching coach at the University of Miami. "That he's possibly one of the greatest ever isn't something you can predict that far ahead."
For those who have watched A-Rod's development from skinny high school shortstop to slugging big league third baseman, it's become much easier to imagine him atop baseball's hallowed career home runs leaderboard now that he is still only 34 and just one home run shy of becoming the seventh member of the 600 Club.
Though some of Rodriguez's elite power will forever be of dubious origins, given the 2009 revelation and his subsequent admission of steroid use, he was gifted early on with a smooth swing and a strong work ethic.
Arteaga and Rodriguez first started playing Little League ball together on a team coached by Arteaga's father, Juan, and split for only one year, when Rodriguez attended Columbus High as a freshman. He was cut from the varsity and played jayvee ball -- baseball's version of the famous story about Michael Jordan getting cut from his high school varsity basketball team.
Though he was no MJ, Rodriguez himself was quite the basketball talent in middle school. In fact, he almost enrolled at Miami Senior High, a noted hoops powerhouse. Arteaga remembers A-Rod as one of the area's best young teen playground players. Rodriguez would bet Arteaga $20 that Arteaga couldn't steal the ball from him.
"We'd be out there 30 minutes, and I still couldn't do it," Arteaga said.
Soon, however, Rodriguez would choose baseball. After his freshman year, Juan Arteaga introduced him to Hofman, Westminster Christian's legendary coach for whom J.D. Arteaga played as a freshman. At the time Hofman was well on his way to a Florida state-record 965 wins and being named Baseball America's "Coach of the Decade" for the 1990s, so when Juan billed Rodriguez as a preternatural talent, Hofman was skeptical.
"At that stage I was always hearing how great everybody was," Hofman said, and usually they didn't live up their billing."
In the summer before his junior year Rodriguez quickly filled out his frame, gaining roughly 25 pounds and tripling his bench press from about 100 to 300 pounds. Sports Illustrated senior writer Selena Roberts reported in her book A-Rod that Rodriguez began using steroids in high school, a claim refuted by Hofman, who noted his program's emphasis on strength training. (Rodriguez himself refused to address those allegations when they were revealed in 2009.)
"By the time he came into the school, he had never touched a weight," Hofman said, "and I think he exaggerated a little too [about his strength gain]. He likes to embellish a little. He did work really hard. When you're talking August of your sophomore year to January of your junior year, you're talking almost a year and a half. For someone who's never been on weights but has the capacity to have great increase through hard work, it's not unusual for somebody to put on 25, 30 pounds."
However he added the weight, Rodriguez gained some pop in his bat. He still didn't hit many home runs -- he often used a wood bat and the team played a lot of their games on the bigger fields of various major-league spring training ballparks -- but he drove the ball to all fields, took Hofman's preachings about improving plate discipline to heart and became a valued prospect. Rodriguez batted .477 as a junior for a team that went 33-2 and won a mythical national championship, as awarded by its No. 1 ranking in the USA Today high school poll.
"By his junior year, I was predicting big league success for him and first-round draft status before most people did," Hofman said.
Arteaga said Rodriguez's work ethic was unmatched. The two played football together in the fall -- A-Rod was the starting quarterback of a 9-1 team -- and Rodriguez would always want to take some swings after football practice. Arteaga remembers Rodriguez ruining a lot of baseballs by hitting batting-practice pitches into the pool beyond the left-field fence of Westminster Christian's home field and said the difference in Rodriguez's swing was noticeable.
"You could really see the jump in his bat speed," Arteaga said.
In Rodriguez's senior season, he batted .505 with nine home runs, as the Warriors went 28-5.
"He didn't have a huge power display, but his swing was so clean and looked good," Hofman said.
In his three years at Westminster Christian, the school went 86-13-1 and was among the country's alltime great high school baseball teams. Twelve Warriors were offered Division I college scholarships, seven played professionally and four -- Rodriguez, Doug Mientkiewicz, Dan Perkins and Mickey Lopez -- reached the majors.
Rodriguez's senior year of 1993 played out in front of a constant parade of pro scouts, and the Mariners eventually selected him with the first pick of the draft. By late August however, he still had not signed and instead was planning on joining Arteaga at the University of Miami on a baseball scholarship. At 2 a.m. on the night of August 30, six hours before his first college class, Arteaga was awakened by a phone call.
Through his grogginess, he heard the caller tell him he didn't need a ride to psychology lecture in the morning.
"Don't bother picking me up," Rodriguez said. "I just signed with Seattle."
From that moment on, the similar path that the two friends had been on for eight years began to split. Arteaga was pitching for the Hurricanes when Rodriguez debuted with the Mariners at 19 in 1994. When Arteaga helped Miami to a runner-up finish in the 1996 College World Series, a 21-year-old A-Rod was on his way to winning a batting title in the majors. Arteaga pitched six years in the minors, rising as high as Triple-A before retiring in 2002, one year before his friend won his first of three American League MVP awards.
But while their career paths diverged, their friendship didn't. Both Arteaga and Hofman both spent considerable time visiting Rodriguez in Seattle and at the time grew more convinced that A-Rod had the makings of a great player.
In fact, Hofman says now that after watching Rodriguez in those early years with the Mariners, he predicted his former pupil that had been a light-hitting sophomore just a few years before was now destined for the Hall of Fame.
"I saw him at shortstop and I saw the other players around him, and it was like he was Goliath with David," Hofman said. "Other guys who were major-league players for a number of years weren't even close. I realized then that this guy had amazing potential."