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The $252 million mistake
The Texas Rangers broke the bank to sign Alex Rodriguez in 2000. And then everything fell apart.
A lot of Zack Minasian's handiwork never saw the light of day.
The longtime former Rangers equipment and home clubhouse manager -- whose sons inhabit numerous roles throughout baseball, including Angels general manager -- was tasked with preparing uniform tops for the team's free-agent targets.
"Every free agent we ran through during that time, Randy Johnson, Barry Zito, Mark Mulder, none of them wanted to come and pitch there. That went on for the 22 years I was there. I made so many jerseys up for guys that didn't show up, I can't keep track of it. Position players as well," Minasian told me in a 2015 interview.
"At the press conference, you had to have a jersey made, or you wanted to give the guy a jersey when he showed up to visit. Randy Johnson showed up. We gave him a Ranger jersey with his name on it. I'm sure he used it as a doorstop, because he had no intention of pitching for the Rangers."
In 2000, Rangers owner Tom Hicks wanted to make a splash following the team's last-place finish. There happened to be a free agent that off-season who could transform a franchise, Seattle shortstop Alex Rodriguez, who was only 25 years old, yet had already hit 189 home runs during his short career. Only Eddie Mathews had hit more home runs (190) through his age-24 season.
Texas wasn't considered a serious target for A-Rod's services.
Minasian's stitching for a number three Rangers jersey seemed like a fool's errand. But then Hicks threw out some big numbers, 252 (million dollars) and 10 (years), and suddenly Minasian was preparing a jersey for Rodriguez to wear at his introductory press conference in December 2000. It was the richest contract at the time for any athlete in American sports history.
Rodriguez said all the things he needed to say.
"I look forward to the challenge and the opportunity" to win in Texas, he told reporters. "I've come close a couple of times before. I think the main ingredients are here with this team. The main thing, though, is the owner. He is the smartest owner in baseball."
A-Rod slid Minasian's jersey over top of his blazer during his introductory presser. Players typically take the blazer off before slipping on the jersey. Not A-Rod, a handsome doofus who blended GQ cool with a vain obliviousness.
With Alex's signing, "it was like having a rock star around all the time," Rangers outfielder Gabe Kapler, now the Giants manager, told me in a 2017 interview. "There were cameras everywhere. Money was a big part of the discussion. Obviously a big personality, and it's unquestionably true that there was so much star power in the room at that point that it was almost like everything was about star power."
The lineup was better for stargazing than an observatory on a clear night. A-Rod was paired with fellow mashers like Ivan Rodriguez, Rafael Palmeiro, Andres Galarraga, Rusty Greer and Ken Caminiti. This team was going to steamroll its way to the postseason, and Alex was going to help the Rangers reach the World Series for the first time.
But then everything fell apart. Texas sputtered to start the season, manager Johnny Oates was quickly gone, and the Rangers (73-89) wound up 43 games out of first place, the most games back for the franchise in any season since the early 1960s when the team was known as the Washington Senators. It didn't help that the Mariners (the team Rodriguez bolted from to join Texas) and Oakland both won more than 100 games that year.
Texas, despite its powerful lineup, didn't have the pitching to be able to compete in the AL West. Aaron Myette and Rob Bell combined to start 33 games. Starters were 37-8 that season when the team scored 6 or more runs, and 14-50 when the team scored 5 or fewer.
And then there was the bullpen, a collection of spare parts and castaways that compiled a 5.19 ERA and averaged a home run surrendered every other game.
"I look at the 2001 Texas Rangers team, it's the most talented team I ever played on," said outfielder Bo Porter. "You learn the value of team and knowing that you can't just put a bunch of talent together and think that you're going to ignore the team aspect of these pieces being able to play for the overall good and the success of the team. It's a valuable component that can be overlooked."
Alex had a great statistical season. He hit 52 home runs, with 135 RBI and a 1.021 OPS. He was worth 8.3 wins above replacement, third in the league behind Jason Giambi and Bret Boone.
But baseball is a team game. And the massive contract shifted Texas away from a team focus.
Rodriguez's salary in 2001 ($22 million) dwarfed those of the team's other star players. Palmeiro made $9 million that year, "Pudge" Rodriguez, the hall of fame catcher, made $8.2 million, and pitcher Kenny Rogers made $7.5 million. The money being thrown at Alex made his teammates wonder whether they were getting what they deserved and made some of them feel slighted.
"It seemed like there was always 24 guys on the same page, and then there was Alex Rodriguez," pitcher Tim Crabtree told me in 2014.
Between 1995 and 2000, only three teams won more division titles than Texas: Atlanta, New York, and Cleveland. During those playoff seasons, "everybody was on the rope, and everybody was pulling in the same direction, and it was more like a family," Crabtree said.
"Tom Hicks wanted a superstar player in Texas, and he paid whatever it took to get him there. And at that time, I don't know if people were really ready for that type of contract as far as ballplayers are concerned. It starts making you wonder, how much money is in this game?
"When you can give that kind of money to one player, that player gets four at-bats a game, makes a handful of plays at shortstop, but you still gotta have a pitching staff, you still gotta have a bullpen, you still have to have other players contribute to be a winning team.
"That contract sort of threw everybody for a loop, I think, when he came there. In the beginning there was a lot of excitement. But then, you know, everybody kind of started to realize what Alex Rodriguez was all about. It just created some division in the club."
The divisions lingered for years. The Rangers tried to fix the pitching problems with another big free-agent acquisition, Chan Ho Park, and saw a pillar of its team, Ivan Rodriguez, depart after the 2002 season (too much money was already tied up in A-Rod and other players); he promptly won a World Series for the Marlins.
The Rangers finished in last place in Alex's three seasons with the club. In 2004, he begged and pleaded for a trade and ended up getting shipped to the Yankees. This time, he was smart enough to take off the blazer before slipping on his jersey at his introductory press conference. It took Texas until 2008 to claw back to second place in a four-team division.
"We had eight lean, lean, lean years," Minasian said. "The guy's one of the greatest players ever to play. You certainly think he would help a lineup, but that's not always it. It's one player, it's one piece."
In the wake of the $252 million mistake, Texas kept adding and developing talented players. Michael Young. Ian Kinsler. Josh Hamilton. Elvis Andrus. And in 2010, Alex Rodriguez, still with New York, finally made good on his promise to lead the Rangers to glory, striking out in Game Six of the ALCS to clinch the Rangers' first pennant.