NEW YORK (Reuters) - Alex Rodriguez signed two record-setting contracts totalling more than half a billion dollars as the man who would become baseball’s clean Home Run King.
Now the future and legacy of the fading Yankees slugger known as A-Rod has been shredded after the 38-year-old became the latest sports star shot down in doping disgrace.
His pursuit of Barry Bonds, the all-time home run leader convicted of obstruction of justice in a federal case stemming from a doping scheme, had once been seen as a holy quest for the golden boy who burst into the major leagues at age 18.
That chase was tarnished by an admission in 2009 that Rodriguez had used steroids earlier in his career, and with Monday’s announcement of his record-long suspension, he becomes the new face of cheating in baseball.
It was all supposed to end much differently for Rodriguez, who stands fifth on MLB’s all-time home run list with 647, 115 behind leader Bonds, and 155 home runs ahead of the next nearest active player, Albert Pujols.
A 14-time All-Star and three-time MVP winner, Rodriguez had been fit for any conversation on baseball’s greatest players, but now his career is lumped in with others from the steroids era, including Bonds and Roger Clemens, who were both shunned this year in their first try at admission to the Hall of Fame.
Rodriguez, a lightning rod for media attention who has been romantically linked to actresses Cameron Diaz and Kate Hudson and pop star Madonna, and who has cashed nearly $350 million in MLB paychecks, rose from humble origins.
Alexander Emmanuel Rodriguez was born in New York City to Dominican parents in a Latino neighborhood of the Washington Heights section of Manhattan.
The youngest of three children born to Victor Rodriguez and Lourdes Navarro, Rodriguez came by his passion for the game from his father, a former professional catcher in the Dominican.
His family moved back to the Dominican Republic when he was 4, then to Miami when he was a fifth-grader. Victor and Lourdes separated, leaving Lourdes to raise the family.
Rodriguez grew into a remarkable athlete, winning the national high school baseball title at Miami’s Westminster Christian High School. He was recruited to play both shortstop and quarterback for the University of Miami, with whom he signed a letter of intent to attend.
But the lure of the major leagues and a $1.3 million contract to sign with the Seattle Mariners as the number one overall pick of the 1993 amateur draft put A-Rod on a fast-track to stardom.
He made his MLB debut as an 18 year old in 1994 as the youngest player in the majors and after another partial season was installed as starting shortstop for Seattle in 1996.
Rodriguez responded with a sensational season, leading the American League in hitting with a .358 batting average. He added 36 home runs and 123 runs batted in that season, off-the-chart numbers for the young shortstop who finished a close second in the league’s MVP voting.
Two more All-Star seasons followed, in 1997 and in 1998, when he hit 42 home runs and stole 46 bases to become just the third member of the 40-40 club, after Jose Canseco (1988) and Bonds (1996), with only Alfonso Soriano joining them later(2008).
Because of his early start in the majors, Rodriguez achieved free agency at the tender age of 24, and he signed a record 10-year, $252 million contract in 2001 to play for the Texas Rangers.
Rodriguez put up monster numbers, clouting 52 home runs in 2001 and 57 in 2002 and won the AL most valuable player award in 2003.
A-Rod rode his success to recognition off the field.
After donating $3.9 million in 2003 to the University of Miami to renovate its baseball stadium, which now bears the name “Mark Light Field at Alex Rodriguez Park,” Rodriguez was bestowed “honorary alumnus” status and serves on the university’s Board of Trustees.
But the Rangers were not winning, and wanting to get out from under the enormous salary, Texas dealt him to the Yankees in 2004.
While Rodriguez produced big numbers for the Yankees, winning MVP honors in 2005 and 2007, fans still seemed unsatisfied with him, deriding him for not hitting in the clutch as the Bronx Bombers failed to add another World Series title.
After the 2007 season, Rodriguez exercised an opt-out clause in his deal that effectively made him a free agent.
Coming off a 54-home run season, the Yankees wrote him a new contract, giving him a record $275 million, 10-year deal that included an extra $30 million in bonuses for eclipsing home run milestones.
Baseball’s Mitchell Report was issued in December 2007, citing widespread doping in the game, discrediting Bonds, Clemens and Mark McGwire among more than 80 players it gathered evidence on as cheaters.
Rodriguez, however, emerged unscathed.
When Canseco, an admitted steroids user and a team mate from his Rangers days, claimed A-Rod had used steroids, Rodriguez did an interview with CBS’s “60 Minutes” emphatically denying the assertion.
A-Rod’s ‘white knight’ persona vanished a year later.
A Sports Illustrated report revealed that Rodriguez had been one of 104 players who tested positive in what was supposed to have been a confidential survey in 2003 that established that steroids use was widespread enough to warrant mandatory random drug testing.
Rodriguez faced the media in a massive news conference at the spring training camp in Tampa, Florida, in February 2009 and admitted to using steroids, but said it was limited to his Texas days and motivated by the stress of living up to his mega-deal.
That unleashed tabloid nicknames for the slugger like “A-Roid” and “A-Fraud.”
However, after the mea culpa Rodriguez broke through to help the Yankees win the 2009 World Series, their first title since 2000, while shedding the rap that he was a post-season flop.
It proved to be the Yankee high point for A-Rod, who then began breaking down physically, needing surgery on his hip, and missing large portions of the season.
That chapter culminated with an embarrassing stretch during the 2012 post-season that ended with a 4-0 sweep by the Detroit Tigers in the American League championship series.
Rodriguez was pinch-hit for in key situations and ultimately benched, going 3-25 (.120) overall with 12 strikeouts.
He had yet to play a single inning for the Yankees this year after undergoing another hip surgery in the off-season, but was to return to the field in Chicago against the White Sox on Monday night, planning to appeal the suspension set to begin on Thursday and to run through the end of the 2014 season. (Reporting by Larry Fine in New York; Editing by Gene Cherry, Gary Hill)