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But Seattle's Alex Rodriguez outclassed them all. After brief stints in the majors in 1994 and '95, A-Rod put together one of the great offensive years of any era in 1996. His .358 average, 54 doubles, 141 runs and 379 total bases (a record for a shortstop) all led the American League. Even though he pumped 36 homers and drove in 123, he lost the MVP award to Juan Gonzalez, most likely because voters figured that at the tender age of 21 he'd have many more chances.
Former teammate Ken Griffey Jr. once said he hoped that when Rodriguez hits .330 with 25 home runs that people won't say he had a bad year. Although his 1997 numbers reflected that prophetic decline (.300, 23 homers, 84 RBI) and were a disappointment to many people, he did nothing to challenge the notion that he was one of the brightest young talents to break into the game in years.
Exploding out of his sophomore "slump" with a vengeance, A-Rod regained his power stroke in 1998. While batting .310 with 124 RBI, he joined contemporaries Jose Canseco and Barry Bonds as just the third member of the 40-40 club, when he slugged 42 dingers and stole 46 bases. His home run total set a single season record for an American League shortstop, and his 100th career longball that year made him the fourth-youngest ballplayer to reach the century mark.
Despite missing more than five weeks of the 1999 season with torn cartilage in his left knee, Rodriguez still managed to belt 42 home runs and drive in 111 runs. In the one month after his return, he hit .360 with 10 home runs and 20 RBIs -- playing at (what he termed) 85% percent of his normal strength.
Attention in Seattle soon turned from A-Rod's on-field heroics to his off-field prospects. The Mariners had already lost Randy Johnson and Ken Griffey Jr. in forced trades over the past year and a half, and Rodriguez seemed destined to be the next superstar to flee the Pacific Northwest. Although the M's wanted to wrap up their young shortstop in a long-term deal, Rodriguez -- backed by hardball agent Scott Boras -- steadily maintained his desire to test the market after the 2000 campaign. The shortstop continued his powerful production that year, surpassing 40 homers for the third season in a row. In Griffey's absence, he was viewed as the main offensive threat in the lineup and recorded 100 walks, almost twice as many as his previous high. Teams were right to pitch around him: he also tallied 132 RBIs that year.
Rumors began to swirl when A-Rod showed up in a front row seat at Shea Stadium during the 2000 World Series between the New York Yankees and New York Mets. Though Rodriguez insisted that he was there to root for his good buddy Derek Jeter, conventional wisdom said that the Mets were wooing the free agent shortstop. When bidding for the young superstar's services came around that winter, however, the Mets and GM Steve Phillips were put off by superagent Boras' demands for his client, and impolitely backed off from negotiations. No matter -- on December 11, 2000, A-Rod signed the most lucrative deal in professional sports history, signing a ten-year deal with the Texas Rangers for $252 million.
When the 2001 campaign began, pressure predictably mounted on the superstar, who was viewed as the man to lead the Rangers to the top of the AL West and justify his eye-popping contract. Unfortunately, by June his old team in Seattle had run away with an insurmountable lead and the Rangers were floundering in the basement of the division. While A-Rod was in the midst of compiling another terrific season, more attention was paid to Texas' futility and the shortstop's return to Seattle. On April 16, 2001, A-Rod made his much-anticipated visit to Safeco Field, where thousands of fans jeered him by showering fake dollar bills on the field, and holding up signs that read "Go for the dough, Pay-Rod" and "Need a loan? Call 1-800-252-ALEX."
Even before being selected by the Mariners with the first pick in the 1993 amateur draft, Rodriguez starred as a teenager at Westminster Christian High School in Miami, where he teamed with future major-leaguers Dan Perkins and Doug Mientkiewicz. "You knew Alex was going to be great," Mientkiewicz told the Minneapolis Star-Tribune in 1999. "He would hit a ball hard enough to kill people. He would fake a bunt, bring in the third baseman, and then hit a line drive off the guy's neck." (RS/HC/AG)