Rodriguez was arguably the greatest free agent in the history of sports when he hit the market during the winter of 2000-01, a man who could have chosen to play anywhere. He chose Texas. He took the $252 million contract with the stadium office and otherworldly perks. He chose a team that got worse during his time there, then came to the astonishing realization that losing was hurting his profile.
And so, when Rodriguez decided that he wanted out of Texas, whom did he find as a potential savior? The Red Sox. A team that wanted someone far more marketable than the ditzy Manny Ramirez or the uncooperative Nomar Garciaparra. A-Rod had polish. A-Rod would sell. A-Rod was an indisputable brand, the kind of star who could serve as the main character on a nightly TV show.
From the start, after all, the New England Sports Network always has been the golden goose of the Red Sox operation, an ATM even now for the Red Sox (whose owner, Fenway Sports Group, owns 80 percent of the network) as Bruins ratings skyrocket. Former Red Sox general manager Dan Duquette has admitted that Ramirez was, in part, a signing designed to drive NESN ratings because the network was about to enter countless more households. More viewers meant higher ad rates, more revenue.
And it still does.
Today, once again, Rodriguez is in the midst of a steroids scandal, though that hardly makes him unique. Ramirez has failed a pair of drug tests under the Major League Baseball drug testing program. Ortiz was named on a list of players flagged under provisional testing in 2003. Performance enhancers have extended their tentacles deep into the game for a long time now, and he is really no guiltier than many others.
But as this all pertains to the Red Sox, the latest Rodriguez scandal is yet another reminder that Rodriguez could very easily have been here, in Boston, in place of Ramirez (the eventual 2004 World Series Most Valuable Player) through 2007. Certainly Francona’s book has shed more light on Ramirez’ antics, many of which caused Sox players, in particular, to roll their eyes.
And yet, repeatedly, Sox players said they wanted Ramirez on their side because they wanted his bat. Would the same have been true of A-Rod? Rodriguez’ political nature has made him a divisive force on more than one team now, a poster boy for the modern athlete. Big image. No substance. Now that the Red Sox have become the same thing, one cannot help but wonder.
Did Red Sox owners venture onto this path midway through their time in Boston?
Or were they on it from the very beginning?
Amid Terry Francona’s criticisms of Red Sox ownership, Alex Rodriguez is in the crosshairs again. But then, in modern Red Sox history, the two forever will be linked.
Before the championships, before the exploding TV ratings and the pink hats with a sequined "B," let’s all remember something: the Red Sox wanted Alex Rodriguez. They had executed a trade for him. All that stood between Rodriguez and a Red Sox uniform was a contractual restructuring that the Red Sox fortunately botched, the ineptitude of Sox owners ultimately triggering a series of events that delivered Rodriguez to New York and two world championships to Boston.
Here’s the point: if things had gone the way Red Sox owners wanted them to during the winter of 2003-04, there is no telling where the Red Sox would be today. In retrospect, Rodriguez and Red Sox administrators were a perfect match, two parties far more interested in image and ratings than actual performance on the field.
As the Red Sox have deteriorated in recent years, we have all tried to identify a line of demarcation in Red Sox history. When did it all go wrong? In Francona’s recently released book, a finger was pointed to the winter of 2009-10, when the Red Sox signed then-31-year-old John Lackey to a five-year, $82.5 million contract despite concerns about the health of Lackey’s right elbow.
“That Lackey signing flew in the face of everything Theo [Epstein] believed in,” said Mike Dee, then the chief operating officer of the Red Sox. “Theo must have been tied down to make that deal. That was all about television ratings. They were panicked about the ratings.”
Maybe Theo was, maybe he wasn’t. The greater issue was the motive behind the deal. Today, we all look at that winter as the instant where the Red Sox lost their way, when they started placing too much emphasis on business and not enough on baseball.
All of which brings us back to Rodriguez, the prototype for the modern fantasy player. A-Rod looks great on paper. He looks great on camera. But has never, ever been a winner or great competitor, with or without the World Series he garnered during the 2009 postseason, when C.C. Sabathia and Mark Teixeira were the focus during their first season in pinstripes.
Don’t you see? Alex Rodriguez is hollow, just like the 2011-12 Red Sox were. Big salaries. Big numbers. No heart or guts. A-Rod has been a great businessman during his career, but never been as remotely clutch as David Ortiz or Manny Ramirez was.
What A-Rod suggests here, in Boston, is that the Red Sox didn’t lose their way at all in recent years. He suggests they were on the wrong path from the beginning. Rodriguez has placed the emphasis on the all the wrong things during his career, which doesn’t necessarily make him a bad guy. It just makes him shallow and materialistic.