I grew up in Seattle during the ’90s when there were two factions on the playgrounds and ball fields: the A-Rod kids and the Junior kids.
I was an A-Rod kid.
In the endless debates and fights over which member of the Seattle Mariner baseball team was more worthy of a boy’s unconditional faith and support I came down on the side of Alex Rodriguez, the Mariners’ young, lightning quick shortstop. Despite the fact that many of my friends worshiped the Ms’ charismatic centerfielder Ken Griffey Jr., wearing their hats backward and imitating his swoopy homerun swing at Little League games, my loyalty lay unflinchingly with A-Rod.
I wore his jersey everywhere. I memorized his stats. I owned eight of his baseball cards, my most prized possessions. I watched him on TV, hanging on his every at bat and fist pumping after every lay out for a ground ball. He was smooth and confident and just good.
A few precious times each year my dad would take me to the Kingdome where I would actually be in his presence. There he was joking in the dugout with Jay Buhner or stretching with Dan Wilson, or turning a double play with Joey Cora.
But nothing in my life up to that point came close to the time I met the man. My mother is an elementary school teacher; when she heard he would be stopping by her school for an inspirational assembly, she called my school to say I was sick and took me to work with her that day. I remember sitting with the other kids in a large classroom and thinking how it never occurred to me that he didn’t always wear his baseball uniform. He looked strange in civilian clothes, like Clark Kent after a night wearing his Superman suit. When he finished his talk I clapped and hooted along with everyone else and then the moment came when it was my turn to go up and shake his hand. Time stopped, the sound cut out. I walked toward him, wiping my sweaty palms on my jeans.
I will never forget how big his hand was, meaty and coarse, completely enveloping my tiny 9-year-old paw. I remember how he smelled like cologne. I remember the gold chain he wore around his neck. I remember feeling like I was in the presence of something almost holy.
He smiled at me as I handed him a ball to sign and just like that my moment with my hero was over.
So it stung that much more, it was that much more incomprehensible, I cried that many more tears when I heard the news: Alex Rodriguez, who had become a free agent after the 2000 season, had accepted a 10-year, $250 million contract (the largest in history to that point) with, of all teams, the Texas Rangers.
The year before, Griffey had been traded to the Cincinnati Reds, which was crushing even for me, an A-Rod kid. But we could rationalize his decision: His family was there; he grew up in the Reds clubhouse when his dad was part of the Big Red Machine; and he took less money to go there.
No such silver lining existed in the A-Rod deal. The man who insisted he cared about his fans and wanted to stay in Seattle chose the abysmal Rangers over the Mariners, who were playing better than ever in a brand new stadium and offering him enough money to still be one of the highest-paid players in the game.
Disappointment turned into anger. I relished chances to boo him, and laughed hysterically when fans would dangle dollar bills attached to fishing rods above his head as he warmed up in the on-deck circle. I hoped he felt awful watching the Mariners win 116 games the next season.
And then I just stopped caring. When he left the Rangers for the Yankees I didn’t think anything of it. Nor did I pay attention to any of the self-absorbed scandals in which he was involved in the following years.
And when I found out this week that he will be suspended for what could be the rest of his career — 211 games, and he is 38 years old — because of alleged steroid use, I hardly flinched. What else was new.
I envy my grandfather, who still tells the story about how he encountered Babe Ruth on a golf course he caddied at, how the Great Bambino nodded at him and said, “Hey, kid.” And my dad, who still talks about seeing Mickey Mantle hit home runs in Yankee Stadium, memories that seem to get sweeter with age.
But I can no longer be an A-Rod kid. If I ever have kids and tell them about the time I met A-Rod, it will be with the epilogue to the story on the back of my mind. I still have those eight baseball cards, all in mint condition. But the player on the front of them no longer matters to me.