- Johnette Howard, ESPN.com columnist
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The date of the trade was Feb. 15, 2004, and Alex Rodriguez was still regarded as The Natural, the new guy, the trophy catch and young slugger who broke into the majors at age 18 and was now seen as a lock to go roaring by Willie Mays and past Babe Ruth, soaring above Hank Aaron (and, later, Barry Bonds) to reset the all-time home run record and more.
Oh, it was going to be glorious. Awe-inspiring, even. The only difference was that now he was going to do it all for the New York Yankees. Parades down the Canyon of Heroes were predicted.
It was all treated as a given.
What could go wrong? The 28-year-old Rodriguez was well on his way to proving he was the greatest ballplayer who ever lived, and now he'd be playing for the winningest franchise in the history of sports, on the world's biggest stage, thanks to a blockbuster trade that few saw coming. He was the first reigning league MVP ever to switch teams.
"Derek [Jeter] already has four world championships -- I want him to have 10," Rodriguez said after slipping on a Yankees jersey for the first time at his introductory news conference at the old Stadium, then adding, "I'm waiting for someone to pinch me," whereupon he'd find it was all "a dream."
"Let's get to five [rings] first," Jeter said with a smile.
When Cynthia Rodriguez, A-Rod's wife at the time, mentioned she was glad the trade drama was over, A-Rod said Jeter told her, "The party has just begun."
The only thing that made Rodriguez's arrival seem sweeter to Yankees fans was how the Yankees had spirited Rodriguez away from the archrival Boston Red Sox.
Even Boston president Larry Lucchino, who had famously labeled the Yankees the "evil empire" the previous spring, acknowledged the trade was "a bit of a shock to the system."
Boston flinched three months earlier at committing to the extra salary it would've taken to complete a November deal that would have sent Manny Ramirez to the Texas Rangers in exchange for A-Rod. Baseball commissioner Bud Selig had vetoed the original manner in which Texas and Boston and A-Rod had tried to move around some money to get the deal done. But the Yanks? Once again, George Steinbrenner's attitude was, "What's a little money?" The Yankees landed Rodriguez by sending Alfonso Soriano -- a good player but hardly one in Ramirez's or Rodriguez's class -- to Texas along with a minor leaguer. Texas agreed to pick up $67 million over the remaining seven years of Rodriguez's 10-year, $252 million contract -- then the richest deal in sports.
Texas paid the Yankees to take A-Rod? Does it get better than that?
"If the Yankees were trying to find a way to get under the Red Sox's skin, they found it," then-Seattle manager Bob Melvin said.
"[The trade ranks] probably right up there with Reggie [Jackson]," Steinbrenner said after dispatching Jeter, manager Joe Torre and Reggie himself from Tampa, where the Yankees' spring training camp was set to begin, to stand alongside Rodriguez when he met the media.
"I'm not going to say No. 2," Steinbrenner added. "How can you argue when you get arguably the best player in baseball?"
While the failed Texas-Boston talks had been in the news for days, the Yankees' effort to put together the deal for Rodriguez in just five days in February was kept unusually quiet.
It was Rodriguez and his agent, Scott Boras, who suggested the Yanks as a possible landing spot to Rangers owner Tom Hicks. Boras learned that Yankees GM Brian Cashman had been inquiring about prying Albert Pujols away from St. Louis. And the Yanks were interested when approached about Rodriguez, all right -- especially when Rodriguez said he'd move from shortstop to third to accommodate Jeter.
Once the trade was made on the eve of spring training, the chatter was about how the 2004 Yanks might roll out one of the best lineups ever with A-Rod embedded in the middle. He'd be batting after Jeter and ahead of Jason Giambi, Gary Sheffield, Jorge Posada and Hideki Matsui.
"It's like an All-Star team," Sheffield crowed.
But all the excitement Rodriguez inspired seems like bitter and ancient history now that Major League Baseball finally ended weeks of speculation Monday by announcing it would suspend Rodriguez for 211 games, a move that could effectively end the 38-year-old third baseman's big league career and doom his candidacy for the Hall of Fame.
Rodriguez has vowed to fight the punishment.
MLB says Rodriguez was among at least two dozen players to get performance-enhancing drugs from Biogenesis, a now defunct anti-aging clinic in South Florida run by Anthony Bosch, who agreed to cooperate with the MLB investigation.
The feeling that's hard to shake now is how so much of what happened to Rodriguez after he joined the Yankees has felt so monumentally, confoundingly unnecessary.
Psychotherapists could have a field day speculating on why cheating may have indeed felt "necessary" to A-Rod even as it looked unnecessary to everyone else.
Why did a player who had so much going for him -- a perfect playing situation, prototypical size and strength, proven ability, a high baseball intelligence and a passion to play the game -- instead court the sort of trouble and risks that come with illegal performance enhancers?
When disgraced Milwaukee Brewers slugger Ryan Braun agreed to a deal last week to accept a 65-game suspension for his part in the Biogenesis scandal, one writer called him "the Lance Armstrong of baseball," referring to Braun's defiant manner at a news conference last February after he beat a positive test for PEDs on a technicality, and the way he audaciously lied about his innocence.
But what is the fitting analogy for A-Rod?
Unlike Armstrong or Bonds, naked ambition never seemed to drive Rodriguez or transform him into one of those alpha-dog athletes who wants to grind rivals into dust.
His repeated return to PED use is more reminiscent of Hollywood stars who can't stop having plastic surgery until they've completely disfigured themselves and their careers -- despite nearly everyone they'd ever met who told them what beautiful, gifted creatures they are.
No matter how terrific everyone said he was as a ballplayer (if not as a person), Rodriguez rarely behaved as if he believed it. Or that he trusted it. From the day he arrived in New York, Rodriguez always seemed to be on an endless search for affection, approval and attention.
It's never really been clear who the authentic A-Rod is -- or if one even exists at all.
With his suspension imminent, A-Rod said in this week's issue of Sports Illustrated that he still wants to be a role model -- a reprise of his promise to work against steroid abuse with the Taylor Hooton Foundation the first time he confessed to using PEDs.
Rodriguez obviously felt on some level he needed PEDs. We now know he secretly tested positive for them when baseball did anonymous testing as a precursor to implementing its drug-testing program. He was finally exposed in a 2009 Sports Illustrated report that he hotly denied initially -- and then finally confirmed. He swore he'd been off PEDs since 2003 and would be going forward determined to prove he could be just as great a player when clean.
But within a year, his name appeared in connection with a Canadian blood-spinning guru named Anthony Galea, who had also treated Tiger Woods. Then he was implicated again by Bosch.
Rodriguez won two American League MVP awards while with the Yanks, and starred in their 2009 postseason run, giving him the only World Series ring of his career. So was he worth the half-billion dollars in back-to-back contracts?
Some of the transformations that players have experienced before and after juicing are striking. But in the case of A-Rod? No.
He didn't have to do it to be great. And now, nine years after his splashdown in New York, there's only one thing left about Rodriguez that truly inspires awe:
A-Rod and the Yankees: A match made in heaven that ended up in hell.