Allard Baird would say he was literally shaking. Baird is not a demonstrative person — he’s the sort of man who would call the best meal of his life “good” or, perhaps, if he was feeling especially forthcoming, “really good” — and this is why the word “literally” matters. He would remember “literally” shaking as he sent in his report on a high school baseball player named Alex Rodriguez.
Baird was a young scout — this was before he became general manager of the Kansas City Royals, long before he became vice president of player personnel for the Boston Red Sox. It was 20 years ago. He had been coaching baseball — “on the field,” as baseball people like to say. He grew used to locating players’ weaknesses and working on them.
With Alex Rodriguez … Baird could see no weaknesses. The kid was perfect.
This is what rattled Allard Baird. He kept going back, again and again, to Westminster Christian High School in Miami to see the kid play. He must have watched Rodriguez 25 or 30 times — at games, at practices, at special batting sessions for the scouts. Scouts generally measure five tools, of course: Speed, defense, arm strength, hitting and hitting for power. Rodriguez had them all. He could hit, of course — he hit .500 his senior year. At 17, the ball already leaped off his bat and stayed in the air for a second or two longer than you expected — and it was obvious he would only get stronger. He was so fast that high school catchers verifiably could not throw him out stealing (he was 35 for 35 in stolen bases his senior year). He played a beautiful shortstop, and his arm was the best Baird had ever seen at shortstop. Oh, that arm might have been the best part — Rodriguez would throw and the ball would just skim the air across the infield, like a stone skipping over water.
Nobody could miss the tools. Once Baird took a brand new scout, his friend Muzzy Jackson, to see Rodriguez play. They watched him for five minutes. “This scouting business is easy,” Jackson said. “This kid’s got everything.”
Well, OK, Rodriguez was a true five-tool player. They are rare, but they happen.
This wasn’t what unnerved Allard Baird. Rodriguez didn’t just have tools — he had skill too. He knew what he was doing. And he loved to play. His teammates liked him. He wanted to learn. On the rare occasions when he failed — like when he would bounce the ball back to the pitcher — he would run his heart out to first base.
“When he took infield practice, he would show you his arm strength,” Baird says. “When he hit in intrasquad games, he would run at 100 percent. He never took a play off, never, and you have to remember he was levels above everyone else. He enjoyed being on the field. He loved baseball. When you talked to him, he was pretty humble — he knew that he was talented but he didn’t take anything for granted.
“Your job as an evaluator is to be positive. But it’s also to understand that the player will ultimately show you his deficiencies. With Alex, I just kept going back, and let’s just say it was pretty hard to dissect him.”
Baird says something else, something that might be worth remembering later on: He says that Rodriguez would do ANYTHING for scouts. Anything. They wanted him to stay after games to hit with a wooden bat? He would do that. They wanted him to talk about himself? He would talk about himself. They wanted to get him away from the field. He would do that. “He was out there every day doing whatever scouts wanted him to do,” Baird says. “He did it all with the joy of playing the game.”
Finally, Baird wrote his report. He graded Alex Rodriguez as a 70 player on the 20 to 80 scale. It was the highest grade Allard Baird would ever give a player, the highest grade he reasonably could give a player. “I ranked him a Hall of Famer,” Baird says. And you should understand that Baird wasn’t saying that A-Rod might develop into a Hall of Famer after some years of development and coaching. No, Baird was saying that at that very moment in time, at age 17, Alex Rodriguez could step into to the Major Leagues and have a Hall of Fame career.
Yes, Baird would say he literally shook as he sent the report in.
That is how good Alex Rodriguez was when he was young.
* * *
So, how did he get here? How did the most extraordinary young player of his generation (at the time, Red Sox GM Dan Duquette predicted, not facetiously, that Rodriguez might have a year where he hit .400 with 60 homers), a handsome young man who three times (three times!) was named one of People Magazine’s Most Beautiful People, a phenom who was the best shortstop in the game more or less the day he showed up — how did that guy become this A-Rod?
The hated A-Rod.
The disgraced A-Rod.
The PED-abuser A-Rod.
The choking A-Rod.
The A-Rod that no team in baseball really wants.
How? Duquette is now Baltimore’s executive vice president of baseball operations, and it has been almost 20 years, but he still has this powerful memory of the first time he saw Rodriguez. He was GM of the Montreal Expos, and he remembers wandering around the minor league spring training fields in Lantana, Florida when he suddenly just stopped cold.
“Who,” he asked the guys with him, “Is that playing shortstop over there?”
He said this just seeing the young Alex Rodriguez field a ground ball. One ground ball. From two fields away.
“He had such great size and such fluid actions at shortstop,” Duquette says. “You just don’t see that combination … he was just an extraordinary talent. He was so supremely gifted that it really catches the eye. You didn’t even need a second glance to see it.”
At 18, the year after he was the No. 1 overall pick in the draft, Rodriguez moved from Class A Appleton to Class AA Jacksonville to Class AAA Calgary to Seattle. He hit .312 with 21 homers and 20 stolen bases in the minors that first year. Seattle manager Lou Piniella talked the Mariners into calling up Rodriguez — not because of his soon-to-be-famous bat but because at 18 he was already better defensively than anyone on the Major League team. “He was awesome,” Rodriguez’s minor league teammate Raul Ibanez says plainly.
Rodriguez became a star almost instantly. In the 50 years leading up to 1996, only one 20-year-old shortstop — the Hall of Famer Robin Yount — had come to the plate 600 times in a season. It’s a rare thing to find a 20-year-old shortstop simply good enough to play every day in the big leagues. Yount, it should be said, was mostly overmatched – he hit .252 with two homers. Rodriguez at 20 hit .358 with 54 doubles and 36 homers and he finished second in the MVP balloting. There has never been a shortstop so good, so young.
He flashed all those tools and skills and traits that had amazed Allard Baird: Everyone talked about his joy for the game, his deference to teammates, his innocence. “On July 27,” Gerry Callahan wrote that year in a Sports Illustrated story called “The Fairest of Them All,” “Alex Rodriguez will turn 21, making him old enough to have a beer with his Seattle Mariners teammates. He says he’s not interested. ‘Can’t stand the taste,’ he says. Rodriguez has always felt more at home among milk drinkers.”
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